Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "The Verbs of Christmas," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/18
Luke 2:1-20

The Verbs of Christmas


As I shared in my Christmas letter this year, I recently finished reading Anna Carter Florence’s book Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community. Anna Carter Florence is a professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, and I have had the privilege of hearing her preach and lecture when I’ve attended the Festival of Homiletics, a preaching conference. Two memorable times stick out to me. Once, she designed her preaching and worship around the conference, held in May, as an Easter Morning Service. We started out singing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, and she preached a resurrection sermon. Like most of the other attendees, I’m usually leading worship on Easter Sunday, not attending worship. It’s been 15 years or so since I just attended worship on Easter Morning. I didn’t realize how much I had needed it. I think I cried through the whole service. And this last year she preached on the book of Job, one of the hardest books of the Bible to figure out, and she blew me away, helping me understand the scripture in a way I never had before. I find her preaching to be a balm for my soul. So, when I heard her mention her new book, Rehearsing Scripture, I knew I had to pick it up.
I was so glad I did! I found her work profoundly moving, and I also found it practical, with many concrete suggestions for how we can read scripture together. She takes themes from theatre and acting, something she has experience with in her background, and she applies them to how we read scripture. One of Carter Florence’s first guidelines is to “read the verbs” in a text.  She invites readers of scripture to focus less on the nouns in the text, and more on the verbs, the action of scripture. Focusing on the nouns keeps us separate from the Bible stories, she says, because the nouns can be so unlike ours - confusing names and places and objects. If we focus on the nouns, which are strange to us, it is hard to notice how much we have in common with our biblical forebears. But, our verbs haven’t changed. We share verbs with people in the Bible.
She writes, “We all have verbs - the same ones, actually. You and I share verbs with Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi. We share verbs with Mary and Joseph and Peter and James and John and Martha and Lydia and Paul. We even share verbs with Jesus. That does appear to be the whole point of the Incarnation, doesn’t it? - that God came to share our verbs. The Word became one of us and lived among us. Apparently, even God thought the best way to reach us was to meet us, verb for verb. Meet us and raise us and change the whole game.” (20)  
God came to share our verbs! I’ve certainly never heard the incarnation, God becoming one of us in the birth of Jesus - described quite like that. Carter Florence gives some guidelines for how we read the verbs of scripture. She says that we should note “who gets what verbs”: For example, in Genesis 3, what verbs does God get and what verbs do people get? What verbs does Adam get and what verbs to Eve and snake get? And, we should note in what order the verbs appear, like how in Genesis 1 God says and then right after there is. It gives us a pretty clear sense of our place in the creation. God first, the creator, then us, the creatures. And, we should ask what verbs surprise us and why. Where is there a verb in the text that catches us off guard, catches our attention? (Chapter 3)
What happens when we apply Carter Florence’s questions to our Christmas story? What happens when we focus on the verbs of the nativity story? What does the angel do? What do Mary and Joseph do? What do the shepherds and Magi do? What are their action words? Once we figure that out, we get to the most important questions of all: What is it that God does at Christmas, and what will we do in response? What will our verbs be, because of how God acts in the world and in our hearts?  
So, I did as Carter Florence suggested, and looked over our text from Luke 2 and focused on the verbs, and who gets what verbs, and what order they show up in. When we do that, here’s what we get. Emperor decreed. World registered. All went. Joseph went. He went. Mary was expecting. Time came. Mary gave birth. Mary wrapped the baby. Mary laid the baby in a manger. Shepherds lived. Shepherds kept watch. Angel stood. Glory shone. Shepherds were terrified. Don’t fear! See! Angel brings good news. Shepherds will find. Baby lays in manger. Angels praise. God favors! Angels left, went to heaven. Shepherds said. Shepherds go. Shepherds went with haste. Shepherds found. Baby lays in manger. Shepherds saw. Shepherds made known. All heard. All were amazed. Mary treasured. Mary pondered. Shepherds returned. Shepherds glorified. Shepherds praised because shepherds heard and shepherds saw what angel told. This text really moves when we focus on those verbs, doesn’t it? Let’s take a deeper look.
I notice Mary and Joseph’s verbs. I admire Joseph’s verbs. Joseph went, went, went (and of course Mary with him!) If you’re in worship on Sunday, you’ll hear the scriptures about what happens while Jesus is still a baby, you’ll find that the little holy family has more much travel ahead of them. Joseph does a lot of going where God tells him to go. And Mary gets an impressive set of verbs - Gave birth. Wraps the baby, lays the baby down. Treasures. Ponders. Her verbs succinctly deliver to us the Savior of the World, and in the midst of so much busyness, she just reflects in her soul on all that has happened. I’m not sure I’d have it as together as Mary does. The angels have dramatic verbs. Glory shines near them. They praise. They issue imperatives - verbs that leave no wiggle room - Don’t fear! See! Find!  
But when I’m looking for a set of verbs that we might share more fully in this Christmas story, the shepherds really shine in this text. Depending on how you count, they get almost half of the verbs in this passage. They live. They keep watch. They are afraid. But they will find the baby, the Savior. They talk. They go. They go with haste. They find. They see. They tell. They hear. They are amazed. They return. They give glory. They praise, because they heard, and they saw.
It is their verbs that I connect most to in this story. They’re living. They’re working. That’s just their day to day. Living and working. Can you relate? They’re just doing their everyday thing. But then God speaks, through the angels. As a rule of thumb, when we’re reading the verbs in scripture, God’s speaking should be followed by our acting. And we certainly see that here. The angels speak on God’s behalf to the shepherds, and it prompts their let’s-make-haste reaction. The shepherds are terrified when the angels first appear. As much as we (say we) long for it, sometimes the ways God shows up in our life are terrifying! We didn’t mean like that, God! Maybe just a warm feeling during the Christmas Eve service, not showing up in all your glory sending us on a quest! Disrupting all that living and working we’re used to doing!
But the shepherds move beyond their fear because of the words of God through the agnels. Once the shepherds act, they find that things are just as God through the angels have told them. How do we react when God speaks to us? What has God shown you? What do you do in response?  The shepherds go, and they go with haste. And they find the good news God has told them they will find: a savior, a great joy, a sign of peace for all people. They see it, and they tell how God sent them. And everyone hears and is amazed.
And then, they return, the shepherds, back to their flocks. They haven’t abandoned their lives. They don’t become celebrities. They’re still shepherds. They return, though, praising and thanking and glorifying God for what they’ve experienced. I wonder: How do you think their lives might have changed? They’re still shepherds, but maybe they think differently about what that means. Maybe they think differently about how God works in the world. Maybe their faith is forever strengthened because God spoke to them, and they went and saw. Maybe they understood for the first time that God wasn’t just for the priests and the scholars and the religious authorities. God was for them! Maybe what they heard and saw and did gave them to courage to hear even more from God, see even more of God at work in the world, and do even more in response to God’s amazing gift in the Christ-child. What will their next verbs be? We don’t know, but I bet they get some new ones, after God changes the world like this.  
How about you? When you return from your visit to the Christ-child this Christmas, what will your verbs be? Hopefully, we can start by sharing some verbs with the shepherds. We praise. We glorify, because Christ is born and God is with us. God speaks and we act. What will we do because of what we have heard and seen? What will your new verbs be? Amen.  

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: Aslan Is on the Move," Micah 3:1-7, Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Sermon 12/23/18
Micah 3:1-7, Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Advent in Narnia: Aslan Is on the Move


When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie first meet Mr. Beaver in Narnia, he says to them nearly right away, “They say Aslan is on the move - perhaps has already landed.” Aslan is the great lion, the true King of Narnia, the Christ figure of the series. But up until this point, none of the children have ever heard this name mentioned. Mr. Tumnus hadn’t mentioned Aslan to Lucy, and the White Witch certainly did not mention Aslan to Edmund. So at first, the children only have this name that Mr. Beaver speaks to them, as he indicates he wants to take them to see Aslan soon.
Each child reacts differently to hearing the name of Aslan. The narrator describes it to us: “Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it has some enormous meaning - either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt the sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.” (64-65)
Mr. Beaver can’t tell the children more about Aslan though until they are safely at his home. The children are eager to hear about him. As soon as they start back into the conversation about him, they have that same feeling they did on first hearing his name, “like the first signs of spring, like good news” had come over them. (74) Mr. Beaver can’t believe they don’t know who Aslan is.
“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand … But word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus.” When Edmund suggests that the White Witch might turn Aslan into stone, Mr. Beaver laughs. “Turn him into stone? If she can stand on her two feet and look him in the face it’ll be the most she can do and more than I expect of her. No, no: He’ll put all to rights as it says in an old rhyme … ‘Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight. At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.’” (74-75)
Finally, Lucy asks a critical question. “Is - is he a man?” Again, Mr. Beaver is amazed by how little the children know. “Aslan a man! Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beast? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion.”
Susan feels afraid at the thought of meeting a lion. “Is he - quite safe?” she wonders. Mrs. Beaver responds that feeling nervous is only sensible. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” (75-76)
“Then he isn’t safe?” Lucy asks. “Safe?” says Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Despite all that’s been said, Peter says that he still longs to meet Aslan, even if he is afraid. And with that, they begin planning to get the children to meet Aslan.
In this season of Advent, we are longing to meet the Christ-child. We’ve been preparing and planning and awaiting his arrival. What are we picturing, when we imagine Jesus coming into our world yet again this season? The children don’t seem, at first, to have a good sense of who Aslan is. They can’t imagine him, meeting this lion, this king, this one the Beavers won’t even declare to be safe. Even so, they long to meet him. When we turn to the scriptures for descriptions of the Messiah we’re longing to meet, how is he described? How do the images the authors of our texts conjure match with the vision of Jesus we have in our minds?
Our first reading is from the book of Malachi, one of the prophets. Malachi wasn’t necessarily a name, though, an individual. Malachi means “the messenger in Hebrew. So it could be a name, or it could be a title Either way, Malachi delivers a message. Malachi was most likely written sometime after the Israelites had returned from exile, and were again living in the land. The temple had been rebuilt. The covenant restored. People were feeling pretty good. But Malachi has noticed that some of the Israelites - some of the religious leaders in particular - are starting to get lax in their behavior. They’re doing some of the same things that the people were doing that led to the conquering and exile of Israel in the first place.
Malachi writes as a corrective warning: “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight - indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” The one who is coming, Malachi says, is like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap, both things that are meant to cleanse something of impurities. The one who is coming will swiftly judge those who go against the ways of God, against those who oppress others. “Return to me,” we hear, “and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
In our gospel readings from Luke, we find Mary hearing about the coming of the Christ-child, and the role she will play - she will carry him in her own womb. Mary, certainly, gets some ideas about who this Christ-child will be, what he will be like, what he will become. What does she say about him?  In the first part of the text, Gabriel arrives with a message for Mary, and we get a description of Jesus: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Whoa! Despite this enormous announcement - Hey, young, single, peasant woman: You are going to give birth to a King, the Son of God in fact. And he’s going to reign forever! - Mary has just one question - how? Gabriel explains that she’ll conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that nothing is impossible with God. And Mary is apparently satisfied. She says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary does not seem stunned by God’s actions in her. She’s only “perplexed,” which seems a pretty mild description, and even that only when Gabriel first greets her. On the contrary, she seems to find God’s actions just right. When she later spends time with her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with who we call John the Baptist, Mary has a clear vision of who God is and how God is working through this child she carries to shake up the whole world. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings. “God has looked on my lowliness with favor. Surely, people will forever think of me as blessed, because God has done great things for me. God has shown strength, God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel. God is mercy, fulfilling the promises made to Abraham and the descendants of Abraham.”
Like the children listening to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver for their descriptions of Aslan, we’ve heard some descriptions of this Christ-child we’ve been longing to see. Are we still eager to meet him? As we come to the end of this season of Advent, I hope we can pause now, one last time, and make sure we understand who exactly this Christ-child is. It is pretty easy to get excited about a baby soon-to-be born. And I love the sweet images of Mary holding a newborn Jesus, of the little family, of God being born as one of us, like us, humble and dependent just as we are. But we can’t forget why Jesus is born, and we can’t forget who he grows up to be, and what we says and does. We can’t even forget why and how he died. And thankfully, we can’t forget that he lives, that we follow a resurrected savior. Even as Mary treasures and ponders at Jesus’ birth, we see already from the words of her song, what we call the Magnificat, that Mary knows, understands, even if in part, who her child is.
Sometimes, when we hear a powerful message that convicts our hearts, where we know if we really let the message seep in we’ll have to make changes, our strategy seems to be finding anyway we can to dull the impact of the message. I think, for example, of how Dr. Martin Luther King’s words have been used in commercials for soft drinks and expensive cars, something hard to imagine him supporting, or even how we tend to only read and listen to some of his speeches, not the ones that were calling out capitalism and militarism. I think we can do this with the message of Jesus, too, with the work and words of God, when we water down the power of God’s message to us because we’re secretly - or not so secretly - worried about how significantly God will call us to transform our lives. And so sometimes we can welcome the baby Jesus, tender and mild, and be trying hard not to think about the stuff he will say, calling us to repentance, calling us to take up crosses, calling us to leave everything to follow him. But Jesus the Christ-Child and Jesus who asks for our everything are one and the same!   
The Pevensie children are longing to meet Aslan. But they’re also hoping that Aslan is safe. Tame. Human, at least! Aslan is none of those things. Aslan is a lion. Aslan is Ruler of all of Narnia. Aslan isn’t safe, but he’s good. And Aslan is on the move, ready to turn things upside down in Narnia. We are longing to meet Jesus again. And we will! Soon! But friends, though Jesus is one of us, he’s also God-made flesh. He is the Ruler of everything that is. He isn’t safe. He doesn’t call us to paths that are always safe and easy. But he is good. And he is on the move, ready to turn the world upside down again. Let this be the Christ we are longing to welcome. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: Father Christmas," 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, Ephesians 6:10-20

Sermon 12/16/18
1 Corinthians 12:4-7, Ephesians 6:10-20

Advent in Narnia: Father Christmas

Did you make a Christmas wish list as a child? Do you still? Maybe you made a list to give to Santa. I know my mom always requested a list from me, to get ideas, and I loved going to the big Christmas catalogs from Sears and JCPenney and picking out some of the things I’d like to get, imagining opening all those presents on Christmas morning.
These days, my family exchanges Amazon Wish Lists. Sometime in November I send an email around with a link to everybody’s wish list page on Amazon. It’s just so easy, since Amazon has taken over the world and everything. I use my list all year as a sort of bookmark. If I come across a review for a good book I want to read, I just toss it on my list, and then, when I have a little extra money, I shop for myself. At Christmas, it is just as simple as inviting others to shop for me too off of my well-prepared, up-to-date list.
These days, I find myself doing very little Christmas shopping that requires me going to a physical store. I can just pop online and click through the Wish Lists, and before you know it, I have packages showing up at my door, ready to give. I like knowing that people will for sure like what I’m giving them. It was on their list, after all! I certainly like receiving things I’ve asked for, things that were on my list. But there’s something uniquely special, I think, about finding just the right gift for a person, a gift that didn’t come from any wish list.  Maybe something they mentioned in passing, but you remember because you are a good listener, and you pay attention to the things someone says they like. Or maybe something you choose because you just really know someone, and you know they’ll like it, even though they’d never thought of it before. You know them, and you know what will suit them, more even than they might. My mother is the least likely in my family to shop of the Amazon lists. She certainly uses them some, but she’s the most likely to just buy what she thinks her kids would like. Sometimes she gets apologetic about this, about going her own way and not sticking to the list. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Our mother knows us pretty well! And she knows what we might use, what we might love, even when we haven’t thought of it yet.
This week as we head to Narnia again, we find the Pevensie children getting some gifts during a visit from Father Christmas. Well, most of the children anyway. Remember, last week we talked about Edmund, the second youngest of his siblings Peter, Susan, and Lucy. Edmund met the White Witch in Narnia before he met anyone else, and swayed by her promises of endless Turkish Delight and positions of power, Edmund was anxious to get to her home once he returned to Narnia. When he and his siblings finally are all together in Narnia at once, they first end up at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. There, the children first hear about Aslan, the lion, the true rule of Narnia, the Christ-figure of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And there, uncomfortable by this talk of Aslan, just as his siblings are filled with joy as the hear about Aslan, Edmund slips out to find his way back to the White Witch.
Once the beavers and Edmund’s siblings realize Edmund has gone to the White Witch, they pack up with haste and leave to try to meet Aslan before the White Witch can come and capture them. She’s anxious to keep the four children from fulfilling a prophecy that would spell the end of her rule in Narnia. As the kids and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver try to go as quickly as they can, eventually they hear the sound of jingling bells. They’re sure they’ve been found, and that the bells mean the Witch’s sleigh has caught up with them. Instead, they see something that fills Mr. Beaver with delight - “Come and see,” he says, dancing with delight. “This is a nasty knock for the Witch! It looks as if her power is already crumbling.” (102)
There is indeed  sleigh and reindeer. But on the sleigh sits not the White Witch but “a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him.” He was a huge man with a robe bright red like holly-berries. He has a great white beard that fell over his chest. And the narrator tells us, “Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world - the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia, it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But … the children … didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.” (102-103)
Father Christmas confirms that the Witch’s magic is weakening, enabling him to visit Narnia again at last. “Aslan is on the move,” he says, and Lucy feels a shiver of gladness run through her which “you only get if you are being solemn and still.” And then Father Christmas proceeds to do what he does best - he gives out presents. To the beavers he gives some practical gifts - a new sewing machine for Mrs. Beaver, and a repaired and mended dam for Mr. Beaver. And to the children, he gives some special gifts too. He says, “These are your presents, and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.” To Peter, he gives a shield and sword, the shield emblazoned with the symbol of Aslan. Peter, we read, is “silent and solemn as he received these gifts for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.” Susan receives a bow and a quiver of arrows, and a horn, which Father Christmas promises will summon help of some kind whenever she sounds it. Lucy is given a glass bottle filled with  cordial made from the juice of fire-flowers that grow on the mountains of the sun. A few drops will heal and restore someone who is hurt. She is also given a dagger, to defend herself in times of great need. With that, Father Christmas says, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and disappears again as quickly as he had arrived. (104-105)
The gifts the children receive remind me of the passage that we shared today from the letter to the Ephesians. The author of the letter is encouraging the Ephesians to stay strong, supported by God’s power. We’re told to “put on the whole armor of God” so that we might resist evil. Our struggle isn’t against “enemies of blood and flesh,” but against the cosmic powers of “this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” When we celebrate a baptism, or someone becoming a member of the church, the very first vow we ask folks to make is that they will renounce, reject the spiritual forces of wickedness. The author here says to do this, we have to take up the whole armor of God, so that we can stand firm. We need the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, any shoes that make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Are those gifts that are on your Christmas list? Peter and Susan and Lucy certainly never imagined themselves needing gifts that would prepare them for a great battle between good and evil. But when Father Christmas gave them those gifts, they knew that they were receiving something special. They knew to treasure and value and most importantly learn to use what they’d be given.
Our other reading today is a short section from First Corinthians. I encourage you to read this whole chapter - there’s a lot about the kind of gifts God gives us here. We’ve talked before about how God gives us gifts that help us build up the body of Christ. That’s what this short passage emphasizes. We’re all given different gifts - but they come from the same source - the Spirit of God. And, the gifts are meant “for the common good.” If our gift is from God, and we’re using our gift how God intends, we’re doing something that’s meant not just for our own good, but for the good of all of us.
What are the gifts that God has given you? It strikes me that Edmund doesn’t receive a gift from Father Christmas, at least not in this story. He’s not there. He’s busy chasing down Turkish Delight, and so he misses the visit from Father Christmas. I don’t think we can miss getting gifts from God - we all are gifted by God who loves to give. But I think we can miss opportunities to learn about our gifts, to develop our gifts, to use our gifts to their full potential when we’re too busy focusing on what’s good for us only to notice what God is up to. Has there been a time when you missed using God’s gift to you? A time when you were so busy taking care of you that you didn’t see how God had equipped you to love and serve others?  
Father Christmas says the gifts he gives Peter and Susan and Lucy are tools, not toys. He wants them to know that they have some serious things to face, and using what they’ve been given will help them face what’s coming. I’m wondering - when have you seen what you’ve been given, and valued it as less useful than God has meant it to be? We have a tendency to belittle ourselves and belittle what God has given us. I don’t think we mean to. But since we don’t see ourselves the way God sees us, love ourselves the way God loves us, we sometimes don’t take the gifts God gives us very seriously. God’s gifts to you are tools, meant to help in sharing the love of God, the message of God’s grace with the world. God’s gifts help you nurture and grow your faith. Tools, not toys. Will you remember?
My favorite part of this scene from Narnia is how the children know intuitively that this giving of gifts calls for some solemnity, some stillness. And yet, it is also a joyful moment. Lucy feels that gladness in her heart that you can experience when you are still enough, when you are aware enough of the sacred in your midst to fully and deeply appreciate that God is at work right in front of you, right within you. We talked about when we experience these moments of solemn, still joy at our Advent study this week. We talked about a child looking with wonder at the lighted Christmas tree. I talked about the feeling I get while officiating a wedding ceremony, or while speaking the words of baptism and sprinkling the water over a child’s head. Sometimes, when we remember fully that God is with us, that God is at work, we can feel a little solemn, a little quiet. And then our hearts have the peace and the room to be filled with gladness.

This week, friends, as we continue on this Advent journey, I encourage you to find some time for a piece of quiet, a moment of stillness and solemnity. God is giving us a gift - the Christ-child will be born in our midst, in our hearts yet again. Maybe we didn’t even know we wanted it, needed it, but God knows us better than anyone. And with the gift of the Christ-child come God’s gifts just for you. You tell me - what are the gifts that God has for you? For what purpose is God giving you these tools? Are you fulfilling their purpose? Are you showing up to receive what God has to give? My prayer for us this Advent is that our hearts are filled with that shiver of gladness that runs through our souls when we open our lives to all that God would have us receive. Amen.

All quotes are from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: Always Winter, Never Christmas," Romans 8:18-25, Isaiah 55:1-5

Sermon 12/9/18
Isaiah 55:1-5, Romans 8:18-25


Advent in Narnia: Always Winter, Never Christmas


Last week I mentioned that Lucy’s older siblings eventually make it to Narnia too, and that’s true. But I sort of skipped over just how her brother Edmund arrives in Narnia. Edmund is the second youngest sibling. In the opening chapter of the book, we find that Edmund frequently seems to be at odds with his siblings. He seems to resent Susan and Peter when they tell him what to do and make him feel like a baby, and in turn, he also seems to enjoy lording his age, his “wisdom and knowledge” over Lucy, wanting to make her feel silly and immature. Stuck together without parents present for days on end, the four Pevensie children are not exactly models of kindness to each other. We talked at our Advent study this week about sibling relationships. How many of you have at least one sibling? I shared that nothing can make me feel so much like I’m 12 again than the arguments that I’ll sometimes still get into with my siblings. They’re usually over nothing, when you really get down to it. We just, after so many years of practice, really know how to push each other’s buttons.  
Edmund certainly knows how to get at Lucy. The narrator tells us that Edmund can sometimes be spiteful, and that after Lucy claims to have visited Narnia, Edmund’s spite comes out full force. Edmund “sneer[s] and jeer[s] at Lucy,” we’re told, “and [keeps] on asking her if she’d found any other new countries in other cupboards all over the house.” (23) Lucy is crushed. One day, though, the children are playing hide and seek on a rainy day, and Lucy just wants to look at the wardrobe again, not expecting, after not being able to find Narnia there again when with her siblings, that she’d be able to get back to the magical land. But this time, the door to Narnia is open again. Edmund follows her into the wardrobe without her knowledge. We read, Edmund “at once decided to get into [the wardrobe] himself - not because he thought it a particularly good place to hide, but because he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country.” (24)
Except Edmund finds himself in Narnia. He isn’t filled with the wonder Lucy is though. Edmund is very disappointed when Narnia turns out to be real, because he knows that he will have to tell Lucy that she was right and he was wrong. He describes Narnia in his mind as strange, and decides he doesn’t like the place, and makes to go back home. That’s when he hears bells in the wood, and eventually a reindeer-pulled sleigh approaches, carrying a dwarf, and a tall lady, dressed in white fur, carrying a golden wand and wearing a golden crown. Her skin is snow white - not figuratively, but literally. She looks proud and cold and stern. She introduces herself to Edmund as the Queen of Narnia, and demands to know who Edmund is. She is very severe with him, and we the reader can tell that she’s seconds away from smiting him with her wand. But instead, when Edmund reveals he is one of four siblings, the Queen - who we already know from Lucy’s earlier visit to Narnia is actually the White Witch - is suddenly very interested. Again, to us, it is clear that she now begins to manipulate Edmund, lulling him into a sense of safety, but Edmund doesn’t seem to notice, because she is doing and saying everything he wants in his secret heart.
The White Witch asks Edmund what he’d like to eat the best, and he responds without hesitation: Turkish Delight, a kind of jellied treat made dates, pistachios, and hazelnuts, covered in powdered sugar. By magic, she produces a box containing several pounds of Turkish Delight, and Edmund immediate digs in. He shovels down as much of the treat as he can, hardly realizing that he’s giving the Witch lots of information about his siblings as he answers her questions between bites. After eating all of the candy, Edmund just wishes for more. The narrator tells us that the candy is enchanted: “anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” (33) The Witch does not allow this though. Instead, she insists that Edmund go back and retrieve his siblings and bring them to Narnia with him. When he does, she says, Edmund will be gifted with roomfulls of Turkish Delight, and made Prince of Narnia. His sisters and brothers will be made courtiers and nobles, but not a Prince like Edmund. The Witch is perceptive to know that Edmund would want to think of himself in a higher station than his siblings. After giving directions to her castle to Edmund, she leaves him.
Lucy then finds Edmund, delighted that he’s made it to Narnia. But then Lucy tells Edmund that this woman who called herself a Queen is known to the whole land as the White Witch, and that she has made it endless winter in Narnia. “Always winter, but it never gets to be Christmas.” We, who continue to experience winter long after the end of our Christmas celebrations, can relate in a deep way, can’t we? Edmund doesn’t disbelieve what Lucy tells him about the Witch. He believes she is dangerous. And all the enchanted Turkish Delight has made him sick. But, we read, “He still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight again more than he wanted anything else.” (38, emphasis mine.) When Lucy and Edmund leave Narnia and find Susan and Peter, instead of owning up to Lucy being right, Edmund decides to “do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.” He tells them that he was just playing pretend with Lucy, and that there is no Narnia. Lucy is devastated. When all four children finally do make it to Narnia, and it becomes clear that Edmund has been lying, when the children hear about Aslan, the great lion, the Savior of Narnia, the Christ-like figure, Edmund, already in the thrall of the Witch, leaves the others to join forces with the one who has promised him endless power and endless indulgence.  
What’s your Turkish Delight? In this season, it might be easy to come up with any number of special treats that you enjoy. If you come to my Open House tonight, you can have one of the hundreds of sugar cookie cutouts I made. After the Open House is done, and after I set aside cookies that will go to our cookie sale next weekend, I’ll have to wrap the rest up and put them in the freezer until Christmas otherwise I will eat them all. But when we think about how Edmund wanted Turkish Delight, we’re talking about something that goes beyond craving a sweet treat. He wanted it more than he wanted anything else. Later, the narrator tells us that when Edmund has dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in Narnia, he doesn’t enjoy it, because he’s thinking about Turkish Delight the whole time, and that “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.” (85) He starts to desire Turkish Delight in an unhealthy way. It consumes him. And we get the sense that in general, Edmund’s priorities are out of line. He’s pursuing what benefits him the most, to the detriment of others, and even what he wants for himself is not actually good for him.
So, again I wonder - what’s your Turkish Delight? What is it that you’re chasing after, that gets in the way of how you care for others, that might seem good for a moment, but you know isn’t really so good for you actually? What is it that, when you get a hold of it actually leaves you feeling, like Edmund, a little sick? What do you end up spending energy pursuing that results in you compromising your values, who you are, who God calls you to be in order to have it or experience it?  
These questions bring to mind our text from the prophet Isaiah, one of my very favorites. Isaiah writes, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good … Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Isaiah’s question rings in my ears: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why? Why? Why do we do it? Why do we spend so much energy on what leaves us feeling so very empty?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, but I’m sure we’ve been doing it since time immemorial. We get a sense of that in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The creation is waiting for God and God’s children with eager longing, because the whole creation has been subject to futility, has been in bondage to decay, groaning in labor pains. Don Schuessler suggested at our Advent study this week that we keep trying to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives with things that aren’t God-shaped. We keep hoping that metaphorical Turkish Delight will meet all of our spiritual nutritional needs. But it never does. And it never will. Only God can fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. Only God offers the Bread of Life which satisfies. Only laboring for God and God’s way in the world brings us true contentment. Paul says that God sets us free, redeems us, body and spirit.
Edmund eventually experiences redemption too. At first, even when it becomes clear to Edmund that the White Witch is no Queen and is up to no good, he can still only think about getting some more enchanted Turkish Delight. But finally, when in their travels to find his siblings so that the Witch can try to keep the prophecy that signals the end of her rule from being fulfilled Edmund witnesses her turning a whole group full of animals into stone for insisting that Father Christmas had shown up at last, Edmund begins to feel regret and compassion. Eventually he’s rescued, because his siblings won’t give up on him, and Aslan won’t either. Edmund has a serious talk with Aslan, and after coming face to face with the true ruler of Narnia, the great lion, Edmund is never the same. Sure, he still fights with his siblings sometimes. But he seeks their forgiveness, and they give it. He knows that despite all of the wrong choices he’s made, he’s reconciled to his family and to Aslan, he’s redeemed. He knows it. He never forgets it. And he tries to live like a person who remembers it every day.  
My hope for us is that we, too, can experience the forgiveness Christ offers when we realize how off course we’ve gotten. My hope is that we too can live as people who remember that we were welcomed back, forgiven, reconciled. Let go of chasing the Turkish Delight that you’re sure if you heart’s desire, and remember instead the taste of the Bread of Life that satisfies. If you have caused some harm - to yourself, to others, to God - in your quest for things that have left you empty - God can redeem your life. We can seek forgiveness. We can repent, return to God. God longs to welcome us back, longs to work out our reconciliation. Friends, God’s redeeming love is breaking through the cold of endless winter. This Advent, let’s claim the promise of forgiveness and new life. Amen.

(Page numbers in this sermon refer to C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.)

Monday, December 03, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: The Wardrobe and the Lamppost," Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 7:13-14, John 1:1-9

Sermon 12/2/18
Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 7:13-14, John 1:1-9


Advent in Narnia: The Wardrobe and The Lamppost


Today is the First Sunday of Advent. And this year, we’re spending Advent in Narnia. How many of you have read the book or watched the movie The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe? The book is the first in the series of seven books called The Chronicles of Narnia, written by theologian C.S. Lewis for his goddaughter Lucy. Lewis wrote the books in the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s. Lewis is the author of Christian classics like Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, but in his Chronicles, written for children, he shows a whimsical imagination and a more grace-centered theology than we find elsewhere in his works (in my opinion at least!) The Chronicles can be read with a secular worldview, but the books are laden with Christian imagery, heavy with meaning. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, set during a long winter in the magical land of Narnia is the perfect setting then to help us enter into the spirit of Advent.
Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are English school children who have temporarily gone to live away from their parents during World War II to be kept safe. They’re sent to live with an eccentric man who is a professor, and they have lots of fun exploring the big old house full of antiques and treasures. In one room, they find there is only a large wardrobe with a long mirror on the door. Most of the siblings aren’t interested in the room or the wardrobe, and turn to leave as quickly as they entered, but Lucy, the youngest, is curious. She’s sure that the wardrobe door will be locked, but she just has to try it to see. It isn’t locked, and so she steps in, being careful to leave the door open behind her. She pushes through lots of winter coats, only to find that the wardrobe is larger than she expected. And suddenly, it isn’t a wardrobe at all, but tree branches that she pushes through, emerging in a snowy wood with a tall, bright street lamp lighting the scene. She meets there a faun - a creature who is half man, half goat - named Mr. Tumnus, and she discovers that she has somehow found her way into a land called Narnia through the door of the wardrobe. We’ll talk about what unfolds there more in the weeks ahead, but today, we’re thinking about two of the first things Lucy encounters in relation to Narnia - the wardrobe, and the lamppost.
The wardrobe is the entrypoint to Narnia. Later in the book we hear mention of the fact that there are other doors into the world of Narnia - the wardrobe is just one of them, and later in the series we find out that the wardrobe is a door because it is made from the wood from a tree that grew from the seed of a fruit that was from Narnia itself. We discover, too, that the children can’t just get into Narnia when they want to. Getting to Narnia involves something of a sense of call. The children can get to Narnia when Narnia needs them. When Lucy first returns from her visit to Narnia, and she tries to show her brothers and sister what she’s found, they find nothing - just a regular wardrobe. They think Lucy is telling stories, that she’s let her imagination run wild. It’s only after Susan and Peter, the older siblings, talk to the professor (who has been to Narnia too, though he doesn’t share that with them just yet) about Lucy’s Narnia’s stories and he encourages them to have an open mind that the rest of the children also find their way to Narnia through the door of the wardrobe.
I’m wondering - what are the doors you’ve encountered in your life? When has there been a path, a way that was opened to you? Did you go through the door? What opportunities have you taken, and what ones have you missed? What door are you standing outside of, while God is calling to you from the other side? Are you like Lucy? The first to fling the door open and step through to what God has waiting? Or are you more like the older siblings, doubting that God has a Narnia-place to show you?
We heard two short verses from Matthew’s gospel this morning. Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Sometimes, God’s way is hard, isn’t it? Sometimes following Jesus takes everything we’ve got. Sometimes, it would so much easier if we could just tune out Jesus’ voice and hit that nice, open road, with the big, wide gate at the end. But we know, we know that we’ll wish we chose the other path - the narrow path, but the path of life. In our Advent Study this week, we remembered that Jesus told us how to stay on the path that keeps us in God’s way. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is Lucy like, that leads her to find Narnia? What are children like? Lucy is curious, and kind-hearted, and unafraid. Her heart and mind are ready to receive unexpected things. Brave Lucy has to go all the way into the wardrobe and push through all the coats, and traverse the temporary darkness before she gets to the trees and to Narnia.
I think of the children in our own community of faith. When we share in the Children’s Message during worship, it isn’t just so we can be entertained by the kids and the sweet, sincere answers they give to my questions. First, foremost, of course, that time is so that they can learn, so that they can be more fully a part of our worship services, and so that they know that whatever we’re talking about in the sermon time is for them, too, even if we need to talk about it in different ways for it to be clearer for children. But after that, that Children’s Time in worship is so that we can learn from them. I think of asking the kids what the world needed a few weeks ago, and how quickly they listed so many ways they could see that we could be working for change, caring for our planet and its peoples. I think about talking to them about how God might call to them, how God speaks in dreams, and Alana sharing how God spoke to her, no big deal. I think about how eager they are to help, however we’ll let them. How they always know that choosing kindness and love is the way of Jesus, even when it is hard to put into practice. And I know that if they found a room with a wardrobe, they’d go through the door and find Narnia. Can we let them lead us on God’s path, right into the heart of God?
If the wardrobe is the entry point to Narnia, then the lamppost is sort of the symbol of the place, the home base for Lucy’s (and eventually her siblings’) visit to Narnia. It is at the lamppost that she learns where she is, and where she meets her first friend in Narnia. It is the light from the lamppost that she sees while she is still trying to push through the wardrobe that keeps her going instead of turning back to the spare room. And when she emerges from the branches, it is the light that she still follows to bring her into the clearing.
What light are we following? Our other two scripture texts for today draw on themes of light and darkness. From the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah writes, “There will be no gloom for those who are in anguish.” For “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.” “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”
The gospel of John doesn’t include a nativity story, not if you’re talking about shepherds and angels and baby Jesus. But John does talk about Jesus’s origin: He is the word, who is and who was in the beginning, and is made flesh, God dwelling among us. John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
Are there places in the world that seem filled with darkness? No doubt, it won’t take you long to list places and situations and circumstances where you’ve witnessed darkness. We experience it as a people, a community, a nation, a globe. And most of us know darkness in our own lives, our own families. This season can be particularly challenging, in fact, when we’re wrestling with the darkness in our lives. There are literally less hours of light, and the long nights seem to match our moods when we’re wrestling with pain, with anger, with doubt, with grief, with hopelessness. Amazingly, though, no matter how much dark there is, it only takes the tiniest bit of light to cancel the power of the darkness. Think about it. Children who are nervous because of the dark when they head to sleep are often comforted by  just a little night light. It hardly sets the room aglow. But it makes such a break in the darkness!
The light of Christ is a break in that darkness that feels like it will suffocate us, and it is never extinguished. Christ is the true light, and the darkness will not overcome it. If you can’t see the light, call out - call out to God. Call out to a friend. Call out to your pastor. Call out to someone you can trust. The darkness may seem unrelenting, but there is someone who sees the light, who can take your hand, and help you find your way again. The darkness will never overcome the light.  
This Advent, be on the lookout for doors that need opening and stepping through, doors where it seems like a light is shining on the other side, and something is luring you, calling you, drawing you through. Know that choosing that door might take you on a narrow path that is difficult to navigate and full of challenges. Sometimes you have to push through a lot of coats before you step into Narnia. Sometimes others will be skeptical that the path you feel God wants you to take leads anywhere at all. Be as bold as Lucy stepping into the wardrobe anyway, until you find your way to Narnia. And this Advent, look for places that you can shine the light in the darkness. There are a lot of people who feel like they are in darkness. But Jesus, who is the light, also says that we are the light of the world. Let your light shine. Be like Lucy, keeping her eye fixed on the lamppost. Because she did, she was able to show others the way to Narnia.
We’re spending this Advent in Narnia, friends. God is calling you to step in through the wardrobe, and follow the light. Amen.