Sunday, January 5, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Dream Child"

(Apologies for an extra-long holiday hiatus from blogging--I needed to perform a funeral for a former longtime member of the church almost as soon as I got back into town from vacation, and that has consumed much of my time over the past couple of days.  I'm back now, though! -E.A.)

Jeremiah 31:7-14

The Lord proclaims: Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation. Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The Lord has saved his people,[d] the remaining few in Israel!” 8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here. 9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child. 10 Listen to the Lord’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands: The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock. 11 The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are. 12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the Lord’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds. Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more. 13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them. 14 I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“Dream Child,” Jeremiah 31:7-14

Though many of y’all have met my younger sister Katherine, I haven’t really talked about how she and I started out.  But since I just came back from visiting her and the rents in Kansas City (please, don’t mention the Chiefs!), the whole history of our sibling-hood is fresh in my mind.

She was born right before I turned four, and so, like any child of that age, I was thrilled that my parents were giving me another plaything to goof around with.  I’d arrive home from preschool shouting, “Katherine!  I’m home!” and I would chatter about how when we grew up, we wouldn’t live more than a mile apart from one another.  Needless to say, the novelty wore off fast, and before too long, I was trying to pawn her off on all my friends—“Hey!  You want a new baby sister?  I’ll give you mine for a dollar!”  Unsurprisingly, I found no takers, so I brought my asking price down, and started offering away for free. And when that didn’t work, I started offering to pay my friends to take her off my hands—“Hey!  You want a new baby sister?  I’ll give you a dollar if you take mine!”  I learned a lot from that, not just about being a good older brother, but a lot about capitalism, too…especially concepts like supply and demand.  

See, like a lot of kids, I had this idealized image of what a new sibling would be like—that she would be this plaything that would eventually turn into a partner in crime with whom we might torment our unsuspecting parents into eternity.  Of course, Katherine ended up not being exactly what my four-year-old self expected.  It is an experience we have all had—maybe not with a sibling, but perhaps that dream job you chased for years and years turned out to not be everything it was cracked up to be.  The brand new car you saved and saved for turned out to be a total lemon.  Or…the Messiah that you hoped and hoped would come…well, sometimes you still wonder where the heck He is in all of this poverty and violence and abuse of all kinds in the world.  And if you think you had high hopes for the coming of God, consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who proclaimed this lofty poem to a people most in need of hope.

Now, for reasons of hope, I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions.  I just don’t.  Studies suggest the majority of resolutions don’t make it past February.  I tell people that it is because as a Chiefs fan, I already have one endless cycle of failure in my life (see what I did there?), so why add another?  But mostly it is because I’m just cynical enough to see the concept of New Years’ resolutions as a schlocky excuse for my 24-Hour Fitness Center to sell a bunch of new gym memberships. So I haven’t made a New Year’s Resolution since I was a teenager.  But I think if I were to make one again, it would be to believe as Jeremiah does in these passages.  I mean, to believe in God, yes, but to also be rid of all my moments of cynicism and jadedness, to be fully vulnerable to the world and to God…that I would, as Jeremiah writes, “sing out with gladness for Jacob.”  That’s a New Year’s Resolution worth keeping, because there really is no denying that even though we may not have hit the dire straits ancient Israel did when Jeremiah writes—being hauled off to Babylon, living their lives in exile—there are people (maybe even you) who cannot or will not sing, for they are in such dire straits—they were laid off, they lost their income—for even here, in the wealthiest nation of the world, they--we-- are finding, in all its forms, only poverty.

In the idealization of the Nativity scene, it is easy to forget that this is the place into which Jesus is born—first, it’s a stable.  And it’s a stable in Bethlehem, which, compared to the cities of Jerusalem, or Samaria, or Caesarea, was downright Podunk.  And even Jerusalem and Samaria couldn’t hold a candle to the largest cities of the Roman Empire, like Rome and Alexandria.  Usually, we pastors say this because we want to tell you that you can spend a lifetime searching for God at earth’s top, only to find God instead in the deepest of valleys.  But there is another reason—even in this wealthiest of ancient Empires, believe me when I say that there were still loads of people feeling materially and spiritually bankrupt.  I don’t say this to tell you that misery loves company.  I say it because the poverty of a stable in Bethlehem makes it all the more astounding that we find ourselves now awaiting the arrival of the Magi to worship Jesus and to bring Him their lavish and luxurious gifts.

And as far as the gifts of the Magi were concerned—we will talk about them more next week, on Epiphany Sunday itself, but the gold, and the incense, and the myrrh…do you think that maybe the Wise Men weren’t entirely on the same page about who exactly Jesus was?  I mean, the Bible doesn’t really say, but I could see one of them saying, “This Baby Jesus is a king!”  And the next one would say, “You know what?  No, he’s a GOD.”  And then the third guy, who is the punchline because that is always how jokes go, the third guy always supplies the punchline, he’s a total killjoy and brings them back to earth when he says, “Yeah, well, I think he’s just a man…just like us.”  

If the Magi were all only hoping to see what they had expected to see, then they may well have ended up disappointed with the Jesus that did end up doing ministry as our Messiah.  Of course, the Bible doesn’t really say about that, either.  But it is a pretty common feeling—we put blinders on ourselves, and all of the sudden we look through these narrower lenses and if the world does not fulfill our expectations, however justified those expectations might be, we end up crushed.  And sometimes, we try to put those blinders on God as well—we do so when, over and over again, we decide to search for God only at earth’s top.

Carrie Doehring is a professor of pastoral counseling, and she has written about what she calls “dream children.”  If an unborn child dies in utero, she says that the mother is suffering not only from the loss of her own child, but from the loss of her dream child as well, the images and senses and thoughts of what her child-to-be would be like.  And the more vividly this dream child exists, the greater the immediate loss for the mother is as well.  But it isn’t only the mother who can give birth to a dream child—if the father, or the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the friends, imagined a dream child, then their dream children, too, will be a source of pain and grief and sorrow.

It is all too easy to see Jesus as a dream child—not because He died too soon, although at thirty-something, it often feels as though He did.  No, it is easy to see Him as a dream child because he probably didn’t turn out to be anything like what anyone expected…and if He were in person here today, He would probably be unlike anything we expect now.  The Christian author Anne Lamott came up with this gem—“You know that you have created God in your image when God has the exact same enemies as you.”  The Zealots expected Jesus to hate the Romans as much as they did, but He didn’t.  Paul the Apostle expected Jesus to come back to earth immediately, and He hasn’t.  Under ordinary circumstances, we might call this a disappointment.  And I have to think there are times in our lives when we worry that God hasn’t turned out to be the God we want or the God we expect, and we are disappointed.  But that does not mean that there is no God.

One of my childhood idols was the late actor Christopher Reeve.  Before breaking his C2 vertebrae, Reeve was best known for playing Superman in the movies.  Of course, nobody expects Superman to be a quadriplegic in a motorized wheelchair, breathing off of machines and living off of an all-liquid diet.  And Reeve, to his immense credit, saw that what the world needed from him was not the Superman of old, but a man willing to speak compassion on behalf of the disabled.  There was a time when he was asked to speak at one of those gimmicky, vaguely pop-psychology success seminars, and Reeve accepted.  

There, he took the stage and said, “I’ve had to leave the physical world.  By the time I was twenty-four, I was making millions.  I was pretty pleased with myself.  I was selfish and neglected my family.  Since my accident, I’ve been realizing that success means something quite different.  I see people who achieve these conventional goals.  None of it matters.”  The journalist and writer Eric Schlosser, who was there, wrote afterwards, saying:

Everybody in the arena, no matter how eager for promotion, know deep in their hearts that what Reeve has just said is true—too true…Men and women up and down the aisles wipe away tears, touched not only by what this famous man has been through but also by a sudden awareness of something hollow about their own lives, something gnawing and unfulfilled.  

Oh, to search for your God at earth’s top, only to find hollowness instead!

May God come to you in the deepest moments of hollowness, of the gnawing feeling that there is something in your life left unfulfilled and unfinished.  For when God came to earth, it was in the rawest of forms, a little baby boy who had to grow and mature into the finished version of the adult Messiah we read about in the Gospels.  And it is that Messiah who promises all things that the prophet Jeremiah writes of.    That Messiah may not be the Messiah you wanted, or expected, or feel that you deserved, but it is the Messiah that we have all received nevertheless by right of your status as a child of God.  

And if you were to do something as ridiculously optimistic as to make a New Year’s Resolution for 2014, might I humbly ask that you tack this onto your resolution—to hear what the newborn Messiah is calling you to do this year.  Not what you want Him to call you to do, or wish He were calling you to do, or what He might have been calling you to do in 2013, or 2012, or 2011…what are you being called to do here, now?  Because the future of this baby boy we call Jesus is for Him to be our Messiah, but for the moment, he is still a baby.  And so, for now, may we all be as the Wise Men, as the shepherds, as the ox and lamb who gathered around that manger one night in Bethlehem, all to ask the same question:

“Newborn Christ, here I am.  What is it that you want me to do?”  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 5, 2014

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