The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 12/14/08
Text: Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

For years, wise teachers of preachers have been advising that sermons should be prepared with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The point is that sermons have to be relevant to the day-to-day lives of our people, and the best way to insure that would be to focus on what is going on in our people's world. Good advice, don't you think?

So what has the newspaper (or the TV or radio or internet or whatever) had for us this week? Well, it's been quite a smorgasbord. The dominant story has been the soap opera from Chicago and Governor Rod Blagojevich's attempt to auction off the Senate seat of President-elect Obama. We first got wind of it Tuesday with the Governor's early-morning arrest and the news conference that laid out the sordid details via bleeped-out wiretap recordings. Wednesday happened to be Blagojevich's 52nd birthday, but instead of hearing me sing to him, he heard himself described as either the most corrupt politician in America or at least the most stupid. The sermon could well be on the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil. That is obviously true, and that will certainly preach.

Throughout this miserable mess, we have been reminded repeatedly of Chicago's infamous history of political chicanery. If Governor Blago's alleged offenses are proven in court (and he still is innocent until proven guilty [unless the president labels him an enemy combatant, at which point all bets are off]), he will be the fourth Illinois governor of the last eight to be sent to prison. A .500 batting average is wonderful in Chicago if you play for the Cubs or the White Sox, but, this one...? And, amazingly, according to news reports on Friday, our big-haired offender has an approval rating of eight percent. I say "amazingly" because I cannot imagine who comprises the eight percent. Does he have family we don't know about? Or are these all folks who were hoping to buy that Senate seat? Noted in all is the fact that our President-elect came out of that cesspool, but apparently unscathed. So we have a Tale of Two Politicians, and with apologies to Charles Dickens, the best of men and the worst of men. A couple of sermons there - one might say be careful where your allegiance lies and quote the psalmist saying "It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to put confidence in princes." (1) Another might affirm the fact that we can grow beyond our background and surroundings and use disciples like Matthew or Peter or Paul as examples. That will preach too.

Of course, we are probably just as happy for the political soap opera to divert us from the ongoing disaster known euphemistically as the economy. Reports continue to show that things are worsening as businesses keep failing and unemployment keeps rising. What is going to happen with the big three auto makers and the more than three-million jobs that depend on them is still an open question because Washington fiddles while Detroit burns. Perhaps generations to come will look back on 2008 as the year that America elected its first African-American President, but the generation that is living through it will probably look on 2008 as the year of the bailout. We are still in the middle of the mess with no idea as to the eventual outcome. We have learned, to our chagrin, that even those whom we relied upon for straight answers and sound advice are as clueless as anyone. "There is none righteous, no not one" (2) is a text that comes to mind. Of course, Jesus talked a lot about money and possessions - fully one-third of his parables dealt with the subject. There are lots of sermons about depending on God rather than money, and they have particular resonance these days. Preach, brother, preach.

We might have a sermon on environmental stewardship in light of the Bush administration's "midnight regulation" relaxation this week of protective standards for communities endangered by questionable mining practices. A ruling was approved to make it easier for coal companies to simply dump the rock and dirt waste that is blown off the tops of mountains in "mountaintop removal" coal mining into streams and valleys with no need for cleanup. Hmm. "The earth is the Lord's," (3) says the psalmist, not the mining companies' stockholders. The news of the rioting in a number of cities in Greece over the police killing of a 15-year-old boy might give us an advent theme as we remember the Thessalonian Christians of 2000 years ago who gave up worldly pursuits in anticipation of the imminent return of Christ. They waited...and waited and waited. They waited so long that they eventually had to sponge off other church members to survive. The apostle Paul got wind of it and blew his stack - "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living." (4) Yes, we wait for the coming of Christ, but, in the meantime, we have work to do. I am reminded of the old bumper sticker: "Jesus is coming; look busy."

You can see how the process works. The Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. There are lots of sermons in the news stories, and there is great value in that.

But I want to expand the process this morning. Let it not only be the preacher with both Bible and newspaper. YOU do it too. There is even greater value there. What prompts me to say so is our encounter with the lectionary texts for the third Sunday in Advent which the church sees this morning. Both the Isaiah passage as well as the famous verses of Mary's Magnificat from Luke simply soar with words of hope. And when we are confronted with one piece of bad news after another in the papers each day - political scandals, economic turmoil, continuing wars, and so on and so on and so on - the temptation to despair can be overwhelming. We NEED that voice of hope. Listen for it. You have the newspaper; you also have your BIBLE!!! What do you find? The words of the Christmas carol come to mind:

"Do you hear what I hear?"
Said the night wind to the little lamb.
"Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite" (5)

Something new and unexpected in the air. Think about the texts. First, Isaiah 61. It comes from a period a bit more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. It was directed to a people who had grown up in exile; their grandfathers had lost the war with Nebuchadnezzar and had been marched off to Babylon in chains. Now the exiles were being permitted to return to their ancestral lands, a home they had only heard about. But the land "flowing with milk and honey" of which the ancient stories spoke was now a waste. Picture the scenes we see after a hurricane hits, or an earthquake or a tornado, and you have a sense of what awaited God's people upon their return to Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and villages. Nearly every home, farm or business had been torn down and left in disrepair. The city wall was gone. Their famous temple had been razed to the ground. The people were devastated, distraught and depressed.

Enter the prophet, commissioned by the God of all the universe and anointed to speak the unexpected - good news to people living in terrible times. Gift after gift the creator will lavish on these beloved people. The horrific conditions of their everyday lives will be reversed: the oppressed will hear good news, the brokenhearted will be embraced, captives and prisoners will be set free, all who mourn will be comforted. As the prophet proclaims on behalf of the Almighty: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them...they [shall be known as] a people whom the Lord has blessed."

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
"Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea."

Now, fast forward the scene through five centuries. A little town in the hill country of Judea. The home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a woman who, after years of trying, is finally pregnant with her first child. A demure, devout young cousin is visiting. Engaged to be married, she is also pregnant...WITHOUT trying. She tells her cousin the strange story of an angelic visitor and his announcement of her delicate condition. What would Elizabeth say? In Franco Zefferelli's film, "Jesus of Nazareth" the scene is played out with the two ladies. Mary is worried about Joseph not believing her story. Elizabeth says, "Tell him that God gives life where no life was thought to be possible."

Mary knew what was ahead for her. The whispers and the ridicule of neighbors. The stares, the silent treatment, the distance from those who used to call themselves "friends." Even worse would be the harsh words from her family. And then, no matter what she might say, the look that could be on Joseph's face, the one that could as easily say "death" as "divorce." But what do we hear from her? Again something utterly unexpected: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." Really? Then, with eyes of faith, just as the prophet of old did, Mary sees a world to which others are blind: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
"Do you hear what I hear?
In your palace warm, mighty king,
Do you hear what I hear?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold--
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold"

Something new and unexpected. A word of hope in a hopeless world. Do you hear it? That is the message of these Advent texts. That is the message of the coming of Jesus.

In 1994, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics (based on biblical principles) in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments and a large orphanage. About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program were in the orphanage. They related the following story in their own words:
It was nearing the holiday season, 1994, time for our orphans to hear, for the first time, the traditional story of Christmas. We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word. Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. (No colored paper was available in the city.)

Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby's blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States. The orphans were busy assembling their manger as I walked among them to see if they needed any help.

All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat -- he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy's manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger. Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at this completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously.

For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately, until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger. Then Misha started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, "And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, "If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?" And Jesus told me, "If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me." So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him---for always."

As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him -- FOR ALWAYS. (6)
Said the king to the people everywhere,
"Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere,
Listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light,
He will bring us goodness and light."

The wail of sirens, the whine of bullets, the blare of headlines, the cries of mothers, and the sobs of the Mishas of this world are deafening. They would overwhelm us...if those were the only sounds out there. But they are not. The newspaper is in one hand, but the Bible is in the other!

Do you hear what I hear? That is not only the question of the Christmas carol, it is the question of Isaiah, it is the question of Mary. It is the question of faith. Do you hear what I hear? Listen...and be blessed.


1. Psalm 118:9

2. Romans 3:10 KJV

3. Psalm 24:1

4. II Thessalonians 3:10-12

5. Words and Music by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne, 1962

6. Author unknown. Posted by Jeff Spencer, via Ecunet, "Bottom Drawer," #4022, 12/10/99

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