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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Original, Honest-to-Goodness, No Strings Attached Gift

Christmas Day Sermon 2016

Merry Christmas! May the grace, peace and love of God be with you on this holy day, and may it grow in you, throughout the coming year. Amen.
          I am so excited to be with you this morning, on Christmas morning, no less. Christmas Day services are a bit unusual here at Grace, but today being a Sunday, it seemed only right. So I am especially happy to see all of you here today as we get to celebrate “the reason for the season” on the holiday itself, right?   

          Truthfully, most years, about this time on Christmas morning like many people, we are embarking on our family celebration. Here is what that would look like in my family, back from the time I was just a pup; the turkey would be entering the oven about now; gifts are being distributed; the coffee and hot chocolate are being poured; and we would be settling down for an epic Christmas gift opening session with the entire family.
          Growing up, these sessions took hours. With 3 kids, plus my parents and grandparents all together, we carefully took turns, each person opening one gift at a time with the appropriate amount of time oo-ing and ah-ing and picture-taking over each gift. Hence, the epic amount of time our gift-opening took.
          And as my husband and I were raising our kids, we tended to carry on that same tradition. Oh, and not to forget, in addition to all the people receiving gifts, we could never neglect the animals in our lives. The cats and dogs got to open their gifts first. Predictably, the dogs were always more cooperative, sniffing out their gifts and gleefully tearing them open, with cameras flashing and lots of encouragement.
          Giving and receiving gifts is fun, and on Christmas Day, part of the fun of the season, is the gift exchange.
          But sometimes, totally unexpected and surprising gifts come our way.
          So just imagine my surprise when, the other day, I received a message that I had won a $100 gift card to a store of my choosing. And just last week, I won a cruise to the Caribbean for seven days and six nights aboard a luxury cruise liner. And a couple of weeks before that, I was awarded a brand-new iPad. Not just any iPad, either. This was the iPad Pro – the new Super Computer.
          The thing is, each of these gifts and prizes came with some strings attached. There was something I had to buy, or ‘do’ to obtain this “gift” or “prize.” Something like taking a survey, or giving up my left kidney or selling my firstborn child, I’m sure. Nothing is ever truly “free,” is it?
Needless to say, I won’t be receiving any of those gifts any time soon. They were all too good to be true.
          But today we celebrate the best gift possible. One that is truly free, unmerited, and with no strings attached. A gift for the ages. A gift beyond our wildest dreams. Today we celebrate the day ‘when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared.”
          What a gift we have in Jesus! This is a gift that won’t wear out, come in the wrong size, or come with strings attached. It is revealed to us in the words of the gospel from Luke. And this gift changes our lives, it changes everything.
          Today we hear those words we have heard so many times, as the nativity story has been repeated every Christmas Eve, in  many a Christmas pageant, and with every showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
          In the gospel we encounter the fear-turned-wonder of the shepherds, and the angel song, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
          Our gifts to each other pale in comparison to the wonder of the divine gift of God, the gift the Lord made known to those, unlikely-to-be recipients of free offers and brightly wrapped packages – shepherds, living out in the fields.
          The lowly shepherds could never have expected such a gift. They hurry as quickly as they can to the stable in Bethlehem, where they find the gift that the angels had unwrapped for them – the child, lying in a manger. They heard the words of the God’s promise, delivered by the angels, to you is born; for you is given. For lowly, outsider shepherds, for Mary and Joseph, for us today, this is good news indeed.
          The words from the letter to Titus today reveal the extraordinary value of this gift, for all people–this child is true gift , given out of God’s goodness and lovingkindness. For the people of old these words – “goodness and lovingkindness” signify the manifest favor and generosity of God.
          “Goodness” and “lovingkindness” of the Lord in the Old Testament was code for the unmerited, gracious mercy and love of God, which is now embodied in Jesus.
          The text from this letter unpacks for us the meaning of this gift : that God, out of God’s great store of love for humankind has given us this gift of God’s own Son, not because of anything that we have done or will do, but according to God’s mercy.
          Jesus is God’s response to the sin and death in the world; Jesus is God’s solution to the chaos and hurt of humanity. Jesus is the saving Lord, the one who brings us eternal joy and salvation. Jesus is God’s assurance of constant presence, secured for us through the Holy Spirit.
          The constant movement of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is revealed as we are reminded of our baptism, when God washed us clean and created new lives in us, forever.
Once again today, we are reminded that God gives this gift not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what God has done through Jesus, beginning on a Bethlehem night and continuing through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the child born there. In Christ, the Messiah, God promises and delivers a unique peace to the entire world.
          This is the real gift of Christmas, freely given to us all today: That despite the chaos and hurt of this world, despite poverty or oppression, despite our griefs and our failures, our sin and our brokenness in all its forms, God has come into the world, in the incarnation of this child born to us this day, and has delivered the perfect gift of love. This is the great surprise of Christmas Day, given in and through Jesus Christ, our newborn king. Let us all rejoice and be glad in this most perfect, amazing, glorious gift of all!
Alleluia! Amen.

Good News of Great Joy: The Expected yet Unexpected Gift

Christmas Eve Sermon 2016        
            Merry Christmas on this most beautiful, holy night.
            For some of us, this night brings excitement, anticipation and joy. I’ll bet for some among us it is even your very favorite night of the year, this night on which we hear the good news of great joy for all people – Christ, our Lord, is born!
            Some of us may be feeling content tonight, reflecting on sweet, sentimental memories and anticipating the new memories you will make this year. The sights and sounds of the evening may bring a bit of sweet nostalgia.
            But this is probably not true for everyone. Perhaps it is not true for you. Maybe you are among those whose memories are tinged with a bit of sadness for changes or challenges in your life.
For others, this season brings memories which include unhappy times that no amount of nostalgic gloss can repair. If so, you may be searching for healing peace, and I pray it will be yours this Christmas.
Still others of us are all too aware of the magnitude of grief and terror in our world tonight. For all our holiday joy, we cannot ignore the pain that surrounds us because, as our Bishop, Bill Gohl reflected recently on an icon rewritten to include the image of the wounded child of Aleppo, "Christmas is for the child in all of us - we just can't forget that every child is our child - not just the one in the manger."
The truth is that as we gather this holy night, we come from vastly different experiences of life and of Christmas. But from wherever we come, we gather in homage to our newborn king. Because, we share the good news of great joy for all people—Christ, our savior is born!
            I wonder, how many of us have arrived at Christmas Eve utterly exhausted? Exhilarated perhaps, hopeful perhaps, observant and even expectant, perhaps. But still, well and truly exhausted from all the preparations: the shopping, the decorating, the cooking, the baking, the gift-wrapping, the Christmas card writing, the music preparation and so many other things you have been doing while still living your everyday lives in the days and weeks leading up to this Christmas Eve.
            For some of you there has also been travel that brought you across hundreds of miles, to be reunited with loved ones this holiday.
            The exhaustion of which I speak may come from our busyness, or from a deep well of grief and sadness that is only accentuated by the frivolity of the celebrations surrounding you.
            Indeed, this joyful season can take its toll.
            Yet, here we are tonight, surrounded by the glow of thousands of lights and regardless of what other feelings you may have brought with you, it is my prayer that you will be blessed by a profound sense of godly peace.
            Take a deep breath. Breathe in the tranquility of this moment.  And as you do, breathe in the good news of great joy for us all: the Messiah, the Lord, has come among us. <p>
            As we gather together tonight, let us remember that the blessing of peace for which we hope and yearn is brought to us not by the beautiful candlelight in which we delight, nor by the wonderful Christmas hymns we love to sing, nor even by the prayers we pray this night.
Rather, it is God who brings us peace, of God’s own will and through God’s love, not because our preparations and celebration bring God to us on this night, but because God chose long ago to be with us, to abide with us, to be present among us always, to save us from sin, and evil, and death for eternity; and God blesses us as God’s love incarnate, Jesus Christ, comes to us in this blessed birth to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise.
            Therefore, even and especially if you come from a place of sorrow and sadness, the Christmas message is for you. You have a place in this Christmas gathering. God’s word of grace and hope for all who long for peace and joy.
            In the birth of Jesus, God comes among us to fulfull God’s commitment to peace and justice with God’s own righteousness. And so we sing out this good news of great joy for all people, Christ the Lord, is born!
            Through this human birth – God takes on human flesh and form. It is an unexpected, awesome, miraculous, magnificent gift of pure love and grace for all people. 
            The birth itself is humble, and scary. The child’s mother is young and inexperienced. She is not surrounded by the knowledgeable and loving ministrations of her kinswomen as she gives birth to the Messiah, but is likely attended only by strangers, and perhaps her betrothed, Joseph, while laboring on her birth mat. What an unprecedented – and perhaps uninspiring? - nativity.  
            The Messiah, God’s anointed one comes to us not with a mighty army or with superhuman powers, or with well-honed weapons and zealous warfare as we might expect, and even desire.
            Instead, God comes to us in a messy, noisy, complicated human birth. God comes to us as a helpless infant, born to an unwed couple - homeless travelers, strangers without a place to stay in the city, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of a stable, born into a time and place in human history marked by instability and oppression. What an odd setting in which to deliver God with Us, Emmanuel, Our Lord and Savior.
            Our text tells us that when Jesus was born, the first to hear the “good news of great joy for all the people” were lowly shepherds, living in the fields. They were the first to hear the glad tidings, from an angelic visitation, that the fulfillment of prophecy had come to pass; “born to you this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
            The shepherds are sent to find this child, to pay him homage, and to witness this wondrous event.
            The angels tell them: the baby will be wrapped in bands of cloth; he will be lying in a manger – the feeding trough for animals--homeless as he is. And yet, the angels confirm, he is truly the Messiah, the Lord.
            All these details are so familiar to us – we’ve heard this story time and time again, and yet it still seems so unlikely. It must have seemed impossible to these simple shepherds.
            Yet God being God, the story of Jesus’ birth is all about the unlikely, seemingly impossible and even scandalous ways in which God operates, which is truly good news of great joy for all people – for God defeats the powers of earth—coming to us as a little baby to dwell with us, to teach us and lead us, and ultimately to die for us. Then he will once again be wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a borrowed vessel –just like at his birth.
            But Jesus the Messiah will rise again, leaving behind those pieces of cloth that bound him in death – for nothing could keep him from his mission to ensure salvation and eternity for us.  
            My friends, this is indeed good news of great joy for all people, because – the Savior, Jesus Christ has come – and it changes everything.
He comes to bring healing, and peace, joy and mercy, forgiveness and grace, and everlasting love and life.
            The thing is that God redeeming the whole world through this birth, making not only the unlikely, but the impossible happen, may seem strange to us, but it is so in character for God. 
            The same God who created the universe out of a shapeless void, who freed the Israelites from hard-hearted Pharaoh, who parted the Red Sea, brought forth food from the sky and water from a rock, who made barren women like Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth bear of their own, is certainly capable of bringing about the birth of the savior of the world in just this way: as good news of great joy for all people.
            Whoever you are and from wherever you come this Christmas night, may the insurmountable peace of Christ be with you. Know that Jesus is truly God’s love made manifest, for you; Jesus is savior of the world, for you; Jesus defeats sin and death, for you. And his coming changes everything, for you.
            God speaks to us through the great good news of this gospel – you who are weary, I will give you rest; you who are struggling, I will bring you strength; you who sorrow, I will increase your joy; you who feel excluded and isolated, I am with you; you who walk in darkness – the light of Christ shines for you and on you; you who mourn – you will rejoice as with joy at the harvest; you who are burdened, put your yoke upon the Lord, and he will give you rest. And for you who are jubilant, excited, expectant and hopeful, God bless you as you share your joy and this good news.
            For this child, of humble birth, will establish God’s kingdom with justice, peace, and mercy.
Now let us continue our celebration as we praise and glorify him with song and prayer. And may the blessings of peace and joy of this Christmas-good-news unfold in your lives day by day. Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Whose Person Am I?

Matthew 1:18-25
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            I came across those words this week as I was preparing to write this sermon, and I had to read them again. “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.” Does it ever!
            I think there is something profound in this statement, it connects faith with action in a deeply personal way. Being God’s person does not simplify our lives, as much as we would like to say and believe that it does. Instead, it ‘complicates’ them - in a holy way.
            Being God’s person calls us away from comfort and complacency. Being God’s person requires us to go to places of discomfort and challenges us in ways we never thought possible. But in the midst of those places, God also blesses us and gives us the gifts we need to thrive as God’s agents of mercy and love.
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            Joseph may not have had the words to express this reality, but I bet he felt this disruption and complication to his very core. After all, Joseph must have thought he had it made. What a satisfying, if not downright happy time in his life.
            He was secure. He was engaged to be married. Better yet, he was engaged to a young woman, a virgin, someone whom he had every reason to believe would serve him well as he strove to have a family - perhaps a few sons to keep his business going, as well as someone to care for and to be cared by for the rest of his life, God willing.
            This engagement, or ‘betrothal’, was a binding contract, a legal piece of business in those days. It was not likely to be the romantic relationship sealed with a proposal on bended knee and a beautiful diamond ring – or even a simple cigar band – as we might expect to take place today.
            Rather, the agreement between Mary and Joseph was, in keeping with their times, a solemn pledge, part of a process leading to marriage. Because they were betrothed, Mary and Joseph would be looked upon as if they were married, even though they would not live together until after the second stage of their marriage, consummation, took place, which might happen as much as a year later.
            This commitment was commonly considered impenetrable; A betrothal was serious business. You didn’t just break this contract – a divorce was required, and you had better have a good reason to seek this option.
            But Joseph wasn’t thinking about divorce on that day when he found out that Mary was pregnant. Before her confession, perhaps he was dreaming about how he might be expanding the carpenter business someday, with all those sons he hoped to have. If they worked hard enough, and if they were blessed by God, they might be able to not only expand their little carpenter shop but maybe even open a franchise; they could name it ‘Joseph and Sons.’ It was good to dream.
            It also felt good to know that you were committed to another – and Mary was a fine catch-young, innocent, a promising helpmate. But then God intervened, even though Joseph didn’t fully understand it at the time. And his life, his world, were never to be the same again.
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            After Mary shared her news with him, what turmoil, what utter chaos Joseph must have felt his life had devolved into. The scandal of having his young fiancĂ© show up pregnant was beyond embarrassing, it was mortifying, and it held dire implications for Joseph’s next steps.
            What pain and embarrassment he must have felt as he listened to Mary’s story about a heavenly visitation and an immaculate conception. I cannot even begin to imagine what that conversation or Joseph’s initial reaction must have been like; Mary insisting that she had been visited by an angel and was with child by the Holy Spirit of God, and Joseph in shock at what he was hearing.
            So – Joseph considers his options and, being a decent kind of guy decides that he will ‘quietly dismiss’ Mary, avoiding scandal as best he can, while also avoiding subjecting her to legal prosecution and potential execution by stoning. Because that was a very real possibility if the truth got out.
            Then, God interrupts even those plans. God had determined to use Joseph to serve as an ally in God’s own work, because that is what God frequently does – recruits allies to serve God’s purposes in the world, all for the grand purpose of the salvation of humankind. Joseph learns firsthand how true it is that “being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            Suddenly, an angel of the Lord visits Joseph, too. This time the angel, the very messenger of God comes in a dream and reveals to Joseph the truth of Mary’s pregnancy – indeed, the child she will bear will be a son, conceived from the Holy Spirit. Joseph is recruited to be this child’s father, to name him Jesus, which means “God saves,” for he will save his people from their sins.
            Being God’s person means for Joseph that he will take Mary as his wife and will live with her and raise a family with her, beginning with this child, the holy child soon to be born. He will name the child – an important task and one reserved for a father.
            He will claim this child by naming him, and he will name him Jesus. Thus, he will confer upon this child not only a name but a lineage as well – the child will descend from the house of David, through Joseph.
            Joseph will protect Mary now and he will protect this child in the future, even to the point of giving up the life he is building as he flees from the wrath of Herod and takes the holy family into exile in Egypt.
            We won’t hear much about Joseph after that, but we should never forget the way he, like Mary herself, responded ‘yes’ to the summons of God to serve as an ally in God’s saving work, thus altering not only his own life, but the history of the world as well.
            Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in holy ways. Joseph’s life took on a new dimension and direction as its course was interrupted through the scandalous circumstances of a virgin birth and holy mission for God.
            What does being God’s person mean for you and for me? What does it mean for us today? Where might we see points of contact between this story and ours today?
Certainly, none of us that I know of has had recent angelic visitations, but certainly, through Christ, God has called all of us to “be God’s people.” As we observe Joseph’s dilemma, [Melinda Wagner writes,] a light is shed on the rocks and hard places that squeeze us today. God’s people must regularly decide whom to believe, what to risk, and how to choose among disagreeable options. Those may be things that feel all too familiar to many of us today.
            When God spoke to Joseph through an angel in that dream, he discovered something about God’s mission to redeem the world and he learned he had a role to play in God’s plan.
            Our scripture reminds us that all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God With Us.” To make for better English, translators often insert the word “is” into this phrase. But I think there is something significant about the literal translation, “God With Us”.
            Because the thing is, God does not only accompany us, walking by our side as God makes us his people and then calls us as allies in God’s saving work. Rather, God dwells in us, abides with us, and joins us in a unique way through the incarnation of Christ.
            In the person of Jesus, God is with us to save, to comfort, to forgive, to empower, to challenge, to make us a part of God’s reign of justice, love, peace and mercy. But God doesn’t just accompany us we seek and strive to bring about the change in our world that will make it more reflective of the kingdom of heaven, God joins with us blessing us with hope and calling us to make choices that advance God’s just and loving reign in the world.
            “Being God’s person does not simplify our lives. It complicates them in a holy way.”
            Being God’s people calls us out of our own comfort so that the comfort of the oppressed and those who suffer injustice might increase. It means looking around our community, places of work and school and our everyday lives and seeing the low places of the world, where our neighbors are disadvantaged, their rights and needs neglected, and where injustice takes place.
We remember Mary and realize that being God’s people may mean advocating for the rights of women and childlren, especially those in abusive relationships, those abandoned, alone, isolated, and struggling.
            Being God’s people may require us to face the ways we turn away from those who seem scandalous in our community – those who struggle with addiction, homelessness, unemployment, those recently released from prison, the differently abled. Our lives become complicated when we acknowledge that God calls us to embrace and love those whom the world rejects and judges. We remember that God’s forgiveness thrives where people are the most vulnerable and hurting, but then we remember there is no place more scandalous that the cross itself.
            While it is true that “being God’s person does not simplify our lives; It complicates them in a holy way,” it is also true that God with us, Emmanuel, is always present, always abiding, freeing us from whatever binds us.  God with us strengthens us, blesses us as we respond, as God’s people, to the messiness of life into which God is calling us.
            The good news of this gospel for us today is that indeed, despite the ways that being God’s people complicates our lives, there is deep gladness, knowing that God continues to act in scandalous ways to become one with humanity.
            As we prepare our hearts and our homes for the coming of Christ during this final week of Advent, let’s remember we are indeed God’s people. Think of Mary and Joseph, and know that God has beautifully complicated our lives, bringing love, mercy, and justice through the miraculous albeit messy story of scandal and forgiveness, renewal and hope, mercy and love, in the one named Jesus, God saves.
Indeed our Emmanuel, God, is with us. Amen.




Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Is It Really You?

Matthew 11:2-11
            At the beginning of Advent, I told you how, when I was a small girl waiting for someone special to come for a visit, you could usually find me in the living room with my nose pressed up against the glass, watching and waiting for our company to come. That was my ‘pose’ or ‘post’, of expectant anticipation and longing, you might say.
            I likened that experience of waiting to our experience of Advent today. During this season, as our days become shorter and the darkness of night overtakes the landscape by slightly larger increments each day, we are joined by Christians of all time and places awaiting the advent of Jesus. And it is seeming to take forever.
            We live in this weird in-between time, with Christmas just a couple of weeks away now, therefore commanding our attention and preparation and demanding our focus. There are presents to buy and wrapping to be done; the Christmas cards need to get out; there is baking to do.  
            We need to clean the house and prepare for company; finalize Christmas menus and food shopping; the checks need to go out for the end-of-the year charitable giving; there are final touches on decorating to take care of. Meanwhile we need to make sure the last winterizing chores are completed around the house since obviously, it is getting colder. All of these preparations and chores take up our days and impose on our nights. 
At the same time, we hear in church that we need to prepare ourselves because Christ is coming again, at some indeterminate time in the future.  And we know that, one way or the other, today’s Christmas preparations will only get us through this holiday season. But Jesus is coming again to deliver the mother-load of healing and righteousness we so badly need, bringing justice and joy for all eternity, and we need to be ready. And while we have heard John the Baptist and the scriptures insist that this is something for which we need to prepare, the waiting is hard, and maintaining the anticipation even harder.   
We prep for the Christmas celebration, while keeping alive the hopeful expectation that when he comes again, the peace for which the world yearns and the Christmas carolers sing will finally be realized. When Jesus comes again, we pray that justice will truly reign upon earth as well as in the kingdom of peace and joy. But if we’ve been waiting in the same pose as that of my childhood vigil, then I dare say our noses have probably become quite cold by now.
            I wonder if that is what is happening to John the Baptist in our gospel today. Last week’s gospel told us the story of John’s wilderness preaching and baptism-in-the Jordan River activities. In that passage, early in the gospel of Matthew, John is full of bravado and confidence, outrage and fearlessness. He firmly calls for repentance and for his followers to prepare themselves, and prepare the way, for the coming of the Son of Man. He lambasts the establishment for their treatment of the poor and rebukes the hypocrisy of the religious elite.
            But as we fast forward a few months in the life of the Baptist, today we encounter him again. This time John the Baptist appears as a confused, discouraged, doubting prisoner. The John of this text has been transformed from assertive prophet to a questioning, longing inmate.
            “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asks.
            The less confident John is doubting, perhaps fearing. Although we hear these stories back to back in our worship services this year, some time has actually passed between them, and during that interlude John has endured untold suffering and isolation during his imprisonment, and they have taken their toll on his well of hope and self-assurance.
John, the bold, confident prophet, preached from the wilderness while people from throughout the region came to hear him speak about the coming of the Messiah, and to confess their sins and be baptized seems to be gone. And he has been replaced with this John who, from deep in his dank, dark prison cell, he sends this message. He wants to believe that he was right about Jesus, he wants to know that his efforts, and his faith are not in vain. But it is hard. It is hard to be patient. It is hard to keep hoping in the face of the dark isolation in a prison cell. It is hard not to doubt when your nose is getting cold, and a firm impression has formed on it because you have been waiting so darned long, nose pressed to the window.
            “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This might be our question as well. From our own prisons, from our own isolation, from our own well of fear and doubt, we wonder if Jesus is ever coming back again. Are we right to hope? Are we right to believe? Are we right to keep waiting for the Advent of Jesus once again?
The question John asked is at the heart of a lot of the unrest and discontent in our world today. There are those who claim to be spiritual but not religious-many of them want to believe, but find it hard. What if they get it wrong? They find the story of God becoming human, being born to the unwed teenage mother Mary, too hard to swallow. And to believe he will come yet again? Impossible!
Some have simply lost patience in the waiting or are not quite sure they ever believed that Jesus “was the one” for whom they are waiting. Many question whether it’s possible that God and Jesus are real and active in the world, because they look around and they see this world as such a messed-up place.  And, they have never encountered a person who has shared with them the personal witness of who God is and how God is present and working in their lives.
Many good Christian people experience doubt and fear because of their own suffering and isolation.  Is Jesus the one, or should we be looking or another?
Or, “should we stop believing that there will ever be a god or a messiah or anyone else who will ever save us from our affliction”?
Like many of the people of John’s time, our struggle comes as a result of waiting, it comes as a result of this long indeterminate period of discontent and isolation; it comes as the result of repeated or prolonged assaults on our personhood and the discrimination and prejudice we experience.
So, even if we are not literally behind bars, many of us are looking out from the windows of our own prisons, whatever they might be: perhaps the prison of physical or mental illness, addiction, depression or grief. Broken dreams, broken promises, and broken relationships imprison many of us. Or, perhaps our imprisonment comes in the form of our own experience of waiting, and the things we endure while we wait.
But into the void in our world created by suffering and doubt, Jesus speaks. Note that he doesn’t respond to John’s question with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Rather, Jesus points to the evidence all around us of how God is present in the midst of our waiting, our suffering and our own dying: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. Jesus bring healing, and Jesus accompanies us through the journey. Sometimes he leads us and sometimes he carries us.
Through this text, Jesus invites us to look at the world around us and see the myriad ways God is engaged and active in the world.  Jesus invites us to believe in him and to see that God is already all around us, working out healing and mercy and peace through the works and witness of others.
What are our expectations for God’s activity in the world? For what we anticipate will affect what we see. My favorite example of how our vision is shaped by our expectation occurred in January 2007. Perhaps you’ve seen or read about this experiment into just how expectation shapes perception.
A videotape was taken of harried commuters in the Washington Metro, as they rushed past a young man wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and a jacket, even though he masterfully played the violin amidst the hustle and bustle of the metro. Most people took no notice of him. Over a thousand people must have passed by him in the twenty minutes of the videotape.
It turns out the musician was none other than Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist whom people had paid $100 a ticket to hear play at the Symphony Hall in Boston just a few evenings before.
In his Post article about this experiment Gene Weingarten questioned whether we are capable of identifying beauty outside the contexts in which we anticipate encountering it? Can we recognize a genius performer, if that individual appears somewhere other than a concert hall?
Perhaps a similar question is appropriate for on this Third Sunday of Advent. Are we capable of identifying God’s activity outside the contexts of the stained-glass windows and the organ music we tend to associate with the divine? Can we recognize God at work even if our encounter of him looks unlike anything we have ever imagined?
Are we capable of seeing God at work in lunches that are packed for the hungry, in Christmas presents that are purchased for the families and seniors adopted for a Christmas gifting program, indeed, are we able to perceive God’s presence in the recipients themselves? Are we capable of seeing God in the first responders, nurses, doctors, dietary aids and others who will work through the holidays, caring for those who cannot care for themselves or are in need of special assistance?
Do we see God at work in the youth and others who will sing carols to brighten the holidays for some who feel imprisoned by bodies that are no longer dependable enough for excursions into the outside world and are therefore homebound or reside in assisted living facilities?
We can see God at work in relationships being built between neighbors of varying backgrounds and faiths here in Easton through several bridge-building programs in our city, as well as through the work of TACL and the interfaith hunger coalition and Talbot Interfaith Shelter?
As we wait, Advent calls us to make room in our hearts and within our hectic pursuits for the coming of Christ, the Savior.
Advent teaches us to live with patient expectation, to give witness to the healing and presence of God at work in our world. God begins as a tiny Child, born in humble surroundings, and then God works slowly, surely, all the way to the cross and into resurrection life, and beckons us to follow.
Our task is to be watchful, to not lose hope, to see what God is doing all around us. Let us cling to this hope, now and always. AMEN.