I want to begin this morning by thanking the staff and members of this church for your glad and joyous support of my family as our daughter Allison was married here yesterday. So many of you gave of yourselves in ways both great and small to make sure this was a wonderful day for us, and it was. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
This morning I have been a very reflective mood. It has made me think about Mary, when the Bible says, “she pondered all these things in her heart.” The shepherds had just come and brought tidings of the angelic appearance and message regarding her son. Magi came and brought gifts. In the temple, Simeon and Anna recognized her baby as the promised Messiah. She had much to ponder about the impact that her child had on people.
When you go to a wedding there is a pretty big spotlight, and rightly so, on the couple who are getting married and on the wedding party. If you were here yesterday you saw those things, but I want to tell you about a few of the candles burning away from the spotlight that I have been reflecting on this morning.
Allison and Cody love children and wanted their wedding to be child friendly in every way. Thank you for bringing your children and creating the kind of atmosphere they wanted.
The power of church family was everywhere to be seen for me yesterday. The first church I served was in Gastonia. All of our children were born there. Allison was almost five years old when we moved from Gastonia 22 years ago. 14 people from that small congregation were here yesterday to celebrate with her. One couple brought their little granddaughter who had never met any of us, and when they left she told me she loved being at the wedding.
Our second church, in Dunn, NC, is much further away, but two couples made the 12 hour round trip to celebrate with Allison. People of all ages from this congregation who have had a variety of relationships with Allison gave up their Saturday afternoon to be here.
Cody’s family has deep roots in the country outside of Gaffney. They are very active in the MacedoniaBaptistChurch, which is the center of that community. Allison has become a member of that church and sings in the choir. The pastor who assisted me in the service has been the pastor there for 39 years, his whole career. Cody’s father, who is a grandfather, was a teenager in the church when he became the pastor there. Family members were here, church members were here, choir members were here from Macedonia. Fellow teachers and students from Allison’s school were here.
There is a lot that goes on away from the spotlight that gives you a lot to think about. Yesterday all you could tell is that there were a lot of unfamiliar faces here. For me there was a story behind every face, though I did not know some of the stories until yesterday. This is true for all of you whenever you have an event like a wedding or a funeral in your families.
I think that is an important Advent learning. A lot of important stuff is going on away from the spotlight and it is easy to miss it. When I arrived at church very early yesterday Alex Williams and several friends were already at work cleaning out the beds in front of the church and they worked all morning. Maybe that was a coincidence. And though I am the one in the spotlight, the Mom at our house is the one who knows her children through and through and has helped both our daughters create the wedding day experience that was perfectly suited for them and has managed every detail. I am a very lucky man in every way and I stand in awe at what she does.
When Jesus arrived, there were a lot of bright spotlights shining. The brightest one was shining on Rome and its emperor, Caesar Augustus. In Jerusalem the spotlight was shining on Herod, who served as king by the Roman’s pleasure. The spotlight was also shining on the Temple, the center of Judaism, where people came to worship and sacrifice, and where the leaders of Judaism tried to balance religious devotion with political movements to revolt against Rome. None of these spotlights revealed what God was up to.
It seems that a star served as a special astronomical sign which astrologers to the east saw and studied. They determined that it heralded the birth of a new king, so they followed it and brought gifts. But the star was only able to get them into the neighborhood, not to the right address. Their assumption was the normal one, that if a new king had been born for Israel, the star must be leading them to the king’s palace in Jerusalem. So that’s where they went, only to find out that it was news to Herod if a new king had been born, and unwelcome news at that. The specific address had to be found in Scripture, and the religious leaders informed Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. So he told the Magi to head down the road a few miles to Bethlehem, and, by the way, if they really found a new king to please come back and tell him so he could come and worship him as well. They wisely chose not to return to that spotlight, and just to be on the safe side Herod decreed the death of the children of Bethlehem. The religious authorities don’t seem to have given the Magi a second thought.
When Joseph and Mary bring Jesus into that other spotlight, the Temple, after forty days, the Temple establishment does not notice. Only two old, faithful, praying Jews, who are spending their time and energy on things that profit rather than religious disputes and programs, are in tune with God doing a new thing through this child. Simeon and Anna come over praising God and saying all kinds of outlandish things about who this baby is and what he will do. I expect the religious authorities and most people in the temple that day just rolled their eyes and shook their heads and attributed it to old age.
Most of those who were looking for and expecting a Messiah completely missed it. They were blinded by the spotlights shining in familiar places. Only the foreigners who had their eyes wide open to the heavens and shepherds who also had their eyes wide open to the heavens and elderly people who had devoted themselves to prayer were able to discern what God was doing. And things went along undisturbed for the next 30 years.
Then John the Baptist burst onto the scene. He was from a respectable, priestly family, and by rights he should have been a Temple priest like his father Zechariah. But he was not free to exercise his calling in that context, so he set up shop out in the wilderness by the Jordan River. He drew a spotlight of sorts on himself, the spotlight drawn by the spectacle, the oddball, the protester on the street syndrome. He renounced the comforts of society, wore ragged clothes, ate a bizarre diet, and tried to get on the nerves of everyone who came to see him. “Repent! The Kingdom of God is near!” And there was something about him that was genuine, that pierced the numbness that lots of people are enshrouded in and served as a wakeup call to reorient their lives. People flocked out to him to hear his message and to be baptized.
Eventually some of the religious leaders from the Temple were sent out to see what he was up to and try to reign him in. “Who are you?” they wanted to know. He said, “Not the Messiah. Not Elijah. Not the prophet. I am the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah prophesied.”
John was not the light, he came to point to the light. Yet the spotlight did shine on him for a time and many were attracted to his light and many hesitated to leave it. Later when he was in prison, even John began to doubt whether Jesus was really the Messiah. He sent some of his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one we have been expecting, or should we look for another?” In the 19th chapter of Acts, Paul visits Ephesus. He finds a curious community there composed of people who had been baptized by John and still identified themselves with John, so John’s influence was strong and lasting upon those who came out to see him and be baptized by him.
All Christians, and especially all Christian leaders, face the same challenge, to reflect the light upon Jesus rather than letting it rest on us. We have to point to Jesus, and we have to let Jesus be Jesus rather than making him in our own image. He is not exactly what any of us expect or want him to be. We can try to make him into a Democrat or a Republican, or a capitalist or a socialist, or a law enforcer or a rule breaker, but in the end he is going to speak for himself and we are going to be surprised and humbled. I think it is safe to say that if Jesus lived today he would not be running for office or preaching from a pulpit or appearing regularly on talk radio or tv.
Then, as now, spotlights were shining on the rich, the famous, the powerful. Our eyes and attention are attracted to these lights and we are mesmerized by them. But in the end they keep us from paying attention to the candle – the true light which has come into the world in Jesus Christ, the light which pierces the darkness and which the darkness will never overcome. It is not an overpowering light, but it never goes out.
I want to close with a quote that I have shared with you before from Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, The Search for the Historical Jesus. It is a reminder to humility in understanding our relationship with Jesus. He writes, “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”
As we continue to make our way through Advent, let’s train ourselves to look away from the world’s spotlights and find the candles burning around us, often in small and hidden ways – the way of the Christ.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 14, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church