(Sermon for Goochland Baptist Church's Worship on December 1, 2019, Advent I)
An Unexpected Knock
Curt, Erin, and I had all just arrived at my parents’ home for a family dinner together, and we could smell them at the door: my mom’s Christmas sugar cookies, a much beloved holiday tradition. Some of them would have cream cheese frosting and sprinkles on top, some of them would be plain. All of them would be delicious. Suddenly dinner seemed like an obstacle.
Halfway through dinner—halfway en route to those sugar cookies—we heard voices at the front door. Singing voices. It took us a moment to register that these were carolers! Someone asked, “Do we invite them in?” I caught my brother’s eyes, and I could tell we were thinking the same thing: “If we do that, what will happen to the cookies? How many will there be left?” Neither one of us dared speak this covetous thought aloud, but we were worried. In the end, our fears were relieved. In fact, the singers had reversed the age-old caroling tradition. The moment we opened the front door, two children ran up the front steps and shoved a plateful of cookies into our hands and then they were off to the next home. Talk about a double blessing!
Caroling and its ritualized act of hospitality reminds me of another Advent tradition. Las Posadas, which originated in Mexico, also dramatizes the act of hospitality. But Las Posadas gives the act of hospitality teeth. It gives it muscle. Las Posadas is what caroling wants to be when it grows up. It pushes the act of hospitality to the limit. In Las Posadas, two youth dress up as Joseph and Mary, and on the ninth day before Christmas they make a surprise visit to one of the families in the church. They knock on the front door, and when the family opens up, the youth make their plea: “Excuse me, we have traveled a long way and we have no place to stay and my wife is expecting any day now. May we stay with you?”
Now in caroling, the host may invite the carolers inside the front door for a minute to enjoy a cookie or a treat. But Las Posadas models itself after the Christmas story, where the drama is not simply giving God a minute of our time and a cookie but actually opening our heart and our home so that God may be born there. In Las Posadas, Christ is seeking a place to be born. Christ comes unexpected, as a knock in the night, as strangers at the door, as a call to open our homes and offer our hands. According to tradition, the family should invite the two youth into their home and share dinner with them. Oftentimes the event snowballs into a feast and other families from church stop by and join the celebration, eating, singing songs, and sharing fellowship together.
What a witness to the spirit of Advent, to welcoming God in the unexpected. I think back to how my brother and I feared for our freshly baked sugar cookies, and I realize how small our hearts and our homes can be. We were hardly prepared to welcome the unexpected knock at the door.
And how else does God come?
God’s Deliverance—in an Unexpected Way
We all know well the stories of Joseph and Mary, how they received the unexpected call from God on high, how they made room in their lives for the birth of Christ. Less well known is how the public first received Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Today’s scripture in Luke gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ first reception. According to Luke, the first public appearance of Jesus when he begins his ministry takes place in his hometown synagogue. There he reveals his mission: the good news. His first words make this clear: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news” (4:18). In fact, Jesus is reading from scripture, from a celebrated prophecy of Isaiah, a prophecy that envisions the day of God’s deliverance. For a people who have lived centuries under the thumb of oppressive foreign rule, this prophecy is good news indeed. I imagine that for a Jewish person in the first century, this prophecy was tinged with comfort and joy in the same way that the Christmas story is for us. You know the feeling you get at a Christmas pageant, or at a Lessons & Carols, when you hear those hallowed words, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1)? I imagine that’s how the Israelites felt, hearing Jesus read Isaiah’s prophecy. Yes, they thought, that is the story we all have come to hear. The story of God’s deliverance. That is what we all hope for. God has delivered us before, and we know God will deliver us again.
So Jesus has read this good news, and everyone’s feeling good, and he ups the ante. He makes a bold claim. He declares that today this beloved scripture has come true. He claims to be ushering in God’s deliverance. And his hometown audience loves it, Luke says. They turn their heads to one another and ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? The carpenter’s son? Isn’t this one of our own? And he’s leading the charge, he’s taking it up against Rome for our deliverance. What a day to be alive!” They’re practically glowing with pride.
I feel so good reading this myself—I’m so happy for Jesus and his hometown—that it almost hurts to read what comes next. Jesus knows just what’s going on in the townspeople’s hearts, and he calls them on it. Doubtless, he says, you’ll be saying to me soon, “Doctor, cure yourself!”—which was an ancient proverb, meaning something like, Don’t neglect your own when you’re doing good things. Cure yourself means something like take care of your own; when you’re off doing great things, don’t forget where you came from, don’t neglect us.
Which is a very natural thing for the townspeople to be saying. Tomorrow morning when Curt and Erin board their airplane to return to Richmond, they’ll hear the steward tell them that in the case of a loss of cabin pressure, masks will drop from overhead, and that they should secure their own before assisting their neighbor. Cure yourself. It’s the logic of our world. Look out for number one. Treat yourself first.
But Jesus makes it clear that the good news is much bigger than the townspeople desire, much greater than they expect. In quick succession, he rattles off two stories about Israelite prophets, one who ministered to a foreign widow, another who ministered to a foreign leper. There were widows and lepers in Israel, Jesus said, but these prophets tended not to them but to the foreigners.
And in an instant, the parochial goodwill that had welled up in the hearts of the Nazarenes vanishes. That good feeling they all had—similar to when we hear the Christmas story read—that good feeling is capsized into bitterness and anger.
As Much as a Threat as a Promise
So while Mary and Joseph show us the right way to receive the unexpected word of God, visited upon us without warning, the synagogue in Nazareth shows us the opposite. It shows us what kind of welcome Jesus got from the first religious crowd he addressed.
It’s an instructive story and one that we see play out time and again in the gospel. Those religious folks in Nazareth are not the only ones to reject Jesus. You might remember the story of the rich, young ruler, who turns away saddened because he loves his money more than the good news. You might remember Jesus’ confrontation with some of the Pharisees. (And Pharisees, to be clear, are not the bad guys we sometimes think they are. In fact, the Pharisees were like the model churchgoers of the ancient world. They knew their scripture backwards and forwards, went to synagogue in the middle of the week, and were models of faith.) But some of the Pharisees reject Jesus because they love their religious truth more than the good news. You might remember Jesus’ encounter with the authorities of his day, both religious and Roman. They reject Jesus because they love power more than the good news.
The common thread becomes clear. Jesus has come with the good news, but in fact the good news is a threat as much as a promise for many who hear it. This good news is not what they expected: it’s not military victory for the nation of Israel, it’s not righteous vindication for the pious, it’s not the prosperity gospel. No, this good news is bigger than these expectations. It’s good news for the poor. The rest of the world might write them off as lazy or foolish, but God loves them and desires that they share abundant life with the community of God. This good news is freedom for the captive and the oppressed. The rest of the world might say they deserve it, they did the crime and have to pay the time, or that their behavior invited the tough consequences, but God loves them and desires that they share abundant life with the community of God. The good news is for the widow and the unclean and the foreigner, for all of those who have no claim to status or favor with God. God loves them, Jesus says, and desires that they share abundant life in the beloved community of God.
Hope Cannot See
The good news is so much bigger than sugar cookies. It’s so much bigger than the little town of Nazareth had envisioned. What today’s scripture reveals to us, is that quite often we confuse selfish desire or expectation with hope. According to Paul in Romans, “hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom 8:24). What we foresee for ourselves is not quite the same thing as hope, because hope cannot see what it hopes for. Hope is too big for our vision. It’s beyond what we can see.
There’s a funny old mystic theologian from the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, who liked to say that Christians often love God the same way a farmer loves his cow—for the milk! In other words, our faith is often hijacked by our ego, by the desire for personal gain or benefit.
The invitation and challenge of Advent is to relinquish this selfish desire that passes itself off as hope, because the truth is that with this counterfeit hope, we may in fact miss Christ when he comes. So it was for that synagogue in Nazareth, and for the rich, young ruler, and for the religious folks who grasped after purity and power.
They all knew the beloved scripture from Isaiah that Jesus read, the scripture that gave them that good feeling of comfort and joy, just like we know and love the Christmas story beginning with the decree from Caesar Augustus. We all hear in these scriptures our own deliverance. But the good news may be bigger than we bargained for. Indeed, that is what genuine hope is all about. A good news that we can’t see coming. An unexpected knock in the night, strangers at the door, a call that is uncalled for.
Christ overturning our world. And dwelling with us, if we would welcome him.
God of deliverance,
Whose good news
Is bigger than our expectation:
Purify our hope this Advent
That we might not
Expect too narrowly,
And so miss your coming;
Instead expand our hope
To beyond what we can see,
That we might be ready to embrace
Your unimaginably good news,
Come in the most unexpected ways.In Christ, who comes as one unknown. Amen.