Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Conspicuous Christ, Conspicuous Christians ~ Colossians 3:12-17 ~ First Sunday of Christmas

In my nine Christmas shopping seasons working at big box stores, there was no time of the year I dreaded more than the after-Christmas returns season...

I still shudder at the thought of those endless piles of misfit gifts; many with shards of wrapping paper still clinging to them.

For me, there’s only been one gift I’ve ever received that I wanted to send to those piles—and that gift was a pair of Snoopy pajamas.

I’ve always loved the Peanuts gang—but I was 21 when I got these.  All I could think about was my college dorm-mates seeing me wearing them.  I would never live it down. 

I didn’t want to stand out from everyone else as the guy with Snoopy pajamas. 

But do we (as Christians) stand out from everyone else? 

Over the last several months, our adult Sunday school class has been discussing different religious faiths—and one topic that’s often come up is the way in which the people of certain faiths stand out from the crowd.  We’ve spoken of Muslims who stop whatever they are doing, to pray—five times per day.

We’ve spoken of Amish and the members of Mennonite communities who dress very plainly, in clothes they’ve often made themselves.

For our part, we may wear crosses—or even Christian T-shirts on occasion...  

But ultimately, how would someone really know that we are as people of Jesus Christ?  And how eager are we to stand out from the crowd?

It’s very easy to treat our faith and our relationship with God strictly as a matter of the heart, so that it is private and deeply personal. 

And because of that, there may be very little that sets believer apart from everyone else.

But Jesus is not about to be contained only in our hearts—because a human heart cannot contain him.  Jesus is born to be known—and not just in our hearts.  He is in the world, making himself known.  The more we know him, the more he will make himself known through us to an unbelieving world.  Our second lesson from Colossians shows us how...

It all begins with God’s claim of our selves.  We are God’s chosen ones; claimed in baptism.  We are born to be holy; born to be beloved.  Faith begins by knowing whose we are. 

It is then that we come to see God in all that we have and all that we are and all that God promises.  This is thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is an act of faith through which we see God in every good gift we receive and acknowledge God as the giver.  Prayer is the first way—and the fundamental way—that we do this.  But once again, we cannot treat it as a private act.  Thanksgiving is a verb—and we express thanksgiving in public.  When you eat in a public place, do you pray over the meal?  Do you take your conversations with family, friends, and strangers as opportunities to testify to God’s goodness in your life?

Then, when you see a neighbor in any kind of need, what do you do?  Do you allow for God’s goodness to go beyond you? 

We all know from bitter experience how hard it is to see God in our darkest days.   Our world is desperate for signs that God is here—even those who wouldn’t even call themselves believers.  This is why Jesus gives us his holy clothing: the clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and especially forgiveness. 

How rare it is that a person will ever receive these from someone else.  But a little bit of kindness and a little bit of care can change everything for the better. 

If we, who experience God’s goodness, use our blessings to bless others, God becomes a greater and more powerful reality.  It is in our acts of mercy and forgiveness that we come to see just how good God is and how blessed we really are.  People won’t just notice Christ in us—they will be drawn to the Christ in us.  We shall become as Jesus was in his ministry; a giver of strength and healing and unconditional love.  Our lives shall become as iron-clad proof of the goodness of God, by how we live and what we do.  And there will be no mistaking who we are and whose we are...

Today God’s Word invites us into a life of gratitude, because God is in every morsel of food that nourishes our bodies; every garment that keeps us warm; and especially in every person who blesses us with their compassion, their kindness, and their forgiveness.  Thanksgiving is the gift of seeing Christ in all that is wonderful and good.  So make your gratitude public; literally wear God’s goodness in your words and deeds.  Let the Christ you see and know be seen and known in you.  Let your every choice, every action, every word glorify him. 

All shall know that God is good when we, with our words, our deeds, and our very lives, make it real.  We shall become as One Body, to endure the hardships; and to overcome suffering and evil with forgiveness and grace.

And God’s peace will come for all to enjoy.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A Savior Born For You ~ The Nativity of Our Lord ~ Luke 2:1-20

We all know the story of Jesus’ birth for the peace and simple beauty we see in crèches and children’s story books.  But it doesn’t begin that way...

In fact, everything that could go wrong did go wrong...

First of all, you have the Roman Emperor Augustus ruling over God’s people.  To the Jewish faithful in those days, the mere mention of his name would bring both fear and loathing. He was ruthless, he was violent—and oddly enough, he proclaimed himself to be “the Savior of the world.”

And then he decrees that all people must register for taxes.  This means that Joseph and his pregnant-bride-to-be must make the nearly 70-mile, three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  When they get there, the time comes for her to give birth.  She must lay the child in a feeding trough for animals—because more suitable accommodations were not available.

And then you have the shepherds.  Theirs was a miserable existence.  They lived outdoors, they worked around-the-clock, and they endured extreme poverty and isolation.

It was there, in the dark and loneliness of the night, that God’s angels appear to the shepherds, to bring them good news:

To you is born this day...a Savior.”

That is the good news—and the best news—Jesus’ birth...  He is born for us; for you, for me, for all creation.  He is born so that we may live in relationship with him. 

And the dire circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth should not be lost on us.  Yes, it was in the worst of times—but God worked through it all to draw them to Jesus.

God used Augustus and his oppressive decree to fulfill his promise to his people that their Savior would be born in Bethlehem from the house of David.  And God used in the dark and cold of night to invite the shepherds to be the first to meet Jesus.

All of this teaches us that nothing will stop Jesus.  When things are at their worst, Jesus will be there to save us.  He is not a Savior who prevents hardship, but he is a Savior who works through hardship and even in spite of hardship so that we may know him and the new life he gives.

Even when we find ourselves in the wreckage of our own sin, Jesus’ forgives us.  His forgiveness gets us back on our feet again, to begin anew, because God sees our sin no more.  

When everything falls apart, Jesus is determined that you know him in the strength and the comfort he gives. 

Tonight we celebrate more than just a birth.  Tonight we celebrate that OUR Savior is born.  We celebrate a love so great that the cross was not too high a price for Jesus to pay to save us from death and the devil.  We celebrate that Jesus will save us in the time of trial.  Jesus is the gift for you receive—and not just once in a lifetime, or once in a while, but daily—and that is precisely the challenge of this holy night.

The peace and joy of this night will soon pass.  Soon, we shall return to everyday life.  And it goes without saying that we are not living in the best of times.

The world and its evil ways are constantly feeding us reasons to doubt the presence of Jesus in the world.  We will sin, we will fail, and we will doubt how God could ever love such a person as ourselves.  There will be times when we will be disappointed with God.  We will wonder, “what’s the use in believing?”

All told, the gift of Christ can be easily forgotten amid the noise and struggles of everyday life.  That is why we must seize every opportunity that Jesus gives us to receive him and be with him.  When you pray and open the Scriptures, you meet him.  Every Sunday, you can meet him here in Bible classes, in worship, and at the table where he nourishes our faith with his body and blood.  We even meet Christ in each other.  We all sin, we all doubt, we all suffer; but by coming together, and by caring for one another, we receive him. 

And when you leave from this place, Jesus will turn your daily lives into sanctuaries where you will meet him.  When there is loss, where there is pain, where there is worry, Jesus will be there to walk with you and deliver you.  You will even meet Jesus in the people you serve with your love and good deeds.

Jesus, the Savior, is born for you—and God desires much more for you than to simply believe in him.  Jesus is born to be known.  So receive him tonight—and let his presence fill your hearts, your homes, and your days.  Receive him tonight—and let his presence calm your fears and fill your heart with peace.  Receive him tonight—and let his forgiveness transform you into a new person.  Receive the Savior who is born for you know, to worship, and to trust.

And let us join with the shepherds, in praising and glorifying God for this great gift we have received.  Let us be filled with the peace and joy of knowing him; not just tonight, but daily.  Let us tell the world that this Savior is born for all.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Peace In a Time Such as This ~ Philippians 4:4-7 ~ Third Sunday of Advent

Earlier this week, walking through town, I noticed the sign on the United Methodist Church down the street, which read: All I Want for Christmas is Peace.

All week, I thought about all the people I’d spoken to whom I know want peace more than anything...  All the people who are ill, who are stressed, who are brokenhearted, who are filled with fear at what tomorrow may bring...

And then, in just one week, we’ve heard news of two massacres, the one at a mall in Oregon, the other at a school in Connecticut...  Precious lives are lost; families are ripped apart; and a nation trembles in horror.

How can we ever attain this “peace that surpasses understanding” that Paul speaks of in our second lesson for today?  How can we rejoice in the Lord in a time such as this?

As we hear Paul’s words, we must first bear in mind that Paul writes these words from within prison walls.  With every day he faced the possibility that he wouldn’t make it out alive.  

That is precisely why the peace he speaks of today is one that is not dependent upon circumstances; upon prosperity or upon the lack of hardship.  This is a peace that comes from Jesus Christ and him alone.  That is what makes this a peace that surpasses understanding—because peace is a miracle that Jesus creates in our lives through faith. 

So if peace is something you lack, you do not have to go very far to get it.  You have only to turn to Jesus.  That is where peace begins—in your relationship with him. 

When you were baptized, you were reborn into Christ.  This means that your life is firmly planted in him.  You are in Christ; in him you live and have your being.  This was not by your choice or by your own effort.  God does this FOR YOU and even IN SPITE OF YOU.  You are a child of God—and nothing will change that.

Peace begins in our relationship with Jesus—and prayer is our acceptance of this gift of relationship.  And prayer is far and away more than just asking.  Prayer is connecting with Jesus and knowing him so that we can become aware of the ways that he is already here and blessing us.  For peace, we are totally dependent upon Jesus—and he is not about to let us down; for to see peace is to see Jesus.

And since our lives are rooted in Christ, we are in a position to do more than just receive peace.  We are empowered to create it.

In our Gospel for today, John the Baptist is preaching before an audience of what we could consider as the misfits of his day; the tax collectors, the soldiers...  They, too, long for the peace of new life that comes only from God—and they ask him, “what should we do?”  Notice how John does not make drastic, life-altering demands and lofty requirements that none could ever meet.  He simply says, “whoever has two coats must share with the one who has none; the tax collectors must collect only the prescribed amount; the soldiers must not extort money but be satisfied with their wages.”  In other words, the opportunities to be peace-creators existed in their daily lives.  They didn’t need to do anything heroic to achieve it, but simply to recognize that their lives were sanctuaries for which they could join their neighbors in entering into the peace of God.

It’s the very same for us.  Opportunities abound in our lives to CREATE peace.  We are disciples who are being sent out into our everyday lives, seizing opportunities to let our gentleness be known to everyone; and to proclaim the love of Jesus in our words and especially our good deeds. 

In Christ, we receive peace—and we create peace.

We all hunger for the peace that passes understanding, especially this time of year.  So today, remember that your peace is found in Christ and Christ alone.  Don’t run yourself ragged trying to keep all the plates spinning.  You’ll never succeed.  Instead, remember that Christ is in you and you are in him.  Focus yourself on receiving every gift he gives you that will nourish your faith and knowledge of him.  Focus on your “rootedness” in Christ—and his peace will guard your heart and mind in everything else you have to do.  Your schools, your workplaces, your homes, your communities will all become sanctuaries to meet Jesus in your everyday life. 

So challenge yourself not only to seize every opportunity to receive his peace; seize every opportunity to create peace.  Leave behind your comfort zone and show your neighbor into the sanctuary of Christ’s peace with your loving words and especially your good deeds.  Your hunger for peace will be satisfied. 

Sometimes, it’ll be a peace that overwhelms your fears; sometimes that peace may be but the string of faith through which God guides you through the worst of times.  But you will have peace—because your human being is in the living Christ.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

We Shall Stand ~ Luke 3:1-8 ~ Second Sunday in Advent

Recently, a group of quantum physicists conducted an experiment that would resemble your typical school science class project...

They start out with two samples of pure water.  The first sample, they stored in bottles that were labeled with words that praised it for its beauty and purity.  The second sample was stored in bottles labeled with words and slogans that were nasty and demeaning. 

After several months, people drank the water from both bottles—and they noticed a difference.  The water with the nice labels was pure and refreshing; while the water with the nasty labels was cloudy and foul-tasting.

They went on to put samples under a microscope—and to no surprise, the molecules of the “nice water” were more orderly, while the “nasty water’s” molecules were all twisted and fuzzy.

This experiment is absolutely stunning—because we don’t think of water as something living, that words would have an impact on it.  But that’s exactly what happens! 

And you know what?  God does almost exactly the same with the waters of our baptism.  When we are baptized, God speaks over the water.  These are words that promise God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.  These are words that save us.  Even though we cannot see God’s power, or even to fully understand it, God is acting.  When God speaks, we will not be unaffected by it.

What great news this is—because there is so much that happens in life that tears us apart.  There are giants in our lives.  These giants are sicknesses and hurts; they are losses; they are fears; they are failures and regrets.  The greatest challenge of our faith is trusting in a God whom we cannot see in the presence of all these giants whom we cannot help but see...  Sometimes it is beyond belief that God is greater and more powerful than all these giants...

What giants are you facing today?

The third chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins with the naming of some of the giants who ruled during the time of Christ.  Some of these names will be familiar to us—like Pontius Pilate, King Herod, the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas.  When hearing these names, the people in Jesus’ day  would be more than a little disturbed—because these were not nice people.  They were ruthless and corrupt.  They sat atop a political and religious system that exploited the common people for the benefit of themselves and a fortunate few.  And we will hear many of these names again—because they will be responsible for carrying out Jesus’ crucifixion.

But there’s a reason why Luke names these powerful men...   Luke sets them up—because God is about to knock them down!  A man by the name of John comes from the wilderness (in other words, from out of nowhere) to announce that the present order of things is about to be overturned.   God has taken on human flesh and walks upon the earth.  The world as we know it is about to be turned upside-down, and all the world sees the salvation of God.

For us, it all begins at our baptism.

The moment we are baptized, we are born anew.  Our baptism is the sign of God’s power washing over us and immersing us grace. 

We’re drawn out of a life that was dominated by fears and anxieties about what tomorrow will bring.  We’re drawn out of a life that was defined by our shortcomings and our failures.  And God uses each and every one of us to bring new life and healing to all that is broken and dead in the world.

Just because we cannot see God’s power—or understand how it works—does not mean that God isn’t working...

New life comes to us in the living Christ—and today, God is calling you to pay attention to what is underway.  That’s not always easy to do, especially when we’re under pressure; as the days bring more and more challenges; and most especially when we feel as though our prayers are going nowhere.

So today, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the changes and challenges of life; if you’re afraid of what tomorrow will bring; or if you’re struggling to keep the faith through it all, challenge yourself to do this:

Name the giants in your life.  Name your losses; name your worries; name your fears; name your pains.  Name your sins—and all the things that you’re struggling to let go of so you can live as a disciple of Jesus.  Stand them all up before God—so that Jesus can knock them all down and raise you up to new life.

And remember that you are baptized.  You are sealed with the sign of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  This means that there is a greater power at work in your life than the things that have you feeling broken, and weak, and afraid.  That power is the love of God.  And even though we can’t see it or understand how it works, there is no greater power in the world than God’s.

God is on our side.  All will be okay.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Preparing to Meet Jesus ~ Luke 21:25-36 ~ First Sunday in Advent

A couple of years ago, my grandfather received a phone call.

The male voice on the other end identified himself as “your grandson,” but it wasn’t me.  And I’m his only grandson...

The “grandson” proceeds to tell him that he was in Canada.  He had just crashed a rental car and killed two people.  He was in jail—and he needed Grandpa to wire him $2,000 for bail.

Without hesitation, he goes down to the bank to take out the money. 

Fortunately for him, he had known the teller for years—and when she noticed that he wasn’t himself, he wasn’t afraid to tell her what was going on.  She then suggested that he call me back first before wiring the money.

That is when he learns that I wasn’t in Canada.  I’ve never even been to Canada... I was in my seminary dorm room studying...

This had all the makings of the perfect crime—the scammer creates the shock and horror of his grandson’s distress, throwing him so off guard that he gladly sends away a small fortune without question...

That’s how some thieves operate.  They strike when you’re most vulnerable.  You don’t see them coming—and they’re gone even before you know what happened.  Our only defense is to learn their tricks, and beware their traps.  Our best defense is being ready.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his return—and for the chaos and calamity that would precede it.  He says that people will literally “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”  So Jesus speaks of these things ahead of time so they can be prepared.  When people panic in confusion over what is coming to pass, they must remember that these are signs that God’s redemption of all things is drawing near.  Jesus’ promises will give them the faith to stand firm and wait for their redeemer to come.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t help being afraid when I hear Jesus words.  Our world really feels like it is spinning out of control. The fact that a person can be robbed over the phone shows you just how crazy it has become.  And fear is the most natural human response—because we seldom have to look very hard for reasons to be afraid. 

Yet President Roosevelt was definitely spot-on when he said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  Fear is the most irrational of all human emotions—because it drives us towards irrational behaviors.  Fear may drive us into hiding like a turtle hides itself in its shell, so that we think and act only for ourselves.  Fear may drive us into a fierce and hateful blaming towards people we believe are responsible for the world’s problems.  This is what we saw during the election season, and the awful things that people continue to say about those who embrace one political ideology over another.  Fear may even drive us to reckless and careless living.  Why not eat, drink, and be merry, if tomorrow brings doom and gloom? 

All told, when fear rules our lives, we lose our senses.  We lose our heads.  And we lose hope—because we lose sight of our redeemer.

That is precisely why Jesus commands us to be alert—because we can be so easily caught in the changes and challenges of life that we lose sight of Jesus.  It’s not that he’s absent; we just aren’t seeing him.  We get caught up in the traps of doubt and despair; and we lose our faith. 

But that won’t stop Jesus.  He loves us so much that he’s not about to allow this chaotic world to swallow us whole.  Whether we believe him or not; whether we see him or not; Jesus is with us.  Our redemption is drawing near.

As we hear these words, we mustn’t limit our understanding of “his coming” strictly to a defined point at the end of days—which may not happen in any of our lifetimes.  Jesus’ redemption is happening right now.  We are gathered here today because Christ is truly present in his words of promise and in the meal where he gives us his flesh and blood.  We are here today to meet Jesus in the presence of our fellow believers. And we are here today so that we can prepare to meet Jesus outside of these walls, in the neighbors who need our love and our good works and our testimony of Christ’s love. 

The Advent season is all about preparing for the living Christ to be born into our lives.  Jesus is coming into your life—and he is coming today.

So prepare to meet your Savior.  And as you go from this place today, think about all the ways that Jesus has come to you in the past week.  If that’s hard to do, think of the people who showed care and concern.  Remember the tough days when you wondered how you would ever make it through, and yet somehow you did.  Remember the things you worried about which all turned out alright.  It was Jesus, every time.

And Jesus will be even more of a presence in the coming week.  So make sure you pray, because prayer is God’s way of keeping you alert for his presence.  Be sure to meditate on his word of promise, so that you will know God’s grace and mercy when it comes your way.  And don’t be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone to share God’s love with another, because Jesus will be there in every person you bless in his name.

Sometimes Jesus comes in awesome displays of power and might, and other times he comes as but a whisper of grace.  But he will come.  So keep watch—and prepare to meet your Lord.