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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Renewed and Revived (John 15:1-8)

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.  He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.  You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.  Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me.  If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.  Without me, you can’t do anything.  If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up.  Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.  My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

Today is one of those days in the church’s life when a number of factors and forces seem to all come together at the same time, each with its own set of emphases and priorities, and this presents certain challenges for how we focus our attention.

Consider, it is the first Sunday of Christmas.  In the church, Christmas lasts 12 days from December 25 to January 6.  So, from a liturgical standpoint, it is the first Sunday of Christmas.

From a more nuts-and-bolts perspective, it is the first Sunday after Christmas.  We pastors typically refer to Sundays like these as “low Sundays.”  Other “low Sundays” include long holiday weekends, and Panthers home games with a 1:00 kickoff.

It is also the last Sunday of the calendar year.  Our thoughts are wrapped up in closing out one year and starting another - year-end financials, end-of-year charitable gifts, tax documents, setting up our financial commitments for the coming year, making New Year’s resolutions.  Anyone making any New Year’s resolutions or thought about that yet? What are you going to do with 2013?

My suggestion? Let’s grow some fruit. It may be a little odd to think of growing fruit at the end of December, but God’s got the ability even in the dead of winter to create new life. Maybe you’ve never noticed this, but God always seems to do God’s best work in cemeteries.  God is at God’s best when things are dead.  Not when things seem dead or look dead or are almost dead - dead, empty, formless, vapid - that’s the place God’s power and creativity are most fully on display!

So here, in the bleak midwinter, let’s grow some fruit.  Whaddya say?  And I say we go big or go home!  I’m talking ginormous-prize-pumpkin-at-the-state-fair big! Let’s grow the fruit of the Spirit that are described in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

My hope is that among whatever other resolutions you’re making about your diet or exercise or your time commitments or priorities or finances or whatever else - you are also spending some time thinking, praying, and reflecting about your spiritual life in the coming year, and that you are taking some concrete steps for there to be Godly fruit in your life this year.

How does this work?  Well, we have to recognize it’s more about allowing God to grow something within us than it is about us growing something for God. It’s more about allowing God to grow something within us than it is about us growing something for God. How are we to allow God to grow us? It’s simple to say and hard to do: we’ve got to get ourselves out of the way, and give God room to do what God wants to do.  Maybe you like baby carrots and baby corn - time and a place for everything, I guess, but when you serve a God as big as our God, you should expect some God-sized fruit to grow.

God-sized fruit doesn’t grow on its own, however.  It grows from a branch that is connected to the vine, as Jesus taught in today’s reading from the 15th chapter of John.  Branches find their identity and nourishment both by maintaining a strong connection to the vine.

You don’t need to be an expert in botany to grasp the point of what Jesus is teaching here.  Stay connected to Jesus - that connection is the source of your life.  And for the branch that stays connected to Jesus and soaks in every nourishing gift from Jesus, a bumper crop of the fruit of the Spirit is sure to follow.  And for Jesus, it’s all about getting fruity.

Friends, let’s be a fruit factory.  Let’s produce so much fruit of the Spirit that people stop and stare and start calling us a bunch of fruits.  I know some people who use the term “fruity” or calling someone “a fruit” as an insult.  It’s only an insult if we’re insulted by it!

Did you know that when the first followers of Jesus were called “Christians,” they were being made fun of?  “Christian” means “mini-Christ.”  So people were laughing and pointing and saying, “Look at those mini-Christs.”  And those first followers of Jesus took that insult and said, “Hey, you’re right!  Let’s run with it!  We ARE mini-Christs!  Let’s all be Christlike!”  What began as an insult hurled from the outside turned out to be one of the places the earliest followers of Jesus found strength and clarity about their mission and what it meant to be followers of Jesus in the world.

So let’s be a fruit factory.  Let the world point fingers and laugh and say, “Look at those fruits over there at that church!”  And we’ll say, “Thank you very much - we ARE a fruity bunch and we’re proud of it!  Look at all our fruit - love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Yep, we’re a bunch of fruits - thanks for noticing!”

Just as you know an apple tree by the fruit on its limbs, you will know followers of Jesus when you see this fruit in their lives.

We can spend our whole lives trying to grow something for God, or we can get ourselves out of the way, make some room, and invite God to grow something big within us.  If our lives have been grafted into the life-giving vine of Jesus, then some ginormous God-sized Holy Spirit-filled fruit is sure to hang from everything we think, say, and do.  Let’s invite God to make something out of us by giving ourselves, fully and completely, into covenant relationship with God.

Today, we will participate in John Wesley’s Covenant Renewal service.  In our covenant with God, we give everything to God.  Everything we are.  Everything we’ve got.  Everything we’re not.  All of it.  Today we give all of ourselves - our time (watch), our money (cash), our possessions (car key), our relationships (wedding band), even our very selves (driver license) to God and say, “I lay all of this before you today.  I empty myself.  Fill me, use me, however you wish.  My life belongs to you.”

So, what are you going to do with 2013?  Might I suggest that you make room for God to grow some fruit.

Monday, December 24, 2012

You Got Here Just In Time! (Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve)

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “ Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger. ” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “ Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “ Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us. ” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking; How we need to hear from God.  You've been promised, we've been waiting; Welcome to our world.  May we pray.
The greeting card industry is big business.  For Christmas, 1.5 billion Christmas cards are exchanged in the U.S.  Laid end-to-end, they would stretch for 167,000 miles, and would circle the equator 6.7 times (source: Infographics).  Here at St. Paul, we mailed 844 such cards and handed out hundreds more, inviting our friends and neighbors to join us this evening.  No doubt, many of you who are here this evening are here precisely because you received one of our cards.  We’re glad you did.  You are our very special guests this evening, and you honor us simply by showing up tonight.

A comfortable image; far from reality.
There is one unfortunate and unintended consequence of all the cards that are exchanged, however, at least the religious ones.  It’s not the fault of the cards themselves, mind you, simply the artwork on them, conveying the birth of Jesus as sweet, clean, quiet, sentimental, and docile.  Smiling shepherds, fluffy animals, hay that could have been spun from fine gold, and a soft glow on the faces of the Holy Family - a comforting and comfortable image, perhaps, but one that’s far from accurate.

What I invite you to do tonight is put that image – comfortable, sweet, familiar, sentimental – put that image out of your mind and hear the story as if for the first time ever.  Give yourself tonight to the story of a God who loved us - all of us - that he came into our dark, confused, and often less-than-pleasant world and dwelt among us as one of us, the story of how God brought light into our darkness. If you’ve come to hear THAT story, then you’re in the right place tonight.

In those days, Caesar Augustus, the emperor, the most powerful person in the world, ordered a census of the peasants in Judea.  The people of Judea had been a troublesome bunch; there had been uprisings and rebellions before, and if it happened again, Caesar Augustus wanted to know just how many peasants there were, and how big of an army it would take to crush them.

Further, the emperor wanted to get everyone registered on the tax rolls.  Taxes were high, far higher than anything being debated in Washington at the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, and the poorest paid the highest rates.  This was one of the great sources of dissension among the peasant class - the very sort of thing that would boil over into outright rebellion.  Ironically, through their taxes, these poor Judean peasants were funding the armies that would crush them at the first hint of trouble.

In those days, in the middle of winter, just after the harvest, the peasants went to their hometowns to be registered.  One peasant named Joseph, from the wide spot in the road called Nazareth, took his teenage fiance, Mary, mysteriously pregnant with some wild story about angel visitors and impregnation by the Holy Spirit that no one was buying, to Bethlehem.

This one sounds familiar, right?  O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.  Well, hardly.  The greeting cards got this one wrong, too.  Bethlehem was far from a sleepy, quiet, still, little town, particular at the time of the Roman census.  It buzzed with all the feverish frenzy of Myrtle Beach during bike week.  The town was crowded with its regular townfolk, all the travelers who were there for the census, the guards hired to keep order, and the merchants who followed the crowds hoping to make a dishonest buck along the way.  Whatever your pleasure, if you wanted it, you could buy it.

Particularly in those days during the census, Bethlehem was far from the still and sleepy town in our carols and on our Christmas cards.  It was loud, crowded, raucous, filthy - and against this backdrop, peasants Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem following a nine-day journey from Nazareth - cold, tired, and hungry.  They holed up in the barn out back, because, as the story tells us, there was no room for them in the inn, but let’s be honest, it’s the best they could have afforded anyway.

First century stone manger in Palestine.
And there, the time came for Mary to have her baby, and she did.  She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him up tight, and used the feeding trough as a makeshift crib.  There was no privacy or comfort of any kind.  Other poor travelers were crowded into the barn with them.  The straw was moldy, the slop buckets overflowing, and all night long the street just beyond their accommodations were filled with people laughing and carrying on and carousing and fighting - the sort of thing we might see in a Waffle House parking lot at 3 am on a Saturday.  Welcome to our world, Lord Jesus!

When God put on human form and came to live among us as one of us, God came to us not in splendor, not in majesty, not in fanfare, not in comfort, not in blinding displays of power and might.  No, God instead chose to come among us in all humility and discomfort and disgrace.

Ed Moore tells the story of participating in a church Christmas play when he was a child where they used live animals.  The animals were all cooperative and well-behaved except for one rather difficult sheep named Irving.  The shepherds led the sheep up the aisle of the church and off to the side where they were supposed to remain for the rest of the play, all the sheep, that is, except for Irving.  Irving walked up next to the manger and left his gift for baby Jesus - a fresh, steaming pile of sheep exhaust.  Welcome to our world, little Lord Jesus!  You’ve come at just the right time!

Perhaps more than the other characters in the play that year, Irving got it right.  Jesus came into a real mess.  Friends - that’s the message and the meaning of Christmas.  Christmas is the story of God-come-to-earth in the person of Jesus, willingly taking our mess and making it his mess, and cleaning it up.

The world was dark and uncertain and messy at the time of Jesus, but thanks be to God, Jesus still enters the dark and uncertain and messy places - certainly within our world, and certainly within each of us.  The Light of the World, whose birth we celebrate on this holy night, shines brightest where things seem darkest.

Good thing, too, because it seems like there’s still a lot of darkness in our world.  These four little candles that we’ve lit through the last four weeks of Advent - these candles that represent the truest values of God’s kingdom, these candles of hope, and peace, and joy, and love - these little candles sure do have their work cut out for them.  A lot of darkness in our world, a lot of darkness in many of our lives.

And yet, Christmas is God’s declaration that the darkness doesn’t win.  Darkness doesn’t get the last word!  This child will get the last word!  Jesus gets the final say, and the words he says are hope, peace, joy, and love - what good news for us and for our world!  The candles we light tonight symbolize God’s true light in Jesus, and we will light these candles tonight not so much because they’re pretty, but to recognize and celebrate Jesus as the Light of the World, God’s love come to each of us.

Samuel Rayan says, “A candle is a protest at midnight.  It is a non-conformist.  It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”

God’s true light, Jesus, pierces a hole in the smothering fog of all that is dark, and no matter how low, how dark, how messy things may be in our world; no matter how low, dark, or messy things may be in your life, know that Jesus has already been there, and even now, he’s working to clean up the mess.

The good news of Christmas is this:  Jesus is here!  God is with us!  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight! The good news of Christmas is not only that Jesus came among us once; it’s that Jesus continues to come among us again and again and again.  That’s news that’s good enough to rally the shepherds in from the hill country.  That’s news that’s good enough to get the angel choirs singing.  That’s news that makes a difference in our world, it makes a difference to you and me, it makes a difference anywhere God’s Love is made real as the light shining in the darkness.

A candle is a protest.  It says to the darkness, “I beg to differ.”

Tonight, the Light of God’s Love - God’s true light in Jesus - the light of hope, and peace, and joy, and love - will be passed to you.  My hope for you is twofold.  First, that you will receive that light with joy, that something of God’s loving presence will be kindled within you and chase away whatever darkness is there, that Jesus himself will be born anew in your heart tonight.  And second, I hope the light keeps burning brightly within you, and that you have the courage that Jesus had to take that light out into all the dark places of pain and suffering and mess of our world.

I doubt you’ll see Irving the sheep depicted on any greeting cards next year, but Irving got it right: Jesus has willingly come into the mess.  What is messy, Jesus cleans up.  What is broken, Jesus restores.  What is incomplete, Jesus makes whole.  What is wrong, Jesus rights.  What is dark, Jesus lights.  The Light of the Word shines in all the dark places of our world, and there is no darkness, no matter how deep, no matter how persistent, that is strong enough to overcome it.

This Christmas, we say, “Welcome, Lord Jesus!  You’ve come at just the right time!”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Soul Magnifies the Lord (Luke 1:39-56)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her. ”
46Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
56Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  It is December 23, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, our time of waiting with pregnant expectation for the birth of Jesus is almost over.  You can feel the excitement and the anticipation just building.  Our music is making the shift from the somber and penitential hymns of Advent - and let’s be honest, the church has only a few good, singable Advent hymns - to the more familiar and joyful music of Christmas; we’re almost there, but not just quite.
While the culture around us has been in the throes of Christmas, we in the church have resisted the urge to run to the manger too quickly, taking the season of Advent to prepare.  You know that when parents are preparing to give birth or adopt a child, they take some time preparing room in their home for the child.  They get a room cleaned out, fixed up, and furnished so that when the child comes, there will be a place prepared.  If you are a parent or a grandparent, just think of the joy and excitement you felt in anticipation of this child that was going to come into your life.  Remember what that felt like, when you first held that precious little person and looked them in their beautiful little scrunched-up face and thought, “You’re finally here!  I have been waiting so long to meet you!”
During Advent, we in the church want to do the same thing.  We prepare our hearts and our homes and our church for Jesus to be born within us yet again.  The season of Advent is a time for us to pray and reflect, to get ready by preparing for hope, and peace, and joy, and love to be born.
Just as parents start nesting before the baby comes – you get the nursery set, you buy the car seat, you pack the hospital bag, you baby-proof the house – so too do we need to make preparations that are both just as serious and joyful to prepare for the coming of Christ.  My hope is that you have used these four weeks of Advent to do just that - that you have opened your heart wide to receive Jesus in your life, that you are saying with every fiber of your being, “Welcome to my life, Lord Jesus!  Make yourself at home!  I’m so glad you’ve come to our world, I’m so glad you’ve come to me!  I’ve been waiting so long to meet you!”
Parents always claim that the moment they welcomed a child into their lives, their lives were changed forever for the better.  All of a sudden, their values, their priorities, their resources, their energy were re-aligned around the new life in their midst.  The same is true when we welcome Jesus into our lives - our lives are changed forever for the better.  All of a sudden, our values, our priorities, our resources, our energy are re-aligned around Christ.  When we welcome Christ, we are changed.  A deep an indescribable joy plants itself deep within us, that joy fills us up to overflowing, it can’t be contained but bubbles out of us and touches others.
So it is for those who have Jesus within them, as it was for Mary, the mother of our Lord, in the Scripture we have read today.
Mary was one of the Hebrew people, who had been preparing for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, for generations, and the song she sings in our Scripture today is the culmination of all those centuries of expectant waiting, yearning, groaning for the promises of God to be fulfilled.  Like an underground spring, you can feel the unbridled joy bubbling out of Mary as she lifts her voice in song.  As expectant mothers before and since have said, “It’s time!”
Mary finds herself smack in the middle of God’s plans to reconcile and redeem the world, and we who read this story from the outside know that the child she bears is a gift not only to her, but to the whole world. 
In December, our Scripture readings use the words of angels and relatives to describe Mary - blessed, highly-favored, exalted among women, full of grace, and to be sure, she is all of these things.  We hold her up as a model of faith, a paragon of virtue, an example to follow; after all, don’t we pray for these things in our own lives?  “God, shine your favor upon me!”  “God, lift me up!”  “God, bless me!”
Friends, we need look no further than the life of Mary, however, to realize that these are dangerous things to pray, because God may actually answer our prayers and give us what we’ve asked for!  Bishop Will Willimon says that when an angel appears to you, when you find out you’re blessed and favored by God, if you’re smart, you’ll run the other direction as fast as you can, because your life is about to change, and that doesn’t equal easier for you. 
In short, God blesses us to be a blessing to others.  Receiving God’s blessings didn’t make Mary’s life easier or more pleasant.  She ended up an unmarried pregnant teenager.  Mary was exalted by God, and she ended up the source of gossip and finger-pointing and ridicule among her peers because of her unbelievable and unlikely story about how she became pregnant in the first place.  Mary was full of grace, and it’s a good thing, too, because she was going to need it throughout her life.  It was going to take all the grace she had to deal with a son said things that embarrassed the family in front of the neighbors, who got in trouble with the law - she was going to need all the grace she had as her heart broke watching him be executed as an enemy of the state.
When Mary was blessed, her life didn’t suddenly become sunshine and roses.  What it did become, however, was a channel through which God was working to redeem the whole world.  And at the end of the day, making herself available to God was more important than her personal comfort.
So be careful and be clear about what you’re asking from God.  If you really just want a comfortable life, don’t disguise that in psuedo-holy language and ask for a blessing.  Only ask for blessing if you are willing to give it all up and put yourself in a position where God can use you and shine through you.
Historically, the church has focused its chatter on details about Mary like her age, or her virginity, or her obedience, or any number of things that, in the grand scheme of things, are sort of inconsequential.  The thing that should really stand out to us is that Mary just kept pointing to God.  Her soul never stopped magnifying the Lord, her life itself became a song of praise and worship and rejoicing before God.  Her life was full of ups and downs - honestly, far more downs than ups, so far as I can tell - yet her soul just kept right on magnifying the Lord.  Her soul - her heart, the center of her being - magnifies, multiplies, glorifies the Lord.
Blessed is she among women.  Blessed is the fruit of her womb, the child who will usher in God’s reign and govern with hope, and peace, and joy, and love, the child who is none other than God-come-to-Earth, Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus the Christ, God’s only-begotten and most-beloved Son.
The early Greek-speaking Christians called her Theotokos, literally “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.”  Mary is bearing God’s very presence, in the person of Jesus, into the world. 
She is blessed, and we know by now that didn’t make her life easy.  Even by the time she breaks into song in today’s reading, life is already hard for her.  It’s not going to get easier for her, and yet she keeps right on singing God’s praises, her soul just continues to magnify the Lord.  Her joy is not tied to her circumstances, indeed there is hardly anything in her circumstances, from a worldly point of view, that would make her happy.  Rather, her joy came from the presence of God within her, and she anticipated the abundant life that child would bring to all, the resurrection, even, of all that was dead and broken and destructive in the world.
Mary sang because through the child in her womb, God would be doing a new thing - toppling the mighty from their thrones, humbling the proud, shaming the arrogant, filling the hungry with good things.
Mary sang because she looked around at her world - a world addicted to injustice and oppression and exploitation, a world in which the wicked seem to prosper, where hopelessness, and hate, and violence, and despair seemed to rule the day - and just as parents know that their world is never going to be the same once their child is born, so too did Mary catch a glimpse that through her child, the whole world was about to change.
Mary sang because God was setting us free from ourselves, our own misguided devices, from our paths of self-destruction; God was instead coming among us as one of us to redeem us and set us in the path that leads to abundant life.
Mary sang because God would get the last word - and the Word is Jesus.
Despite the circumstances of her life and her world, dark and hopeless though it must have often seemed, Mary kept singing.  Today, we are invited to join our voices with hers, to learn her song, to raise our voices in a song that continues to glorify God in all circumstances, trusting that whatever seems lost now will someday be redeemed.  We are called to sing her song because so many in our world desperately need an encounter with the healing presence of God.  In the words of Meister Eckart (1260-1327), “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”
We have prepared for the coming of Jesus through this season of Advent.  Christmas is almost upon us.  It’s almost time!  May the birth of this child bless us, maybe not as we expect, but most certainly as the world needs, for we ourselves are pregnant with the promise of God’s glory.  So it was for Mary, and she hasn’t stopped singing since.
Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord!  With all my heart I glorify the Lord!  In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my savior!”   But, she’s not meant to sing alone.  Mary’s song isn’t a solo performance, it’s a song for all God’s people.  Jesus is coming, and when he does, let’s be singing a song that’s music to his ears.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This was not God's will

The worship day started for about 25 of us with a time of prayer and lament on the church’s front lawn.  We courageously admitted that we don’t have answers to the tragedy in Connecticut.  We shared prayers together.  We read Psalms 142 and 77.  We reflected, and remembered, and admitted that we don't know a whole lot about a whole lot of things.

We do, however, have faith and trust in a God who is Love, who came that we might life and have it abundantly, whose will is ever-directed to his children’s good.  And when we don’t know what else to do, prayer is always a good option.

While we don’t know everything, we do know this:

The events in Connecticut were not part of God’s plan.

They were not part of God’s will.

God did not make or allow them to happen “for a reason.”

Rather, the events were a senseless loss, a heartbreaking tragedy, a reminder of the brokenness and darkness that exists in far too many places, in far too many hearts, in our world today.  We humans have choice, and each of us has within us the capacity for both great evil and great love.  There is still much brokenness in the world and within each of us – much for God to still restore and redeem, if you will – and when we look at an event that so squarely stands in opposition to God’s desire for abundant life for all God’s children, we know that it is not the work of God.  What sense would it make for God to cause suffering so God could then redeem it?  That would be a very confused God – working one direction one moment, and then working the opposite the next.

God didn’t plan the events in Connecticut.  God didn’t orchestrate them.  God doesn’t kill children; God knows what it’s like to lose a Son, you see. God had an innocent child who was killed; and it broke God’s heart.  Where there is suffering in the world, particularly when the innocent suffer, God’s heart is still breaking.  When we weep, when we mourn, God weeps and mourns with us.

Let us continue to offer prayers for healing and hope, to hold each other close and close to God, and to commit ourselves against all odds, as we are called in this season of Advent, to a kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love –

– in a world where it often feels like darkness and evil are winning.  Just know that they don’t get the last word.  The last word belongs to THE Word, the One who told us he was the Alpha and the Omega –

– Jesus –
– who willingly left the splendor of heaven to enter in our suffering, our brokenness, our darkness, our pain, our hopelessness.  Wherever there is suffering, Jesus is never far away.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prepare (Luke 3:1-6)

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius--when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas--God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.  This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
A voice crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill be will leveled.
The crooked will be made straight
and the rough places made smooth.
All humanity will see God’s salvation.”

In our house, we have prepared a room for our overnight guests.  If you are staying with us overnight, we want you to feel comfortable and warmly welcomed, completely at ease.  It’s our hope that our overnight guests forget that they are visitors and instead feel so graciously received that our home will feel like home to them.  We take our hospitality seriously.
Why hospitality?
Followers of Jesus always take their hospitality seriously.  Making others feel welcome, preparing room for other people, rearranging our priorities to care for others ahead our ourselves, being selfless instead of selfish - all of that is what it means to practice hospitality.  Showing hospitality to all people is one of the most important and basic virtues of our faith; it is inherent to being a Christian.  Why?  Because all people are created in the image of God, and when we genuinely and warmly welcome all people, we genuinely and warmly welcome the God whose image they bear.  One of the carols we will sing, when these days of Advent are behind us and it is finally Christmas, says, “Let every heart prepare him room.”  Practicing hospitality, making room for others and their needs, is a concrete way to prepare room in our hearts for God.
The Bible is filled, cover-to-cover, with teaching about the importance of hospitality.  In the Old Testament, the people are instructed to show particular care for strangers, foreigners, those in need, the poor, the disabled, and all the people who would be looked down on and considered outcasts from society (Leviticus 19:34; 2 Kings 4:8-17; Genesis 19:1-38; Isaiah 58:7; Job 31:32; Leviticus 19:10; Exodus 23:9; Genesis 4:31; to name just a few!).  In the New Testament, Hebrews 13:2 tells us not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers, for some have unknowingly entertained angels in doing this, and 1 Peter 4:9 adds to do it without grumbling - just imagine how much more hospitable the church would instantly become if those who are prone to grumbling stopped thinking about themselves all the time and started thinking more about others or, I dunno, even Jesus – why, I bet they’d have very little left to grumble about!
Jesus says that whatever we do to strangers or people in need or the least of society, we do to him (Matthew 25:34-46).  If we are kind and generous and hospitable to them, then we are kind and generous and hospitable to Jesus.  If we are mean and selfish and unwelcoming to them, then we are mean and selfish and unwelcoming to Jesus.  As you think about the ways you treat other people, know that you’re treating Jesus the same way.  Is the way of the Lord, the way of Jesus, prepared in your heart, or is there a roadblock still there that is keeping Jesus from getting in and changing you?
The word for nobodies
The Scripture for today is specifically for two kinds of people – those who aren’t as close to God as they want to be, and those who are standing in the way of other people drawing close to God.  Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, traditionally referred to as “John the Baptist Sunday.”  Sure enough, there he is in our Scripture reading from Luke 3 - Out there in wilderness, Wild John - the son of the poor, country priest Zechariah; Wild John - the traveling preacher with weird clothes and a strange diet, Wild John - you couldn’t get much lower in society.
In contrast, the first two verses of today’s reading are a roll call of the powerful and influential people of the day - the Emperor, governor, king, ruler, and priest.  In these first two verses, Luke is name-dropping a who’s who list of the rich and powerful.  If God were to work according to the rules of the world, surely these would be the people first in line to hear a message from God.
But God doesn’t work that way.  Instead, the Scriptures tell us that “God’s word came to John, son of Zechariah” (Luke 3:2).  God’s word didn’t come to the rich and powerful.  It didn’t come to people who thought they were important.  It came instead, to Wild John, the peasant preacher, the guy eating bugs and wearing a camel hair coat long before that was fashionable.
John the Baptist is such an influential and well-known hero of the Christian faith, it’s easy for us to forget that in his own day, he was a nobody living nowhere.  And yet, to this nobody in the middle of nowhere, the word of God came.
So it is with God, and God’s not done yet.  God continues to work through unlikely characters today; God is still speaking, and the good news today is that if you feel like a nobody, you are perhaps perfectly positioned to hear a word from God.
The opposite side of that coin is also true: the more important you think you are, the less likely it is that you’ll hear a word from God.  Oh, it’s not that God’s not speaking.  It’s just that with all the self-important noise you’re making, there’s no way that whatever it is that God is saying to you is actually getting through.
John’s message: Repent
The word of God has a chance of getting through, however, if you’ll do the thing that John was preaching in the wilderness: “Repent.”  There’s a lot of baggage and bad teaching that’s gotten attached to this word.  Most people today seem to associate the word “repentance” with emotions such as “feeling sorry,” or as Millard Fuller used to say, “feeling sorry for getting caught.”

That’s not what repentance is about, however.  The Greek word that used here, metanoia, means something more like “turning around and heading in a different direction.”  We’ve talked about this before, but it’s a point that bears repeating: when you hear “repent” in the Scriptures, just think, “turn around.  Change course.  Go a different direction.”  Repenting has nothing to do with our emotions, and everything to do with a change in our actions.
Repentance allows us to confront the roadblock that often stands in the way of us hearing the word of God, the barrier that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of life in Jesus Christ we were designed for.  Do you know the barrier I’m talking about?  The biggest barrier that stands between us and God has a name: “Self.”   We are invited to confront our tendency to make ourselves the center of the universe; when we repent, we walk away from this tendency and put God there instead.
One hundred years ago, Dr. Roland Walker, a faculty member at Ohio Wesleyan University, wrote these words: “To the Governing General of the Universe, Dear Sir: I hereby resign my self-appointed position as directing superintendent in my own life and the world.  I cannot level all the mountains of injustice, nor fill all the valleys of selfishness.  There is too much of it in me.  I hereby turn over to you for your disposition and use, my life, my money, my time, and my talent to be at your disposal.”
That’s true repentance – to swallow your pride, open your heart to be changed,and say, “Lord, from now on, you’re calling the shots.”
On this second Sunday of Advent, John son of Zechariah is inviting us to repent.  Scratch that, he’s crying out for us to repent.  To change our actions.  Not because John is bossy and gets his jollies from telling people what to do.  He tells us to repent so that when the word of God does come to us, it will not fall upon deaf ears.
The word has come to you today, and you have a choice
The word of God has come to each of us today, and we have a choice to make based on what we’ve heard.   Are you willing to be changed by what you hear?  Have you prepared any room in your heart for Jesus to come in and change you?  Have you experienced the genuine change of heart that only comes from knowing Jesus, or are you still pretty much the same selfish person you’ve always been?  I’m amazed at people who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who still have a mean, nasty, ugly spirit within them.  Honestly, some of them are even worse now – not only are they still mean and nasty, now they’re self-righteous on top of it!  The life of faith requires our repentance, something within us must change.  When Jesus is within us, something always changes.
If your life is on a trajectory that isn’t filling you with the peace that only comes from knowing God, today is a great day to change that.   Let the words of John echo into the wilderness of your life, take his words to heart, and repent.  Turn around.  Go a different way. Stop living a life that is self-centered and start living one that is Christ-centered.  To turn away from the ways of the world and go forward in the way of the Lord – the way of hope, and peace, and joy, and love of the kingdom of God, the kingdom that is coming to us in Jesus and for which we prepare in this season of Advent.
There is a story of a church who was holding its annual children’s Christmas pageant.  There was a boy with developmental disabilities who desperately wanted to be part of the production.  The adult leaders thought long and hard, and finally gave him the part of the innkeeper.  The night of the pageant came, and kids in bathrobes acted out the Christmas story.  Joseph and Mary made their way to the front and asked the innkeeper if he had any room, and he said, “No room in the inn.”  Joseph and Mary turned, dejected, and began to sulk back down the main aisle toward the back of the church.  But then, the kid playing the innkeeper went off script and ran after them, saying, “Wait! Wait!  You can have my room!”
It was a lesson in the virtue of Christian hospitality no one would forget.
Friends, it is the second Sunday of Advent.  Jesus is coming, and he’s coming soon.  When he knocks on the door of your heart, have you prepared room in your heart for Jesus, and which room?  Don’t give him just the guest room; give him your room.  He’s the Lord – make him master of the house.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Signs of the Times (Luke 21:25-36)

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near. ”

29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”

You can tell when a person came of age by the skits from Saturday Night Live they quote.  For me, it’s Celebrity Jeopardy - watching Will Ferrell playing Alex Trebeck as he becomes increasingly frustrated by the failure of his famous contestants to comprehend even the dumbed-down questions befitting their celebrity status.
In one particularly difficult round of Final Jeopardy, he asks the contestants, “Where are you right now?” and even offers suggestions of possible answers - “California,” “a television studio,” “earth,” “here” - and is astonished when Sean Connery gives a seemingly correct answer - “In doors.”

On this first Sunday of Advent, through the Scripture we have just read, Jesus asks us to consider two similar questions - “Do you know where you are?” and “Do you know what time it is?”  The signs of the times are all around us, but it will take the eyes of faith in Jesus to read them correctly.  May we pray.

The signs of the season are hard to miss.  Most stores were patient enough to wait until after Halloween to put out the Christmas items, though there are a few every year who jump the gun.  The  malls are packed with frantic shoppers who are spending money they don’t have on things people don’t need.  Our social calendars are filled with opportunities to “Ho-ho-ho” the night away with a month of over-eating and over-drinking, and every gas station I’ve been to in the last week has had “Oh the weather outside is frightful” blaring over its speakers, which is at least somewhat amusing on a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-60s.

On the Sundays in December, many who come to worship are disappointed to discover that it’s not yet Christmas at Church; it’s Advent.  The church keeps time in its own way.  This season of Advent, when the world around us in the full throes of cultural Christmas, the church has the nerve to say, “Wait a minute.  Not so fast.  Don’t rush - because you’ll miss the whole point, if you do.”  Christmas will come, but not before we spend some time reflecting, and soul-searching, and waiting and preparing.

Preparing for what?  For the coming of Jesus, of course.  We may come to worship on these Sundays in December expecting angels and shepherds, pregnant virgins, disbelieving husbands, and sweet little baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and tinsel halo, and I promise you, that will come.  But on this first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary Gospel reading brings us not little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, but stern, adult Jesus teaching in the temple courts about the signs that will accompany his second coming.

He says, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor” (Luke 21:25-27).
We may see these signs as a daunting image of a frightening sky, we may see something bold and beautiful, or we may see a glimpse of the glory of God.  What we see in Jesus will depend on the degree to which we have prepared our hearts for him.  His instruction comes with a somber warning to each of us to pay attention, to heed the signs, and to prepare our hearts.  Will the signs fill us with dread or with joy?  That’s what Jesus asks us today.

Pop quiz this morning:  Where are we? What time is it?  Is the world is a better or worse place now than it was 50 years ago?  If you think it is better, please raise your hand.  If you think it is worse, please raise your hand.  If you refuse to participate, please raise your hand.

My grandfather was born in 1908.  Here is how he described “the good old days.”  Papa remembered his own brother dying in the bed beside him when they were both younger than five, he remembered walking down the street, and seeing signs posted on people’s front doors that said, Quarantine: smallpox or diptheria he remembered unsafe mine conditions in his small West Virginia coal town that took and impaired the lives of his peers – if the town of Farmington, WV rings a bell, it’s because the Number 9 mine exploded there in 1968, killing 78 miners.  He remembered close encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups who were widespread and influential through society.  Sure, a kid could go to the corner store and buy as much candy as he could carry home for a nickel, but if you didn’t even have a nickel, what did it matter?  No, he said, the good old days weren’t really that good.

Whether things are better or worse depends on perspective.  Charles Dickens’ opening from A Tale of Two Cities actually makes more sense than it seems at first read: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  It is often both, happening at the same time.

In many ways, the world is a better place than it used to be - violent crime is down, life expectancy is up, personal income levels are higher, illiteracy is down. In many ways, the world is also a worse place - the division between rich and poor is wider, worldwide pollution has increased, and while I celebrate that things are definitely better for women, non-whites, gays and lesbians, and people with various handicaps than they used to be, we still have a long way to go to attain anything resembling genuine equality.  I find the world to be both a better place than it used to be, and a worse place than it used to be.  The current of history is not moving in only one direction, but is rather a perpetual tide of ebb and flow.  It is both the best of times and the worst of times.

But as Christians, the time is always right for hope, whether we believe the world around us to be better or worse than it used to be.  Today Christians around the world light the first candle in a four-week journey through the darkness of Advent, waiting, preparing, yet solidly believing that the Light of the World will come.  Susan Andrews says we are called to recognize with a God’s-eye view both the beauty and the terror of this world.  These days of Advent are a time to wait and prepare for God’s promise to be fulfilled, rejoicing in the small wonders and the simple graces of these dangerous days.

For many, the hope we feel is often tied to our circumstances.  But on this first Sunday of Advent, I invite you to simply remember that true hope rests in Jesus.  Circumstantial hope is fleeting.  If we place our hope in towers that can topple, we will be subject to constant fear and anxiety that what is most important and precious to us can be taken away.  But if our hope is in Jesus and Jesus alone, we have nothing to fear.

Brothers and sisters, as Christians, we need to learn not to be so fearful. Our hope is not circumstantial.  A national election is now about a month behind us.  As a pastor, I said very little leading up to the election or since, because the Church is at its best when we are a sign along the road pointing constantly to Jesus and nothing else.  As a private citizen, I actually like politics.  When John King starts shading in the states on the magic wall, I just can’t take my eyes off of his beautiful slender fingers.  I have, from time-to-time, even considered making a run for office myself, but my wife, wisely, says I’ll be running as a recently-divorced candidate if I do.

On a personal level, I love politics.  But as a pastor, it is my job to keep pointing us to Jesus and only Jesus, to constantly invite you to live as citizens of his kingdom of hope, peace, joy and love - the themes we celebrate in this Advent season - and to remind us all, myself included, that our hope, in the best and worst of times, ultimately rests in Jesus.

It is my joy to remind us all today: when it comes to the hope of the world, that position has already been filled.  Jesus is the hope of the world; let us not be so deceived that we assign that role to any politician, political party, government, or nation.  The Bible says, “Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:8).  Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away.  Rulers and leaders, governments and nations are all going to end, but the name of Jesus endures forever.  Jesus says in verse 33, “Heaven and earth shall pass away” - that means everything in it, too - the best and the worst this world has to offer is all fleeting, but he says his words will never pass away.

Jesus is the hope of the world.  Put all your hope in Jesus; do what your financial advisor told you not to do, and go ahead and put all your eggs in one basket.  Put your trust in Jesus and him alone, and I guarantee that no matter what happens in this world, no one can take your hope away.

Back in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asking us to pay attention and prepare.  The season of Advent is an opportunity to prepare for the comings - plural - of Christ: God coming to earth in the infant Jesus, and Christ returning to earth at a time we do not know.  The question of this second coming is not “if,” but “when” Christ will return, and Jesus wants us to be ready.  We do so, Jesus says, by keeping alert, by constantly preparing, and continually putting our hope in God and God alone - the one who loves us so much that he came to us as one of us in Jesus.  This Advent season is a time to prepare our hearts - whether for the first time ever, or yet again, for Christ to come and dwell in us and change us.  If we are not open to our hearts being changed by him, then we still have some preparing to do.

Jesus calls us beyond a sentimental infant faith to one that wrestles with grown-up questions about where our hope and our identity ultimately lie.  Whether the signs of which he speaks give us fear, hope, or wonder largely depends on how well we have prepared for him, and how wide we have opened our hearts to him.

So wherever you are on your spiritual journey, take some time this Advent to prepare.  Open yourself more fully to Jesus.  Invite him to come and live in you.  Invite him to move from room to room in the house of your heart, to sweep away the things that don’t belong, and to fill you with his Holy Spirit.  Ask him to let you see the world through his eyes, to cover you with his grace, to fill you with his love.  Let Jesus change your heart; he’s the only one who can give you the hope you truly need.

On this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus is asking us, “Do you know what time it is?”  The response of the faithful is, “Yes, it’s time to prepare.  It’s time to hope against all odds, whether the world around us becomes a better place or a worse place, we are prepared to be people of hope.”

Maybe things are worse than they used to be.  Maybe they’re better. If your hope is in Jesus and Jesus alone, it doesn’t really matter.  The signs of the times are all around us, and those who prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ will find very little to fear and much for which to hope.