December 14, 2018

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“A Shocking Message”                                   December 9, 2018                                           Luke 3:1-6


Though it was released thirty one years ago, I’m willing to bet that most of you have watched The Princess Bride at least once. I’m even willing to bet that some of you have seen it multiple times (I’ve seen at least parts of it at least ten times). It’s truly one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time!


Anyway, if you have watched this movie, even once, you already know the gag when I say the word, “Inconceivable!” One of the most memorable scenes of the movie is when “Vizzini” (played by Shawn Wallace) exclaims “Inconceivable!” whenever something baffles him—which happens more than once in the movie. At one point, Inigo Montoya (played by a young Mandy Patinkin) turns to Vizzini and says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya was right, of course. Vizzini didn’t know what “inconceivable” means. The word doesn’t mean “surprising,” or “baffling,” or even “mysterious.” If something is truly inconceivable, it means that you cannot get a mental conception of it. It exists, but it is utterly beyond your brain’s ability to grasp.


So, I was out walking our dog the other morning, and for some reason I started thinking about the fact that the brain of my loyal Beagle/Bull mix named Archie has absolutely no capacity to ever acquire the slightest idea of what the Incarnation is about. Because of the physical structure of his brain, the Incarnation is a truly inconceivable reality to him. While the human brain is much more developed than the brain of a dog, it is similarly limited by its physical structure. It’s capacity to understand is finite. Which leads to this question: If the Incarnation is an inconceivable reality to dogs, what is the equivalent reality that is inconceivable to us?


Archie’s whole story is encompassed by my story, but his story is only a small part of my story. And while I can understand a lot of Archie’s story, he has no capacity to understand my story, or can he conceive that I have a story. He only knows his own story. So, what is the inconceivable story that our story is a part of? Unlike Archie, we are capable of asking the question I just stated, but we are no more capable of answering it than he is. The bar for what is inconceivable is higher for us than him, but it’s nevertheless just as impassable.


We know only our story; and so of course it feels like we know what is going on and that we’re the main event. But remember, we have no conception of what lies beyond our inbuilt ceiling of conceivability. For all we know, the vast expanse of reality we are incapable of conceiving may render the difference between what humans and dogs can conceive almost inconsequential.


*Maybe you’re familiar with this quote from Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” You may even believe it. It’s true that for far too many people, day fades into night, then into day again with no real joy, excitement or exhilaration. Existence is BLAH, if that good. It’s boring.


Unfortunately, things are not that simple. In fact, just the opposite is true. Yes, there ARE boring, blah periods of our lives that may even make up the major portion of our lives. But what defines us are the times that are the opposite of boring. The SHOCKS! And they happen to all of us. SHOCKS are things that would ordinarily seem INCONCEIVABLE to us. SHOCKS might come on a large scale, like a September 11th. Other shocks are not so cosmic, but they are hard to conceive nonetheless. What about the families of Christopher Santora and José Guadalupé, two firefighters from New York’s Engine Company 54 who lost their lives at the World Trade Center? Years later their families learned that Christopher’s body was buried in a funeral service for José—a bizarre and complicated case of mistaken identity. What a terrible shock—to both families.

Shloshim the Hebrew word for 30, is the name given to the traditional 30-day mourning period in Judaism. One month signifies a transition from the immediate SHOCK of a loss into a period in which one resumes daily activities while recognizing the grief will continue. Folks living in Squirrel Hill observed shloshim after the shocking and horrifying massacre that occurred five weeks ago at Tree of Life synagogue on the Sabbath. The gunman executed eleven people before the SWAT team was able to stop the madness. Shocks come to every one of us. They change us; sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But in many cases, the direction of the change is almost entirely in our own hands.

For what comfort it may bring, let me remind all of us that the story of Jesus provides a human context for dealing with shocks. Truth is, the whole gospel account is one shock after another. Think about it. God becoming human flesh. What a shock that was, and is! Born to an unwed teenage mother. Another shock. From Nazareth (even the apostles said it was a no-account town: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Shocking. King of kings and Lord of lords laid in a gilded cradle as a newborn? No. In a manger of cattle fodder. INCONCEIVABLE! One shock after another. And the shocks continued.

As Jesus ministered around the countryside, he taught things like “Blessed are…” or “Happy are…” or “Congratulations to…those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” You want to try that again Jesus? “Congratulations to…the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” C’mon. “Congratulations…when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” You’ve got to be kidding! And there was his teaching that said, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” Oh sure! And there was that strange saying, “the last shall be first…” Not at all what we would think or expect.

Finally, the incredible shock to those who loved him was Jesus’ torture and murder. If they were to say: “Inconceivable!” it would be understandable, wouldn’t it? He had healed the sick, given sight to the blind, restored the limbs of the lame, and even brought the dead back to life. The hopes and dreams of his followers had convinced them that he was God’s Messiah, the Anointed One, the one who would lead them to a glorious future. But now those hopes and dreams were over…or were they? There was one more shock to come. Early on the first day of the week…Resurrection.

You see? I just told you the story of Jesus that is one shock after another…after another, after another. A comforting thought when I realize that the times I need Jesus most are when I am dealing with a shock of my own. Our shocks will NOT be more than Jesus can handle. As I said earlier, the shocks of life do not necessarily push us in one direction or another. The choice is ours. They can make us bitter or they can make us better.

So saying there is more to this Scripture than the comfort of knowing our Lord is not put off by the shocks of life is not all there is. There is also John’s call to repentance…a challenge to change those things in our lives that need changing…and the promise of God’s forgiveness symbolized by the cleansing waters of baptism.

And there are the soaring words from Isaiah’s prophecy: A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.” (vss. 4-6). This image is drawn from the massive engineering efforts of ancient Babylon. Straight new roads, not those old roads that are made to follow the terrain. It’s the difference between going from Pittsburgh to Erie on Interstate 79 instead of driving all the way to Erie on Route 19 over hill and dale, through towns and villages. For ancient people, this was a theological statement—nothing must be allowed to impede or delay the coming of God.

What a message for Advent! “Let every heart, prepare him room” we sing. Perhaps it would be better to say let every heart get out the bulldozers and backhoes, the rock crushers and road graders. There are mountains that need to come down—mountains of prejudice, hatred, anger, and anything else that blocks our way to healthy relationships with one another and with our Lord. There are valleys to be filled—valleys of depression, despair, loneliness, grief, pain, any of which can keep us from the rich relationship the Savior offers and that keep us from enjoying the fellowship of the faith. There are crooked places to be made straight—yes, there is perversity in hidden places, fine exteriors that mask rotten interiors of abuse, neglect, immorality, even violence. There are rough places to be made smooth—rough places that appear because of oppression and injustice. There is work to do! Bring on the heavy equipment!

There is a wonderful conclusion to all the effort to make a highway for God. As the Scripture declares in verse 6: “And all people will see God’s salvation.” Picture that. A mass of humanity that suffers through the inevitable periods of quiet desperation interspersed with the inconceivable shocks of life, stretched out along the hillsides overlooking a wonderful wide highway. As far as the eye can see they are spread out. Men and women, boys and girls. Rich and poor, young and old, slave and free. Every nation, tongue, and tribe. Red and yellow, black and white, as the old Sunday School song says. All are anxiously gathered to watch for the arrival of the King of all kings who is the embodiment of God’s salvation. God’s healing, God’s wholeness, God’s shalom arrive in a person.

Can you see it? Oh I know—our vision is not perfect. The mountains are so high and the valleys so low, the crooked places are still horribly bent and the rough places resist every attempt to smooth them out. And yes, there is one shock after another taking place.

But look beyond all that. Look to God’s salvation…JeshuaIesus…Jesus.

Look for him in the pages of Scripture…look for him in the lives of family members…look for him in the faces of those whose needs we try to meet…look for him in this place as we gather to worship him together.

Clearer and clearer the picture will become. Can you see it? Keep looking. It will come into focus. It’s a promise from on high.

“And all people will see God’s salvation.” Because Jesus’ coming is the most shocking thing of all. Amen! *Borrowed from David E. Leininger.