Advent 3A Sermon (1998)

3rd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Matthew 11:2-11;
Isa. 35; James 5:7-10

HAVE YOU CAUGHT THE JESUS VIRUS?

Do you remember the Disney version of the old King Arthur legends? The Sword in the Stone? This is about the only Disney feature length cartoon movie that I remember going to as a child. Quite different than today, isn’t it? Since VCR’s hit the scene, we know many of these Disney movies by heart, watching them over and over and over again with our children and grandchildren.

So do you remember The Sword in the Stone? My favorite scene from that movie is the battle between the apparently befuddled old Merlin the Magician and the purple wickedness of the “marvelous mad Madam Mim,” a sorceress! Merlin and Mim are fighting it out because Mim wants to eat Merlin’s student, none other than the young King Arthur. Obviously a lot is at stake. The witch and the wizard agree to certain rules before their battle, pledging among other things that neither of them will turn into a purple-spotted, fire-breathing dragon or turn invisible altogether.

But as the contest heats up, the wicked Mim cheats and turns herself into the fire-breathing dragon she had promised not to become. Just as Mim is about to incinerate the hapless Merlin, he apparently disappears. Enraged, the dragon-Mim accuses Merlin of breaking their rules by becoming invisible. The magician’s seemingly disembodied voice floats back to Mim and announces, “I am not gone. And I am not invisible. I am a germ.” A germ? In fact, Merlin has transformed himself into a very specific and quite potent dragon-virus, which immediately reduces the dragon-Mim into a pathetically sneezing, coughing, broken-out-into-spots, bedridden mess. Merlin wins the match of wits and wizardry.

Germs, viruses. They’re invisible to the naked eye but very real. There’s lots of them about. A few have made their way through our family the last several weeks. I hope your family has remained, and will remain, well this holiday season. But it’s a season for getting together and for being with people, so we are bound to catch some germs and viruses. The hard reality about viruses is that, since they’re microscopic, they’re very contagious. We can’t see them, and so we can’t avoid them and end up catching them.

I’d like to talk about another virus of sorts today. It’s highly contagious, but unlike the germ-type virus, this one is contagious precisely because we can see it. It’s the virus we catch from watching other people. And it’s another virus that surely can bring us down this holiday season. Perhaps you’ve already caught it. The fact that you’re here today means you haven’t let one of those germ-viruses get you down yet, but you might feel run down for other reasons. You might feel run down with … “holiday-itis.” That’s right, that terribly contagious virus we catch by watching everybody else run around frantically preparing for the holidays, and so we have to do the same. If the guy next store put up ten strings of lights, well maybe I need to put up eleven. If my co-worker is going to be at the mall for the big sale at 7:00 in the morning, then maybe I should get there at 6:55. Don’t want to miss out! We run around filling our shopping list, hitting all the holiday events; we’re decorating, sending cards, baking cookies, hosting parties … [big sigh]. Is it any wonder that we might be run down? Yes, we have holiday-itis. It comes not via some invisible virus, but precisely because we see what everyone else is doing, so we think this is exactly what we need to do, too.

It’s an age old problem, ever since Adam saw Eve eat the apple. We want what the other person has. And this gets us into trouble because it takes us away from what God wants for each of us. It gets us away from what God has called us to do, in helping God to take care of the earth, and to take care of each other. God created each of us unique, with unique talents and gifts and resources, and so God also wants unique things to come of each of our lives. God wants us each to share those gifts in caring for one another. But ever since Eve listened to the serpent and Adam to Eve, we have spent our lives listening to and watching each other, and so we just end up wanting and doing what others want and do. It’s a highly contagious virus that we might call Copy-Cat-itis. Or we might just call it Sin. It’s so contagious that, even when God blesses us with the occasion of a wonderful holiday like Christmas, we eventually turn it into a virus like holiday-itis that has us feeling run-down and sick, rather than uplifted and healthy.

But the Good News, which we prepare to celebrate again at Christmas, is that God knows how prone we are to this terrible disease, so he sent Jesus to bring us the cure. Now, we often consider Jesus to be the doctor who comes to heal us. And we are certainly right to do so. Jesus does heal us. But we might also consider another way of thinking about that healing, one which might seem offensive at first — namely, that Jesus is our healer by being a good virus, one we want to catch. Maybe that’s behind what Jesus is hinting at when he says in today’s gospel, “Blessed are those who are not offended by me.” What’s offensive about Jesus may be this notion he didn’t just come into this world and chase away all the sickness, giving it a good licking. No, he took on our sickness and turned it to healing. In the Cross, most notably, we don’t see Jesus stamp out our violence. No, he lets it overtake him but then turns it to healing. He takes the horror of our sacrifice of him and turns it into self-sacrifice.

We might say that the Jesus has become a virus that has been in the air now for almost two thousand years, and if we are exposed to it, we just might be fortunate to become infected. The Merlin virus is one we want to avoid, especially if we’re purple dragons; but the Messiah Virus is one we want to catch! Have you come down with the virus yet? No? It’s the church’s job to infect you!

How do we catch it? Again, like holiday-itis, the Jesus virus comes by watching and listening to someone, but that someone is Jesus and his disciples through the ages. God knew we had a problem with listening and watching each other, so he sent us one of us, so that we could listen to and watch him. It took God’s love, God’s desire for us as his beloved creatures, to take on flesh and blood. In Jesus, we see that divine love, we listen to that divine desire. And so we can finally catch another virus, the Jesus virus, that gives us live eternal in place of death.

But beware: There are a lot of germs floating around out there that will try to mimic the Jesus Virus. How can we Christians be sure we are infected with the real thing? How can we be sure we aren’t just suffering from a disease that only imitates some of the classic symptoms?

Today’s gospel text has John the Baptist essentially asking the same question of Jesus. How do we know you are “the one who is to come” (v. 3)? What are the symptoms your presence elicits in my body, mind and spirit? Last week we read earlier in Matthew’s gospel, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, that John the Baptist seemed more convinced of Jesus’ genuine nature. John had humbly claimed, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” But time and perhaps the cold reality of Herod’s prison cell had apparently cooled John’s Jesus fever. Now he wants to see evidence and hear proofs of Jesus’ messianic ministry.

How did Jesus respond to this challenge? Jesus responds to John’s disciples by providing them with a list of symptoms, which when combined can lead to only one accurate diagnosis about Jesus’ identity and the symptomology of the new messianic age. What are these signpost symptoms? The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor receive good news (11:5). Yes, Jesus is a healer. But I think the deeper message lies not just in those who are healed of such physical ailments, but that Jesus came to heal us of our most fundamental illness by showing us how to meet God’s desire. Jesus begins his response by saying to them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Jesus is trying to start a new epidemic of Copy-Cat-itis based on watching and listening to him, because he is the one truly doing what God desires of us. He is caring for those of greatest need. Instead of watching everyone else to see what they do, trying to be like those of high station in life, Jesus spends his time with those of low station. In lovingly serving the blind, the lame, the poor, he shows us God’s desire. And so when we watch Jesus and follow in his example of loving service to those in need, we are cured of our diseases such as holiday-itis. Do you see? How can you feel run-down or resentful about not giving as much for Christmas to your children as the person next door, when you are watching disciples of Jesus serving those in need?

Do you want to catch the Jesus Virus, but don’t know how? There’s at least one simple way to catch any virus: Expose yourself to the virus you want to catch.

What do parents with several young children do when the first one catches chicken pox? Attempt to protect the other children from the potent pox? No! Often, they will place the healthy children in the same room with the infected child. They will allow them to play together, watch TV together in the hope that they, too, will catch the virus, so that this childhood disease will visit all the children at the same time.

Want to catch the Jesus Virus? Expose yourself to people who have it! Search out the opportunities to revisit the meaning of Christmas, to flee manic mall madness, to mingle with those for whom the Messiah is a meaningful presence in their lives. Seek out the community of the infected and inflamed and the fervent and feverish. You’ll catch the Jesus Virus every time! As a carrier, you will now want to spread the “infection” to others. Rather than modeling the typical consumerist holiday-itis that’s so contagious this time of year, you’ll insist on spreading the Jesus viral infection of joy, thoughtfulness, reflection and renewal. You’ll spread the Jesus Virus of loving service to others. The Jesus Virus? My prescription for you this holiday season is to catch it … and then spread it! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 12-13, 1998

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