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Sermon – “That You Weary God Also” – December 22, 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

That You Weary God Also

Isaiah 7: 10-16; Romans 1: 1 – 7; Matthew 1: 18 – 25

Al Capone said that capitalism is the racket of the ruling class. It reminds me of the pirate who was brought up for judgment before Alexander the Great. Asked if he had anything to say before being condemned for piracy, he said that the only difference between himself and Alexander was that Alexander had a larger force of men at his disposal, so that Alexanderʼs murdering in order to seize what belonged to others was correspondingly greater. The story is that Alexander pardoned him for his reply.

The obvious difference between a crime boss and a CEO is that one is playing by the rules, and the rules by which the CEO is playing are more broadly established than his personal preferences, no matter how many political contributions he makes. This is why, once in a great while, someone in business crosses the line between shrewd practice into criminality. If you stop and think about it, itʼs reassuring that that is possible.

So there is a false equivalence between the pirate and Alexander, and between the entrepreneur Capone and captains of industry. The comparisons, though, are worth considering, because we would like there to be a very big difference, and when we look for one, we find it, not in economic factors like supply and demand, or time and productivity, or competitive pricing– all of which work their magic in both legitimate and illegal businesses– but in spiritual realities like justice and compassion. This is why, back about the time Martha Stewart was sent to jail for insider trading and the excesses that would eventually doom Lehman Brothers and deepen the recession were just underway, business schools around the country were publicly declaring that they were going to add ethics course requirements for their students. Even the most effective economic systems require some amount of moral sense in order to function–as the motto inscribed across the wall of my bank says, “all progress of men and nations is based on the sacredness of contracts.”

Iʼm getting around to Scrooge here, because Scrooge, as we know from his conversation with Marleyʼs ghost, regards himself as a good man of business. What is wrong with Scrooge is that, without breaking any of the rules of his capitalist pursuits, he doesnʼt recognize the existence of humanitarian claims.

Scrooge presents his approach to life as dedication to business ideals– punctuality, thrift, and preserving a wall between the requirements of money making and anything like sentiment. Money is money, obligations are obligations, and the only choice offered anyone is whether to be on the right side of the value of money– by hiring it out and profiting– or on the wrong side–by having to hire the use of money and becoming indebted. It is the choice between having power over other people, or being under the power of others. His consistency in observing the boundaries of his trade makes him rich and lonely. What disrupts the boundaries of Scroogeʼs life is the Christmas Eve haunting arranged by Marley.

This wider world, which includes ghostly guidance to reconsideration of past, present, and future, is something in which Scrooge has not believed. It didnʼt fit into the structure of his daily expectations. It becomes his salvation.

Christmas is disruptive. The extra busyness with which we all have been living– and if we have been blessed, the unusual cheeriness we have been experiencing–result from the planetary pull of the holiday, once the world wheels into its orbit. Itʼs one of those big things which permit nothing to remain unchanged. Even those who do their best to ignore Christmas canʼt manage it, the holiday is so insistently decorated, and sound tracked, and public.

We like the disruption. When we meet Scrooge around this time of year, we know the disruption will do him good. He, however, resents it. He sees it as a publicly-endorsed excuse for Bob Cractchit to rob him of a dayʼs work.

The scriptures weʼre given for today have to do with persons who are doing their best to live by the rules as they understand them, who discover that their intention to handle things the way they think right will be disrupted. The king who knows it is presumption to ask a sign from God– and he knows it, itʼs not just his opinion–his demanding proof of sincerity from God would be like one of his subjects demanding proof of integrity from him– is found in the wrong. Joseph, who does his moral and humane best to dissolve his engagement to Mary when he learns her condition, finds out that he is required to go ahead with both betrothal and marriage.

Itʼs important to notice how this works, and what it is. The king knows how his religion works. He worships God. He, when stated prayers are required, knows how to join in. He knows that God is not to be put to the test– he knows that scripture just as well as Jesus does later.

Prophets come to kings, among other things, to shake up their assumptions about what God wants and how God plans to be. Isaiah tells this king that God wants the king to make a test, to seek a sign.

So thereʼs a conflict. The king has been raised to regard God in one way, and now this person who does have status as a holy person and spokesperson for God is telling him to do something different, to do something he would expect, based on established rules, to irritate God.

Thereʼs a similar conflict for Joseph. Weʼre told he resolves to handle his betrothal to Mary the way he does because he is a just man. Itʼs because heʼs so good, because he loves and wants to honor God, that he is planning on a quiet break with her. The other approach comes to him in a dream. That might seem like an even riskier thing to trust than the word of a prophet.

The king is chastised by the prophet for not welcoming the invitation to seek a sign.  Joseph does heed his dream, and continues with Mary. Knowing what is regarded by general agreement as the right thing to do, and being scrupulous about meeting well- established expectation, doesnʼt work for either the king or Joseph. The king sticks with his instinct to do what everyone knew was the proper thing, and is wrong. Joseph abandons his decision to do what anyone would agree was a merciful and appropriate thing and is right.

What does this tell us? That Christmas is a season for believing outside the box. Christmas is about God entering into our world and our history and our life in a surprising way. When the Christmas narratives are composed in the gospels, stress is put on the events of this season fulfilling scripture. Thatʼs a common argument throughout the New Testament, as Jesusʼ followers make their case that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah. All that emphasis on prophecy coming to pass has its own truth, but it wasnʼt an easy truth to recognize. The stories themselves contain the shock and surprise of Christmas, the way that it disrupts expectation, the blindsiding quality of it, the way it turns things on their heads.

If the apostle Paul knows anything of the birth stories which would be in two of the gospels written a generation or so later, he doesnʼt show us that. What he does write, in the scripture we have read this morning, is that Jesus was a descendant of David, humanly speaking, and that Jesus was revealed as especially the Son of God by the power of his resurrection from the dead. It was the living Christ, the post-Easter Christ, whom Paul himself had experienced. The Jesus of Bethlehem was overshadowed by the Christ of the stone rolled away, and the disciplesʼ encounter on the way to Emmaus.

We have our own ideas about who Christ is and how Christ wants us to be. We come to challenges in our life and do our best to apply a rule–people, for a while, wore bracelets with the initials of the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?”. This morningʼs scriptures suggest that as difficult to apply as that rule is, it might still be wrong. God may have something surprising in mind for us. The living God who leads us as the living Christ is not fixed by our expectation. Rather, we are confronted with Godʼs freedom, and Godʼs desire to help us travel toward Godʼs future alongside God.

What can we do? We can pray, hard, about how to listen to unexpected words about God. We can pray, sincerely, for help in discerning what it is that God wants us to do now that the world no longer is what it has been. We can lay our heads down to sleep accepting that dreams may make claims on us, and that the conventional approach to life which seems safe and sane may sometimes prevent us from doing what God wants.

As much comfort and constructive help is contained in tradition, we have to remember that Jesus Christ is not a tradition, but a Lord, to whom we owe allegiance, and to whom we must be prepared to respond. That means our ideas have to be subject to reconsideration, and our instincts to further examination. We have to try to be available to what may be a new word, and we have to try to live ready to dare the different solution, in order to live as persons of God.

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