stars, winnebagos and other awesome things

stars, winnebagos and other awesome things

 This is a message I delivered the 4th Sunday in Advent, 2015

This is a message I delivered the 4th Sunday in Advent, 2015

There’s a passage in the Book of Luke (Luke 1:46-55) that we sometimes call Mary’s Song or the Magnificat and the words carry a ton of emotion.  Mary - Jesus’s mom - learned that she was pregnant, and that God was the Dad … a rather startling thing to discover!  I’m sure back in that day it was just as unlikely and as unbelievable as it is right now.  As an unwed, but betrothed mother, her life was in danger.  Her fiancee, Joseph, could have had her stoned, so she was afraid as well as being confused.   

Mary was visited by an angel, Gabriel,  who talked her through the mystery, and told her that her relative, Elizabeth, was carrying a child as well, which was also sort of miraculous because Elizabeth was an older woman and was thought to be beyond childbearing age.  So, Mary was carrying the child who would be Jesus and Elizabeth was carrying his cousin who would be John the Baptist.  In trying to make sense of all of this Mary went to visit Elizabeth and these two miracle moms talked about what the angel had said.  They were comforted and thrilled that their sons were to be men of God, and they realized that they had been blessed, incredibly blessed to have been given something awesome ... and Mary lets loose these words of pure praise:

"My soul magnifies the Lord,

   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

   for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of us, his servants.

Surely, the generations will call us blessed;

  for the Mighty One has done a great thing for us,

  and holy is his name."

What’s the best thing you’ve ever been given?  Earlier this year, I ran across this toy Winnebago motorhome in my Mom and Dad’s attic.  This was a much beloved Christmas gift ... probably 45 years ago.  It made me smile a little to get it again - not because I was planning to play with it much anymore, but because I remember how much I wanted it the first time.

We were at Sears - the whole family: Mom, Dad, my twin sister, and I think a couple of grandparents - when I first laid eyes on this.  A Winnebago!  It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.  A truck that you can live in!  It was displayed in a carton with an open front so I could touch it and lift up the top and peek inside a little bit.  It came with little figurines of a man, a woman and a dog.  Right away, I knew that little man was me, and this was my rig.   I was four years old and the open road was calling.  My imagination ran wild with the places it would take me.  I absolutely had to have it.  

But we were not at Sears for the purpose of purchasing toys, and when it began to look as though we would leave Sears without the motorhome, it was more than I could bear, and I threw an epic tantrum, right there in the store: tears, screaming, kicking … an emotional extravaganza fuelled by the unconscionable injustice of me not having something I so desperately needed.   

I didn’t get my Winnebago that day, and I was crushed, but I did get it for Christmas that year and it was every bit as great a toy as I had hoped it would be.  At this point I don’t remember if it was Mom & Dad or Santa who gave it, but I celebrate that the giver of the gift heard my desperate cries, and responded with exactly what I needed.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent.  Advent is our time of preparation - our time of getting ourselves emotionally and spiritually ready to celebrate Christmas.  Advent is our time to get ourselves into a frame of mind to understand that Christmas is a celebration of God hearing his children’s desperate cries to connect with him, and in response to hearing our cries, he reached out to us.  

If you hang around a church long enough, you’ll eventually hear someone use the phrase, “prepare our hearts for Christmas” when they talk about the Advent season.  How do we prepare our hearts for Christmas?   What does that mean - “prepare our hearts”?  Does it mean simply “getting into the mood” for Christmas, or is there something deeper - a spiritual readiness to grasp the magnitude of the coming of the messiah?  

We have different ways of handling this time of Advent: preparing ourselves for Christmas.

One way is to think of Advent as a pep-rally.  Putting on the sweaters, hanging up the decorations and the lights, having some eggnog and singing the songs.  I don’t mind this approach - it’s fun, and I think God wants us to enjoy ourselves.  Christmas is worth celebrating and the season of Advent gives us four weeks to start the party early … certainly there’s nothing wrong with that.

Another way to prepare ourselves for Christmas is like we’re doing in our Sunday morning worship.  Again, singing together and lighting the candles on the Advent wreath.  There are different traditions for the symbolism of these candles, but it is common for us to call them the candles of hope and peace and joy and love to remind us of what Christ brings into the lives of those who believe  ... certainly that’s worth celebrating.  This is sort of a benefit-based approach to preparing our hearts for Christmas that reminds us, this is the good stuff that’s coming.  

I don’t want to turn this message dark, and I don’t want to dampen our celebratory spirit, but let’s get sort of serious for a few minutes and consider that for these benefits, hope, peace love and joy, to have real value to us, we must have a need for them.  

If there’s a benefit-based approach to preparing our hearts for Christmas, it stands to reason that there is also a need-based approach - an approach  that centers on the needs, the desires, the longings that are present in each of us, and which will only be satisfied by the reality of God reaching out to us.

I have to admit that “longings” isn’t a word I use very often, and “longings of my heart” aren’t something I normally talk about.  Yet, we have to think about this if we want to understand what makes Christmas so special.    

If we’re going to go deeper than the question of what we want for Christmas, and actually ask, “Do we want Christmas?”, we have to do some spiritual heavy lifting, and consider what our lives would be like without Jesus.  To really appreciate the light we have in Christ, we have to know the darkness that we’d have without him ... the darkness that we have without the reassurance that God cares for us. Do I need a messiah?  Do you need a savior?  Does the rest of the world need one?  Ask yourself, “do I need God to reach out to me as badly as I once needed this toy?”   

That’s what Advent is for - Advent is our time to meditate on the magnitude of the coming of God to live in our midst.  

One of my favorite Advent hymns is O Come O Come Emmanuel.  There are seven verses, so it’s a long song and we don’t always sing all of them.  But each verse addresses a bit of the emptiness that exists in a human heart… a human soul... when it doesn’t know how to connect with God.

Verse one: "O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel": we’re singing Come, God, be with us, free us from our isolation from you

Verse two: "O Come thou Wisdom from on high and order all things far and nigh": God help us to understand that your plan is still in place, and we’re part of it.  

Verse three: "O Come, O come great Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height, in ancient times once gave the law, in cloud and majesty and awe":.  O God - you are a God of power.  You gave us a path to justice.  Let us know that path is still there.  

… and on through the verses

Verse six:  "O come, thou dayspring come and cheer, our spirits by thy justice here, disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight":  O God, deliver us from our fear of the dark eternity of death.  

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is an old hymn.  If you read the notes at the bottom of the page in our hymnal you see it says the words come from the 9th century.  Do a little more research and you find that they may actually be three hundred years older than that.  The verses of this hymn are based on an ancient set of daily devotions intended for the final seven days of Advent, called the O Antiphons.  The “O” Antiphons focus - not on the event of the birth of the baby, like so many of our other Advent traditions, rather, the O Antiphons focus on the unfulfilled human heart and it’s need to be connected to God.  These ancient words might seem archaic to us, and maybe some historical context is lost to contemporary readers, but these words address the things we hope for, long for, but can’t provide for ourselves - things like wisdom, justice, redemption.  These are the longings of Christians today.  These are the longings of Christians one thousand six hundred years ago and they’ve been the longings of people forever.  Reading through this hymn helps to comprehend the scale of longing that we humans have always had for a connection with our creator, and the scale of that longing is awesome.

As I learn to recognize these longings within myself, I see that the coming of Christ isn’t just this nice, fun thing that inspires jingly music and ugly sweaters, but that it is something we needed - I needed - in the depths of my heart and the depths of our souls - Christmas is something that all of God’s people have always needed to have happen.

As I’ve spoken today, I’ve used the word awed a couple of times, and really that’s what I want for Christmas.  I want to be awed by God.  I want my God to be enormously powerful and majestic and glorious, and at the same time, I want to know that he cares for little, tiny me.  There is in me - there is at the core of any spiritual being - a need to know that I am connected to my creator, that I am a part of God’s continuing story, because if I know that, I know that my life has mattered.  I know that my life has had a purpose.  And so, that’s what I want for Christmas - I want to be awed and I want to be loved.  

I have this Christmas ritual that I’ve been doing …. I don’t know …. years and years and years.   These days I do it after our late Christmas Eve worship service.   I’m usually the second to last person to leave the church after our late service.  I shut off the lights and lock the doors behind me and only Pastor Steve is still inside.   As I walk to my car, it is usually well after midnight - Christmas morning.   I look up into the sky for as long as it takes for the sky to feel huge and for me to feel small.  I think about the wonder of it all: the immense size of all of creation, the immense power that created it all, and the incredible insignificance of me.  None of it makes any sense … it’s too big and I’m too small.  I said I wanted to be awed and this is when that happens.  I’ve done this every year that I can remember on Christmas Eve. Even as a youngster, I’d make some excuse to go outside … I’d volunteer to go out and get an armload of wood for the fireplace or something … and I’d look up, into a sky that has no end until I can feel myself shrinking.   And, you know what I’m looking for in that sky?  I want to see the star.  THE star.  I look and I look … and I don’t really know what I’m looking for.  By this point in my life, after all these decades, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see it.  I don’t know the sky well enough, and that star wasn’t meant for me  … and so I just wonder.  I want to know that God is there and that God cares for me … loves me.  I said I wanted to be awed and I wanted to be loved … and seeing that star would do that and so I look.  Every year I look.   And every year I don’t see it.  There’s no star for me, just this huge, awesome sky.   And I wonder just a little bit ….

And then …. there’s this gift.   The most powerful, the sovereign God, the creator of it all has reached out to me - me, the tiny one.   Not with a star, but with something much more personal.  God has reached out to me in the humble, approachable, comprehensible form of a baby.   A baby who will grow and live just like me, and along the way he’ll have pain and sorrow and sickness and triumph and success and celebrations just like me.  He’ll be fully human, and so much more.  He’ll be the one who fulfills the ancient prophecies.  He’ll be the one who models the perfect Godly life of love and righteousness.  He’ll be the ultimate teacher.  He’ll define the perfect sacrifice.  He’ll be the one God sends to show me the way, the truth and the life.  He’ll be the one who will live and die and live again just for the purpose of assuring me that God cares.  God so loved the world - God so loved me, and you, that he gave his only begotten son to satisfy the darkness in our souls and the longings of our hearts.  

As we find our emptiness filled, our darkness illuminated, we come to our hymn’s refrain:

"Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee":  Celebrate, Celebrate, God is with us.  

Advent is a time to prepare ourselves to understand that Christmas is a celebration of God hearing our cries to connect with him, and in response, he came to meet us, personally.   I think that is spectacular.  I think that is amazing, and I think that is awesome.  I can think of no better words than Mary’s to express my gratitude:

"My soul magnifies the Lord,

   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

   for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of us, his servants.

Surely, the generations will call us blessed;

  for the Mighty One has done a great thing for us,

  and holy is his name".

This is the season of Christmas.  May it bring you peace, and hope and joy.  And wisdom and order, and righteousness and justice.  May it leave you knowing that you are a beloved child of God, and may you be awed by that.  

 

chris congdon

message for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2015

Washington Chapel United Methodist Church, Iowa

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