So, this morning we enter into the season of Advent in the life of the Church. What does the word “Advent, “ mean? Coming, yes. In Advent, we anticipate “Christmas,” the coming of the Christ - the Messiah - Jesus, into the world. What does this mean, exactly? What is it, today, two thousand years after the birth of Jesus in the Galilee region of 1st century Roman-controlled Palestine, that we anticipate? What, then, is Christmas for us? Are we merely retelling a particular event in human history that, by its mere occurrence, changed the shape of the world as we understand it? Is this historical recollection that we do at Christmas? Is it a reminder of a value system, a way of reinforcing a set of beliefs or ideas to carry us through our ordinary lives? Or is there something else happening for us at Christmas? Something else we anticipate in Advent?
In your bulletin this morning there’s an invitation card. I’d like you to take that out and hang onto it now. Just hold it in your hand. When you leave here today I want you to keep this card close - you’re going to need it. I am convinced that God is going to speak through you in the coming days and guide you to someone - a family member, a neighbor or friend, who doesn’t have anywhere to go on Christmas Eve. Somebody who needs to have a positive conversation, a hopeful discussion, a conversation that could be the beginning of a change in their life. And God is going to initiate that conversation through you, with the help of this card you’re holding in your hand right now.
See, words matter, and a simple conversation can be the beginning of a radical change in the life of a person. Jesus knew this. Throughout the gospels we encounter Jesus having conversations with all kinds of fascinating people. In John’s Gospel, we find Jesus having more extensive and sophisticated discussions than anywhere else. The Synoptics - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - are filled with Jesus sound bites. He has some great one-liners and parables, but his conversations are limited. These gospels emphasize what Jesus does; John emphasizes what Jesus says. Because words matter.
At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world - as flesh-and-blood Savior, “Emmanuel,” God-with-us. The divine and the human meet in the man we call Messiah. We’ve all been around the church long enough to have heard stories about Jesus. We’ve heard stories of miracles and stories that Jesus tells that we find memorable. We’ve gathered life lessons and little tidbits over the years. We know the narratives of his birth and death and resurrection. And we understand that the disciples came to recognize in this man, Jesus, the presence of the fullness of the Divine. That God became human and, as John says in one translation, “moved into the neighborhood.” We know all of this. In the United Church of Christ, we declare that Jesus, Messiah, the Christ, is the sole head of the Church.
But why? Why Jesus? Just because the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it?
It’s not that simple. Not for any of us. I’ve had the privilege of sitting with many of you during the “Coffee and Pie” conversations we had this fall, and one of the questions I asked each of you to answer was, “Why this church?” And not one of you said it was because you read the Bible and were suddenly and wholly convinced. For each of us, there were people in our lives who influenced us on our faith journey. Through their love, their encouragement, and the conversations we had with them we came to value the church and to find our way to Jesus and embark on the journey of faith. Each of us has been called by name and nurtured along the mission of our lives by a still-speaking God who most often speaks through the voices we love and trust the most. We’ve had conversations that impacted us, that changed us, that opened our eyes to possibilities or planted seeds that came to fruition months or years later. You can picture those people in your minds right now, can’t you? Conversations change lives because words matter.
So we’re going to look at a few conversations that Jesus had as we move into this season of Advent. As we anticipate the coming of the Christ once more into a world that so desperately needs to experience the fullness of hope, joy, love, and peace that is the essence of God and God’s most sincere desire for all of creation.
The sanctuary looks very beautiful today, doesn’t it? And we should thank those who came out yesterday to help change our experience this morning. If you were here, or part of preparing for today, would you stand up and let us say thank you?
We decorate for Christmas, and space, where we gather, is transformed in incredible ways. But that’s not what Christmas is about. The transformation of this area is, instead, a visible reminder that Christmas is about transforming reality. Taking the world we encounter on a daily basis and turning it upside-down. That’s what happens in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus - the world is turned upside-down over and over again. Christmas confounds our expectations - it isn’t what we see on the surface because Jesus confounds our expectations at every turn.
In the Scripture passage you heard read this morning, Jesus is talking with Pontius Pilate. This conversation takes place right before his crucifixion. Jesus has been arrested by the religious authorities and tried for blasphemy. Because the miracles and wonders, the conversations that Jesus had been having, didn’t meet their expectations of what a Messiah should be. They expected something else. A religious leader who guided them to the center, not the margins, of power in society. A king who would rescue them from the hand of the Roman Empire under whose rule they existed. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we’ve heard this fall, stories of the Jewish people being taken captive by one earthly kingdom or another and God delivering them with a mighty hand through people called out to change their lives and restore the world. That’s what they were looking for again, but that’s not what they found in Jesus of Nazareth.
And the charge of blasphemy - their claim that Jesus claimed to be Divine, was a serious one. According to the Law of Moses, laid down in Deuteronomy, one who committed blasphemy must be put to death by stoning. But living under Roman rule, they could not carry out the death penalty on their own. The trouble was that the issues they had with Jesus weren’t fascinating to the Roman Empire. And, according to Roman law, only the Empire could condemn someone to death. Religious disputes didn’t qualify. So, they brought Jesus to Pilate on charges of rebellion. They argued that Jesus’ teaching and ministry had fermented a revolt against the Romans. That Jesus was coming to be the king promised in their Scriptures, to overthrow the yoke of the oppressive empire and lead the Jewish people to freedom. And that caught the attention of the authorities. Insurrectionists were dealt with swiftly and harshly through an immediate death sentence carried out through public crucifixion.
So Pilate interrogates Jesus, seeking to ascertain the veracity of the claims the religious leaders have made against him. A couple of verses back, Pilate asks Jesus directly, “‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you this about me?’ Pilate answered, ‘Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests handed you over to me. What did you do?”
Pilate and the religious authorities have a lot in common with most of us in the world today. We know about Jesus. We hear things about Jesus. But we don’t know Jesus. We have trouble articulating what it means that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” what it means that reality is shifted because God became human and moved into the neighborhood. We can point to the characterizations, and often to our desires for what and who Jesus is and God in Jesus, but we have trouble articulating the reality which came down at Christmas and desires to receive declaration in and through us still.
For we, too, want a king. We want someone to rule with definitive, black-and-white ways of being and doing in the world. So often we take the easy road and believe this to be the way things should go because we believe what we have been told and continue to have reinforced in the world around us. We vote against our self-interest because we get caught up in belief about the world we desire, not the desire to bring about the beloved community through action, but the desire for somebody to come along and make it right without any effort on our part. We pray for equality and support others in the fight, but we often neglect to actively learn from those who are different than we are, to forge personal relationships and know the reality they experience and support them with our time, talents and treasure directly in declaring this reality to be no longer acceptable. This happens because of what we sometimes profess to believe.
But we know, deep down, something else. We know that the world still gives the appearance of a raging dumpster fire most of the time. We know the light of the candle of hope doesn’t shine in a great many places beyond the walls of our sanctuaries because none of us have dared to carry it out there and light up the world. We know the candle of hope isn’t but a flicker in the lives of many people within our reach because we don’t want to offend anybody, we don’t want to interfere with their lives, we don’t want to be responsible for what might come of that. But if we believe it so, if we keep waiting for it, like the religious leaders who brought Jesus to Pilate, maybe somebody else will finally bring it to pass, and we’ll know it when we see it, even though we know better.
And Jesus says, “My kingdom doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of King, not the world’s kind of king.” What we so often forget, left to our desires, is that the world we want isn’t the world we get unless we do something about it. Hope, joy, love, and peace take courage. Courage to bring spread the light directly. Courage to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves in the public square. Courage to engage with a neighbor who is lonely, struggling or depressed and offer encouragement, a listening ear, and an active, positive presence. Courage to share the story of how God is still speaking to us in a public way, and inviting the people we care about to hear it for themselves.
While I was away for Thanksgiving, I had the chance to read an article about a significant academic study on churches that are growing. Over five years in the United States and Canada and the researchers worked hard to form a series of measurements for growth and vitality that could measure the success of churches in a non-judgmental, neutral way. And you know what they found? Conservative churches grow faster and more often than progressive churches. But not because of belief. Doctrine or orthodoxy or opinion had very little to do with growth. The message broadcast from the growing churches was not the reason they grew. They grew because they broadcast a message. 93% of church-goers, laity, the people in the pews, in conservative churches agreed that it was important to share with the people in their lives about who Jesus is and why Jesus matters to them. 36% of progressive congregations felt it was equally essential to share Jesus with the people in their lives. The conversations that we have with the people we care about change lives.
We have in our hands and hearts the greatest story never told. The story of a God so big that everyone is welcomed into the kingdom. A kingdom that moves beyond the boundaries and divisiveness that is plainly visible in what we see in the news, and stands, instead, in direct opposition to the narrative we encounter most of the time. A new reality which comes at Christmas, where hope, joy, love, and peace are the enfleshed guiding principles of every word spoken and action taken. A reality where all are truly welcome to experience the presence of Christmas that exist in the Christ, the very mind of Christ, available to every person regardless of their economic standing, the color of their skin, the bathroom that they use or who they love.
This is the greatest story never told. And we are tasked with saying it. This is a kingdom that knows no boundaries. That draws in all of creation and the created, that reconciles everything into a new state of being. This is what we know every time we say, “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Then Pilate said, “So, are you a king or not?” Jesus answered, “You tell me. Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.”
They will never know unless we tell them. They will never experience unless we invite them. They will never recognize unless we speak. What will you declare when asked, “Why Jesus?” They’re waiting to hear. Take courage, have the conversation and make an invitation. It will change two lives. May this be the Advent of incarnation in Wichita, and may it begin with us. Take courage and make your declaration. Amen, and Amen.