Monday, December 5, 2016

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 3:1-12:

I don’t like to wait. I’ve been known to leave stores when I see that the lines are too long. I don’t like the waiting and I don’t like the frustration that comes with waiting and I especially don’t like it when it seems like all the other lines are going faster than the line I have chosen. And waiting can be even harder when there is some urgency or expectation to the waiting. Do you remember when you were a kid at Christmas? That time between the beginning of December and Christmas Day seemed to take forever. It proved the point that time is not a constant. Now that time goes quicker, because all time goes quicker, and yet there can also be times in which it goes excruciatingly slow, like while waiting in lines. Because there is good waiting, and there is bad waiting. We have been to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade several times. Where we have watched the parade, it arrives around 10 am, but to be able to get a seat up front so you can see everything, you have to arrive around 6 am. That’s four hours of sitting in the cold on a sidewalk in New York City. That can be hard time or easy time. The first year we were there, the police officer who was there I guess to protect us from ourselves, led us all in singing and chanting back and forth to the other side of the street, and it was a lot of fun. It was easy time. The next time, the officer was just there leaving us to our own devices. I spent the time going through French flash cards so I could pass the French reading exam that Harvard required for graduation. That was some hard time. But both times, the wait was the longest just at the time in which you could hear the parade, but could not see it. It was right there and yet it was so far away. It was there and yet the expectation and excitement of it coming, because it’s not there, were heightened and the wait was hard. That’s advent. A time of knowing that Christ’s coming is here and also knowing it’s not here, and so our series on the songs of the season continues by looking at Charles Wesley’s classic hymn Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.

Last week we found ourselves in exile crying out for God to send deliverance and remembering the promises that God has given to the people, given to us, especially the promises that we find in the prophet Isaiah, but not knowing when it would all come about. This week, not much has changed, except that we are now in the wilderness and we have John the Baptist making a proclamation of repentance as the one who prepares the way for the coming of the Lord. That means the time has come, but it’s not quite here. It’s the time in which you can hear the bands in the parade but you can’t see them yet. You know they are there but the closer it gets, the farther away it seems and the harder the waiting becomes. We know that Christmas is right around the corner, we know that Jesus’ coming is right there, the one who is more powerful is coming but when? When will it be? How much longer will we have to wait? When will the promises be fulfilled?

Although Charles Wesley is a co-founder of the Methodist movement, which has us sitting here today, he clearly takes a second seat to his brother John as people think of who is most responsible.  And yet, as the one known as the bard of Methodism, it could be argued that Methodism would not have done as well without Charles putting the theology into song for wider dissemination. Although the numbers vary, over his lifetime, it is said that Charles Wesley wrote more than 10,000 poems or hymns. To give you some perspective, that would be him writing one poem every three days from the moment he was born to the time he died at the age of 81. Of those hymns, it is said that about 1000 of them are good, and 100 are brilliant. 54 of those hymns are still found in official United Methodist hymnals. These include some of the best known Christian hymns like Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Love Divine all Love’s Excelling, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast, and, of course, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus in which Charles invokes those same questions but also gives the reasons why we seek that coming.

But it’s not just seeking that arrival, but, again, and I know I keep saying this, recognizing that Jesus has already come and Jesus is already here. We see this is the first line when we pay attention to verb tense. That is, we do not sing that Jesus was born, past tense, but instead we simply say born, why? To set thy people free, and then we make a petition to Christ to release us from our fears and sins. Now this is one of those times, quite common in hymns, that the lyrics have been changed from the original. What we sang this morning is for Jesus to release us from fears and sins. Being released is important and it is one of the things that Jesus does. Because of the offering made by Jesus on our behalf that is good for all time we are released from our sins. When we are baptized, when we enter the water of salvation, which is the call that John the Baptist has for us this morning, we are forgiven of our sins. Not just those we have already done, but those we have yet to do, when we seek forgiveness for them. Jesus does not have to do anything else to release us from them, we don’t have to do anything else to be given forgiveness other than seek it. We have been released from sins and we have been released from our fears, or at least that’s what we are told.

But being released from those things is entirely different from being relieved of them which was the original word Charles Wesley used. To be released is to be set free, or released from confinement. We are set free from our sins and our fears, but how many of us remain in the jail, in confinement, often in a cell of our own construction. Saying things like “God could never forgive what I have done,” or “If people truly knew,” or my personal favorite, “If God truly knew what I have done then I know I would not be forgiven.” We have been released, but we have not been relieved, because to be relieved means that we are no longer feeling distressed or anxious about things, we are no longer feeling fear, we are no longer having the things we are worried about weighing us down, we are reassured that we have been freed. When we use the word relieved, it’s usually about having some weight removed from our shoulders, or some burden has been taken away, “I will be so relieved when this is over.” “I was so relieved when we found out it wasn’t cancer.” So, while it’s important for us to be released, it’s even more important for us to be relieved, and that, to a large degree is up to us. It involves God giving us the assurance of forgiveness and the assurance to fear not, but it’s up to us accept that, it’s up to us to bring that into our lives, it’s up to us to truly believe that, in the words of John Wesley, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” While Christ may have released us from our sins and fears, until we have truly accepted that action of Christ then we are not truly relieved from our sins and fears because we want to hold onto them.

John Wesley had the same problem, and when he was asked to do about it he was told to preach faith until he had, and then because he had it he could preach it. Or to put it another way, if you don’t think or feel or believe that you have been forgiven, begin telling yourself that you are forgiven, and more importantly begin living your life as if you are forgiven, and then you will truly begin to believe and live as if you are forgiven. This is not to dismiss or say that the burdens you are carrying are not important and are easily dismissed. Instead it says exactly the opposite that these things are important, that these burdens are so large and so significant that they can only be taken away by God, they can only be resolved by God, they can only be forgiven by God, who operates and whose ways are radically different from our ways, because the hymn goes on to tell us is that the reasons why we seek to have our sins and fears released and relieved is because  God gives us strength, consolation, hope and joy. When we find our sins and fears released and relieved, then we find out rest in Christ, and when we find our rest in Christ we will find our sins and fears released. But notice that these actions in Christ are not just limited to the individual but are also cosmic in nature. It is the desire of nations, it is the hope of all the earth and it is the joy of every longing heart. Too often we make the good news of Jesus about individuals, but it is also good news for nations, it is good news for the world, it is good news for all of creation, for both the heavens and the nations sing about the coming of the Kingdom that Christ brings.

That Kingdom comes because God so loved the world that God sent Christ to us, who is like us, and God sent him in the fullness of time, as Paul says. But what seems obvious is that while we claim Christ as our King, it is so obvious every day that God’s Kingdom is not quite yet here as well. The simple fact that there is still fear and still sin tells us that the reign is not complete, and so we cry for Christ to come and complete that kingdom, for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven, and that’s what Advent is about. It’s about waiting, about preparing the way from the coming of the Lord, to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, to make the paths straight, to do that for ourselves but also to do it for the world, to know that the Kingdom comes not just because of God but also because of us. That we are called not to just cry out for Jesus to come, but to work to make that Kingdom a reality here and now, and to work for that Kingdom because it is Jesus who rules in our hearts because it is he who was born to deliver, born to reign in our hearts forever and to us His Kingdom bring, and we can ask these things by praying these lines from another Charles Wesley hymn “Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.” Amen.

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