Delivered by Jim Eby at Summit Presbyterian Church December 9, 2007
BUTTERFLIES AT CHRISTMAS TIME Matthew 3:1-12
We are in the midst of a season filled with symbols of color, music and shapes. Tinsel, animals, babies, shepherds, it goes on and on, doesn't it? Stars seen in the clear sky over
What symbol shall we use for the theme of this Second Sunday in Advent? What visual image is most appropriate for this harsh message of John the Baptist? "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."
That's not good news, is it? To be told to repent. We work hard at being good people. We spend enormous amounts of energy trying to do the best we can at the tasks placed before us. We spend time caring for each other, we share money and resources with each other in an attempt to alleviate hunger and pain and need. Why isn't that enough? And be sure it's noted that we're not satisfied with the level of giving we've achieved. We're still trying to learn how to do more. We're working at it. Won't that do?
John's clarion call comes: "Repent!"
What an unwelcome intrusion into this time of year. This is the time to be jolly, to decorate the halls with good smelling pine boughs and exchange gifts and go to parties. This is the time, at least for awhile, to forget, to try to escape the pain of the real world where people can feel so powerless that they turn to terrorism to bring change; where children are malnourished and politics doesn't seem to work. This is the time, if only for a moment, to put aside all meanness and malice and live in the glow of peace and good will. Why in the world should we pay the slightest attention to this cry of John the Baptist: "Change your life. God’s kingdom is here."? Why do we need to hear that on this second Sunday in Advent?
One reason is that you and I need something to stop us from making the mistake of turning Christmas into a time and a land of make-believe. That's one of the seductive temptations of this season. To pretend, just for a little while, that we really are good people, that the world around us is not as harsh and unforgiving as it really is. We try to sprinkle a little pixie dust on things to hide the grey and the cold and the hardness that is there. If the Christmas pageantry merely enables us to pretend for a few days that we are not the kind of people we really are, living in a world that is not really the way it is, then we have missed the point of the gospel. Then we really don't know what it means to repent.
That's why I think we need the symbol of the butterfly, right now, in this second week of preparing ourselves for the birthday celebration. I know, the butterfly is linked with Easter and an empty tomb and new life. But there is also the symbolism of the transformation into a new life form, and God certainly did that in the baby named Jesus. God took on human flesh and pitched tent in our midst, so in the person of Jesus we could see the vision God has of what we are to become.
It all begins with a mundane caterpillar; oh, some have pretty spots on them, but usually I think of a caterpillar as a green, hairy, grubby thing that crawls along on a branch, a creepy crawler that is limited to where it can travel. And then, in the fullness of God's time, that earthbound creature encases itself in a cocoon. And when the time is right, in the midst of the stillness, suddenly there is the wiggle and the tussle and the struggle as first a head emerges, and finally a magnificent butterfly squeezes itself out of the birthing chamber and what was green and grubby and limited to how far it could crawl is now transformed into a thing of beauty, something light and flighty. That's metanoia. That's life-changing transformation. That change is the link between Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter.
Frederick Buechner, in his book, WISHFUL THINKING, said it this way: "To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, "I'm sorry" than to the future and saying "Wow!" Less time saying, "I'm, sorry" and more time looking to the future and saying "Wow!"[i]
Saying "Wow!", and then being at work, with prayer and meditation. As you begin your day, eating your breakfast and brushing your teeth and getting dressed, pray that God will make you more aware of God's love for you, and then pray for help in seeing people who need love. Then go to school or work or your meetings with a willingness to share the love of Christ with someone in whatever way God leads you. When the opportunity comes, and it will, perhaps where you least expect it, when the opportunity comes, be a conduit through which the love of Christ can flow. And as you do that, you will experience a strange reality about that love -- the more you give it away, the more there is to give. Just like the magic penny.
Saying something tender and loving to someone who has come not to expect that from you is one way of working to have your sin cast out. The words may sound strange and feel awkward as they come from your mouth. But they will lead toward joy.
Taking a more open and caring look at the people with whom you have had little patience and for whom you have little respect is never an easy thing to do. But it is one way of working to have your sin cast out. You may feel that you are compromising your principles. But take a look anyway. You will find it will bring you closer to the Christ who loves that person, and it will lead you to joy.
Dealing patiently and magnanimously with someone's rudeness and bullheadedness is never easy, but it will contribute to a calm and well-being in your heart that transforms you into a butterfly. It is one way of working to have your sin cast out and of preparing for the complete reality of that time Isaiah envisioned:
The wolf will romp with the lamb, and the leopard shall sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up
together and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of
God ocean-deep, ocean wide. (Isaiah 11:6-10, The Message)
This week remember, caterpillars one day turn into butterflies. That's how God intended it.
God, our Judge and our Redeemer, help us to see and hear the impact of our words and of our deeds. Use all that we say and all that we do to proclaim the love of Christ. Help us minister in his name with joy so your whole world may hear and know your message and your messenger. In the name of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords we ask it. Amen.
[i]. Wishful Thinking, p. 79.