The M.A.D. House Artists (Mom And Dad)

Grand Lake Artistic Chaos Foundation

Dr. Robert R. Ball

       THAT MOMENT - - JUST A MOMENT

                 AND NOTHING CAN EVER BE THE SAME

                                                Sermon from December 21, 1969                            
                        
             THAT MOMENT  --  JUST A MOMENT,
                             AND NOTHING CAN EVER BE THE SAME

                                                                  Sermon by
                                                             Dr. Robert R. Ball
                                                Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
                                                            December 21, 1969

          It was the evening of the last Sunday before Christmas. It was also my first Christmas as a
     pastor. I loaded the nine or ten kids from our small church's fellowship group into my station wagon,
     and we headed out into the backwoods country of rural Oklahoma. Someone had given us the name
     of a family with an abundance of kids and a shortage of food. So, sight unseen, they became our
     Christmas project.

          It was dark and cold. We turned off the road onto a path and soon the path became two
     twisted and rugged ruts. Because of the rocks and holes, I began to fear for the underside of my
     shiny, new station wagon. Twice we had to stop and open the gate of a barbed wire fence. Finally,
     just as I was about ready to turn back, the headlights revealed a small group of three or four shacks.
     They all looked like abandoned chicken houses, surrounded by a dilapidated wood fence.

          A faint light of the kind given off by a kerosene lamp flickered through the cracks of one of the
     huts. The door opened and a man came out. As he walked into the area illuminated by our headlights,
     it was evident that what he cradled in his arms was a shotgun. It wasn't aimed at us, or at anything
     else for that matter; but its presence gave us a chill nonetheless. This wasn't the kind of greeting we
     had in mind as we gaily gathered several baskets of food and a Christmas ham to bring joy to some
     poor but grateful family.
          
          The man walked up to his side of the fence. We stood several feet back from our side -- like
     people do outside the cages of wild animals at the zoo. Someone needed to say something, and
     since I was a recent graduate from one of the finest theological seminaries in America, I decided
     that "someone" was me. Having assessed the situation carefully with my trained eye, I came forth
     with "Howdy."

          Apparently my Kansas dialect distorted the precision of my Princeton inflection. When the man
     replied, it was as if I had not spoken at all. "What do you want?"

          Now that we had established dialogue, I was sure that I could handle it. I wanted to assure him
     of our good intentions and that his weapon wouldn't be needed. "We've brought your family some food."

          As they say in Oklahoma, he "studied" that for a moment, then he asked, "How come?"

          I had become so engrossed in the conversation that I'd almost forgotten about the kids. At that
     moment, the smallest one in our group, who was carrying the biggest basket (the way small people
     do to prove that they aren't), stepped past me and sat his load down by the gate.
          
                                     "Because it's Christmas," said the boy,
                                     "and Jesus wants us to love each other."

          That picture is lodged in my memory as if painted there by Norman Rockwell himself. On one side
     of the fence was the Establishment, a warmly-clad group of teenage kids who were both the delight
     and despair of their middle-class parents, and their eager, inexperienced pastor. On the other side, an
     unlettered man of the woods, protected from the world that disdained him by a rutted road, several
     rickety fences, and a shotgun. The poverty and hopelessness in which he lived, silhouetted by several
     volts of light from a new car battery and accentuated by our baskets brimming with food. And how did
     this unlikely drama with its awkward array of actors come to be? The boy had said it: We were there
     "because it's Christmas and because Jesus wants us to love each other."

          I think such moments tell the Christmas story about as well as it can be told. Without romanticizing
     the details of that simple scene in the least, one thing is evident: SOMETHING VERY ANCIENT AND
     YET SOMETHING COMPLETELY AND THRILLINGLY NEW WAS BORN AT THAT MOMENT.

          The gun went down and the rusty gate swung open. Our foodstuffs were carried inside, inside the
     fence but not into the house. The man was very firm about that. There were still some portions of his life
     he was not ready to expose to these well-bred youngsters and their clean-shaven pastor who came in
     the name of Jesus. It was only a moment. It didn't last long and we didn't say much. My memory of it is
     more conscious of the silence, the silence at a miracle being born, the silence of something coming to
     life that had not existed before, some new spirit of human understanding and trust and hope.

          Later as I unloaded the kids back at the church, I was aware of a different feeling about that
     structure of stone as it stood there in the night -- so empty and silent. The preaching and prayers
     that went on inside its walls no longer seemed so irrelevant or artificial. I no longer felt such despair
     about the fellowship advisors we could not recruit and the budget we could not raise. Almost in spite
     of us, God continues to work through His church.

          One more time, in one small and insignificant place in the vastness of the world, the miracle had
     happened: people meeting across a fence and a gate being opened, and love pouring through -
     because it's Christmas and because Jesus wants us to love each other.

                                   "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men
                                     with whom he is pleased."

                                                                              I.

          Nothing can ever be quite the same again for that group of young people. They can never be quite
     sure where God may meet them next. Once you know that he shows up in a stable in Bethlehem,
     once you have met him in the backwoods country of Creek County, Oklahoma, you begin to
     understand that he's likely to appear almost anywhere. You begin to understand the limitless depths
     of self-humiliation to which God will go in his ceaseless pursuit of man. You begin to understand
     that you are never safe from him.

          The stable of Bethlehem means that there is no place too lowly, no spot too evil, no persons too
     unworthy to be visited by the Almighty Power of the universe. He will come into homes where the air is
     charged with hurt feelings between husband and wife, where fatiguing hostility separated parents and
     children. He comes into lives that are lonely and hopeless, into lives that are arrogant and rude. The
     humblest hamlet and the highest philosophy are vulnerable to God. Something happened that night
     which those young people can never forget. It is when God seems most hopeless that he is most
     strong, when we least expect him that he comes most fully.

                                                                             II.

          Those young people learned something else also (and they know it -- whether they know that they
     know it or not). The God who seeks us so relentlessly is a God who puts himself in a position where he
     is never safe from us.

          God comes in such a way that we can always reject him. As a baby, he is helpless before us;
     if he gets in our way as a man, he can always be crucified. God comes to us as a needy and
     suspicious family who lives at the end of a treacherous road which we can always find good reason
     not to travel. God comes to us as an unpopular classmate whom we can easily ignore, in a lonely
     and unhappy neighbor whom we do not have to visit. He comes to us in the cries of thousands from
     the ghetto whom we never have to see, in the agony of a bleeding world we can shut out by turning
     a knob. God doesn't protect himself from us. We can cause him to suffer by our indifference and
     neglect of his children; but when they suffer, we suffer also.

          Whatever egotistical pursuits after their own pleasure those young people may ever follow, in
     none of them will they find the joy and excitement that was theirs, at least briefly, that night. In that
     moment, they experienced the miracle of wholeness as God's love passed through them to care
     for the needs of someone else.

                                                                            III.

          It was just a moment, not more than five or ten minutes out of a whole lifetime;  but nothing
     can ever be quite the same again for that man who stood behind his fence. I haven't the slightest
     idea as to whether or not he was, or is, a believer. At that moment it never once occurred to me
     to ask.

          But even if he is a non-believer, he can no longer get away with just denying the existence of the
     love of God. Now he has to deny any meaning to that group of young people who made that difficult
     journey to find him on that cold December night. He has to explain away the reality of their
     unsolicited gift of food. He has to belittle their explanation as to why they were there. Now he will
     have more difficulty telling his own children that life will give them only what they are shrewd enough
     to get.

          Since Bethlehem, non-believers simply cannot reject God as an idea. Now they have to deny the
     baby born in the stable and the man he grew to be. They have to deny the schools and hospitals, the
     social reforms, and even great nations which have arisen because people knew him to be the Son of
     God. They have to deny young people toting food down an abandoned road. They have to deny
     compassion that bursts forth in the middle of war, and love that blossoms bright in a household of
     hate. They have to hold their ears and shut their eyes to the reality of that irrepressible message:
     "It's Christmas and Jesus wants us to love each other."

                                     Fred Buechner has it right when he says:
                                     
                                     "Those who do not believe must fall silent in the presence
                                     of the newborn child, but their silence can only have tears
                                     at its heart because for them this can only be another child
                                     born to die as every child is born to die, and no matter how
                                     bravely and well he lives it, his life can have no meaning
                                     beyond the meaning he gives it, and then like all life, it must
                                     be like a dream once it has been dreamed. For those who
                                     do not believe, all the great poetry of the birth - the angels,
                                     the star, the three kings coming out of the night to lay their
                                     gifts in the straw - can be only like words which, for all their
                                     beauty, are written in the sand, not poetry that points beyond
                                     itself to the very heart of reality, which is beyond the power
                                     of time and change to touch."

          Because of that moment, and a thousand others that are entirely different, but exactly like it,
     nothing can ever be the same for me. I am one of that vast group of people who both believes and
     does not believe. I am one who has read his book and sung his hymns every Sunday of my life,
     and I am one who frequently finds himself utterly and unbearably alone. I am one who is capable
     of being completely consumed by the anxieties of family life and the pressures of my work and the
     quest for happiness. But I am also one who has seen with his own eyes and heard with his own
     ears and experienced in his own life the miracle of that moment of love. I can never quite forget that
     the love which punctured the world of darkness that night at Bethlehem, and has continued to
     puncture it ever since, just might be the only hope of my life and the only hope of this world.

          Even when I feel so strong that I need no one, and even when I am so distraught that no one
     can help, there is always a faint reminder of that moment, the moment when a new life and a new
     hope were born in the darkness.

          The message is that his new life seeks to be born in the darkness of me with as much reality as
     it had when it was born in the flesh at Bethlehem. This new life comes to me surrounded by eternal
     love, asking me to lay down the shotgun of suspicion by which I seek to protect myself from a hostile
     world - asking me to open the gate of my life to receive the gifts of love and hope which God gives
     to us in his Son.

          It is by daring to behold and believe such moments that life is changed.


RRB/cghl 

LINKS TO OTHER ROBERT BALL SERMONS

YOU ARE MY CENTERFIELDER

Sermon from January 26, 1969

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?

Sermon from January 25, 1970

FOLK WORSHIP SERVICE

 from April 5, 1970

WHAT SALT IS FOR

Sermon from June 21, 1970

BOLD ENOUGH TO FAIL

Sermon from September 6, 1970

DON'T PUT ME DOWN

Sermon from September 13, 1970

I BELIEVE THAT GOD BELIEVES IN CLAUDE

Sermon from September 27, 1970

WHERE AUTHENTIC PEOPLE MEET

Sermon from December 13, 1970

 T H E    S E R P E N T    D I D    I T

Sermon from February 14, 1971

FROM: M O N O T O N Y

TO: M E A N I N G

Sermon from February 28, 1971

                    FROM ANXIETY

                                                TO FAITH

                                            Sermon from March 7, 1971

                         

                          Y E S,

                                      N O,

                                                and

                                                         W O W!

Sermon by Dr. Robert R. Ball

May 23, 1971                          CLICK HERE

                         

Sermon by Dr. Robert R. Ball

July 11, 1971   

Here Come De Judge

Sermon from August 1, 1971

SMILE GOD LOVES YOU

Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon presented September 12, 1971

Seriously But Not Literally

Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon presented September 19, 1971

Authority Figures I Have Known

Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon, September 26, 1971

IT'S ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS,

NOT RULES

Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon presented JULY 31, 2011

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