- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 8, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Advent 2
SOCKS AND UNDERWEAR: RETURNS
Isaiah 53: 1 – 10; John 1: 9 – 14
Once upon a time, there was a handsome King. He was wealthy and powerful. He lived in a glorious palace. He had a crown, jewels and castles throughout the country. He had horses, yachts and aeroplanes. He ate the best cuisine, wore the finest clothes and sat on the most luxurious throne. People bowed in his presence. He led the government and commanded a mighty army. He had it all, except for the one thing he most deeply wanted – a wife to love, to share his life and rule beside him. Of course, being the King, he had many beautiful, wealthy, high-positioned women who would have gladly jumped at the chance to become Queen. The King was wise and just. He knew many women would marry him for status and wealth, but would they love him? He knew he could pick the loveliest or richest woman, but he wouldn’t be marrying for love. One day, while walking through his kingdom and talking to his subjects, the King came across a peasant woman and fell deeply in love. She was obviously poor. Her face was dirty. Her clothes were ragged. She was thin from hunger and didn’t smile. Yet, the King was smitten. She was the one! But did she feel the same way about him? For weeks he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He could reveal his love to her, but how would he know if she was marrying him for love. He called his advisors who told him, she wasn’t suitable; he should find someone of royal stock. They searched the world, but no one captivated him like this lowly woman. Seeing he wasn’t going to give up, his advisors suggested he command the woman to marry him. The King was kind and merciful. He couldn’t abuse the woman’s free will. What kind of marriage would it be, if she resented him? The advisors suggested he woo her with gifts. That would be easy, but would she love the gifts more than him? He didn’t want a lonely, loveless marriage. The King decided the only way he would know if she loved him for himself, would be to put aside his throne, scepter, robe and crown, leave his palace and become a homeless peasant. And so, he became as rough and ragged, as poor and pitiful, as the one he loved. He gave up a life of comfort and privilege – risked it all – in the hope that the one he loved would love him in return.
If that story sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it before. John tells us, “The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one…The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1: 1 & 14) Jesus, the Word, the King, who reigned in the glory and splendour of the heavenly realm, with seraphim to worship him and cherubim to do his bidding, had such a deep love for humanity, that he gave up the majesty that was rightfully his – cast off his robe and crown – and came down to Earth, to live as one of us – rough and ragged, poor and pitiful. All in the hope that we might love him in return. That’s a hard story to get our heads around – that God loves us so much, he not only came, but he became one of us, because he doesn’t want to lose us. He doesn’t want to live without our love. God’s immense love moved him to offer us a priceless gift – his very self. It was a huge risk, because he didn’t know how we’d react to his gift.
This Christmas millions of people will get gifts they don’t want. Have you ever gotten one of those gifts? Once I was given a statue of a unicorn. I was so convincing at seeming grateful that it was followed by statues of seagulls, a loon and a narwhal. Sometimes we get gifts we can’t use. A lighter when you don’t smoke. Another identical cake pedestal. A gadget we don’t know how to use. Bubble bath that irritates your skin? Exercise clothes? And what do we do with gifts we don’t really appreciate? We return them or perhaps re-gift them or maybe leave them in a drawer and forget about them or throw them out. Sometimes we even keep them so we can reject them every time we see them – uh, that unicorn! It doesn’t matter how expensive or unique a gift is or what the giver sacrificed for you to have it, not every gift is well-received.
God’s gift wasn’t well received either. John tells us, “He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him” (John 1: 10 & 11). The phrase “they didn’t want him” is the Greek word, “paralambano”. It means; to receive to oneself, to take in, to embrace. It refers to the spirituality of acceptance. When a couple is married and the minister says, “Do you take this man/woman…” She is speaking of paralambano – “do you receive this person in such as way that they are now a part of you?” One flesh. Not only did the world not receive Jesus, they didn’t even want him. And not much has changed. We all know what the mention of Jesus’ name evokes. People may be open to every spirituality going, but Jesus is still rejected. Perhaps a slight exception is made at Christmas. To a small degree people may acknowledge Jesus with the traditional “Merry Christmas” greeting. His presence is tolerated in Christmas cards and Christmas Carols and he may get a passing nod on a TV special. Maybe its because we value tradition or maybe its because the Christmas Jesus is a sweet, non- threatening image. In the movie Talladega Nights, after Ricky Bobby explains that you can pray to the baby Jesus, teen age Jesus, grown-up Jesus, etc. he announces, “I’m going to “pray to the Baby Jesus, cause that’s my favorite Jesus”. It’s pretty hard to be offended by a baby – they’re sweet and vulnerable and the new ones smell fresh – what’s not to like? To many people it seems the baby Jesus doesn’t confront us or ask anything from us. He’s just part of a lovely, touching story. I’m not sure I agree with that. Babies are demanding little creatures. They need constant care and attention. In coming as a baby, God placed his very self in our arms and said, “take me, hold me, care for me, receive me into your heart.” Yet, somehow, humanity missed that part making the story all about us and so the Christmas Jesus became the crucified Jesus. People also like the miracle/ healer Jesus. The Jesus who was there to serve and fix things. In John 6, after Jesus fed the 5000, the crowd followed him to get a few more favours. Instead, Jesus preached a hard message, “Only insofar as you eat and drink my flesh and blood, do you have life within you” (vs. 53). In other words, only as you receive me into yourself, will you have life. The attractive miracle Jesus quickly became the repulsive preaching Jesus. He’s more than people can stomach. He’s offensive. He’s the present people return.
In Jesus’ day, the Romans hated him because he was a Jew and they hated the Jews. The Jews were nothing but trouble – always talking back, not paying their taxes, insurrectionists. Nothing but trouble for an occupying army. And Jesus, another Jew, caused more trouble with his talk of a kingdom opposed to Caesar’s. They rejected the Son of God because they hated the people of God. In our day, we meet many people who reject Jesus because they dislike the Church, God’s people. Christians are seen as self-righteous, rule-bound (graceless) and hypocritical. People reject Jesus because the Church refused to remarry them after a divorce, or we wouldn’t baptize their child, or they gave money only to discover the minister was embezzling funds, or they did their best to help out at an event and instead of being thanked, they were criticized. These experiences are so prevalent they have a name: Church hurts. No doubt many of you have a “Church hurt” story you could tell. The Church may be God’s people, but we’re just people, sinful and unaware, like everyone around us. We’re the tacky, ripped paper God has wrapped his gift in. Don’t let the wrapping cause you to reject the gift.
The other group who rejected Jesus were the Jews. The Jews were looking for a Messiah, a saviour. A mighty leader who would free them from the oppression of the Romans. Jesus was a far cry from their hope. What kind of Messiah dies on a cross? “He saved others. Let’s see him save himself! The Messiah of God—ha! The Chosen—ha!” (Luke 23:35). A disappointment if ever there was one. Yet, many of us are like the Jews. We trust in Christ until life doesn’t turn out the way we want; until a prayer’s not answered, or we feel cheated or we’re persecuted for our faith. What kind of Saviour let’s us get cancer, lose our home, allows our child to die, doesn’t save our marriage? Like the Jews, our expectations are a bit off. We haven’t read Isaiah 53 closely if we’re expecting only the miraculous, Christmas Jesus. We can’t receive that Jesus and return the hard-preaching, crucified Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to save us from suffering – he came to save us from our sin, from death, from hell. He came to save us from ourselves. Imagine you’re in your apartment and the fire alarm goes off. You assume it’s a false alarm until you smell smoke. You grab a towel to cover your head and a bottle of water. You’re running up the hall, almost out of the building, when you hear someone coughing and calling for help. You go into the room and see a person trapped under a chair on the floor suffering from smoke inhalation and the heat of the fire. Being a good person, you give them your bottle of water, wish them well and proceed to exit the building. What kind of a hero looks out for him or herself? Jesus isn’t that kind of Saviour – he’s the kind who lifts us on his shoulder and takes us out of the building to safety, even if he loses his own life doing it. We will suffer; Jesus told us that. He never promised otherwise. But he will not abandon us.
During his last days on earth, Jesus promised his disciples, “… I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live” (John 14: 3). I will get you – paralambano – “I will receive you unto myself” (KJV). I will keep you, love you, make you a part of me, forever. When Jesus returns, he will come, not as a peasant, but as a mighty, victorious King; a bridegroom ready to receive his beloved to himself. How will the story end? Will the King win over the heart of the one he loves? Does she receive him or return him? Will she enter his kingdom and share in his inheritance? Will they live together in a bond of love? I don’t know because the ending hasn’t been written yet. In fact, this is the kind of story where each one of us gets to write our own ending. The King has come, disguised as one of us. Will you receive him or return him? If you’re willing to receive him, your story will end “happily ever after” and you’ll live forever in a Kingdom of peace with the one who loves you with an everlasting love.