Sunday, December 28, 2014

Faithfully Ever After ~ Luke 2:22-40 ~ First Sunday of Christmas

Image courtesy of papajia2008 / freedigitalphotos.net

My family has a Christmas Day tradition—or, perhaps, a habit: we turn on the television and watch A Christmas Story as it plays round-the-clock on TBS.

Several times over, we follow the perils of little Ralphie, as his lifelong destiny hangs on whether or not he gets a Red Rider Range 200 Shot BB gun for Christmas.  Even though he nearly shoots his eye out upon receiving it on Christmas morning, he and his BB gun go on to live happily ever after. 

If only life were like a Christmas movie, all of our problems were cleared up in 120 minutes or less and we went on to live happily ever after.

This isn’t exactly the kind of ending we get even with the real Christmas Story…

The last ten months have been a whirlwind series of events for Mary and Joseph, to say the least—from the angel’s visit, the immaculate conception, the Bethlehem birth, to the shepherds’ surprise visit…  But the whirlwind is far from over…

Forty days after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph travel to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, according to the Law of Moses.  When they arrive, they are met by two octogenarians, one of whom takes the child in his arms and praises God that his eyes have seen God’s salvation.  Once again, Mary and Joseph are amazed.  But the story does not end with everyone living “happily ever after…”  Simeon’s final words are troubling foreshadowing of the rejection and crucifixion Jesus will face.

All told, the life of Jesus’ parents is going to be a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows.  They’re not going to get their happily-ever-after anytime soon.

Simeon and Anna, on the other hand, are singing praise to God.  Like Sarah and Abraham and so many others before them, God made a promise to them—but they had to wait an excruciatingly long time for that promise to be fulfilled; well into what was extreme old age in their time.

We get all these kinds of experiences in our lives as Christians: times of awe and wonder; times of praising and celebration; times of mystery and confusion; times of uncertainty and fear; times of doubt and disappointment; and times of bitter, long waiting.  We don’t ever really arrive at  our “happily ever after;” at least not in this lifetime. And that can be enough to derail anyone’s faith.

But let’s not forget the one fundamental truth of Jesus’ birth—he is born Emmanuel, God-with-us.  He is born into the suffering, the doubt, the questioning, and all the mess of our human existence.  He is born to be our light, shining in the darkness.  No matter where life may takes us, his hand will lead us and his love will support us. 

Today, God raises up Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna as examples of all that the living Christ has been sent to do in your life.  God exercises their faith in the form of devotion.  All four of these persons are ordinary people, who nonetheless commune with God daily through worship, through prayer; through fasting; listening to God’s Word and living in obedience.  God then works through all the ups and downs, and the bitter-long waiting to form them in a faith through which God will lead them to the fulfillment of God’s promises. 

So often in life, it will feel like we’re getting nowhere; just falling deeper and deeper into turmoil and confusion, where we question whether God is truly good.  But Jesus is always leading us forward; a light in darkness.  Through all the ups and downs and long stretches of waiting, his reign will grow continually.  Through it all, the Spirit will be forming you into a faith to see Christ in all the ways he is loving and leading you. 

And in three days, when we close the door on this year, without that happily ever after, we can move forward knowing that Jesus will abide faithfully ever-after. 

Jesus was born to be the one to whom you will cling in this life, no matter what—because Jesus is always holding on to you.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Heavenly Peace for the Sleepless ~ Luke 2:1-20 ~ Christmas Eve


Photo courtesy of papajia2008 / freedigitalphotos.net
A while back, my wife and I came into possession of a rather large stuffed sheep.  At one time, it contained a fragrance that was supposed to relax you and help you fall asleep (something I think would be very useful).  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really smell like anything now.  I suppose you could count it, but that wouldn’t get you very far…

Insomnia has to be one of the most cruel tricks the human body can play against you.  Sometimes, when you need sleep the most, it eludes you—particularly in times of anxiety, and anguish.  On the other hand, when you need to be awake, you can’t fight it off.   Sometimes, sleep feels like a luxury that’s out of reach.

This was indeed the case on a cold night over two thousand years ago.  This was one of what would’ve been numerous sleepless nights for a poor, unwed teenage woman and her husband-to-be.  Both Mary and Joseph would have been subject to intense public disgrace that Mary was pregnant and unmarried. 

Not long after this, the ruthless and bloodthirsty Caesar Augustus 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. 

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—but there is no lodging available…  A cold, smelly stable will be their only refuge from the night. 

Things were no better for the shepherds.  They were out in the fields, counting sheep—but not to fall asleep.  They had a flock to watch.  The work was grueling and lonely—and their standard of living was no better than the sheep.

All said, this was a dreadful night for everyone.  But then, Jesus is born.  In a dark, cold, sleepless night in a smelly stable…  Angels invite the shepherds in from the fields to witness the sacred moment.  Light is now shining in the darkness.  God has become flesh to live among us.  Jesus is God’s answer to the cries of a suffering world. 

This is what God does: God isn’t silent and removed while God’s children hurt.  When we’re in the darkness, Jesus is born into it.  The light he brings is faith to see that he is with you—forgiving sins, healing wounds, calming anguish, delivering you in trials and temptations; making you new again.  Jesus is the hope of the sleepless—because he’s with you and all people who are weary and weeping, and with all who are working and watching by night on our behalf.  Even when all the world rejects you and you have no home and no place to belong, Jesus will be there. 

Jesus is born for you—so that you may know him, love him, and trust him. 

That is why he invites you to be joined to him in baptism; to meet him in the Scriptures; to feast on his body and blood at his table; and to pray to him at all times and in all places.  That is why you are invited to give him your life.  Receive Jesus; follow him; and you will see by faith all the ways he brings light into your darkness.  His desire is nothing less for you than to live and breathe in heavenly peace.

Tonight we sing the familiar song Away in a Manger.  Our children sang this so beautifully during our Christmas program on Sunday—and little wonder, because this is a song for all God’s children.

The first half tells the Christmas story—but the second half is a prayer:

I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh
Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there.

May this be your prayer—and know that God will answer it.  No matter what, Christ will bring his light into your darkness, that will comfort and deliver you through the night to the dawning of heavenly peace.

 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Justice of Jesus ~ Isaiah 6:1-4, 8-11 ~ Third Sunday of Advent


Image courtesy of Praisaeng / freedigitalphotos.net
One of my favorite holiday traditions is the Advent Calendar—and not just any, but the Advent Calendar in which, for every day in December, you open up a little door and find a tiny piece of chocolate inside.  There is no sweeter way to count down the days to Christmas.

Too bad life isn’t like the Advent Calendar.  Most of the time, we open up the door to a new day—but find nothing of any delight.  The morning news constantly reminds us that the world is getting harder and harder to live in.  There are troubles in our personal lives—and the fact that everything hurts worse at Christmas.  To top it all off, the hustle and bustle of this time of year seems to bring out the absolute worst in people!  People seem to be grouchier, pushier, and more aggressive as we pursue “the perfect Christmas.”

The world needs a Word from God—and today, Isaiah speaks that Word.  The reign of God is coming, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  All who mourn will be comforted—and all the nations shall be restored in righteousness. 

This is the very essence of Advent—the coming of a Jesus, who is more than just a redeemer of individuals but a redeemer of nations and societies just like ours, that are being torn apart by human sin.  This is the hope we can all believe in—but not before we confront the painful truth it reveals.  We are sinners—and the problem with sin is that it gets visited upon other people; sometimes intentionally, but other times, totally beyond our notice.  It spreads like a disease all over our communities.  It manifests itself in social and economic systems that benefit a select few at the expense of the many.  It’s the reason why the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.  It’s the reason for pollution.  It’s the cause of racism, classism, sexism, and all the other “isms.”  It’s the reason why our political system is in gridlock.  We live our lives and pursue our own goods, giving no thought to how these decisions impact others. 

Much of the time, we make no notice of social injustice—until it happens to us.  If it hasn’t already, it will. When it does, everything in your life gets dragged down.  It’s harder to live up to your full created potential.  It’s a stumbling block to your faith.  What’s worse is that it makes it easier to commit sins that make your situation even worse.

Our world can’t go on like this—and it won’t. 

The Advent of Christ is God’s answer to the current chaos and the cries of the downtrodden.  He comes to reclaim this world for God and heal it with righteousness.  He calls us to a forgiveness that dramatically transforms us to live out his righteousness in our relationships with others.  The love of Christ creates justice in the world: because justice is what happens when Christ’s faithfulness to us frees us to pursue our neighbor’s good.  It is a blessed vocation to become your neighbor’s keeper.  When we accept this vocation, the Holy Spirit will be constantly opening doors for you to live out Christ’s love in just about everything you do. 

I love the stories many of you have shared with me about our gift-giving ministries.  Several have said they had no idea what gifts to buy for their loved ones—so they chose to give a gift in their name to someone experiencing need.  I even learned of one person who lost someone special—so they are giving gifts in their memory.  What a beautiful gift of healing.

But it doesn’t need to stop with us!  We all see things happening in the world that anger and distress us, even if they don’t impact us directly.  Yet the Holy Spirit gives us the power to bring about real change.  We meet Jesus in the poor and forgotten—and accept the invitation to be their keeper; their defender; their advocate. 

Advent is dead if we do nothing, or if we sit around pointing fingers and blaming people for our troubles.  Advent is dead if we continue the mad pursuit of our own good.  Advent is the reality of Christ’s love taking hold of our private and public lives; transforming everything with mercy and forgiveness; empowering us and gathering us into the healing of the nations. 

Jesus is born within us and before us, when his love frees us to pursue our neighbor’s good.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Crowd Around the Word ~ Mark 1:1-9 ~ Second Sunday in Advent


What crowd is this who’s come from Jerusalem and all over the countryside?

What about this man—this “baptizer?”  He dresses like Barney Rubble and eats bugs… Why do they follow him (on foot) into the wilderness, miles away from civilization? Why do they listen?  Why do they allow him to baptize them in the murky waters of the Jordan River?

God must be up to something.  Here you have a crowd of people just like us, going through many of the same things we are.  They had duties and responsibilities like we do.  Many were undoubtedly experiencing pains and anxieties that tested their faith.  Some may have enjoyed great prosperity in life—but still, they lacked something that could not be found in power, privilege, and possessions.  Whether they realized or not, they needed a Word from God.  Today, God is speaking,

God knows how much we’re hurting and our world is hurting.  God hears the cries of God’s children; particularly those who are hungry, hurting, and forgotten.  God never acts in secret.  God pulls people in, to listen as God speaks, and to see what God is doing.   God pulls is in to transform our lives, so that God’s plan for your life may come to fruition. 

You are here today because God is speaking; speaking to lead you to Jesus Christ.

But the challenge before us is this: are we paying attention?

The tragic irony of Christmas in 21st century America is how easily we leave Jesus out of it.  Anymore, we spend nearly one-fourth of the year calendar rushing about; shopping, decorating, working, baking-- all to make for “the perfect Christmas.”  I’m constantly amazed by the things you can hire people to do for you to make the Christmas bright.  You can hire people to stand in lines to obtain those hot-selling gifts.  You can hire people to put Christmas lights on your house.  I recently met a woman who’ll wrap your gifts so beautifully that it would be a shame to open them up.  Her fee: $75 an hour (excluding gift-wrap materials).

For some, however, busyness isn’t the problem.  For some, this time of year only multiplies our sorrows and fears.

But whatever the case—Christ is born for this.  Christ is born for you. 

In this season of Advent, we are invited to listen as Jesus is calling.

Paying attention demands Sabbath—which comes only through a willingness to stop what we’re doing, lay side our plans, and be present before Christ.  He’s born into our lives in the baptismal waters.  He speaks through the Scriptures.  He gives his precious body and blood at the table.  But our gathering here is only the beginning.  Jesus will be going with you into daily life, taking all of your hurts and fears in hand.  He will be offering himself to you in the little gifts and the people who show you grace, even in your hardest days.  But Jesus will also be offering himself to you in the neighbor who’s lost, and hungry, and forgotten; who needs mercy and compassion…

God’s desire for you is nothing less than what we see in this short Gospel story—to bring you to Christ and completely transform your being.  John doesn’t eat bugs and dress like a caveman merely to make a statement…  The people don’t leave behind their lives and livelihoods for nothing…  This happens because God has drawn them into the salvation coming into the world through Jesus Christ.  To them, there is nothing better than knowing Jesus Christ, being born into their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, and abiding in them constantly by faith.  God is pulling you into Christ, for the very same reasons.  So pay attention and listen—because God hears your prayers and knows your aching for life that the world cannot bring.