SERMON: The Defining Moment
SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 11:1-6
DATE: December 28, 2014
I love old T.V. shows. I would rather watch a rerun of Andy Griffith or Leave It To Beaver for the hundredth time, then watch the first showing of most of the current shows. A few years ago there was a popular movie called Pleasantville. In it, two teenagers from the nineties were somehow taken back in time to a place called Pleasantville in the 1950’s. But Pleasantville existed only on T.V. It was like Mayberry or Mayfield or Bryant Park from those old T.V. shows. Everything was black and white. Every lawn neatly trimmed. It had never even rained in Pleasantville. The local high school basketball team had never lost a game. In fact, none of the players had ever missed a shot. In school, they only taught about Pleasantville. They had no concept of anything beyond Pleasantville. Needless to say the teenagers from our time had a hard time adjusting. In class, one of them asked where main street leads after it leaves Pleasantville. And the teacher very pleasantly says that the beginning of the street is also the end. Main street goes in a circle. Well, of course, these visitors bring change, which is embraced by some and opposed by others. And those who embrace change, each have a defining moment which changes their life and their understanding of life and as that takes place, they begin to see the world in living color. The world is no longer black and white and things will never be the same.
In each of our lives there are such defining moments, moments which change our world. Can you think of some of those in your life? Often times they are historical events, events which are so significant, that the world is never quite the same after that. For me the first of those was the assassination of John Kennedy. And then Martin Luther King. And then Robert Kennedy. Those are all linked together in my mind and had a profound impact on how I viewed life as I was growing up. And there was the first landing on the moon. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The Challenger disaster. The shootings at Columbine High School. And, of course, 9/11. And you can name others. After these events, we were never quite the same. Things changed. And there are, of course, such moments in our personal lives, too. Our first love. Leaving home. illness. Graduation. Our wedding day. The death of a loved one. These, too, are moments which forever change us. I think that there is something about Christmas that can lead us to reflect on such times. It seems like at this time of year the newspaper and the TV newscasts are filled with persons reflecting on such moments in their lives. In my 29 years, I have had many such moments, but two really stand out in my mind. The first is the day I accepted Christ in my life. And the second was the birth of my daughter, Anna. Nothing has changed me more than the introduction of a child into my life. A pastor by the name of James Harnisch said this:
As every new parent has discovered, when you let a child invade your life, everything begins to change. Nothing will ever be the same again. It’s the difference between B. C. (Before Children) and A. D. (After Delivery). Picture Christmas in the home of a sophisticated, professional couple. Their elegant china nativity figurines are arranged with care on their glass-topped coffee table. That was “Christmas B.C.” In “Christmas A.D., the china figurines have been replaced with plastic ones. The pungent scent of potpourri competes with the distinct aroma of diapers and baby powder. The cappuccino maker gathers dust while the washing machine runs full time. Their lives will never be the same again
After a baby is brought into a house everything changes, doesn’t it? The sleeping schedule changes. Or in some cases the lack of sleeping schedule changes. What we eat changes. Suddenly we are concerned with eating more nutritious things. I started saying things I never thought I would, like “eat your peas” and “if you eat a good dinner, you can have some dessert” Do you understand what major changes those were for me. And then when a baby comes, our time is no longer our own. Suddenly our schedule is filled with someone else’s needs. Nothing is ever the same again.
The longtime newsman, Charles Osgood writes:
Every cliche you’ve ever heard about babies is true, it seems to me. They are soft and warm, fascinating, cute and lovable. I never met one that wasn’t, and it’s a good thing, too, because if babies weren’t so cute and lovable maybe we wouldn’t so gladly put up with the fact that they’re so demanding and so much trouble. Babies are pure potential. You pick up a little baby and you’re amazed by how light it is, but you feel also that you’re holding the future, the earth and the sky, the sun and the moon, and all of it, everything is brand new. Babies help us to put the changing world into perspective too. Changing the world has to wait, when it’s time to change the baby.
The first moment that I saw Anna, I knew that a miracle had entered my life and, praise God, I would never be the same again. I have been defined forever by that moment.
I am convinced that for each of us there comes those kinds of moments, miracles that enter our lives, and seek to change us forever. For me, it was the birth of a child. But others experience it in different ways. Because it is not the event itself that defines us, it is what we give to that event. There are those that have children who are not changed at all, and rather than a miracle, the birth takes on the elements of a tragedy. And there are those who never have children, but who experience their miracle in other ways. Because the miracle comes not in the event but in the giving of ourselves, who we are, completely. It is the kind of miracle that Christ talks about when he says that those who are blessed are those who are willing to lay down their lives for another. I’m not sure that He had in mind those who die for another as much as those who give their life for another. And I think there can be a big difference between dying and giving your life. It is that kind of miraculous transformation that becomes the defining moment of our lives.
It is that kind of miraculous transformation that Isaiah envisions when he spoke the words we read earlier.
“A branch from the stump of Jesse”, he calls the coming Messiah. The other day I let the dog out and I stepped out on the deck and looked at the Rose Bushes that I planted by the stairs. It wasn’t that long ago that they were covered with beautiful flowers . But now they are just dead looking little stumps. They seem to have no life in them at all. But I know that the life is inside those stumps and I have hope that come Spring new life and new growth will come forth from that stump and will send beauty into the world. For Isaiah’s people, the stump of Jesse was little more than a dead reminder of past splendor. One writer describes it this way:
The stump is the image of humiliation, resignation, and defeat. People had good reason to think that the line of David was dead, lifeless, with no future and no hope. There seemed to be no alternative to the inevitable destruction and oppression that surrounded them.
But Isaiah foresaw a defining moment. The coming of Messiah. The shoot of new life. That would change the world forever. And how did God choose to make the miracle happen. By sending His child. His miracle. His heart. His very self. “A little child shall lead them,” Isaiah said. The shoot of the stump of Jesse’s tree would be God’s own son.
At Christmas we celebrate the miracles that define who we are. The miracles that change us forever, or at least seek to change us. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote a play about the birth of Christ and in that play he captures God’s intention in the words of the innkeepers wife. Reflecting on the night when they had no room for the woman who was ready to give birth, she says:
God pity us indeed, for we are human, and do not always see the vision when it comes, the shining change. Or if we do see it, do not follow it. Because it is too hard. Too strange, too new, too unbelievable, too difficult. Warring too much with common, easy ways…Something is loosed to change the shaken world, and with it we must change.
Something is loosed to change the shaken world, and with it we must change.
Of all the beautiful words that have been written in hymns and poems and literature, are there any that have better caught the essence of the earth shattering, defining moment that we celebrate as Christmas then that one simple statement: Something is loosed to change the shaken world, and with it we must change.
On that first Christmas, God loosed a miracle. But few recognized it. Not the Roman officials. Not the innkeeper who turned God away. Not the angry people of Nazareth who no doubt whispered behind Mary and Joseph’s back about this illegitimate child. They were too ashamed to even travel with Mary and Joseph. Surely there were others who made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, for the census. Nazareth was a a new settlement built about 100 years before on top of the ruins of a town the Assyrians had destroyed 500 years before. All of the people who lived there were second generation descendants of relatives that had resettled there from the area around Bethlehem. They would have all had to go there for the census. But apparently none of them would travel with this outcast couple. They did not see the miracle. And those that swelled the streets of Bethlehem did not see the miracle. Didn’t they think it odd, that star that settled over the little town. Or perhaps they didn’t see it. And Herod and the Jewish hierarchy, didn’t see the miracle. They only saw the threat to the comfortable life that they had carved out in the midst of the Roman oppression. So many missed the birth of Jesus. Only Mary and Joseph, the outcast couple, a few shepherds (nearly outcasts themselves), later some astrologers from who knows where, had any notion of the miracle that had been loosed on the world. How could they have not seen it? How could they have not known? How could they have passed by that stable that night and not known? But most did. And still most pass by. Still most miss it. Christmas is over. The decorations are already coming down and so many people in our world missed what it was really all about. Even so many in the church. History recognizes the birth of Christ as a turning point. The calendar is divided by that one event. But if it was such a momentous event, why can’t we talk about it in our schools? Why does the anniversary of that event take on a more and more secular tone with every passing year? I read about a pastor of a church who put a sign in the front of the church that read: “Jesus Is The Reason For The Season. Merry Christmas.” The next week he received a phone call from someone complaining about the message. The caller ended the conversation by saying, “I don’t think the church should try to drag religion into every holiday.” At Christmas, God loosed His Son to change the shaken world. But most do not see the miracle, do not recognize the event that defined all history before and after and to come. And a world that is in desperate need of change is not changed.
Get ready, Isaiah proclaimed, because your world is about to be changed forever. The coming of the Messiah will be an event so cataclysmic, that it will shake your world. It will disrupt the natural order. “The wolf will lie down with the lamb.” And life will come once more from the seemingly dead stumps of the past. The world, both before and after, will be defined by that one moment. The birth of a baby, the Messiah. But, instead, they pushed it into the cave out behind the inn and they passed on by. And rather than recognize the fact that something had been loosed to change the shaken world, they did all they could to put an end to the Messiah almost from the moment He was born. King Herod recognized Him for what He was and tried to kill Him. When the other Jewish leaders recognized him for who he was, they pleaded for His crucifixion. And why was that? Because they feared that the Messiah who came to change their world, would also change them. “Something is loosed to change the shaken world, and with it we must change.” And there’s the problem. Perhaps we let Christmas pass us by, perhaps we cover it over with tinsel and lights and excessive celebrations, because we don’t want to deal with the change that the baby Messiah will bring to our lives. And when it’s all over, we wonder why it is that nothing is changed. There is still war in the middle east. There are still hungry children. There is still violence and inhumanity and immorality shouting at us from the newspaper headlines. They say that the birth of Christ is the defining moment of human history, but does it really change us? Are we different because we’ve been to the manger, or have we passed it by? Because you see, the beautiful hymns of Christmas, the words of the prophets, the story of Christ’s birth, are like the angel’s chorus that came to the shepherds. They bring us great tidings of joy that has come for us. And if not for us, then for someone else. It is news to rock our world. It is news that is meant to change us forever, and through us, change our world. And if we are not changed, then we’d better go to the manger again. Christmas is the defining moment of all humanity. But, perhaps the question for the Sunday after Christmas is, what has it done for you? Is it the defining moment of your life? Have you been confronted with the birth of a Messiah and been forever changed, really changed? Has it rocked your world? Because of it, have you rocked your world? Is the birth of Christ a defining moment in your life? The moment which changed everything for you. You see, it is that kind of moment that Isaiah foresaw, new life from what was thought to be dead, and it is that kind of moment that his New Testament counterpart, John The Baptist, proclaimed when He came as a voice in the wilderness to prepare our hearts for history’s defining moment. And if Christmas is not that for us. If it does not change us forever, and through us change the world forever, then let me suggest that we need to return to Bethlehem, taking Isaiah’s way and John’s way, rather than the way of the world.
James Harnisch writes in his book, Meet The Son Of God:
I gave in during Advent and took the (route) through the wilderness. I found John right where I expected him to be: soaked up to his middle in the river Jordan, his bony feet wrinkled by the water and turning blue, his face burned by the sun, and his hair blowing in the wind. I asked him the question I wanted to ask before. “John,” I blurted out, “Why can’t you get into the Christmas spirit? Why do you insist on carping about repentance all the time? Cheer up, for heaven’s sake! Drink some eggnog, decorate a tree, stand under the mistletoe, or watch a rerun of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. I knew I had gone too far with that business about ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ George Bailey, after all, nearly died before he turned things around. There’s nothing like a hard, cold, wintry look at ourselves to reveal the need for repentance.
The prophet fixed his eyes on me. He looked down into a deeper place in my soul than I am willing to go. He found the neglected weeds and snarled undergrowth down there, and I began to feel his axe being laid to the root of my soul. He went to work on old habits, old attitudes, old prejudices that I needed to leave in the desert If I intended to go on to Bethlehem. He kept digging until he found broken places that needed healing. . in order to claim God’s future. He kept digging until he got to some of the sins I should have uprooted long ago.
There was a long, deep silence before I heard him say, “So, you want to see the new Child-King, do you?”
“You’ve got that right,” I said. “I plan to be at the manger”
“And just what do you expect to find?” he asked.
“All the things Luke described,” I said. “A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger; shepherds keeping their flocks by night; and an angel saying, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy.
John replied, “What about Herod? What about the flight to Egypt? What about the threat this baby became to the existing order? Are you any more prepared for the changes this baby will bring than Herod was? I’m nothing compared to the One who is coming! Are you ready for his winnowing fork to go through your world?”
And Harnisch concludes:
I wondered just how well prepared I really was. Now I knew why the road to Bethlehem led through the wilderness.
What about you? Is the birth of Christ to you the defining moment in your life? The moment on which all others depend. Has He been born to you and will your life ever be the same again? Because the message of Christmas is the same today as it was 2000 years ago: SOMETHING IS LOOSED TO CHANGE THE SHAKEN WORLD, AND WITH IT WE MUST CHANGE