A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sermon (December 2) - "Outside the Box: Opening the Gift of Expectation"

 


     Every year, my brother sends our family Christmas presents through the mail.  And every year, he has the words, “Don’t open until Christmas” printed on each package. 
     He does this because when he first started sending us Christmas packages, we would open them up on the day we received them, even if it was a week or two early.  And it would really bother him when we would break the news to him that we had already opened his gifts before Christmas.  Who doesn’t want Christmas to come a little early? 
     Well, for those of you who don’t like to wait for Christmas, I have some really good news for you!  We get to open up a different Christmas gift each Sunday from this large wrapped Christmas box!  These are Christmas gifts that God wants us to have.  Each week, a child or youth who is involved in our children and youth ministries will open the Christmas box on our behalf.
     For this 1st Sunday, I invite 9:00 am-Paisley Stalder representing our pre-k & & k classes 10:30 am-Ben Schenck representing our “Learning to Use My Bible Class to open the Christmas box.   Today’s Christmas gift is the gift of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary is the right person to symbolize this gift since she received the unexpected and very surprising news that she was with child.
     Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading has this theme of expectation.  It’s the scripture where Jesus is telling his disciples to expect great things to happen.  He tells them to be alert at all times and to know that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The Kingdom of God is just around the corner.  It’s breaking in even as we speak.  Don’t blink because you just might miss it!
     Jesus tells us that the way to receive the gift of expectation is to be alert.  Be ready.  Expect the unexpected.
     About three weeks ago, John Coen, our Director of Creative Ministries sent me an e-mail asking me if I would like to be part of our church float for the holiday parade which was on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  He needed more people so I innocently said, “Sure, I’ll help.”
     Little did I know what I was getting myself into!  A second e-mail informed me that he would have a costume for me to wear.  No problem, right?
 
     So here I am in our holiday parade costume.  Someone said I looked like a frozen Rod Stewart.  My make-up included a lot of sparkles around my eyes.  Do you know how hard it is to get rid of those sparkles?  I had a wedding that day, and the bride and groom chose not to include me in their pictures!
 
     The theme of our float was “Joy to the World” complete with dancers, singers, and people like me who handed out candy and church invitations.  Here’s a picture of Mary and Joseph and the “Joy to the World” singers behind them.  Can you tell which singer is our own Pastor Cheryl?  Thanks to John Coen’s creativity and all of the people who participated, our church float won the Director’s Award.
     The Christmas gift of expectation is the gift that helps us to be more like Mary and to be ready for the unexpected thing that God wants to do through us, even if that means wearing a crazy costume.
     Last spring, Rick Jones who is the pastor at Sixth Avenue United Methodist Church and I drove together to Dayton for a clergy meeting.  And while we were driving, Rick says to me, “What if our United Methodist Churches in town would begin to share in ministry together?”  By the way, whenever somebody begins a conversation with the words, “What if…” that usually means that they have opened up the gift of expectation.
     “What if our churches share in youth ministry, maybe get a men’s ministry started.”  And from there he listed some other examples.
     Long story short, Rick got our pastors together this past summer to continue that “What if” conversation that we had in the car going to Dayton.  That “What if” conversation has led to our several churches working together on several shared ministries.
     Roswell United Methodist Church in Atlanta has opened the Christmas gift of expectation. Twenty years ago, one of their Sunday School classes started a conversation with, “What If.”  From there, they began a ministry for the developmentally disabled.  Let’s watch a video about their ministry.
 
     Opening the Christmas gift of expectation is exciting because when we live out our faith knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand, incredible things happen. Miracles happen.  We are able to reach out to more and more people with the good news of Jesus Christ.
     Mary was the first person to open the Christmas gift of expectation when the angel told her that she was with child of the Holy Spirit.  She knew that the kingdom of God was at hand, even within her own womb!
     I’m also impressed that Mary, as a young teenage woman, was able to persevere through the challenges that came to her as a result of her pregnancy.  Think of the rumors, the gossiping, and the ridicule that she endured as she waited patiently for the birth of her child.  It’s not always easy to open the gift of expectation, is it?
     I want to list four barriers that can keep us from opening the gift of expectation in this Season of Advent. 
     And the first barrier is our pride.  While Mary was planning for her wedding and this exciting transition in her life, God interrupted her plans with this news that she was with child of the Holy Spirit.  Things didn’t go as originally planned by Mary.  Have you ever noticed how God has no problem in messing with our carefully planned out lives?  Christmas is a time to remember that it’s not about us.  It’s about what God wants to do in and through us.
     One of the greatest lines in all of scripture is when Mary responded to the angel by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary didn’t let her pride get in the way of receiving the holy gift of expectation.
     The second barrier is cynicism.  This is when we say negative things like, “It will never work like that for me?”  Or, “It will never work here in our church.”  Or, “God can’t possibly use me to make a difference like that.”  Cynics always find ways to keep the expectations so low that we can’t possibly fail.  But failure isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us.  Not trying and responding to God’s voice is.
     Mary was willing to take some risks in order to respond to God’s calling in her life.
     A third barrier is apathy.  Do you know the difference between ignorance and apathy?  “I don’t know and I don’t care!”
     The opposite of love is not hate.  It’s apathy.  Apathy is when we simply don’t care.  And if we don’t care, then why would we want to open the gift of expectation to include more things that we probably don’t care about? 
     The story of Christmas is a story of God’s tremendous compassion for the world.  God risked everything by sending us Jesus.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” 
     And a fourth barrier is a more subtle barrier and this is the barrier of distraction.  This is when we put off responding to God because we are so caught up in our usual pre-holiday busyness.  The problem is that we never do get around to responding to God’s calling because there’s always another distraction.
     Since the kingdom of God is at hand, we need to set aside any distraction that would keep us from the urgency of this present reality.  This Advent season, think about setting aside the things that on the surface may seem important to do, but in reality, are things that are just keeping us from opening the Christmas gift of expectation.
     Maybe you can think of some other barriers that keep us from opening this incredible gift.  I believe that one of the reasons why Mary didn’t let these barriers get in her way of opening the gift of expectation was something that the angel told her when she found out that she was with child. 
     The angel said to her, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  This Christmas, open the gift of expectation.

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