16 December 2007

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent - "Hard to Get"

“Hard To Get”

Music & Lryics by Rich Mullins

From the CD “The Jesus Demos”

You who live in heaven, hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love and who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape

To find the faith to ask for daily bread?
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath

While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance, hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was - still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness - did You ever know need?
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on and Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat?
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted?
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows and I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less, even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out at the One who loves me most
And after I have figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity hear the prayers of those of us who live in time?
We can't see what's ahead and we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
To where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

There’s a button that appears on my facebook page sometimes. It says, “Let Jesus ruin your life.” The button links you to a social justice website run by Sojourners and Call to Renewal, both of which I support, but that’s not the point here. We don’t usually think about Jesus ruining our lives – we like to think about Jesus saving our lives, especially after death. When death reaches out and swallows someone you love, like it has for some of us recently, we are absolutely right to think on Jesus and the salvation that comes in His name. He has promised us that there is life beyond death for those who believe in Him, and we cling to that belief in the face of death.

But what do we do with Jesus when death is not the immediate enemy? How do we live with Jesus? What does Jesus have to say about the way we live today? Is the button right? Is it possible that Jesus might just be interested in ruining your life? Jesus was notorious for being “hard to get.” Even when Jesus lived among us in flesh and blood, a walking, breathing, talking human being, people had a hard time understanding His teachings. If they struggled then, how much will we struggle today, two thousand years later? Is it possible that Jesus really could ruin our lives? Why is He so hard to get? Please pray with me.

Lord Jesus, You know we often struggle to make sense of what You do and who You are. Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, You go and surprise us again. You shake up our lives and leave us wondering if we’ll ever figure it out. Today, in this Advent season, as we prepare for Your return to make all things new, we invite you: come into our lives. Ruin our lives if You must, but above all, help us understand and trust in You above all else. You are truly hard to get, Lord – help us “get” you aright today. Amen

Every year around this time I start to feel a giant gap between myself and the rest of the world. Sometimes it comes early in December, sometimes later. This year, it came yesterday morning. Kristin and I had stopped at the Target store in Ames to pick up a couple of Christmas presents for our nephew, and I just got overwhelmed. Aisle upon aisle of children’s toys pressed in on me, all brand-named and shiny and ready to be taken home to children who are growing up in the lap of a luxury the world has never known before. I actually felt my throat closing up and my breath coming harder while I tried to figure out what a special on Bob the Builder toys has to do with the birth of God’s child. Two aisles over a young girl started crying because she wanted “that one, Mommy, I want that one!” I just felt disgusted with myself for being there and with all of us for thinking that Mattel or Hasbro could ever help us celebrate the wondrous birth of the Son of the Creator of all that was and is and is to come.

When this happens (and it happens every year), I always try to get away from the noise and bustle and ponder what Jesus thinks about what’s going on. Is He, like me, disgusted at the commercialism that gets unfairly hung upon His name? Is He, unlike me, delighted that parents take the time to try to love their children deeply this time of year? Is Jesus, like me, overjoyed when people take time to give of themselves to those who are less fortunate? When we spend far more time celebrating the birth of a child than we do living as that child taught us to live, what does that child, now ascended to His place of honor beside his father, think of us and the way we live?

Do you ever feel the same way? Do the words and teachings of Jesus sometimes collide with the way you live and the way you think and the way you believe? Do you find yourself and your assumptions about what it means to be a Christian challenged by Jesus Himself? If you do, then take heart – you’re not alone. Jesus has been bothering God’s children from the start, and it seems that after two thousand years He’s still at it.

Our gospel reading for today gives me great hope for those days when Jesus seems most interested in ruining my life. Word of what Jesus was teaching and doing had reached John in prison, and John was bothered by it. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, herald of the Messiah, the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”, was bothered by what he heard about Jesus. He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. Jesus came teaching and preaching about the kingdom of heaven, and it bothered John so much that he sent a message to Jesus: “Umm, did I get this wrong? Are you the guy, or is there someone else I should be heralding?”

Do you, like me, breathe a huge sigh of relief when you hear John ask that question? If John couldn’t understand what Jesus was up to, is there any reason to think that you and I will always get it? I don’t think so. In fact, I think Jesus purposely finds ways to surprise, shock and confound us, to keep us guessing, to keep us firmly grounded in faith and not in expectation, assumption or, dare I say it, condescension. Jesus plays hard to get so that you and I will have to trust that God really is in charge of the insanity that we call life. Jesus plays hard to get so that you and I will never forget that all our plans and all our hopes and all our fears and all our dreams mean nothing if they are not centered on and grounded in a living faith in the One who made us to plan and hope and fear and dream. Jesus plays hard to get so that you and I will stop trying to tell Him what is good and righteous and pure – so that you and I will start looking to Him to discover what is good and righteous and pure.

“Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” There is so much of our existence in that question:

  • “Jesus, I was told to expect a Savior, but I didn’t expect Him to look and talk and act like You. Are You really Him?”
  • “Jesus, I was thinking that the Messiah would be more interested in helping me out. Now You’re telling me to be interested in helping others out. Are You really Him?
  • “Jesus, I wanted to find a church that would never change, where I’d always be the same person and everyone knew how to act. Now You’re telling me that a true church changes people, that no one can ever be the same, and we won’t always know how to act. Are You really Him?”
  • “Jesus, all I want is to be told I’m a good person so I can go back to living the way I want to live. Now You’re telling me that I’m a sinner, that I can never go back to living the way I wanted to live if I want to follow You. Are you really Him?”

There comes a time for all of us when we have to ask John’s question for ourselves if we are going to continue in the way of following Christ. When faith becomes more than just words on Sunday morning, but the sort of thing that keeps popping up where you least expect it, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When grace and mercy keep invading your anger and all the grudges you’ve held for so long, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When you begin to question every assumption you’ve ever held and every prejudice you’ve ever carefully maintained, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When your church becomes a place that feels scary and frightening because it’s not the same old boring songs and readings every week, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When you feel like screaming because you know that God is up to something in your life, but you can’t figure out what it is and it’s driving you nuts, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. He does it because it’s the only way we come to faith – being led down the path to the point where all of our attempts to get to God perish and we allow God to come to us in mercy and forgiveness and love. As Rich sang in the song we just heard, “I can’t see how You’re leading me, unless you’ve led me here / to where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”

Jesus knows He’s playing hard to get: He’s doing it for us, not against us. The kingdom of heaven is filled with those who’ve found Jesus hard to get and have had to simply learn to trust that God is indeed involved, in charge and in control of the world that seems so wildly out of control, rebellious and distant from God’s presence. Here we are today, sinners who find Jesus hard to get, and yet we must have gotten Him sometime, because we keep coming back for more, even when we don’t get it. Through the words of Isaiah, God has promised that the days will come when we’ll all “get it:”

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isaiah 35.5-10

Take heart, friends, for the One who is playing hard to get IS the One who is to come: we have no need to wait for another. Take no offense at Him, for where we are blind He shall restore our sight; where we are lame, we shall walk; where we are impure, we shall be cleansed; where we are deaf, we shall hear; when we are dead, we shall be raised, and when we struggle under sorrow and fear, we shall receive good news. Here is the place where you can be led by Jesus into the world around you, and have no fear: in Jesus, God is with you, the one who breaks the darkness and will lead you and all God’s children into the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

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