Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sermon: "Waiting" (Luke 2:22-40)

In chapter ten of The House on Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, Christopher Robin asks Pooh what his favorite thing in the whole world is. Then Christopher Robin answers his own question. He says: “What I like most of all is just doing nothing.”
Pooh says, “How do you do nothing?”
And Christopher Robin replies, “Well, when grown-ups ask, ‘What are you going to do?’, and you say, ‘Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.”
I remember, when I was a child, that the week between Christmas and New Year’s was a week of doing nothing. And I loved it. School was out, all the Christmas activities were over, and I could just do nothing.
And maybe I did get bored a little bit, but you know, studies say that it’s good to be bored once in awhile, to be left alone with nothing but your own thoughts…
As an adult, things have changed.
I didn’t plan on doing nothing this past week. It wasn’t a week that I felt I could be allowed to do nothing. Because there was, in fact, so much to do.
But God had other plans for me: plans of doing nothing.
I got sick the day after Christmas. Sick? I can’t get sick. I have work to do. I have my mom’s memorial service to help plan. I have plans to take my kids to Six Flags on Friday - and it had to be Friday, because that’s the day my sister could get us in for free.
None of that ended up happening. Even the trip to Six flags was cancelled, not just because I was sick; the whole family was sick.
When you’re sick, and you have a lot to do, it becomes very hard to do nothing. But doing nothing is really the only thing you can do.
Our scripture today talks about two people who, it seems to me, did a whole lot of nothing.
First, there’s Simeon. The scripture says he was in Jerusalem, that he was righteous and devout, and that he was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. In other words, he was waiting and anticipation the day when Israel would be restored, set free from Roman oppression.
What else was he doing?  I don’t know. The scripture just says he was… waiting.
And then there’s Anna. The scripture says she was a prophet. Scripture also says she “was of a great age” - she was 84. We have some people in our own congregation who have made it to that great age, and then some. 84 is a great age.
Anna’s husband died after seven years of marriage. People married young in those days, which means that for most of her 84 years, she had been living in the temple. Never leaving the temple. Worshiping there with fasting and prayer, night and day.
That’s a whole lot of doing nothing.
It’s so hard to imagine that much doing nothing.
If people have to wait five minutes in line at the bank or the grocery store, they pull out their smartphones, searching for something to occupy their minds. Surely you can’t expect people to just stand there and do nothing for five minutes!
So think, for just a moment, about Anna. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, spent waiting. Doing nothing. With no smartphone to distract or occupy her mind. No TV to turn on at night just to have the sound of human companionship in an otherwise quiet house. Just fasting and praying.
Now I know for some people, just sitting through a 15 or 20 minute sermon, or a one hour worship service, is hard enough, and some people can’t do that without checking their smartphones for the latest updates.
But Anna - she didn’t even have food to distract her! Some people treat food as a distraction: they eat when they are anxious, or stressed, or bored. But Anna was fasting.
I mean, obviously, she must have eaten something. But the practice of fasting means that food is not a distraction. Where did her mind go during all that time?
Fasting isn’t very fashionable these days, even among religious folks. People really aren’t interested in depriving themselves of the things they think they want.
To fast is to deprive ourselves of that which we would otherwise mindlessly consume. Every day, people eat, and every day, most of them pay little attention to their food. It’s kind of a paradox: food can be a mental distraction, yet we don’t think much about it. Food is necessary for life, but we take it for granted. We shovel it into our mouths, and give it very little thought.
We do that with food. We do it with information, too. Our overuse of smartphones demonstrates this. We live in an information age. And, like the food we eat, some of the information we digest is good, and some of it is not. Much of it is junk. But because we consume it all, shoveling it all in, mindlessly, we never give any thought to the information we are consuming, and the effect it is having on us.
But to deprive ourselves of information, to deprive ourselves of news, to deprive ourselves of the countless distractions that keep our minds occupied every minute of every day…
That’s a whole lot of doing nothing.
A lot of us have a hard time praying. We can bow our heads in church, and maybe even say a quick grace before our meals… but to spend any real time in prayer…
Even as a pastor, I have to remind myself to pray. I always feel like there is other work, “more important” work, pastoral work to do. But prayer - that just feels like doing nothing.
And, in the best possible way, prayer is doing nothing. Real prayer means quieting all those distractions, setting them aside, and in the silence that remains, allowing our deepest thoughts, our deepest fears, and our deepest sources of joy to come to the surface. Real prayer means facing all that is within us, good and bad, and presenting that before God. Real prayer is raw and honest about what we want and what we need, and the difference between what we want and what we need. And for that to happen, you need to put the phone down, turn off the TV, turn off the radio, put aside the book, the newspaper, the magazine, and have a time of quiet.
No wonder prayer and fasting are often mentioned together. If your mind is consumed by distractions, there is no room for prayer. Both fasting and prayer help us make the transition from mindless to mindful.
Jesus often looked for some remote place to pray. I totally get that. In a remote place, you are away from all the distractions. You’re away from all your chores, your bills, your homework, your projects, your appointments, your phone calls, your interruptions, your need to constantly check your social media, your need to have the TV on...
For me, a walk or a hike is a good way to pray. A hike in nature is my favorite, but even a walk around the block helps. It’s amazing: sometimes it feels like walking the dog is such a chore, such a waste of time, something I just don’t have any time for in my life.
But when I put aside the excuses and take her for a walk, around the park near my house, I always come home in a more peaceful state of mind. Why? Because for those 20 minutes or so, I removed myself from all the distractions and all the worries and all the sources of information and misinformation that I have access to at home.
It turns out I need those walks as much as she does.
Sometimes I go to the beach, or to El Dorado Nature Center. I find a quiet spot to sit. And for the first five or ten or fifteen minutes, I’m fidgeting, my mind is racing, my mind is thinking, there’s so many things I should be doing, why aren’t I doing them, why am I just sitting here?
It’s very hard to stay put. Maybe even Anna had a hard time once in awhile staying put, especially early on...
But for me, after about 15 or 20 minutes, a shift often takes place. It doesn’t always happen - there is no magic formula here - but often, after about 15 or 20 minutes, I think my heartbeat slows down, although I’ve never taken my pulse… I think my blood pressure goes down, although I’ve never checked… And this state of calm comes over me...and I really do feel that I start communing with God.
I never notice this shift, but after some time, I begin to sense something holy. Something unspeakable. A great calm. I begin to wonder if I could just sit there forever, it feels so good.
Like I said, it doesn’t always happen. Even Anna must have had days where she spent much time in fasting and prayer, and at the end of the day, there was nothing. You need to be willing to have that happen, or you’ll never experience the days when something special does happen.
You know the story of the prophet Elijah, right?  Elijah waited for God's presence. There was a great and powerful wind, lots of noise... and Elijah thought maybe that was God… but God was not in the wind or the noise. There was a powerful earthquake, lots of shaking, but God was not in the earthquake. There was a fire, an intensely burning fire… but God was not in the fire.
And then, there was...silence…
And God was in the silence.
There are a lot of Christians making a lot of noise these days...and a lot of Christian politicians making a lot of noise. Even some churches tend to make a lot of noise, because they're trying so hard to appeal to a noisy world. But when I hear all the noise they make, I don’t find God. God is not in the noise. God is in the silence.
On the day that Mary & Joseph presented Jesus in the temple, I’m sure there were many others present, hundreds of people, rushing back and forth, making lots of noise, exchanging money, buying turtledoves or pigeons or, if they were wealthy, sheep, for their offerings, presenting their offerings, then rushing back out… I bet most of these hundreds of people who were there that day (and maybe there were thousands) were good people, who came to the temple regularly to present their offerings, dutifully… but they never spent the time fasting and praying and waiting that Anna did.
Anna was there night and day. She was there in the daytime when it was noisy and busy, and she was there in the nighttime, when it was silent.
All those people in the temple, rushing in, exchanging their money, purchasing their turtledoves or pigeons or sheep, offering them to God, then rushing back home… they were fulfilling their religious obligations, but they were missing out. They didn’t spend the time in prayer, in silence, doing nothing, and they didn’t recognize what was so special and so sacred about this one couple with a baby that they passed by.
They were too busy to notice the holy in their midst.
But Anna had spent the time in prayer, and it had conditioned her heart and her mind to be aware of such things, and when Jesus appeared in the temple courtyard, she SAW him. She really saw him. She saw that he was holy. She recognized the presence of God in him.
There is so much good in the world. So much that is holy. So much that is sacred. But we don’t see it. We don’t see it because we haven’t conditioned our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see it.
Prayer makes us aware of the good and the holy in the world. Prayer helps us orient our life toward what is good and holy.
We have a lot of work to do in the coming year. Our New Beginnings program starts on Thursday, January 11 - if you don’t have that date marked on your calendars, please do so now. It is vitally important that we have everyone here that evening, because on that night, we will begin the process of figuring out where God is leading our church ministry in the future.
As we go through this process, there will be times of difficulty. There will be headaches and frustrations, as there always are in church work.
But at the same time, there will be something good. Something holy.
The things is: if you haven’t spent the time in prayer, in quiet meditation, in preparation for the work we are called to, then you will miss out on what is good and what is holy. You will only see the headaches and frustrations. You’ll be like all those people rushing in and out of the temple, rushing right past Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, never even realizing the good and the holy that was right there in front of them.
The good and the holy is there… and prayer will help you see it.

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