Holy Distractions!

Sermon Preached at Christ the King on December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Advent 3B

I.N.I. (In the name of Jesus)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

These words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians are words that in the glow of twinkling lights, warm homes and holiday preparations and parties. These words are welcoming, comfortable, and easy to hear and understand. But in the midst of the third day in a state of emergency following an ice storm that left 1.25 million New England homes and businesses in the dark, many people have found it easy to pray without ceasing.

According to the Associated Press, this ice storm compares with some of the Northeast’s worst, especially here in New Hampshire, where more than half the state, 400,000-plus homes and businesses, were without power. There were far fewer outages during the infamous Ice Storm of ‘98, when some residents spent more than a week in the dark. Many people are having difficulty rejoicing in this historic weather event, and giving thanks in this circumstance has been difficult.

And here we sit, the body of Christ, gathered around Word and Meal. Fewer in numbers this morning, but here in the warmth of this place, seeking shelter from a world that often seems cold and dark, seeking comfort and sustenance from one another, and the One who’s promise, forgiveness and grace we, and our world so desperately need.

But we and many in this region are distracted from rejoicing and giving thanks in these circumstances. We worry about our earthly comfort and the stuff of life, our homes and possessions. We are distracted by fallen trees, icy roads, and frozen pipes and how are we ever going to be ready for Christmas with this weekend cancelled on account of weather.

Paul reminded the Thessalonians who I imagine were as distracted as we feel this morning, to not quench the Spirit, hold fast to what is good and to abstain from every form of evil. Perhaps today in our circumstance, Paul might say to us…

  • do not loose sight of what Advent is, and remember the real Spirit and reason for the season;
  • hold fast to what matters most, share your goodness and time with family and neighbors;
  • avoid getting caught-up with shopping, parties, and the greed and selfishness of want in the name of Christmas.

Paul’s final blessing reminds us that God has called us into being and is the faithful One. God is the One who can and will keep us blameless at the coming of Jesus Christ. That is why Advent is a season of hopeful and joyful expectation, rather than fearful dread.
(Brian K. Peterson, The Season of Advent, New Proclamation Year B, Advent through Holy Week, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008)

But we get distracted, and even when we have a good reason, we still need a voice to focus us. Today as last week, it is john the Baptizer, this time from the Gospel of John who cries out to us in the wilderness of Southern New Hampshire.

The Gospel of John if all about believing, in fact the word “believe” is used some 54 times in this book. In verse 7 we learn that John the Baptizer came as a witness so that all may believe through him. The Gospel today reminds us that as others have pointed the way to Jesus, we are to do the same for others.

But the followers of John seem to “miss the boat” as many of us did in terms of proper preparation for what is to come. They are distracted and focus on John and can’t seem to get beyond his ministry to the real reason he cries out… to focus and help foster preparation and belief in the One, the Messiah.

This charismatic messenger must be the one and so they focused on John the Baptizer and pestered him with questions…

  • Who are you? Are you from PSNH to bring us some light?
  • What then, are you Elijah? He was if you recall a great prophet who had been taken up to heaven and Jews to this day wait for him to return. They honor Elijah’s return each Passover by leaving the door ajar for him to come in at their Seder meal.
  • Are you the Prophet? Will you save us from the wilderness and state of emergency we are living in?
  • Who are you? What do you say about yourself?

And John replies that he is not the Messiah but that One who is among them, one whom you do not yet know is. They are distracted by John, waiting for the One to save them, a feeling you may be better able to relate to today.

And we too are distracted in waiting for the Lord, distracted by more than an ice storm, no matter how severe. The distractions of the world and the secular holiday season pull us away from each other and what matters most. They can be evil, lure us away from what is good, and douse the Spirit. We get distracted by what we want for Christmas, we no longer notice those in need, proclaim the good news to those who have not yet heard, or comfort those who are in darkness this time of year.

But distractions can be holy, lifting us up, serving as moments where the love of God shines into the dark corners of our lives. This week the ice storm kept me from four pages of sermon notes on a desk top at home, a day in the office to work on this sermon, and a darkened den where reading commentaries and writing were difficult. So on Saturday, I made my way here in hope of power to recharge cell-phones, my lap-top and a warm place to finish, okay start writing this sermon.

As you may know, Christ the King is an active place, even during a weather emergency and yesterday was no exception. People were here making sure the heat, sprinkler, and alarm systems were working; the youth holiday babysitting was underway, and the altar guild elves were in to add advent touches to our sanctuary décor. Throughout the day folks dropped by the office to say hello, sit and chat, share their lunch, volunteer to rearrange my office as a youth hang-out space, and in general, thoroughly distract me from writing this sermon. It got so bad that at 4:00 pm the chair of the altar guild poked her head in my office to say she heard I need some distraction.

The holy distraction of cleaning up after a storm, spending time at home with Kay and sharing a warm meal, trying to stay warm in front of a fireplace, and multiple holy distractions while preparing this sermon have truly been blessings. Now don’t get me wrong, I not happy about the downed trees, damaged shrubs or even lost sermon notes, but living a simpler life these past few days has been in a sense a voice focusing me on what matters most, the One who John witnessed to in the wilderness.

Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest condemned as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler wrote the following shortly before he was hanged in 1945:

Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by the noise of the day or outlawed or swallowed up in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice. The devastation will soon be so terrifying and universal that the word “wilderness” will again strike our hearts and minds.

I think we know that:
They do not cry for the sake of crying or for the sake of the voice…
They cry for blessing and salvation…
They summon us to the opportunity of warding off, by the greater power of a converted heart, the shifting desert that will pounce upon us and bury us…

O Lord, today we know once more, and in quite practical terms, what it means to clear away the rubble and make paths smooth again. We will have to know it and do it for years to come. Let the crying voices ring out, pointing out the wilderness and overcoming the devastation from within. May the Advent figure of John, the relentless envoy and prophet in God’s name, be no stranger in our wilderness of ruins. For how shall we hear unless someone cries out above the tumult and destruction and delusion?
(The Shaking Reality of Advent, Alfred Delp, 1945)

We are called to be voices in the wilderness, and to make straight the way of the Lord for there are…

People who are oppressed by their circumstance to bring good news to,
People broken by relationships, economic condition or poor health to build up,
People captive to proclaim how Christ liberates us from the chains of holiday
greed and our sins,
People who are imprisoned by guilt and not knowing God’s grace to set free,
People who mourn to provide comfort.

Joy comes in tending for people who see more darkness than light, in making the most of Holy distractions, and giving thanks in all circumstances.

We are called in a sense to Holy distractions for making straight the way of the Lord is not some well-planned ministry project. You and I through our baptisms have been anointed by the Spirit, empowered to be children of God and live our lives as Christians in those distractions. We do not have to look for the Messiah or our salvation or for formal ministry opportunities. We are to be God’s hands on earth in all of our daily living, no matter what happens.

We wait this week having experienced the closest thing to wilderness many of us have ever experienced. We who have sat in the cold, darkness of this state of emergency have a new appreciation for preparation and the simple things in life. We who have, or still wait for power and light, may we have a greater focus on the light of the world, the true light, the One. Emmanuel—God with us.

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