Setting the table for Christmas
Advent is the season when we set the table for Christmas.
For our secular Christmas celebrations, we take time to make lists of what needs to be found and unpacked, or what is found but needs to be replaced, and even what new things need to be secured. Whether for a special dinner, or gifts for under a tree, there is planning to be done.
Advent is for our spiritual planning, to be ready for God’s expectant gift of grace and love in Jesus, the Christ Child, whom we call Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”
This planning is less involved with the tangible and more about how to be agents of peace in a struggling world, or a reconciling presence with a friend or within a family, or an agent of hope into places of despair.
How convenient to either expect too much or too little. How tragic to forget how to expect anything at all. How easy it is to say, “It’s no use!” Advent is our time to set aside these excuses for apathy and inaction.
Advent reminds us to live life expectantly, and our Christmas worship, beginning with Christmas Eve and continuing through the arrival of the magi on Epiphany Sunday (January 4) celebrates the arrival of the unexpected gift of God willingly becoming human, walking this earth with us, sharing our struggles and hungers and hurts, along with our joys and friendships and healings.
“God with us” is an expectation for which we prepare during Advent, celebrate during Christmas, and live daily.
Here I am
In the gospel reading today from Matthew 16, Jesus predicts the end of his life is near. In verse 21 Jesus explains to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief, priests, and teachers of the law. Jesus explains that he must be killed and that on the third day he will be raised to life again.
Sad news! No wonder Peter took Jesus aside and began to protest.
“Never, Lord!” Peter said, “This shall never happen to you.”
Peter didn’t want Jesus to leave him; he was afraid he would lose a very special friend and mentor. Peter had trouble seeing God’s plan for Jesus because he was so caught up in his own world. Like Peter, we sometimes stumble in our faith in Christ because we get too caught up in our own lives and forget that God has a plan for us.
This reminds me of the time when I had just arrived in the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand. Like many members of Eliot Church, I had suffered through the Khmer Rouge, a horrific genocide led by Pol Pot, in which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, impoverishment, and execution. My father and brother died after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.
When I arrived in Johnstown, New York, I felt a sense of relief. I was finally in a safe place. A Christian woman sponsored my family and me; she was a member of the Presbyterian Church. She introduced my family and me to her church, Covenant Presbyterian Church.
At that time, I started to learn about Christianity, but I didn’t yet understand the Bible or Christianity and didn’t do any daily prayers. I questioned God’s existence because of all the pain and suffering I had just been through.
As time went on, I began to heal and get better with the help of the church community and through reading the Bible and prayer. I recall when I took my first communion and accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. I felt the presence of God through people’s prayer for my family. I truly believe the presence of God in that moment through the music of worship and support from the congregation in the prayers for my family and me.
Like Peter, I forgot that God had a plan for me. I forgot to trust and believe in Him — that Christ would guide me to the right path. I was caught up in my own world, and did not realize that God had a plan for me.
When Peter told Jesus that he didn’t want him to die, Jesus said to Peter “Get away from me, you Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. “ What Jesus meant by this was that Peter was thinking about himself — and not about God’s plan.
If Jesus did not die for our sins, we would not have been saved by His grace. You and I would have not be here as a part of the Eliot family. God always has a plan for us, so we need to have faith and trust in him.
As Osei Bonsu said in his sermon two weeks ago, to be a follower of Christ is not easy — it is a commitment and responsibility that Jesus wants us to do. If we are to be followers of God, we must be like his disciples. In the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to follow him they need to be faithful and commit themselves to Christ. We need to do the same.
Jesus wants his disciples to do the work that God has given them by spreading the Good News to others and showing others Christ’s love and the sacrifices he has made for us.
We may not all have the same talents, but each one of us is doing God’s work. All of us often do things for the church when it needs help, especially during a transitional period such as now. We feel distressed, yet we are hopeful knowing that God is calling us to work as a team, trust him, and follow his path. God’s intention for us is to be ready and allow Christ to work in us. In return, Christ wants us to listen and hear his call when it comes and respond, “Here I am Lord, use me; mold me and lead me on the right path.”
“Wrestling for a New Name”
A new name in this passage refers to a person’s different personality, attitude, thought, heart and habit. Most of all, it refers to a new life in Christ and a process of healing. Do you need a new name?
In the Old Testament, a name stands for a person’s reputation, their fame, their glory, and their personality.
For example, Abraham means “father of multitudes.”
David means “beloved.”
But Jacob means “deceiver,” “trickster” or “supplanter.”
For Jacob, his name represents who he is. He gets what he wants by cheating, deceiving and tricking other people.
Jacob was a jealous, selfish and cunning person. He knew what he wanted and he would do anything to get it. He exploited his brother so that his brother sold his birth rights to him. With his mother’s help, he deceived his blind father to steal blessings from Esau.
The consequences of Jacob’s deceit were serious: His brother wanted to kill him; he became a lonely exile; and he never saw his mother again
At the beginning of Genesis 32, Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob is in a panic. The last time he saw his brother, 20 years ago, his brother was trying to kill him. Now, it seems to him that his brother is coming to make a war.
Our text begins with Jacob sending his wives and children across the river Jabbok. And now he is stuck, unable to cross over toward his brother who is on another side of the river. Instead, Jacob spends the night wrestling with a strange “man.” He is by himself, wresting for his life.
Jacob refuses to submit, to give up, to give in to his opponent, but the struggle brings a severe pain and injury. Jacob’s hip is dislocated by the man’s touch. It is a waking call for him. He seems to know that he has been in conflict with a heavenly messenger. Some scholars believe that it was Christ “the Angle of the covenant and the Second person in Godhead” who had revealed Himself to Jacob.
Then God, or the Angel, said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking up.” The danger is not that God would not be harmed by the daylight, but that Jacob would. If Jacob holds on until daybreak, he is a dead man, for sinners cannot see God. But Jacob does not want to let go until he has a blessing. It seems that Jacob is willing to die if he would not receive a blessing.
Instead of a blessing, a conversation about names comes up. In Genesis 32:27, the Angel says, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answers. This does not mean that God does not know his name, but God is reminding Jacob about his sin, because the name Jacob means “supplanter,” “deceiver,” “trickster.” His name stands for who he is. Here Jacob confesses his weakness and sins.
Then God then gives him a new name, “Israel.” Israel means “he struggles with God,” but it is better translated as “God struggles” or “God rules.” For longer than 20 years, Jacob has struggled with other people to get ahead of them. God also has struggled with him to change his life. Now, when he has a limp or wound, he recognizes his own weakness and sin. He submits his life to God, and God steps in to give him a new name, which stands for his new life, new attitude, new personality.
The next morning a man with new name and a new limp crosses the river, finally, to meet and face his brother, Esau. He may have still been afraid that either the arrow would pierce his heart or the sword would lop off his head. But he is limping forward. Now what happens? We read in Genesis 33:4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
This is the power of the new name, new life and new attitude that God gives to Jacob, which turns a heart from anger to love, from a desire for vengeance to a desire for a family reunion. There is no war. People on both sides, including children, are safe. Both sides have been blessed with prosperity and increasing in numbers. It is the power of a new name with God’s grace.
Friends, does God give you new names? I believe all of us here have new names. God changes our name from “Sinners” to “Saints.” According to Galatians 3:27, at the moment we accept Christ as our personal Savor and are baptized, God dresses us up with Christ. Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness. This means that God changes our attitude, hearts, our thoughts, and our habits.
But don’t forget the wrestling part before our names are changed. Like Jacob, at some points of our life journey, we hit a low place. We get painful limps and painful wounds. We then realize that we cannot deal with these things ourselves. We admit that we are sinners, weak and unworthy. Then we turn to God for help. At those moments we get our names changed from Sinner to Saint and we become closer to God.
Some of us are still limping daily. These limps or scars are our reminders how God struggles with us and how he changes our life.
Friends, as we come to church to receive God’s blessing and nourishment for our lives, we come limping; we come realizing that we have been broken. Let our pains and disappointments, our pride, our self-centeredness, and our sin be broken apart, but in the breaking there is also a touch of healing.
We come together knowing that we are limping but blessed. We come to be fed. We come to be healed.