University Congregational Church
Dec. 18, 2016
“Advent Inverted – Love in the Ruins”
Madeline L’Engel wrote, “He did not wait till the world was ready, till men and nations were at peace. He came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain, He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!”
Today is the last Sunday for Advent Inverted series, in which we have contrasted the themes of Advent with the current climate of issues in our world…
• Hope for the Immigrant
• Peace for nations constantly at war
• Joy for those who suffer with depression or mental illness
And today’s word is Love. I want to juxtapose it with the fear that seems to permeate our lives. I don’t want to add to your worries and fears by listing these things, but we are bombarded each day by things that are intended to make us worry. They may be true, but fear seldom brings constructive action.
People were drawn to Jesus because he loved and valued them. They did not succumb to fear because he drew the best out of them. People were drawn to the early church because of the inclusion and joy the first followers of Jesus offered. Although they could have focused on fear – including martyrdom – their focus was on the message to love one another. When we center on love, people are drawn to us also.
Wendell Berry wrote in Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
That really speaks to me. The fact is that climate change is seriously damaging the polar bears and the ice caps. I have a tendency to mourn this fact and worry that my children’s children and their children won’t be able to experience the earth and its creatures that I know. “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
The fact is that my beloved dog is sick. She has some auto-immune disease. Although she doesn’t know it, she is just a mutt – a rescue dog from the Humane Society. If she doesn’t respond to the latest medications, we may have to make a decision about how much money is reasonable to spend on her care and how much quality of life she has. “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
The fact is that I love several people who have serious cancer diagnosis. My close friend who is a minister has been fighting for his life at St. Francis for months. He desperately wants to be well enough to preach on Christmas Sunday. It will take a miracle. His chances are slim for preaching next week; and his chances of surviving are startlingly low. I visit a thin version of the ornery character I have been colleagues with for two decades. He lays in the bed in fetal position shivering. A few weeks ago, we planned his funeral. “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
The state of our state budget; the cuts to education; the cabinet appointees; school shootings; Aleppo… I get discouraged. “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
I identify with the darkness of Advent. Many of you have commented in a variety of ways that you are dealing with the heavy drain of problems weighing on you. Advent is just the season for each of us!
Matthew’s Gospel starts with a long list of begats. “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar… and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth… and David the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah… all the way to Joseph the husband of Mary, or whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
Many of the names in this genealogy are names that we recognize. All those listed in Matthew’s Gospel were sinners, and some were just plain skunks!
• Abraham and Sarah gave up on God’s promise and took matters into their own hands. Abraham impregnated his Egyptian slave woman in order to have a son and passed off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.
• There are four women in Matthew’s genealogy. This is indeed a rare thing, especially for a Jewish genealogy. These women would not generally be regarded as the noblest women of the Old Testament. Two of them were prostitutes. Three of them were Gentiles by birth – not Jewish. The fourth – Bathsheba – was married to a Gentile and then he was murdered in order for King David to marry Bathsheba himself. All four of these women were unlikely role models for ancestors of the promised Messiah.
• In contrast, the women who were NOT listed were model matriarchs of Jewish history – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. They were the wives, respectively, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These four women are conspicuous by their absence here. Their husbands are all here, and so there was opportunity for Matthew to include the good wives. But Matthew gives the church four new matriarchs – non Jews, foreigners, and ones around whom rather unsavory stories were told.
What does this genealogy have to do with love? I know when I was a teen and young adult, the reading of this text put me to sleep! I thought it was boring and rather unimportant. But this text – thought by many to be dry and lifeless – offers an insight of what God is up to in the world.
The names of prominence in this list had very public failures, recorded in the Hebrew Bible for hundreds of generations to see. Their lives were public disgrace to their contemporaries in many cases. By listing this genealogy, Matthew reminds us that God’s commitment to bring heaven to Earth is relentless.
1. If God can bring a nation from old Abraham, who cheated on his wife and gave up on God – God can bring hope from despair.
2. If God can bring a Messiah from slaves, prostitutes and foreigners – God can bring peace in the midst of warring nations.
3. If God can restore a nation after generations of Babylonian exile – God can bring joy to every circumstance.
4. If God can send God’s own self into the world to redeem the lost and forsaken – God can save the world with love.
5. If these people made it possible for God to come into the world – God can use us! We can be the Messengers – the children of God – the Love of God made visible.
I have never believed that the opposite of love was hate. I believe that the opposite of love is fear. When we allow fear to paralyze us, our capacity for love is stymied. When we let fear take over our lives and our thoughts, we cannot be creative or generous with love. But love can overcome all things.
To paraphrase Wendell Berry, “Be loving though you have considered all the facts.” When we are without answers and frustrated beyond belief, our default as followers of Christ is always love. But make no mistake: this is not smultzy, rose colored glasses love. This is stare the problem in the face and bring out love until love is all there is. This is never-gives-up love.
This is the old woman, bent with arthritis and in pain every day, but gets up to serve the homeless, kind of love.
This is the Santa who is asked to hold an unknown child living with cancer on his lap until he breathes his last, kind of love.
This is the father who lists his children to receive gifts of food and clothing for the charitable agency, but does not ask for one thing himself – even a warm coat or a hot bowl of soup – kind of love.
This is the dogged lobbyist who serves diligently through the legislative session, knowing there is little hope for his cause – but never gives in kind of love.
Neal Maxwell said that “each of us is an Innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.” We make this decision every day. Not just on Christmas and New Years. Not just in the winter of life. Every day. Is there room in the ruins for love?
I end the way I started, with Madeline L’Engel’s words, “He did not wait till the world was ready, till men and nations were at peace. He came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain, He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!”