"From Ordinary to Extraordinary"

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:29-31

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

November 30, 2003 -- 1st Sunday of Advent

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

In the 1920's an outbreak of encephalitis swept through the Eastern part of the United States. It wasn't as widespread as the flu, but still it created quite a problem. This particular strain of encephalitis left its victims apathetic to life around them. They became dull, expressionless, and lost interest even in their families. In the most severe cases, the symptoms progressed to the point where the patients became catatonic.

Dr. Oliver Sachs was a physician who attended some of the most severe of these cases. He later set the story of his work down in writing and a few years back it was made into a movie called Awakenings. Robin Williams portrays Dr. Sachs in the film.

The breakthrough in the treatment of this condition came with a new drug. For those it helped, it was like a miracle. Like Rip Van Winkle, the afflicted awoke from their transfixed state and returned back to life. For the first time in years some of them became animated again and they started talking as if they had been interrupted in conversation for just a few seconds. Wherever they had been all that time, now they were back. They were awake to the world again. They were fully alive.

In Advent each year there is also a call for the people of God to awaken. We're challenged in the scriptures to be highly aware of the world around us and, specifically, to be alert for signs of Christ's presence within the ordinariness of life.

The truth is, we're less aware of what's happening around us in our daily lives than what we might think. Most of the time we're on automatic pilot, or at least cruise control. We easily settle into familiar routines and rote behavior. Now this serves us well a good deal of the time. It saves us from having to think too much about predictable situations. Yet, this conditioned behavior is based on the assumption that the expected will happen. It has no room for surprises.

For example, when you tie a pair of shoes you just do it automatically. You don't give it any thought. But should you pull a knot in one of the laces, it breaks the normal routine and now you have to become aware of the task in order to resolve the problem.

Even such an everyday activity like driving, where we would think we are quite alert, may be deceptive. When we get behind the wheel-- especially to and from work, the grocery store, or to a friend's house-- we follow well-established prompts which take us to our destinations but demand a minimum of brain power. This allows us to think about our problems, sing along with the radio, make a cellphone call, or just look at the sights and not have to pay much attention to what's happening on the road. Actually, we may not be ready at all for something out of the ordinary. That's when most accidents happen.

Our text today from Luke, embedded in a larger section on the end times, has an implied theme to keep awake, to be alert to recognize Jesus when and where he is. In so doing it both connects and differentiates him from the temporal rulers of Israel.

This little parable of the fig tree, which I have lifted out of the lectionary reading for the morning, tells us that the New Age so longed for is now being ushered in through the person of Jesus. This Jesus is no common man, no common ruler; indeed, he is like no other.

"Look at the fig tree and all the trees," he says, "as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near."

While Luke includes this parable of Jesus' in a description of the travails of the apocalypse, many scholars consider it wrongfully placed. When and where he said it we cannot be sure, but perhaps that was the predicament of the Gospel writer as well. If it does not originate in this end-of-days context, then it even makes a stronger statement about the person and work of Jesus.

It uses an common event of life-- the budding of the trees in spring-- to reveal the extraordinary that is taking place simultaneously with the ordinary. It was as if Jesus were saying, "How easy it is to be aware of the change in season when you see the leaves beginning to return. No one could possibly miss this sign. But are you as aware of the greater change which is also taking place around you, though its indicators may not be evident? When you see these things-- the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them-- then you can know that the kingdom of God is breaking in on the world. And it is coming into life now, through me."

Some 600 years before Christ the Prophet Jeremiah brought a message of warning and judgment that anticipated the fall of Judah and the exile to Babylon of many of its people; yet, even as the siege of Jerusalem was beginning his words were also a consolation and hope to the people of his time.

In his discernment of God's will he revealed the promise of a new pledge between God and the people that would mark the future. "The days are surely coming… when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them up out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant which they broke… But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to sprout from David's line; and he shall do what is just and right in the land."

Quite probably Jeremiah interpreted this revelation as applying to the imminent future of Israel, but Christians have heard in these words the prediction of one who would come to fulfill its promise once and for all time.

This king would not sit on a throne to reign over a geographical kingdom, but would walk the dusty roads of Palestine to bring good news to the downtrodden and powerless. This king would not adorn himself with the jewels of office, but bear the scars of one willing to sacrifice himself for the salvation of humanity. This king would not seek to extend his reign as measured by distance or population or treasure, but as realized in the hearts of men and women of a universal human family.

Jesus surely didn't seem very much like a monarch in traditional terms. That he was of the house and lineage of David fit the words of Jeremiah, but his kingdom-- the kingdom of God-- was one more of heavenly origin than earthly creation. In Jesus there would have to be a whole new understanding of what it meant to be God's chosen. In Jesus, people of faith have come to know personally the one who is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace.

It's said in life that we are more likely to find those things that we look for. If that's true, then when we don't expect much that's what we'll find: nothing. Nothing unusual. Nothing exciting. Nothing different. Nothing that will change our lives in any way. If that's the way you have come here today, then that's what you will leave with.

Late one night in Paris Albert Schweitzer came home from the university where he was a professor. He was so exhausted that he only casually sorted through the day's mail. He paid little attention until he noticed a magazine with a distinctive green cover.

As he glanced through that periodical he stopped at an article titled "The Needs of the Congo Mission." Something drew him to that story and he began it even though he was very tired. He ended up reading the entire article without stopping, an account of missionary work that included these words of the author: "As I sit here in Africa, it is my prayer that a the eyes of someone on whom the eye of God has already fallen will be awakened to the call…."

Moved by that earnest appeal to share in a struggling ministry of compassion, Schweitzer immediately came to the realization that his long search for meaning was now ended. Now he knew what to do, what direction to take for the rest of his life.

Schweitzer entered medical school and completed it eight years later, then started work at Lamberene in French Equatorial Africa. This gifted man, who could have reached the top in any of several fields, now began medical practice in a make-shift hospital converted from a chicken coop. All his life he had waited for this moment and for this assignment which was his destiny.

That magazine article, read at a time when he was barely able to go through the motions, was an awakening. It shook him out of the stupor of a successful life and led him decisively into a fulfilled life. His Paris routine was shattered forever and replaced with a whole new beginning.

Jesus said, "Look around you and you'll see evidence of God's kingdom here and there and all around. It is breaking in upon you through my works and in my person. It will be life-changing if you will just recognize it and step inside it with me. God's power will transform you as it transforms the world."

This Advent, this Christmas, expect something new. You'll have to keep awake and alert, though, lest you miss it. Out of the ordinary we're challenged to discover the extraordinary in our midst.

This season of the year is a time of surprises, a time for discovering the Christ Child who will be reborn again in unexpected places. After all, who would have thought to look for him in a manger? Who knows where you might encounter him today? If you're awake and alert, who knows where he might make himself known in your life?

If you're expecting Jesus, you're much more likely to find him. If you find him, you'll find the kingdom. If you find the kingdom, you'll understand the real gift of Christmas.

Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church

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