Sermon – December 11, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Messiah

Rev. Joe Connolly

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“John was in prison and heard about the works the Messiah was performing. At that point the Baptizer sent word through a disciple to ask the Rabbi, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In reply Jesus said, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and what you see:….’” — Matthew 11:2-4.

I walked into a local supermarket last week and was confronted with a cultural sign of the season: a volunteer ringing a bell. This particular volunteer clearly also thought, besides ringing a bell, a part of the duties in this gig was to sing seasonal ditties a capella.

This person did, in fact, have the vocal ability to pull that off, which impressed me. What did not impress me is I do not think Baby It’s Cold Outside by Frank Loesser is a particularly appropriate vocal choice for someone trying to raise money for those in need, no matter how entertaining the rendition might be. But that was the song being intoned. And, to reiterate, this was, indeed, a very impressive feat of singing since the song is written as a duet but was being offered as a solo. {Note: there was much laughter once the name of the song was mentioned and that laughter continued for some time.}

To be clear, why do I think that song is inappropriate? Loesser wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside to be sung at private parties because he, the writer of this song, thought it to be more than a tad risqué. If, by the way, you listen carefully to the lyric, it is more than a tad risqué.

In fact, the song was used in public only after Loesser sold the rights to MGM, the studio it inserted it into a film and it became, as you probably know, a big hit in short order. But all this raises what are for me, a song writer and a writer of hymns, questions— serious questions.

What is so called seasonal music, really? What is the season about, really? What should we be addressing, what are we addressing and what do we address in the seasons known as Advent and Christmas, really? (Slight pause.)

Five years ago Tom Rasely and I wrote a new Christmas Carol. The title of the work is One Angel Sings. The lyric, in part, reads, “One angel sings, both silent and plain.” A later verse says, “One angel sings, both silent yet clear.”

Internally, that lyric poses another question: what does it mean when someone sings, but yet, is silent? Is that not a paradox?

Since I wrote that lyric I hope it will not surprise you I have an explanation. The truth is you can look at the famous passage from Luke 2, the passage with shepherds and angels and a child in a manger, and never once find any angel who sings. The text does say one angel speaks.

The text does say a multitude of angels praise God. But the text specifically says in offering praise to God the angels speak that praise rather than sing that praise.

To be fair, is it possible the angels sing? Why yes it is. But the text doesn’t say that.

Hence, in terms of what the text actually says, singing angels are a figment of the imagination of artists throughout the centuries. I say singing angels are a figment of the imagination of artists throughout many centuries because it’s quite likely that’s the place from where our image of angels singing emerges. And because Scripture does not mention any angel singing, I wrote this lyric (quote:): “One angel sings, both silent and plain.” (Slight pause.)

All that re-opens what is for me those same key questions: what is the season about? What should we be addressing, what are we addressing and what do we address in the season known as Advent and Christmas? Indeed, is the season about singing angels or is the season about something else? (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Matthew: “John was in prison and heard about the works the Messiah was performing. At that point the Baptizer sent word through a disciple to ask the Rabbi, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In reply Jesus said, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and what you see:….’” (Slight pause.)

At Bible Study last Wednesday— a reminder: everyone is invited to join us for Bible study Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m.— at Bible Study last Wednesday I think I, myself, and those who were there came across an interesting precept for reading Scripture. Ignore the details. The details of the story are interesting and can illustrate many points.

But Scripture can be said to be about one thing and one thing only. Scripture is about theology. Further, the theology we find in Scripture is fairly straightforward. And when we pay attention to the theology in the text rather than the details found in the text, it can be quite illuminating. Why? How? The theology we find in Scripture can be described in several short sentences.

Here they are: God loves us. God loves us humanity. God wants to be in covenant with humanity. These are simple and central themes which can be found throughout Scripture. But one key to finding these themes— is ignore the details.

When I say “ignore the details” please do not mis-understand me. The details enrich and enhance what we read. But if we concentrate only on the details— singing angels, for instance— and thereby ignore the theological basis of Scripture— that God loves and wants to be in covenant with humanity, we’ve missed the point, missed the central message of the Bible.

I need to add we Christians believe there is one additional central theme and it is found in the reading from Matthew we heard today. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Christ. Because Jesus holds the office known as the Christ, the very presence of Jesus, the reality of Jesus, reenforces the idea that God loves and wants to be in covenant with humanity.

Please note: if you ignore the details of this reading— from the imprisonment of John to the praise of John offered by Jesus— the statement that Jesus is the Christ sent because God loves and wants to be in covenant with humanity, contains the totality of what this reading means. (Slight pause.)

Well, as I walked out of the supermarket that day— the supermarket I was speaking about earlier— I bumped into an acquaintance. We chatted for a minute or two.

Unfortunately, that extra time in the lobby enabled me to hear yet two more so called seasonal selections offered by that person ringing a bell. One was Frosty the Snowman. The second was Here Comes Santa Claus. (Slight pause.)

And yes, that leads me back to the questions: what is so called seasonal music, really? What is the season about, really?

I think Scripture is clear on that count. In our lives— daily— we need to be addressing, as does this lectionary reading, that God loves and wants to be in covenant with humanity. In our lives— daily— need to be addressing, as does this lectionary reading, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, who reenforces the idea that God loves and wants to be in covenant with humanity. (Slight pause.)

I don’t know about you, but for me Frosty the Snowman and Here Comes Santa Claus may be fun but they do not speak to me about Advent or Christmas. They speak to me about our culture, nothing more, nothing less. And frankly I do not think our culture is up to grappling with the covenant love found in Scripture.

So last, let me repeat something I said in the most recent newsletter. The things we celebrate in Advent— hope, peace, love, and joy— are about the future, our future. We, Christians, always need to prepare for what will be. We should not dwell in the past. We need to look toward the future.

Indeed, Christmas is not about the past. Christmas— this celebration of the birth of the Messiah— is about the future.

We Christians are invited to know that with what we celebrate in Advent and with what we celebrate at Christmastide— hope, peace, love, joy and the birth of the Messiah— these are not simply portents of what will be. These are signposts meant to direct us toward how we are to live our life with God now, and how we are to live our life with God in the days to come. And how we are called to live our lives with each other?

And how are we called to live our lives with each other? With care, with respect, with understanding, with love. Amen.

12/11/2016
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I shall quote a colleague who was brief, blunt and to the point in making this statement about the season. ‘Santa Claus does not feed my soul. The God of covenant love does.’”

BENEDICTION: Let us go in hope and in joy and in peace, for we find love in the One who has made covenant with us. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.

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