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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Heavenly Witnesses (Psalm 96)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Christmas Eve Worship

            I am thinking of characters in this story – the story of Jesus’ birth.  These are major characters, extremely important in this.  We don’t know how many there, just that there are many.  They are all over the place, very active in the story. 
I keep saying story, but that does not mean fiction.  This is a story that is more fantastic than fantasy, and as real as you and I are real.  This happened, but the power of it is that is continue to live and generate new life in you and me as we enter the story.  These characters are not the main ones, but they are essential.
Popular myth tells a variety of unsupported, unbiblical ideas about them.  Christians often buy into these myths and express numerous unfounded doctrines.  Movies cash in.  A TV show was based on their visit to unsuspecting humans and their divine touch.  I am talking about angels.
            What are angels?  The Bible does not set down a systematic definition of angels.  ‘Angelology’ is legitimate subset of theology, but like many subsets, much of the thought is educated guess because the Bible’s goal is to tell God’s story.  Angels are only included in the way they help us understand God.  In doing that, they are very important.  But, in an of themselves, we can’t say much.  We cannot say more than the Bible says.  We won’t go into discussion of spiritual warfare.  I offer no speculation on guardian angels.  I want to look at that night and the days leading up to it. 
            The word angel comes from a Greek word that means ‘messenger.’  The word was used for humans who carried messages, but it had a special application for divine couriers who broughtthe thoughts of the gods to humans.  The New Testament writers took the Greek concepts to communicate in writing the revealed truth about God.  The divine messenger had to work overtime when God’s son came.
            Especially busy was the angel Gabriel.  He is named as the angel who carried God’s word to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and of course to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Gabriel made individual appearances to both.  An angel also spoke to Joseph, first to announce Mary’s pregnancy, and second to guide Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous plots.  That angel was not named.  Nor was the angel who first appeared to the shepherds to announce Jesus ‘birth.  It may have been Gabriel or another.  The story moves along on the basis of God’s communiques.  Angels deliver those messages.
            “Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.  You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.”[i]
            “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be call the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[ii]
            “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 Christ, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[iii]
            Do you hear the echo in the angels’ words?  The Heavenly witnesses bring to life the song from the Psalms.  We just heard a sample of the eternal praise from Psalm 96.
            “Sing a new song.” 
            “Everyone on earth, sing praises to the Lord” (96:1b-c).
            “Tell every nation on earth. ‘the Lord is wonderful and does marvelous things’”(v.3).
“Tell everyone of every nation, ‘Praise the glorious power of the Lord’” (v.7).
            “Everyone on earth, now tremble and worship the Lord” (v.9).
“Announce [the good news] to the nations, ‘The Lord is King’” (v.10).
 And v. 11, “Tell the heavens and the earth to be glad and celebrate.”
            Churches everywhere embody the Psalm as we add our voices to the Angelsong.  Prompted by the Holy Spirit, we understand a little bit how big this is.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the climax of the story of God’s salvation for the world.
            Think about who the angels told: Zechariah, an aged priest who with his post-menopausal wife was childless.  He was fading from the scene and of no importance.  Even less significant than him was Mary, a Jewish peasant.  Her gender and her station in life slotted pretty far down on the social ladder.  But she was not as low those who worked with the sheep.  As important as these animals were in the sacrificial system of worship the men who kept them were made unclean by the very necessary work they did.  They were not allowed into the inner parts of the temple.
            But God is restrained by temple or religious institution.  God is not obligated to appear to kings or emperors.  God sets the initiative.  In Jesus, God came as a common human.  In his perfect love and sinless holiness, Jesus cast a spotlight on the sinful condition of all of us – kings and beggars and everyone in between.  In his light, all are commoners.  That reality is seen throughout Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and in his church whose first leaders were men whose hands smelled of fish.  These barely literate disciples established the body of Christ as they spread the Gospel that continues to spread today.
            What is the most important offering a witness gives?  His testimony!  The story resolves not because of the importance of the witness, important as he may be, but because of the truth.  Yes, the Heavenly witnesses gave their testimony to aging priests, anonymous maidens, and sleepy shepherds.  The true testimony of these witnesses from Heaven is that God has come for all people – for you and me.
            The angels don’t really care if they hang from Christmas trees or decorate red and green sweaters.  They came to announce God’s actions.  When we listen to them and then give our hearts to God by receiving Jesus, the angels rejoice.  There is a heavenly party every time someone becomes of a follower of Jesus.  The witnesses celebrate that their testimony has ignited true faith. 
            “Angels we have heard on high” – yes they want to be heard, and they want us to sing with them.
            “Silent night, holy night, darkness flies; all is light. Shepherds hear the angels sing: Alleluia – hail the king!”
            Alleluia.  Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord and King. 
AMEN



[i] Luke 1:13-14.
[ii] Luke 1:30-33
[iii] Luke 2:10-12

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What Only God Can Do - Psalm 146

Third Sunday of Advent


          What does God give you that no one else can or will?  I could ask what does God give “us?”  I might say ‘eternal life.’  No person, no matter how much they love me, can offer that.  I might say, ‘complete forgiveness of sins.’  A friend can forgive me when I hurt him.  But only God can wash away all the stains my sins leave on my life.  In Jesus God does exactly that.  I could offer any number of things that God does for all people – these categories are universal.  Everyone needs them and only God meets these needs.  Salvation, forgiveness, eternal hope, unfailing truth, a sense of purpose: these are all examples of what God gives us.
          What does God give you?  This is seriously personal.  Focus on your walk with God in Jesus.  Imagine the entirety of your life.  What does God bring that no one else could give and that makes you who you are?  What are the specific reasons in your life for praising God?
          Psalm 146 begins a series of ‘Hallel’ Psalms, the final five Psalms of the book, and all are praise songs.  I was filled with joy this past week as I went through the phrases of Psalm 146 and imagined the specific ways Jesus’ lived the attributes named.  We will put these on the screen so if you want to, you can look up each passage and read it alongside the words of Psalm 146.[i]
          Verse 5, “the Lord God of Jacob blesses everyone.”  God chose Israel, but not in a way that cut the rest of the world off.  Israel was to draw the world to God.  All that is promised to Israel and through Israel is fulfilled in Jesus.  Matthew’s Gospel, quoting Isaiah, declares Jesus “the hope of the nations.”  All people, Jews, Gentiles, everyone is blessed by God’s appearing in Jesus.
Verse 6, “God made the Heaven and the Earth.”  Chapter 1 in John’s gospel and chapter 1 in Colossians both affirm the central role of Jesus in creation of all that is.  A few phrases later in Psalm 146:6: “God always keeps his word.”  John 14 – Jesus is the truth.  And John 17, there is but one true God and Jesus comes from Him. 
“He gives justice to the poor and food to the hungry,” Psalm 146:7.  In Matthew 19 a wealthy young man wants to earn eternal life.  Jesus responds the only way he can is to give of his riches to help the poor and become a disciple of Jesus.  Psalm 146:8: “The Lord sets the prisoner free and heals blind eyes.”  Luke 4:18-19: Jesus has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
In the Psalm we see that the “Lord … looks after strangers” (v.9).  In Luke 14, Jesus commends his disciples to invite the poor and infirmed to dinner.  The Psalm sings of God’s care for orphans and widows even as God destroys the wicked.  In his parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25, Jesus extols the love of the weak and vulnerable, orphans and widows, as love of Jesus himself.  Conversely, failure to love the needy is rejection of Jesus.
Why do we praise?  More to the point, why is Psalm 146 a praise song for Jesus, one we sing during Advent in celebration of His birth?  The verses of the Psalm give answer.  Blessing, creation, truth, provision for the hungry, healing for the wounded, and care for the needy; this is what Jesus did in a way that only God could.  The Psalm praises God.  Jesus is God in the flesh.
The Psalm also boldly identifies what we humans face.  We trudge along through a world that comes up short in the very things mentioned in the Psalm.  Trustworthiness?  We are bombarded with phone calls, emails, and knocks on our doors all coming from people trying to separate us from our money with stories of charity or products or importance.  We are targeted by scammers whose goal is to possess what we have. 
Justice?  Is there justice in the world?  A mayor in San Diego was found guilty of three sexual harassment misdemeanors and one felony.  He could have been sentenced to as much as six years in prison.  He got three months house arrest and probation.  A felony conviction, but no jail time for the rich and powerful.  In Somalia, a woman reported that she was raped.  For doing so, she was imprisoned for tainting the reputation of the man who assaulted her. 
In verse 7 the Psalm mentions and the hungry and those in prison, and we understand this to be people unjustly locked in chains.  Our world knows hunger and unjust imprisonment.  The Psalm mentions the blind.  We have no cure for irreversible blindness.  The pains that afflicted humanity still hurt us.  By saying that God meets these hurts, the singer acknowledges the reality of these hurts. 
Two thousand years after the coming of Jesus and in a time of the second coming of Jesus, we praise God thinking God’s gifts to us and we do this with three things in mind.  First, Jesus performed miracles that went beyond what the original singer of the Psalm could have imagined.  He fed 5000 with a few loaves.  He made the lame walk and the blind see.  He turned a group of uneducated fishermen into the leaders of the church – a church that would outlast the Roman Empire.  We praise God knowing what God did in Jesus and believing that even in our scientific age, God still works miracles through the Holy Spirit.
Second, we praise God knowing God is at work in the world through the church.  We cannot alleviate all poverty.  But as God’s church, the body of Jesus Christ, we come alongside those who are poor.  We use our hands and feet, our money and time, our hearts and minds to feed the hungry and educate and empower the orphan and comfort the ailing elderly.  The works are not usually unexplainable miracle, but it is God at work through us and it is cause to praise God. Sometimes, the miracle happens.
Third, we praise anticipating that God will bring to completion the work of his church.  At the end of time, at the last judgment, God will settle all accounts and bring full and complete redemption.  Just as the promise of Psalm 146 came to life in Jesus and comes to life in the work of the church in the world, final, complete fulfillment is still to come.  We lay claim to promise of God in 1 Corinthians 15 – that we will live in eternity in resurrected bodies that cannot be harmed or killed.  We know the fellowship we enjoy with one another in the Holy Spirit now is a foreshadowing of the perfect love we will have with God in the eternal Kingdom of God.
Thus we praise God.  Advent is a season of praise.  I mentioned that Psalm 146 is the first of the five ‘Hallel’ Psalms that close out the book of Psalms.  What does ‘Hallel’ mean?  Each of these Psalms, 146-150 begins and ends with the same Hebrew word, a word often not translated.  It is “Hallelujah.”  These are Hallelujah songs.
We have explored particular themes of Jesus’ coming in the Psalms.  In the first week of Advent, we thought about Advent as a special season of worship.  Last week, we were reminded in Psalm 72 that Advent is a call to prayer, specifically, prayer for justice.  This morning, in Psalm 146, we get intentional about raising Hallelujahs.  Our praises are born out of specific acts of Jesus in his earthly life and in his continuing presence, the Holy Spirit at work in the world through the church. 
In your life, where does the rubber meet the road?  Where does the praise become more than something ‘we do at church?’  Where does the praise erupt in your heart because you know God is at work, is with you, is creating and re-creating you? 
This could be difficult.  The healing, the release, the justice, the blessing – you might not be feeling it.  You might be in the middle of a storm and you don’t see land.  Your life is tossed about, out of control, and you’d really like the final judgment and second coming to happen right now.  You want to enter the joyous presence of Jesus immediately because your present reality is so tough.
That’s not everyone.  Some have no trouble citing specific praises.  God wants us all, even in rough times, to feel the blessing He has for us in Jesus.  My encouragement as we conclude our thoughts on Psalm 146 is to seek and find the praise this week.  Seek God in the most personal places in life.  In the places of brokenness, meet Jesus.  Invite him to help clean the skeletons out of the closet.  Ask him into those rooms in the heart you’ve kept locked.  Discover what it is to be forgiven, to be loved, to be a child of God.  All problems won’t instantly be solved.  But solutions will come into view and more importantly, you and I discover we don’t face things alone.  God is with us.
In that discovery, we own the praises we lift.  We praise in church, while walking, while driving.  We go to bed thinking of praising God.  We wake up and a song of praise is already playing in the heart.  As we send Christmas cards, shop, and taken in all the trappings of the season, all the happiness of this time of year and other feelings, seek God by getting to know Jesus and in Him  discover how wonderful it is to praise God from the depths of the heart. 
Jesus did what only God can in history.  Jesus does what only God can do in our lives.  Hallelujah.
AMEN



[i] Matthew 12:12; John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16; John 14:6;  17:1-3; Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 4:18-19; Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 25:31-46

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Prayer for the Removal of the Wicked King

I am a preacher and it is the season of Advent.  On December 8, my sermon dealt with Psalm 72.  “Give the King your justice, O God.”  The Psalm went on to show that the king is just when he notices the poor and down and out in society, and he uses his kingly powers to help people who need help.  The compassionate king is the truly just king who represents God well. 

In my sermon, which you can read on this blog (http://honesttalkwithgod.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-kings-version-of-justice-psalm-72.html), I compared King Herod to King Jesus.  Herod committed genocide trying to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:16).  Jesus commanded that cared of the “least of these is care for him” (Matthew 25:40).  Jesus insisted children be allowed to come to him (Matthew 19:13-15) and said that we need to see things as a child does (Matthew 18:3-4).  It is pretty clear who fulfills the words of Psalm 146 and who does not.

And a king in our day, most certainly does not.  I readily admit I do not know a lot about the civil war in Syria.  I know thousands of refugees have poured into neighboring nations.  When citizens have to flee and become refugees in another country, one’s country is in dire straits and Syria is.  A story reports that in recent attacks on a rebel-held town, al-Bab, 57 people were killed. 

The most upsetting part comes in the observation of Barry Abdul Latif.  “It seems that the regime is determined to hit the supply route [of rebels] between al-Bab and the city of Aleppo, but the shelling of the regime is only targeting heavily populated civilian neighborhoods and away from any rebel headquarters.”[i]   Only targeting heavily populated civilian neighborhoods?

It’s the most troubling thing I’ve read this week (aside from Herod’s actions in Bethlehem as he sought to kill Jesus).  In my message, I compared King Jesus to King Herod.  In the process, I asked our congregation to be intentional about praying blessing for our modern “kings.”  I was thinking specifically of Barak Obama.  I do think believers should pray that God would bless him and help him rule well.

But, President Bashar as-Assad had acted in such a way that I simply pray God would remove him.  I don’t know that a Western-style democracy is the best thing for Syria or even possible there.  I am not a political scientist.  I only know that people are being uprooted, displaced, and bombed.  Assad sees people, like the women and children in al-Bab as pieces in his war.  He doesn’t see people at all.  He sees chessmen for him to move, to capture, to stomp. 

My honest prayer is that God would get that guy out of power?  How?  That’s up to God.  God used Babylon to punish Judah and then God punished Babylon.  I trust God’s justice and God’s methods.  My prayer for his removal is not necessarily a prayer that his political opponents seize power.  I pray Syria would be in God’s hands and God would make a path for His church to thrive there.  I pray Syria and Iraq would become bastions of peace and commerce human respect – the opposite of what they are and have been.  I pray that world-wide, people would marvel at the harmony in Syria and Iraq.  This is my prayer to the King.



[i] From the Al Jazeera site - http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/scores-killed-syria-barrel-bombings-201312117307117718.html

Monday, December 9, 2013

The King’s Version of Justice (Psalm 72)


Sunday, December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent

“Please help the King be honest and fair just like you, our God” (Psalm 72:2).
“The king rescues the homeless when they cry out, and he helps everyone who is poor and in need.  The king has pity on the weak and the helpless” (Psalm 72:12-13). 
What is Psalm 72 saying?  What are we seeing in Psalm 72?  How does it tie to Jesus and to his birth?  Of the 150 Psalms, Psalm 72 is one of only two are related to King Solomon, the son and successor of King David.  Possibly, this Psalm read aloud in the ceremony or coronation for Solomon.
“God give your justice to the King.”  The prayer asks God for prosperity for the new king.  The prayer expresses hope for the expansion of the nation under this king’s rule.  There is prayer for the king’s endurance, long life.  The one praying hopes God will subdue the King’s enemies.  But please note how the prayer starts.  Please, help the king be fair.  Give the king justice. 
I appreciate the comments of Pastor James Howell. He writes,
The Psalm begins by asking God to “Give the king Your justice… and Your righteousness… May he defend the cause of the poor, and give deliverance to the needy.” Such a campaign in our day would be lambasted as “liberal,” and a debate would be touched off about governmental programs versus private sector aid or, more likely, the conversation would drift toward blaming the poor, and insisting they get busy and take care of themselves. [i]

The cluster of Hebrew terms used in these phrases is telling. “Justice” is not fairness or the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Rather, mishpat (“justice”) is the Bible’s subversive term for God’s desired state of affairs: mishpat is when the poorest are cared for. A society is just to the degree to which every person has enough and is lifted up; a king is measured, not by hordes of chariots or the gold in the treasury, but by whether the cause of the poor was defended, whether the needy were delivered. Similarly, “righteousness” isn’t smug goodness; zedekah (“righteousness”) is being in sync with God’s ways, embodying God’s will.

The most fascinating verse in Psalm 72 is the verse 11: “May all kings fall down before him.” Israel was a small time power, forced into subservience more often than relishing independence. The other kings most certainly would not be falling down before him! Was this national pride? A fantasy? A sick dream? Or a Messianic hint, that in God’s good time, God’s king would be the one before whom all would bow (Philippians 2:10).

But notice why those kings in verse 11 will bow down: “For he delivers the needy when he calls… He has pity on the weak… From oppression he redeems their life” (verses 12 and 13). Other kings never do such things; but one day the truth will be made palpable, and they will realize the wisdom, wonder, and grace of God’s way.

          Christmas magnifies the pain of those who are desperately poor.  Sometimes the church helps them, but governments, kings, and people of power rarely use their resources to elevate downtrodden people.  When help is offered, it does not often actually lift someone out of the suffering imposed by economic hardship. 
Yet Psalm 72, the coronation prayer, calls for justice.  What is justice?  Justice is the king, the one with the most power using what he has to help the weakest in society.  That is Biblical justice.  It is not getting what one deserves.  Biblical justice is the one with power and resources sharing with and uplifting the one who  is poor and vulnerable.  Yearning for that justice, working for it, and most importantly, praying for it – that is Advent prayer.  In our anticipation of Jesus and our celebration of his coming, we are reminded to pray for justice.
          As we do, recall King Herod.  He was ruling in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Visitors from Persia, star gazers whom we refer to as the three wise men even though we don’t know how many there were come to Herod.  And Herod is scared to death.  What does every first term president want?  A second term.  What does the king want?  He wants to hold onto power.  Herod killed his own sons in his lust for it.  He would not tolerate any competitor. 
          Wise Persian astrologers come looking for the new born king and Herod feels the threat.  So he tries to enlist the visitors from the east.  But they have been guided by a star from God and have come to worship this baby king, not help get him killed.  The God would led them by a star, speaks in dreams and they do not help the wicked, unjust king.
He is so desperate to wipe out  this new threat that when he cannot figure out which 2-year-old in Bethlehem is the one he kills every 2-year-olds in Bethlehem.  Why doesn’t God stop him?  Why doesn’t God simply impose justice on the world?  We need it!
When God made us in God’s image, we were made with a free will.  We can choose.  Humans choose evil – it happens with everyone.  We don’t always choose to sin.  We have the mark of God in us.  We often choose beauty, love, and hope.  But we just as often hurt and lie.  When my sins and your sins stack with the millions and billions of sins of the millions and billions of people in the world now and from all time, then the world is fallen.  If God were to simply force all the pain out we would lose our free will and our ability to choose to worship God.  We would no longer be His followers.  We’d be God’s robots.  God’s wants relationship.
The Psalm prays that the king would “vindicate” the afflicted; in another version it says the king is to rescue the homeless (72:4).  This is the prayer for the king who serves under God.  King Herod was the bringer of affliction. For the sake of power, he committed genocide. 
          But he did not last.  Paranoid kings never last.  He missed his target.  Jesus grew and became the man, the savior, who died on a cross, rose from the death and is now the eternal king.  Holding the two kings – Jesus and Herod – side by side, Lutheran seminary professor David Lose offers this perspective.

The presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably, that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s plan for salvation. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism, as from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham that he may, in turn, be a blessing from the world. But now it is happening – all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions is dissolving. All are becoming one in Christ, and who knows what may change next.

This is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus isEmmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.[ii]

          We can read Psalm 72 and see that it is dream, a fantasy.  No king could live up to what is depicted there.  Jesus did. Jesus does.  We see problems – war in Syria; drug addiction in all circles of society; rising teen suicide rates; unchecked terrorism; our own government run by appeasing politicians in search of re-election instead of true leaders that the he good of the nation in their hearts.  We see it all and it appears unfixable.  People sink to depths where there is no hope. 
But then we remember that Christmas is the birth of Jesus, the one who offers real hope.  Lives are changed when His church realizes He is the king who does all that the Psalm describes.  He is the answer to the prayer that is raised in Psalm 72. 
Which king do our presidents and governors and senators look like?  King Herod or King Jesus.  Our leaders have the same sin nature in them that we have in us.  Our governing officials make the same mistakes we make.  They may not repeat Herod’s evils, but they are fatally flawed.  Our hope is in the king born in the manger.
That does not mean we just give up on our leaders, cross our fingers, and hope things won’t get too bad.  Psalm 72 is a call to prayer and the coming of Jesus reminds us that God hears us when we pray.  God answers.  Psalm 72 calls us to turn our faces to God, fall to our knees and say, “Oh God, give the president your wisdom and your justice.”  It does not matter if we like him or hate him.  In our country, the king changes every 4 or 8 years.  God wants us to pray blessing for the president.
As we do, we set our hope in Jesus.  We commit our lives to him.  And daily, we give of ourselves to help hurting people because we know this is the King’s justice.
AMEN

Psalm 122



Psalm 122
122 It made me glad to hear them say,
“Let’s go to the house of the Lord!”


          When did you first hear popular Christmas music this year?  Listening to the radio?  At the mall?  What was your reaction?
          Oh my gosh!  Are they really starting the Christmas hype this early?!
          I have a bit of that too.  I am occasionally annoyed that Christmas is often over commercialized, driven by materialism, and thoroughly removed from worship and devotion to the one true God.  That bothers me. 
But I hear that first song, whether my secular favorite, “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, or my favorite worship song, “Do you Hear what I Hear,” and something else happens deep inside me.  Joyful anticipation.  Excited waiting. I become aware of myself and realize I have, without meaning too, inched to the edge of my seat.
My son Igor helps me with the magic and music and color of Christmas.  He keeps Christmas lights in his room year-round.  He does nothing to hide his enormous joy when the first Christmas songs come on the radio.  He will play it non-stop all day and all night if Candy or I don’t turn it off after he’s asleep. 
I do not know how much worship would infuse my sense of Christmas longing if I were not a pastor.  But I am a pastor.  Much of my eagerness at this time of year is directly tied to worship.  We enter the story of the world waiting for God to do something.  But, our entrance comes knowing that God has done not just “something,” but God has done the most incredible, wonderful, unexpected thing.
God has come to earth, come in the form of a real, living, breathing, touchable human – Jesus.  Advent into Christmas: we enter the story, singing all the way.  We know the story is one of hope that includes a cross, but ends with resurrection and the promise that in Christ we too will rise to eternal life in the embrace of God.  Yes, we know the ending!  Yes, we want to watch the movie anyway.  Yes, it gets us as much as it did the first time. 
I don’t know how much worship would be part of your Advent and your Christmas if you were not a Christ follower and did not come together with his family to worship.  But you are here, seeking God.  We feel the entrance into Christmas in the songs.  We join hands and walk toward Bethlehem.  It made me glad to say, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord together.”

We don’t always feel it.  Sometimes, whether it is Advent or not, we have to drag ourselves to church on Sunday.  Sometimes, the warm bed or the golf course wins.  We don’t make it.  Sometimes we come, but it doesn’t feel inspiring or wonderful.  It’s flat and our minds wander and if we are honest, we wonder, what’s the point?  Pastors ask this very question sometimes. 
In his reflection on Psalm 122, Eugene Peterson, who pastored for more than 30 years, recalls an oft repeated experience.

He writes, One of the afflictions of pastoral work has been to listen with a straight face, to all the reasons people give for not going to church:
‘My mother made me when I was little.’
‘There are too many hypocrites in the church.’
‘It’s the only day I have to sleep in.’
There was a time when I responded to such statements with simple arguments that exposed them as flimsy excuses.  Then I noticed it didn’t make any difference.  If I showed the inadequacy of one excuse, three more would pop up in its place.  So I don’t respond any more.  I listen (with a straight face) and go home and pray that that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God.[i] 

Peterson goes on to describe Psalm 122 as the Psalm for people who decide to go to church.  We choose to be here, to sing together, to proclaim God’s reality and goodness and importance.  We want this.
That does not mean we feel it every Sunday.  Peterson calls feelings “great liars.”[ii]  I see myself as one who wants to worship God, to connect with God.  That’s me.  I want to be a worshiper.
But then Sunday, rolls around.  Saturday night was rough.  Life is stressful.  Maybe sleeping in would feel better.  Or, maybe I need to go for a drive, visit my favorite restaurant in the mountains.  I can be there in a couple of hours, enjoy the afternoon, and be back by bed time.  I’ll do church next week.
Or worse, maybe in my mind’s eye, I see the people at church, and they all have it together.  They know all the songs.  They are all expert Bible readers.  They don’t have any problems.  I don’t fit in.  I don’t feel like being among them, feeling so out of place.  I’ll skip it this week. 
Feelings are great liars.  We yearn for God.  We want the blessings God gives.  We want the joy that can only be known in God’s presence.  But sometimes our feelings drive us from the church.  Or, they kill our experience while we are here. 
It made me glad to say, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord together.”
Thinking about Advent, I began writing the names of people who worship here every Sunday or just about every Sunday.  I started listing names.  As people popped into my head, I wrote the names down.  Then I looked over the list. 
I see teenagers struggling for confidence and identity.
I see cancer threatening death; such fear.
I see divorce ripping families apart.
I see people who have worshipped here less than and year and will be gone by Christmas, moving on to other places.
I see members who aren’t going anywhere; people who have been at the core of this church’s life since the 80’s.
I see people fighting to save their marriages.
I see people without jobs, anxious, uncertain about the future. 

This is who chooses, Sunday after Sunday, to come.  Please don’t think you don’t fit in or you don’t have it together the way everyone else does.  This church is for broken to find lasting joy in Jesus.  The hurting, the frustrated, the confused: this is who God has gathered to create our church family.  This is who we will stand with as we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come.  Let earth, receive her King.  Let every heart, prepare him room, and Heaven and nature sing.”  This is who we pray with and who we pray for; this is who we embrace.  This is who, in the name and the power of Jesus, we love.
We are together throughout the year.  But Advent, the season of hopeful waiting, allows us to more easily express our affection for one another.  God uses green and red and candles and trees to open our hearts and our mouths.  For some reason, we find ourselves expressing our love for one another.  We are able to give it and receive it.
Psalm 122 – the worship Psalm for people who come and come gladly, even when we are quite feeling it.  We choose to come.  In the Psalm we read “Jerusalem.”  In that name, think of where the people of God gather.  We’ve been invited to be among the nation of priests.  Jesus draws us into Jerusalem.  Thus the prayer for the gathering place is our prayer. 


Psalm 122
122 It made me glad to hear them say,
“Let’s go to the house of the Lord!”
    Jerusalem, we are standing inside your gates.
Jerusalem, what a strong and beautiful city you are!
Every tribe of the Lord obeys him and comes to you
    to praise his name.
David’s royal throne is here where justice rules.
Jerusalem, we pray that you will have peace,
    and that all will go well for those who love you.
May there be peace inside your city walls
    and in your palaces.
Because of my friends and my relatives,
    I will pray for peace.
And because of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will work for your good.

          In the coming of Christ, justice rules, and there is peace in the city walls and all goes well for those who love God.  In another translation, that phrase, ‘all goes well,’ is translated prosperity.  But, this word is not about economic gain.  The actual meaning is leisure – “a relaxed sense that everything is alright because God is over us.”[iii]
          Again my mind reviews the names and faces of all who make up the HillSong family.  Seemingly every sort of human struggles visits someone among us.  There is sickness of body, death of relationships, disappointment in life.  We feel it all.  Our gladness in worship is completely dependent on that baby in Bethlehem becoming who the Bible says he is – God with us.  Our dependence on him is rewarded with life and Spirit; His Holy Spirit fills our songs and takes us residence in our hearts.  Even in our difficulties, we know the truth in the prayer that everything is alright because God is over us.
          “May there be peace inside your city walls.”  The Hebrew notion of “Shalom,” often translated ‘peace,’ has a fuller force than simply the absence of conflict or violence.  Eugene Peterson thinks of Shalom in this way – “God’s will is completed in us.”[iv]
          Let that settle on the heart.  All that God intended in creating the world; all God’s purposes in fashioning human beings in God’s image; all God’s hopes in calling Israel to be God’s chosen people and a light drawing the world into the worship of God; it all comes together in Shalom.  When we have shalom, God’s will is completed in us.  When we have Jesus, we have shalom. 
          The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of shalom. 

Isaiah 2:3-5 (CEV)
Many people will come and say,
    “Let’s go to the mountain of the Lord God of Jacob
    and worship in his temple.”
The Lord will teach us his Law from Jerusalem,
    and we will obey him.
He will settle arguments between nations.
They will pound their swords and their spears
    into rakes and shovels;
they will never make war or attack one another.
People of Israel, let’s live
    by the light of the Lord.

          The light of the Lord began shining with a new brightness that night in Bethlehem.  Now in Advent, the theater is dimming and our favorite movie will begin shortly, one that lasts from now to Easter Sunday and gets better each time we watch it.  Yet, more than watch it, we walk in it.  Our walk happens in worship as we read and the Psalm for church goers who worship together.  We bring all our burdens, cares, and worries.  We leave with Shalom, knowing God us with us so all will go well. 
          In glad anticipation, we step toward Bethlehem.
AMEN



[i] Peterson (2000), A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: 20th Anniversary Edition, p.49.
[ii] Ibid, p.54.
[iii] Ibid, p.57.
[iv] Ibid, p.56.