Since the last time I’ve preached, I figure I’ve logged about 1500 miles behind the wheel of my Toyota. Most of that has been on the PA Turnpike, and that’s given me, according to Mapquest, approximately 23 hours and 40 minutes (according to current traffic conditions) of time to observe the driving habits of the American public. In addition to keeping an eye out for texters and tweeters, I like to look at the bumper stickers. It’s interesting to think that we’d spend ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars on a new car and then we hustle off and plunk down another 99¢ so that we can share our philosophy of life with those who must wait behind us at the toll booth. And what a variety!
You’ve got stickers that are somewhat tame, like “Beat ‘Em Bucs” or “Greetings from Sixburgh”. There are a litany of notes from past elections. Some are sarcastic: “My Other Car is a Mercedes”, or “I May Not be fast, but I’m ahead of you.” Some offer friendly advice for hard economic times: “Hungry? Eat your imported car!” or “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.” And some are simple statements of belief. You’ve been invited to “Honk if You Love Jesus”, and then that was upgraded to “If you love Jesus, tithe – anybody can honk.” And some are out of control…
And there are a number of stickers that seem to reflect a pessimistic philosophy. Many of them are not entirely appropriate for sharing in this venue, but the idea is that “Life is hard, and then you die”
Life stinks, and then you die. That must be a hard load to carry around every day.
When I think about that sentiment, I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot. This play, which premiered on this date in 1953, was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.” It is a classic statement of the despair and hopelessness that characterizes much of modern life.
The central figures of the drama are two unwashed, nearly helpless tramps named Vladimir and Estragon. They seem to have come from nowhere in particular and have no place else to go. They are waiting in the midst of a bleak landscape sitting, chewing carrots, awaiting the arrival of someone named Godot. As these two hapless men wait in idle conversation, they are interrupted several times, most notably by a young man who arrives to tell them that Godot will not come that night, but will certainly come tomorrow.
The next day the two tramps are again waiting, and again engage themselves in conversation that reveals them to be people without any real hope or purpose in life.
Again they watch the traffic on the road, and again the young boy arrives with a message from Godot, who assures them that he will come tomorrow without fail. Frustrated, Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither one moves a bit as the curtain falls and the play ends. Samuel Beckett has produced a drama that masterfully states his belief that the human condition is one of paralysis; that we are powerless spectators in a life that is full of pain, and that the only release is death. Life stinks, and then you die. Remember, that’s “the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century.”
But not everyone believes this, of course. That’s just one person’s philosophy of life.
There are many others.
King Herod, for instance, had a different philosophy of life. He was no idle bystander. He was not waiting for anyone or anything. And I don’t suppose that if you looked in his stable you would a chariot bearing a sticker reading “life stinks and then you die.”
Herod was a man with power over his destiny. He was the king. He was in charge. He surrounded himself with the finer things in life, and generally got whatever he wanted. What he didn’t like, though, was when someone threatened his power or his lifestyle. So when word reaches him of a baby who has been born to be the king, Herod takes more than a passing interest in the situation. He calls the best minds together and presses them for information about this infant messiah. He claims that he wants to worship, but his intentions are obviously elsewhere. After all, Herod’s got a kingdom to run. He’s got interests to protect. And he’s not going to let any kid get in the way of the life that is his to enjoy.
The visitors from the East, the wise men who had brought this news to Herod, had quite a different philosophy of life. They are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, from the Greek word, “magoi”. Sometimes this term refers to men who are magicians, but it’s most likely that in this instance, the travellers are astrologers. These are men who believe that there is some source of power outside of themselves, that there is an unseen force who directs the stars and who orders the lives of men and women. The Wise men are on a journey because they believe that they have a clue about who this power and what this force is. For them, life itself was a pilgrimage – they looked for truth and then sought to incorporate that truth into their lives.
When they entered the place to which this star had led them, they fell down and were amazed by the presence of God in that room. They offered the baby gifts that were appropriate to royalty. They worshipped him. They listened for the voice of God in their dreams, and they went home by another way. They went home changed. Although they would have disagreed with Herod in many ways, these men would also have little patience with Mr. Beckett’s view of life. Their own lives were hardly a journey of pain that would end in death – no, they were always growing, always searching, always seeking the heart of the universe.
For six weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we have met in this room and we have talked about waiting. We have read about peace, about love, about hope, and about joy. We have confessed that we long for those qualities to be a part of our lives. We have read the prophets, and felt their sighing for a world that is so warped by sin that it can’t recognize its creator. We have prayed for God’s presence in our own lives, and have asked for help on our own journeys. We have sung “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as well as “Joy To The World.”
There have been times in these past weeks that we have looked a lot like the Wise Men. We have taken advantage of the opportunities for service or for celebration that we have been given, and our lives, as well as those around us, have been enriched because of it. We have brought our gifts to the Christ Child: offering food to the hungry through our food pantry, singing carols to the lonely, listening to the troubles of a friend, or lending a hand when it’s been needed.
We’ve made statements of faith, including bringing our estimates of giving for 2014 to be dedicated and holding a single candle against the darkness of the night. Yes, there have been days when we felt like the magi, when we worshipped, when we were attentive the journey to which we have been called, and when we tried to have hope in the darkness.
And, I suspect, if we’re honest, we’ll realize that there have been days when we have resembled King Herod. We have heard the proclamation of Christmas joy and have been interested to know more about this new king. But there have been too many times when we have been willing to run to Jesus as our savior from sin, but have rejected his right to rule in our lives. We have heard an invitation to change as a threat to the way that we live right now. We have been tempted to reject those who are poor or on the margins of our world.
If I know you like I think I know you, I would imagine that there have been times these past weeks when we have felt the despair of Vladimir and Estragon – moments when it seemed as though there was no joy in our lives, no purpose in our actions, no relevance to our existence. We have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use! Nobody cares if I’m even trying….” Yes, there have been days when we have felt hapless and helpless, when we have struggled to believe that there is anything worth waiting for.
On this day, though, we are not like the Wise Men, Herod, or Beckett’s characters, because we have gathered to celebrate what for them was at best a distant hope. On this day, we gather at the table of our Lord to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the visible demonstration of God’s promise to be with us in all of our days and in that time when days cease to be.
People of God, this meal that is laid before you, this simple combination of flour and salt and water and yeast, this dough is the symbol that reminds us that Christ has come, and that he has broken death’s hold on you and on me.
This meal is what we have been waiting for. All of the scripture and all of the stories in the world would be irrelevant if we didn’t know that God is here, that God is with us. And the power of this sacrament is that it provides us with the assurance that our longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that Christ is here, and that he is calling us into a journey that will last our lifetime. This is what we have been waiting for.
So, beloved, arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Your journey has led you here, and God will lead you away from this table into the places you will be needed in 2014.
Your waiting is not in vain, and your hope is not far off. Jesus, who has loved you and called to you since before you were born, is waiting for you.
Your story has meaning because it is woven into the story of the People of God. What are you waiting for? Christ is waiting with and for you. What are you journeying toward? Christ is journeying with and toward you. Let us enter this new year committed to following the star and eager to worship the King who has come that we might live. And let us pledge that this commitment will not be a hollow sentiment or a holiday feeling, but a way of life that will challenge us, bless our neighbors, and change our world. Thanks be to God! Amen.