A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 23, 2012.
If you are uncertain of which of two paths to take, choose the one on which the shadow of the cross falls.
–from Hugh Walpole, A Biography by Rupert Hart-Davis
O God, Emmanuel ever with us, help us to make a place in our hearts for you to reign. Help us to make straight within our hearts a highway for your advent to come to us. If we are too content with the ways of the world, then come and bring words of the prophet to unsettle us to seek a more worthy calling. If we grow proud in our petty knowledge and can no longer stoop to learn of you, then set before us a child whose innocence challenges our false confidence, whose humility challenges the foolishness of our pride and whose faith restores our hope. In this holiday season when wanderers and exiles long for home, we think of you and your arms where we find welcome and comfort. May the Christ Child gather all to him this day so that none who long for him feel cut off. O God, we are but small children who long to be taken in and who still need comfort. Tell us again the story of your son’s birth and tell us about the glory of the angels, the wonder of the shepherds, and the journey of the Wise Men. In these days when there is little to be seen of you in the world, give us these things: a sane mind, a sincere heart, and a simple life. Grant us these in the name of the one that we have found in the manger, Christ our Lord. Amen.
This past week, I was shopping for a present, and since it is not yet the time for giving presents, I will just say that it was an electronic item. I went to three big box stores here in Rome. Two of them had no clue what I was asking for. They did look but didn’t have it. I went to the third and they did know what I was looking for but did not have it. I decided I would search on line and found that Target had it on line and in stores. That was going to work great because we were headed to Atlanta to see our daughter and her family, and there was a Target on the way. I stopped, and they did not know what I was talking about.
If we went just past my daughter’s house and if we hurried, we could go to another Target before we went to see her. They did know what I was talking about, but did not have it either. That was five stores that I went to—three of which did not even know what I was talking about—and nobody had it.
Have you ever had that kind of experience where you have seen something advertised and you are encouraged and enticed in some way to get this product. Maybe it is a super duper cable deal and you go to sign up for it and they say, “I am sorry but that is not available on your street. You can sign up for a text alert and we will let you know when it comes to your neighborhood.”
You might see a movie advertised. You get in your car and go to the movie theater and are told, “I am sorry. That movie is not going to be here for another week. You will have to go to Atlanta to see that one.” Have you had that experience? You are ready to buy, you are ready to go, you are ready to sign up but you get to that moment and are told, “Sorry. We don’t have it. Sorry. You can’t get that here. Sorry. It is not available where you live. It is not available.”
This is the fourth week of Advent and the theme in our congregation for the Advent season has been “A New World Coming.” We have looked at the birth of Christ 2,000 years ago, and as we celebrate that birth, we think about the new world that Christ brings with him, how God incarnate, in our midst, has arrived and has brought his kingdom.
The four candles in the Advent wreath represent peace, hope, joy, and love and these are the qualities that Christ brings with him. The new world is dawning because of his birth and is possible because he has come into the world. There are times where we have to wonder, Where is it? Where is the new world? Where is the hope, peace, joy, and love?
Not in the Middle East. There is bloodshed there every day. Not in Connecticut. There are mainly broken hearts there. Not in the nation’s capitol. There is log jam once again. Really, in many of our lives, not here either. There are pressures of so many different things—being at odds with someone else in the family over the way we raise children, the stress of relationships, and things at work. We want to know where is the new world that Christ is bringing? What about the song of the angels, the joy of the shepherds, the trip and the joy of the Wise Men when they came to that place where the star shined over where Jesus was, and they went in, and laid out their gifts. It seems available for them, but the message for us seems to be, “Sorry. Not available in your neighborhood. Sign up and we will send you a text message when it is here.”
The message of scripture from Luke 9:23-27 gives us a solution to this. This is a passage about discipleship and not typically your most joyous Christmas passage. It uses all those great words that Jesus uses when talking about following him: Deny yourself, pick up your cross. Some of the other Gospels have a similar expression. Luke adds one extra word: “Pick up your cross daily.” Just in case we might have missed the point that it is not something we do once but it is something that we do all the time. “Deny yourself, pick up your cross daily, and follow me.” We think, I want something a little easier for Christmas. I don’t want to hear all that discipleship stuff.
Then there are the last words in the passage. He says, “And there are those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” Some interpreters of scripture think Jesus has made a mistake. They interpret that particular phrase to mean that Jesus thought he was going to be crucified, resurrected, and he would come back before the people there would die. He was going to be raised and would come back in very short order and, therefore, Jesus really did not understand what he was going to do. That is a mistake because what Jesus does here is Jesus ties the way of the cross and being able to see this new world. Those who deny themselves, pick up their cross daily, and follow Jesus can see the new world any time. He connects the picking up of the cross with being able to understand that God’s kingdom has come and it is available to any of us now.
Let’s take a step back and think how we expect to get the Christmas spirit. We always say, “Have you got the Christmas spirit yet? I really hope I can get the Christmas spirit before tomorrow night. I’ve just got to get the Christmas spirit.” If we are really trying to work it up, we usually think the things around us are somehow going to make us feel more like Christmas. We have lights and decorations. The trees are pretty bleak at this time of year. All the warm weather grass has turned brown and it gets dark early so we need bright lights, colored lights, decorated lights, and candles.
We need music. We have Christmas music on in our car. We find the XM station that has the classical Christian music. We get tired of that and try contemporary Christian music. We listen to Mariah Carey and Tom Petty sing Christmas carols. That does it for some people. We go to parties and give gifts. We are hoping that all of these things that happen around us will somehow give us the Christmas spirit. We are waiting for the world around us to lift us up. We are waiting for all the things that we experience and invite into our lives to finally flood over us and we think, I’ve got it now. I’ve got the Christmas spirit. There it is. That’s good.
This is the way that many of us would expect this new world that Christ brings (we will call it the kingdom of God) to come upon us in the same way. We are thinking we can stay the same old cynical, hateful, angry self and like the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol who always waves that thing and everybody gets good cheer, God is going to wave something, the world is going to get happy, and when the world gets happy, we will be able to see the kingdom of God. It will be all around us. But if our hearts are not ready, would we really appreciate it? Would we know it if we saw it?
Have you ever been in one of those situations where you are frustrated for the day and in a hurry. You are somewhere and there is a group of people laughing. They seem to be having the most wonderful time, and you think, What are they laughing at? Why are they having such a good time? Don’t they have to go to work? Don’t they have anything else to do? Other people can be having a wonderful time, and if our hearts are not right, we don’t smile and laugh, too. We resent what is going on with them. If the kingdom of God were to start coming around us and we were waiting for it to lift us up, we would probably say, “Who do those Holy Rollers think they are? They’ve got the kingdom of God. Well, it has not come to my house yet.”
Jesus tells us that we really do not expect for all of this to happen around us and lift us up but it is something that happens inside of us. It is something that begins to change in us and we realize that the kingdom is here. We deny ourselves, we pick up the cross, and we follow Christ. We find that in the following of Jesus this new world begins to dawn around us. We follow Christ and we walk away from the culture of selfishness. We walk and follow Christ and we turn away from being cynics and begin to bless people instead of always being critical. We let go of the malice in our hearts and we turn to be people of grace. As we do these things, we begin to look around and realize, I see a new world. I see the world differently. I see this world that Christ has brought with him that has been here dawning for 2,000 years. I can see now why the angels sang and why the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem, and why the Wise Men followed the star. As I walk the path of the cross, as I follow Jesus Christ, I begin to see what God is at work doing in this world and the kingdom of God is here now.
If we are waiting for it to be delivered to our house like a FedEx package, we are going to wait a long time, but if we recognize that the kingdom of God is here and now for any of us who will walk along behind Jesus and do the things in our lives that Christ is known for that we read about in scripture, the things that God wants to do through us, we begin to see—it is dawning, a new day, a new world, Christ has come, the kingdom of God is at hand.
We think about going to Bethlehem. Think about all the hymns that talk about come to Bethlehem and see. We go to Bethlehem, but we realize that is the beginning of our journey. We start in Bethlehem but we must walk a road to Calvary. We go to bow before the cradle of a king but we realize that we have to walk the way of the cross. Bethlehem is the place we start, but it is a journey of discipleship. Many times, the journey of discipleship looks so dismal, dark, and self-sacrificing but we find in it the blessings of this new world in which we have always wanted to abide.
When we think about what Christ offers, this is not bait and switch like some cable offer that we can’t get but we can get another instead. The new world that Christ offers simply does not come the way that many of us have wanted it to come. It does not come all around us and then somehow carry us along with it, but it comes in our own hearts when we make the decision that we will follow Christ. This truly is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who was born and I give my life to follow him. I will get up from Bethlehem and go to Calvary. I will thank God for his manger cradle and I will thank God for the cross. It is the way of the cross that truly lets me see this world that God is working in all around us.
The good things of God are happening if we would but open our eyes and walk the path with Jesus.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.