LIKE CHILDREN ON CHRISTMAS MORNING
A Pastoral Message on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2020 by Rev. Dennis W. Foust, PhD, based upon Malachi 4:1-2 for the people of St. John’s Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
It feels as if Advent began back on Sunday, March 15th. During this peculiar year of 2020, you have been waiting to feel the pulsating approach of Christmas morning for quite a while. Anticipatory waiting is arduous.
When our children were young, we used Advent calendars to count down the weeks until Christmas day. Bedtime on Christmas Eve was a circuitous spiral of conflicted confusion. On one hand, they wanted to go to sleep because their slumber accelerated Santa’s arrival. On the other hand, their sleep was postponed due to the excitement of expectation. One Christmas Eve, one of our children said, “I want to sleep with my eyes open.” On this fourth Sunday of Advent, can you identify with children focused on the dawn of Christmas morning?
A foundational aspect of faith is anticipation. In every civilization, people of faith have anticipated new beginnings, days of deliverance, answers to prayer and other tangible expressions of salvation. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, a phrase developed to describe this anticipation. This phrase was repeated by the prophets: ‘the Day of the Lord,’ they named it. They tried to keep their eyes wide open for ‘the Day of the Lord.’ On ‘the Day of the Lord,’ God would appear and act on their behalf. On ‘the Day of the Lord,’ their savior would arrive; emancipation and liberation would begin.
Living through 2020, you better understand this l-o-n-g-i-n-g for ‘the Day of the Lord.’ You anticipate leaving your face covering at home. You anticipate hugging your friends again. You anticipate gathering in the sanctuary for worship, singing in the choir and joining with your Spiritual Growth Group. You anticipate dinner with friends and attending a concert, a dramatic play or a ballgame. In fact, IF you could hurry along the arrival of this ‘Day of the Lord,’ by staying awake, you would sleep with your eyes open.
Scripture describes ‘the Day of the Lord’ is always near and is sure to occur. As surely as vaccines will arrive, as surely as students and teachers will return to full school days, as surely as we will gather in the sanctuary to express our worship, as surely as stadiums will roar with cheering fans, be equally sure that ‘the Day of the Lord’ will come. The Day of the Lord’ is inescapable. The Lord’s salvation will arrive.
However, it should also be noted that ‘the Day of the Lord’ is not a good day for everyone. ‘The Day of the Lord’ is also a day of judgement against God’s people and the people who are enemies of God’s ways & God’s people. Just as ‘the Day of the Lord’ can be a day of salvation, it can also be a day of condemnation for those who work against God’s ways. From childhood, you have sung, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!”
Almost every parent has a conversation with a child about ‘why people do things to hurt other people.’ It is a conundrum to a child. Why do people hurt other people? This year, many parents have tried to explain the video of a police officer pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck to kill him while Mr. Floyd was saying, “I can’t breathe.” Parents, it is important for our children to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the human condition. People hurt other people because sin is part of the human condition. Each of us – including our sweet, sweet children – have the capacity to sin against another person. Children can even hurt their parents and parents can hurt their children without intending to do so. Yes, we all sin – or ‘fall short’ – of God’s vision for our living even in our closest relationships. Therefore, if we can sin against those persons who we love most dearly, we can certainly sin against someone we barely know or do not know at all.
Consider the prophetic message of Malachi as a podcast. During Advent, we have heard Malachi’s message call God’s people to anticipate the coming ‘Day of the Lord.’ We are reminded that God is coming into our world like a burning oven. God judges on what is right and what is wrong according to the ways of God. God will pronounce as guilty the arrogant and all evil doers; those who hurt others and those who support systems and structures that injure others. In other words, ‘the Day of the Lord’ is every day. Every day, we either collaborate with God’s’ ways or we are in conflict with God’s ways. Like Christmas, the Day of the Lord is every day.
During Advent, you anticipate ‘the Day of the Lord’ culminating in Jesus’ birth. Jesus’ birth calls you to a decision – not merely believing the story of his birth – but obediently following the ways of his life. Jesus calls you to a decision to mature in God’s ways of right and to deny the ways of evil – ways of hurting others. Advent also signals the anticipated coming ‘day of the Lord’ pointing to Jesus’ return.
Another dimension of ‘the Day of the Lord’ is that it greets you in every dawn. ‘The Day of the Lord’ is any day and every day you allow the ways of the Lord, the compassionate love of God revealed in Jesus, to be expressed in your life and in the life of the world. As you follow the ways of God, you reject any practice that devalues a human being, you refuse moral initiatives that hurt our sisters and brothers, you flesh out God’s mercy, grace, understanding and redemptive forgiveness, you live the way of Jesus – loving God, loving one another, loving your neighbor and loving your enemies. When you flesh out God’s compassionate love you are proclaiming ‘the Day of the Lord.’
A few years ago, I began teaching you why I use the phrase, ‘the compassionate love of God.’ We live in a world where the word, ‘love,’ floats in the air like dandelion fuzz in a spring breeze. Godly love is not contractual, reciprocal or motivated by shallow emotion or transitory passion. Compati’ means ‘womb.’ Godly love is always compassionate – always creating space in the womb of the heart to embrace the other person. Godly love is always motivated by a vision of salvation, redemption, reconciliation or liberation from bondage.
Last week, I told you that the person we knew as Mother Teresa came from a happy home. She was born in Skopje (Skope-jay), Albania as the third and youngest child of Nikola and Drana Bojaxhiu (Bo-jax-yu). Her parents opened their lives to the needs of others. Nikola was deeply involved in the Albanian independence movement. He died when Teresa was 8 years of age. Although her mother lost much of her economic capacity following Nikola’s death, she continued to care for the elderly who lived nearby. Each week, Drana went to clean the home of a widow whose family had abandoned her. She also bathed and cared for an alcoholic woman covered in sores. She also took over the maternal care for six children who were orphaned when their parents died a few weeks apart. From that home, at the age of 18, Teresa entered her order of service. She grew up watching her parents create space in their lives to serve the needs of others. For more than 18 years, until she was in her late 30s, Teresa taught the poorest of the poor in Bengali. After a season of prayer and spiritual discernment, she went to Calcutta to become the Apostle of the Unwanted. She understood her calling as a mission to take the light of Christ into the darkness of the poor. Her goal was beauty; she defined beauty to be whatever can be done to respond to the desires of Christ in every situation. She was called to offer compassion wherever it was absent. She wrote in her journal that the first need she saw in the streets of Calcutta was a woman dying outside the hospital; denied care because she was poor. So, her first effort was to begin a Home for the Dying. She soon went, with a few others to pick up four people dying in the street. One of them was in terrible condition. She said to the other sisters: “You take care of the other three; I will take care of this one who looks worse. So I did for her all that love can do. I put her in bed and washed her face. There was a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand and said only two words, ‘thank you;’ and she died.”
Beloved, I’m not asking you to become Mother Teresa. I’m reminding you that you follow Jesus bringing the dawn of ‘the Day of the Lord’ to other persons. You begin each day by asking God to show you how to express the compassionate love of God to a person or a family or a group of people. You pray, ‘Lord, please create in my heart the womb of Your compassion. Show me what I can do to lighten their burden, encourage their spirit, alleviate their pain, diminish their sorrow, communicate their value, dry their tears, erase their shame, expunge their guilt, forgive their sin, embolden their vision, strengthen their resolve, broaden their perspective, inspire their creativity, affirm their ability, activate their confidence or stir them to deeper compassionate love.’
Every day, as you minister in these ways, you allow someone to see the dawn of God’s light. My prayer for you is that you will live each day as The Day of the LORD. May you approach each day like children focused on Christmas morning with your eyes wide open, anticipating appearances of the one who comes to you every day disguised as someone with needs.
Amen and AMEN! May it be so within us so it can be so among us and through us in the life of the world because we serve as Ministers in Daily Life.