Sermon: December 10, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent – Part Two”

 

A New Look at Advent – Part Two

Text: Luke 7: 1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

You might remember that last week I introduced to you a new idea around the symbolism for the Advent wreath. I suggested we might look at the four candles as being a progression or a process through which we can better understand the story of Christmas, but also maybe better understand our own lives and how we might improve certain aspects of our lives. This symbolism can be thought of as a pathway or stepping stones to an enhanced spiritual discipline for example, or any other area of your life where you might want to make a change.

This symbolism begins with the first Advent candle being identified as symbolic of “annunciation” or to announce something. This is the topic for today’s discussion, but for review the other three candles in our pathway are “preparation”, “confirmation” and finally “transformation.”

But today we are looking at just “annunciation” and why that is important. The text I read a few minutes ago might seem like an odd text for the Christmas season, and I suppose that is an accurate observation. But I have chosen this text because it demonstrates better than any other text I looked at the power of the spoken word. In the story, the centurion tells Jesus that all he has to do is speak the word, and the healing will be accomplished. Jesus comments on this man’s faith, but his clarity of understanding, I think is also commendable. The power of the spoken word has many levels of influence.

One thing that I think is often overlooked when we begin to think about the power of words, is how that power impacts our own minds. In other words, your self-talk, or the words you use in your own mind, carry the same power as those words that you speak. This concept is huge, and I don’t want you to miss it.

When I was a kid growing up in our town we had an old sand pit that the city tried to convince us residents that is was an OK swimming pool. It really wasn’t OK, but we swam there anyway. It was an old sand pit and the water was kind of gross and not clear at all – but we had a good time. One of the things that was very common around the shores of this sand pit, in the sandy beach type areas away from where all the activity was, you could find a particular species of cricket. I don’t know the actual name of this particular bug, but my buddy and I called them “jumping jacks.”

They were a very small bug, which looked like a miniature cricket, except the color was a very light tan, almost translucent in color. We could dig around in the sand and find these little guys and when we found one, we usually put it into an empty jar with a lid of some sort. The lid was very important, because as I said earlier, we called these little bugs “jumping jacks” and the reason we called them that is without a lid, they would jump out of the jar.

The reason we often collected a few jumping jacks is that the fish seemed to love them. They made great bait and we could sell them to almost anyone we discovered fishing along the shores of the lakes or rivers around town.

Now this is where the story gets really interesting. We would collect 10 or 15 jumping jacks and have them in an empty Miracle Whip jar or something similar and then we would begin to search for someone fishing that we could sell them to. Of course my buddy and I are on our bikes and I had a newspaper bag that I used for my paper route that worked well to put the jar in while we searched for our fisherperson.

While we searched, an interesting thing always seemed to happen. When we first started out on our bikes, I could hear the Jumping Jacks hitting the lid of the jar as they jumped trying to get out. There was a fairly constant tap, tap, tap, as they hit the underside of the jar lid. But by the time we had ridden to the local fishing hole on our bikes, the noise had stopped. I always thought they were just tired.

The significance of this childhood experience didn’t really begin to dawn on me until decades later. I believe that those Jumping Jacks that we had in the jar began to realize that they could not jump out of the jar. Once they convinced themselves that they could not jump out of the jar, we could actually take the lid off and none would escape. They would still jump, but not one of them could jump out of the jar. They believed they could not, so they could no longer jump high enough to get out of the jar. When I think back on this experience as a kid, I find that to be quite remarkable.

Just in case you think I’m completely crazy I have another similar story. This isn’t from actual personal experience, but I know it to be true. One of the ways that the circus trained the elephants that it used in the performances was that the elephant was chained to a huge cement block. This worked particularly well with baby elephants, because they learned faster, but it also works with adult elephants. For a time the elephant would test the chain and the concrete block. They would tug and tug and tug but would never be able to get free. After a time, the elephant would stop tugging.

In the elephant’s mind there is an association with the feeling of the chain around the leg and a knowing that meant it could not move away. Once the circus went on the road, this became very helpful, because to travel with a huge cement block is not very convenient.

Once on the road, if the animal trainer needed to secure the elephant for a time, he would wrap the chain around the leg of the elephant and then attach the chain to a wooden stake he had driven into the ground. The elephant could easily pull that stake out of the ground, it would hardly even notice. But because of the training in the mind of the elephant, the feeling of the chain around the leg was enough to convince the elephant that he could not move. The elephant could not pull the stake out of the ground because it didn’t believe that it could.

Just in case you are missing the point here, let’s get back to our original thought. I think there is power in words, there is power in annunciation, and there is power in self talk. What we tell ourselves about our experiences may be the most important form of annunciation there is.

From a certain perspective both the jumping jacks and the elephant had some form of self-talk that eventually convinced them that they could not do what they normally could have done easily. Once the lid was off the jar, the jumping jacks could not jump out of the jar because they believed they couldn’t. Once on the road, the elephant couldn’t pull the stake out of the ground, because it believed that it couldn’t. These beliefs were formed through the self-talk of the prior experiences.

This is critical to understanding the power of annunciation and the power of what we tell ourselves about our experiences or what we tell ourselves about our own goals, our own hopes and our own dreams. When we set a goal, for example, and then begin to tell others, that process of annunciation also helps to convince us. The practice of annunciation is a powerful tool in realizing that to speak the word is a critical first step.

The centurion which contacted Jesus and told him to simply speak the word recognized the power of the spoken word. We should also recognize that power. Have you ever told yourself things like “you’re too old to do something like that” or maybe it’s something else, like not being good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, or healthy enough? What you tell yourself and what you tell others has a huge impact on your odds for success.

If you remember the Christmas story, you might remember that after the first annunciation where the angel visited Mary, she began to share the experience with a few others. Joseph was a little harder to convince. Joseph had some self-talk that sounded a little like “maybe I should just quietly divorce Mary and we could go our separate ways.” So another dose of annunciation was necessary and an angel visited Joseph in a dream. After a time, Joseph’s self-talk began to be more positive and I think we all know the rest of the story.

So pay attention to all the forms of annunciation. Because when you announce to others you are also announcing to yourself. And that is food for thought.

Amen.

Sermon: December 3, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent”

“A New Look at Advent”

Text: Isaiah 43: 19

 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

For a couple of decades now every time Advent rolls around I gravitate toward the obvious-that being the Advent wreath, the Advent candles and some historical perspective on where Advent came from, why it was started and what symbolism lies at the heart of the season. Almost always I come around at some point to identify the candles in the Advent wreath as symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. There isn’t anything wrong with this and there are many sermons that can spring from these four ideals. But this year I wanted to do something new. I wanted to make an attempt to be faithful to the tradition and yet offer a new way of thinking about Advent and perhaps a new perspective for each of us that is applicable to our own spirituality.

That being said, I want to introduce you to a new way of thinking about the Advent candles and a new way of applying that symbolism not only to the Christmas story, but to our own spirituality and our own way of being. As I said earlier, the Advent candles are often portrayed as being symbolic of Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. I have not ever paid any attention to any specific order or which candle is which. On some Advent wreathes the candles are all purple, sometimes, as is the case with this Advent wreath, there is one rose colored candle. This is more symbolism and yet another layer of story and tradition which sometimes actually works against us rather than for us.

What I would like for us to think about is an idea that the Advent wreath could represent for us a practical guide by which we could structure our lives and increase our own level of spirituality or connection to the Divine. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the symbolism of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. These are great ideals. They are just a little non-specific, I’m not sure they are all that helpful, particularly when someone is struggling. You know the Christmas season is not always full of joy for everyone; often it is a bit of a struggle just to endure the season for some people. For those who struggle, or those who have doubts and questions, for those who are uncertain of where they fit in the big picture or for those who reject the basic Christmas premise, this symbolism is not really helpful. In many ways, it adds to the problems rather than leading someone to a new place or a new way of thinking and being. If someone is not joyful during the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to just tell them to be joyful. If someone is not experiencing love in the Christmas season, it isn’t helpful to simply say that it is the season of love. I think we may need to think about this in new ways; we can do better. We can actually help people and lead them to a new understanding and a new experience of Christmas.

I think that is what Christmas should really be about. Leading people to a new way of being. If you are not 100% pleased with where you are, Christmas should provide a pathway to reinvention of who you want to become. Christmas should offer ways to increase our spirituality. Christmas should revive and strengthen our connection to God. Re-imagining the Advent wreath I think may offer us that guide we are looking for.

So over the next four Sundays we will be looking at a new set of symbols for the Advent wreath. We will also be looking at new ways that symbolism relates to the Christmas story, but also how that symbolism reminds us of how we might make changes in our own lives. The Advent wreath can become a symbol by which we can understand the Christmas story on a new level and actually apply that new understanding to our own Christmas experience.

These four candles can become symbols of our own choosing; there isn’t any law that states the four candles of an Advent wreath must be symbolic of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope. This is just what the tradition has passed on to us. The tradition has also given us the concept that the center candle is the Christ candle, and represents the person of Jesus, but also represents the idea that Jesus is at the center of everything else that we do. So that gives us a good place to begin, with the center candle, because in my new way of viewing an Advent wreath, that part stays the same. In other words, the center candle is still the Christ candle, it still represents the person of Jesus and it is still symbolically in the center of everything else we do.

But let’s move on. I would like for us to begin to think about the Advent wreath and the four Sundays of Advent as more of a progression rather than four facets of our Christian lives. You see the four topics of Love, Joy, Peace and Hope are huge concepts. We could take the next four years to unpack each one of those topics. They are not very specific and the broad generalities are hard to apply to our daily living. So I’m offering a new alternative.

As a linear progression of how we accomplish most of what happens in our lives, I think the four candles of the Advent wreath could be symbolic of Annunciation, Preparation, Confirmation and Transformation. Not only do these symbols tell the story of Christianity, I think they also can lead us forward into a stronger personal spirituality.

We can look at these four steps in a broad sense by simply defining the four words in this way: “Annunciation” means you announce what you are going to do, what is going to happen or what you are going to pursue. Setting a goal and making it public is another way of understanding “annunciation”.

Secondly, we “prepare” to do what we said we would do. This is the second step in our process called “preparation”. If our stated goal was to build a larger vocabulary, our preparation would be to locate the resources necessary for us to do that. If our annunciation involved a personal spiritual goal, like learning to meditate for example, then our preparation might include classes we could attend our books we might read about meditation.

The third step in this process is “confirmation”. This is the time when you actually begin to do what you said you would. It is confirmation of your commitment and desire to build a larger vocabulary or to learn to meditate. This confirmation possibly comes in the form of waking up one day and realizing that you are actually doing what you said you were going to do. “I’m actually learning new words” or a self-realization that “I’m learning to meditate and have practiced this 3 times this week”. These are all confirmations that things are beginning to happen.

The last step in the process is “transformation”. Transformation comes when we begin to reap the benefits of our stated goal. When our life changes because of the positive influence of learning to meditate or learning to use a larger vocabulary, then we experience transformation.

With regard to the Christmas story, I think you can probably easily see the parallels. The angels make a number of annunciations. They announce to Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph what is going to happen. The angels announce to shepherds what is about to take place or perhaps what has just recently happened.

The next few years are preparation. We have one story about when Jesus was 12 years old preparing for his ministry. John the Baptist is often identified as one who prepared the way.

Once Jesus begins his ministry around the age of 30, we have approximately 3 more years of confirmation. The three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke, record the story of this confirmation. In a sense, the gospels are a record of Jesus doing what the angels said he would do.

After the execution and resurrection of Jesus, we have had about 2,000 years of transformation. That is the process displayed in the Christmas story; annunciation, preparation, confirmation and transformation. It is also the process by which we can transform our own lives. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding our thoughts around this idea of a simple Advent wreath serving as a step-by-step guide to our personal transformation.

Go in peace. Amen.