Monday, December 28, 2015

Dec 27, 2015: "Christ, Coming of Age"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 148
NT: Luke 2.41-52
The Christ, Coming of Age

            Several weeks ago, Kerry and I were without television.  No news, no sports, no Real Housewives, no Property Brothers.  It was…nice (except not getting to watch the new episode of Moonshiners).  We realized that we have the TV on way too much, even if we’re not particularly watching.  So we read.  I started a biography, which is my favorite kind of book. 
For me, the appeal of biographies is their honesty.  When you read about someone’s life, it’s never predictable or neat, because our lives never are either.  Biographies contain all the unexpected twists and turns life takes.  For example, did you know Einstein felt his greatest achievement occurred during his 20s, and he never lived up to his own expectations after that?  I didn’t know that. 
My favorite kind of biography is the “coming of age” story.  You know, the story where a young woman or man goes off on their own, discovers their true self, and then begins their adult life. 
The coming of age biography I most want to read has, unfortunately, never been written, and it’s too late now.  Am I the only one who would like to know how Jesus came of age?  There is a twelve year gap in Luke between the time he is born, shortly thereafter presented in the temple, and then travels with his parents to the temple in Jerusalem.  And nowhere else in the Bible does it fill in the gaps. 
Don’t you want to know if he shared his toys in kindergarten?  Did he ever disobey Mary and Joseph?  Was he different than other children?  Did he know who he was?  Or did they have to tell him?  How could they tell him?  Did he pray?  Was his room clean?  Did he do his chores?  Don’t you want to know?
While the sacred stories of the Bible tell us nothing more than Luke about Jesus’ coming of age, sacred texts discovered in a cave in the 1950s, referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls, do have stories about the boy Jesus.  They are what you might expect—stories of a young man learning to live with an enormous burden placed on his shoulders.  Sometimes he deals with it well, sometimes he does not.  If you’d like to read those stories, let me know.  I’m happy to share them with you. 
In our world, coming of age stories are generally told about teenagers and young adults, for that is the age when they are supposed to discover who they are and begin living their lives, right?  Seventeen, eighteen, twenty year olds.  Guess what the coming of age year was in ancient Israel?  Twelve.  People who went on to do great things began to show their potential at age 12.  And how old is Jesus in the temple?  Twelve. 
All of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John—are ancient biographies of Jesus, each written by different authors with different emphases.  And to my chagrin, while Luke may not say much about Jesus’ coming of age, he does say a lot.  And what he says is important.  
One, we know Jesus grew up in the temple.  When he was only a few weeks old, his parents took him there to be blessed.  And the next time we hear from him, at age 12, he’s back in the temple again.  So it’s safe to assume that Jesus grew up in a community of faith.  If half the people who make such a big deal of saying “Merry Christmas” today belonged to a community of faith, the church would be a different, stronger institution.  
Two, we know his parents loved him dearly.  Now, this isn’t a Home Alone situation (did you see that movie this holiday season?), where Mary & Joseph are so busy in a big family group they fail to notice their son isn’t with the group.  Well, actually, it’s a lot like Home Alone!  They probably would have traveled to the temple in a large group, and it was perfectly conceivable that their son would have been with the group but not by their side the whole way.  After all, by 12 he was considered “of age.”  And when they do realize he is missing, they react like any loving parent would.  They are sick about it, and they do not rest until they find him. 
Three, we know Jesus loved his parents dearly.  While he doesn’t understand why they were worried, what twelve year old would?  When they get back home, he is more careful to obey them than he was before.  He doesn’t want to upset them again, because he loves them too much to hurt them. 
Four, we know that he knows who he is.  Once his parents find him, he says to them so matter-of-factly, “Didn’t you know I’d be in my father’s house?”  He knows he’s not just any ordinary boy, and this story puts the rest of the world on notice also.  This child, who has now come of age, has a big future ahead of him. 
            The season leading from Christmas to Easter is a season of growth.  As Jesus comes of age, he invites us to mature alongside him.  To grow in faith.  To grow in wisdom.  To grow as a person.  So, my friends, consider the turning of the calendar into the new year an opportunity to grow alongside the boy in divine and human favor.  Amen.    

Dec 24, 2015 Sermon: "Room in the Inn"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 2.1-20
Room in the Inn 

            What in the world would compel sane people to come to church at 11pm on a Thursday  night?  The same thing that would compel wise men to follow a star, and shepherds to follow the angel’s advice.  The same thing that compelled Mary and Joseph.  Christmas compels us. 
            I often wonder what it felt like for them to make such incredible journeys to the baby.  We’ll never know for sure, but we have a pretty good idea.  Why?  Because the same thing compelled us to come here tonight.  Christmas compels us all. 
            What are you feeling tonight?  Tonight at dinner we talked about how confused we feel this year.  Confused about the weather and the timing and making sense of it all.  However, that’s not the strongest feeling I have.  The overwhelming feeling I have tonight is gratitude.  I am grateful for each one of you, my community of faith.  I am grateful for the Christ Child, born so humbly to embody Emmanuel, God with us.  I am grateful to be able to sing carols and read the Christmas story, for though they remain the same year after year, they have a holy ability to set my heart at peace.  I am grateful to hear the Trents play sacred songs so beautifully.  I am grateful for food on the table, friends around the table, and a roof over the table. 
            I am especially grateful for children.  This past Sunday in church, I asked a leading question.  “Are you all excited?” 
With Christmas just around the corner, I thought they would say, “Yes!  I can’t wait to open my presents!”  But they said no such thing.
Caroline said, “I’m excited to light the fourth Advent candle!”
Ashton said, “I’m excited for Jesus’ birthday!” 
I am grateful for children, for sometimes they see the truth of Christmas more clearly than us adults. 
I am grateful for generous people.  When the Deacons asked for food for a family of six, you brought enough food for six families of six.  When the Mission Team asked for $900 to buy turkeys for all the families who visit the Food Pantry, you gave $1,000.  When a woman in need came by the office seeking help with her rent, the staff gave out of their own pockets, without even being asked, to help this woman and her family.  When the calendar turned to December, you called and asked who needed help…and you provided it.  When a family experienced a fire, you called and texted and pledged your support.
Whenever you are given an opportunity to assist folks in humble circumstances, like those of Mary, Joseph, and the baby on this night in Bethlehem, you do it.  You stand in solidarity with people you do not know simply because they are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  You share what is yours with those you only know in passing simply because they have need.  And you fill my heart with gratitude and joy. 
I am grateful for Jesus Christ, who compels us all to do good joyously. 

The story goes that Mary & Joseph were turned away from the inn because there was no room.  Some days I wonder if it’s still the case today that we don’t make room in our hearts, but tonight…tonight, I know that he finds room.  Whether we make room or he makes his way inside our hearts, the Christ child compels us to do good in his name, and my heart feels especially full tonight.  I thank God.  I thank you.  I thank Christmas.  Amen.    

Candlelight Sermon: "Christmas Hope"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 1.46-55
Christmas Hope

            I recently discovered that I’ve been doing something wrong for years.  Talk about humiliating.  Do you know that feeling? 
I’ve always opened a banana from the stem end.  That usually works.  But sometimes it’s a struggle, and sometimes the stem breaks.  You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  This week I learned that monkeys peel bananas from the other end.  They just pinch, and the skin opens right up.  So I tried it, and it works like a charm!  Easy as pie.  I’ve been doing it wrong for years, and it took a monkey to teach me the right way to do it! 
            As I fiddled around in the kitchen after learning that new trick, I wondered what else I have unknowingly done wrong for years?  Then a segment came on the radio with people sharing their hopes for Christmas this year.  They “hoped” for all kinds of things.  Kids hope their parents didn’t lose their Christmas lists.  Parents hope their kids behave at family gatherings & church services.  People hope their dogs will sleep in on Christmas morning.  We all hope it will snow on Christmas.  Grandma hopes her turkey won’t get overdone.  And, in sum, that was the answer to my question. 
What else have we been doing wrong all these years?  Hope.  We have Christmas hope backwards. 
            Think about it.  Where does that kind of wishin’ and hopin’ get us?  It will not snow this Christmas, no matter how hard we wish.  Our dogs will wake us up as usual.  The kids won’t be able to sleep.  Parents will forget that one little gift that turns out to be the one the kids wanted most.  The turkey will be overdone. 
The things we say we “hope” for are usually the last things to happen.  Because we only “hope” for something when we think we have zero options left and our only shot is a Hail Mary.  That’s not how hope works.  Hope is much, much more than wishful thinking. 
            This morning, I made an elaborate argument about it feeling like somebody stole Christmas.  That’s because our culture and even many inside the church have relatively little insight into the theological meaning of Christmas.  Just because it’s about an infant doesn’t mean our understanding of it has to be infantile.  So…why do we celebrate Christmas?  Because it’s Jesus’ birthday.  Yes, but why does Jesus’ birthday matter?  Because he is our Lord and Savior.  Yes, but what does it mean to claim his name?  To live in hope. 
            The great American preacher William Sloane Coffin says, “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world.”  Say that with me.  Hope is a state of mind…independent…of the state of the world. 
In the face of tragedy and violence, hope is here.  In the wake of terror and doubt, hope is here.  In the midst of confrontation and consternation, hope is here.  We have hope no matter the waters that rage around us because we have faith. 
            Whereas wishful thinking is passive, thinking that something good may happen if we’re lucky, Christian hope is active.  We make something good happen, even out of something bad, because we know God has good plans for all of us.  THAT is Christmas hope.   
No better example exists than Mary, mother of Jesus, whose story we just read here tonight.  We all know the seriousness of her plight--young and pregnant.  Poor and penniless.  Shamed and ridiculed.  Can we even begin to imagine what if must have felt like to be a pregnant teenager, promised to a man she barely knew, visited by an angel wanting her to do something unspeakable…for God?  Frightened probably doesn’t begin to describe what it must have felt like.  According to Luke, she doesn’t tell anyone.  Who could blame her?  What would she say that someone would actually believe?  Mary, Mary, Mary.   
Yet, in the face of all that adversity, she is full of hope.  Why was Mary so full of hope when she spoke to her baby those beautiful words we just read?  How was she able to endure the difficulty of being a young, unwed, pregnant teenager? 
Perhaps because she believed the angel, who told her that she would give birth to the Son of God.  Only the innocence of youth would be joyous at that prospect.  Or, perhaps because Mary was a faithful woman who knew the prophecies written by Isaiah and believed she had a part in them.  Or finally, perhaps she was a hopeful woman who believed, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that God works good purposes out in this world through faithful, hopeful people. 
Hope is something we do, and Mary was full of hopeful action.  You could say Mary made the best of a bad situation, but Mary did one better.  Mary held out hope. 
If you find yourself wishin’ and hopin’, do what Mary did to find Christmas hope.  She visited her cousin Elizabeth.  She sought counsel.  She acted a friend.  She asked questions.  She availed herself to the Holy Spirit.  She trusted those around her.  She watched for signs.  She rejoiced in small moments of beauty.  She refused to become a victim of her circumstance.  Instead, she embraced her circumstance as an opportunity to prove hope’s power. 
I know it’s hard to be optimistic some days.  So when you can’t be optimistic, be persistent.  A heart full of hope never gives up, for it knows that God doesn’t either.  If God was willing to come to earth in human form, born to two poor teenage refugees, then we better be persistent in our beliefs that God does not give up on us.  God does not cut corners.  God does not take the easy way.  God dives right into the ditch…with us. 

So as you unwrap presents, gather together with family, and celebrate the season, I pray you and yours uncover the most precious gift of all—Christmas hope.  Mary took a bold chance, allowing God to be born in her.  And if we allow God to be born in us, there’s no telling what good may come of it.  Amen.   

Dec 20, 2015 Sermon: "Somebody Stole Christmas"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Mark 1.1-11
Somebody Stole Christmas

            Girls and boys, gather round.  Women and men, won’t you please come on down?  I’ve got a story for you, which you won’t think is true.  It seems impossible…improbable… implausible: But, somebody stole Christmas! 
            You may wonder why I’m keeping my voice as low as a whisper, and it’s because our thief may be a visitor.  But don’t fret or worry, and please, whatever you do, don’t get in a hurry.  I’ve solved the riddle, and if you’ll give me the courtesy of a bit of your time, I’ll widdle it down for you…at first in rhyme.
            Perhaps you think that the Grinch is our thief?  We all know the story of that grouchy Grinch’s grab for glory.  In the words of Dr. Suess:  
"I know just what to do!" The Grinch laughed in his throat.
And he made a quick Santy Claus hat and a coat.
And he chuckled, and clucked, "What a great Grinchy trick!"
"With this coat and this hat, I look just like Saint Nick!"
We know what happens next.  He breaks into every Who house to steal their presents and only leaves crumbs too small even for a mouse. 
That’s what I’m here to tell you today.  Somebody stole Christmas!  But it wasn’t the Grinch.  That poor green outcast has been the butt of too many jokes already.  Somebody stole Christmas, but it wasn’t him. 
Perhaps you are thinking what I’m thinking.  Mother Nature stole Christmas! For two weeks, we’ve been able to wear short sleeve shirts during the day!  The Christmas forecast for southern WV seems more like a Christmas forecast for southern Florida. Mid to upper 60s! 
How are we supposed to sit by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa snuggled in our flannel unwrapping gifts when it’s 67 degrees outside?  It feels like somebody stole Christmas.   
            Maybe I’m missing the obvious candidate for who stole Christmas.  Our culture.  The one that starts advertising Christmas in October.  The one that makes you think you have to spend a fortune to express your love.  You can find plenty of people who believe the culture stole Christmas, but our culture would have to understand Christmas in order to steal it.  Most people don’t have any idea what Christmas means, so they couldn’t have stolen it. 
If you paid attention to this morning’s reading, you know who did it.  Don’t you!  It was Mark, the author of our Gospel reading, who stole Christmas!  Did you notice what was missing from his story?  Christmas!  There was no mention of Bethlehem or the census or Mary and Joseph or a star or angels or wise men or the manger or the stable. 
            Somebody call Judge Bob King!  Somebody call Judge Jim Rowe!  Somebody call Judge Frank Joliffe and bring him out of retirement!  We need to throw the book at Mark for stealing our Christmas story. 
            But if Mark were here to defend himself, he might remind us that he wrote his Gospel first.  When they put the Bible together, Matthew jumped the line and got ahead of him, Luke gets all the credit for the details of the birth, but don’t get it twisted!  Mark wrote his story first.  And he mentions nothing about Jesus as a child.  Why is that? 
            Because for Mark, Jesus became Christ.  The way he tells Jesus’ story, Jesus has to grow up.  God doesn’t hand him the keys to the kingdom; Jesus has to earn them.  He has to go to school, learn a trade, treat people with respect, follow his teacher John the Baptist, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, figure out how to deal with crazy people who come up to him on the street asking for crazy things, become a man, and eventually become the Son of Man.  So for Mark, Christmas is a time not so much for celebration…as a time for anticipation.  It is not the end of the year, but the beginning.  It is not the finish line, but the starting line. 
            I think that’s a message with great relevance in today’s world.  Mark’s Christmas story may not have all those details we’re used to hearing (though we will read those tonight…so don’t fret), but it does have a weight that we need to hear.  For Mark, the significance of Jesus lies in what he does.  His actions matter more than anything else.  That’s a message with great relevance for our lives. 
            It we’re going to claim the name of Jesus this Christmas, we have to do something with it.  If we’re going to celebrate Christmas and send people Christmas cards and put up a Christmas tree and give people Christmas gifts and share Christmas meals together, understand the name that you are claiming. 
Jesus wasn’t just given the title of Christ.  He earned it.  If we want to claim his name, we have to work alongside him.  Feed the hungry.  Clothe the naked.  Heal the sick.  Listen to the person everyone else runs away from!  Claim his name--not in words but in actions. 

            Did somebody steal Christmas?  Not exactly.  I probably exaggerated.  OK, I definitely exaggerated.  But it did get you interested, didn’t it!  For whatever reasons—culture, weather, the Grinch in all of us—we’ve lost sense of the theological meaning of Christmas.  To the point that it feels like somebody stole Christmas.  Come back tonight—yes, this was all a ruse to get you to come back again tonight—and we’ll take about the real meaning of Christmas.  Amen.      

Dec 13, 2015 Sermon: "You Dirty Rascals!"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 12.2-6
NT: Luke 3.7-18

            Isn’t it amazing that you can say the same words in a different tone and convey a completely different meaning?  We typically read today’s passage in an angry, with John the Baptist almost yelling at the people gathered around him for baptism!  We assume he is angry, even disappointed with them for their sinfulness.  But that just doesn’t make sense.  Even for John.  Would he really expect to recruit new church members by yelling at them the first time they show up to church?  I’ve never tried that…because I don’t think it would work! 
            Now, I know last week John was just born in our Bible reading.  He was a baby.  But by this week’s reading we have hit the fast forward button.  He’s all grown up.  And he turned out to be a weird guy.  He lives in caves and wears animals skins.  He yells in the forest.  But… people adored him. 
He was charismatic and popular and beloved.  The people gathered around him that day were common people--soldiers, peasants, farmers, tax collectors, widows, and orphans.  They were dirt poor.  Society marginalized and despised them.  But John loved them.  And they loved him.  Why would so many people come to an adored man for baptism just to take a verbal beating?  That doesn’t make sense.  So, if he wasn’t calling them names in an angry way, what was he saying?  p
            Well, my wife can say anything, even something inflammatory or insulting or difficult to hear…but she can say it with a big smile in a way people love her no matter what.  It’s a real gift.  A gift that John has.  A gift he uses in calling the people a bunch of snakes.    
            He calls them a brood of vipers not as an insult but to rib them.  It would be like saying, “You dirty rascals!  I can’t believe you came.  Who convinced you to come get baptized?”  They came in droves, and he was tickled pink.  So tickled he made a joke out of it.    “You dirty rascals!  I don’t know why you came, but I sure am glad you did.” 
            And since he has a captive audience of common people just like him, who get his humor and have come to him for counsel, he gives it to them.  He reminds them his job is to prepare them for the coming Savior, and they tell John they want to be ready.  “What should we do?” they ask him. 
            John gives a speech that would make any kindergarten teacher, much less Jesus, proud.  His message is simple: Share.  If someone doesn’t have enough food, share yours.  If someone doesn’t have clean clothes, share yours.  If someone needs money, share yours.  The “coat” in verse 11 is more appropriately translated as “undergarment.”  In a nutshell, that is John’s radical Advent message: Share absolutely everything.  If you have more than enough, share with someone in your community who does not. 
             I read a story this week about a poor man in Ontario, Canada, whose neighbors suffered a tragedy.  He lived beside a local mosque which was burned down in the wake of the Paris attacks.  This man who lived beside the mosque did not attend it; he was an inactive Christian.  But he knew some of his neighbors who did attend there, and he wanted to do something about it.  They wanted to rebuild, but they needed $80,000.  He didn’t have any money.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  He had 17 cents in his bank account.  So he started a fund with that 17 cents and asked his community to chip in and rebuild the mosque for their neighbors.  That was on a Tuesday morning.  By Tuesday evening, they raised $80,000.  A neighboring Christian congregation offered their sanctuary for worship services, and a local Jewish temple is hosting prayer services and potlucks during rebuilding.  That is the spirit of Christmas.
            Now, I know it doesn’t feel like Christmas.  I never remember being able to comfortably wear shorts in mid-December!  Time always flies this time of year especially, doesn’t it?  But make no mistake: Christmas is coming.  John the Baptist’s job was to prepare us.  Are you prepared?  Not for the gifts or the meals or the events.  Are you prepared for the child who will expect you to share everything? 
John said it’s not enough just to say you believe.  It’s not enough to have an “In God We Trust” license plate.  It’s not enough to call yourself a Christian.  John said to be a follower of Jesus, we must act like it.  We must live the grace given to us in the form of the child.  All year long. 

            It’s time for us to get ready.  So that one day when we enter the pearly gates, John the Baptist can shout, “You dirty rascals!  You did it, and I’m so proud of you.”  Amen.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Dec 6, 2015 Sermon: "Reasonable Doubts"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 1.68-79
Reasonable Doubts

It’s a good time to be a pessimist.  There’s plenty of evidence across the world to support your worldview.  But Advent & Christmas are also the best time of year to be an optimist…to find hope where others cannot. 
            A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. 
            Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. in the optimist’s room, he put absolutely nothing. 
That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly. 
"Why are you crying?" the father asked. 
"Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken." answered the pessimist twin. 
Passing the optimist twin's room, the father found him giggling and wondering around his room with a big smile on his face. "What are you so happy about?" he asked. 
To which his optimist twin replied, "You hid my present really well!” 
Today’s story from Luke is one of my favorites.  This time of year we typically read Mary’s magnificat (her song of praise she proclaims for all the world to hear when she finds out she has been chosen to carry the Christ child).  Magnificat literally means, “My soul magnifies!”  Mary gives a beautiful, poetic, powerful song, but…she’s an optimist!  Of course she would find the best in even a bad situation!
 There’s another magnificat in Luke 1, and it comes from a doom and gloom pessimist.  That’s why I like it so much, I think—because it is so unexpected.  Let me read you the magnificat of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist). 
READ LUKE 1.68-79.
Beautiful, isn’t it?  The optimists agree while the pessimists know there has to be a catch.  Let me tell you the back story. 
Zechariah was a priest.  He and his wife, like Abraham and Sarah, spent so much of their lives serving the church they didn’t have time for kids of their own, and they were getting on in years.  One day, Zechariah was on duty at the temple, which meant it was his turn to pray with the walk-ins who didn’t have an appointment.  During a prayer, an angel appeared to him out of thin air.  Zechariah was terrified; this had never happened to him before.  But the angel comforted him, saying, “Do not be afraid.  I’m here to answer your prayers.  Your wife will bear a son.” 
            He said, “I don’t remember praying for that!  Have you noticed how old my wife is?” 
            The angel responded, “I’ve just given you good news, but still you doubt.  Therefore, you will be unable to speak until your son comes.”  And that was that.  He didn’t speak in conception, he didn’t speak in his wife’s five months of seclusion, or the last four months of her pregnancy.  Zechariah didn’t say a mumblin’ word for nearly 300 days, after he dared to question God and speak ill of his wife.  Let that be a lesson to you, husbands! 
            The time came for their son to be born.  Everybody assumed they would name him after his father, Zechariah Jr.  Elizabeth didn’t think so!  She had a name of her own.  She said, “His name will be John.” 
            The people still weren’t satisfied.  Zechariah came from a long line of priests.  Wouldn’t a family name be a nice way to honor that?  They asked Zechariah what he thought.  A man who hadn’t spoken for nine months.  A man who hadn’t said a word through morning sickness and labor pains and cravings.  A man whose last words had been something about how old his wife was.  Now, tell me: How do you think he responded? 
            He took out his chisel and wrote on a piece of rock, “Listen to the woman.  Name him John.”  And immediately, after nearly 300 days of silence, his mouth was opened, he could speak freely again, and he chose his words quite carefully.  The words he spoke are the words we just read.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel...this child will be called prophet of the most high…he will guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Zechariah, the pessimist, repented.  He changed his mind.  He found hope in a hopeless situation.   
Zechariah’s story is the story of our lives.  God sends us a message.  We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not that message will come true.  So we sit with it for a while, usually in silence, to let it simmer and sink in.  Then, we eventually begin to believe God’s promises on our lives are possible.  We can nurture life, we can find purpose in what we do daily, and we can find joy…even in the ordinary, everyday lives we call our own.  We can…believe. 
Sure, this is a good time to be a pessimist.  If you don’t believe.  If you don’t find hope in Advent.  If you don’t think Jesus’ birth some tow thousand years ago changed everything for all time.  But if you do believe and you do take hope and you do think Jesus changed everything, then this is a good time to be alive. 
Anything is possible with God.  The barren can conceive.  The pessimist can hope.  The child can save.  Amen. 

Nov 29, 2015 Sermon: "Beginning at the Ending"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Jeremiah 33.14-16
NT: Luke 21.25-36

Beginning at the Ending 

In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be.  And we all know exactly what that feels like. 
It’s like pulling an all-nighter, staying up all night to work another shift or to finish a paper for school, or staying awake helping Saint Nicholas put together toys. 
It’s like flying to a different time zone and suddenly feeling the slow burn of jet lag the next morning. 
It’s like being asked to do two things at once or look in two directions at the same time. 
That’s what the unsettling tension of Advent is like, caught in the middle of what is and what will be.   We not only look back at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but we also look forward to his eventual return when the kingdom he began over two thousand years ago will eventually be completed. 
Today, on the first Sunday of Advent (the first day of the new year in the church calendar), we begin at the end.  Why?  Why does the church calendar ask us to begin the new year at the end of Jesus’ story?  So that we’ll know where were’ going.  It’s the same thing I do at weddings. 
When I officiate a wedding and we gather to rehearse the service the night before, I ask the wedding party to begin at the end.  The bride and groom take their places, the wedding party lines up on each side accordingly, the ring bearer and flower girl are told which adult will be their guide, and everyone knows exactly where to be.  Then I ask everyone to leave, and we start at the beginning.  Because then and only then do they know where they are going and how to get there. 
We begin at the end for the same reason in Advent.  So we know where we’re going and how to get there. 
In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the prophet speaks a word of hope amidst the unsettling tension of living in a time between what is and what will be.  The city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed in 587BC, with Jeremiah writing in the aftermath.  The Israelites were once again scattered from their homeland, living as refugees in foreign lands.  They didn’t know if they’d ever get to go home again.  They didn’t know if they’d see their families again.  They wondered if God abandoned them.  It was an unsettling time, so God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “The days are surely coming, when I will fulfill my promise.” 
Perhaps you know what it feels like to be stuck in between what is and what will be.  Author Janice Springer wrote about such a time following her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.  She says, “There have been many losses (since that day).”  She used to feel strong and vibrant, but now she struggles every moment to simply stay on her feet.  She has lost friends and activities and routines of days gone by, but she says the most painful loss is: “I’ve lost my illusions.  I’ve lost the illusion that I am exempt from the losses and limits that besiege other people.” 
In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be.  We know where we’ve been, we can see where we’re going, but we don’t know exactly how to get there.  Jesus compares it to a fig tree.  When we see it begin to sprout leaves, we know summer is near.  We don’t know exactly how long it will take, but we know it’s coming. 
If you look and listen and open your heart, you can see the kingdom of God sprouting leaves.  We don’t know how long it will take to arrive, but we know it’s coming.  That’s why we begin Advent at the end.  We remind ourselves--amidst all the unsettled tensions of life, of wars and rumors of war, of injustices and insincerities--that Jesus is taking us on a journey.  We do not walk alone.  We cannot find it ourselves.  We go with him.  We must trust him to guide us. 
Advent is a season of waiting.  As hard as it is, especially when the world seems so unsettled, we wait for the hope that sprouts like leaves on a fig tree.  We look forward to a day when all will be well.  We look back to times when all was not well.  Most importantly, we look around now, when all is well and nothing is well, depending on where you sit. 

And we wait.  We wait for the birth.  We wait for the boy.  We wait for the king.  We wait for hope to be born…anew.  Amen.