Message: The Gift Of Something More
Scripture: Romans 8:22-25
Date: December 7, 2014
We continue this morning thinking about the impossible dreams of Christmas. And really the dreams are the same as they have been throughout the history of humanity. They are the dreams of peace on earth and joy to the world and lives lived in perfect love. Those have always been the dreams of human beings. It is the dream of returning to the perfect state into which God created us in the first place. It is the contention of the writer of Genesis and the story of creation that the Garden of Eden was that place where the dreams come true – that God placed Adam and Eve in a place of perfect peace and perfect joy and perfect love. And that in essence it has been humanity that has added the element of impossibility to the dreams of Christmas. And down through the many centuries of humanities existence there have been periods when the dreams have seemed more and more distant, and have taken on an attitude of impossibility. That was certainly true of the world into which the baby Jesus was born. It was one of the darkest periods of history for the Jewish people, and they had had many dark periods. And it seems to me we are in the midst of a dark period in the history of humanity, as we look at all the places in our world where there are so many people not just killing each other but committing terrible atrocities against the innocents and not just on foreign battlefields but in the streets of our cities and in our own neighborhoods. Wars and rumors of war. Economic hardship. Unemployment. Homelessness. Epidemics. Paralyzed government. The list goes on. And what makes it even darker is that we have moved as a people about as far away from the light of Christmas as we have ever been. We look to the Christmas season to offer us hope and relief, but this Christmas, for so many, those seem so illusive. So impossible. The age old dreams seem increasingly impossible. Do we dare to dream of peace in the Middle East? Do we dare dream of the end of cancer or even Ebola? Do we dare dream of adequate shelter for all and a world where there is no more hunger and starvation? Do we dare dream of a world where there is justice and equality for all? Do we dare dream of a Savior? Do we dare dream at all? Do we even dare hope for a better life for all? Do we still hope for a better world or have we become resigned to the world as it is? I think these are the questions that confront us this Christmas. Sometimes they are hidden by the shiny lights and the excessive celebrations. But they are there.
In the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama was successful because he became the candidate of hope. The country was mired down in two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan, that really seemed as though they were going to drag on for several more years. The economy was beginning to free fall. There were rumors that General Motors was heading towards bankruptcy. Small banks had begun to close all over the country. And there were concerns that a number of the large banks were going to fail. Some that were deemed too big to fail. The unemployment rate was rising and the value of pensions were declining. The housing market was practically non-existent and foreclosures were starting to be the rule rather than the exception. And the world wide economy was collapsing even more rapidly than the American economy. And so along comes Barack Obama. He was a new face. A different kind of candidate who was successful in establishing himself as the candidate of hope. John McCain, he said, was the candidate of the old ways. While he, Barack Obama, was the candidate of a new order. The candidate of hope for a better country, a better life, a better world. And over 50% of the voters believed him. But it was not really his policies that people found hope in. It was him. He became, in essence, the personification of hope. Hope became the quest that he was known for and He won the election. Now I’ll let you determine if he has followed through on this hope, but I can tell you that he was not the first politician who had successfully become the embodiment of hope. Bill Clinton established himself as the candidate of a hopeful future. The words of his theme song that was played at every rally were, in part, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop it will soon be here. It’ll be better than before.” Hope points to a better day ahead. Martin Luther King, Jr. became the face of hope as he worked for equality for all during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. He once said: Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. In his inaugural address, which is regarded as one of the greatest speeches ever, John Kennedy began by recounting many of the problems that plagued the world in 1961, and then he said: “rejoicing in hope. Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Peggy Noonan, a presidential historian, writes this: “His was a presidency interrupted. But the beginning of the presidency – and what turned out to be the end of his presidency – were both times when the American people hoped that . . . this President was going to solve their problems, and was going to become what he hoped to be, which was a great president.” And what were those problems that he talked about- poverty, war, human rights violations, hunger, human misery – the same problems that humanity has struggled with through the ages and we continue to struggle with today. And why is that? Because we have placed our hope in mankind. We have believed time and again that somehow mankind can bring peace on earth and joy to the world. We have placed our hope in ourselves. But here’s the thing – the seemingly impossible dreams of Christmas are not really our dreams, they are God’s dreams for us. When they are the dreams of man they are impossible dreams that no matter how many generations dream them will never be accomplished. The impossible dreams of Christmas become possible when they are God’s dreams placed on our hearts. God did not send Jesus to be the object of our hope. He sent Jesus to be the fulfillment of the hope that God placed in Adam and Eve’s hearts even as He was expelling them from paradise, and that through the centuries he has placed in the hearts of humanity again and again. It is the hope of a better life. A better existence not separated from the God who made us, but at one with Him. It is the hope that there is something more to this existence than war and poverty and human misery. I really like the way that a preacher by the name of Brett Younger says it: Ultimately Christmas is about the gift of something more. At Christmas we hope for something more.
Let’s see if we can unpack that a little and in doing so perhaps that which seems impossible will become possible this Christmas in and through us.
First of all, Christmas hope is the hope of beginning again. Of something completely new. The Gospel of Mark begins with the words: The beginning of the gospel (or truth) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. From the very beginning Mark wants us to know that this is not going to be an old story concerning the activity of God in our world dressed up in some new clothes. This is a completely new story. God is doing a new thing. The hope of Christmas is the hope that God will not just change our world, or dress us up in a different way. The hope of Christmas is the hope of new beginnings. You see, God had tried for centuries to offer people salvation simply through changed hearts. He had given the law, the Ten Commandments, the Jewish Torah. He had sent prophets and teachers. He had even occasionally intervened in miraculous ways. But in the end, none of that had worked. And eventually, usually sooner than later, the people had drifted back into despair. And now in 4 B.C. they were at their lowest ebb. There was little hope in Israel. And so God decided to do something completely new. Not raise up another prophet to sell the people on the hope of a Messiah, a Savior. Not raise up another King like David to drive out the Roman oppressors. No, He decided to send a baby. New life. New birth. Behold, I will make all things NEW. That’s the hope of Christmas. The hope of beginning again. After starting out telling us that his Gospel is going to be about a new beginning for God and His people in Jesus, Mark launches right into telling us about John The Baptist. No birth story in Mark’s gospel. No time for that. It’s assumed in his opening statement. John is the prophet of the new order. His task is to prepare the world for a new order. He does not call people to confession or change. That’s how the people had been told in centuries past that they needed to prepare for the Messiah. Get your hearts right. Prepare to be changed. Cleansed. No, John said “repent” which means turn completely around. Let go of your old path, your old life, and embrace a new one. God is making all things new. John’s was not a baptism in recognition of a changed heart as our baptisms often are. John baptized to wipe our slate clean so that the Messiah could write a new story for our lives. In the 2000 years since John The Baptist, we have watered down his message to say that if we just change our lives some = eliminate this sin or that – alter our path a little – we can be ready to receive the Savior. But that’s not what John was saying. He was saying to receive the Messiah we would need to turn our lives completely around. Start all over again. Remember the story of Nicodemus. Good man, worked in the Temple, highly respected Jewish leader. He came to Jesus in the night and said, “Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus did not say, as Nicodemus no doubt anticipated he would, “You must change this” or “You must alter your path here”, He said, “You must be born again.” Not tweak your life a little but start all over again. Christmas hope is the hope that comes with new life. A baby in a manger. A messiah who doesn’t just come to change the world, but to make the world new. Ultimately God’s impossible dream is not a dream of a better world, it’s the dream of a new world. It’s not the dream of a better life, it’s the dream of a new life. John’s message was not that the Messiah was coming to make your life better and so you need to clean up a little. John’s message was that the Messiah is coming to offer you life that is new, so you better wipe the slate clean in preparation. When Isaiah spoke of the Messiah, he envisioned a King emerging from the wilderness in strength and power to restore the Kingdom. That’s the Messiah the people were looking for. But when John spoke of the Messiah, he envisioned a Messiah who would come into the world through our hearts and restore the Kingdom in individual lives. Alex Joyner, in a book entitled Call Him God’s Son writes: Whereas before the voice proclaimed a new way through the wilderness to bring the exiles home, now the voice was in the wilderness (of our lives) and the way of the Lord was taking a path through human hearts. Getting ready had never been so personal. The impossible dream of hope for the people to whom Jesus was born was not just the dream, the hope of something better in this life, it is the hope of something more than this life. A dream of new life in the midst of the old.
So what about Christmas 2014? Do we dare to hope today? There is so much to despair about in our world. Just when we think we have gained a victory of sorts over terrorism and that a modicum of peace has returned to the Middle East, a new terror group rises up more powerful than the ones that came before and we are drawn into war all over again. Just when we begin to feel as though we are making significant progress in the battle against cancer and aids, a new threat like Ebola comes along. It seems as though we simply move from one crisis to the next. It’s like that arcade game called Wac-a-mole. One pops up and we subdue it with the mallett, only to have another one pop up. There seems to be no end. Perhaps that’s how you have been feeling about your own life as we find ourselves in the midst of this season again. Struggling to hope for something more. Well, I believe that God had you in mind when He placed His impossible dream in Mary’s heart and hope was born in that cattle stall in Bethlehem. God makes it clear in the way the story unfolds that more than any other, Christmas is for the hopeless. For those who feel cast out. Alone. Discouraged. The Messiah came as new life to give new life. When the Angel comes to the Shepherds, He makes the proclamation very personal. Listen to how Luke records it. “Do not be afraid. I bring YOU good news of great joy which shall also be to all people because today in David’s town, a Savior has been born TO YOU.” Not for you. To you. He came to be your personal savior. His is the hope of new beginnings, of new life. It’s the gift of something more that He continues to offer to you, and to me.
And then we experience the Hope of Christmas in His presence. Brett Younger writes:
The trappings that surround Christmas almost cover the hope for something different, something holy. What we long for is to be touched by the hope of God’s love. Christmas is, more than anything else, the chance to live in God’s presence.
For the people of Israel in 4 B.C., people living in darkness and despair, the longer the Messiah delayed the farther they felt from God’s presence in their midst. The Messiah was a prophecy born out of exile. Both physically and spiritually. It was first spoken among people who had been separated from their homes and the Temple. It was a promise that God would reestablish His presence among them. That once again He would walk with us in the cool of the garden. Kings and earthly powers, and their own faithlessness had separated them from God. Surely that’s what Paul had in mind when He wrote to the Romans: I consider that our sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will come to us. We know that all of creation has been groaning as well as we ourselves groan inwardly as we wait for our own adoption and redemption. In the hope of God’s presence we are saved. The hope of Christmas is the hope of something more. Not just that the Messiah will come, but that He will adopt us. Be present with us. What a glorious hope that is. It is no wonder then that so much of our Christmas celebration is focused on seeking a hopeful presence. And so we seek opportunities to celebrate with friends, office parties, social groups, civic clubs, school groups. Seemingly every group that we have anything to do with has a get together for Christmas. Many go to church who don’t go any other time of the year. We go to great lengths to be with family for Christmas. Because Christmas hope is the hope of presence. God came to be present with us. One writer in reflecting on this says this: God brings the promise in our lives of a new relationship, where we might live as a people of righteousness; willing to seek and be in relationship with God. And so we celebrate Emmanuel – God with us. A King who resides in a manger born among the shepherds and outcasts and the poor instead of a grand palace where the people could not go. God present with us. A hopeful presence, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. The impossible dream of God’s presence in our troubled world, alive in a baby in a manger. And that lives today in those of us who seek Him. This Christmas the hope of God’s presence is still alive in the hearts of mankind. Do we dare dream that dream today? Or perhaps the better question as we approach this Christmas in a world that is steeped in despair, is are we willing to let God be present through us? Because if we believe that Jesus is truly Emmanuel, God with us, then God’s Christmas dreams will become possible in us and through us. And we will feel the joy of Christmas as it was in 4 B.C. for Angels and Shepherds, and the joy of what it could be today for those to whom Christ is born again. And we will be Emmanuel for our spouses, and children, and co workers, and neighbors. We will be for them the hope of God present. The hope of Christmas. The hope of new life. We will be God’s gift of something more.
In a book entitled More Hope Than We Can Handle, Craig Brooks shares the story of an Episcopalian Priest from Philadelphia who in early 1865 became deeply concerned about the despair that had been brought on by the Civil War. And even though the war was coming to an end, the divisions and the hatred went on. It was a time that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described in this poem, I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day when hate was strong and mocked the song of peace on earth good will to men. Is that where we are this Christmas? So in the midst of that, this priest decided to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and seek to find Jesus all over again in the midst of a world out of control. His pilgrimage lasted almost one year. And on Christmas Eve he found himself in the field near Bethlehem where the Angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. And he wrote in his journal about feeling as though he was present with the shepherds that night and how he heard the proclamation of the Messiah’s birth all over again. And then he made his way, probably along the same path that the shepherds had traveled nearly 2000 years before, down the slope into the town of Bethlehem. He was breathless with excitement. And he went to the Church of the Nativity which is built on top of the cave that is believed to be the birth place of Jesus and participated in the Christmas Eve services where he experienced the presence of Christ more powerfully than he had ever experienced Him before. At long last his quest was satisfied. And in response he wrote a poem about his experience in Bethlehem on that Christmas Eve night. And he described Bethlehem that nigh in this way. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. What a powerful description of what took place in Bethlehem around the year 4 B. C. when the hopes of the prophets met up with the fears of the people who lived in darkness, and the Messiah, the Savior, Jesus Christ was born. And from that time on Jesus has come into individual lives at that place where our hopes and our fears meet. In 1868, Phillips Brooks’ poem was put to music so that the children of his church could sing it at the Christmas service. But it wasn’t until 1892, fourteen years later, after Brooks’ death, that “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” was first included in the Episcopalian hymnal. And in doing so, the fifth stanza of the poem was dropped and did not become a part of the hymn. Which is such a shame. Because that missing stanza is such a great statement of God’s presence which entered the world on that first Christmas. Brooks concluded the fourth stanza with the beginning of a prayer, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel” and then he concluded the prayer with these words: “Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child, Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild; Where charity stands watching And faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, And Christmas comes once more.” Oh Lord , come to us, live with us, God with us. The impossible dreams of Christmas become possible when Jesus is present with us. May you receive this Christmas the gift of something more.