Sunday, December 25, 2016

The War on Darkness: John 1:1-14 - Christmas Day

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (NRSV)
Candlelight by Pablo.  Creative commons image on flickr.

Nice companies are considered “Christmas-friendly.”  Their employees will wish you “Merry Christmas”  They include Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and (not surprisingly), the association’s very own online store

Naughty companies are those who use the term “Christmas” very sparingly, but do not recognize actually recognize Christmas.  These would include Staples, Dollar General, Victoria’s Secret, and (my former employer) Barnes & Noble. 

Here you have the battle royale in what is popularly known as “the War on Christmas.”  The enemy here is anyone who refuses to say “Merry Christmas” and/or who works to remove anything related to Jesus out of the public square. 

You can always wage war on Christmas, but can you really wage war on Christ?

Reading the New Testament, you know people certainly do try.  The religious authorities constantly harass and persecute Jesus until they successfully hand him over to the Roman authorities with the help of Judas Iscariot.  They crucified him but he didn’t stay dead.  Later, these same authorities would work to keep a lid on the early church, but to no avail. 

And it’s important to bear in mind that even Satan is unsuccessful in his attempts to lure Jesus into sin.  The demons see Jesus, and they run for the hills. 

In today’s Gospel, John speaks of Jesus in this way:
 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”

In other words, no one can successfully win a war against God taking on flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth.

You can reject Jesus as the Messiah; you can have his disciples put to death; you can make Christmas and Christianity illegal; but that’s as far as you can go.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it”

But how do you keep the faith when things are the way they are in the world?  I don’t know about you, but I see a whole lot of darkness… 
  • 62 million people around the world can be called refugees; particularly those fleeing war and butchery in Syria.
  • Employment is down, drug overdoses are up. 
  • The country is bitterly divided against itself in a number of ways, and we’re all anxious about what the new year will bring.

What’s more, is that Christmas brings you face-to-face with losses and hardships.  If it hurts, it always hurts worse at Christmas. 

No matter what you believe, darkness is real—and darkness makes it hard (if not impossible) to see God.

But this is why Jesus comes!  He comes into the darkness to be the light for all people.  God is revealing Jesus to you today, so that you will stake your life on the promise that the darkness cannot and will not overcome the true light.  In Christ, light is stronger than darkness, love stronger than hate, and life stronger than death.

This morning, God shines the light of Christ to you so that when Christmas is over and the strings of lights are taken down, you will see the light of Jesus out there, shining still…

Faith is crying out to Jesus in the darkness, confident that Jesus will light your way.  Faith means living in expectation for Jesus to come to you in your hour of greatest need.

But faith is also daring to go out into the darkness—because God’s children are out there, suffering.  Jesus sends you out to light you up with grace and love, which is how he eradicates darkness. 

After all, Jesus never said a word about people celebrating his birthday.  He was too busy loving the least and the lost.  He was too busy destroying darkness with God’s word of grace.

So maybe instead of trying to fight back the War on Christmas, we need to join Jesus in his war on darkness.  This is what Jesus was against—not people or beliefs, but darkness, despair, and death. 

This is the war Jesus wins—one prayer, one act of love at a time!

A Moment of Christmas: Luke 2:1-20 - Christmas Eve

shepherd by Reza Vaziri.  Creative commons image on flickr.
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
  and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Today is Christmas Eve.  So what’s on your wish list?  What are you hoping for?

At this point in my life, there’s nothing that I truly need to be waiting for me under our tree.

What I’d really love is to live in the world of Norman Rockwell and his paintings from the Saturday Evening Post.  What I love is the sense of community his paintings capture; of people finding joy in each other… His was a simple, but beautiful world for everyone.  Wouldn’t it be great to capture a moment like these and live in it forever? 

If only…

But Jesus was definitely not born into a Normal Rockwell world. 

The names Augustus and Quirinius would have brought fear and loathing into the hearts of anyone living within their territory.  This was especially true for Mary and Joseph, who are forced from their home by Augustus’s decree, to make the grueling ninety mile trip to Bethlehem, to be registered for taxes. All this with the Christ child due to be born at any minute.  Sure enough, the time came for her child to be delivered—but with no room in the inn, they are forced to take shelter in the most unsanitary and inhospitable of places.

Not even Normal Rockwell could have captured the fear and exhaustion they must have been feeling. Mary and Joseph had to keep the child—and themselves—safe.  God’s plan for the salvation of the world was resting in their care. 

Normal Rockwell could never have captured the lard life lived by the shepherds… It is impossible to imagine the misery they endured tending sheep round-the-clock, eating like animals, and living in caves and barns.  What’s worse is that shepherds were regarded as ignorant, crude, and filthy; the lowest form of life.  Yet these are the people God chooses, along with a poor young carpenter and his betrothed wife, to be the ones who will bear Jesus to the world. 

For a brief moment in time, amid all the hardships, the dangers, the exhaustion, and the unpleasant odors, God in flesh lies in a manger.  The miracle of the moment is God born into the pains and struggles of our humanity; living on this broken world; immersed in poverty, vulnerable to all the powers of evil. What a wonder to behold that God loves you so much as to live, suffer, and die with you.  Here is Jesus, who will claim you his own; cleanse you of sin, and raise you to new and everlasting life.

This is why the Holy Spirit brought you here tonight—to see back into two thousand years of history to meet God in the baby Jesus.  But you will not remain in this moment forever.  We will sing our songs, present our offerings, and feast on Christ’s body and blood given for you.  But then you will leave here.  Christmas Day will come and go, and life will return to normal.  The decorations will be taken down; the songs will cease; the gifts be put away.  But remember this—God has given you this night as a stepping stone back into the real world where Jesus is

This means that when there’s suffering and pain; fear and danger; Jesus is going to be there with you.  That’s a promise revealed not just in the manger but especially on the cross.  You will be given moments of Christmas where God’s love and faithfulness will be made real to you. 

Faith is God’s way of making it happen—and tonight, your teachers include the shepherds, who share the word with others of what God is doing.  Your teacher is Mary, who treasures and ponders all these wonders in her heart.  Your teacher, who listens to and obeys God.

Tonight, you are given the gift of the Christ child to bear to the world, just like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.  And it is in joining with others, bearing their burdens, meeting their needs; and loving unconditionally, that Christmas will happen again. 

Tonight, 42 million Americans will be going to bed hungry—that comes down to 1 in 7 people and 1 in 4 children.  God’s children hide in the shadows, tormented by addiction, abuse, mental illness, and imprisonment.  We’re living in a bitterly-divided nation, where hate is always bigger news than love. 

Everything we do here tonight will amount to little more than sentimental pageantry if we fail to heed the Spirit’s invitation to making moments of Christmas with God’s children.  There, Christ will be born in forgiveness and reconciliation, goodwill and peace-making, charity and grace.  By faith, God will lead you to moments even more beautiful than Christ’s birth as God’s love works even more miracles to bear Jesus to the world. 

For in the same way that we see God’s love lying in a manger, God’s love comes through ordinary people like you and me.  When there is love and grace, there is Christmas.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Christmas Dare: Matthew 11:2-11 - Third Sunday in Advent

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
 ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
  who will prepare your way before you.’
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (NRSV)
For many American children, Christmas day is the day when dreams come true—thanks, in large part, to good old Santa Claus.  But nine-year-old Aly’s thoughts were elsewhere…

She began to notice men and women standing at intersections, holding signs begging for whatever help they could get.

She couldn’t understand why people are homeless.  So she sat down and wrote a letter to Santa Claus:

Her plan is to create care packages and keep them in the family car—and whenever she sees someone homeless, she will give them one. 

I wish I could explain to her—and to you—why people are homeless and poor.  I can’t help but ask these questions, especially at Christmas time. 

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is also questioning: why?

Here was a man who lived in faithful obedience to God. He was “the voice crying out in the desert, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’”  People came from far and wide to be baptized into repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He personally baptized Jesus, and witnessed the Holy Spirit descending upon him as a dove. 

But now, John the Baptist is in prison. He had insulted the honor of King Herod, by proclaiming publicly that it was unlawful for him to have coveted his brother Philip’s wife, taking her as his own.

So John is questioning: if Jesus was the Messiah, why was he still in prison?  It was not unreasonable for John to have expected Jesus to overthrow corrupt and bloodthirsty rulers like Herod and establish God’s kingdom on earth.  That’s what a Messiah does, after all.  John needs to know: “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for somebody else?”

Speaking personally, I’m a little dumbfounded by Jesus’ answer to John’s messengers: he says, “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. 

So was Jesus letting John down?  Is Jesus letting you down?

For a long time, I’ve said, “if it hurts, it hurts worse at Christmas.”  There isn’t “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all.”  There’s pain, suffering, and evil.  What’s worse is the way our society sentimentalizes Christmas.  How will your Christmas compare to what you see on TV?  Will you have a brand-new luxury car in the driveway, with a giant red ribbon on the hood?  Will your children receive everything on their wish list?  Will your family be feasting and celebrating together, with everyone healthy and happy?

I wish Christmastime could be for everyone the way we see it on TV.  If it’s that way for you, give thanks to God!  But if you’re feeling more like John the Baptist, know that you are in very good company.  You’re in company with Mary and Joseph, who are uprooted from their homes at the time of Jesus’ birth—only to spend the next several years as refugees in Egypt, because Herod was determined to kill the one who was born the king of the Jews (this would be Herod the Great, the father of the Herod imprisoning John the Baptist).  Life was no better for the shepherds, and even the Magi.  It wasn’t just curiosity that drew the Magi to Bethlehem.  

Jesus focuses his ministry upon the blind, the lame, the ill, the deaf, the dead, and the poor.

So don’t look for Jesus in presents under the tree. The Christmas “holiday” is for those who have the time, the means, and the desire to make merry and celebrate, for any reason they choose.  Jesus, on the other hand, is for the broken, the bound, and the helpless.  He is born amid the struggles and fears of our human existence—and he comes to save you from within them.

Seek Jesus in the hospitals and nursing homes; in the prisons and the shelters; in the food banks and clothing closets.  Look for him out in the streets, with the first responders, and the soldiers stationed far away.  Look for Jesus in whatever is hurting you or troubling you the most.

You will always have questions and doubts about Jesus, just like John did.  But if it’s Jesus you want to see this Christmas, do what Aly is going to be doing. Think of it as the Christmas dare: engage in a little hope-filled defiance of whatever is troubling or hurting you at Christmas.  Defy whatever is haunting and tormenting God’s people.  Ultimately, it is ordinary people like you—and ordinary children like Aly—who are the most powerful signs that Jesus is in the world.  This is what our world needs at Christmas—not more things; but more people who bear the love of and life of Jesus to the world. 

Peace on earth and goodwill is not something we get, but is what we give from Jesus Christ to each other.