Monday, December 17, 2012

Rejoice!  The Lord is Near!
Philippians 4:4-7
December 16, 2012[1]

I chose the title for this sermon at the beginning of the week—days before the events of Friday.  Early in the week, when I looked at the scripture lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary, I believed that we needed to hear this word of hope.  The Season of Advent is filled with opportunities for repentance and talk about judgment—similar to the Season of Lent.  But early on, the church fathers recognized that in the middle of this season of introspection and preparation, Christians needed to have an opportunity to take a deep breath and remember who we are.  The word for “rejoice” in Latin is “Gaudete”.  They called this third Sunday in Advent “Gaudete Sunday”—a Sunday for rejoicing.  In our tradition, this time for a deep breath is reflected in our Advent Wreath.  Instead of a purple candle, we light a pink or rose colored candle, signifying that this is a day for rejoicing, for recognizing and expressing our Joy that the Lord is near.

After I heard the news on Friday, I almost changed the sermon title—not because of failure of heart, but because I didn’t want to appear insensitive to the grief and sorrow that people are experiencing in the wake of Friday’s shootings.  After thinking and praying about it, as well as after checking with several of the people of Cunningham just to make sure I wasn’t losing a grip on reality, I decided to not to change the sermon.  I realized that especially in times such as these, we need to hear the Good News that the Lord is near.

This is not a simplistic statement that ignores the tragedy around us by pretending that evil is not around us.  It is not a matter of minimizing or ignoring our pain.  It is not a matter of using glib phrases to put on a happy face.  No—it is recognition that even in the darkest of times, no matter how painful they may be, God is with us.

I have learned this wisdom from parents and preachers alike.  There is a difference between joy and happiness. 

Happiness is an emotional response to the moment.  The root word of “happy” is “hap”—a 14th century English word that means “chance” or “fortune.”[2]  This same word “hap” also gave rise to the word “haphazard.”  Happiness is fleeting.  It’s good to experience it, but you need to capture it quickly, because it is soon gone.

Joy is different.  Joy is the continuing confidence that, despite our outward circumstances, we can live at peace, resting comfortably in God’s presence.  To rejoice is not necessarily to make an emotional statement about how we feel at a given moment in time.  Rather, joy is an on-going way of living and experiencing the world around us in relation to the God within us.

There is a real distinction between seeking the feeling of pleasure that we so often view as “happiness” and learning to experience joy.  For me, joy is not a feeling; it is the assurance found in knowing that despite a world that is falling apart outside of us, we belong to God and God is with us.  As I understand the letter that Paul wrote to the Philippian church, Paul was urging them—and he is urging us—to experience this joy.

Paul tells us to “rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).  Rejoice is a verb.  Paul is not saying here that we should be happy about the things going wrong in the world.  He is not so calloused as to say that we should be glad about pain and suffering.  He says that we should rejoice—not because of the pain, but because the Lord is near.  By the time Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, he had already gone through more pain and suffering than most.  Paul wrote this letter from prison (see 1:14).  He faced an uncertain future, and recognized the real prospect of death (he talks about this very real possibility in Chapter 1, verses 20-24).

But death was not something that Paul feared.  He had reached the point that he could honestly say that for him, to live was Christ, and to die was gain (Philippians 1:21).  He rested in the assurance that it was better for him to stick around in this life so that he could support his friends in their spiritual journey; yet he longed to be with Christ.  Either way, Paul saw himself as winning.  (v. 23).  He reminds me of my Dad—my Dad often used to say that living or dying, he was the winner.  If he died he would be with my Mom in the presence of God; if he lived, he stayed with us.  So Dad was at peace.

I admire these attitudes.  Yet, when we face tragedies such as last Friday’s, I still have a hard time.  It’s not so much wavering in my faith as it is becoming impatient that such pain and suffering still exists in the world.  It’s our own form of exile.  I just don’t believe that God intended for us to live this way.  I feel a little bit of what the Psalmist must have been feeling when he wrote the words, “How long, O Lord, how long?” (see Psalm 13). 

But it is precisely for these moments of despair, these moments of agitation, that Paul was writing.  Paul knew that, if left to our own power to rejoice in the face of such pain, we couldn’t do it.  That is why verse 7 in this morning’s reading is so important:  “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). 

The Greek word that is translated as “guard” has some special significance.  We often think of “guarding” our hearts and minds in military or police terms.  We think of a jail or prison, where we are trying to keep someone from getting out.  That is not what Paul is speaking about here.  Think instead of a strong fortress that protects all who live inside.  Think of security.  This, Paul says, is what the peace of Christ does for us.  Christ does not pretend that the pain and suffering doesn’t exist; but the One who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) has promised us that we will not experience this suffering alone. 

That, my friends, is Good News.  It’s Good News in the midst of a sorrowful time.  We would prefer that our Good News would be filled with jubilant ecstasy all the time.  We want our weeping to turn into dancing (Psalm 30:11) and we want it now!  We want all of our songs to be sung in a major key, but life is not like that.

Are you familiar with major and minor keys in music?  A major chord sounds happy to our ears.  Think of the Christmas Carol, “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come!”  The tune expresses the joy we feel about the coming of Christ.  It is a song of celebration. 

But with just a minor change in one note, with lowering that one note just a half step, the major key becomes a minor one, and what a difference that minor change makes.  Compare the feeling of “Joy to the World” with the feeling expressed in the Advent Hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  This Advent Carol proclaims “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel,” yet it sounds much different.  Both carols describe the coming of the Christ—one with joy, and the other with longing and yearning.  How can we have such different reactions to the same event? 

Our youngest daughter, Margaret, is a music teacher in the Fairfax County Public Schools and also directs the Children’s Choirs at Herndon United Methodist Church.  Margaret told Carol and me that a week and a half ago, a precocious 4th grader named Emma in her Church Choir asked her why “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is written in a minor key if it’s a happy thing.

What a perceptive question for a 4th-grader!

Margaret responded that “Jesus was coming into a world that wasn’t happy and that had people that weren’t—and still aren’t—always nice to each other and the music reflects that.”  I was pretty proud of Margaret’s answer!

The minor key of the music reflects the longing of the world for things to be set right.  It’s a longing that God’s children have experienced for thousands of years.  It is a longing that is fresh in our hearts once again.  We want to sing “Joy to the World,” but we can’t.  Just as the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon hung their harps by the willow trees because they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (Psalm 137), there are times that we can’t sing the songs of happiness—at least not yet.  The pain is too near.

But Advent is a time for remember that even though pain, suffering and sadness is near, the Lord also is near.  We can rejoice—even in the middle of our suffering and even in a minor key—that Emanuel has come to us.

Yet there is still another song to be sung.  A song, written in a major key but much quieter, that reflects this understanding for me.  A song that reminds me, even in the dark times, that Jesus loves us.  It reminds us that even though we are weak, He is strong.  Even though we are surrounded by the purple of longing for another day, today is a pink day, Gaudete Sunday, a day in which we can sing--and even rejoice—“yes, Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so.”  He loves us, and He promises to be with us, even “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  Even in the dark times of life, we can rejoice, for the Lord is near.  Thanks be to God!

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.  This sermon was delivered two days after a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut before killing himself.
[2] "happy." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 15 Dec. 2012. <>.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Clear the Way
Luke 3:1-6
December 9, 2012[1]

Prepare the way of the Lord.

I have two images in mind this morning when I think about preparing “the way.” 

The first image is one that people who live or work in Washington, D.C. will experience from time to time.  One Sunday morning in January 2001, I was taking our son, David, to Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street NW.  We were driving north on 18th Street when I saw the blue lights of a motorcycle move ahead of us and block the intersection.  Soon, he was followed by a other police cars and a couple of black Suburbans and then, finally, the black limousine with flags on the front quarter panels, indicating that this was the car of the President of the United States.  All we could do was to wait for the motorcade to pass by.  Parking always was hard to find at Foundry; but on this particular Sunday morning, as we got closer to Foundry, we noticed that it was more difficult than usual. 

We arrived at the church and I dropped David off at the door.  It took me another 20 minutes to find a parking space a half mile away.  I approached the church, and I saw men dressed in black holding guns.  As I entered the church building, I had to pass through a metal detector, and I was met—not by a regular usher—but by a Secret Service Agent who told me that there were no seats available in the sanctuary.  I would have to go to the Fellowship Hall and watch the rest of the service on TV.  It turned out that David got the last available seat in the sanctuary.  I can’t begin to guess how many people were involved in the simple task of taking the President to church and ensuring his safety.  By the way, the President arrived at church on time; I did not!

The second image is much closer to home and it also involves traffic delays.  This past fall, most of us have had the experience of being stopped in traffic near the intersection of Route 53 and Route 600 while work was underway to construct the new roundabout.  It always amazes me to see just how much work is involved in making the crooked straight and the rough places plain as we prepare a new highway.  The workers had to move electric lines, clear brush and trees, grade the earth, not only to clear the roadway itself but also to prepare for new drainage ditches and culverts.  Then they had to compact the soil before actually beginning the process of laying down the new pavement.  And all of this was the work we could see.  People were working in advance, for months, to survey the land, acquire the rights of way for the property that was needed, to prepare plans and specifications.  This was a small-scale version of what it takes to build a highway.

These two images illustrate two different meanings of the words, “prepare the way of the Lord.”  A traffic and security detail led the way for the President, ensuring a smooth journey for the President’s timely and safe arrival.  Scores of workers involved in building a highway project, to straighten out the curves and hills of an intersection that was judged to be dangerous, eliminating a hazard that could threaten the safe journey of travelers.

Both of these images come to mind when I hear the words “prepare the way of the Lord.”  John used these words, drawing upon Exodus 23, Isaiah 43 and Malachi 3, to call the people of the region around the Jordan to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He called on the people to turn around, to change the direction of their lives, in order to see “the salvation of God” (Luke 3:7).

These are huge words, “the salvation of God.”  In our Christian vocabulary, we use the word “salvation” a lot, but I don’t think we come close to understanding this word in all of its many dimensions.  We often, if not usually, hear it in the sense of “forgiveness of sins,” and that certainly is an important part of it.  It was part of the message of John the Baptist.  But forgiveness of sins is only a part of what the Bible teaches is the grand design of God. 

We begin with the understanding that God created us in God’s image.  God has a plan for the world.  In the story of Adam and Eve, we find people insisting on their own way, substituting their own plan for God’s.  The result has led us to a broken world.  We get comfortable with things, we get used to the way things are.  But John the Baptist reminds us that the “way things are” is not the “way things are supposed to be.” 

It only takes a glance at the headlines to see a world in which warfare continues, we find Syria readying its chemical weapons to use on its own citizens[2], we continue to play out a dangerous game of nuclear hide and seek with Iran[3], we continue to fight a war thousands of miles away in a country that we don’t understand.  I don’t believe that God planned for us to live this way.

It only takes a glance at the headlines to see a country in which violence runs rampant.  Whether it is an NFL Player taking the life of his fiancĂ© and then of himself[4], or whether it is a New York subway passenger pushing another passenger into the path of an approaching train while a photographer records the story[5], I don’t believe that God planned for us to live this way.

It only takes a glance at the headlines to see a world in which almost half of the world’s population, more than three billion people, live on less than $2.50 per day, in which the world’s poorest 20% consume just 1.5% of the world’s goods, while the world’s richest 20% consume 76.6%.[6]  I don’t  believe that God wants His children to live that way.

I know these issues are complex, and I don’t want to oversimplify them.  For the moment, I simply am looking at the big picture, the result of the way humanity has been living, and I don’t think that this is the way God intended us to live.

The “salvation of God” is the way we express the hope that God will fix things.  We may not agree on interpretation of prophecy and we may have different ideas of how God will get us there.  But the Gospel tells us that there is a way to God’s salvation.  It is a way that Jesus of Nazareth traveled, and it is a way that we are called to prepare and then to follow.  It is a way, a journey, that led Jesus to a cross, a way that leads to forgiveness of sins, but it also leads to healing a world from its brokenness.

How does one begin to find the way?

John says it clearly.  He says, “Repent.”  Turn around.  Change direction.  That is what repentance means.

For John, repentance wasn’t simply a matter of saying, “I’m sorry,” although confession is part of it.  Repentance means that we change the way we live.  Repentance means that we live as God wants us to live.  That we let go of our insistence on putting “me first,” and put God first.  That we live out the reality of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  It means that we seek reconciliation, ways of living peaceably with our neighbor.  That we clear away from our lives the sins that so easily beset us.

And yet, we find that when we try to do this in our own power, we discover that we can’t do it on our own.  The good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to.  The Gospel of John assures us that “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--
children … born of God.”  (John 1:12-14, NIV).

As we discovered in our Bible Study Class last Thursday, we can get caught up in a lot of theological discussions about how it happens.  Those are mysteries known to God.  But there is no mistake to the message from the man in the wilderness about what we are called to do—John calls us to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a repentance that leads to the salvation of God.

When we come to the Table of the Lord, we come signifying just that—our repentance, our intent to change direction.  We also come signifying our neediness, our emptiness.  We come with empty hands reaching out to receive the Bread of Life that is offered to us without price.  As you come to the Table this morning, may you use this as a time for clearing the way, asking God to show you the underbrush in your life that blocks your own journey with Christ.  May you seek God’s help to prepare the way of the Lord.  My prayer for you is that you too will see the salvation of our God.

May it be so!

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Keep the Light On 
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36  
December 2, 2012[1] 

In recent weeks, I have told a lot of stories about my Dad.  It’s time to give Mom some air time.

When I was a college student and home for the holidays or Summer Break and went out during the evening, I could always count that when I returned home, Mom would leave the porch light on for me.  She didn’t always wait up for me, but this was a way that she could connect with me.  She let me know that she had not forgotten me.  She was expecting me.  It was a great sight to see when I pulled in the driveway.  This was a practice that she continued, long after Carol and I were married.  Whenever we would come home, Mom would leave the light on for us.

It was quite a different welcome than my oldest brother had received one night.  He had developed a habit of staying out much later than his curfew time.  He thought he was avoiding detection by turning off his headlights before driving into the drive way.  He would take off his shoes when he entered the front door and tiptoe quietly in the dark to the steps, taking pains to step over the ones that would creak.  The door to the bedroom that George, Bill and I shared—dormitory style—was right outside my parents’ bedroom.  One night, my mother decided to welcome George in her own special way.  She took a jar of peanut butter and smeared the peanut butter all over the doorknob to the bedroom.  I wish that I could have seen the look on George’s face when he reached for the door in the darkness.  I also wish I could have seen the look on Mom’s and Dad’s faces as they waited in the darkness to welcome George home, to remind him that they were watching!

I greatly preferred the porch light treatment, myself!  That light was a beacon of welcome, of expectation, of hope.  It proclaimed the message that Mom was waiting for me.

When Jeremiah wrote his words of prophecy to the people of Israel, they were sorely in need of hope.  For years, they had been living in exile, taken away from their homeland after the City of Jerusalem fell to the armies of Babylon.  They had failed to listen to the warnings from God’s prophets, and now they were paying the price.  We say that they longed to go back, and sometimes we read the poetry from Psalm 137 expressing how much they grieved for their homeland.  I wonder, though, if that was true for all of them.  Did all of the exiled Children of Israel long to go back, or as time went on, did they adjust to their new surroundings, fit in with the culture, adopt the ways of their new homeland?  It would be hard to blame them.  After all—they were not in Babylon alone.  The Babylonian captors brought all the best and the brightest with them.  These were the "up and coming" class from Jerusalem, and it is likely that they formed their own community within this foreign land. 

Besides, it’s not as though they always were the most devoted people.  That’s what got them into trouble in the first place—they forgot the covenant they made with their God.  My guess (and this is only my speculation), was that if they would forget God in Jerusalem, they would forget God in Nineveh.  Maybe they remembered their cultural holidays for a while—but did they remember Who it was that brought their ancestors out of Egypt, provided food and water in the wilderness, and brought them into the land that had been promised them?  Did they remember to tell the stories of their faith to their children (Deuteronomy 6:7)?  Did they remember the commandment to love the Lord their God “with all [their] heart, and with all [their] soul and with all [their] might (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love their neighbor as themselves (Leviticus 19:18)?  Did they remember that they were called to be a chosen people, a people set apart?

It can be so easy to be drawn in by the temptation to blend in, to look just like those around you.  I had the gift of being born to some of the greatest parents around, but I knew that we were different, and I wanted to blend in.  I now can see that trying to blend in was my own sort of exile.  Not an exile of physical separation, not an exile of rebellion, but an exile nonetheless in which I left behind a part of who I was.

My guess is that few among us would call ourselves exiles—at least not in the physical sense.  Yet exile comes in many forms.

Sometimes, exile is external.  I truly doubt that any of us would knowingly choose to live in the exile of disease, hunger, or oppression. 

Sometimes, our exile is internal.  Forms of exile such as worry, doubt, guilt, shame.

And sometimes (perhaps most of the time), our exile is some combination of both.  The exile of loneliness takes the combination of the external circumstance of being alone, and responds to that external circumstance with an internal emotional reaction that we call loneliness.

Without wanting to trivialize the real pain that many people are experiencing in our world, I would identify yet another form of exile—the exile of estrangement—estrangement from our deepest selves, and from our God.  So many times, this exile of estrangement is the result of some other form of exile.  The exile of disease can lead to the exile of hopelessness.

Whatever its cause may be, exile seems to have a common effect:  exile separates us from living authentically as the Children of God.

Jeremiah’s message is meant for us too.  There is hope.  An expectation that things will not remain this way forever. A righteous branch will arise.  Justice and righteousness will prevail one day.  And on this first day of Advent, Jeremiah also is telling us here today that there is hope. 

But it is right here that the preacher has to be careful.  As a result of so many Disney stories and Hallmark Movies, it becomes so easy to reduce hope to wishful thinking, a superficial expectation for a happy ending.  Too many times, we limit our understanding of “hope” to mean delivery from external circumstances.  Don’t get me wrong—I believe in the words of that great hymn that testifies to “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”[2]  But I also recognize that sometimes, people living in the shadow can’t see the sunshine that is creating the shadow.

So for those shadow times, what do we do?  Jeremiah proclaims a message.  Let’s look at that message again.

Jeremiah proclaims a message of certainty.  “The days are surely coming …” (v. 14).  Jeremiah proclaims to those who can’t see the light that, even though they can’t see it, the light is there.

He proclaims that this message is not his own human message, but God’s message.  Whenever a prophet uses the phrase “says the Lord” (v. 14), that phrase signals that the prophet is not speaking for himself but for God.  Do you notice that the word “Lord” appears in all capital letters?  In Jewish tradition and practice, the name for God could not be pronounced or written down because it was sacred; so instead, they used four consonant letters—in our English alphabet, the letters are YHWH.  Over time, people began to fill in vowels between these letters and spoke the word “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”  When Bible translations use the word “Lord” in all capital letters, they are referring to the One whose name could not be written or spoken, the sovereign God.  It is this God who is in charge.

“I will fulfill the promise I made” (v. 14).  Jeremiah affirms that not only does God remember His promises—but he fulfills them.  Our hope is not in the whims, the oaths, the “pinkey-swears” of humankind; our hope is in the promise of God.

Jeremiah’s message of hope is for a definite date and time:  he says “in those days and at that time” (v. 15).  Jeremiah is a message of certainty and specificity, even when the external evidence doesn’t support the conclusion.  But it is not a message tied to our time; it is a message of what will take place in God’s time.

Jeremiah’s message is assurance that God is at work in our world and in our lives.  Jeremiah’s message from the Lord assures us that “I will cause …”  (v. 15).  In a postmodern age, where we no longer trust physical or spiritual realities, the Lord assures us that there is some order to the universe.

“A righteous Branch will spring up for David” (v. 15).  For all the hopes and dreams that Israel placed in the great King David, David and his offspring were a sorry lot, indeed.  Our hope is not for more of the same; our hope is for a “righteous branch.”  This branch will execute justice and righteousness.  This is not just a reference to punitive justice, (an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”); this is justice and righteousness in which all people will be treated as God’s children.  Not better; but not worse either.

“Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (v. 16).  We shall one day experience the “City of God,” that Kingdom that Jesus spoke of—the Kingdom in which those who mourn will be comforted, those who are meek will inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied, those who are merciful will receive mercy, and those who are pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:4-8).

That promise is there, but we can’t see it.  We have lost our way of seeing things spiritually.  In our exile, we trudge along in the darkness. 

But the message of Advent is that God has His light on.  There is hope.  If we look for hope outside ourselves, we might miss it.  But that light that God has kept burning for us is a light that is internal.  It may take some work to see it again.  We may have to peel back layers of resentment, false expectations, grudges, guilt and shame to see it.  But that light is there.  The light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness [has] not overcome it” (John 1:5).  Thanks be to God!

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the First Sunday of Advent.
[2] Thomas O. Chisholm, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, TN:  The United Methodist Publishing Company, 1989), 140.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.