Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Dashing the Darkness: Luke 2:1-20 - The 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!”
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. 20
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
Christmas 2017 Lawrence OP on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 
About two weeks ago, my mom called me and asked, “what would you like me to cook for Christmas dinner?”

I didn’t need to think about my answer. I immediately said, “the same things you always cook! Honeybaked Ham. Broccoli and Cheese Casserole. Strawberry Pretzel Salad. Pumpkin Pie”

Why? Because rule #1 at Christmas is: “we’ve always done it this way.” In no other occasion is tradition more important than at Christmas. There’s a sacredness to the foods we eat, the Christmas trees and decorations, the places we go, the people we see—and even the dates and times we choose to do them. We go to great lengths to keep things the way they’ve always been.

Nostalgia is the name of the game. That’s the reason why most of the Christmas carols playing on the radio are from the past; and why TV stations will broadcast one single movie round-the-clock. That’s the reason why they sell little ceramic houses and buildings modeled after the Victorian Era, instead Starbucks or Dollar General. Nostalgia makes us feel good. And yet, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice by looking to the past for the comfort and joy we all long for.

If something or someone is missing this Christmas, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
We call it “the most wonderful time of the year,” but it’s not very wonderful for you if you’ve lost a loved one, if you’ve lost a job or your home, or you can’t afford to buy gifts this year. Maybe, Christmastime has never been wonderful to you. All that Christmastime does for you is dig up painful memories that you’d much rather forget.

But don’t forget that all was neither merry nor bright on the night God came to earth. Jesus was born into a world where the darkness was even more foreboding than the darkness we face today. God’s people were captives of the godless, brutal Roman emperor. His lust for more power sent Mary and Joseph are on a grueling 90-mile journey to Bethlehem, with a baby due at any moment. When the time came for Jesus to be born, the world refused to make room for him. Perhaps because his parents could not buy their way in, or because people didn’t want their night to be disrupted by strangers about to have a baby.

God could have chosen a birthplace of comfort, privilege, and prestige for Jesus; but instead God chose poverty, hardship, struggle, and pain. God said yes to entering this world in a cold, smelly, unsanitary manger. And God chose some shepherds; people who were regarded as the scum of the earth, to be the first to greet the savior of the world. Suddenly, amid the darkness, difficulty, and despair, there was light. God breaks the darkness by showing up. And on that Holy Night, heaven and nature sang out the praises to the God who brings light into our darkness.

There’s something about the light shining the darkness: it’s difficult to see him for who he is when many other things in life are bright. You’re not seeking light when everything’s going your way. So many attempt to light up their lives with possessions and personal success; prosperity and popularity, and to an extent, they succeed. But what happens when those lights go out?

So many believe that for the future to bright, you need to recreate the past. But Jesus doesn’t save us by remaining an infant and sleeping forever in the manger. Jesus grows up and goes out to bring God’s light to all those who dwell in darkness: the helpless, the poor, and the forgotten. Ultimately Jesus will die in a manner not all that inconsistent from the manner of his birth: despised, rejected, and humiliated. We will reject his light and bury it in a tomb. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

I wish I could tell you that Christ’s birth made everything better for Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. But we all know better. The shepherds will return to their flocks and fields. Mary and Joseph will take the baby Jesus and vacate the manger. Called by God to nurse, feed, clothe, shelter, raise, and educate Jesus—they will face many dangers, toils, and snares. Instead of going home, Mary and Joseph will be forced to live for years as refugees in Egypt. But God will light their way in Jesus Christ.

So on this Christmas Eve, what is the darkness you dread? With 2020 just a week away, what fears and worries are weighing you down? Name these things—because these are where Christ will be your light.

While you’re at it, where do you see darkness? Who needs the light you can bring? Who can you bless with forgiveness? Whose hunger can you bless with bread? Whose loneliness can you bless with your presence?

Christmas comes and Christmas goes, but you won’t find Jesus at the manger. That was only true 2,000 years ago. You will find him here, in our worship—as he feeds you his body and blood. He will go with you when you depart this place, and into the darkness you dread. He will be your light when the future looks bleak. And he is the light you will shine, wherever God’s love takes you. Always remember: the light of Christ doesn’t shine behind you; it shines before you.

We who put our faith in Christ need not fear the darkness, when it comes, and however it comes. God breaks the darkness by showing up. No matter what, “the light will in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.”

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Call of Emmanuel: Matthew 1:13-25 - Fourth Sunday of Advent

38\365 by Mando Photo on Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
  and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25
but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)

The other day, our daughter asked about this magnet on our refrigerator.

At one time, I had about a dozen of these—because they were being handed out like religious tracts on my college campus.

The man in the picture is the retired professional wrestler and 80’s television tough guy Mr. T, who’s advertising 1-800 COLLECT.

I entered college just prior to the proliferation of cell phones. So for us, if you wanted to call home, you had three choices: you could pump quarters into a pay phone; use a prepaid calling card; or, call collect.  You dialed 0, or an 800 number to a collect calling service, stated your name and the number you’d like to call, and the system would dial the number, giving the person you’re dialing the option to accept or decline the charges to receive your call.

God is not like 1-800 COLLECT. You don’t get the option to decline a call. Anyone who does ends up in the belly of a whale.

Mary and Joseph are two in a long line of persons dating back to Genesis who are called by God to essentially carry the weight of God’s salvation upon their own shoulders. (Or, in Mary’s case, inside her own body.)

And I have to say, I feel for this young couple. They’re about to enter a marriage that would’ve been arranged for them. In those days, marriage was not about love but about obligation. There’s a very real possibility they may have barely known each other. They may not have even wanted to get married.

At the very least, they had some sense as to what the future held—until an angel visited Mary at night. I can’t imagine how frightened Mary must have been—and how shocked and horrified Joseph must have been. Joseph had made up his mind to quietly divorce Mary, until an angel intervenes. Joseph ultimately takes Mary as his wife and names the child Jesus.

And we all know what happens next—the long journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the years of living as refugees in Egypt; not to mention the gargantuan responsibility of nursing, feeding, housing, raising, protecting, and educating this child “who will save his people from their sins.” God laid the weight of the world’s salvation in the arms that held this tiny, fragile, helpless baby.

Still, you wonder: why Mary and Joseph? Weren’t their lives complicated enough? Couldn’t God have found a better and easier way that wouldn’t have turned their lives upside down? Couldn’t God have called someone else who was already married, for whom this duty wouldn’t be such a burden? Like I said, I feel bad for Mary and Joseph.

And why come to earth as a baby? Couldn’t God have just dropped Jesus on earth as a full-grown adult? And finally, couldn’t have God found an easier way to save people from their sins besides Jesus dying on a cross?

In Mary and Joseph, we see how costly God’s call can be. God has a way of interrupting lives and calling people to bear extreme burdens and make extreme sacrifices. There are always risks, uncertainties and dangers—and God never sends people down the path of least resistance. You have no say in what you will do or how you will get it done.

Furthermore, God always calls the people you’d consider to be least qualified for such service. Mary and Joseph are no exception. Sure, we are told that Joseph is a righteous man—and we know that Mary is eager to do God’s will. But the Bible isn’t telling us how good and faithful Mary and Joseph were. This is a story about how good and faithful God is. Before Christ was conceived in Mary’s womb, the Holy Spirit conceived faith in her heart—and Joseph’s heart. This is why, despite their shock, their confusion, and their fear, they obey. It is the Holy Spirit who creates the obedience of faith, through which God acts.

God doesn’t call you to test your faith and make you prove your worth. When God calls you, and you obey that call and trust in God’s faithfulness, you will see how good and faithful God is.
No one can do anything of importance to God without God’s help.

Mary and Joseph are at the start of a roller coaster ride that will take them all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. And I’m sure, because they are human, they’re going to be scared; they’re going to have doubts; they’re going to feel like God has failed them. But the ultimate gift of God’s call is summed up the name Emmanuel—God with us; and the name Jesus—God saves. Trust and obey, and God will be all these things.

God’s call is more than just obeying orders; it’s a call to go with God and be with God as God saves. It’s a call to both live in and live out God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace. It’s not a life of riches or glory, but a life of hope.

In the same way that God called Mary and Joseph, God calls you so that God can be true to who God is in Christ: God with us, who saves. The obedience of faith: trusting in who God is, looking forward to who God will be, and moving forward in confidence and hope.

God calls you through your longings; through your pains; through your heart’s desires for what only God can give you. God calls you where you see pain and suffering in the world, and you feel that pull to do something. Even when your faith is as small as a mustard seed—and you’re willing to hope against hope that God’s love must win, and you believe that with God’s help, God can make it happen. The God who is with you will be the God who saves.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

What to Expect When You're Expecting a Savior: Matthew 3:1-12 - Second Sunday of Advent

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
 “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight.’ ”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (NRSV)

This past summer, I passed by a billboard on my way to work that read: What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Teenager.

It depicted a dad hanging over the car keys to his excited teenage daughter. Given that I’ve been teaching our daughter to drive, this hit very close to home. I can think of nothing more intimidating for the parent of a teenager than this.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how much my life has changed—and how much I have changed—since becoming a parent. I could easily spend the next fifteen minutes describing how much my priorities have changed; how much my personality has changed; and even how much my mindset has changed. Parenthood is one of a several life passages that changes you in ways you couldn’t have possibly imagined. What things have happened to you—or what decisions have you made—that radically changed you and your outlook on life?

John the Baptist was sent by God to announce the most significant event in human history—the coming of Christ, the Son of God, into the world. There is no single event, since the beginning of time, that has impacted humankind as much as Jesus. Given that, I consider John’s beastly appearance and rather abrasive speech as being rather appropriate—because Jesus will be turning the world upside down.

Just consider the way he speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came for baptism: you’d think he’d be welcoming them with open arms—as opposed to calling them the brood of vipers. If we spoke such words to persons seeking baptism, I guarantee we wouldn’t ever baptize again.

But there’s a method to this madness: baptism isn’t just ritual and tradition. You are crucified with Christ. You die to sin and self. Think of our baptismal font as a tombstone for sinners who died with Christ, right here.

Christ is born as savior, but he is also born as judge—and it is only through his judgment, as terrifying as it is, that his plan of salvation can be fulfilled. God’s judgment destroys the power of sin—and we all need that. The world needs that. God’s judgment is a blazing fire consuming everything that stands in the way of Christ’s life from flourishing in you.

This is not an easy subject to talk about—and yet we cannot afford to take God’s judgment lightly. Minimize or ignore God’s judgment, and you devalue God’s mercies and grace; you reject God’s purposes.

The problem with Christmas is that Christ has practically nothing to do with our celebration. It’s become the high holy day for worshipping the almighty dollar, which buys things that make life good. We treat the manger as a petting zoo. We celebrate the baby Jesus but give no thought to his teachings, his cross, and the reasons why he was born in the first place. We welcome him to the world with little thought to how much he’s going to change that world—and us along with it.

Repentance is what we call that radical transformation that Christ accomplishes in you through both his judgment and his saving grace. Do you want to know how dramatic the change Christ can accomplish in you? It’s as big as the wolf giving up predation and living peacefully with the lamb; it’s the little child gleefully playing hide-and-seek with the snake. Christ gives you a new heart, a new mind, and a new way of life. But it’s up to you to embrace it—and this is where it gets tricky.

For some, the mere mention of judgment is terrifying. For others, the mention of judgment stirs up fierce resistance—because they don’t want their mind to change or their life to change, unless they choose it. For others, the mention of judgment stirs up arrogance—because they think that repentance only applies to other people, not themselves. They think they’ve got it all figured out.

There’s an old saying that the Gospel exists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That describes John the Baptist’s ministry—and Jesus’—almost perfectly. Life in the world will never be the same when God steps into the world in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, if you are frightened by the state of this world, there’s good news.

If you are wearied and worn by the losses, challenges, and changes of life, there’s good news.

If you’re and you are among those crying out for food and shelter, peace, and justice, there’s good news.

If you know there’s a better way to live than the life you’ve been living, there’s good news.

If you messed up, given up, and hit rock bottom, there’s good news.

Christ has come, and his judgment and grace, working in tandem, are going to change you and your world in ways you can’t possibly imagine. It won’t always be pretty and painless, because new life isn’t without birth pangs. God’s judgment is not bad news, because Christ was not born to condemn you to hell! He was born to make a new creation. God’s judgment and grace work in losses, in trials, and in discipline so that new life can flourish in you. God’s judgment and grace free you from sin and death; something you cannot do on your own.

So what should you expect when you’re expecting a savior? You are going to change so much that someday, you won’t even recognize who you are today. But you will recognize Jesus in new and awesome ways as he lives through you, winning victories for life and love.