Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Staying in the Light

Staying in the Light
Matt. 1:18-25[1]
  As we approach the days when we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus the Christ, I’m not sure many of us are feeling very “saved.”  The season of Advent is a time for us to remember the hope, joy, peace, and love that have come to us in the one who is for us “Emmanuel,” or “God with us.”  And yet, as we get through these days leading up to Christmas, I’m not sure that hope, joy, peace, and love are the most prominent feelings we’re experiencing.  I’m afraid that many of us are feeling stressed out by all the preparations, the busy-ness, and the search for the perfect gifts.  Families are gathering, and for many it is a time to “endure” the drama that gets played out every year at this time.  Others, who have more solitary lives, may be feeling left out and lonely as the rest of the country “celebrates” the season with their families--even TV specials focus primarily on that dimension of the season.
  And so our Scripture readings that speak about the good news of God’s presence with us to restore us, to make his face shine on us so that we might be saved (Ps. 80:7, 19), may sound hollow to many of us at this time of the year.[2]  The prophet Isaiah promised a child who would come to restore the people of Israel, and ultimately the whole human family.  And Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as that child, the one who will “save his people from their sins” (Mt. 7:21) and who will be for us “Emmanuel,” or “God with us” (Mt. 7:23).[3]  But I would say it’s hard to find too many people at the mall who are focused on the hope, joy, peace, and love that these promises offer.  Especially during the week before Christmas! 
  Rather than the hope of God’s presence restoring us and all humanity to the life God intended for us, we seem to be mired in a pit of hopelessness.  The continual barrage of violence, oppression, and suffering on our TV sets reinforce the cynical view that there is “nothing new under the sun,” but rather “as far back as anyone can remember, everything has remained exactly the same since the world was first created” (2 Pet. 3:4, NLT).  And that bleak outlook on life positively saps the joy out of many people in our world. What is there to be joyful about?  Incomes are declining, poverty is on the rise.  Families struggle to hold themselves together in the face of the forces that pull them apart at the seams.  Violence and anger are such an integral part of our lives that we pay billions of dollars every year to entertain ourselves with movies that are filled with violence, revenge, and anger.[4]  And we’re all so busy “celebrating” that we lose sight of true joy--joy over the gift of being accepted unconditionally and irrevocably by our God who is always “God with us”!
  And then there’s peace.  I wonder if it is even possible to live in a world that is less conducive to experiencing peace than the one in which we live.  Everywhere you go, there’s some form of noise.  Whether it’s traffic, or television, or the incessant droning of Christmas music (which some places have been playing since November 1), I would say that many of us wonder where we can find even a moment’s peace in these hectic days.  But it’s there--real peace, the peace of a life that is restored to wholeness, to goodness.[5]  We just have to find a way to tune out all the noise that keeps us from finding it in the silence of meditation and prayer.
  At the heart of the good news of Christmas is love. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, there is nothing you have to do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.[6]  And yet, even though that message is clear virtually throughout our Scripture, our liturgy and hymns, it’s tremendously hard in this day and age for us to actually feel loved.  By God or by anybody else.  Part of the problem is that we disconnect from the possibility of love by escaping into our electronic devices.  Even when you’re in a public place that is intended to foster community and connection, like Starbucks, it seems most people remain glued to a phone or a tablet or a laptop rather than risk actually speaking to a real person.  And who of us doesn’t know the joy of taking the family out to eat, only to have most if not all of the group glued to their phones?  I think, for the most part, we’re afraid to take the risk of love--the risk of opening ourselves up to one another, and the risk of allowing others to open up to us.  But in a very real sense, if we can’t give and receive love to one another, how can we expect to feel loved by God?  I believe there’s a verse about that as well (1 John 4:7).
  The discipline of Advent calls us out of the darkness of this hopelessness, this bleakness, this frenzy, and this isolation into the light of hope, joy, peace, and love.  And if you ask what there is to be hopeful, joyful, peaceful, and loving about, the answer is Emmanuel, God with us.  The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is the God who will never leave us nor forsake us.  The God who came to us in the form of a helpless infant is the God who from eternity past to eternity future had determined to be “God with us.”[7] Not because he has to, but because he wants to.  It seems to me that the light of God’s unfailing presence with us all is enough to overcome the darkness that can threaten to overwhelm us at this time of the year.  I think the task for us is to keep our focus on that--to stay in the light of God’s love.

[1] © Alan Brehm 2013.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/22/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms 264-65: this Psalm is a expression of the faith that the people of God “must in the long last and in its extremity look away from its own repentance to a kind of repentance in God--his turning away from wrath and returning to grace.  The trust that God will in the end do so is based on nothing in the congregation [of Israel].  It is based on the understanding that the congregation is the work of God, there in existence, wholly and only as an act of God.”
[3] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 12: the idea of “Emmanuel” expresses “the full significance of Jesus’ life and work” as a “functional definition of who Jesus is.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 138: “for Matthew, the story of Jesus is a way of talking about God.  In Jesus and his story, God is with us.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, 97-98 on the interpretation of Isa. 7 in Matt. 1.  See further Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 21; R. T. France, Matthew:  Evangelist and Teacher, 182–83; Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community, 166.
[4] Grady Smith, “Box office report 2012: Film industry climbs to record-breaking $10.8 billion,” Entertainment Weekly.com 12/31/2012, accessed at http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/12/31/box-office-report-2012/.
[5] Cf. Desmond Tutu, Made for Goodness, 198: “For Christians, finding our way home to God is not a ‘self-help’ project. Jesus Christ is our hope for complete wholeness, for healing that is salvation. And that hope has already been accomplished. So we are constantly called to experience the truth about us: that we are beloved of God.”
[6] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream, 32.  He says it this way: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, for God already loves you perfectly and totally.  But more wonderfully, there is nothing you can do to make God love you less--absolutely nothing.  For God already loves you and will love you forever.”
[7] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2:735: “God does not will to be without us, but, no matter who and what we may be, to be with us, that He Himself is always ‘God with us,’ Emmanuel.”  Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:3-20. Cf. Ulrich Luz, Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, 31.  See further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 81, where he connects the power of the Spirit in Jesus’ entire life, including his birth, with the theme of “God with us.”

No comments: