12 December 2010

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: "What Do You Expect?"

“He emerged from the metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.” [1] 

The name of the violinist was Joshua Bell.  The violin he played was a 1713 Stradivarius, for which Bell paid a reported $3.5 million.  He played in that subway station for 43 minutes, during which he made $32.17.  Only two or three people stopped to listen for more than a minute, and only one person recognized him as anything more than a particularly talented street musician. 
Can I make a confession to you?  The way things have gone this year, I might have been one of the people who walked right by Mr. Bell.  It’s been that kind of year.  There comes a point when you just don’t know what God is up to, and how you fit into it all, and you hunker down and keep your hopes low so that you won’t be too terribly hurt by the next bit of bad news coming down the chute.  Life begins to grind you up until you’re just glad to have gotten through another day without too much bad news.  Instead of hoping for things to change, you begin to be scared of what might change, because it’s easier to stay in survivable apathy than to be betrayed by change that always hangs tantalizingly out of reach.
Do you feel like this sometimes?  More worried about your life than confident God is at work in the midst of it?  If so, now’s the time to stop and listen, because change is coming.  If not, now’s the time to stop and listen, because change is coming.  Whether you’re riding high or crawling low, this too shall pass – the question is, can you get outside your expectations enough to see God’s presence and know you are standing on holy ground?
Mary Hinkle Shore once wrote, “My crowd's problem is not that we, like John, think the Messiah will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Our problem is that we do not expect much of anything to change with the Messiah's advent. It is not that we think he will be vindictive and we are just too gleeful about that—or at least it is not usually that. Instead, our problem is that we think the best the Messiah can do is take the edge off. Jesus says to John's messengers, "Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." Instead of hoping for, watching, expecting such things as these, we look for a little analgesic. Jesus, could we just have something for the pain?” [2] 
I imagine this is why it was so hard for people to hear John the Baptist preach.  John wasn’t interested in just helping people get through the day.  John had no truck with people who fought change because “it’s always been this way.”  John preached that the Messiah was coming, the one who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire, the one who would gather all the grain into the grain bin and burn up all the chaff.  John preached change.  John preached power.  John preached holiness.  John preached hope to a people who had lived with unfulfilled hopes for almost a thousand years.  Yet even John, with all his certainty and passion, all his wildness and prophetic preaching, questioned whether or not Jesus was really the Messiah, God’s promised Son.  Jesus didn’t fulfill John’s expectations – and should we be so surprised, then, to realize that sometimes we might not see Jesus at work either? 
Rich Mullins wrote a song titled “Hard to Get.”  The last verse ends, “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 way, and you are just plain hard to get.” 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.
Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  It doesn’t matter how, when or where Jesus comes:  what matters is that we have eyes to see it and hearts to believe.  Hear again the promise God makes to all of us, from the mouth of one who needs to believe it so badly:  God is here, among you, for you, in Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit within you all will keep you in Jesus, now and forever.  This is Advent, the coming of the Lord, and we rejoice in song and praise.  Amen.

The beginning of this sermon is indebted to Luther Seminary professor David Lose's article, "Do You See What I See?" at WorkingPreacher.org  Many thanks to Drs. Lose, Skinner, Lewis, Jacobson and all the others for the magnificent work they do on behalf of we who preach.  

[1] “Pearls Before Breakfast”  Gene Weingarten, Washington Post, 8 April 2007. http://wapo.st/AmzU
[2] http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/12/are_you_the_one.html

1 comment:

  1. Thank you really needed to read this today, we serve an awesome God