Thursday, December 24, 2015

One for the Children: Isaiah 9:2-7 - The Nativity of Our Lord

Christmas Eve 1928 by Don O'Brien.  Creative commons image on flickr
2The people who walked in darkness
  have seen a great light;
 those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
  on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
  you have increased its joy;
 they rejoice before you
  as with joy at the harvest,
  as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
  and the bar across their shoulders,
  the rod of their oppressor,
  you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
  and all the garments rolled in blood
  shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
  a son given to us;
 authority rests upon his shoulders;
  and he is named
 Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
  and there shall be endless peace
 for the throne of David and his kingdom.
  He will establish and uphold it
 with justice and with righteousness
  from this time onward and forevermore.
 The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
We say “rules are made to be broken…”  If that’s true, I will also say “signs are made to be ignored.”

Maybe it’s because signs are confusing or misleading…  Maybe it’s because they’re downright wrong.  But maybe we’re the problem.  The truth we need is literally staring us in the face, and we take no notice of it…

This begs the question: what kind of a sign is a baby in a manger?  Angels appear to the shepherds in the fields, and tell them that this is the sign that God has given the world a Savior.  The heavens are torn open, a multitude of heavenly host sings praises to God—and then they disappear.  The shepherds set out, and amazingly, they see what they were promised.  But there was no fanfare here; just a newborn baby lying in a manger before his parents.

Go back several hundred years to the prophet Isaiah, and he speaks of the very same sign: a baby.  In the Old Testament, God’s signs were earthquakes, peals of thunder and lightning, pillars of cloud and fire.  But now, the sign is something that happens every single day. 

So what sign do we have that Jesus is in the world?  That salvation has come?  Is God doing something to make our gathering here tonight anything more than a glorified birthday party?

We need to go back into the Bible and see that during the history of God’s people, usually when circumstances were at their worst, God would shatter the darkness by the birth of a baby.  For Sarah and Abraham, it was Isaac.  For the Israelites in Egypt, it was Moses.  During the dark ages of the judges, it was Samuel.  First in the New Testament is John the Baptist.  And now, Jesus—lying in the cold darkness of the manger, among the stench of the animals and the shepherds, in the shadow of the evil political, social, and religious empires that would oppose him.  God is a helpless and fragile little baby. 

It will be another thirty years before Jesus begins his ministry and fulfills all things necessary for our salvation.  In the meantime, God’s salvation will be fulfilled through the faithful obedience of Mary and Joseph; the faithful testimony of the shepherds and the Magi; and through many others we will never know about…  Without them, there’d be proclamation of God’s truth; no cross, no resurrection, no Church, no new life. 

So now I go back to my prior question: what sign do we have that Jesus is in the world?  The answer is simple: little children.  They are signs of new life from God.  They are the future.  But they are weak.  They are vulnerable.  They are completely dependent.  They will be nothing apart the faithful, loving care of those of us who are not children. 

For as much as we love our children and celebrate their births, the future has never been more bleak for the generations that will follow us.  Will they have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, or fertile fields a stable climate for their crops?  Will they have safe and effective schools that will form them into productive members of society?  Right now, half of the children in our community experience food insecurity.  Drugs and violence infest and streets.  There’s nowhere to go for fun and recreation.  Our children need families, friends, and neighbors to love and look after them.  They need to feel safe.  They need to eat!  And—they need churches where they can learn life’s most important truths; be loved unconditionally, and know beyond the shadow of a doubt how much they matter to God.  They need people like us to shepherd them to Jesus Christ.

Christmas is for children.  But our celebrations tonight are little more than pointless pageantry unless we commit ourselves to nurturing and loving our children, just as Mary and Joseph did for Jesus.  As the body of Christ, we are parents and shepherds to all God’s children.  We become the signs of God’s loving care to our children, just as they are signs from God to us. 

It’s hard to be a child right now.  It’s hard to be a parent and a grandparent; a teacher; a mentor; a neighbor.  But it is totally within our grasp to make life beautiful for them—and empower them to build a better world for their children.  Let us do everything in our power to see to it that the generations to come will journey to Bethlehem as we do tonight, to behold God’s salvation wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.  Because: Christmas is for children.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

An Advent to Remember: Luke 3:1-6 - Second Sunday of Advent

jordan river by Eli Duke.  Creative Commons image on flickr
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
 “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
  and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
 and the crooked shall be made straight,
  and the rough ways made smooth;

6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
How are you going to remember this Christmas?  What’s going to make 2015 stand out in your memory?

For me, Elizabeth, and Becca, we’ll remember this as our first Christmas together as a family.  For many, this Christmas will be marked by the celebration of new births, marriages, or adoptions.

On the other hand, many others will remember it as the first without a loved one.  It will be remembered by the ATI lockout, or for the economic hardships affecting so many.  This Christmas will arrive on the heels of the worst refugee crisis since WW2.  All over the world, people have no food, no place to go, nowhere to belong.

If we think our times are tough, we can only imagine how difficult the times must have been when John the Baptist began his ministry.  We know that simply by the names that Luke drops at the beginning of today’s Gospel:
[It was] “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”

These weren’t nice men.  They wielded power and privilege through force, enslavement, and murder.  The mere mention of these names stoked fear and foreboding in the hearts of most people.

But in the shadows of these great evils, a man receives the Word of the Lord in the wilderness.  His name is John, son of Zechariah.  He goes all throughout “the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Through John, God speaks—and people listen.  God begins turning the tide against evil, though not in the way you’d expect it.  It all starts with the ordinary people who hear God’s Word; who receive the gift of baptism, who are then radically transformed by God’s saving grace (what we call repentance).   These are the ones who will see the salvation of God, by faith.  These are the ones who will see beyond their fears to the God who loves them. 

Let’s be clear: the bloodthirsty rulers won’t be going anywhere.  They’ll all die eventually, and be replaced by men who are every bit as ruthless. 

Things are no different for us.  Who wouldn’t rejoice to see ISIS lay down their weapons and become a massive humanitarian force?  Who wouldn’t celebrate a cure for cancer?  Who wouldn’t love to see the mills and factories throw open their doors and offer safe and meaningful work to everyone who needs it?

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but these aren’t going to happen, at least not in the short run…

Yet today, God’s Word announces that suffering, pain, and evil will end.  The world will be at peace.  We’re not there yet.  But God’s salvation is for now.    Salvation begins with the forgiveness of sins liberating us from our sin and turning to our God.  Today, death and evil have no ultimate power over us.  The Lord is come.

The challenge before us then is to prepare ourselves and our lives to receive this salvation; something that will not happen if we continue on as usual, losing ourselves in the chaos of what Christmas has come to be about in our society.  And let’s be frank—if we think Christmas is all about the glory of fancy presents and family togetherness like we see on TV, we’re all going to find ourselves disappointed sooner or later…

We need a wilderness place like John the Baptist had; a place of quiet communion of prayer and study of God’s Word, so that God may speak.  But we also need to be every bit as ready to be changed.  God’s will is for you and I to be filled to the full with God’s saving grace.  This will hardly mean a return to business as usual.  Instead, we are sent back into the world so that God’s grace to us may overflow to our neighbors “who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death…”

We’ll all remember this Christmas for the things that happen to us, be they good or bad.  But this time of Advent is a time for us to be made ready for what Christ’s birth is meant to be.  God’s love comes to you wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger…  God’s love comes nailed to a tree.  God’s love comes in a Savior who hears your prayers and dwells with you by faith.

So will this be the Christmas that your faith is born anew?  Where you experience his presence like never before?

Will this be the Christmas when someone sees the love of Jesus because of you? 

Will this be the Christmas that hope and the peace that passes understanding overshadows the pains of the year past and the fears of the year to come?

So let us pray God’s grace to make this an Advent to Remember, for God’s will to be done, that we see the salvation of God.