Sunday, December 26, 2010

God Will Find a Way

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

1st Sunday after Christmas Year A

Amid our celebrations of Christ's birth on this first Sunday after Christmas we run headlong into a horrid story of genocide in the tale of King Herod's proported murder of babies in his attempt to kill baby Jesus. There is no historical evidence for the story of Herod slaughtering the innocents although there are records of plenty of other of his dastardly deeds. King Herod symbolizes Pharaoh in this story. In Exodus 1:22-2:10, Pharaoh commands that every male child of the Hebrews should be thrown into the Nile but God saved baby Moses after his mother hid him in a basket among the reeds o the bank of the river. Ironically, Pharaoh's daughter found baby Moses among the reeds and adopted him as her son so he was raised in the royal family.

Later in the Old Testament story we find a dreamer named Joseph, seventeen years old at the time, who was helping out his brothers herding flocks of sheep. Joseph brought his father bad reports on his brothers and his brothers did not appreciate that. His father loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was the child of his old age and he made him an elaborately embroidered coat. When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than them, they grew to hate him--they wouldn't even speak to him.

Then the Old Testament Joseph had a dream. In his dream he envisioned himself sitting on a throne and his brothers came and bowed down before him. After Joseph shared his dream with his brothers they hated him even more. His brothers said, "So! You're going to rule us? You're going to boss us around?" One day Joseph's brothers spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, "Here comes that dreamer. Let's kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We'll see what his dreams amount to." They imprisoned Joseph in a cistern and sold him to some slave traders who took him to Egypt. After many years, many trials and many dreams Joseph became the Vice-President of Egypt. Number One in the Pharaoh's Administration. And when famine had stricken the land and times were desperate God used Joseph to save his brothers and all their family from starvation. Joseph the Old Testament dreamer was part of God's salvation plot.

In a similar fashion, the Joseph in our story today was part of God's continuing salvation plot. When Herod died an angel appeared to Joseph in another dream and told him to take baby Jesus and mother Mary back to Israel. Like his namesake in the Old Testament Joseph was a dreamer. God spoke to the New Testament Joseph through his dreams. The New Testament Joseph is the father figure of the holy family with mother Mary and baby Jesus. God spoke to the this Joseph in a dream and told him King Herod had died and he should now return to Israel. But Joseph was not ready to risk the lives of his family for a dream.

God kept coming at the New Testament Joseph. God can be relentless at times. God spoke to Joseph in another dream and Joseph finally got the message. Joseph took the holy family back to Nazareth. This fulfilled yet another prophecy. God's plan was still on the move. Through thick and thin God was there. Protecting baby Jesus and the holy family. Inspiring them to move back to Israel. So back to Israel they went. Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.

Between Joseph's dreams and the babies screams lay God's plan for the salvation of humankind. God works in mysterious ways. God works in creative ways. God can use even the cries of a baby. God can use even the dreams of a grown man. There is no stopping God's plan. God is on a roll.

God knows how to manipulate powerful people to get his work done. God can even use unwitting Kings to accomplish His will. A king such as Herod. Or presidents too. No politician can block God out. No trillionaire can deter God's will. No corporate executive is exempt from being used by God to accomplish the divine plan.

No matter who tries to block His plan God will find a way to achieve human salvation. Not even Herod the Great can stop God's yearning for the salvation of all creation. If relentless love is God's way, then our way seems to the way of sorrow.

There is a popular song whose chorus goes: "Love will find a way." That is, I think, the message here. Love will find a way. God is love. And God will find a way. God will find a way to take care of God's children. God will find a way to continue the salvation story. God will find a way to keep His creation alive and growing. This text is an impressive demonstration of God's tenacious love for His human creatures and His whole creation.

Sometimes we feel discarded. Put aside like a Christmas toy that has now grown old. Tossed over in a corner of the room where no one ever comes. Grounded in the dark with the dust mites and other microbial nomads. Forgotten. Overlooked. Ignored. But God hears our cries.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8:22) God hears the cries of all creation. For freedom. For hope. For a new creation. All creation yells to God for freedom. And God will move heaven and earth to bring salvation to God's people. God's salvation is a process, a work in progress. God is still working toward the new creation. God has not quit. God is not on vacation. God is not taking the week off to bring in the New Year. God is relentless. God will see it through to the end. God will bring salvation to the human race. God is totally committed to this goal. So go ahead and mark it down and consider it done. The baby in the manger symbolizes more than the birth of a God-man long ago. The baby in the manger symbolizes the power of God at work for the new birth of all creation.

Let us do our part to participate in God's regenerative work on behalf of all creation. This work is never easy and it is never finished. Yet we continue on working with God for the liberation of all creation. Even when the powers that be, the King Herods of this world, would try to destroy God's creation. We find in the story of Jesus' birth that God was active in preserving the infant Jesus for his future mission.

One of the great theological revelations that we inherit from our Reformed faith is that God is active in human history. We see it in the story of baby Moses being rescued from Pharaoh's campaign of murder of Hebrew boys. God saved Moses. We see God being active in human history by rescuing baby Jesus from King Herod's slaughter of the innocents.

God is active in human history. That is the meaning of Jesus' name - "Emmanuel" - "God with us." God is with us, active, vigilant, working for the salvation of humankind and all creation. Another great theme from the Reformation is that we are saved to serve. God calls each of us as individuals and all of us as a team to work with God for the salvaiton of our souls and for the restoration of all creation. It's a big job and it won't be finished in our lifetimes. It is a cycle of salvation that God continues from generation to generation.

Today, as we celebrate Christ's birth, we remember that God is active in human history and God is active in our own lives. Our role is to cooperate with God and facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit in our own life. That is what Pharaoh's daughter did when she adopted baby Moses and saved him from Pharaoh. That is what Joseph did when he took on the role of Jesus' father and protected him from King Herod. Each of us has a role to play in God's salvation history. Therefore, each of our lives is crucially important in the grand scheme of things. May we live into God's plan for our lives so we may more fully participate in God's salvation of all creation. With God's help, we will.

Monday, December 20, 2010

God Is Here

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

When Joseph's life was interrupted by Mary's surprising pregnancy, he sought to be mature. He was not the baby's father, and so bore no personal responsibility for the child, but he still loved Mary. The situation called for a graceful solution, but Joseph was not aware of just how grace-filled things could become. A quick and quiet end to the engagement seemed the best thing to do. He would quietly break off their engagement.

But an angel's voice spoke to Joseph in a dream, suggesting that this situation was part of something much greater. There were signs that pointed to God's careful planning and a promise that the birth of this child was the culmination of an age-old dream of the Hebrew people. And the impending birth contained a commitment of God's continued presence to sustain the miracle. God was using Joseph and Mary to achieve a wonderful purpose. Joseph was invited to join in the miracle. When the dream ended, he had to choose his course of action.

Joseph's story reminds us that the Christmas message is always a surprise. According to the gospels, the real father of Mary's baby was God. While we've moved on to different debates in the past 50 years, the question of the virgin birth of Jesus was controversial 100 years ago.

Tom Harpur points out the theological meaning of the virgin birth of Jesus in his book Water into Wine. By openly declaring that Joseph was not the actual begetter of Jesus, the Evangelists are saying that what mattered was not so much the natural side of Jesus' humanity, but the divine side. What it says at the most profound level is that each human being's birth is a miraculous happening. We have a physical-psychical nature from our mother's womb, because we are also begotten of God. We have a divine origin or a latent divinity within ourselves as a result of direct divine descent. As it says in the Book of Acts, 'We are all God's offspring." This higher or more spiritual meaning is directly expressed in the prologue of John's Gospel, where he says: "That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (King James Version).

Thus, for example, Joseph Campbell sees the mythic meaning of the virgin birth as the coming to full awareness by each individual person that he or she is more than a human animal concerned merely with reproduction and material things. It is the "birth of the spiritual as opposed to the merely natural life," he says; the recognition that there are higher aims and values in living than self-preservation, reproduction, pleasure, the acquisition of money and things, and the struggle for power or status. It's a birth in the heart, or the idea of being spiritually "born again" that Jesus spoke of and which has been so misunderstood by fundamentalists today.

So the question posed to us by the virgin birth is not, "Do you believe this literally?" but, "Have you truly experienced your own divinity within? Are you claiming your inheritance as more than a human animal--as a fully human being?" To put this another way: "Has the Christ principle been born in the manger of your consciousness?" As Campbell points out, this kind of virgin birth within is well expressed in St. Paul's statement Galatians, "I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me."

In order for the story to have any power it must be real in and for us.

The whole allegory of the humble but royal birth in a cave or stable was based upon the archetypal idea of the kingly nature of the crowning of our evolutionary development by the advent of self-reflective consciousness. As the Apostle Paul puts it: "Christ in you; the hope of glory."

Thus, all the rites and practices of the churches at Christmastime are truly efficacious and meaningful only if the birth of the "Savior Jesus" is understood as a symbol of the glorious "virgin" birth within ourselves. The joyful message is that Transcendence has broken into history and become part of every one of us. What we need is to have the eyes to see this glory within and all around. It is when we truly recognize who and what we really are that we are born again.

This Christmas holiday engenders great expectations. We have a vision of how it should be—the perfect Christmas. We know exactly how we want the tree to look, which presents we should like to receive, which of our family members should do what, what each person should say to us, how the food should taste, how it all should be. But it never is. Christmas never lives up to our great expectations. The rolls get burned. The new skirt is the wrong size. The brother-in-law says the wrong thing.

How can we bridge the gap between our great expectations and the commonplace reality of Christmas? Make a commitment with me today. Say with me, "Today I will allow myself and those around me the freedom to be as they are. I will not rigidly impose my idea of how things should be." Will you agree to do that today, on Christmas Eve? Will you allow yourself and those around you the freedom to be as they are? Will you refuse to rigidly impose your idea of how things should be during Christmas? Let go of your notions of how things should be this Christmas. Let go and see what God will do. The Holy Spirit is very creative. Who knows what new things God has for you this Christmas?

Joseph determined to dismiss Mary quietly, without a fuss. But God fussed. An angel was dispatched to Joseph with a dream of a special child, ". . . and you shall call him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins."

No matter who you are what your station, life does not always run smoothly. When you want to run a quick errand before work, there are no checkout clerks available. The new school years starts with promise but that comes to a halt over your failure to understand the technical words in one of your textbooks. Business trends turn against even the best management, and companies are forced to lay off good workers. Marriages may go along well for years, then suddenly fail under unexpected stress. Mature people learn to deal with these situations in responsible ways. That is what Joseph did and that is what God calls us to do.

Jesus is not the product of human effort but of divine intervention. God intends to become part of our lives and will take the most amazing route to do so, even that of saving us through our problems, redeeming us in the midst of adversity. Prophecy does get fulfilled, signs do point to a miraculous intervention and God is unexpectedly here. God is here in the birth of a baby in a manger.

Author Dennis Covington recalls that on long summer evenings when he and his buddies had been out fishing or playing ball, each boy's mother would call him home in a different way. Most mothers would lean out the back door and yell for her child. "Frankie! Danny! Stanley! Come home!" Some mothers had big cowbells outside the back door, and they would ring the cowbell to call a child home. But Dennis' dad was always the one to call him home. And Mr. Covington didn't just stand on the porch and yell for Dennis. He wandered down to the lake and softly called "Dennis." And father and son would walk home together. As Covington writes, "He always came to the place I was before he called my name."(Dennis Covington. Salvation on Sand Mountain (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing Company), 239-240. Cited in John Kramp. Getting Ahead by Staying Behind (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), p. 168.)

And that's exactly what God did for us. In Jesus, He came to the place we were before He called us. He came for you. He is "Emmanuel — God with us." And God is with us. That is the mystery, the majesty and the meaning of Christmas. God is with us. God is here. God is here.

Loosen up and let God move in your heart today. Open your heart to God's love. Open your mind to God's truth. Open your eyes to what God is doing in your life, in your family, in this church. God is here. Here inside. Inside of me and inside of you.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on December 19, 2010, Advent 4A

Monday, December 13, 2010

How to Handle Criticism

Introduction to the reading ...

In the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel, one can feel the pressure of Jesus' opposition building. John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. In verses 16 and 17, Jesus says that people are like children: "I invite them to play like we're having a wedding; in other words, to play a happy game, but they refuse. So I invite them to play a sad game, like we're having a funeral, but they don't want to do that either. People are just contrary, critical, hard to please."

Here is Matthew 11:1-19 ...

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?' Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.'

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: 'What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way before you."

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

'But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
"We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn."

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon"; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!" Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.'


It is impossible to go through life without being criticized. Have you noticed that? If you try to accomplish something, you will be criticized. If you are satisfied to loaf, you will be criticized for that. I heard about a department store that made a big fuss over its millionth customer. The store president made a speech in her honor. She was given gifts. Her picture was taken for the paper. After these ceremonies, the customer continued to her original destination - the complaint department.

If anyone ever received lots of criticism, surely it was Jesus. The religious establishment called him a blasphemer. He was accused of being a glutton, a drunkard, a Samaritan, and a friend of sinners. The Bible refers to him as "despised and rejected of men." His own family thought he was acting irresponsibly. In the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel, one can feel the pressure of Jesus' opposition building. John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. In verses 16 and 17, Jesus says that people are like children: "I invite them to play like we're having a wedding; in other words, to play a happy game, but they refuse. So I invite them to play a sad game, like we're having a funeral, but they don't want to do that either. People are just contrary, critical, hard to please."

The first criticism of Jesus in this text comes from John the Baptist. This was the person who earlier had said of Jesus, "I am not worthy to wipe off his sandals." But John has now been suffering through an episode in Herod's prison system and he's not thinking straight. Perhaps the conditions were as bad as some of the prison systems today such as the LA County, California prison system where there are 6 people to a cell but there are only bunk beds for 4 so 2 of them have to sleep on the floor which is drenched with seepage from the cell toilet. In such conditions disease runs rampant. Perhaps John the Baptist has some illness that led him to be confused about Jesus so he finally sent an emissary to ask Jesus is he really was the Messiah. Jesus responded by telling him to judge him by his actions: The poor have the gospel preached to them and the sick are healed. Yes, said Jesus, I am the Messiah. John's question was so much a criticism as a question of doubt and Jesus was secure enough not to be blown away by John's question as to his identity.

Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (vs 5-6)

Yet there were others who took offense at Jesus. In fact, according to our lesson today, the crowd took offense at Jesus.

We know from many other Gospel stories the religious leaders, the Pharisees, took offense at Jesus. Many mainline scholars today would say the Pharisees are a literary device employed by the gospel writers to portray the conflict in the early church between Peter's followers in Jerusalem who were more Orthodox Jews and Paul's contingency in Antioch who were more Gentile Christians.

Read between the lines in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament and the confict between Peter and Paul and their followers becomes clear. Conflict between Christians has been characteristic of the experience from the very beginning. The issues change but the conflicts continue. In the early church a big issue was whether or not a Christian must eat kosher food. That issue was resolved by saying no we do not have to eat kosher food and the church probably lost members over it.

Beyond that issue was the question of whether Jesus was a myth or an actual historical figure. The Gnostics, who were a large group in the early church, said that Jesus was a myth. The orthodox Christians said Jesus was a historical figure. The orthodox Christians won that argument.

Then in the early year 1000 the conflict in the church was over the issue of what role the Holy Spirit plays in the Trinity. Is the Holy Spirit subordinate to the Father and the Son? The Roman Catholic Church thought so but the Greek Orthodox Church thought not and the church split.

In the early 1900s debate raged as to whether Jesus mother was a virgin or not. That question split the church between the fundamentalists who said yes and the neo-liberals who said no.

In the 1970s there was a conflict over whether women could be ordained as Elders and Ministers of the Word and sacrament. It was a heated debate. As you can tell from the leadership of our church, the women won that one in the PC(USA).

Today the conflict centers over whether gays and lesbians may be ordained as Elders and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. This debate has been raging since 1974 and is still hotly debated as attested at the presbytery meeting we hosted last month. When this issue is finally settled, I imagine some Christians will be disappointed and leave the church and then we will move on to another issue.

So in the big scheme of things the Christian church has been characterized by the beginning by conflict and we follow a leader who was criticized and in fact was a controversial figure. This is Jesus whom we follow. The Bible says that if the spirit of Christ lives in you, you will produce the following fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control. Are you seeing those fruits in your life? If you are a fruit-producing tree, don't worry unduly about criticism.

As my mother used to always say, "If it's not one thing, it's another." I learned early in my pastoral ministry that criticism comes with the calling. Any experienced pastor who is honest will tell you that. Why should we consider it would ever be any different, considering the criticism Jesus received. The religious establishment called him a blasphemer. He was accused of being a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners. The Bible refers to him as "despised and rejected of men." His own family thought he was acting irresponsibly. As Jesus told his disciples, "A disciple is not greater than his master." So we should expect no different treatment than Jesus received.

Let me suggest a second way to keep criticism from immobilizing you; sift each criticism for precious grains of truth, even as a prospector sifts through creek sand looking for gold. A caring, constructive critic can be your best friend. Perhaps the first time you hear a particular criticism you may shake it off as invalid. But if you hear it a second time, especially from a second source, you better take it more seriously. The ancient Jewish rabbis had a saying that went like this: "If one man calls thee a donkey, heed it not. If two men call thee a donkey, get thee a saddle." And I'm certain that they didn't used the word "donkey" in the original saying.

We live in an unpredictable world. This is a world where perfectly good people get cancer and suddenly die. Some people are unjustly accused and sent to jail like John the Baptist. The crowd questions the intentions of those who come in peace.

So of course there will always be low times. In fact, there will be times you get so far down that you cannot remember up. But when those times come, remember this: you are not alone. You've got a friend, one whom scripture says sticks closer than a brother - Jesus Christ. This same Jesus extends an invitation that reaches down to us no matter how deep in the pit we are and says, "Come unto me, all you that are weary... all who are carrying heavy burdens... guilt, pain, despair, strained relationships, burned out hearts ... come unto me and I will give you rest."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 12, 2010 (Advent 3A)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Polished Up For Christmas

Text: Matthew 3:1-12   

Last Sunday we celebrated a baptism and next Sunday we will do it again. The sacrament of baptism goes back a long way and is not the sole property of Christians. In the first century the Jews took a bath called a mikvah in order to be ritually pure for worship. John also called people to cleanse themselves but not simply to prepare themselves for worship. John called for an inner change of heart and mind (repentance), which is to produce a pure and holy life.

The sacred ritual of baptism by water can be found dating back millennia in many places around the world, including and especially in Egypt. As a source of life, particularly along the Nile, water figured prominently in the spiritual imagery of ancient Egypt. Along with the concept of holy, living water in Egyptian religion comes its use for purification in actual baptism, with immersion into water or sprinkling of water. As for our Christians baptism, so with the Egyptians, their baptism was a ritual of purification for regeneration and a remission of sins.

Egyptologist Gerald Massey explains the two different types of Egyptian baptism and their relationship to Christian doctrine:

There was a double baptism in the ancient mysteries: the baptism by water and the baptism by spirit. This may be traced to the two lakes of heaven at the head of the celestial river in teh region of the northern pole, which were also repeated as the two lakes of purification in Amenta. The soul says, "I purify me in the southern tank, and I rest me at the northern lake." They will account for the two forms of baptism mentioned in the Gospels, John baptizes with water, Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Massey, AELW, II, 795, quoted in Christ in Egypt by D. M. Murdok, 247)

Thus, in our text today, John the Baptist says in reference to Jesus: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

This is quickly getting "heavy" and that seems so out of synch with the holiday spirit. Instead of being baptized with water and fire, our market economy is concerned with how much consumers will pay for Christimas gifts considering 70% or so of our economy is based upon consumer spending.

The baptism our market seeks is a baptism of greenback dollars onto the retail counters of America. What is the Christian response? Certainly we want the economy to do well because when the economy does well we do well and so does the church and the mission of Christ. Some of us give from our excess and the more excess we have the more we may give. This, too, is a "heavy" thought, whether or not consumer spending can resurrect our economy.

Beyond the baptism mentioned in our text and the baptism of dollars the market wants from the consumer this time of year we also have the baptism of the winter solstice. This is the season when the winter sun seems to die by staying at the same angle in the sky for a few days before it makes its upturn on the third day which symbolized the resurrection of the Sun God to the ancients. So this time of the year is drenched with symbolism and has been since the dawn of time.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the ancient Egyptians held a candlelight service on December 24 each year in celebration of the winter solstice. The service included hymns and special music. I find such facts inspiring because it connects our religious practice to times and places beyond what we even knew.

So it was in days such as these that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." John was the one who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

Lord knows we could use some straight paths in our society what with all the financial scandals we have endured lately. Here in Houston Enron immediately comes to mind. Being from Central Mississippi I also think of Bernie Ebbers at MCI and all the investors who lost money through that bankrupt company. Such are the ghosts of Christmas's past coming back to haunt us in these difficult days.

While we can't solve the world's economic problems there are some things we can do during this Advent season. Let's begin with this question: Are there some changes you need to make in your life? Be honest with yourself. Is there some resentment you need to let go of? A relationship you need to examine? John calls for us to look within, to search ourselves and to deal with problem areas in our lives before they get out of hand.

One thing we know about John the Baptist is that he was not trapped in the desire for approval. When you wear animal skins, eat locusts, and live alone in the desert you are not a slave to public opinon. I wonder if we have the same freedom as John the Baptist? Do you think Jesus Christ was controlled by what people thought of him or said about him? Of course not. People who are awake do not need the drug called approval.

Think about politicians. Often politicans don't see people at all. They see votes, and if you're not a help or a threat to their getting votes, they won't even notice you.

Some business people see only money. They don't see people, only business deals.

Do you want to be liberated from the need for the drug called approval? Try a little of John the Baptist's formula. Die to the need for people's approval. Savor your mind. Appreciate your work. Enjoy nature. Send the crowds away and you will be completely alone. Then love will be born in solitutde. Anthony De Mello says, "You reach the country of love by passing through the country of death." (Walking on Water, 119) Your heart will take you to a vast desert such as the one John the Baptist lived in. At first you will feel lonely. You aren't used to enjoying persons without depending on them.

At the end of the process you will be able to see people as they truly are. Then you will see that the desert is suddenly transformed into love. And music will fill your heart. You will hear a song such as "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and you will know that you are at home in your body on this earth. Only for a short time, perhaps, but you are home none the less. Then you will be ready to celebrate Christmas.

Advent is not simply a time of preparing for Christmas. At its best it is a time of preparing for Christ. It is not Christ's birthday that matters most, really, but our birthday the day we are born into the kingdom of God as we open ourselves to the coming of the indwelling Christ. Has that happened in your life? Have you consciously prayed, "Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, be born in me today?"

John's purpose was to prepare people's hearts for the coming of the Messiah. He did it in the only way he knew how. "Repent," he cried, "for the kingdom of heaven is near." It is near for those who are willing to look within and examine their lives, for those willing to reach out with Christ's love to others, and to those who will open their hearts to the indwelling Christ. We can be truly prepared for Christmas if we put those things on our "to do" list and get them done.

May we get wet this Christmas season with the purifying baptismal waters. May our sins and our shame be washed away in the river of God's forgetfulness. May we stumble through the Jordan River intoxicated with the liberation of not needing the approval of others. May we fall at the foot of the cradle under that natal star and recognize that we are part of a procession of people that stretches back further than we knew and connects us to the dawn of humanity. Seeking and finding God. That is the task at hand. Jesus said, "Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you." You know which door I'm talking about. It's right there in the center of your chest. It's the door to the inner chamber of your heart. That is where the rivers of God's purifying love will flow.

I love the Beatles song, "Someone's knockin' on the door. Someone's ringin' a bell. Someone's knockin' on the door. Someone's ringin' a bell. Do me a favor. Open the door. And let 'em in."

Open the door. And let 'em in.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 5, 2010 (Advent 2A).