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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rekindle the Light (Luke 2:1-20)

In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I heard an interview on NPR this week with Robert Sirleaf, who is the third son of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I was interested in the story for several reasons. First, President Sirleaf is a United Methodist; I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, TX. Second, her son, Robert, who was being interviewed, lived most of his adult life here in Charlotte. He was an investment banker with Wachovia until his retirement in 2008. His children grew up here. Though he has moved to Liberia to serve as an advisor to his mother, he still owns a home in north Charlotte.

Third, our congregation has very close connections to Liberia – our own Lafayette Diggs served as an ambassador for Liberia, first to Nigeria, and then to the United Nations. His wife, Otterlee has moved back to Liberia to assist with ministries for improving education and healthcare in their homeland, though we are happy to have her back “home” with us tonight.

And so, for these obvious reasons, I was very interested in the story. At one point, the interviewer asked Robert Sirleaf to make a comparison between the political systems of this country and Liberia. He drew a deep breath, paused, and said, “Well, it’s hard to make such a comparison, because the contexts are so different. The basic, fundamental issues on people’s minds are different. For instance, in parts of Liberia, there are children who have never seen light. Our job is to change that.”

There are children who have never seen light. Our job is to change that. I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like Christmas to me. Because, the world, without God, can be a very dark place. Without God, we are a people walking in darkness. But all that changes on Christmas with the birth of Jesus in our world. Two thousand years ago, heaven reached down and cradled the earth. The bright star over Bethlehem announced to all that the babe born there was the light of the world – the one who would liberate all the world from the powers of darkness, despondency, and despair and bring hope and wonder to us all.

I have been very impressed with some of the Christmas light displays I have seen this year; there are people who seem to go all out each year, and then the next year, they go just a little further. It is beautiful to see all those little lights piercing through the darkness; you can’t help but be cheerful in seeing that! Everyone loves Christmas lights. We all may have different preferences about the lights. White lights or colored lights? Flashing, chasing, twinkling, or steady? Big bulbs or mini lights or LED lights? I got married this year; Ashley grew up in North Carolina and I grew up in New York and it was our first Christmas decorating together and guess what; she and I have different opinions about which lights, and particularly which color, or non-color, lights should go where. But even though we all have different preferences, there is fundamentally something incredibly joyful about those lights.

When young children watch those lights, they do so with awe, wonder, and joy. There is something wondrous and profound about all those lights piercing through the darkness. And watching children approach the lights, I realize that we are supposed to approach the Christchild in the same way. There is something wondrous and profound about the holy light of God piercing its way through the darkness.

As far back as Creation, God has always been piercing through the darkness with light. Think about what happened first in Creation. It was dark. God was sitting in the dark, we’re talking pitch-dark, can’t-see-your-Divine-hand-in-front-of-your-face-dark, and God had this thought. This divine idea went off in God’s head, and that spark of God’s imagination was unleashed on the darkness, and God said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and BANG! There was light. And God saw that the light was good (Genesis 1:4).

At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus as the very presence of God born into the otherwise depressing darkness of our human existence – “true God of true God, light from light eternal,” as we sang earlier in this worship service. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the fullness of God’s divine glory dwelling among us as one of us – showing us the extent of God’s great love for us and the lengths to which God is willing to go just to offer us life and light.

The Christmas message is this – it is always this: no darkness can overcome the holy and healing light of Jesus. This is the good news of great joy and it is for all people; all people, including you. The light shines for you. Whatever is dark in your life, hold fast to God’s healing and holy light that comes in the hope-filled birth of the Christchild.

What good news this is! Is it any wonder, then, that the prophet Isaiah, whose words we read just a few moments ago, would prophecy: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7). That prophecy would be fulfilled at Jesus’ birth, as a chorus of angels would gather above the Judean hills proclaiming the good news to those unsuspecting shepherds hanging out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks on the night shift: Good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

Don’t miss the profundity of this message. For at the birth of Jesus, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:7). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). We should hear the message of the angels, the good news they proclaimed with their beautiful feet upon the hills near Bethlehem, of a Savior, a Christ, who is God-come-to-earth, the righter of wrongs, the liberator of the oppressed, the defeater of death – we should hear that message and like so many Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, join hands and give glory to God, one-and-all. Glory to God, because at Christmas, in the presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the powers of sin and evil and darkness in all their shadowy forms are no longer running the show.

Darkness shall yield to light. In the birth of Jesus, God has looked all the powers of evil, darkness, despondency, and despair – God has looked them square in the face and said, “Checkmate!” “Game over!” “Lights on!”

Darkness just hasn’t gotten the memo yet. And so, you’ll still find it – creeping around, stirring up trouble, and holding people hostage in its clutches. Darkness is stubborn. Darkness wants nothing more than to keep the lights from ever being turned on, and so, there are some of God’s children who have never seen light. God’s passion is to change that, and at Christmas, as Jesus is born, that change becomes a reality.

Go back to our Creation story for a moment. Just a bit further into Genesis, God has this other thought: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). It would seem we are made in the image of the Bringer of Light. We were created in the image, the likeness of God, and with the birth of the Christchild, that image is restored, for in Jesus we see who we were meant to be all along. We are made in the image of the One who delights in the light.

So yes, there are still children who have never seen light, but you and I were made to share and delight in the light, which means there is still much work for us to do. Friends, please don’t miss the point of all that is done here tonight – don’t simply gather to sing some carols and light some candles and do all that and still miss the point! Don’t just go home and keep all that good news for yourself!

Rather, be like Mary, who treasures and ponders all these things in her heart. Be like Joseph, who welcomes the mystery even when he doesn’t understand it. Be like the angels, whose beautiful feet were upon the mountains as they said to those who were afraid, “Fear not.” Be like the shepherds, utterly unable to keep their mouths shut, glorifying and praising God so loudly they surely woke the neighbors.

Tonight we light candles – all sharing a common flame that will be lit from the center candle on the Advent wreath, the Christ candle, signifying our welcome of Jesus as the Light of the World. You will watch as the light spreads – person to person, and slowly, that soft and holy light will fill this room. None of us is the light’s final destination; the light is given to each of us in order that we share it.

Friends, Jesus’ birth is good news to us because he scatters our darkness. And then we, followers of the Light of the World, take God’s light and shine it in all the dark hearts and places we encounter along the way, and in so doing, we, bearers of the light, become good news to all who have yet to see light. And for its part, the light just keeps chasing away the darkness everywhere it is to be found, until all creation unfolds in the sunshine of God’s delight.

Christmas is not about sweet and sentimental images of babies surrounded by fuzzy animals. It is about God sending his One and only Light to pierce through the darkness. The flame you will soon hold in your hand is a tangible reminder of God’s light come into our darkness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

May we pray.

God of light, incarnate Word, in Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger, you came to be with us – the Light of the World. Help us to feel your presence and see your light amidst the darkness. Bless all who hold your light this night, that their vision may see beyond the shadows and focus on vistas filled with your hope and healing, love and light. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Untied Sandals (John 1:6-28)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And 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. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

In this Advent season, we have been preparing for the coming of Jesus - in the pages of Scripture, in our world, and in our hearts and lives. Part of preparing for Jesus is to clearly identify, according to the Bible, who Jesus is, what he’s about, and what he expects of each of us. If we’re going to be followers of Jesus, it’s probably pretty important to know who the Bible says he is!

Last week, at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, we realized that Jesus is the one who pokes holes in the darkness, and he invites us to join him in that task. Did you do your homework this week? Did you go around looking for opportunities to poke holes in the darkness and let God’s light and love in?

Today, we are focusing on how Jesus is identified by one named John whose voice cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Today, may God prepare our hearts for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to make his way in us. May we pray.

Who here has ever heard of John the Baptist? We call him John the Baptist, or, to be more accurate to the Greek, John the Baptizer, because when we find him in the Judean wilderness, that’s what he’s doing. He is baptizing the masses who are coming to him to hear his preaching and follow his teaching, and because he is baptizing, we commonly refer to him as John the Baptist.

But, if I can reframe what you learned about him in Sunday School, according to today’s text, John’s primary role was not baptizing. The Gospel is always the story about Jesus – first and foremost, it is about Jesus, and so the details of the story always have to be read through that lens. And so, according to today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. John, John the Baptizer is actually John the Witness. It says, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:6-8).

Though it may blow our minds and shatter our preconceptions, a close and careful reading of the Bible reveals that, while John the Baptizer did do plenty of baptizing, his primary role is as one who testifies to the light coming into the world. In this way, he is a very human witness to a very cosmic event. He is John, the Baptizing Witness.

John is trying to tell us that God is up to something new – something that is truly earth-shaking. John was testifying to the light, and his testimony was good news because it was about the One who is good news – the One who is God-come-to-earth, the One who will point the way across the bridge for all the world to be reconciled to God, and who will then serve as the bridge himself. John just keeps pointing to the light – the true light which enlivens everyone – that is coming into the world in the person of Jesus.

John’s testimony about Jesus was essentially saying, “Jesus is the real deal, he’s the source of real hope, and peace, and joy, and love. If your life is dark and you seek light, put your faith in him.” John just keeps pointing to the light, pointing to Jesus. And anytime we are tempted to make it about anything other than Jesus, the witness of John is still there, testifying to the light, pointing to Jesus, calling us to place Jesus at the center.

The rivals to our full attention toward Christ are many. There are many would-be-idols competing for our attention and devotion, seeking to take for themselves the place of first priority in our lives that rightly belongs to God. It is a phenomenon that happens not only in the world, “out there,” but among religious folk, as well. Perhaps the deception is all the more dangerous when it occurs among good, Godly folk like us, for I can’t help but wonder if we’ve sometimes made our message more about church membership than discipleship, more about Christianity than about Christ, or worse, more about ourselves than about Jesus.

The writer of the Gospel of John was wrestling with a similar reality. History tells us that a group of followers of John the Baptizing Witness established themselves in opposition to the followers of Jesus. They claimed John was the Messiah, and they sought to turn the spotlight on him so people would recognize him as the light and follow him. Take some comfort in that – factions, quarrelling, and power plays – really nothing all that new for people of faith!

For John the Baptizing Witness, it wasn’t about him in the slightest way. He just kept pointing to Jesus. Think of it this way. Who knows what attraction is at the North Carolina-South Carolina state line right next to I-95? South of the Border. You know it’s there because there are billboards for the stupid thing 150 miles in either direction before you get there! Personally, I know more about the billboards than I do about South of the Border itself because I’ve never actually stopped there. But yet, the billboards aren’t the main attraction; they point to the main attraction; they draw attention to the main attraction.

Likewise, John the Baptizing Witness is like a billboard pointing beyond itself to the main attraction. John’s testimony consistently made Jesus the star of the show. In fact, every time John points to Jesus, what he’s also saying is, “It’s all about Jesus.” And so, if I say, “John points to Jesus, WHY?” I want you all to respond by saying, “It’s all about Jesus.”

Have you ever had someone ask you something, that, down in your gut, you know is a loaded question? John knew what that was like, too. The religious leaders were asking really loaded questions of John, but he must have been incredibly frustrating for them to talk to. “Are you the Messiah?” “No.” “Are you a manifestation of Elijah?” “No.” “What about Moses?” “No.” They went through all the great figures of their religious history, the ones they would recognize as having authority, and when he makes no claim of any recognized authority, they say, “What gives you the right to say what you’re saying and do what you’re doing?”

Given this line of questioning, do you know what John does? He doesn’t really give them an answer; instead, John just keeps pointing to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.” He points to the coming One, the one who is greater than he is. John just points to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.” John chooses the position of something slightly less than a slave, for untying sandals was the task of a slave, and John says he is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. John just points to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.” His task was simple and clear, to keep witnessing to the light that was coming into the world in the person of Jesus. John fights the temptation we all face when we want to make it about ourselves, and he just keeps pointing to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.”

All John wanted to do was to keep witnessing to the light that was coming into the world, to keep pointing to Jesus, and prepare others to place their belief and their trust and their everything into the Christ when he came. His entire focus was away from himself and squarely on the main event – Jesus the Christ. John just keeps pointing to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.”

There is great wisdom in knowing what – or who – is at center stage, and what our place is relative to the One who is there. As one theology professor said to his class: “I have learned there is a God . . . and it’s not me.”

The temptation is always there to draw the attention to ourselves, but our call is to point to the One who is greater than us, the One whose sandal we are not worthy to untie. Every time we are tempted to make it about anything other than Jesus, John is still standing there, witnessing to the light, pointing toward Jesus, reminding us that we are to do the same.

John’s witness remains a powerful challenge for us today. If we make Advent, or Christmas, or any Sunday, or anything about our faith in Christ about anything other than Jesus, then we’ve missed the point. If we’ve made it about us – our agendas, our church, our denomination, our personal preferences or ideologies, then we’re pointing the wrong direction.

And so, on this third Sunday of Advent, I have a question for you – which direction are you pointing?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a list a mile long this time of year - gifts to buy, parties to attend, preparations to make, things to do. What I invite you to do is to find ways for your list - whatever and whoever is on it - to point toward Jesus. This year, let’s be less concerned with the presents under the tree, and more concerned with how we can practice the presence of God and other people.

Here are some simple ways you can do that. First, pray over that list - pray for the people on it, pray for opportunities to point toward Jesus for them, pray for the activities and things you’ll do, that they would point toward Jesus. Pray for Jesus to be seen in your preparations and parties.

Second, while you’re out and about, be intentional about practicing the presence of people. Take a moment, sit down on the bench in the mall, and take a look at the people around you. Chances are, they are preoccupied in a world that is just as busy and hectic as yours. Say a quick prayer for those people, even though they’re strangers, they still need an encounter with Jesus.

As you drive or walk through your neighborhood and see the homes of your neighbors, offer a prayer for them too. When you see a home that is lit up with bright lights, pray that the hearts of those within that home might be filled with the light of Christ in just the same way. When you see a home that is dark and seems cheerless, pray for the light of Christ to fill to scatter whatever darkness lurks in the hearts of the people who live there.

When you’re going through a check-out line, go out of your way to show genuine kindness and concern to that tired and overworked cashier. As you pass people in the parking lot, in the stores, in the aisles, remember that they are not just objects in your way that are slowing you down from what you’re trying to get and where you’re trying to go - they are precious children of God. Practice being in wonder that God has fearfully and wonderfully made so many different people. They are the people, just like us, for whom Jesus is being born. John is pointing to Jesus not only for our sake, but for their sake as well. They are, just like us, the very precious people for whom Jesus, the true light, is coming into the world.

The good news of Advent is this - Christ is coming, Christ is always coming. Not only for you, not only for me, not only for us, but for all the world. The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world. John just keeps pointing at that light, and as he stands there resolute in his witness, we are reminded that we have the same task.

When people are telling you what their holiday plans are, and ask you what you’re doing, let them know that worship is part of what you’ll be doing. When they ask whose house you’re going to, be sure to tell them that you’ll be spending part of the holiday at God’s house, and then ask if they’d like to come with you. We have a great big generous God who loves to get the whole family to the table, so be sure to invite some of the rest of God’s children to the party. Invite someone with you on Christmas Eve. Invite someone with you for Christmas Day. Christmas Day is on a Sunday this year - how cool is that! We American Protestants don’t usually go to church on Christmas Day, but this year, we will! Don’t let that opportunity slip by! Your life, your witness, your invitation can be the signpost constantly pointing to Jesus.

And so, which direction are you pointing? At what, or whom, are you pointing? John spent his life pointing toward Jesus. This Advent and Christmas, just keep pointing toward Jesus.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1-8)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;” the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In the movie, The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews begins to teach the VonTrapp children to sing with a simple and familiar song. She says, “Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start. When you read, you begin with A-B-C. When you sing you begin with DO-RE-MI.”

On this second Sunday of Advent, we are starting with the very beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which, interestingly enough, begins with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” First things first, and that’s what we’re going to spend a little time talking about today. May we pray.

I grew up, like many in my generation, watching Sesame Street. In one of the songs on Sesame Street, three dancing books told about the structure of a story – every story has a beginning, middle, and end. What’s the part designed to capture your attention and make you want to read or hear the rest of the story? The beginning. In my journalism classes and as assistant editor of the college newspaper, which paragraph in the story was the most important? The beginning. In my sermons, I know that I have a limited window to tell you something that will make you want to listen, and do you know where that window is? The beginning.

Today, we are looking at the beginning – the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark. There are four gospels in the canon of Scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each begins differently. Matthew, writing to a primarily Jewish audience, begins with the genealogy of Jesus, establishing him as a son of David and son of Abraham. Luke begins with the events leading up to Jesus’ birth. John begins with a carefully-crafted theological statement about the eternal relationship between God the Son and God the Father.

Mark jumps right into the action the moment before Jesus really appears on the public scene. His desire is to present Jesus as a servant, requiring no genealogy or birth narrative. It is the beginning of the Gospel. Interestingly enough, scholars agree that Mark is the first Gospel written. It comes after Matthew because the Biblical editors saw the Jewish genealogy of Jesus serving as a bridge between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, but Mark is, in fact, older, having been written at least a decade before the others.

What does Mark place at the beginning? The most important thing about Jesus is that he is good news.

It reminds me of two 90-year-old women, Barb and Rose, who loved to play softball together their whole lives. Rose died, and a few weeks later, she appeared to Barb in a dream. Barb said, “Rose, tell me – is there softball in heaven?” Rose said, “Oh yes, there’s softball. It’s always spring, it never rains or snows, and we can play all we want without getting tired or having to deal with aches and pains!” Barb said, “That’s great news!” Rose said, “Yes, but I have some bad news as well – you’re scheduled to pitch next Tuesday.”

However, the good news of Jesus Christ, the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, comes without any corresponding bad news. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: in him, God is come to earth. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: in our darkness, God’s light shines. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: from the chains of our sin, reconciliation with God is now possible. The good news of Jesus Christ is this: once we were no people, but now we are God’s people.

There is no corresponding bad news. There is no other shoe to drop. Jesus Christ is good news - news of liberation, of light in the darkness, of reconciliation to God, of living lives that show love of God and neighbor, of a life filled with hope and meaning. In the coming of Christ, all that becomes possible, and that is the good news. It is only bad news if we are living in darkness and we want to continue living in darkness, if we are living in sin and content to keep wallowing in it, if our lives are hopeless and we desire no hope, if we live selfish, self-absorbed lives full of our own preconceptions, judgments, and preferences, and have no interest in allowing the light of Christ to come in and show us a more excellent way.

The good news is this: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The Gospel begins, for each of us, when we recognize the light of Christ, and choose it over darkness. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the book Treasure Island, was often ill as a child, and as dusk fell one cold winter evening, his nurse found him pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. She said, “Come away from that window, child, you’ll catch your death of cold!” Young Robert didn’t budge, he simply pointed to an old lamplighter making his way through the dark streets, lighting the streetlamps along his route. He said, “Look, there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.”

The Gospel begins when the light of Christ pokes holes in our darkness. In this Advent season, we prepare our hearts for the coming Jesus, who pokes holes in the darkness, that the light and love of God might shine.

But that’s just the beginning. Friends, there is still more to the story. Recognizing the light of Christ and inviting him into our lives is an important beginning, but it is a first step. There is yet more to the story. After Mark has established Jesus as God’s good news to all, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

In those days, if you knew that a king was coming to town, great preparations were made for the king’s arrival. One of the preparations was a road project that, for its day, would make completing I-485 look like a Sunday School picnic. Think of what roads were like in those days - narrow, winding, twisting roads, full of ruts and holes and bogs, dusty in the dry weather and muddy in the wet. And yet, when a king was coming, a town would have the road leading into town straightened, widened, and completely smoothed out. It was a massive undertaking, yet it was how a town welcomed the king - providing easy access and removing all potential barriers to the king’s entrance into the town.

Likewise, as we prepare for the coming of Christ in the world, we are called to provide easy access and remove all potential barriers to his entry into our lives. We prepare the way of the Lord, we make his paths straight - a barrier-free route into the depths of our being. We do so not only out of respect, but out of reverence and submission - taking away those barriers is our way of saying, “Jesus, you are my king, I submit my life to you, you are my Lord, and I invite you into my life to live and reign in me.”

Prepare the way of the Lord - give Jesus full access to your life and grant him the authority and control that is rightly his. One of the things I love about this imagery - referring to the way of the Lord, a highway for our God, is that it suggests travel, movement, a journey. It reminds us that the Christian life is not static, but is much more like taking a trip with Jesus than it is about thinking certain thoughts and knowing certain things about Jesus. It means Jesus is on the move, and we are invited to travel with him.

The kingdom of God, which will come in the person of Jesus, is more concerned with journey and process than it is with a specific place, a building, a mindset, or a way of life. We are, after all, disciples, followers, of Jesus, and my experience has been that’s it awfully hard to follow by hunkering down and staying still. God is on the move on earth in Jesus, and we are called to follow.

Prepare the way of the Lord. The earliest followers of Jesus weren’t called Christians, did you know that? Christian, a derogatory term meaning, “mini-Christ” wasn’t applied to the followers of Jesus until many years after his death and resurrection. No, before they were called Christians, they were simply known as “followers of The Way.” The movement wasn’t called “Church,” it was simply, “The Way.” Being people of the Gospel, participants in the good news of Christ, requires a journey with Jesus. Prepare the way of the Lord, we are still people of the way, following Jesus, traveling with him, going where he leads, doing the things he did and now continues to do through us.

The Gospel begins when Christ pokes holes in our darkness. It continues when we journey with Jesus and poke holes in the darkness of all those we encounter. But, as I learned on Sesame Street, every story has a beginning, middle, and end. So what’s the end of the Gospel story? Every story has one, you know, and the Gospel is no exception. So, what’s the end of the Gospel?

Well, what if we were to think of “end” not as a destination, not a final place, but as a goal? If we think of the “end” of the Gospel as its “So what?” Think through that with me. The Gospel begins when Jesus pokes holes in our darkness. It continues when we join Jesus on the journey and poke holes in the darkness of all those we encounter. We do all that for what? So that the fullness of the kingdom of God may come upon the earth, so God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

That means we’ve still got some hole-poking to do, for there is still much darkness in the world. There is still liberty to grant to the oppressed, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, wrongs to right, injustice to overthrow. There are chains to be broken, wars to end, hope to bring, wounds to heal. There’s a lot of evil in the world, and sometimes in the church, and in ourselves, sometimes, too - a lot of dark places in need of light.

Even so, a new light is dawning on the horizon. This Advent, let us turn from the things of darkness, and gently poke holes in the darkness of others, to the end that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth.

May we pray.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus. We prepare the way for you to come straight into our hearts, to poke holes in our darkness, to live and reign in us, to shine your light through us. We celebrate you as the good news to all people. Set us free. Break our chains. Take away our bent to sinning. We give ourselves to you. Get us out of the way, and lead us in Your Way. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Four Habits of Highly-Effective Christians (Acts 2:42-47)

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I’ve got some bad news for you – you showed up on Commitment Sunday. Every church has one and you can call it what you want – Stewardship Sunday, Generosity Sunday, Faithful Response Sunday, but you know what this is – it’s the Sunday we’re going to talk openly and honestly about money. I just want to say at the outset that I’ll make a deal with you – today is the only Sunday we’ll talk this much about money until somewhere around this time next year, unless, through your giving habits, you tell me that we need to talk about it more.

Now, I realize that pastors pull all sorts of tricks to bribe people to show up on this Sunday. 8% is singing today – that’s no coincidence! If you knew we’d have great music today, well, there was at least a fighting chance you’d show up.

You may not realize that the past few weeks of messages have been a stewardship series. If you didn’t realize that, you’re likely having one of two reactions: you could be saying, “He tricked us!” OR, you could be saying, “Wait a minute, how is this a stewardship series? There was that one sermon about discovering and using the gifts God has given us. Then, there was All Saints Sunday; he didn’t talk about stewardship there, either, just about the lives of the saints who have let God’s light shine through them and how we, also as saints, are called to let God’s light shine through us. And then, he talked about Jesus’ call on all Christians to be his witnesses – to let the Holy Spirit into our lives and transform us, and then to share the good news of that transformation from the very depths of our being, and that God intends to use everything we have and everything we are for God’s purposes – how God intends to work through our hands and feet and hearts and minds and words and deeds and how we need to surrender ourselves to God constantly and offer everything we have to God, but I didn’t hear him say anything about stewardship!”

Ah hah – have you figured it out yet? Here’s a hint – stewardship isn’t about money. Did everyone hear that? Let me say it again, just in case you weren’t paying attention – stewardship isn’t about money. Well, if it’s not about money, let’s find out, together, what it is about. May we pray.

What is a steward? In a large household, a steward is one or more persons who manage the affairs of the household on behalf of the owners. Or, on cruise ship, a steward is one or more persons who manage the baggage, arrangements, or meals on behalf of the passengers. So basically, a steward is someone who manages something that belongs to someone else. Fair enough? That's the first thing I want you to remember today - stewardship isn't about money. Stewardship is about managing something that belongs to someone else.

Going to summer camp as a kid, our parents wrote our name on the tag of every article of clothing we took. This, of course, was to keep our things separate if the clothes got all mixed up, and sure enough, my Mom wrote “Andrew Jeremy Thomas” on the tags in my underwear, and shirts, and shorts, and even on the inside of my socks. It was a way to know what belonged to whom.

The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1). Don’t let that one slip by too easily – this is pretty important! The earth and everything in it belong to whom? To God. The world and all its people belong to whom? To God.

And so, as Christians, we are stewards. We manage things that belong to someone else, we manage the things that belong to God. And what belongs to God? Everything. Everything and everyone belongs to God.

You may as well have "Property of God" stamped in bold letters across your backside. Your hands and feet, your intellect and skills and all the things you have used to make a living, those belong to God as well. The title to your car should really be in God's name, the deed to your house should have God listed as owner, and your bank statement should have God listed as the account holder, and you as the custodian of the account. It all belongs to God - everything we own, everything we have, everything we are - it all belongs to God.

Now, here is the fun part - God loves to share. So yes, it all belongs to God, but God freely shares everything with us that we might enjoy it. God is irresponsibly generous, radical in grace, reckless in blessing, and conspicuously abundant in love. God just can't help but to give and give and give, because that's who God is, even giving his Son for our salvation and to show us the way of life. Further, if we've all got "Property of God" stamped on us, then we are created to reflect that same generosity. Somewhere deep down in our DNA, we are hard-wired to be generous as God as generous, that our lives may reflect the glory of the God in whose image we are created, and to whom we belong.

It's like that experiment we used to do back in elementary school science class, where we would take white carnations and soak the stems in colored water, and after a day or two, the color of the water would show through the petals of the carnation. If our lives are planted in the generosity and blessing and abundance of God, eventually those same characteristics are going to start showing up in our lives, as well.

Maybe now you can see why stewardship isn't primarily about money, though it certainly includes money, and we are going to talk pretty specifically about money before it's all said and done today. But, I hope you see that stewardship is really about discipleship - about being the best possible followers of Jesus we can be, and living our lives in such a way and using everything we have in such a way that God is glorified and God's will is done through us.

When I think about the goodness of God, the blessings of God, the generosity of God, I want to use what I have been given in a way that honors God and expresses the depth of my gratitude. And so, in response to all that God has already done and already given, we practice the habits that will help us grow in our faith, and show our desire to be the people and the church God desires for us to be.

In today's Scripture reading from the book of Acts, we see the early church's commitment to practicing the habits of highly-effective Christians. In Acts 2:42, it says, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers." What I have always found interesting about these particular practices is that they were the natural result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the early church. Because, when the Holy Spirit moves into our lives and realigns our priorities, these become the kinds of things we want to do.

And what happened when they did these things – nothing all that spectacular, right? They just sat around in a circle and not much changed and they generally felt pretty good about themselves, right? Not quite. The text says, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). Filled with the Holy Spirit, they committed themselves to certain practices, and those practices helped them fulfill their mission. Everyone was part of it – it took the whole community, everyone pulling their own weight and contributing according to their own means.

Or, if you are a member of this church, you took certain vows when you joined. Unlike joining a country club or most other organizations in our society, joining a church carries with it more responsibilities than it does privileges. If you have joined this church, you made certain promises and committed yourself to certain practices, and the commitment you made is no small matter. First and foremost, of course, is your confession of Jesus Christ as your Savior and your commitment to serve him as your Lord. But then, you also made a commitment to practicing certain habits, promising before God and to the rest of this congregation that you would participate in and support the ministries of St. Paul United Methodist Church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. These things together represent your witness as a follower of Jesus Christ who is committed to growing in God's grace.

And it's not about what the church needs from you, it's about what you, as a follower of Jesus Christ, need to do for yourself. It's about what a person who has committed themselves to a lifetime of Christian discipleship needs to do to stay on that path and participate in a lifelong growth in God's grace.

When we support and participate in the ministries of our church through our prayers, presence, gifts, and service as the simple and natural response to God's abundant generosity and extravagant grace, we find greater generosity and a deeper experience of grace. We respond with praise in gratitude for all God has done for us and God's blessings that have flowed into our lives. We praise God from whom all blessings flow, and as we praise God with everything we have, blessings seem to flow all the more.

Friends, God is good! (All the time!) All the time (God is good!). God has been exceedingly generous toward each of us. God gives and gives and gives because that's just who God is. Are you grateful for the blessings of God in your life? Are you grateful for the goodness of the Lord? Are you grateful for the gift of grace? Do you want to respond to God's generosity in ways that truly reflect the depth of gratitude?

Today, on this Commitment Sunday, I am asking you to commit to some practices and habits that will both express your gratitude, and continue to help you grow as a follower of Jesus Christ. In a few minutes, we're going to make our commitments for the coming year. Go ahead and pull out your commitment cards - I want us to spend a few minutes looking over these. If you don't have your card, don't worry, you've probably already noticed that we've got plenty here.

You may also notice that the card asks you to commit to certain practices in the coming year, and that they correspond to the vows you made when you became a member of this church, to support it and participate in its ministries through your prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Don't fill out your card just yet - let's go through what's on them.

How many times a month are you willing to say, "Yes, I will attend worship!"? You and I are made to worship, to proclaim our devotion to God, to be encouraged and challenged in our discipleship, and to enjoy the fellowship of our brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us not to neglect worship but to be present every available opportunity; accordingly, I am asking the most-committed among you to attend worship every week unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.

How many times a week are you willing to pray for the ministries of St. Paul to work for God's purposes? To pray for your pastor? Your church staff and leaders? For programs and ministries that will meet the deepest spiritual needs of our members and surrounding community? For the Holy Spirit to fill the heart of every person who considers St. Paul their church? I am asking the most-committed among you to pray for St. Paul daily.

How many times a month are you willing to give of your own time to support the ministries and missions of St. Paul? That could be teaching a class, leading a Bible study or other small group, serving at the men's shelter, mentoring, working in children's ministry, singing in the choir, or any number of other opportunities where you actually make a real difference in the lives of others. I am asking the most-committed among you to serve at least one hour a week, that's four hours a month, in ministry and mission.

OK, back to the financial piece. Oooh, it's time to talk about money. So, the Bible teaches us to tithe - to give the first 10% of our income to God as an expression of worship and gratitude for God's blessing in our lives. The Bible says, "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,' says the Lord God Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there won't be room enough to store it" (Malachi 3:10). The storehouse is our local church, and God promises that when we faithfully bring the first 10%, God will pour out so much blessing that we won't have room enough to contain it. Though God has told us elsewhere in Scripture not to put God to the test, this is one place God says, "Go ahead, try me."

God asks us to give 10% of our income, and God promises to bless the tithe. Sometimes people ask, "Is that 10% pre-tax or 10% post-tax?" and I usually just say, "That depends if you want a pre-tax blessing or a post-tax blessing!" God promises to bless us when we tithe, and I'll confirm that it works.

Thankfully, Ashley is a tither too - it's something we were both practicing long before we met each other or got married and we didn't have to convince the other of the benefits of tithing. And so, in 2012, we'll be giving about $9,000, or $170/week, to God through Davidson and St. Paul; we split between the two based on our salaries. And while we know and have experienced God's blessing in this kind of faithful giving, we also have been blessed to know something of the joy that comes from generosity.

You can put God to the test on this, and God will come through. God makes good on God's promises, and God will bless your giving. Now, it's not always monetary - many times the blessings of God come back in other ways. I'll be honest, I don't know how it works, I can't make it balance on a spreadsheet, I can't explain the ratio of our giving to God's blessing - all I know is this, it works! I have felt God bless my giving, and not once have I regretted giving to the church. Try it yourself, and you'll see, it works! You can't out-give God, no matter how hard you try!

This morning, I am asking the most-committed among you to give 10% of your income to God through St. Paul United Methodist Church in 2012. I am asking not for the church's benefit, but for yours. Generosity is something that produces joy, and the more extravagant our generosity, the more extravagant our joy. I want you to know and experience that joy first-hand!

Now, maybe you’re looking at that 10% figure, and you’re thinking, “There’s no way I can do that.” All I will say is that God will bless it if you do it, but I get that may be a big chunk to bite off. But, if it’s just not possible but you want to take a step in the right direction, you can do one of two things. If you’re already giving, figure out what percentage of your income you’re currently giving – maybe it’s 3%. Next year, commit to giving 4%, the year after that 5%, and so on until you hit the goal. Or, if you don’t have any real habit of giving, think of a weekly amount that seems reasonable and attainable for you, and then add $5 a week to it. I say add $5 because if you’re going to grow in this area, you’ve got to stretch at least a little bit. There’s got to be some faith and leaning on God to provide all you need. Giving is more of a faith matter than a financial one, and as we grow in our faith, we grow in our capacity for generosity.

Even so, many within our congregation know the joy of generosity, and they want to help you experience that joy, as well. These people, who have asked to remain nameless, are making an additional gift of $100 above and beyond their own personal commitment for anyone who makes a first-time financial commitment in any amount, OR who increases their commitment by 10% or more. They know the joy of generosity, and they want everyone in our church to know that joy, as well, and they're certainly putting their money where their mouth is!

I also want you to know that your acceptance in this church is not tied to your ability to give. I know what the economy is like, I know about the difficulties people are going through, and I realize that it really may not be possible for everyone to give in the way they wish they could. I get that. Know that we're praying for you, we love you, and we support you. We're your church family, and if there's anything we can do for you, please let us know. Even if financial hardships prevent you from being able to make a commitment at this time, don't stay away from worship or keep from getting involved in other ways.

Before you write anything on your card, the first thing I want you to do is pray. Consider the goodness of God, the blessings in your life, and thank God for them. Then, think about how you want to show your gratitude to God. Ask for God's guidance on how and what you should give in the coming year. When you're ready, fill out your estimate of giving card, and remember to fill out the back of it and keep the top portion for your personal records. Bring the completed lower portion and place it with everyone's commitment in the basket up front.

Friends, God has indeed been good and generous toward us. What a joy that is, and what joy we receive when we are generous as God is generous!