Moments and Memories (Advent 2003) (12/7/03)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
We have entered the church season of Advent. That word—Advent—is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” Ever since the 6th century, Advent has been observed by the church in the month leading up to Christmas. It is a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth; a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus into the world.
The figure normally associated with Advent is John the Baptist. And my ministerial friends will give me all sorts of grief, and accuse me of being entirely unfit for my call, if they learn I will not be talking about John the Baptist this year. But here’s the thing: this is a strange sort of Advent season for us here at UCC. There are only three Sundays in December before Christmas, so the third Sunday will be the Christmas sermon. The second Sunday—next week—will be the choir’s collaboration with some great musicians—mostly from the Wichita Symphony—as they perform the Many Moods of Christmas.
So today is our one and only Advent sermon, and quite honestly, I’m just not in the mood for John the Baptist this year. A small dose of John the Baptist goes a long way, with his camel hair clothes, leather belt, meals of wild locusts; not to mention those threatening words, like his, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? and his [The coming Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and] the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
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I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t’ exactly make me want to start singing Christmas carols. And don’t get me wrong—there is definitely a place for John the Baptist in our theology. The life and teachings of the one whose coming he predicted certainly do separate the wheat from the chaff. But I’m going to go with the assumption that all present fall into the wheat category; that we are aware of John’s warning that every tree that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire; and opt to prepare our hearts for Christmas with a more positive message.
While those of us in the Protestant church are careful to make sermon time for John the Baptist, there is another central figure in this drama that we tend to shortchange: Mary. We’ve heard the story so many times we don’t give it any thought. The virgin is told by the angel Gabriel that she is soon to become miraculously pregnant, and from her womb will come the world’s savior.
Let’s bring the story down to earth. Everybody here knows girls who are about the age Mary was when this event is said to have taken place—probably 14, maybe 15. So just for the moment, picture some girl from Wichita of that age—perhaps your daughter or granddaughter, perhaps a niece or just a friend—and imagine the following scene. She comes to you over breakfast one morning and says, “Something really strange happened last night.”
“Oh really?” you say, assuming she had a nightmare after watching some freak show on MTV.
And she says, “I had a visit from the angel Gabriel.”
Okay, you’ve been concerned that she might fall into the wrong crowd and start smoking something she shouldn’t, but you keep you cool. She’s always been a really good girl. So you just sort of smile and decide to hear her out.
She says, “He told me I was going to have a baby.”
Okay, it’s time to panic. Seriously! When this 14 year old daughter/granddaughter/niece/friend mentions the fact that she is evidently pregnant, you sort of gloss over the “angel of God” part of her story. Just before you fall into catatonic shock, you say, “Who’s the father?”
And she says, “Well, it is God’s son. His father is the Holy Spirit.”
And you envision two possibilities: one, she is lying; or two, she will be giving birth in a mental institution. Most likely, you would think she is lying. You would not believe her. Nobody would believe her—and she knows it. I can’t really imagine what this would be like, for the teenager or for you, to whom she tells this story with great conviction. It sounds entirely absurd.
But what if it were true? What if this young girl from Wichita was relating something to you that really happened? How would she feel? Is she strong enough to take the shame, the ridicule, the lack of trust and belief that would surely follow?
Oh, as for Mary, I know what most scholars say about this story as we find it in Luke’s gospel—that it is more the product of Luke’s imagination and first century myths than it is of historical fact. But the more I learn, the more I become convinced that a story’s power does not always depend on whether or not it happened exactly as it is told. And the more I see of this world, the more I become convinced that it is not our place to decide what God is and what God is not capable of doing. So let’s just take the story at face value.
You know, as tough as this would be on a modern teenage girl, it would have been much worse in Mary’s time. Mary was engaged, and she became pregnant. And the father was not the man to whom she was engaged. The penalty for this was simple. According to the law, she would be taken outside the city and stoned to death. Really. That’s the way it worked in the first century Middle East.
But here is the most powerful part of the story, in my opinion. Mary, knowing full well what her likely fate will be when she becomes pregnant in such a situation, says these words: Here I am, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
She unconditionally surrenders to God. She might not have had a choice—this is God we’re talking about here. But there is no indication that she even puts up an argument with the angel Gabriel. Once she comes to believe that this really is an angel of God; and after a brief protest in which she reminds the angel that she is a virgin, and he convinces her that God can overcome that minor obstacle; she surrenders without a fight.
We owe a fair bit to Mary, to say the least, especially during the season of Advent. I mean, without Mary we would have no Jesus; without Jesus we would have no Christmas; and without Christmas there would be no reason for Advent. What would we be preparing our hearts for?
But then again, that’s the question, isn’t it! What are we preparing our hearts for? Had you asked me that question when I was a young child, I would have explained to you with great honesty that I was preparing my heart for all those packages that would be appearing under the Christmas tree on December 25th. And I think that’s the way it is with most children. Especially in those magic days when the arrival of Santa is foremost on their minds, the heart of a child awaiting Christmas is something wonderful. And that child’s heart is well-prepared for Christmas morning.
Of course, Jesus is there. But he’s in the background just a bit. Jesus doesn’t insist on being the center of attention. And even though a child’s thoughts are centered on music and lights and gift-wrapped boxes much more than the story of Jesus’ birth, Jesus is still very much present—present in the music; present in the holiday laughter; present in the wide-eyed wonder of delighted children whose imaginations have yet to be choked off by a world that demands reason, and practicality.
As we get a bit older, the focus shifts. And we still like the gifts—there’s no doubt about that. As adults, we always act as nonchalant as possible on Christmas morning. The children or grandchildren are joyfully tearing open their packages, and we only have a couple under the tree with our names on them. In the weeks before Christmas, we might receive a package or two from some distant aunt or uncle, and we put them under the tree, so we’ll have something there with our name on it. After all, this year, we decided to wallpaper the bedroom as our Christmas gift to each other. Heck, we have everything we need. Why waste the money on something as frivolous as Christmas gifts?
And on Christmas morning, we don’t open our gifts right away. We pretend it’s because we’re above it all, and we really don’t care about gifts. But the fact is, there is still a little child in us who knows that once we open the one or two packages with our name on them, it’s all over. And we want so badly to recapture the magic that we see in the faces of the children; the magic that was our own—not really so long ago
And when we open our gifts, there is something deep inside of us that wants to find something amazing in there. Like the time as a child when we thought some box under the tree contained socks and underwear, and it turned out to be a Spymaster 5000 Self-Propelled Decoding Rocket Launcher. (Just like the one on TV.)
Fortunately, as adults, we’ve learned to prepare our hearts for more important things than gifts. And it’s a good thing, especially when we discover Aunt Hilda has sent us yet another pair of her famous homemade potholders, and Uncle Rufus came through with a key ring—four years in a row!
Often, as adults, we prepare our hearts for gatherings of family and friends—the people we love. And we prepare our hearts for the memories of those with whom we can no longer share this time of year—those who have passed beyond our reach. And that puts things in perspective. I would trade every gift I’ve ever received for five minutes of sitting across the holiday table from my dad, who died when he was about the age I am now.
People—that’s what it’s all about when we get older. I would even trade my memories of that Spymaster 5000 Self-Propelled Decoding Rocket Launcher just to have Aunt Hilda, who is still very much alive, deliver those potholders in person this year. But she’s too old to travel.
Jesus is still present in the season, though. When we sit around the table and look into the eyes of the people we love…I don’t know where Jesus is more present than that. Jesus said that wherever people are gathered in his name, he would be there with them. And I don’t know how to gather more sincerely in Jesus’ name than to gather with the love we feel towards one another at Christmas.
So those are two of the things people prepare their hearts for at this time of year—gifts and the people we love. If I was in a cynical mood, I would say that there are a fair number of us who, pragmatists that we are, prepare our hearts for the influx of credit card debt that will haunt us in the months following Christmas. But I’m not going there this morning. Advent should be a joyous time, a time of preparation, anticipation, and hope.
Surely that young teenager, Mary, had hope; hope that people would believe her unbelievable story; hope that her parents would try to understand, and would still love her; hope that the people of Nazareth would not kill her, as the law demanded.
Hope. When the Apostle Paul said that faith, hope and love are the most important parts of life, I believe he was right on target. I can say with complete honesty that if any of those three things were to become permanently absent from my life, I would not want to go on living. Faith, hope, and love: they are each that important.
Advent, it seems, is built on hope. Advent is all about waiting, preparing, anticipating…and these things always contain an element of hope. But we should beware of spending so much time and energy looking to the future—looking toward Christmas—that we miss Advent altogether. Advent is a microcosm of life, in a way. We’re always looking forward, imagining the future, confident it’s going to be great, we can’t wait for it to get here; and then we’re retired and the children are grown. We’re in the week after Christmas looking back, wondering where the time went. In life, in Advent, we forget that in the week after Christmas the presents will have all been opened. We forget that in the week after Christmas, all that will remain of the Christmas feast will be cold leftovers. We forget that in the week after Christmas, our friends and loved ones will have returned to their regular routines.
We’re so forgetful when it comes to the future. We forget that all we will have then are memories. Of course, that’s all we ever have—memories. Think about it. The whole world as we experience it—all of life—is a series of memories. Some of those memories happened years in the past, and some happened only a few seconds ago, but everything we know shares one thing in common—it all lies in the past.
It is all composed of memories. We are our memories.
And here we are together, riding this present moment into an unknown future—a moment that eludes our grasp, and has already turned into a memory. It’s true: we are our memories. Thank God for faith, hope and love. Where would we be without faith, hope and love? They give us enough meaning to live in the moment; and enough courage to face the past and embrace the future.
We should never forget that in every moment of our lives we are creating memories. And while we should look to the future with confidence, and with hope; and while we should prepare our hearts for what lies ahead; we should never let a single moment fly past without filling it with love. Each moment happens only once, and then lives in our memories. We only have one chance to fill that moment with tenderness, peace and love.
We fill the moments of this Advent season by preparing our hearts; but again, the question: What are we preparing our hearts for? Remember, I began the sermon by telling you that the word Advent is derived from the Latin word adventus, which is translated as coming. And we are preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Because that is not something that happened one time, 2000 years ago. It is not something that happened at one moment in time, living now only in memory. Jesus comes into this world every time a person opens his or her heart to the Christian faith. Jesus comes into this world every time one of us reaches out, in his name, to somebody who is hurting, or lost, or hungry. And at this time of year, Jesus comes into this world millions of times, in millions of places, to hearts that are prepared by the Advent season to receive anew that holy child of Mary; to remember the love he gave and the things he taught; and to find peace—real peace—in the embrace of the love with which he cradles us through every moment.