This is a sermon that I delivered on 12/15/2013. It is not academically cited or proofread for academic purposes. If you have questions about this, please contact me here.
Sermon Title: Between Past and Future
Primary Scripture Reference: Matthew 11:2-11
Do you now, or have you ever felt like you were in prison? Do you ever feel like you are a prisoner to obligation, or punished with debt that you needed to take on in order to live?
I do not mean to trivialize the feelings of people who are actually in prison, but I do mean to say that there are often circumstances in our lives that cause such deep anxiety that they are debilitating, and prevent us from experiencing life, because we are incarcerated by dread.
For me, the most disarming, anxiety inducing circumstances, are the things which somehow seem unfair. I remember, even as a child, the thing that would make me feel most vulnerable, was imagining debt. Now, as a child, I had no financial debt, but I knew that one day, I would, and it seemed so unfair. I remember threatening to my parents and grandparents, on multiple occasions, that I would run away to an island and change my name, so that no debt could ever find me. It seemed to me that things like a house, and a car, and an education were very important, and I did not (and still don’t) understand why I needed to be burdened with such debt in order to live.
What I am saying is, money is one of those things that makes my heart start beating faster, and my brain become fuzzy – it heightens my anxiety level. Maybe you have different concerns – what circumstances cause your anxiety level to raise? What obligations do you have, with needs that must be met, but that don’t seem to make any sense, and so you are imprisoned to them? Perhaps it is a relationship issue with someone who is acting in a way that you do not understand. Perhaps it is an illness that you or a loved one are having a difficult time coping with. I imagine that your mind is immediately fixated on something.
And if, by the grace of God, you are unable to uncover that thing which causes your anxiety level to skyrocket, then you have reached greater maturity level than I have.
But I think that this Christmas season is a time of year when many people find themselves in these spiritual prisons. This season that is otherwise filled with joy and excitement is, for many, filled with frustrating nostalgia and obligation.
It reminds me of that Christmas song ‘We Need a Little Christmas’. I think of it as being by Johnny Mathis, but its actually from the 1966 musical Mame. Perhaps you’ve heard it. It sounds like a real jolly song, but the lyrics are kind of subversive.
Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute,
Candles in the window,
Carols at the spinet.
Yes, we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute.
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
So climb down the chimney;
Put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen.
Slice up the fruitcake;
It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough.
For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
Need a little Christmas now.
It’s almost as if this person who is preparing for Christmas is expecting some savior to come. It’s almost as if this person is so upset with the past, that they’re rushing the future to come, totally negating the present.
And that’s where we are…between past and future. That’s where John the Baptist is…between past and future. John the Baptist is between past and future, in prison. We don’t yet know why John is imprisoned…that’s later in the story. All we know right now is that John is most famous for preaching about the future that is to come, and has been put in prison. What does he do, between past and future? He calls out for Jesus. He sends out his disciples to inquire what the Savior of the World is doing.
Martin Luther King, Jr., as he worked to realize his dream, a much longed for dream of peace and equality of all people, may have at times felt like he was in prison. In fact, for a time he was in prison, in Birmingham. But in order to work on this future dream, he had been to the mountaintop. The mountaintop, of course, was a metaphor, like Moses, who had gone to the top of mount horeb to speak with God. “I have been to the mountaintop, and therefore I have a dream.”
Jesus Christ has the ability to manipulate time. God does not work within the same time constraints that we, who are traveling around the sun, live with.
Many people are waiting for Jesus to come back to earth, perhaps on a cloud, in order to make things right. But I believe that God is already here, dwelling, working, moving in our midst. Do we recognize God? I believe that Christmas is a reminder that God can take any form that God wants to break into this world – even that of a tiny infant.
Keep awake, therefore, for you know not the hour nor the place when you will discover yourself a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
There is a concept called “The End of History”. Its academic title is teleology. Think of that. The End of History – these are two different time periods. The end…of history. But God does not work in the same patterns that we live with. Teleology, the End of History, essentially means the fulfillment of time. When the cookies are done. When the baby has arrived. When we are living in perfect harmony, not only with the saints who have gone home, but the saints here on earth.
When the weak hands are strengthened, and the fearful hearts are unafraid. When the blind see and the deaf hear. When the lame leap like deer, and the speechless sing for joy.
But, to us, it doesn’t happen all at once.
My grandfather often tells me that I tend to hurry up to stop. We hurry up to Christmas, whether out of joyful anticipation, anxiety, or like to just get it over with. And I think, once we arrive at Christmas, we expect to stop so that we can savor the day. But the eternal joke is – Christmas comes and goes in an instant. All of this hurried hard work for an instant of joy.
So I’m beginning to wonder if God puts us in prison. In other words, I’m wondering if God leads us to the places where our anxiety is, where our compulsion to workworkworkwork is, in order to call us out of it.
John the Baptist, in prison, presumably for things in his past, calls out to for Jesus, who then affirms John as ‘among the greatest borne of women’. To God, our past and our future are related, bridged by our present.
The present moment is the fulfillment of time. The Kingdom of God is within you, but it can only be recognized and affirmed if we are paying attention.
One tool that I have discovered works well for me, in order to draw me closer to the mind of God is centering prayer. I am an extravert, and I am always bouncing off the walls. You may not know this about me, but if you were to come visit during the week, Blair and I just talk and talk and talk. We actually have a rule that, if we go into each other’s office, we’re not allowed to sit down; otherwise, we’ll never get any work done.
So centering prayer is difficult for me; but it draws me closer to God. When things are beaming too crazy, or when I’m feeling truly disconnected from God, or I notice that I’m treating people in ways that Christ does not approve of, I find a quiet space, sit down, close my eyes, and empty my mind. I breathe deeply. And if I cannot empty my mind, I say the word “peace” in my mind, over and over until my mind is empty. This grand pause helps me to recollect and reconcile with God. It is a fresh start. Stop, breathe, empty.
But also, I do want to say something a little more deeply. There was a point in my life where anxiety was really ruling my head, heart, and actions. I would rush through each and every day, for the sake of it being done; and I was producing no quality work. God was trying to work with me, and I was ignoring God because it was just too painful, and frustrating. And so, I went to see a therapist for weekly appointments. After I had gotten some healing in order, I transitioned to seeing a spiritual director every other or every third week. I know that sometimes people joke about seeing therapists as being for weak minded people, but that is completely wrong. Just as you would see a doctor if something in your body wasn’t functioning as well as it should, a therapist or counselor helps you re-order your thoughts. If you are discovering that you are not enjoying your days, because you’re rushing through for the sake of getting your days done with; please let Blair, or a trusted friend, or me help connect with you with a therapist, pastoral counselor, or spiritual director.
And of course, we currently have two small groups meeting for regular prayer and spiritual care. If you would like to join into one of these groups, let me know.
For, we need a little Christmas, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.