Advent Week 4 Sermon: H.O.P.E. Heart Open Please Enter December 22, 2019
A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they knelt down and paid Him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:1-12
Today’s scripture from Matthew’s gospel seems out of sync on the fourth Sunday of Advent. In this season of waiting for the birth of Christ, the story skips ahead to the magi searching and King Herod’s fearful response to the news of a newborn King. This morning we sang, “Silent night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King.” Caesar Augustus had appointed Herod king over Judea, and was referred to as the “Prince of Peace.” The peace Caesar offered was accomplished with oppression and force, and a peace enjoyed only by others in power. In contrast to the tyrannical rule of Caesar Augustus and Herod – this morning we heard both from of these scriptures; Isaiah prophesied and the gospel described a different kind of king, a ruler who would act as the Prince of Peace, who would rule as a shepherd, and would reside in human hearts.
It was this prophecy and hope that Jesus’ mother Mary sang about in her vision of God’s coming Kingdom. “God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” Mary, pregnant and unmarried (which was a capital offense) with no worldly goods and no power, was a prophet in her own right, so it’s no wonder that her Son followed in His mother’s footsteps and turned the empire on its head. This Prince of Peace would rule by revolutionary means of love, and mercy, and justice. And it’s also no wonder that Herod and all in his circle of power shook in their Roman sandals upon hearing that the prophecy of a new King was being fulfilled in their neighborhood!
Long before He arrived, Jesus was prophesied about, prayed for, and hoped for. HOPE is the word on this fourth Sunday of Advent. (As an aside, how can it already be the fourth Sunday of Advent? I’m not ready to get Baby Jesus out of the drawer in the buffet and put Him in the manger. My shopping isn’t done. The Zen-like calm I’ve been promising myself I’d practice during this sacred season hasn’t happened. I haven’t written any Christmas cards. But I digress. The fourth Sunday of Advent isn’t about my inability to strategize my way through this sacred season.) Today, this last Sunday of Advent is about HOPE. The reason the story today is about searching for and finding the newborn King is because He was the hope of Israel (according to Isaiah’s prophecy) and the hope of outsiders and foreigners (according to Matthew, who had the Christ-Child discovered by heathen astrologers.) If you look at the bulletin, you’ll see that HOPE stands for “Heart Open Please Enter.”
In the ancient world astrology was a science; astrologers watched and interpreted the stars and planets and looked to them for signs. Signs could be confirmation of prophecies or a foretelling of something. Matthew tells us, “Magi from the East came to Jerusalem 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.’” The star the astrologers watched was such an important sign that they traveled to it, hoping that it would lead them to an important discovery.
All month we’ve been singing Silent Night in honor of the 200th anniversary of this quintessential Christmas carol. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm…” This song sounds like a lullaby but in fact it’s a protest song. The rulers of the empire, the holders of power, sing the melody, and the prophetic fulfillment sings a descant of hope. The melody: Herod ruled with fear and was consumed by fear. The descant: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” The melody: power was Herod’s god, and he feared losing it. The descant: “Son of God, love’s pure light.” The melody: Herod was called King and Lord. The descant: “Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.” The melody from Matthew’s gospel: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” The descant from Isaiah: “A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal One, Prince of Peace.” Protest songs, like gospel songs, tell two stories: the melody of grief and fear and oppression, and a descant above it, of love and justice and hope. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm.” It’s hard to maintain a lullaby-like calm in a time of fear… in Herod’s time, or in our time. But hope can be the antidote to fear, and hope can lead us to that calm we sing about on Christmas Eve and long to have in our hearts all year long.
I like to imagine the heart as an inner place, a spiritual place of welcome in each of us that we’re preparing in this season of Advent for the coming of the Christ-Child. I love the Advent emphasis on the heart as a manger, a place of welcome for the Baby Jesus, in part because I never seem to do Christmas as well as I think I should. The ghosts of Christmas past always trail into December with me, like toilet paper on the bottom of my shoe. But Advent always offers something new, a new opportunity to prepare the manger in the heart to welcome the Baby Jesus… and to stretch the heart to love others the way Jesus loved.
I’ve been focused on the heart lately, because a man who’s been sitting up there in the balcony since I got here, and whose genuine support and care for me, and whose openheartedness seemed to made a place of welcome for everyone, died recently when his heart stopped. I only knew him for a little over a year, but I experienced what everyone who knew him experienced, that his heart was open and welcoming to all people. This is the fourth Sunday in Advent, and not Mike Robak’s memorial service (which is this coming Saturday) but on HOPE Sunday it seems appropriate to say something about him.
We live in an environment not unlike the Jerusalem of Herod’s time. The political arena and the public square are full of tyrants and fearmongers. Immigrants and people of color and anyone who appears to be “other” are being treated with suspicion and hostility… our differences have become dividing lines and civil debate has turned into abuse and name-calling. It seems naïve and almost stupid in this climate to practice HOPE, that is, “Heart Open Please Enter.” I’m not longing for the good old days, and I’m not sure the world has ever been a kinder or gentler place. The good old days were only good for the dominant culture, and those with power and wealth, but definitely not good for people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. We’ve become like Herod’s Jerusalem: fearful and suspicious. I’m more aware of the insidious intolerance and animosity and self-righteousness… of course in other people, but also in myself. It’s in the air I breathe, in the bread I eat, in the newspaper I read. But I believe this (at least some little, sometimes really tiny part of me, believes) that love is the only antidote to being human. I believe that Jesus came to show us that only love has power, only love is transforming. This long-awaited newborn King would show us how to live with HOPE (which stands for “Heart Open Please Enter.”)
Mike Robak’s wife, Dottie, and I have talked about how he loved people, and how inclusive he was, and his concern that no one felt like they were an outsider, but that everyone was welcome in his presence. Mike seems to have lived with HOPE (Heart Open Please Enter.) “Strong and vulnerable” are two words Dottie uses to describe Mike. I love those two words because they describe HOPE (“Heart Open Please Enter.”) And I think we can only practice HOPE when we are strong in our conviction that we are made in God’s image, worthy of love, capable of loving, and created to love. Our strength comes from loving God, loving others, and loving ourselves. Some days not in that order. Some days we have to love ourselves first, give ourselves large doses of uncritical and compassionate love. (Which is how God loves us. And is not to be confused with how our dogs love us. God’s love is transformative and demanding. It wants large doses of love in return and in all kinds of situations and for all kinds of people. I’m just sayin’… don’t confuse God’s uncritical and compassionate love for you with how your dog loves you.) So we can live in and practice HOPE (“Heart Open Please Enter”) when we bind ourselves to love. Love of God, love of others, love of self. That vulnerability part that Mike Robak modeled, and Jesus modeled, is harder to do, because there’s a little Herod in all of us, self-protective and paranoid. So we need to move back and forth from love to vulnerability, and from vulnerability to love. The faith community, where we sing and tell the stories of our faith, of our hope in God’s coming Kingdom, is a good place to practice vulnerability and to allow others to encourage our strengths and forgive our weaknesses. Especially being part of a small group we can practice HOPE (Heart Open Please Enter) trusting that those who come to know us intimately will see the divine light in us and reflect it back to us.
Strong and vulnerable are two words that describe Jesus, and in these last few days of Advent we can prepare our hearts for His coming with our HOPE, by practicing love and vulnerability. Throughout the church year we hear the stories of God’s dreams for the people created to keep God company and to turn God’s dreams into reality, and those stories always include love and vulnerability. We were created to have HOPE, that is: Hearts Open Please Enter.
Tonight at 6pm is Blue Christmas, an opportunity for us to gather and to remember together that love – the only antidote to being human, and the only transformative and healing power – love makes us vulnerable to pain, to loss, to heartbreak. Loss and heartbreak this time of year are especially painful as expectations of a Hallmark Christmas surround us. Tonight we’ll remember that we were created to be both strong and vulnerable, and that we can’t have one without the other. This is HOPE Sunday, the Sunday the magi noticed and trusted and followed the sign that led them to the newborn King. How we live with love and vulnerability, with hearts open, is a sign to others that God’s new Kingdom has begun in us, and here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.