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Getting What We Deserve
a sermon based on Luke 23:33-43
by Rev. Randy L. Quinn

There was a wonderful television ad campaign several years ago. You may not remember it. One of the commercials has a man who is always minutes behind.

• In the first “scene” he is playing tennis, waiting for the serve. The ball goes past him and then after a few seconds, he swings his racket.
• Then he’s on a golf course, and after his ball strikes another player, he shouts the golfer’s warning cry, “Fore!”
• At a restaurant, over a glass of wine, a woman who appears to be his girlfriend says, “I love you.” After a long pause – long enough for her to leave, he finally responds, “I love you, too.”
All through these three scenes, the narrator is speaking about the importance of good timing.
In some ways, our text today makes me feel like that man. We’re reading a text that reminds us of Good Friday while the rest of the world is already singing Christmas Carols.

I may be seven months late or I may be five months early. But either way, you might think my timing is off!

I don’t like to shop in crowded stores or crowded malls, so I didn’t join the throngs who made their annual pilgrimage to the “After Thanksgiving Sale.” But I did go to Staples on Friday to pick up some supplies for the church.

And I noticed – what I’m sure everyone who went out on Friday or Saturday noticed – the background music has changed to Christmas Carols. On the radio and on the television, I’m hearing the familiar tunes and seeing the advertisements for the regular Christmas specials.

Everyone is getting ready for Christmas; meanwhile we’re reading about the crucifixion.

Some of the explanation comes from the fact that Thanksgiving fell early this year, leaving over a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas including five Sundays between them rather than four. But the real explanation is an important reminder – and perhaps correction – that needs to be heard before we get lost in all the wrapping paper and decorations of December’s festivities.

The important reminder is that the end of the story is what makes the beginning so special. The important lesson we need to bring to the world is that Easter is what gives meaning to Christmas, not the other way around. What gets easily lost in the images of a cute baby born in a stable is the overshadowing power of the man who died on a cross.

The truth of the matter is that the Nativity stories were the least important to the early church.

• Peter, as recorded in the book of Acts anyway, never once mentions the birth of Jesus. He limits his sermons about Jesus to the context of the resurrection.
• Paul, the first to put the Christian message on paper, talks only of the passion and resurrection in his Epistles.
• The first Gospel to be written was Mark, and he begins with the baptism of Jesus, not his birth.
• Only Matthew and Luke tell the story of the Nativity; and the fact that they never again mention the birth story in their Gospels suggests they were added late in the writing process.

The early church leaders even recognized the priority of Easter over Christmas when they made the intentional decision to always celebrate Easter on Sunday – the first day of the week – rather than on a given historical date. At the same time they made that decision, they also decided to worship every week on Sunday rather than the Sabbath in honor of and in recognition of the resurrection.

Christmas was only given one day in the year while Easter claims the attention of every week.

But we easily forget that. I put up Christmas lights over the weekend. We’ve already done a little Christmas shopping – and in fact, we took Christmas gifts with us when we went to visit family earlier this month. We’re planning four after school activity times to help the children prepare for Christmas, and I’ve been humming Christmas Carols along with many of you.

I dare say I put in less than half that amount of effort preparing for Easter. The six Sundays of Lent often seem less significant than the four weeks of Advent.

So it’s important for us to hear this story today. It’s important for us to remember the context of Advent. It’s vital for our faith to recognize the priority of Easter over Christmas.

Our timing isn’t off. Our timing is correct.

The problem is that our rhythm section – the rhythm section of the church – isn’t being heard by society. The rest of the world has tried to beat the drums to a different drummer – one that emphasizes giving and receiving rather than sin and forgiveness, one that romanticizes the story of Jesus and thereby keeps the affects of grace at a distance.

It’s almost as if we’re singing two different songs at the same time.

• “Joy to the World” and “Frosty the Snowman.”
• “Away in a Manger” and “Jingle Bells.”
• “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Gramma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

I hesitate to call it the “old hymnal” because I know there have been several editions that have come out over the years, and the current one is already more than ten years old. But the hymnal we were using when I was in High School, the previous edition of the United Methodist Hymnal in your pews, had two tunes to the song “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” One was the familiar Christmas tune,

(I’ll sing a few bars of it.)

The other was the tune we use for the Easter Hymn, “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today.”

(I’ll sing the first stanza of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” to that tune.)

I liked that subtle way of reminding us that the babe of Christmas is the same man who died on a cross and rose from the dead, and I hope our next hymnal will again include both tunes.

The God who sent Jesus to be born in a manger was the same God who raised him from the dead.
The God who welcomed the wise men was the same God who forgave the foolish men who “didn’t know what they were doing” when they crucified Jesus.
The God who spoke good news to the shepherds in the field was the same one who brought good news to the thief on the cross.

And that same God continues to come to us today.

For many people – maybe even for some of you – the mad dash between Thanksgiving and Christmas is filled with tasks to accomplish and things to do. There are parties and gifts and gatherings of all sorts. It becomes a season of busy-ness that leads to a let down at the end because nothing seems to come of it all.

God gets left out of too many of the celebrations, turning them – and us – into a frenzy of activity that has no purpose, no direction, and no meaning.

When we see Christmas Day as the ‘end of the season’ or the ‘end of the story,’ we get what we deserve – no more than a quick breath of fresh air after the trimmings are put away before beginning a new year filled with more frantic living.

When we see Advent as the ‘beginning of the season’ that ends with resurrection, on the other hand, we go through Christmas with a sense of joy about the God who came to us and continues to be present with us. We find ourselves getting excited about what’s in store for the future, about what God has in store for us beyond this month and this year and this life. Christmas becomes the springing off point for what God has in store for us.

As we prepare for Christmas, as we celebrate Advent, I hope you’ll take time to reflect on the culmination of the story, the crucifixion. In that scene, the crowd stood aghast at what took place. The leaders and the soldiers jeered Jesus. Even one of the unnamed thieves taunted him. They simply didn’t understand what was taking place.

The other thief saw the truth. Our day of reckoning will come. God will see us as we are and judge us based on the standard of perfection. And we will all get what we deserve.

Only by the grace of God can there be a different ending. And that ending affects our understanding of the beginning.

God has come to us, and God continues to come to us.

Thanks be to God.