Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Sermon: Embrace

Isaiah 64:1-9

Every year when December comes, the focus of our church services changes. For much of the year we focus on what it means to lives as followers of Jesus. We focus on the things we do, our roles and our tasks. We look at the foibles of humanity and watch how God works to help us on our way.

But in December we concentrate not on what humanity is doing, nor even how God is striving to shape humanity; instead, we focus on God breaking through, tearing open the heavens and coming into our world. We celebrate that God from time to time is a little less patient with us, and simply bursts into the world to do new things. I like what one commentator said, “God refuses to be held at arm’s length from us.”[1] It makes me think of a few of you when I greet you – if I try to shake your hand you look at me funny and brush it away and give me a hug. God refuses to keep shaking the world’s hand -- God rushes in and gives the world an embrace.

“Allan Nelson is a consultant to business operations throughout the world. Allan Nelson is also a deeply committed Christian.’

“He ofttimes walks a fine line through life as he seeks to live out his Christian faith in the midst of a variety of culture clashes. One such clash for Mr. Nelson took place in 1978 in a visit to Soweto in South Africa. In a profound and exciting way he experienced in this land afar off the collapsing of a circle of innate suspicion and hostility.”

“Mr. Nelson was in South Africa on a business trip to advise American companies as to how they might best respond to pressures to do something positive in this world of apartheid. As a church-going man he determined to go to church somewhere in the city on Sunday morning. Quite intentionally he sought a place to worship in a black South African congregation. He wasn't at all sure he would be welcome in such a congregation. But he knew his scriptures. He knew that in Jesus Christ the barriers that separated people should be broken down. He hoped he would be accepted.”

“Allan was told that there was such a congregation just five blocks from his hotel. As he and a friend whom he invited to go with him walked those five blocks to church he was reminded at each step of the racial barriers that separated the races in South Africa in those days. "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only" signs were everywhere. There was no mingling of the races anywhere. It became more clear to him than ever that white and black in South Africa were divided by huge walls of practiced hatred. Maybe he shouldn't go to a black church after all. Allan began to second guess his decision.”

“But then the church loomed just ahead. He consciously submerged his fears of apartheid and nourished his hopes for a new kind of world where all the baptized are one in Christ Jesus. Allan and his friend arrived early. They simply entered the empty church, found a seat, and waited. Slowly the members of the all black congregation began to file in. No one sat very close to them. Not close at all! In fact when the sanctuary was filled there was a large circle of empty seats that surrounded the two white Americans. Here they were. Two white faces surrounded by a sea of black faces as isolated as an island in the ocean.”

“A lump came to Allan's throat. His fears now drowned out his hopes. Perhaps it was too much to expect that the circle of hatred could collapse even in a Christian church.”

“And then, before the service started, a woman got up and began to sing "Amazing Grace." Allan described her voice as one of the most beautiful he had ever heard. Allan was moved by her singing. It was beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that when she started to sing verse two some great impulse from within prompted him to join his tenor voice to her song. They were singing. Just the two of them black and white in harmony.

An old woman from the back of the church came forward and touched him. "Jesus," she said softly. That was the one bond between them.”

“And then Mr. Nelson committed an illegal act. He embraced the woman. They both wept. Suddenly, the circle of emptiness around them collapsed. People shoved up against Allan from every side. His hopes had won out over his fears. There was, indeed, one church, one baptism! Allan Nelson now says that this event changed his life forever. "[2]

That’s December in the church. God gets tired of the separation between heaven and earth and wanders into the midst of our world, and illegally embraces it across the divide.

The power of this embrace is such that it changes the very way we think about the way God works in the world. You see, we might be tempted to think that God is hands-off, distant and seldom involved. We can look at hurricanes and mass shootings, wars and famines, and think that God doesn’t really care.

But then along comes a child who is the very son of God, into our midst and says, let me live this beautiful mess with you and show you a different way. “Jesus” that one word spoken by the woman in South Africa, the one word spoken by God that brings us together. Suddenly we start to see the work of God in every act of compassion, in every hand reaching out to help others.

The passage from Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter.”

I like the potter and clay image. Imagine for a moment that God is the potter of the world, of creation. We are clay. Can a potter shape anything by being hands-off? If the potter refuses to touch the clay, will the clay change shape? No, of course not, it will just remain a spinning lump. But as soon as the hand of the potter reaches out and touches it, moving hands carefully and constantly the piece begins to take shape. December is a reminder that God is very hands on, helping us to see that God is like a potter with hands on the world at every moment as it spins through the day. God is shaping, recreating, and always in contact.

Even more, not only is God in continuous contact with us – once in a while that isn’t enough even for God. Once in a while, God says, “I’m coming into, stepping into the world with you. I will be clay too. I will help remove your imperfections, I will show you what I want you to do and be, I will be clay with you.”

So each year we remind ourselves that God refuses to be held off by a handshake, but reaches out to embrace the world. Christ, the child, who is both human and God, reminds us of this. And even more we remind ourselves that what God has done in the past, God will do again. God will step into human time and history and embrace us.

Michael A. Schmid writes the following words in a song of his called Embrace, the chorus goes like this:

“Embraced by Your mercy, Embraced by Your cross, bringing joy in our sorrow and victory to loss; we embrace Your mission sent forth by Your grace, for it’s Your hand we cling to and Your future we embrace.” That’s what December is about in church, every year!

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, Lectionary Tales For The, by Richard A. Jensen

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