Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Greatest Gift

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:26-38
at St. John's Presbyterian church in Houston on December 21, 2008 (Advent 4B)

Once upon a time there was a little Catholic boy who was very poor. He and his brothers and sisters lived with their widowed mother, who was barely able to feed them all. He worked in a store every day after school and on the weekends. All his clothes were patched and worn. He had only one toy—a little Matchbox car. Even that one plaything was broken: the roof was smashed in on one side, all but one of the windows were gone, and two of the wheels were missing. The little boy loved it very much. Since he had nothing else to play with, it became everything: a race car when he was a sportsman, a tank when he was a soldier, an ambulance when he was a doctor. Almost every moment of happiness he remembered had to do with that car.

It was Christmastime. The family was so poor that there would be no presents, but the little boy was excited all the same. He had always wanted to go to evening mass on Christmas eve, and this year, for the first time, he would be allowed to stay up for it. Everyone had told him how splendid it was: the candle lights and Christmas carols, the fine vestments. And before the mass itself began, there would be the blessing of the creche. It was a very large creche, a representation of the Nativity scene, similar to our living Nativity scene last week, except this one was made of plaster. There were plaster figures of Joseph and Mary, of the wise men with their camels and donkeys laden with gifts, of the shepherds with their sheep and sheepdogs, of the herald angels hovering overhead. And a plaster figure of the baby Jesus, with a halo still more glorious than Mary’s and Joseph’s, lay on real straw in the center of it all. (We have all seen him: He always wears the same bland beatific smile and lies with his arms spread wide, both welcoming his adorers and prefiguring his crucifixion.)

In this parish, it was the custom for everyone who came to evening mass to bring a gift for the Christchild. Before taking their places in the pews, people would lay some offering at the plaster child’s crib. Often these gifts were very fine—splendid chalices for the altar, new clothes for the poor, envelopes full of money. On Christmas morning, it seemed as if the baby Jesus had been visited by many caravans of wise men. The little boy wanted very much to give the Christchild a present.
But what could he give? He gave all the money from his after school job to his mother. He had nothing else. He decided that he would find another job and save enough to buy a present for the baby Jesus, and he did just that. All through Advent he got up before dawn and worked at another store until it was time to go to school. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, he had enough money to leave a good present at the creche. He sat at the table in the kitchen of his tiny house, counting what he had earned. While he was trying to decide whether he had time to buy a gift or should simply leave the money at the creche, his mother returned home. “Oh son,” she said. “What a good boy you are! Now we can have a real Christmas dinner!” And she scooped up the money and hurried off to shop before all the stores closed.
The little boy was heartbroken. He went to his room, trying not to be angry at his mother. He thought of what he had been taught to do whenever he was hurt or disappointed: “Offer it up to Jesus.” On the dresser, he saw his broken toy car. He had not had much time to play for weeks, but it had been waiting for him. And then he realized what he had to offer up to Jesus, and when he had combed his hair and dressed in his best clothes and was ready to set off for mass, the car was in his pocket.

He was going alone because his mother had to stay with the younger children. When he arrived the church was already filling up, and he was almost lost among the adults in their bulky coats. He felt very much alone, for almost everyone else seemed to be with family and friends. He walked up the aisle, genuflected just as he had been taught, and turned to the creche, which was set up before one of the side altars, the one dedicated to St. Joseph. Most of the plaster figures had been in place all week, but tonight, for the first time, the baby Jesus was in his manger. Gifts were piling up before him. Some were splendidly wrapped—perhaps toys for poor children whose mothers were not as fiercely proud as the little boy’s. Some were unwrapped, so you could see how expensive they were. The little boy stood shyly before the creche and laid his car amid all the treasures.

The organ had been playing preludes; soon the service would begin. The little boy squeezed into a pew close to the front so that he could see the prist bless the creche. Almost everyone was in place, and an usher took a last look at the creche to see that everything was ready. What the usher saw made him very angry. “Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord’s crib?” he said, loudly enough for the little boy to hear, and he picked up the car and threw it across the church, so that it came to rest at the far end of the sanctuary. The little boy could see it, lying on its roof with its two wheels spinning, looking like a wreck indeed. But he could not retrieve it, for the procession had begun and everyone had stood up to sing the first hymn.

The little boy was crying, but he stood up, too. The procession advanced down the aisle. The priests were in their fines robes, and before them were crosses and banners and a swinging censer filling the church with incense. But the procession came to a dead stop when it reached the crossing, and all the singing died away into awed silence. At first the little boy could not tell what had happened, but he wiped away his tears and looked to see what everyone was staring at: the baby Jesus had come to life and was crawling across he cold stone floor of the church. He crawled until he reached the far end of the sanctuary, tucked the broken car under his arm and crawled back to his creche. By this time all the people had fallen to their knees. At last the priest rose, and approached the manger: there, just as before, a plaster child with a bright halo was lying in the straw, but now he smiled like a happy child, and his arms were folded tight around a broken toy car.

That story was told by Brian Ragen, professor of English at Southern Illinois University. He says his father told him the story when he was a child. Mr. Ragen, a devout Catholic, used to think his father was a great hypocrite. He says: ”We went to mass with my father every Sunday morning. He also went to confession every Saturday afternoon. It was just what we were taught to do in our catechism classes. It was, everyone would have agreed, a good thing. I hated him for it. I knew that when he was not passed out, dead drunk, he was often a mean, foul mouthed terror. I was afraid of him and I despised him. I hated the idea that the ogre who darkened my life would be forgiven—and so easily, too.“
But the Professor’s opinion of his father changed over the years. He writes: ”As I think of my father’s Christmas story now, I realize that I cast him in the wrong role. My father was, indeed, not the good little boy who gave his last plaything to the Lord. My father was the smashed Matchbox car with a couple of wheels missing. He had failed in his public life, and he knew that his family considered him an enemy. I often wish I could know all the things that had made him what he was and sort out what was his fault from what was the result of the war and his other misfortunes. Whatever had darkened his life, it had been enough to break him: failure was the essence of his existence. He was a wreck. But despite—or because of—all this, he clearly longed to be cradled in his Saviour’s arms, to have Christ still seek him after he had been rejected by everyone else. And in the end, perhaps he was like the good little boy after all: he kept dragging himself to church and laying that sorry offering before his God, trusting that it would not be refused.

That story leaves us with a question. What will we give to the Christ Child this year? It’s hard to choose a gift for a giggling little baby who is the God’s Son, Light of Nations, Messiah, King of Kings and Lords of Lords, God in human flesh. What do you give him—a Bible (he helped write it)? A crucifix (don’t remind him)? A gift to charity in his honor (that’s a possibility)? But that’s not enough.

What will you give to the Christ child? Your choices are simple and extreme. You can give him nothing. . . Or you can give him everything (your heart, your bank account, your career, your family, your dreams, your sins). We know the choice that Mary made. As we read in our scripture reading this morning, "Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'"

Follow Mary's example. Give Jesus that part of you that no one else knows. Or give him that item that you most cherish. Give him everything (I dare you). He will take you as you are. Bring your broken life and place it by baby Jesus. If you can’t find the courage to get close to the crib, just stand in the barn where he lies. Stand there in the corner, in the shadows and don’t you dare move. Just stand there and pray and wait. When you are ready to give him everything, He will crawl to you. He wants you and loves you that strongly. The greatest gift you can give to Jesus is the gift of yourself: Your soul, spirit, heart. That is what Jesus wants from you this Christmas.

Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, on this Sunday before Christmas, receive the gift of our lives, the good and the bad, for we come to you just as we are right now and offer ourselves to you. Thank you for accepting the sacred gift of ourselves that we give you today, for the gift of ourselves is the greatest gift we may give to you. In Christ's holy name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When He Returns

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 2 Peter 3:8-15a
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on December 6, 2008 (Advent 2B)

            Edgar Cayce predicted Armageddon will arrive, the earth's axis will shift, and both England and Japan will sink in to the ocean. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be destroyed by earthquakes and floods. And the island of Atlantis will rise from the ocean floor. All of these things were supposed to happen by 2002.

            God's Salvation Church in Taiwan believes Jesus will come to earth in a spaceship during the middle of a nuclear war. Members of God's Salvation Church will climb aboard the spaceship at Lake Street Beach in Miller, Indiana and be saved.

            Evangelist Marilyn Agee predicted that the rapture would happen on Pentecost Sunday in 1999. The rapture, she believed, would trigger various events listed in the book of Revelation, including the war of Armageddon.   (Online:

            These recent illustrations are nothing new. In practically every generation of humans from the time of Jesus until today there have been people and groups of people who have sold all their possessions and moved out into a pasture in the middle of nowhere expecting Christ to return to earth on a particular day of a particular year. Imagine their disappointment on the day after -- when Jesus did not return as they had expected.

            Predictions of the end of the world were rampant even in Jesus' day and time. The resurrected Christ had told his disciples that he would ascend into heaven, but that he would one day return to earth. As we say in the creed, "He ascended into heaven . . . from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." Almost from Day One the church has believed that Jesus will bodily return to earth. So Christians have waited and waited for the return of Christ and the Day of God's Judgment.

            The delay of Christ's return became an issue for early Christians. We can see movement in the way the Apostle Paul and other writers of the New Testament viewed the issue. For instance, our text today seems to make room for the possibility that Christ's return should not be expected immediately. We read in 2 Peter: "Don't overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. God isn't late with his promise as some measure lateness."  (2 Peter 3:8) Apparently, God is not running late. Even if it sometimes feels that way. Rather, God has a reason for delaying the curtain call of human history. As our text puts it: "God is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn't want anyone lost. He's giving everyone space and time to change." (2 Peter 3:9)

            So here is another way of viewing the question of when Jesus will return. The longer Christ waits the better off we humans are because the extra time gives more people space and time to change. Even so, the Bible does teach that there will come a day of reckoning at some point in history. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps a million years from now. But there will come a day of God's judgment.

            Some churches focus on that terrible day of God's judgment. And the churches that focus on such verses can produce some hard core preachers who specialize in tough talk.

            Tough talk. We don't hear much tough talk from Presbyterian pulpits. That may be why we worship in the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps, like me, you have heard the tough talk and are glad to get a break from it. Back in high school for awhile my family attended a small Baptist church and every Sunday you could count on tough talk from the preacher. The content of what he said did not matter. It was the tone of voice. The bulging veins in the neck. The red face.

            But while the image of disaster is one image of the final judgment there is another more positive image that accompanies it. It is the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. You see, the final judgment is not about God being so mad at the world that God destroys the whole thing with a ball of fire. Rather, the Bible is very specific about what God is mad at most and that is injustice. God is angry at a world that prospers the privileged and takes advantage of the poor. That will change when He returns. God is angry at a world in which the powerful abuse the powerless. That will change when He returns. In the new heaven and the new earth things will be different. Christ's return will usher in a new  heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

            The prophet Isaiah paints this portrait of the new heaven and the new earth:

The wolf will romp with the lamb,
    the leopard sleep with the kid.
    Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
    and a little child will tend them. (Isaiah 11:6)

            In the meantime, we are to live in without spot or blemish. We are to lead lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. And even as we work for God's justice on earth now, during our lifetimes, we appreciate the fact that Christ's return is being delayed. After all, the longer Christ waits the more chance people have to grow into the mystery of God's new heaven and earth.

            In the end, words fail us. There is no way to describe the scope and the wonder of what God intends to do in this world. We are left with mere images. Poetic language may be as close as we can get to the mystery. Poetic language such as this ...

Of every earthly plan that be known to man,
            Christ is unconcerned,
He plans of His own
            to set up His throne
When He returns.
(When He returns. Bob Dylan. Copyright (c) 1979 Special Rider Music)

             Christ will return. We anticipate that event during Advent. The writer of 2 Peter provides an explanation for why it hasn't happened. God's giving everyone space and time to change. Space and time to change. That is God's gift to you, to me, during this Advent season. Space and time to change. What a precious gift God gives us.
            As you think about what you will give to your family and friends, your colleagues and business associates, consider giving them the same gift God will be giving you this Christmas: Space and time to change.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What are We Waiting For?

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B
at St. John's Presbyterian Church on November 30, 2008

Mark 13:24-37

"But in those days, after that suffering,

    the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
    and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."


            There are some people called singularitarians who anticipate the arrival of a golden age of technology within the next few decades. For instance, they envision a solution to our oil dependence through new solar panels manufactured by nanotechnology. They say these highly advanced solar panels will be able to harness just 3 tenths of one percent of the sun's light every day and that will be more than enough to provide all the energy needs of all humans on this planet. Each of us will have our own solar power plant installed at home. This is just one example of some rather radical changes that lie just ahead as described by Ray Kurzweil in his new book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a world-class inventor who is called a genius by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

            To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming "singularity," Kurzweil invites us to ponder the nature of exponential growth. He tells the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor's offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, 2 on the second square, 4 on the third, 8 on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on with each consecutive square getting double what the previous square got. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

            It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field's worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor started to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that's about where we stand now—according to Kurzweil—there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

            Kurzweil's observation of the history of technology demonstrates that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light. Now that, my friends, is a vision!

            According to the New Testament, Jesus had a similarly radical vision for the future. Jesus' vision was not based on technological progress. His vision was based on the idea of the coming of God's kingdom. A kingdom based on justice. Jesus' vision of the future requires the end of the world as we know it in order to bring in the world as God envisions it. A new heaven and a new earth. How will the heaven and earth be born?

            Jesus suggests this imagery:

"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken." (Mark 13:24-25) Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds" with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:26-27)

            Presbyterians have always allowed for a broad range of interpretations of how God's new heaven and new earth will be birthed. But we are in agreement about about the result of the new heaven and the new earth. We agree that it will be characterized by justice.

            Justice is a word we do not use much in our daily lives. On the personal level, justice is the fine line between selfishness and selflessness. Justice is being fair in our dealings with people. Justice means we try to do what is "right." The new heaven and new earth is an image of a place and a time when everyone will be taken care of and loved in a way that is appropriate. All loose ends will be tied together. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more death. Everything wrong will be made right. This is the new heaven and the new earth.          

            How can we envision it? Jesus uses the image of a fig tree. The fig tree appears early in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The leaves of the fig tree were used to cover the nakedness of the first humans, Adam and Eve, after they rebelled against God. The fig tree reminds us of how good humanity once had it in the garden of Eden and how we lost our innocence. I have been told that when you plant a fig tree it takes 3 years for the tree to bear fruit. And you have to pay attention to a fig tree. When the time comes and it finally bears fruit you better be ready to pick the figs before the birds get them. Patience is required. Anticipation is required. And so it with God's kingdom. We anticipate Christ's return which will usher in the new heaven and new earth. We anticipate God's justice which will come in full measure at that time.

We engage in an active waiting by engaging in acts of social justice. We move toward the coming of God's Kingdom when we contribute money or time to Braes Interfaith Ministries to feed the hungry. Or roll bandages to send to hospitals overseas. Or spend time in centering prayer. Such acts proclaim our commitment to Jesus' vision of a new heaven and a new earth where everyone has enough food to eat, the sick are treated with dignity and care, and all people have a meaningful personal relationship with God.

    We work toward God's new heaven and earth but we don't get caught up in calendar gazing and predictions about when it will materialize. We don't get caught up in such thinking because Jesus plainly tells us:

'But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come ... or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.' (Mark 13:32-35)

            Anticipation. Advent is about anticipation. So, what are waiting for? We are waiting for the return of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We anticipate a new heaven and a new earth. We anticpate God's justice rolling down like mountain streams. We look for these things during Advent.

            I cannot say whether Ray Kurzweil's singularlity will occur in the year 2045 as he predicts. But I can say that I believe in the end everything that is wrong will be made right by God. In the end, divine justice will prevail. This optimistic future vision compels me and other Christians to work for God's justice now. Anticipation does not mean we sit around in the rocking chair waiting for God to get busy and get it done. Anticipation means we are actively engaged in bringing God's justice to the world in our own time even as we await the final culmination of God's justice at a future date that no one knows.