This Week's Sermon
Looking In All the Right Places
Starting today across the street at the Christ-Child market someone will be chosen to open the first door of a large Advent calendar. I wonder what will be behind it.
I remember Advent calendars when I was a child, the twenty-four little windows to open, one a day during the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. Behind each window was a religious symbol pointing toward Christmas – a shepherd, a sheep, a king, an angel, a star, Joseph, Mary, and finally on Christmas Eve, the Baby Jesus.
Later, we found Advent calendars that included secular holiday images – holly wreathes, candy canes, drums, trees ornaments, and presents. And then, there was the big discovery – Advent calendars with chocolate behind every door! The pieces had symbols on them, but we never stopped long enough to look.
Years later when I was serving on the Northern Illinois Conference program staff and no one wanted to talk to me at Christmas, Sally and I went to Austria to visit relatives, and there in the great civic plaza of Vienna we saw an Advent calendar made out of windows of city hall. Each one covered and numbered, a shade to be pulled aside to reveal the sponsor of that day at their Christkindlmarkt – Mercedes Benz, Telefunken. We had gone from a sheep to a Mercedes – who says we are not making progress?
Last week I heard an ad in Wisconsin that they have a lottery Advent calendar. Every day for twenty-four days behind the window is a scratch-off pad to see what you have won. What a wonderful way to mark time as we approach the birth of the Savior of the world!
Looking in all of the right places? Will we find the peace bestowed upon us by God’s love behind the windows of a lottery Advent calendar?
Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 24 is a stark reminder of what is at stake. We do not know when the risen Christ is going to appear among us, so keep alert and watch carefully. This call to watchfulness has been interpreted by many as a warning that very soon Christ will come to whisk some of us away from all of the evils of the world, and others of us will be left behind. Some people have made this sounding of the alarm into a big industry.
But others who have made a vocation out of studying the scriptures have cast doubt on this being about a cataclysmic end to the world from which the most faithful will be removed. Rather, Jesus knows that his messianic moment is coming to an end, but he cannot say just when. He is asking his followers to stay alert so they do not miss the culmination of his witness, which, we know, will be his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and ultimately, his resurrection. He is calling his devoted disciples to look at the mundane activities of the day and see the signs of decisive moments to come.
And so, at the beginning of four weeks of Advent we hear that same call to pay attention. We are unlikely to find the risen Christ in our midst behind the window of a lottery Advent calendar, or under the tree at Macy’s, or across the street in a mug of gluwein, or on line tomorrow on cyber-Monday. But if we look in the right places, we are likely to find him.
But, why the risen Christ? I thought we are looking for the baby Jesus now; the risen Christ can wait until Easter. Oh, let us see the baby Jesus . . . in the carved crèches at the market, on the front of Christmas cards, in the words of the sweetest carols, in the faces of every infant.
However, the baby Jesus does not mean anything unless we see simultaneously what he grows up to become. This baby becomes Emmanuel, God with us, because he grows up to become the Jesus who challenges the establishment, the Jesus who loves the unlovely, the Jesus who preaches that Good Friday is more important than Black Friday, the Jesus who declares his love is more valuable than anything else we will receive this Christmas.
So, where do we look to find him? Our tradition tells us that we look to the scriptures, to the Advent hymns before we get to the Christmas carols, to the prayers of the season, to the choral anthems and gospel songs, to the sermons frustrating us from moving to Christmas too soon, and to the lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath. Worship during Advent points us to look in places that the outside world does not take time to see. On the day after Christmas, sitting in the midst of torn wrapping paper, holding a scratched off lottery calendar that came up empty, sipping microwave-zapped eggnog, some people will have missed the whole thing.
Christmas came early for me this year, even before Advent started. Our Thanksgiving morning worship service and dinner afterward – it was a real eye-opener. I saw God’s love last Thursday –
in the over 100 people who came to the worship service in the morning;
in the choir singing a favorite of mine, John Rutter’s setting of “For the Beauty of the Earth” (what a gift it is for the choir to be singing on Thanksgiving morning);
in the leadership of Joe and Ran and David as we celebrated the first feast of the day, Holy Communion;
in the people who shared dinner together, more people at dinner than at the worship service – entire families with children, church members on their own for the day, students, a family from Milwaukee who just happened to walk in as dinner was being served, some folks in genuine need of a good meal;
in the volunteers from Harris Bank serving food and going out onto the sidewalk to invite people in because we had so much to share;
in the members of the Dixon family, several generations who come every Thanksgiving to help, serving food in James Parlor and Dixon Chapel, the latter named after their forebears;
and, in all of our members, upstairs and downstairs, serving food in a beautifully decorated dining room and cooking in the basement, all under the wonderful guidance of Janis Andersen.
The spirit of the living God was there; it looked just like the heavenly banquet Jesus said would be ours if we remained faithful and kept watch over others, even to the point of inviting the stranger outside to join us inside for the feast.
And then to dramatize it all, John was there. He works next door and comes to the Wednesday noon services almost every week. He travels about in a motorized wheelchair. Years ago he told me about a brain injury that he suffered, virtually leaving him paralyzed – unable to stand, to walk, and to use his hands confidently. And then, he had brain surgery – a miracle of his faith in God, his will to live a productive life, the brilliance of the surgeons, the skill of the technicians, the patience of the therapists. And so, Thursday morning, as he has been able to do on Wednesdays now, he rose for the reading of the gospel, he walked forward to receive the sacrament, and wheeled his way up to the dinner to join with others.
Look in the right places and we may see miracles before our very eyes, a holy moment if we know where to look and know what we are seeing.
I testify to another time when I saw the risen Christ represented, this time not before Advent began but on Christmas morning. Early in my ministry I insisted that we have a Christmas morning service. I was the minister of a small congregation in Rockford, and Christmas Eve, always a holy night for the members, was on Saturday night, with Christmas Day being on Sunday. The people said that we did not need a worship service on Sunday because everyone would have been there the night before. But I just could not make peace with calling off church because it was Christmas.
So, Christmas Eve we had our beloved service with Jesus Garcia singing “Ave Maria,” a poem by Daniel Hintzsche, and “Silent Night” sung by the congregation with candlelight. And then on Christmas morning we held an additional service, and about 40 people showed up – those who could not go out at night, those who had traditional family dinners on Christmas Eve, those in families that honored two religious traditions, those who had nowhere to go on Christmas Day. Ever since then I have insisted on such a service, including here at the Temple at 9:30 Christmas morning.
So, one year at the church up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago, we had our usual two Christmas Eve services. But what was noteworthy in this year was that one of our members died at home that night between the two services. She had been getting weaker and weaker with her cancer, and I had been visiting with her and her husband during the week before Christmas. When she died, he called me, and I went to the house at about 9 p.m. to pray with him and honor her memory.
On Christmas morning, as I was getting ready for the very informal service in the parlor, with a fire in the fireplace, refreshments on the back table, and children, some still in their pajamas, gathering on the floor in front of the speaker’s stand, I glanced toward the window and so the man whose wife had died the night before walking through the cloister garden to the door. He entered the parlor, I went over to him, and he said, “I have nowhere else to go today.” I guided him to an easy chair in the back, and he started sobbing. I explained to the others there what had happened, and he continued to cry.
So, where is the love of the living God as revealed to us in the risen Christ evident in this place I have described? As the man sobbed, a child, without prompting from a parent or me, got up from the floor, walked over to the man, sat on the floor next to his chair and held his hand. And then another child, and another child.
The love of the risen Christ as a child in our midst . . . do not miss it. Keep alert, watch, look in all the right places. Seeing the love of God revealed in the risen Christ will not take us away from this world but will draw us deeper into it. Amen.
Philip L. Blackwell
The Chicago Temple
December 1, 2013