“The Gift to Come Down Where We Ought to Be”
Rev. Dr. David E. Gray
Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church
December 12, 2010
Third Sunday of Advent
Matthew 11: 2-11; Micah 6: 1-8
Turn to person next to you and tell them the name of your favorite movie star.
Normally I’d go with Sean Connery myself, but I want to see the latest Harry Potter badly so I likely would go with someone from that today.
The American public is certainly star struck these days. Media stars. Music stars Sports stars. I understand that the highest viewed television program episode this fall was for a show called “Dancing with the Stars.” Who among us has not dreamt of shining brightly as a star in some area?
Henry Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, was once called as an expert witness at a trial. Rowland was a true superstar in the physics profession. During cross-examination at the trial a lawyer asked him, "What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?" The normally modest and retiring Rowland replied quietly, "I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion." Later a friend well acquainted with Rowland's disposition expressed surprise at the professor's uncharacteristic answer. Rowland answered, "Well, what did you expect me to say? I was under oath."
Within the world of prophets, John the Baptist was a super star. Jesus praised him as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi. John was so successful in his own time that he had his own disciples. Did you know that John had disciples? We sometimes think that John the Baptist had to be one of Jesus’ disciples. But he wasn’t following Jesus as much as doing his own work of calling people to repentance. His work didn’t make him universally popular, however, and so by the time of our second lesson, John found himself in Herod’s jail.
From jail, John the Baptist heard about Jesus’ actions of helping and healing and because of that he questioned Jesus’ identity. John sent two of his disciples to Jesus asking “Are you the One who is to come (the messiah) or should we wait for another?” John had heard that Jesus was helping and healing individuals as he found them. John had expectations that when the messiah came he would immediately judge all the people of Israel, would bring his kingdom and that everything would change. John was planning his life and ministry around how he thought Jesus would come. So when Jesus came helping people one at a time and not everything changed, John began to question whether Jesus was the messiah.
We might find it odd that John had doubts given that last week we read about how John said confidently that one was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and told Jesus that he was not worthy to baptize Jesus. John had some doubt about Jesus’ identity, but no doubt that a Messiah would eventually come. What John is sure of is that the messiah was coming.
There is a well known t-shirt people used to wear in seminary that said, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” on it.” That is about the perfect Advent t-shirt. In Advent we focus on the coming of Jesus. And during this time of year we are indeed very busy. We do much in preparation for Christmas. We are busy working hard to wrap up year-end work or exams or preparation for vacations or for the year to come. We want to be and look busy. We want to be the stars of this busy season.
As we are running with all our busyness we often want to run ahead through Advent to get to Christmas. But all our running can leave us tired by the time we get to Christmas. All our running can distract us from enjoying the journey. All running and busyness can make Advent a rather loud season.
I think of our children’s sermon this morning. There is story told of an Advent conversation at one church. The pastor asked the “Who can tell me what the four candles in the Advent wreath represent?” One child jumped in with seven-year-old wisdom and exuberance. “There is hope, joy, peace and…….and….” “I know,” a six year old interrupted to finish her brother’s sentence: “Peace and quiet.”
If only Advent had more of it. Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary once wrote that “Advent is a particularly dicey time—when our purposefully minor key music is in danger of being drowned out by the raucous background music of popular culture.” Like the Christmas specials on television with all the celebrities and stars in them.
It’s hard to find peace and quiet this time of year because we are often working during Advent as if Christmas’ coming depended on our planning.
But Christmas doesn’t depend on our planning any more than Jesus’ coming depended on John the Baptist’s planning. Christmas is coming, not because we get everything ready for it, but because God was and is ready for us. Christmas will come as it does every year, for God does not require us to plan the perfect Christmas.
God does require something of us, however. The prophet Micah says that the Lord requires of us that we “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” In this famous saying, Micah foreshadows the actions of Jesus. Jesus showed mercy to the blind, the deaf and those who couldn’t walk. He demonstrated justice to lepers and to the poor.
John the Baptist was rather impatient with Jesus. He wanted the kingdom of God here yesterday. John inquired if Jesus was really the messiah or if he should look for another. He was ready to move into another God.
How patient are we with God?
There is a story of a man who was late for a very important meeting that could make or break his career. He was in the parking lot and couldn’t find a parking space, they were all occupied and there was no sign of an opening. So, in a last ditch resort, he put his hands together, closed his eyes and started to pray, “God, if you help me find a parking space, I’ll go to church every Sunday.” And, just moments afterwards, before he had even finished his prayer, a space appeared right in front of him. He pulled into it and said to God "Oh never mind, I’ve found one!"
The temptation is always there to move on from our faith when God seems silent or doesn’t meet our expectations. The temptation is there to think we really have the answers or can do the work ourselves. There is a temptation to wait for God only when we feel we are in trouble and need God.
John the Baptist wanted Jesus to conform to his expectations about the swift transformation of the world. Yet Jesus was working to heal and comfort and promote justice one person at a time.
God requires what John the Baptist lacked. In this case, humility. If Jesus was going to wait to bring his kingdom, that meant John the Baptist should walk with him and to learn how and why Jesus was doing justice and showing mercy. Not run ahead.
Along with justice and kindness, God requires us to walk humbly with our God. Not discard our faith when God is slow in answering. Not to leave God behind when God does not meet our expectations. Not to run through the seasons of life neglecting the people along the way. To walk humbly along with our God. That means if God is moving slowly in answering prayers or providing clarity, then we do well to slow down and humbly walk with God.
People thought highly of John the Baptist. Some people in the ancient world thought that John the Baptist himself was the messiah. Jesus even said that John the Baptist was more than a prophet and one of the greatest people on earth.
But then Jesus made an important statement in Matthew 11. He said that even the greatest humans on earth are less than the least of those in Heaven. Even the greatest among us, the stars and superstars like John the Baptist, don’t shine as brightly as we all will in Heaven. That no matter how proud we might feel now, none of us can compare to the glory that is in Heaven.
The Apostle Paul adopts Jesus’ statement writing in I Corinthians 1 that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” That should help put us in our places when we feel too proud.
John Riskin was an influential English writer and commentator of the 19th century. He said, "I believe the first test of a truly great person is their humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of their own power, or hesitation in speaking their opinion. But really great people have a ... feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them; that they could not do or be anything else than what God made them."
There was hope for John’s humility. At least his detractors might encourage John’s humility as detractors and critics often do. John had to send his disciples to Jesus because John himself was in Herod’s prison by Matthew 11 and would soon be executed.
Winston Churchill was once asked, "Doesn't it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?" "It's quite flattering," replied Sir Winston. "But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big." That statement would have resonated with John.
Our culture celebrates stars in every area, just as England once celebrated Churchill and the ancient world celebrated the prophetic stardom of John.
Jesus wanted John the Baptist to know that walking humbly with outcasts and sinners and helping those most in need did not make Jesus any less of a messiah or king. By his actions, that’s how Jesus, the ultimate star, redefined royalty. Jesus’ statements make clear the importance of justice, kindness and humility for those who would shine in the kingdom of God.
We don’t have to redeem this time of year. God does not ask us to make the core meaning of Christmas happen. God has already taken care of that. But God does ask us to walk humbly through Advent. Showing kindness and working for justice along the way.
Rev. John Ortberg has written, “One of the most important lessons in life is that there is a God and it’s not you.” In Advent, the tale of John the Baptist is read to remind us that there is only one Savior. God does not require us to be our own saviors. But in Advent and at Christmas, God does ask us to remember who our savior is. And to remember how he came. For at Christmas, of all times, we remember that God came in the most humble of ways. As a baby in a stable.
William Beebe, the naturalist and world explorer from a century ago, used to tell a story about Teddy Roosevelt. Frequently at Roosevelt’s home in New York, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of what is called the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun." Then Roosevelt would grin and say, "Now I think we are small enough! Let's go to bed."
When we look up to the Heavens or at our Advent candles or to our Lantern this time of year, we see in the stars the light of Christ coming. Coming to shine into the darkest corners of our lives. Relieving the pressure we might feel to do it all ourselves. Reminding us of God’s requirements of justice, kindness and humility.
May we look up and see the stars of heaven shining in front of us. May they remind us of the qualities of stardom that God revealed when God sent God’s brightest star in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.