Sunday, December 29, 2013

Love Always Wins ~ Matthew 2:13-23 ~ First Sunday of Christmas

Sometimes, it’s tremendously awkward to read from one of the four Gospels, and then to conclude with the words “the Gospel of our Lord.”  Case in point: today’s “gospel.”  The word “gospel” is supposed to mean “good news”—but sometimes, you don’t hear any…

When we open the Bible, we’re hungry for good news in a world where bad news is pumped into our living rooms around the clock.  One local TV network calls their newscast “eyewitness news”—and appropriately so.  Tune in, and instantly you become an eyewitness to the suffering of humanity. 

Today’s Gospel reminds us of what has been true since the beginning of time: that cosmic forces of evil are at war against God and God’s people. 

Jesus had just been born.  The Magi had just visited the infant and presented their gifts.  But the time of joy and celebration is not to last. 

King Herod learned from the wise men that the King of the Jews was born in Bethlehem.  Herod is the King of the Jews (in the political sense)—which means that this newborn king will comprise a direct threat to the power and riches he enjoys from his throne.  Consumed by greed and desperate to hold onto his power, Herod hatches a deadly plan. 

Joseph is immediately warned in a dream of the firestorm of death Herod is about to unleash.  So now Jesus and his parents are on the run—and precious, innocent lives become victims to human greed and cruelty at their worst. 

Flash forward two thousand years later, and very little has changed in the world.  Atrocities not all that different from this one are happening all around the world, every single day.  Everywhere, there is wailing and lamentation, just as there was in Bethlehem so long ago.

And yet, in spite of the carnage he creates, Herod’s war against God is a total failure.  God protects Jesus—and ultimately, it is Herod who dies.  Jesus will go on to take his throne as the ruler of all Creation.  Yet we all know that he will suffer the powers of evil to their fullest extent before he ascends to it.  Jesus will suffer hell on the cross.  But the cross will mark the beginning of God’s victory over all the forces of evil.  The empty tomb shall forever be the sure sign, for all the world, that NOTHING will thwart the coming of God’s Kingdom and the reign of Christ.

What this means for you is that when the powers of evil wage war against you, the power of God will save you in the end.

Evil has its power—but God’s power is always greater.

When we are the ones who are wailing in agony in the aftermath of tragedy, we can take comfort in knowing that the power of God will be working in and through that tragedy to accomplish God’s gracious will for your life.  The power of resurrection shall overcome the most heinous evil, the most horrific disasters, and the most deadly of diseases. 

Not only that, the power of God is sufficient to overcome of the sin and its dreadful consequences.  The devil’s greatest victory would be to snatch you out of God’s love—and that is why the enemy is so tireless in tempting you and luring you deeper and deeper into sin—until you would be completely alienated from God.  But there is no sin that’s beyond God’s forgiveness—and there is no sinner who is beyond God’s power to be freed and reborn a new creation. 

Finally, because evil’s power is no match for God’s power, we as the Body of Christ have the ability to fight back against all the evils in the world—and actually gain ground against them.  We can crush the devil as we forgive sins; as we give generously of God’s generosity to us; as we meet our neighbors’ needs; as we pray; and as we give testimony to God’s mercy and love.  We can build communities where there is peace and where the needs of all persons are met.  Christian love and Christian witness will always put the devil on the run.

In God’s world, love always wins.

Weeping may last through the night, but joy shall come in the morning. 

So remember—that no matter what you may be going through; whether it’s something terrible you’ve done or something terrible that’s happening to you, the power of Christ’s resurrection is upon you.  Nothing is going to stop God’s gracious will from being accomplished in your life.  The destroyer is going to be destroyed.  And until that day comes, God will be faithful.  If you believe and trust in Jesus, you will become an eyewitness to the power of Christ’s resurrection at work in your life, winning the victory over sin and all enemies, most especially death.

Fear not—God’s love always wins.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Comfort and Joy ~ Luke 2:1-20 ~ The Nativity of Our Lord

On July 22 of this year, good news made headlines around the world: the British royal baby, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, was born. 

We can be certain that only the best doctors and medical professionals were on hand for his birth.  Security was tight—and only those of royal blood would be there to witness the event.  The rest of the world would have to wait until the following evening to meet the newborn-future-king, when Prince Charles and Princess Catherine emerged from the hospital, to take the child home to Kensington Palace. 

It is a fairy-tale come true for all the world to see.  But there was a royal birth 2,000 years ago that was definitely no fairy tale.

A violent-and bloodthirsty emperor, who ironically declares himself as “savior of the world,” decides to flex his political muscles by ordering a global census.  Multitudes of persons, most of whom were very poor, are forced to travel, at their own expense, to the town of their ancestry to register for taxes.  This included a teenage mother-to-be, betrothed to a man who wasn’t the father of her child.  With the child due at any time, they set out on the ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem that would have taken days

When they finally arrive, the time has come for the baby to be born.  What’s worse, there is no lodging 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.

There was no comfort or joy to be had; just the dark and cold of night…

And then, in that dreadful night, God acts…  The Christ child is born; the savior of the world.   God’s gift of comfort and joy now sleeps on the hay in a manger. 

The circumstances of this birth have much to teach us about who this king will be for you and for me…  The fact that he’s a king does not mean that he’ll be living like one…

Surely, Jesus deserved to be born in the finest of castles; in the presence of the most skilled physicians.  But God chose the manger because so many of God’s people are poor.

Surely, Jesus deserved to be surrounded with the holiest of people at his birth.  But God chooses shepherds because Jesus is born to be the Savior of all persons—particularly those whom the rest of the world would count as unsuitable and unworthy of becoming God’s very own. 

We celebrate Jesus’ birth because God has personally joined us in the difficult realities of our human existence.  He’s here hear our cries and strengthen us by his presence.  He’s here to bear away the sin of the world by the power of the body and blood he gives to us.  And he’s here so that we may know the power of his resurrection as he delivers us through all the disappointments, heartbreaks, and fiery trials of life. 

Jesus is our comfort and joy because he is with us, whatever we’re going through.  He is our comfort and joy because his love for us is not based upon what we deserve.  He is our comfort and joy because he gives us a life we cannot get for ourselves what we cannot give ourselves—a relationship of peace with the Creator of the universe, and life that is ever-lasting. 

This is good news of great joy for all people.  But the news will not always be easy to believe or trust.

The peace and beauty of this night is soon to pass, and we’ll return to the struggles and challenges of daily life.  The comfort and joy we need from Jesus will not always come as easily or as quickly as we’d like.  The world and its evil ways will constantly give us reasons to doubt in the truth of God’s promises.  At the same time, we’ll be constantly tempted to believe that comfort and joy can be found in what we buy, what we do, the success we achieve, and the approval we try to gain from others. 

But true comfort and joy is found only in Christ.  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 water, wine, word and bread.  You even meet Christ in the people you serve. 

You don’t have to be royalty to live a life of comfort and joy.  Jesus makes his home with us, amid the struggles and challenges of our lives.  He was born for you, so that you may know the power of his love and compassion and forgiveness, all the days of your life.  God’s gift of comfort and joy is living in relationship with God’s only Son.  You won’t find it presents and traditions; you can’t earn it with hard work of stumble upon it with good luck.  It is given to you by God.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Where's My Christmas? ~ Matthew 11:2-15 ~ Third Sunday of Advent

This Thanksgiving day at Mom & Dad’s house, my mother comes downstairs carrying a box labeled ‘childhood memories.’ The box is packed full of photographs, finger-paintings, and various other relics from my childhood. 

One such picture was of me sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall.  Mom proceeded to tell her that when Santa asked me what I wanted, and I paused, thought for a moment, and then told him: “I haven’t really decided yet!”

I thought about this last Sunday afternoon as I ate lunch at the Happy Day CafĂ©—because Mr. and Mrs. Claus were walking through the restaurant, asking people what they wanted. 

Immediately I got “Santa stage fright” all over again—because Legos and Power Wheels don’t interest me like they used to. 

So when he finally gets to our table, he asks me: “have you been a good boy this year?”  I’m actually relieved! 

Now sure, there’s a lot of high-tech gadgets and shiny things I’d love to have

What I’d really love for Christmas is some answered prayers…  Wouldn’t you?  A little peace, a little rest; perhaps a miracle or two in the season of miracles…

Because, quite frankly, it’s difficult to rejoice at the birth of Christ when life is so full of sorrow, pain, and anxiety.  The gift of Christ can come as quite a letdown—especially while seemingly everyone else is enjoying storybook family gatherings of peace, health, and happiness, with all the high-tech gadgets and shiny things wrapped with fancy paper and ribbons, waiting under the tree. 

Sometimes, you just can’t help but ask, “where’s my Christmas?”

If anyone in the New Testament ever knew what it was like to be let down by Jesus, John the Baptist would be it…

Here was a man who faithfully lived out God’s purpose for his life.  He was “the voice crying out in the desert, ‘prepare the way of the Lord; make his pathways straight.’”  He prepared the way for the coming of Christ into the world.  People repented of their sin and were baptized.  John was fully worthy to be the one to baptize Jesus, and to witness the Holy Spirit coming upon him as a dove. 

His faithfulness to God eventually led him to be thrown into prison for his public decrial of “King” Herod Antipas’ sinful exploits with his brother’s wife.

Now knowing Jesus to be the Messiah (beyond the shadow of a doubt, based upon what he’d witnessed personally), John was expecting Jesus to overthrow the corrupt rulers who held God’s people captive, and establish the Kingdom of God on earth.  When that happened, he’d be free.  But that doesn’t happen—and the doubts and the questioning begin.  Finally, John sends his disciples to Jesus, to ask him plainly, “are you the one?  Or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus’ reply is to tell John what John already knows—the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor hear the good news of God’s reign.   Jesus doesn’t even tell John in person—John’s disciples deliver the message. 

How is this good news for John in his present circumstances?  What hope is there for him as he remains in prison?  And what hope is there for us who just keep waiting? 

Every day it’s winter—but when will it be Christmas?

This Advent, we light out candles because Christ is in the world—and today, he affirms that he is doing something about human suffering.  He’s in the hospitals, the nursing homes, and the hospices; the prisons and the halfway houses; the shelters and soup kitchens; the disaster and war zones; in broken homes with broken families and broken people.  In other words, he’s with people like us and our neighbors. 

And he’s there when the bad news comes—as bodies weaken and minds fade away; when the boss calls you in and says, “I’m sorry;” when the money runs out; and when life slips away.

Therefore, we can do as John does: we name our disappointments to Jesus—along with our doubts and our questions.  And then we light our lamps to wait in hopeful expectation that Jesus will bring our deliverance.

Sadly, we don’t know what deliverance God brought to John—just as we don’t know what deliverance  Jesus will bring to us—or when, or how.  But Jesus didn’t forget John—and he won’t forget you.  Wait in trust and hope, and he will come.  Faith means keeping the light on, trusting that Jesus will come—and that you will have your Christmas.

Let’s not forget that your Christmas may be where your neighbors wait for God in their time of need.  Remember, Jesus is always with those who need him most—and when you go and serve them, you bring Jesus with you.  You bring the gift of Christ and Christmas with your acts of compassion and mercy; forgiveness and patience; prayer and encouragement.  It doesn’t matter who you are; where you’ve been, or how broken you may be—as a child of God, the power do the work of God’s deliverance is in you.  The healing you give may very well be the healing you receive from Christ.

Just nine days remain in our Advent season until Christmas—but Christ’s Advent may indeed last beyond December 25th.  But Christ will come.  The dark and cold of winter will give way to Christmas.  So lift up your heads, light your lamps—your long-expected Jesus comes.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lighting Our Candles for Hope ~ Isaiah 11:1-10 ~ Second Sunday of Advent

I’ve said on more than one occasion that the sciences were never my strong suit in school.  In fact, my only near-death experience happened in a high school chemistry lab…

So I wasn’t thrilled to get to college, and learn that every student had to take two semesters’ worth of science courses…

Thankfully, they offered a year-long course for people like me who’d identify a beaker as one of the Muppets

They called it Fundamentals of the Universe  The purpose of the course was to teach us the basic scientific laws that govern all that exists in the universe. 

Now I’m no biologist, but there are more than just a few scientific anomalies in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

·         Cut down trees don’t come back to life

·         Wolves do not lie down with lambs or leopards with goats

·         Lions and bears don’t graze

·         Children don’t play with poisonous snakes

Nature can be beautiful—but it can also be cruel.  That’s reality. 

Take a look at the world and the times we’re living in right now, there are realities that we’d definitely not call “nice.”

·         Our society’s getting more and more secular

·         It’s getting harder and harder for families make ends meet

·         The lack of good-paying jobs is making this a depressed community

·         We’re all getting older, and age deteriorates our bodies and minds

·         Death separates us from those we love…

·         We all make mistakes—and sometimes, those mistakes have lasting consequences. 

As we endure these heartbreaking realities, they have tremendous power to shape our expectations for the future.  Without even thinking, we make some dreadful assumptions about what the future will be:

·         That this country is going to destroy itself

·         That our church and Christianity will one day cease to exist

·         The mistakes of my past determine my future

·         Life can never again be good since things will never again be the way they used to be. 

This is one of the greatest dangers facing Christians—and Christianity in general.  The worse things get, the more we believe that God is totally removed from our existence, holding back from us what we need, leaving us to flounder.  We become so consumed by what is bad and what is wrong that God pretty much ceases to exist. 

That’s a problem—for if we are completely fixated on what is tragic and terrible, we won’t see Christ in the world.  We will not be ready when he comes.

Someday soon, Christ will destroy all the tragic realities of our human existence.  All will see him in his glory; all creation will live together in justice, peace, and love.  But we’re not there yet.  Today, our Savior comes in the most humble of ways.  He is born to an unwed teenage mother in a Roman-occupied world.  He lives among the least and the lost of the people.  He abides amid the tragic realities of our existence.  He dies; despised, rejected and alone.  He’s born with us; he lives among us, he dies like us. 

This is good news—because the power that can make the lion lie down with the lamb has come upon the world today.

Christ comes as a shoot growing forth from a stump—as new life rising out of the ashes of death.

We light the candles of Advent so that our eyes may be opened to the reality of God blooming all around us—and not with fireworks or fanfare, but softly, quietly, and humbly  We light our lamps to behold Christ coming into the hurt and messiness of life to begin the work of resurrection. 

Just consider our church…  Given the present realities of our time, our church shouldn’t be getting ready to celebrate a 200th anniversary.  We should be preparing to close up our doors.  But that’s not what’s happening.  We’re baptizing.  We’re raising up new leaders in all our ministries.  We’re serving our community with ministries that recently did not exist.  We’re beginning a small group Bible study in the spring.  And we’re praying for God to inspire us, equip us, and lead us to be even more of a blessing to the world than we’ve ever been. 

We can dwell on the fact that life will never again be as it was in former days—OR, we can live by faith in the promises of God.  We can rejoice that the sins of our past are washed away with forgiveness.  We can receive saving grace in Word and water, wine and bread.  We can pray with confidence that God hears our prayers.  We can trust Jesus to show us the power of his resurrection in the most awful of circumstances.  We can reach out in love to the neighbors who truly need our prayers, our love, our gifts, and our testimony of God’s love, believing that the power of God will be at work within us to make a difference.

If our minds and our souls become fixated on the power of death wreaking havoc on the world, we will become dead as people of God.  There is no greater tragedy for a child of God than to live as a prisoner to fear while God is in the world to establish victory over the objects of your fear. 

Sometimes, sin and death will literally cut us down.  But Jesus will never leave you for dead.

The power to make the lion lie down with the lamb will be coming upon you, to liberate you from the realities of sin and death—and to deliver you into the reality of God.  So turn your eyes from the tragic and hopeless.  Stop looking for new life in worldly treasures. 

God’s reality meets your reality.  Lift up your heads and be on the lookout for newness and life.

Only God knows exactly what the future holds.  But if you are struggling to believe these promises; if your reality is so dire that you see no hope, take it to the Lord in prayer—and rest assured that your Lord will take it from there.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

When Jesus Calls- Don't Stay Behind! ~ Matthew 24:36-44 ~ First Sunday of Advent

Right after Elizabeth and I were married, our home was a tiny apartment in the town of Red Lion, Pennsylvania—about fifteen miles southeast of York…  This was home as we completed our one-year seminary internships.

The day we moved in, I noticed a box truck pull up, with a sign that read “A-Plus Piano Movers.”

The door opens, and out steps one of the largest men I’ve ever seen.  Easily seven feet tall, with arms the size of three trunks.  He’s so large, he crouches his neck and turns sideways—just to fit through the door.

Later that weekend, about 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, we’re awakened to what sounds like World War 2.  This neighbor and his friend are playing video games.  The game console was hooked up to a sound system that would’ve been better-suited for a stadium than an apartment.  Our apartment literally shook from the noise of explosions—and the roars of two men.

My first instinct was to go downstairs and tell them to turn the volume down.  But all I could think about was the sheer size of this man.  I certainly did not want to get on his bad side.  Therefore, we decided we had no choice but to suffer through the noise.

Maybe that was the wrong decision—but I was intimidated by this man and his sheer size.

And sometimes, God can be even more intimidating …

This is most especially true whenever Scripture speaks of God’s coming in judgment.  The God who is gracious and merciful becomes tremendously large and perhaps even frightening. 

Just hear Jesus’ words: “As it was in days of Noah, so it will be again…”  “Two persons will be in the field; one is taken and the other left…”  “Two women will be grinding meal together, one is taken and the other left.”

At least for me, these words instantly bring to mind the bestselling Left Behind novels and the movies—and their nightmarish stories of God’s elect disappearing from sight, leaving cars without drivers, planes without pilots, and a world gripped with terror. 

Hear Jesus words and you can’t help but ask: “Will I be left behind?”

But I urge you never to read the Bible’s end times passages as play-by-play guides for the end of the world.  Do this, and you’ll be hearing God’s Word only in terms of what could happen to you.  The truth is, we can never fully know or understand how God will bring the present age to an end.  That’s beyond our ability to comprehend—just as God is beyond our ability to comprehend.  We have no choice but to entrust the future and ourselves to God. 

Jesus speaks these words to describe what God will be doing.  Jesus will be coming into this world, to permanently establish God’s justice and righteousness in all the universe.  He will be making right everything that is wrong, and resurrecting everything that is dead.  This is good news.

So don’t be asking, “could I get left behind?”  Jesus is calling you to be his disciple today!  The question before you is, “will I stay behind, as Jesus calls me?  Will I stay behind as Jesus calls me to faith and to repentance?  Will I say no to doing justice, to loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?” 

We have just begun what is undoubtedly the busiest and most stressful time of the year.  There’s so much to buy and to do to prepare for Christmas, on top of all the other commitments and obligations that crowd our lives.   Therefore, when Jesus calls us as disciples, it’s easy to hear his call as burdensome—like it’s one more thing that we don’t have the time and the energy to do.  We don’t want to hand over control of what little remains of our time and energy and resources.  We don’t want to be bound up in any more demands.  So we detach from Christ and attach to that which brings us instant gratification: like buying and having cool stuff; of doing cool things; achieving success; and winning everyone’s approval. 

But discipleship is a gift—not a burden.  We become disciples for the sake of what God wants to do for us and for the world.  Jesus attaches us to himself so that we may become one with him in healing the world, doing justice, and establishing righteousness.  Attached to Christ, we witness resurrection—and to do his work of resurrection. 

Today you are called to be a disciple.  Jesus is not leaving you behind.  You are invited to surrender your life into God’s saving purposes for all the world.  This way, you won’t be caught off guard when Jesus comes again in glory.  You’ll be right there with him at the resurrection of all things.

Sometimes, the power of God lies just beyond those things for which we cannot bear to let go.  To be a disciple, we must to die to every attachment that is not Christ—and that can be a scary thing.  But in dying to these worldly attachments, we are reborn into the reality of God’s reality salvation.  We let go, and the power of God takes over. 

Advent is the season to prepare for the coming of Christ—and not just as a baby in a manger, but as a conquering king.  Now is the time to carefully examine our lives, and ask God, “what attachments exist in my life that tempt me to detach myself from Christ?”

 If we believe that he’s coming, and we trust that God knows what’s best for us, then let us follow Jesus in joy.  But do remember this: God is bigger than us—and God’s gracious will shall be done on earth as in heaven.  A human being can gain the whole world—but nothing can stand against God.  God’s will shall be done.  And there is no resurrection apart from God.