Sunday, December 16, 2018
Scripture: Luke 1:39-45 & 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Here we are at the third Sunday of Advent. I find that my anticipation for the coming of Christ grows throughout this season. The first Sunday seems so far away from Christmas. I hear the Advent music and see the first candle lit, but I’m not even thinking about practical things like making a Christmas list at that point, much to my family’s chagrin. By the second Sunday, I’m starting to settle into the routine. More candles are lit. The parties are starting to happen. My motivation to think about Christmas presents is finally awakening. But now that we’re here – the third Sunday of Advent – I’m finally finding myself in the swing of it all. I hope you are too.
While it takes awhile for us to settle into Advent because we have almost a month to prepare the way, I think the themes of Advent also slow our approach. Advent starts with a hard dose of reality. We began in the mess, that very real place where Jesus meets us. While it’s amazing that Jesus meets us in the mess, the fact remains that it’s still a mess, right? By the second week, we are acknowledging the truth of the situation not only of our individual lives but of the world as a whole. We recognize that we are living in that tension of the already/not yet nature of Jesus’ reign. Yes, Jesus is with us in the mess, but there is still so much brokenness in our lives and world that we find ourselves working hard on trusting that he is not just going to meet us in that difficult place but that he is actually doing something about it. By this third week, however, we’re getting truly ready. There is a growing excitement within us that this is way more than wishful thinking. All the steps of our preparation are necessary to get ourselves ready for what is about to happen in our midst. It’s kind of like getting prepared for a big trip. No one really likes the logistics of making sure their passport is up to date and that they have the right immunizations. The preparations for packing and dog sitting and stopping the mail are all necessary but really not that exciting. But once the trip draws near, you can feel the excitement building inside. All of the preparation is worth it because it’s time to go.
Luke’s gospel begins in this manner. Luke’s gospel is the one that gives us the most detail about the birth of Jesus, and Luke spends a ton of time describing how God prepares the way for Jesus. Like Advent, this preparation begins quietly. It begins with Zechariah fulfilling his priestly tasks. He is alone by the altar when an angel Gabriel appears to him, telling him that he and Elizabeth will have a son, which is surprising enough news to Zechariah that he decides to argue with Gabriel, which leads to Zechariah going mute until John is born. What God is doing is hardly noticeable. No one is talking about it.
Months later Gabriel visits Mary and tells her about what is about to happen to her. Now, Mary is more receptive to this news than Zechariah, but this is still news that she keeps quiet. She lives in a backwater town, Nazareth. She is young and poor. This isn’t happening in an expected way, so she and Joseph keep things as quiet as they can. The momentum of the coming of Christ is picking up, but even if you lived in Nazareth, you wouldn’t really notice that something was changing.
So, Elizabeth has stayed quietly in seclusion for five months. Mary doesn’t run around town spreading her news. But the excitement is growing inside each of them. I wonder if Mary decides to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, because she needs to share her news with someone who will understand. Months after God has started this amazing work that will change the entire world, these two women can’t hold it in any longer. Luke reports that Elizabeth’s baby leaped for joy in her womb and Mary’s arrival. Finally, Elizabeth breaks that silence, and shouts in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women!” For months Mary and Elizabeth have been quietly preparing the way for the coming of Jesus, but as the time for his coming approaches, the joy that is building up from deep within them gets to the point when they can no longer keep silent. Jesus is coming! If we were to keep reading in Luke, we’d see that even young Mary realizes that Jesus is coming into our mess and will go about fixing it. On this third Sunday of Advent, we have hit that point when the reality of the coming of Jesus has built up within us enough that the joy inside of us starts to come out – even in the midst of our mess.
Years before Luke wrote out his version of Jesus’ birth, the Apostle Paul went all over the Greco-Roman world telling all who would listen to him about what God had done for the world in Jesus. After years of preaching this message and establishing churches, Paul developed a letter-writing ministry. Scholars tell us that Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are among the earliest writings of the New Testament. This young church was struggling and needed encouragement, so Paul concludes his letter with these words: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.” Actually, in the Greek the adverbs come first, which to me just drives home how all-encompassing this encouragement is from Paul: “Always rejoice. Without ceasing pray. In all circumstances give thanks.” Into hard circumstances Paul tells people, you have within you everything you need to thrive because God has already given it to you. It comes from deep within.
Quite often we are sitting on resources we already have that are undiscovered, untapped, or underutilized. Joy, prayer, and thanksgiving are three of those for us – resources God has given us to thrive – if only we’d tap into them.
In the late 1980s a team of paleontologists were exploring South Dakota for signs of dinosaur fossils. On the morning of August 12, 1990, Sue Hendrickson was driving her 1975 Chevy Suburban when she had gotten lost in the fog. Her hulking Suburban got a flat tire, but as she was stuck, she looked up at a cliff face. About eight feet above her in the cliff was something she recognized. Those weren’t rocks. Those were fossilized bones, including some vertebrae. She called her colleagues to the scene. They paid $5000 to Maurice Williams, the landowner, which was a pretty hefty price in those days. But over the couple of years of excavation, they realized that they had stumbled upon a hidden treasure. In that cliff face was the most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered.
People knew there was potential for such a treasure to be found in South Dakota, but the likelihood of discovery was so slim. As the magnitude of the discovery became known, Williams wanted more than the $5000 he was initially paid. Eventually the Field Museum in Chicago paid millions for “Sue,” the T-Rex skeleton discovered by Sue Hendrickson, and Williams walked away with $7.6 million. Williams had been sitting on the amazing untapped resources, and until it was uncovered, he never knew what he had.
I think we’re a bit like Williams when it comes to the resources God has given us. We are sitting on a treasure trove of resources that helps us not just survive life but also thrive. Today, I hope that we recognize that we have much of what we need as God’s gifts hidden inside of us. Jesus once said that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. The person who found that treasure sold all he had to buy that field.
Joy is like that treasure hidden in a field. It is a gift from God that comes from deep inside each of us. Joy is not conditioned on life circumstances – that’s happiness. No, joy is something that is ever present to each of us, if only we’ll learn how to uncover that gift and use it.
The end of 1 Thessalonians could be titled “God’s Christmas Wish List For You.” In this season where we work so hard to give good presents to those we love, I hope that we would know that these are the treasures God wants to give us. Rejoicing always – even when things aren’t going the way you hope? It’s a gift from God. Praying continually – even when you worry that you don’t have the words to say? Jesus tells us that God is the giver of every good gift. Why would God not want to give you the gift of learning how to pray as naturally as breathing comes to you? Giving thanks in all circumstances – could you imagine having that kind of peace within your soul that enabled such gratitude? I’ve seen it in people. I witnessed it this very week when I made hospital visits.
My mind is always blown by what commercials try to get us to want for Christmas. Lexus must actually sell a lot of cars at Christmas because they’ve been makings those ads where people surprise their loved ones with a brand new luxury car at Christmas. They wouldn’t spend all that money if it wasn’t yielding results. This year I’ve seen a ton of commercials for that Peleton exercise bike. It looks pretty amazing, but it’s $2000 plus a monthly subscription fee for classes. When it comes to the “stuff” of Christmas, my desires are far more modest.
Yet, God has gifts on offer for us that are worth far more than a Lexus or a Peleton bike. Things break and rust and go out of style. Joy and gratitude never do. They are always with us. They are always at our disposal. They are more of what we’ll be remembered for than the things we have. And the crazy thing is that you already have them inside of you – if you’ll only use them!
I felt like that message – you had what you needed all along – was a movie plot I’ve heard before. I asked Jess and Annika if they could think of any movies that fit that theme, and Annika immediately said, “Isn’t that the plot of almost all movies?” I think she’s right, especially in adventure movies. It certainly was part of The Neverending Story, one of my favorites from the 80s, as well as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies.
You have what you need because God has given you what you need for all circumstances. As the momentum keeps picking up heading towards the coming of Christ we celebrate in a few days, I hope you find that joy getting unearthed within you, the joy that cannot help but cry out in surprise because of how God is at work in you and in the world. Things may not be the way you want in this season. They certainly aren’t where God will ultimately bring them. Rejoice. Pray. and Give Thanks. Do not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s grief. Rejoice now. Pray now. Give thanks now. Act justly now. Love now. Walk humbly with God now. You will not complete God’s work, but you are a part of it and should not abandon it. God has given you what you need, it’s just waiting for you to tap into it.