Monday, December 24, 2018

Something To Write Home About: Luke 2:1-20 - Nativity of Our Lord

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!”
  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.
Shepherds by John August Swanson.

If there’s one thing that’s sure to sour the Christmas spirit, it’s the dreaded Christmas brag letter sent by a relative, friend, or co-worker.

In the space of just one year, they are once again “blessed” with dizzying upward mobility and financial success. The kids get showered with academic honors and first-prize trophies. Once again, they’ve moved into an even bigger house, bought multiple expensive cars, and gone on several exotic vacations. The only thing that ever seems to go wrong is that there aren’t enough days in the year to accumulate even more “blessings.”

And then you look at your life…  You could write a letter about what’s happened in your family, except that you’re not the kind of person who wants people to feel sorry for you.

If that’s how your year has been, you’re certainly not alone. A shepherd in Jesus’ day certainly didn’t have an easy life. Slaves had life easier than they did, since they slept with a roof over their heads. Shepherds, on the other hand, lived outdoors. They faced constant dangers of disease, malnutrition, bad weather, wild animal attacks, and armed bandits.  They were constantly counting the sheep and going out after strays. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, shepherds were held in very low regard by the rest of society. Many would graze their sheep on other people’s lands. They didn’t observe the sabbath (because they couldn’t), and their personal hygiene was equal to that of the sheep.

When it came to choosing the people who’d be the first to meet the baby Jesus as the Savior of the world, God was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And I doubt very much that Mary and Joseph would’ve expected (or wanted) to be visited by a bunch of filthy shepherds they’d never met. But nothing this night is happening by accident…

Constantly, throughout the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of God’s promise to raise up a righteous shepherd to rule God’s people (Jeremiah 23:4-6). Jesus himself will say, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.” So it’s no coincidence that God is sending shepherds to greet the Shepherd.

The prophet Ezekiel foretold the coming of the one true shepherd who would feed God’s people (34:23). Sure enough, they find the newborn shepherd lying in feeding trough.

Then, they begin to speak about what they’d seen and heard. Imagine what that was like for Mary and Joseph, who’d been through so much over the last several months—the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the visits from angels, the exhausting journey to Bethlehem, taking shelter in a smelly space more suited for animals than human beings. The shepherds are a powerful sign that it truly is God who is wrapped in bands of cloth. And don’t think for a second that other people were not present. If there was “no room in the inn,” it had to be because the town was packed with people. Surely, they, too sensed the miracle of the moment—by what they saw in the manger and by what they heard from the shepherds.

Jesus naturally brings people together. The presence of neighbors, shepherds, and (later) the Magi help to magnify the presence of God in this tiny child. The Word was taking on flesh and dwelling among us. He is Emmanuel: God with us.

The reason why we celebrate this 2,000-year-old event is because God has stepped out of heaven to be in relationship with people. And he comes to make his blessings known in the times and situations where you’d least expect him: when you are fragile and vulnerable like he was on the night. And he is specifically choosing to reveal his presence among those who are the least and lowliest of the world, for whom life is struggle. He makes his home among those who know no home. He belongs with those who know no belonging. And above all else, he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

But we need each other for Jesus to become real to us. If you try and go at the Christian life alone, Jesus will be little more than a good story. But in your coming together, we help each other to see that it is Jesus who is present amid the challenges, the heartbreaks, as well as the blessings.  If you want to know the presence of God, pray with someone. Talk about what Jesus has done for you. Be gracious to a neighbor in need. Seek forgiveness and give it. Seek peace and pursue it. But look for Jesus to show up in the people who show you kindness and mercy when you least expect it—and when you need it most.

The reason why it’s so important to feast on his flesh and feast on his Word is so that you will know where to look for him and be ready when he shows up. And more often than not, the angels Jesus sends will be the people you live among.

With Jesus in your life, you will certainly have much to talk about. Your friends and relatives will continue to write their brag letters, but you will be a modern-day shepherd, bearing glad tidings of great joy for all people. And Jesus is not some magic genie who grants our wishes in return for our faith and good deeds.

He’s the Good Shepherd who seeks out lost and returns them to the fold. He’sHe’s the baby who’s born into all of the hardships and impossible circumstances that come our way in life. He brings light into our darkness and peace into our pain. He’s the one who makes a way when there is no way. He lays down his life for the sheep. This Jesus is sure to give you something to talk about.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Singing Salvation: Luke 1:39-55 - Fourth Sunday of Advent

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” [
46And Mary said,
 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
  and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
  from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
  he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
  and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
  in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
  to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (NRSV)

“You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch
You really are a heel
You're as cuddly as a cactus
You're as charming as an eel
Mr. Grinch
You're a bad banana with a greasy black peel!”

Yet something unexpected happens after the Grinch successfully completes his dastardly deeds: all the Whos in Whoville are singing. Christmas, he finds, cannot be stolen at all…

And it isn’t just in a Dr. Seuss book that we find people singing at the most inopportune times… In Acts 16, the apostles Paul and Silas sang in prison, after having driven a demon out of a slave girl. Many of our most-loved hymns are the spirituals sung by slaves as they toiled in the cotton fields. In 1914, the armies fighting against each other in WW1 put down their guns and sang Christmas carols together in what is remembered as the Christmas Truce. I can remember singing the Navy Hymn in church the Sunday after 9/11. Two weeks ago, Melville Reed’s granddaughter sang Amazing Grace a capella in the funeral home, and there was not a dry eye in the house.

Mary and her relative Elizabeth come together in a time of great personal crisis for both of them. Mary was told she would be bearing a child out of wedlock, conceived by the Holy Spirit; Elizabeth was bearing a child in old age, and she was said to be barren. As soon as Mary shows up, the child “leaps for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb. Mary begins to sing. Could it be that even John the Baptist is singing and dancing in his mother’s womb? When these two women came together, God gave them hope and affirmation. God’s promises were being fulfilled.

And I’d love to say that it will be smooth sailing for both women from here on out—but we know better. Nevertheless, in this moment, they are singing the salvation of God.

So what place does singing have in your walk with God?

I’ve sung in church for my entire life—and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it. Nevertheless, I always sang because everyone else was. It was expected of me. If I didn’t, people would think something was wrong with me.

Sometimes, however, you just don’t feel like singing. Perhaps you don’t know the song. Or you’re not feeling what everyone else is feeling in that moment. You may be in the same building with them, but they’re in a different world.

If you can’t read music, or you sing about as well as those people who get laughed out of their auditions on American Idol, you may be inclined to not sing. There is this unspoken rule that if you can’t sing, you shouldn’t—and that’s not exclusive to the church. We make fun of people who sing in the shower or alone in the car.

Sometimes, I blame the music for not wanting to sing. I personally think the creators of our hymnal have a lot to answer for. Far too many of the hymns and liturgical music is un-sing-able, in my opinion. You either can’t sing the tune, or the words don’t make sense. Or it all makes you feel like you’re at a funeral…when you’re not.

But my favorite occasions to sing are at Camp Lutherlyn and Vacation Bible School—because the music draws everyone in. The songs, the fellowship, and the occasion are naturally conducive to worship. And it doesn’t matter about your singing ability. If you don’t know the song, you want to learn it. Your emotions get lost in the music. Your body is animated.

This happened in a very powerful way last Sunday at the nursing home. About fifteen of us came and sing to the twenty or so residents. By the time we finished singing our first song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, everyone was smiling and singing along to all the familiar favorites. When we finished, a worker told me that one of the residents was alert, conversational, and smiling—which was not normal for her. No one had heard her speak a word in months. How is this any different than unborn babies leaping in the womb or a frightened young woman bursting into song?

When it comes to the Christian life and the Church, singing isn’t something you do. It’s what happens to you when God shows up and God’s love is shared.

The challenge for us, then, is to rethink how we use this gift of music—taking a cue from our Christmas caroling; from Church Camp; from Vacation Bible School.

Is everyone who feels called to sing given the opportunity? How excited are we about the songs we sing? How can we use music to connect to new generations? How can we use music to care for the hurting?

Music isn’t entertainment; nor is it a chore; it is a gift. We sing when we’re scared; we sing when we’re sad; we sing when we’re discouraged; and we sing when we’re glad. As Christians, we sing because Christ is alive in us. We sing because we can. We sing because we can’t not. God transforms fear into faith; despondence into confidence; despair into hope; repression into resistance; conflict into peace.

God has given us much to sing about in Jesus Christ. Our sins are washed away and we are reconciled to God. Our prayers are being heard and God is working through our trials for our deliverance. Death and evil are not going to have the last word. And song is one of God’s greatest gifts for us to live in hope and anticipation of the promises that God is going to keep. It’s one of God’s greatest gifts to bind us together and share this hope with a troubled world. We sing because Jesus is Emmanuel; God with us.