Tuesday, December 09, 2014

December 7, 2014 - Defeating the Same Old, Same Old

I went into a restaurant recently to get some lunch, placed my order, took out my wallet to pay, and the person at the register said, you order the same thing every time you come here, don’t you?  I thought about answering that’s right, I do, and if that bothers you I’ll order my same thing somewhere else from now on.  The question kind of irritated me, and the reason why it irritated me is that it’s not the first time someone in a restaurant has observed that I order the same thing.  I’ve had that same question asked of me in three different restaurants in the past few months.  Just how predictable and boring am I?  Am I stuck in a pattern that relegates me to the same old, same old routine of every day life?

Most of us, I think, are creatures of habit.  Every day most of us arise to the same habits and routines.  I set my alarm for the same time and have the same patterns I follow after the alarm awakens me.

This morning, we all followed our routines in getting ready for church, and once we got here, there were more routines.  Because I’m predictable about what I order for lunch, I’ll take the liberty to point out that most of you are predictable as well.  Give me a name of someone in the congregation and I’ll tell you where they sit – every Sunday, without fail.  That’s why I enjoy Sundays such as last week, when we worshipped around the tables, because it really messes with some of you and I can watch you stand at the back of the room and look around nervously and think I don’t know what to do or where to go.  It makes me feel a little better about my routines.

It’s okay to sit in the same place every week, unless it causes you to do what I witnessed some years ago.  Shortly before the service began a visiting family walked down the aisle and took a seat near the front of the sanctuary.  Moments later, a long-time member of the church stopped by their seats and said, you’re in my seat, you have to move.  The visiting family sat there awkwardly for a few moments and the person repeated their demand – that’s my seat, you have to move.  And they did.  They stood up, walked out of the church, never to return.

Even Christmas is full of the same old, same old.  We drag out our same old tree, our same old decorations, and plan the same old holiday activities.  And I’m not criticizing those as much as I’m pointing out that sometimes we look around and think, there sure is a lot of the same old, same old in life. 

Although we might make jokes about the sameness of life and its predictability, we actually like our routines and the sameness and predictability of life.  When life gets stressful, we find comfort in that sameness and in those routines.  The predictability and sameness of life reduces the worry of what might come if life were too different.

So it’s an odd mixture, because while we like the security and familiarity of predictability, routine, and sameness, we also grow weary of the same old thing.  While we find comfort in our routines, we can also find them stifling, as they constrain us with a sense of the same old, same old, so while we like our routines, we also long for something that will break us out of the sameness of everyday life.

As we move through Advent, we are confronted with the truth that God is out to upset the same old, same old of the world. 

Our Scripture reading for this week tells of the Magi and their encounter with Herod, which is a rather harrowing tale.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”
14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.
15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

The Magi had traveled a great distance to come to Jerusalem, in search of the one born King of the Jews.  Herod, who as the Roman-appointed King of the Jews naturally found the words of the Magi to be very troubling, decided this new king must be dispensed.  We know this difficult story very well, as Herod orders the killing of all males, two years old and under, in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity.

How is it possible that Herod could commit such an unspeakably cruel act?  How could Herod sleep at night, having committed such an atrocity?  I imagine Herod did lose sleep at night, but not because of what he had done.  Herod probably didn’t lose sleep because of his slaughter of the innocents; instead, Herod lost sleep at the thought of losing his kingdom, and that’s about as twisted as a human mind can become.  It’s also part of the same old, same old, as kings, tyrants, and many of those who have held power through history were willing to do whatever it took to keep themselves in power.  Herod wasn’t the first to take the lives of young, innocent children in order to preserve his power, and he hasn’t been the last.  To the Herods of the world, people take a backseat to power.  To the Herods of the world, people are disposable, even if they are young, innocent children.  To the Herods of the world, preserving the same old, same old is of greatest importance, especially when the same old, same old brings you wealth and power.

We can trace history from the beginning of time and we will find that from generation to generation, century to century, millennia to millennia, over and over it’s the same old, same old.  It’s the same old tyrants and despots who have oppressed and mistreated people.

We listen to the news and we find it’s the same old precarious, dangerous world.  Nations continue to spend billions and billions of dollars on weapons but find they cannot truly protect us.  Violence continues with only the names changed.  In our era it’s the Al Quedas, and the ISIS’, and the Boko Harams but it’s the same tragic violence that has plagued mankind from the beginning.

We cry for justice and fairness but see that people are too often denied justice and fairness in life.  It’s more of the same old, same old.  We had an election last month, and instead of bringing hope of some change, most of us believe it only brings more of the same old, same old.

Until we come to the manger in Bethlehem, because that is where God served notice on the same old, same old.  To the tyrants and oppressors he said, something new is coming.  No longer are you in charge.  There’s a new king in town.  And he’s a different kind of king.  He is not the kind of king that creates orphans, but the kind of king that protects the orphan.

He is not the kind of king that creates widows, but protects the widow, as we read in James 1:27 – Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.  He is not the kind of king to rule with a sword, but as Isaiah 2:4 reminds us, as the Prince of Peace he will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.  He is not the kind of king who will wear a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.  He is not the kind of king who lives in a luxurious palace but as Luke tells us in 9:58, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  He is not the kind of king who will tax his people into poverty but will lift people out of poverty and want through his kind and gracious provision.
It is abundantly clear from this passage, I believe – and, indeed, from the entire message of the gospel – that God wants to upset the same old, same old.  But it’s not just the same old, same old power structures of the world, but the same old, same old of our own lives as well.  We too easily settle into the patterns of our lives and then believe that we cannot break free of them.  When Advent ends, and the new year rolls around, most of us will make a few resolutions and then pursue them with a half-heartedness that predicts there won’t be any measure of success in keeping them.  We come to believe there is no chance of breaking some of the same old patterns in our lives, patterns that need to be broken and dispensed of, but won’t be, because we can’t believe we can’t escape the same old, same old.

I’ll tell you one thing I’ve come to believe about this time of year – it seems that almost everyone’s lives are falling apart.  I spoke two weeks ago about not making comparisons in our lives but at Christmas we put ourselves under so much pressure to have the perfect life, the perfect home, the perfect family, and the perfect holiday that we could never live up to expectations and it magnifies and increases our stress levels to the point that it all collapses in upon us.

And that’s when people get desperate for one of two things – either relief or change.  Searching for relief can be a very dangerous path because it leads people to behaviors and substances that only increase the problems in their lives.  People, in their desire for change, become desperate enough to do just about anything.  People with a loved one struggling through a difficult disease will travel any distance to a doctor who talks of a new treatment, or to a faith healer who claims the power of God to work a miracle.  People who feel the pain of past experience will take whatever they must in order to numb that pain.  And we shake to shake our heads and say tsk tsk, as we wonder how people can do some of the things they do, but if you’ve ever been desperate you don’t shake your head this way – side to side – you shake it up and down in agreement because you know that when you’re desperate for change you will go anywhere, you will try anything, and you will do anything that promises change regardless of whether or not change can really come. 

The same old, same old of life is that there is a lot of struggle to life.  Life is tough, and then we have to deal with the end of life that comes to us all.  But even in the end, God has taken aim at the same old, same old.  God says that death itself is no longer the same old, same old; that’s not how it’s going to work.  You may close your eyes to this life but you will open them to a new life.  You may take your last breath in this world and you will take your next breath in a new world.  The illness that ravages a body in this life does not exist in the next life.  The tears that define loss in this life are gone in the next life.  The mourning that becomes all too familiar to us in this life is banished in the next life.  The mourning that is sadness becomes the morning of a new day.  The sunset that comes to life in this world is a sunrise to new life in the next world.  The decay and weakness that characterize this life and this world are non-existent in the next life.  As this life wears us down with mortality you will enter the next life to immortality.  As this life wears us down with burdens you will enter a new life where our burdens are no more.

Don’t believe that you have to settle for the same old, same old, because God is quite the expert at recreating and transforming and bringing about something new to replace the same old, same old.  The Bible tells many stories of transformation that obliterate the same old, same old.  Zaccheus, the tax collector turned generous benefactor, and Saul, the persecutor of the church turned church-planting pastor Paul, are just two of the examples that come immediately to mind.  Both Zaccheus and Saul were so settled into the same old, same old that no one could have fathomed the transforming work God would do in their lives and when he did, it was almost beyond their comprehension that such change could be possible.

Perhaps you are so mired in the same old, same old that you cannot believe that anything could ever change.  Perhaps you have lived with the same old, same old for so long that you cannot believe God could bring something new to your life.  But God wants to do such a work.  God wants to bring transformation and newness to your life and to mine.

Don’t settle for the same old, same old.  Are you tired of the same old, same old? The good news of Christmas is that if you are tired of the same old, same old, guess what?  God is too!  I may even order something different for lunch this week!  How about you?  Embrace the life and transformation God offers to you!

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