Are You Paying Attention?

[audio] Are you paying attention?

One of my favorite lines is from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. It starts with Elwood, played by Dan Aykroyd, picking up his brother, Jake, played by John Belushi, from the penitentiary. They drive in Elwood’s old police car up to his cramped studio apartment on the north side of Chicago. There is one window, which looks directly onto the El track, and it seems like trains are passing every five seconds or so, shaking the whole place.

Jake asks, “How often does the train go by?”

“So often that you won’t even notice it,” Elwood says.

We have a remarkable ability to adapt to the environment around us. We’ve all had that Elwood experience, of seeing something so often that we don’t even notice it anymore. It could be that half-painted wall at home, an unfinished project that has lingered so long that it’s not even there. Or it might be the habits of our typical day, coming home and turning on the TV first without even saying “hi” to anyone else. Or maybe it’s something we own as a church, like those kid-sized institutional bathrooms just outside the Sanctuary.

In each and everyone one of these cases, there’s nothing necessarily “wrong” with the situation itself. You’ll finish the project once work slows down. Your family knows how much you love them without you telling them. Bathroom renovation costs money, and right now that’s a luxury we can’t afford. The point is that we have seen these things so often that we don’t even notice; that is, until we see them through someone else’s eyes.

Matthew’s lesson this morning follows along those lines. Perhaps we’ve read or heard the story so often that we don’t even notice its details anymore. But let’s try and live it through Joseph’s eyes. He is engaged to Mary, and finds out that she is pregnant (Dan Brown probably has another book in him about what “really” happened, but let’s assume for a moment that he might be wrong and the story is as meets the eye). Learning of this embarrassment, Joseph wants to do the noble thing: quietly divorce Mary so that there’s no additional shame for her or her family.

It is at that moment that the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to paints the bigger picture for him. This child is from the Holy Spirit, one who will save his people from their sins. This is not an embarrassment, but a miracle. And with that intervention, Joseph marries his fiancée, and the rest, as they say, is Christmas.

Without that angelic nudge, Joseph would have missed the miracle right in front of him. Infidelity and pre-marital pregnancy are the straightforward explanations here. But this turns out to be something quite different: it is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy! Isaiah had promised the world Immanuel, God with us. Joseph knew that prophecy as well as anyone. But without this little help from an angel, he would have completely missed the divine presence right under his nose.

Are we any different?

Throughout Advent, we’ve been speaking of this Season as a series of questions on a Christmas journey. Today, we might ask ourselves the question: are we even paying attention? In other words, have we become so accustomed to God at work in our lives that we assume God’s absence? Do we even notice the signs of divine grace and mercy anymore?

An example: Have you ever been to Vinings? I’ve driven through that little downtown area more times than I can count. It can be a handy shortcut when I’m making my way from here over to mom’s house in Smyrna.

One day, as we drove through downtown Vinings, Elizabeth was needling me about the fact that we never look at any of the Atlanta historical sites, that I’ve become numb to the historical riches in my hometown. We were right there, near that Japanese restaurant in an old railroad car, next to which is one of those road side historical markers. Elizabeth pointed it out: “Here! Let’s stop and read it!”

“I’ll show her,” I thought, ready to demonstrate how pointless these things really are. And so we pulled over and read it:

“On July 5, 1864, a battle took place between Confederate and Union troops at this location. The Union troops were led by Howard’s 4th, Baird’s division, and Morgan’s 7th Indiana Battery.”

Now, you may think that I had proved my point. But for me, this turned out to be a lesson in paying attention after all. You see, Morgan’s 7th Indiana Battery was led by a Captain Otho Herron Morgan of Terre Haute, Indiana, who later became mayor of Highland Park, Illinois. I know this because Otho Herron Morgan was also my great-great-grandfather. The sign had been practically invisible to me. And because of that, I had completely missed my own personal connection to this obscure place in Atlanta history.

It’s moments like this that make me wonder: what else are we missing? What are the signs that are right there every day, connecting us to a story larger than we could ever imagine, signs that we completely ignore?

Signs from God rarely come in the form of a burning bush – and even if they did, I’m not sure we’d fare any better than Moses, who wanted Aaron to go instead. More often, God’s signs end up being both subtle and surprising. Immanuel, for example, God with us, did not come in the form of a powerful, conquering king, but as a helpless infant born into abject poverty.

Have we learned to look for the heavenly signs? Or have we learned to block them out? Have we fine-tuned our ears to hear God’s whispers, or do we tune them out? When trouble comes, do we remember the promise that God is with us, or do we forget a lifetime of blessings, only to assume that the present moment of anguish is the only way God wants to be in our lives?

Friends, we are six days away from Christmas (did your heart just jump?).

It is so easy to get distracted by the chaos of the season, our eyes filled with blinking lights and our ears assaulted by Christmas music, both ridiculous and sublime. Our challenge is to make space to recognize the signs from heaven. This week, I urge you to take time each day, even if only for a moment, to open eyes and ears to see and hear God’s love at work in your life. Maybe you could work on that unfinished project together. Perhaps the TV can wait until later.

So: are you paying attention? You don’t want to miss it…