Sunday, December 2, 2012

Whom Do You Seek?

Whom Do You Seek?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 2, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 2:1-10

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

The Gospel Lesson that I chose today is Matthew 2:1-10: 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,  and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah  was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6     ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men  and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.[1]

I've decided that I'm going to preach from different Christmas Songs throughout the advent and Christmas season. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the lines that we know by heart, but that because we know them so well we don't always think about what they are saying and what they mean. This morning I chose Go Tell It on the Mountain, which has many different verses. The one that always has made me think is often the first verse in the song, yet the version in our hymnal omits this verse, but I printed the words of these extra verses in the bulletin, so when we sing the hymn after the sermon we can include them. The verse is:

When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day,
I sought the Lord to help me, and He showed me the way. 

This first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope. Traditionally, on this Sunday there is a reading from the prophets, usually Isaiah, and the sermon has to do with the promises of the coming of the Messiah. I spoke last year of how the people expected a king, a military leader, who would restore a kingdom for the Jews on Earth, finally defeating the Romans, and restore to power the Jewish Davidic Monarchy that had long ago been displaced by the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Macedonians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans. It has been a long time to wait, but now the signs are all pointing to the time finally being upon them. The longed looked for change is now finally going to come, and it comes now for us as well. One of the ideas of Advent is that we also take our journey towards Bethlehem. We also lie in wait for the coming of the king. We like the wise men from the Gospel Lesson are seeking something, but what is it that we seek? Whom is it that we search for in the Bethlehems of our hearts at Christmas? We are seeking both night and day, but whom are we seeking?
Wisemen living in the east saw a new star in the sky and then they embarked on a journey, seeking the answer to the cosmic question found in the new celestial changes. Herod sent out his henchmen to search for a rival. Shepherds were spurred on by the Angel Choir in the sky, and set off in amazement. And each one of us has found our way to this point as well. What is it that has spurred us on this faithful journey? I imagine that each of us has our own story that has brought us to this day. For some of us it may be the story of faithful parents, who having brought us to church, having taught to us stories, having loved us a certain way, invited us to go seek. For others of us the journey was different. Perhaps pain or challenges or loss has sent us out seeking for something more. Perhaps some of us looked inside ourselves and found an emptiness that just seemed to need filling and therefore went out seeking. Some of us were following friends, some of us were trying to do the right thing, some of us were running away from something, others running to something, but all of us find ourselves here and seeking. Like the wisemen and like the prophets,   we are also not completely sure that what we actually actively seek lies at the end of our journey. Again I ask, what do we seek?
What do you look for when you look for a savior? What in your life do you need saving from? What do you hope to find when you get to the Christ child lying there in a manger? It is an important question, but perhaps it is one we are often afraid to ask. What are we supposed to be looking for? What is the Sunday School answer? Salvation? A Change of Heart? The gift of faith? Eternal Life? Freedom from Sin? A Relationship with God? Perhaps one, perhaps all, but what do those mean in the practical real concrete truth of our lives? Freedom from sin, are we ready for that, or would we rather push the sin cart down the road just a little bit further, you know one more day, one more hour, until next week, once I get through this next little stretch, then I'm ready to give up sin. Eternal life, sure we look for that, but we have to die first, we have to risk a whole lot of loss for that to be attained. A relationship with God, what will God have me do, maybe I should hold back. A change of heart, it's not me who needs to change. . . The world would be better if everyone else changed instead, I know how it all should work. Do we really seek those things, or do we like to hear ourselves say that we do, while all the time we are seeking something else?
            The prophets and many of Christ's contemporaries were looking for a military leader to save them from the Romans, it is not what they got. What is our Rome? What do we want Jesus to save us from like that? What do we want Jesus to deliver us from?  Is it financial security, the famous prosperity gospel? Do we seek Jesus to make  our lives financially better? Maybe. Is it health? Do we think that if we go to church and live right, that we will have a leg up on others when diseases come around? Is it healthy, whole, perfect relationships? Do we think if we are Christians, seeking Christ that we will live functional lives, with functional families, and functional friends, that we can achieve the glorious status of perfection, and Jesus is a necessary component piece that perfection.  Do we hope that Jesus will right the ship of our nation? Do we hope that Christ will instill the moral fortitude that w e believe to be day by day slipping away? Is that why we so desperately fight against someone trying to call a Christmas Tree a Holiday Tree? Do we think that we need to protect the child we seek from being forgotten by others? It is hard to think of all the possibilities for this. I'm sure you have your own, and I hope you ponder it, perhaps question it, because often we seem to be seeking something other than what was born in Bethlehem. But we are not alone, many before us were just as much mistaken.

I'd like to share with you a poem by Lois Cheney called "They Were Mistaken"

They were mistaken.
Mary thought she knew her son. Mary loved and yearned for him. She followed and pleaded with him to come home. Mary wanted to protect him:
Mary was mistaken.

Peter thought he loved him most. Peter felt he knew him truly. Peter thought he would never fail his Master; Peter knew he would remain true to him no matter what happened:
Peter was mistaken.

Judas thought he should organize. Judas thought he should live up to his view of the ancient promise and hope, or give it all up. Judas began to be disappointed, and he began to distrust:
Judas was mistaken.

Thomas thought they were all very gullible. Thomas loved and revered him, and Thomas missed him; he grieved at his death. Thomas really didn’t believe he’d be back:
Thomas was mistaken.

Now, we know his ways. Given years of scholarship and prayerful perspective, we are ready to box and label this man from Galilee. He’s ready for the completed file.
We are mistaken. 

So how do you make your way to Bethlehem when all of the things you are seeking would  lead  you some where completely different than kneeling in a barn by a manger ? How does it work for the Wisemen? They seem to follow an open ended journey. They allow the sign to lead them. The star in the sky directs them, rather than their own concept of what the star means, they aren't looking for any one thing, just the king who is at the end of the journey. They do not seem to be shaken when the king they seek is lying in a cattle's food trough. Instead they find the baby where he is and let the journey stand for itself, and I'm sure the journey shaped them. Is it possible for us to seek without defining the object of our seeking, so that when we find it we can be shaped by it completely, rather than it shaped and confined by us?  Can we be open at the end of the journey to what lies there, rather than what we hope to find, because again what we will find surpasses all of our expectations, though sometimes in difficult ways.
I realize that this is a difficult task. How do you open yourself to something beyond your mind's limits? One thing that the wisemen's trip shows us is that you can't stay at home. You can't stay in the safety of the routine, especially at Christmas. It is easy to fall into the routine of it all. I challenge you instead, this Christmas to do something different. To take a different path led outside of your norms and see where it leads.
A number of years ago when I was in Seminary,  I took a class on Celtic Christianity. One of our activities in that class was to pray a Celtic Daily Office. We took part in the Northumbria Community, which is a Monastery without walls, or a group of people who are dedicated to prayer four times a day. That is the only requirement. We were invited to take part in the practice during the semester while we were in class. It was great having a discipline like that of prayer, but quite difficult. I am going to try to do this during this advent season because it very much outside of my typical Christmas routine. If any of  you are interested in praying the office too, do so, let me know and I can get you the materials.  Let's look at one of the prayers, I think it is quite appropriate for the journey we are trying to make. The opening words of the Morning Prayer which is repeated verbatim each morning is our prayer of preparation this morning found in our bulletin.

One thing I have asked of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life;
to behold the beauty of the Lord
and to seek Him in His temple.

And then it continues with a call and response.

Call: Who is it that you seek?
Response: We seek the Lord our God.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your heart?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your strength?
Response: Amen. Christ, have mercy.

This is what we must seek this Christmas season, and if we are seeking Christ the Lord, our Christmas will be filled in ways beyond what we can imagine. Amen, may it be so.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 2:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.