A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 27, 2011
You, no doubt, are familiar with the psychological term “projection,” the human propensity to project upon another characteristics and ideals of the type of person we want them to be. That is, we are subject to projecting our own needs, desires, and ideals upon potential friends, politicians, life partners, and even pastors. Through rosy-colored glasses, we may fool ourselves into seeing others as we want them to be or need them to be rather than the way they really are. One metaphor for this is setting another person upon a pedestal. But then, when we are able to see that other person for who he or she really is, we suffer a big let-down.
But projection, as you know, can also be negative in nature. We can project upon someone negative characteristics, as that person represents to us someone from our past whom we may hold in a negative light. For instance, several years ago I had a church member whose father had been a pastor when he was a boy. The father-pastor had done something to anger his congregation, so he was fired and the family was forced to pack up and leave town in a moment’s notice—in the middle of the night, the best I recall. This had affected my church member deeply, as you would imagine. And it seemed obvious to me that he had some unresolved issues with his father because of that and other things that transpired when he was a boy. So on an occasion when this member didn’t approve of something I did as his pastor, he projected the anger he had for his pastor-father onto me.
Projection—our reading today would seem to reveal that John the Baptist did a little projection of his own. (By the way, this reading happens to be one of the traditional readings for the season of Advent.) If we take Matthew’s story at face value, the Baptist projected upon Jesus the ideals of who he thought Jesus was supposed to be. It is possible that John projected upon Jesus who he needed him to be at a time of critical need. And when Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, John was thrown into confusion and doubt. John, you see, was an outspoken, radical preacher who spoke it just as he saw it. Because of John’s outspoken approach, he angered King Herod and his wife. Herod had John thrown into prison. While in prison, John heard reports of what Jesus was doing. Jesus’ actions were not what John expected from one who was supposed to be the Messiah. Jesus had not conformed to popular messianic expectations. John expected judgment, a separation of the righteous from the wicked, and punishment. But Jesus was not meting out fiery judgment and punishment. And Jesus was not gathering military forces to set up God’s kingdom by violent means. Instead, Jesus was practicing acts of compassion: caring for the blind, the lame, lepers, the poor, and so on. And so, John began to question: “Are you the One we have been waiting for, or was I mistaken? You’re not who I thought you were,” John laments. “You’re not what I expected at all! Here I am lying in prison. If you truly are the Messiah, then you should be getting me out of here!” What John saw in Jesus was not what he had hoped for. And so, John, it seems, suffered a big let-down. John, as good as he was, was as human as the rest of us in that he projected upon Jesus the person he wanted him to be rather than letting Jesus be the person he really was. But on a deeper level, John had slipped into the error of projecting his own agenda onto God’s agenda, what God was doing in Jesus.
John’s story reminds us that we also are in danger of projecting our agenda onto God’s agenda. We are prone to make God in our own image and we want God to do what we think God should do. Someone has observed that if horses had the capacity to think about God, they would think of God as being a big horse. And we tend to project upon Jesus the ideals of who we think Jesus should be, or expect him to do what we feel we need done.
The season of Advent serves to remind us that it is not really about our agenda, but it is about God’s agenda and what the birth of Jesus really means to the world. We tend to project upon Christmas our own ideals and our own needs. We may have in mind this perfect ideal of what the Christmas season should be. The perfect gift for everyone, and everyone thanking us profusely for the gifts we give. A perfect family dinner where everyone is happy and healthy and not an angry word is spoken. A beautiful white Christmas with the snow starting to fall just as we are leaving the perfect Christmas Eve service. We have allowed popular conceptions of Christmas to color what we think Christmas should be like. But we all know that most Christmases don’t always work out the way we think they should. And when they don’t, we may feel a big letdown. Not everyone is pleased with the gifts we give, and we may not be pleased with every gift we receive either. (And if truth be known, many of us may have re-gifted that hideous vase or hideous something else, or ugly necktie, or dry fruitcake. Some famous comedian quipped that there is really only one fruitcake in the world that gets passed around from one family to another.) And then the stress of the season causes some family dinners and other gatherings to turn into volatile situations where short tempers flare like fireworks. Drug or alcohol abuse can mar many a family Christmas celebration. And in most parts of the country you never know what type of weather Christmas will bring. Instead of beautiful snowfall, it could be pouring rain, or even tornadoes.
But Advent serves to remind us that Christmas is not really about our own agenda and what we think it should be. Advent and Christmas are about God’s agenda and what has transpired in the birth of Jesus and the positive change that can happen through us and in the world if we are open to the Christ Spirit. The Advent agenda is in contrast to the world’s secular, commercialized Christmas agenda. Perhaps you saw on the news some of the holiday shopping madness across the country this weekend. Shoppers pushing, shoving, grabbing, stampeding and trampling on other shoppers. One woman even used pepper spray to keep other shoppers away from the item she wanted. God’s Advent-Christmas agenda, in contrast, is about deeds of compassion, mercy, reconciliation, and peacemaking. It is about working for what the four Advent candles symbolize—hope, peace, love and joy. When we reach out to the poor and lowly of the earth. When we show mercy to those who offend us. When we seek to be reconciled with those who are estranged from us. And when we take practical steps to make for greater peace in our lives and in the world, then our life, our agenda, will have intersected with God’s agenda for the season.
“No one has arisen greater than John the Baptist,” Jesus said. “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven [that is, the one who fully understands God’s agenda and what kingdom living is all about] is greater than he.”
So, how might we re-focus during this season so that our agenda is less secular and more spiritual in nature? What might we do during this season to bring our agenda in line with God’s agenda? As we take time to reflect and redirect during this Advent-Christmas season, then we just might experience more fully the hope, peace, love and joy symbolized by the four Sundays of Advent. Amen.