Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Preparing to Receive a Most Unexpected Gift

Isaiah 64:1-12 (ESV)
Note: I will be preaching to the children at the front of the congregation, so this will be a little different than my other sermons.

A baby is always a most unexpected gift. It is one of the few things in our world today that despite all of our efforts we have little control over. Sure, Tom Cruise can by his own sonogram machine, so he can watch his baby develop. Sure, technology lets us identify gender and see little photographs along the way. But ultimately, there are many unanswered questions about a baby. When will he come? Was the ultrasound right? How big will he be? Will he be healthy? Will he look like me? What will his personality look like? Will he have colic? What color will his eyes be? What color will his hair be? Babies remain one of the few unexpected gifts in life, because there are so many questions that we cannot answer before their arrival. All we can do is prepare for their coming.

As a church, we will be celebrating the arrival of Baby Timothy sometime in the next few weeks. Already, his parents have begun their preparations: a new room for big sister, cleaning out the nursery, buying a crib, purchasing infant clothes, diapers, wipes, cleaning everything... There is a tremendous amount of preparation in order to welcome a new baby into the world.

The same is true as we prepare for Christmas, our celebration of the birth of Christ. Advent means "a coming," "an arrival." Just as with Baby Timothy, preparing to receive the birth of the Lord requires a great deal of preparation. We have already prepared our sanctuary. Many of us have begun preparing our homes. However, most importantly, we must prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Baby Jesus. What does it mean to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ Child? It means that we must prepare ourselves to receive God's most unexpected gift.

1) We must truthfully confess our current situation.
Walmart does not like Advent. They tried to start Christmas in September. Even before they removed the Halloween candy and masks, they had dancing Santas, singing reindeer, and candy canes out in the store. They want to commercialize Christmas, removing any religious significance. For them, Christmas is just a good time to sell people a whole bunch of merchandise. The only preparation to be done is to line the shelves with cut-rate merchandise and prepare to fill the pockets of their investors with healthy profits. Notice how as Christmas has been so heavily commercialized, there begins to be a move to sheer Christmas of any mention of Christ, to have holiday trees and sing holiday songs. We can blame the ACLU all we want, but as a nation, we have already done this in most of our lives.

To prepare to receive God's most unexpected gift, we must begin by truthfully confessing that this nation is hostile to the Gospel, unopen to the reception of a baby King. We must realize that the world is not a Hallmark card with a warm fire and friendly songs of good will. The world is perfectly bent on destroying itself. In short, we must begin by confessing that the world without Christ is perfectly lost. To understand this better, let us look at the Isaiah reading for today.

2) We must confess our complicity (vv. 6-7).
The talk radio climate of America today drives me absolutely crazy. There is never any confession about how together we have done these things and made certain mistakes. Instead, there is always an effort to place blame on the other group, the other person. To prepare our hearts for God's most unexpected gift, we must begin by confessing our complicity in the current mess. In Isaiah's words, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" (v.6). Advent is a time for confession. It is a time for us, as the Church, to reckon with our complicity in a world gone mad. How do we contribute to all the evils and ills we see regularly? How are we subject to those powers and principalities that tempt us and others to worship something other than God? We prepare our hearts by truthfully confessing and opening ourselves ever deeper to the penetrating light of the Gospel that casts out darkness. It is in our confession that we begin to become a holiness people.

3) We must believe that our salvation comes in God alone (vv. 1-4, 8-11).
In verse 1, Isaiah cries out on behalf of his people: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!" After being completely broken by the Babylonians and subjected again to slavery, after witnessing the destruction of the Temple and the city walls, Israel finally gets that her salvation does not come from playing power politics, building a strong military, balancing power in the region, building a strong economy. Isaiah cries out that their salvation will come only if God decides to come again, to rip open the heavens and to descend to the earth. They realize that no matter how hard they strive, salvation belongs to the Lord and to those who wait upon his arrival. After we confess our situation and our complicity, can we celebrate Advent by waiting on God to save us? Or wil lwe instead continue to rely upon the military, the police, the banks, the credit card companies, Hollywood to save us. Can we believe that God is the source of of our salvation, and that he will remake us, just like a potter, into his divine image?

4) We must prepare to receive God's arrival as it comes, not as we desire it (v. 12).
In verse 12, Isaiah asks God, "Will you restrain yourself at these things, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?" The answer is no. God will act and act decisively. At the right time, God sends his son, Jesus. It was a most unexpected gift, so unexpected that even the heavens must have held their breath. Imagine that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords comes not by ripping the skies apart and demonstrating through acts of power his divine strength. Imagine instead that the fullness of God, the hope of humanity's salvation is entrusted to the womb of a young peasant girl. Imagine the King born into abject poverty. If we are truthful, this is a hard story to accept, as it was for Israel during Jesus' life. According to Matthew's Gospel, Jesus still comes to us in the face of those least welcomed in our society. In the parable of the sheep and goats, all ask Jesus, "Lord, Lord, when did we receive you?" Jesus replies, "when you did this to the least of these my brethren, you did it also unto me." We must fight the powerful temptation to force Jesus into a mold of our own making, an idol that meets our every need without any cost or expectation.

To celebrate Advent is to prepare to receive God's gift as it is given. To celebrate Advent is to prepare to rejoice in God's gift in just the way it comes. To celebrate Advent is actually to believe that God acted decisively in that manger and on that cross and in that empty tomb. It is to believe that God is still coming to us today, and that he will come again to us in final glory. To celebrate Advent is to journey into a world gone mad with the good news that there is a king who has come and brought the fullness of God's salvation with him. It is to announce that this good news is free to all who will receive it. It is to announce that the King will come again soon, and all who believe will become a part of his glorious kingdom forever.

Are we prepared to receive this most unexpected gift?


Blogger Eric Lee said...

Scott, Thanks for posting this. The last big paragraph was especially good!



November 28, 2005 4:41 PM  
Blogger isaac said...

Thanks for posting that sermon. It was surely good news. I had to preach this past Sunday as well. I used the lectionary texts as well. What I noticed, though, was that I had a hard time giving a cheery sermon given the lectionary texts. They are about the end of the world, the "desolation" of Israel, the earth's birth pains as it moves towards self-destruction. I mean, Isaiah 64 ends with destruction, then a painful question. Sure, there may be hope there, but it is a hope miraculously birthed in death, a longing emerging from a festering wound.

So I guess I wonder about the "preparation" you end with. How does one prepare to recieve this gift? To steal a line from Derrida, "The hope of redemption must pass through destruction." That means something like our hope isn't hope until we feel the wounds of creation, the wounds that birth anticipation. Maybe this means that we don't really know how to long for the Messiah, the anticipate the unexpected (that's Derrida), until we see and feel the woundedness of creation--to know that "the whole of creation is groaning in the pains of childbirth" (Rom. 8).

Those of just some rambling inspired by your sermon. Thanks again for posting it. I try to work out some of this stuff a bit more in my sermon here: "Longing Wounds":http://www.rustyparts.com/wp/2005/11/27/longing-wounds-a-sermon-for-advent/

November 29, 2005 5:42 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Thanks for the comments. Your comments got my mind going towards three points.

I wonder if it is our lack of ecclesiology that makes it hard for us to hear the Advent lections? We (Protestants mostly) have reduced church to a gathering of spiritual free agents coming together to receive spiritual goods and services. In the era of perpetual shopping and good feelings, to read an Advent passage during "Christmas," must be something akin to passing gas in public. We cannot hear Derrida's point about redemption because we are not truly a body.

The second point is that this body is not possible without regular participation in the Eucharist. To paraphrase de Lubac, "The Eucharist makes the Church." As we become Christ's body, we can begin to see that those in our midst are a part of our body, and those on the outside looking in, are precisely those for whom Christ allows his body to be broken and his blood to be spilled for. As his body, we also are given that we might participate in the world's suffering, and with them cry out for salvation.

My third point occurred not in the sermon on Sunday, but in the Hanging of the Greens service. We let our children come forward, and we teach them about the different symbols placed on the Chrismon tree. They were spellbound. Then, their faces lit up with joy as they placed their ornaments on the tree. Our church reaches out very well into our community, and as a result, we have a very fractured and suffering body. One of our children has a mother that is a meth addict. Another two have parents that fight and drink constantly, several others have recently suffered through traumatic divorces. These children know that life is often times hell on earth. They have many wounds. Yet in the light of Christian worship, they have hope. Their wounds are open, but they are a part of Christ's body.

Thanks again for your comments. I really enjoyed your sermon. I also like the way you bring forward the aspects of Derrida that are helpful to Christian thought.

Grace and PEace,

November 29, 2005 7:23 AM  

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