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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Luke 3:1-6

02-Ad2-P-Year C

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

December 10, 2006

In the sixth year of the Presidency of George W. Bush, when Phil Bredesen was Governor of Tennessee, and Bill Haslam was Mayor of Knoxville, and Mike Ragsdale was Mayor of Knox County, and Charles Child was the Clerk of Session at Lake Hills Presbyterian Church, and Carla was the Organist, and Anderson was baptized….

You remember when that was, don’t you?

Luke places the ministry of John the Baptist in its historical context, in real, human terms. He gives us a very precise roadmap to John’s ministry. Here it is, he tells us, when so-and-so was Emperor, and so-and-so was governor, and so on. His early readers might nod their heads in recollection.

“Oh, yes. That was the year my younger brother was born, and my life’s been miserable ever since.”

Or, “Wasn’t that when we moved to Nazareth?”

Or, “That was the year we bought our first camel, the one with the extra riding blanket. A convertible.”

John the Baptist wasn’t some vague or imaginary figure. He lived and breathed the same air as Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, and a hundred thousand others who could place their own lives in his context, and place his ministry in their context. Luke gave the early gospel readers a way to remember. But more, he gave his readers a way to make the story their own.

What are the significant events in your life? You might not remember what year it was as years are numbered. But you remember the world around these events. You remember the turning points where you made a choice, or when fate made a decision for you. You remember the times when extraordinary events took hold of your life, and changed you. But, more often than not, we remember the extraordinary in the context of the ordinary. It’s the little, contextual things that trigger intense memories. You smell the aroma of turkey in the oven, and you remember a life-changing conversation you had with your mother. You watch a baby being baptized, and you remember the birth of your own child. Someone clears their throat and it sounds just like the way your dad did it. We safely and quietly hold within our hearts treasured memories of special events. But, more often than not, it’s some tiny, almost insignificant cue that brings these treasures to mind.

How do you remember the person, or the events, that led you to Christ? Some of you can remember the precise day and time when you accepted Jesus as your personal savior. For some of you, the presence and salvation of Jesus Christ has always been near, even if you didn’t recognize it. Maybe like Anderson, you were always part of the church, and the church was always part of you, even though you didn’t know what that meant. But even if faith snuck up on you, there’s someone or something that was like John the Baptist for you. There’s someone or something that was a signpost, a prophet, a realization. Think about that person, that event that first led you to your own faith.

If we think of Jesus as God come to earth, then Jesus is a man who needs no introduction. God could easily have given Jesus and his ministry to the world without the help of John the Baptist. And yet, throughout scripture, there’s always someone pointing the way. Almost no great biblical event ever takes place without someone there to announce ahead of time what’s to come. The way-pointers are an indispensable part of God’s standard operating procedure. When Jesus was born, it was a star that pointed the way to Bethlehem, so the wise ones and the lowly shepherds could find the manger. When Jesus began his ministry, it was his cousin, John, who prepared the way of the Lord, calling people to repentance, baptizing them for the forgiveness of sins. There’s always someone or something that points the way to Jesus. This is the way God works.

Again, think back to the way-pointers to the turning points in your life. Think of yourself and your faith before them. And think of your faith after them. What did they contribute to your understanding of Jesus? Could you have found your faith without them? God has created a world, and given us the gift of faith. But this faith is always, always brought to us with the help of someone or something coming before to point the way. Which is also to say that our faith is never, never solely our own. We need each other, we need the church, we need even the unholy, hum-drum events of life to point us to Christ our Lord.

Think of your daily routine. There are probably hundreds of habits that carry you from morning to night. A morning alarm clock signals the dawn. A crying baby signals it’s three hours before dawn. A TV show tells us it’s time to pack up and get to work. A phone call reminds us of an appointment. Yet, most of the time, these ordinary events are just part of a daily blur of activity, rushing past us without causing so much as a ripple in our consciousness. What if the routine of your day became to you a sign of God’s sustaining love? What if these casual events could become signposts pointing the way to the real and present Spirit of Christ? What are the chances that YOU might serve as a way-pointer for someone else? What if your presence, rooted in the date and time of this day served to change someone’s life, even if you didn’t know it? Were all the events or persons who led you to faith aware of their importance in your life? Or were they just normal people, everyday happenings that gave you eyes to see and ears to hear?

John the Baptist was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Each of us face our own wilderness as we make our journeys through life. Each of our lives have twists and turns impossible to predict, and are often relentless in their tossing, turning curves. John was an exceptional voice in a world that marked time in ordinary ways. All it takes, is one. All it takes is one voice to help us find our way when we’re lost. All it takes is one voice of compassion, one voice of comfort, one voice of encouragement when we’re not sure how or even if we want to walk any further. All it takes is one.

Give thanks to God for the ones who have pointed you in the direction of Jesus Christ. Give thanks to God that even your ordinary voice, even your ordinary cycle of waking and sleeping, working and playing, shopping and returning – even those most routine and hum-drum habits of the seasons of your life – Give thanks to God that even those might be the one voice in the wilderness for someone lost and afraid.

Listen again to today’s scripture, thinking about those people or events that have signaled the greatest change in your own faith. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "

May God move straight through the twists and turns of your life’s road. May God’s love smooth over your rough and jagged corners that unintentionally hurt those who pass by. May God’s justice lower your mountains of conceit, and may God’s love fill the depths of your emptiness. May you see, in the fullness of these days, THESE ordinary days, the salvation of God as it holds you and guides you, and brings you home.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Did Jesus Get It Wrong?

Luke 21:25-36
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, December 3, 2006

I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but it still seems such a disconnect to start this season with scriptures like these. I mean, for goodness’ sake, it’s Christmas, right? The stores – don’t even get me started. The communities are having parades, with marching bands and civic leaders waving. Santa always arrives at the parade’s very end, throwing out candy to all the children. That’s kind of a parable for Christmas season, isn’t it? A month-long parade, with Santa throwing presents at the end. And you know, as parables go, it’s not a bad one. Folks are generally jollier in December. People are smiling and wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even the employees at Wal-Mart are doing it this year. Like the John and Yoko song goes, “So this is Christmas.” Yup, it is. It’s a happy time. All of which makes me feel like a great big Grinch to have to be reading scripture like this one. In its scriptures of John the Baptist shouting, “Repent, you broods of vipers!” and Jesus telling the world to look for signs of apocalypse, it’s as if the church is poking a finger in Santa’s eye, saying, “Hold on just a darn minute, here.” It’s like the church is saying, “Hey, wait a minute. It’s not Christmas yet. This is Advent Season.” We’re not red and green. We’re purple. The color of repentance. If we did Advent by the books, we wouldn’t sing any Christmas carols, we wouldn’t put up any decorations. Is that what Jesus wants? I have a hard time believing Jesus wants us to prepare to celebrate his birth by sitting around like grim-faced Puritans pondering our sins and waiting for the end of the world. “Merry Christmas, you sinner.” But on the other hand, he does tell us, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” It seems such a contradiction with everything else. Could Jesus – or at least the church – be missing something?

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away….” I don’t want to name any names from the pulpit, but there’s one member of our church who annually pokes a finger in my chest about this scripture and those like it, which say, “This generation will not pass away” until all these things have taken place. “So, preacher,” he says. “Did these things happen and everybody missed them? Or was Jesus wrong?” And every year I give my same answer, (exasperated sigh) “I don’t know. I didn’t write these things. I just read it, and try to make sense of it.” I tell him, “The Lord also says to go home, get in your closet, shut the door, and pray. Which is exactly what I think you should do, right now.” Actually, it’s a very good, if not irritating question. It’s the kind of thing Michael Gant could teach a lesson on, for, I don’t know, six or seven months. Was Jesus wrong? Did the world miss something? Are we missing something?

A few years ago, way back in the 1980’s, the world saw the rise of a very unlikely prophet. Bob Geldof, the lead singer of the British band, the Boomtown Rats, wrote a song called, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and sponsored the original Band Aid concert for famine relief for Ethiopia.

It's Christmas time,
there's no need to be afraid
At Christmas time,
we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty
we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
at Christmas time.

But say a prayer,
pray for the other ones
At Christmas time...
...it's hard, but when you're having fun

There's a world outside your window,
and it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them
instead of you!

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Here's to you raise a glass for everyone
Here's to them underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Feed the world
Let them know it's Christmas time again

If you thought the world was in trouble in the 1980’s, compare that to the post-9/11 here and now. We’ve got the horrors of Sudan, North Korea, Afghanistan, Lebanon – and, of course, Iraq, where the pressure cooker gets turned higher every day. You turn on the news, or pick up the paper – you see these signs that the world’s just going nuts, and you think, well, maybe Jesus got it right, after all. I mean, if you think about it too much it really is a poke in the chest or a finger in the eye. How can the world be such a contradiction? Noel – and pure hell. All at the same time.

So Jesus says, “Be on guard…. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” When you think about it in a global sense, then Jesus might not have missed anything. He might have seen more than we would ever want to. “Wake up!” he tells us. He tells us to open our eyes and look around. If the world makes you depressed, then maybe it should. Maybe reality should make you thankful that you’ve escaped these things. Maybe seeing the condition of God’s children across an ocean or across the tracks should motivate you. Maybe it should make us all pray for the coming of the Son of Man, a real, true, and lasting Advent.

It’s like another song we sing,

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Instead of a disconnect, Advent scriptures call us to re-connect. Jesus isn’t a contradiction to Christmas, he’s its greatest prediction. There will be a day when the world is fed. There will be a day when the soldiers all come home. There will be a day when the captives are freed and we’re all released from the sins and fears that bind us. We will find rest in the dear desire of every nation and there will be joy in every longing heart. It turns out, in the end, Jesus got it right. Jesus will get it right. He’ll get everything right. The question is, will we?