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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Lazy December 30th Afternoon

            I am at my parents’ house with my wife and three kids.  Soon my sister and her husband and three kids will be here.  And my brother and his two sons.  It will be 16 people – crazy!
            But, right now it is just a few of us here and everyone is kind of doing their own thing.  So I sat down to watch the Birmingham Bowl.  If you are a fan of the Memphis Tigers or the Auburn Tigers (yes it is Tigers v. Tigers), then this game realty matters.  If you are just an insane college football fan, then this is wonderful.  However, most people are not on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the 6-6 Auburn team will win as SEC teams usually do, or if upstart Memphis coming off a 9-3 season will win one for the little guys. 
            This is a lazy afternoon and a meaningless game.  As I watched and the game went to commercial, I found myself with the clicker in my hands and I channel surfed until I landed on Bob Ross, the guy who teaches amateurs how to paint.  Ross is dead now, but for years, he did a show on PBS.  His soothing cadence made it actually interesting and even more, relaxing, to sit and watch the paint dry.
            I lingered, listening to Ross tell about making “Happy clouds.”  I didn’t turn back to Memphis-Auburn.  My dad happened into the room and he and I together watched Bob Ross turn a blank canvas into a snowy mountain scene. Then I asked my son to turn the overhead light off.  I couldn’t do it myself.  Dad and on the sofa were each slipping into a Bob Ross induced coma.  We weren’t “watching” any more.  Bob Ross gently lulled us to dreamland.
            What does this say about me at this point in my life?  Rather than watch Memphis’ big quarterback (6’7”) try to move the ball against that SEC defense, I wanted to doze while Bob Ross “mixed in a little blue with that titanium white, whatever you like.”  Who have I become?  I used to be able to sit and watch football, hour after hour, game after game.  Now, I still love football.  But today, I found myself more attracted to listening to that soft voice paint “happy clouds.”

            Bob Ross is off now.  We’re back to Memphis and Auburn.  My younger son, a real sports fan, insists on leaving the game on.  It is 10-10 and Memphis just barely missed a go ahead touchdown.  It is 3rd and 6 from the Auburn 9 yard line.  Oh!  Interception in the end zone!  My son is exultant in his joy.  Why is rooting for Auburn?  I have no idea.  Why is yelling “In your face, Memphis!”?  Why am I blogging about this?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Birth (Christmas Eve Sermon, 2015)

Christmas Birth (John 1:1-3, 14)
December 24, 2015 – Christmas Eve Worship

            Luke’s telling of the story of the night Christ was born, is unremarkable.  There was a census.  Because Joseph was in the line of David, he had to go to Bethlehem.  The baby was born in a manger because the inn was full. 
            They did not have hospitals.  They did not have bathtubs.  They did not have climate controlled buildings.  Where did births usually happen?  That the savior of the world, God incarnate, was born in a manger – maybe that was business as usual in the first century.
            Of course, the air was thick with animal smells and sounds.  The birth of Jesus was draped in the pungent fragrance of manure.  Sheep and cows baahed and mooed.   Mary delivered her baby with no epidural or any other medication or medical help.  Joseph’s panicked, beating heart provided percussion.  And baby Jesus cried when his bare skin was exposed to the cold night air. 
            In the birth of Jesus, God entered the everyday messiness of human life.  Jesus was every bit a human being, coming into the world the way all humans do.  At the same time, Jesus was fully God.  This is a mystery.    Somehow, this most vulnerable of living things, a human newborn, was, in a way we cannot quite grasp, God. 
            Why would God do this?  Why leave the glories of heaven to live in the squalor of earthly life?  And I don’t think it makes any difference if God entered humanity with 21st century creature comforts or with the hardships faced by a peasant family in 6BC.  Either case is a complete emptying of God’s divinity, God’s majesty.  Why would God do this?  Why did God do this?
            “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not die, but would have eternal life.”  The story of the birth of Christ is the story of God’s work to offer salvation to the world. 
Sin cuts people off from God, leads people into a society of harm and pain and loss, and ends in death.  This is what sin does.  All people sin throughout their lives.  We live on a planet of 7 billion sinners who descend from hundreds of generations of sinners.  The compounded harm makes this place a hellish distortion of the good earth God originally created.
And we can’t shake our sins.  We cannot, by a herculean moral or ethical effort, stop sinning.
In Jesus, God rescues us from our sins.  The story’s climax is Jesus on the cross taking on himself the end results of sin – suffering and death.  Resolution comes in the resurrection, the defeat of death.  Sin has been accounted for and death defeated.  In Christ, we are saved from sin, saved for relationship with God, saved to eternal life. 
Our first step is to acknowledge our sins and ask God to save us.  We do this and we receive his forgiveness.  We give our lives to Jesus and acknowledge him as our Lord.  And God’s rescue comes – to each who turn to Christ. 

‘Incarnation’ is the theological term that describes God inhabiting humanity.  Jesus is God in human flesh.  This is what is meant when the term ‘incarnation’ is used. 
The Gospel of John illustrates this.  The gospel opens this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” 
‘The Word’ in John refers to Jesus.  The Gospel establishes that this is God. Another Bible author, the Apostle Paul, makes a similar point about Jesus in Colossians 1. 
He writes, “The Father … has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:13-20).
Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is God and has always been God.  He became human in order to endure the reality of human life.  But he was a human who never sinned.  He lived the human life the way God intended.  John writes, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14).  Jesus left Heaven’s glory and arrived in a noisy, smelly, cold world.
Because he did this, every human being is invited by God to put their faith in him through Jesus Christ.  When we do we are freed from sin and drawn into eternal life in spiritual, resurrected bodies that cannot be hurt or killed, but that live in perfect love and perfect, unending community.  As John puts it, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).  Jesus left eternity and entered our humanity that we might be freed from the limits of corruption that come with sin and join him in eternity.
Paul also asserts this in Colossians.  “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,[d] by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God[e] made you[f] alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed[g] the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (2:9-15).

On Christmas Eve, God sits before us and bids us to come and enter the divine, eternal story.  For some it is unbelievable.  Maybe it is too good to be true?  Maybe it is too fanciful and we are people of logic and reason and science? 
Lee Strobel was an investigative reporter for a Chicago newspaper.  He didn’t believe in fairytales like Christianity.  He was interested in facts, not stories.  Then, his wife became a Christian and this threw him for a loop.  He had to get to the bottom of the phenomenon.  So, he did an exhaustive investigation of Christianity in order to show her the fallacy of it.  He came to a conclusion he could not avoid.  It is all true.
In his book The Case for Christmas he gives this invitation to anyone stuck in doubt, resisting the invitation of God.

I had come to the point where I was ready … [to believe in] the Christ child, whose love and grace are offered freely to everyone who receives him in repentance and faith.  Even [a skeptic] like me.
So I talked with God in a heartfelt and unedited prayer, turning from my wrongdoing and receiving his forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.
… I know some people feel a rush of emotion at such a moment.  For me, there was something equally exhilarating: a rush of reason. 
Over time, there has been so much more.  I have endeavored to follow Jesus’ teachings and open myself to his transforming power, my priorities, my values, my character, my worldview, my attitudes, and my relationships have been changing for the better (Strobel, 1998, p.91).

And then Strobel writes, what about you?

That’s where we end this evening?  Would you consider turning from sin, turning to God, and receiving Jesus as your Lord and as your Savior.  When you do this, Christmas moves from being a nice story to becoming a part of the greatest turn to happen in your life.  In Christ we turn from sin and death to forgiveness, resurrection, adoption, and eternal life.  Would you make that turn this Christmas?

We end our Christmas service by lighting candles.  We take the light from the center candle, the Christ candle.  We sing “Silent Night.”  As we sing by candle light, open your heart to God.  Let Him in. 
After the service we’ll have some refreshments.  Please join us and enjoy some Christmas cheer.  If you would like to talk further about following Jesus, I’ll be here.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

God Trending (Isaiah 12:1-6)

God Trending (Isaiah 12:1-6; Matthew 3:1-3)

          This year when the radio station switched to all-Christmas music, I was ready.  I was determined to enjoy the season and to not complain.  We have driven through neighborhoods at night to see how people light up their homes.  Our tree was up and decorated early. Here at church, we had the church dinner with tables decorated. 
I love the fun traditions of Christmas and our family has many of them.  It really helps us feel the spirit in the season.  I celebrate that. 
In church, when we worship, we have a specific calling that is related to the good feelings of Christmas but is more purposeful because our worship is a part of our life in Christ.  Our responsibility in worship is to enter the story of Jesus which begins in the Bible but continues in our lives.  Sentiment is beautiful, but it is something we can put away along with our decorations on January 2. 
We can’t do that with the story of Jesus.  When we realize that it really happened, it changes everything. 
One of the things I find most effective in theological writing is actually a simple observation.  Theologians have an entire vocabulary of words that only make sense in theological writing.  But I have been deeply affected by a basic truth given to me in reading works of theology.  God has done something.  Christmas is news of God’s action.  How does this news hit us?
Maybe it doesn’t hit us at all because it doesn’t feel like news at all.  A veteran preacher has extremely thick file folders on Luke chapters 1 & 2 and Matthew 1 & 2.  We read those chapters in church every year at this time.  This story is news?  We hear these verses, and we sigh.  Been there, done that
Compare the news of God with what’s currently in the news.  If you go on Twitter, certain topics are trending.  Type in #starwars or #republicandebates or #Syrianrefugeecrisis.  Everyone is talking and tweeting about these things.  Instagram has photos, Facebook has posts, and provides pithy articles with video. 
One of the radio shows I listen to has a segment called “What everyone’s talking about.” Well, is everyone talking about the thing God has done?  God is not trending on twitter.  If God acted, Facebook would blow up from all the posts.  Facebook has not blown up.
          I actually went to my Twitter page and typed in a search: #GodsNews.  There were several hits.  It’s not trending, but several Christian tweeters have used this hashtag.  But, you know, it wouldn’t matter if there 10 million people tweeting about Jesus or just 10.  God’s importance is not tied to the number of Twitter mentions God gets.
          We follow him because he is Lord.  He doesn’t stop being Lord if his Clout score decreases or his popularity wanes.  He doesn’t get a bump in his divinity and sovereignty if he gets more Twitter followers.  He is Lord because he couldn’t be anything else.  The three bits of evidence of his Lordship are creation, the resurrection, and the personal relationships his followers have with him.
We belong to him and we have a story to tell, an alternate narrative to the ones that get tweeted so often.  God is not the most popular force of our time.  Nevertheless, we know God has done something.  We have news to share.  God has acted. 

          What has God done?  God, in Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh, has established the eternal Kingdom.  In Jesus’ death, in which he shared with us the end result of sin, and in Jesus’ resurrection, in which he defeated death, God has begun the work of redeeming the world.  God’s work will come to a conclusion when Jesus returns, all are judged, and the world is made new.  Heaven and Earth will come together, and it will be good as all things created by God are good.
          In this Kingdom, there is no sin, no rebellion, and no death.  Imagine a country like that.
History shows that every human government has had to guard against rebellion.  The malcontents, the disposed, those who feel powerless try to overthrow the powers that be.  Every society has rebels and lawbreakers.  Human governments have to punish criminals and turn back revolutionaries.  And all human governments eventually crumble because all are designed by and run by sinful human beings. 
          God is doing something different, establishing a Kingdom where there is no rebellion and no crime.  There is no sin, no evil, no disease, and no death.  It is a concept beyond my grasp.  I cannot picture it.  The birth of Jesus is the first step in this becoming reality.  The final chapter comes when Jesus returns.
          We live between Jesus’ resurrection and his second coming.  When he returns, we join him in resurrection.
In our time, individuals can opt to follow the Lord or go their own way.  To follow Jesus is to trade any form of government we can conceive including our own constitutional democracy for a Kingdom.  Of course even as we are fully submitted to Jesus as Lord we still continue to participate in our culture and in our country’s life.  We participate as a good citizens, committed to fighting injustice as we help the people in our community flourish.  We are engaged but as people who belong somewhere else – in God’s Kingdom.  We exchange the notion of independence for rule – we would be ruled by God. 
Why would anyone make such a trade off?  Because, in throwing our lot in with Jesus, in accepting his cross and his forgiveness, we trade sin and all its consequences for new birth.  We are new creations.  We exchange bondage – we are slaves to sin – for freedom in Christ.  We trade pain and death for joyful, glorified eternal life.  When we assert definitively that God has done something, this is what God has done!
In the fourth verse of the hymn “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” we sang “born thy people to deliver; born a child and yet a king.  Born to reign in us forever.  Now, thy gracious Kingdom bring.”  Did the slaves under Pharaoh rejoice that he reigned over them?  I think not.  Did citizens of Germany sing praise songs for Hitler?  Maybe, but only out of fear.  No one praised Hitler out of love or true loyalty.  Human history has shown that kings often rule by keeping their people under heel.  Even good kings eventually become tyrants. Yet, the reign of Jesus provokes rejoicing.
Another Christmas hymn, one we have sung in different versions the past two weeks makes the same point.  “Joy to the world!  The Lord is come; let earth receive her king.”  I don’t think the people of North Korea, if they could express thoughts without fear of punishment, would joyfully sing of their lives under the reign of Kim Jung Un or his father or grandfather before him.  In the hymn, “Joy to the World,” with our song we rejoice that we are subjects in a monarchy, the Kingdom of King Jesus. 
This is news to those who don’t know him and increasingly, even in our country, people grow up with no knowledge of the Biblical account of Jesus.  The prophet Isaiah writes “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted” (12:4).  God’s action in Jesus compels us to tell whomever will listen about God and about the significance and relevance of Jesus. 
Jesus brings hope of rescue from death.  Jesus offer hope of a life of joy and meaning to all who follow him.  We tell the news of God in such a way that people see not just another religion that can be reduced to doctrine that can be accepted, rejected, or ignored.  We tell about God so that it is evident that absolute hope for the fullness of blessing and rich joy will come to anyone who hears our report and respond by putting faith in Jesus.  We make his deeds known.
Matthew picks up on the prophetic word by describing the prophet, John the Baptist, who set the conditions into which Jesus would burst upon the scene.  Of John Matthew says, he is the one to “Prepare the way of the Lord” (3:3).  In his preaching and baptizing, John made the worshipping communities of 1st century Israel ready for the arrival of the Messiah.  We, by announcing the news, help those who hear us get ready to meet God.  We help people move from the thought of ‘Christianity as one religion among many,’ to ‘wow, God has done something and because of it, I can know Him.’
We aren’t prophets in the sense of the Biblical prophets like Samuel and Nathan, Isaiah and John the Baptist.  But we are news-announcers.  Is “God trending,” because of our witness, our testimony?  Maybe not.
However, we can hold up our relationship with God and the Biblical story of God’s action in Jesus Christ.  We can be a friend and in the context of friendship point to God’s action in Christ.  We can do this.  And we can hold up our own individual relationships with God in Christ as evidence.  Through this movement of sharing news in casual relationships, we invite those who do not know Jesus at all to enter the story. 
This is contingent on one thing – the main thing for us this morning.  I began by declaring that while sentiment is lovely, as worshipers our responsibility is to announce that God has done something in Jesus.  In Jesus, God has come in human flesh for the salvation of the world.  Next, I said this thing that God has done is initiate the establishment of His eternal Kingdom.  Then, I said that this truly is news for those who do not know Jesus at all.  And we even meet people like this in our supposedly Christian culture because our culture is quickly becoming post-Christian.
The final and main point of this news is the awakening it triggers in those of us who do know Jesus, but have not fully understood him.  We can only point to our own relationship with God in Christ as an example of the effect of what God has done if that relationship is real and makes a difference. 
So, is it?  Is my relationship with God a real thing, or a fantasy I have concocted?  Does the action of God make a difference in your life?  Or is Christianity just a religion you or I choose to practice?
Last Christmas, I held everything in close – my emotions, my love, my joy.  I did not share it with my church family.  I did not enter the happiness of the season with my wife or kids.  My excuse was that I was sick. I had a rotten cold that carried on from mid-December through the New Year.  I wallowed in phlegm and discomfort and absolutely refused to embrace Christmas cheer.
My wife was not happy with me and in early January she told me flatly, “You were a real grump this Christmas.”  Ouch!  I never wanted to hear that again.  From the time she said that, I have been determined to be happy this year.  Along the way, I discovered something important.
          Maintaining a sweet spirit at Christmas so that people around you, the people you love, will have a good time – that’s important and noble.  There is though something much bigger.  When we pay attention to who we become when we receive life in Christ, the joy cannot be contained.  It is the most important aspect of our message when we share the news about what God has done. 
          When we know God, we want him to be our king.  When we know God we want Him in the center of our every thought and experience.  He is trending in our hearts.  When we know God the joy spills out contagiously.  People around us may become Christians, they may not.  But they will be invited into our joy in a way that is unmistakable. 
          Isaiah could make God known and John the Baptist could prepare the way because each knew God.  They weren’t sharing theories or doctrines.  They were speaking out of their experiences of relationship with God.  Because of what God has done, you and I can enjoy just as powerful a relationship with God as these notable individuals of history.
          So, enjoy Christmas cheer.  Invite friends out for coffee.  In the course of light, casual conversation, talk about what it means to follow Jesus and love Jesus.  Find ways to share why He is so important in your life.
Invite friends to our Christmas Eve service. 
But before doing any of that, sing these Christmas songs.  Worship with your brothers and sisters in your church family.  Bring your struggles to the cross – the small things and the big things.  Be fully present to God and fully open.  Do this so that when it comes time to talk about God and all that God means to us, we will have something to say.

Monday, December 7, 2015

At Home in the Story (Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 1:67-77)

As Christians with an evangelical bent, we feel called to scripture.  The Bible is special, unlike any other writing.  With tools of analysis we read critically, probing, questioning, and framing.  As we do this, we hold our sense that the Bible is God’s holy word and will stand up to our scrutinizing. 
            The Bible stories speak in the real world historical situations from which them come, but the stories also reveals the Bible as transcendent, speaking beyond the historical circumstances of the original writing. 
            With this in mind, how do we Christian, Easter people live in the Old Testament?  How do we find a home there?
For instance, how can we live in Jeremiah’s prophecy? We don’t understand exile.  We don’t know what it is like to see our nation fall into slavery. 
Moses led the ancient Israelites out of slavery, performed wonders from God along the way, and led them to the land Promised by God.  David led the nation into the city of peace, Jerusalem.  That city became Zion, the city of God. 
However, God’s people worshiped statues and idols.  God’s people dishonored the poor.  So God handed them over to foreign powers: Philistines, then Assyrians, and finally, Babylon. 
To the Babylonians, Jerusalem was not the city of God.   It was the capital of a backwater colony that was easily overrun. God’s chosen people, became slaves.
How do we feel the story?  Exile is not our experience.  Where is our connection?  How do we find a home in this story?  We have been told this is the word of God and in Jesus we are included among the people of God.  Through his prophet, God said, “I will fulfill the promise I made.  … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up from David.”  What does that mean?  Did Jeremiah know that in the next part of the story there would be a virgin birth in a stable?  Did he see the cross coming?  Or the resurrection?  No.
How do we find the home we know is in the Old Testament but seems distant?  I suggest we pay attention to what the prophet tells us about this God who is our God.  Jeremiah says God promises that something better is on the horizon. 
God’s people had been utterly defeated by a large, powerful empire, the Babylonians.  In that situation of abject humiliation, God reassures His people that He sees them.  God is in control even in the horror of exile, and God will bring a new day through a future descendant of David.  When the Promised One comes, the people will experience the new thing God is inevitably going to do.  Jeremiah does not know what God will do.  But he knows God is going to do something. 
Insight into God’s character connects us to Jeremiah.  God is a God of promise.  God is present.  God is a God who acts.  We can relate to the words, but, what does it allmean?  What exactly has been promised?  What is it, specifically, that God does?
In Luke’s gospel we meet the elderly priest Zechariah. His wife has already gone through menopause.  They have no children.  Then an angel tells Zechariah they are to have a son. 
No one around them says this is it!  This is that Righteous Branch, that descendant of David that Jeremiah described!  No one says that.  Zechariah doubts the angel’s message, and who can blame him?  But the angel silences him. For 9 months, the priest cannot speak. 
Finally the miracle baby comes and Zechariah’s speech is restored and so too is his spiritual insight.  He remembers that God made a promise and that God was and is active in the life of his people.  A miracle pregnancy and a 9 month imposition of silence were effective reminders.  When Zechariah opened his mouth, he had a lot to say. 
Someone asked, what will become of the miracle son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the baby named John?
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior[a] for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 
75 in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.

Interestingly, the priest Zechariah answers a question about his own son, with a prophecy about someone else – Jesus.  What of your son, Zechariah?  He answers that God is about to change the world through ‘Yeshua,’ Jesus, the one named ‘salvation.’ 
Finally, after 8 stanzas of praising God’s action in the coming one, only then does he speak not about but to his own son, John.  “You, my child, will be the prophet of the most high who will give knowledge of salvation and forgiveness to God’s people.”
Zechariah knows things Jeremiah did not know.  We know things he did not know.  We know much that the disciples did not know.  Before we read about the cross, we know the story ends in resurrection.  We know Jesus will go to be with the Father and will send His Holy Spirit.  We have the completed Bible.
Because of this are we more at home in the entire story, Jeremiah and Luke included?  The crucifixion and resurrection happened almost 2000 years ago.  The Second Coming, when Jesus makes things right in the world as he brings our final rescue from sin and death is in some uncertain future time that will come long after our earthly lives have ended.  Yes, God is present in the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit is elusive.  Yes, God is at work in His church.  But the church is so full imperfect people that the messes we create make it hard to see God when we are together. 
We asked Jeremiah is what do you mean?  How can we be at home in your words?  Now, we ask Luke and Zechariah, what does it matter?  Between the resurrection, 2000 years ago, and the Second Coming, 2000 or so years from now, what good is the story today? What is my part in it and why would is it good news with all that’s happening in the world right now?

Each week of Advent this year, we are singing verses from the hymn “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”  Jesus is anticipated, born to set people free and release us from sin, and Jesus gives rest.  It’s there in the words.  We sing it.  Jesus is the hope of all the earth and the joy of every longing heart.  And every heart is a longing heart. 
Yet, this sense of distance persists.  We read the Bible and read it some more, we go through worship every year, and somehow it feels beautiful for the season, but just that.  How can this story go from being just another feature of December something more?  I know God is in the story and is inviting me in, but there are times I feel more lost the more I read and more distant, the more familiar it becomes.

This week, I went to UNC hospital several days in a row visiting various HillSong folks.  One day when I pulled in to the parking deck, I had a parking strategy in mind.  I knew which entrance I needed and I was visualizing where I thought I’d find a good spot for my car.  As I was doing this, I was surprised to find a spot on the first level.  I never get spots there.  But here it was.  So I left the car there and went in.
I was in there a long time.  When I came out, I had a sinking feeling.  I could not remember where I parked.  I the parking strategy that filled my mind when I had first arrived hours earlier.  The memory of where I actually left the car, on the first level where I never park, was gone.    
So I walked all through level two, and did not find my car.  I thought it was there, but I tried level three.  I walked every row; no car.  Doubt crept in.  I didn’t park on level four, did I?  That’s under construction.  I would have remembered that.  So, hurriedly glanced down a few rows of level one, but I knew my car wasn’t there.
So I kept searching.  I knew what I was seeking was in this parking garage. My feet ached from walking.  Relief was in that building.  The home we need is in the Bible –words of hope, peace, and love and truth.  All we need to thrive in the face of the struggles of our day has been revealed in God’s word, both Testaments.
After an hour of wandering through UNC hospital’s parking deck, I called my wife.  She drove over with Henry and Merone.  As they came through the entry gate on level one, Henry said, “I see Daddy’s car.”  Candy called me and said, “Tell me exactly where you are and just stay right there.”  I got in the van and Merone said, “Dad, why couldn’t find your car?”

Sometimes even in church, even in the pages of the Bible, it can be hard to find our home.  Everything need and long for is before us, but there is background noise and we are so vulnerable to sin, we miss seeing God even though God is right here. 

It helps me to remember that the Bible is the ongoing story of God.  Jeremiah, lives in one part.  The days of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are part of that story.  God interacts with human beings in each part. 
As we saw from Jeremiah, God is the promise-giver.  The priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, shows that God is the promise-keeper.  Jesus on the cross and at the empty tomb brings the best news; the promise is a promise of eternal life.  We can count on it.
We can also count on God involving himself in our daily lives.  God’s story is not paused between the end of book of Revelation and the Second Coming.  God’s story is going on right now.  We are actors in it.  The stuff of our lives matters to God. 
I was focused on this idea that I am in God’s story throughout that silly hour when I wandered around the parking deck.  I thought, “I don’t know when I’ll find my car, but God is doing something and that fills me with hope.  And I need to be responsive to God in my life.”
Recently in a project I am organizing, I have asked God to bring additional people.  Numerous times, I just asked for people.  And God has done it! But then, I looked at the people God brought I said, “Not them, God.  I meant other people.”  God said to me, “You never needed people for this because you had me.  I didn’t give you these specific people because you needed them.  I gave you these specific people because your heart won’t be right until you see the beauty in these individuals that I see.” 
This happened because these individuals along with me are in God’s story.  You are too. 

At the Lord’s Supper table, Jesus keeps us in the story.  “Do this,” he said, “eat this bread and drink this cup in remembrance of me.”  Communion centers us.  We live stories than God’s.  We can find our home in other places.  The discipline of communion brings us back to God.
We come to the table at Jesus’ invitation.  He invites all who have received forgiveness and come into life in His name.  Of course receiving forgiveness implies we need forgiveness.  We come as admitted sinners, owning our brokenness.
At this table, we remember who we were, but also who we are.  We eat the body of Christ.  We, the forgiven ones, are filled with Him.  We drink the cup and are filled with eternal life because Jesus shed his blood.  Jesus, who died and rose, left his Holy Spirit to live in us and among us.  At the table, we encounter God and He revives us as He shows us our place in His story.  We can face the things of life, the good and the bad because God is here and we are His.  In Him, we find our home. 


Monday, November 30, 2015

Faith at Christmas Time

            I am very thankful when I hear my 6-year-old daughter talk about Christmas and I hear her mention Jesus.  We are a Santa Claus household.  My kids do something I never did.  They decorate their bedrooms for Christmas.  There are snowmen, reindeer, and Santa Claus’s all over my house.  Religionists who decry the commercialization and secularization of Christmas would have a field day with my family. 
            I don’t regret a bit of it.  We love the sounds of bells, the smell of Christmas cookies baking, the plans for family to come, and green and red everywhere.  But, when I ask my kids, “What is Christmas really about,” they lead with, “the birth of Jesus.”  Hearing that, I have happiness in my heart. 
            Are they just reciting lines they’ve heard in Sunday school?  Maybe.  And if that’s what they’re doing, that’s OK.  They are living into the narrative we have created.  I happen to think this narrative is true, is a right accounting of reality.  Still, right now, much of what my kids say is parroting.  They are not expressing deep faith convictions.  Not yet. 
            I pray that will come.  With each passing year, as I grieve losing the adorableness of little kids in my home as they grow into big kids and adolescents, I pray the beauty of childhood is replaced with kids that demonstrate a maturing faith and real awareness of the power of God.  Along with that, I pray I will grow in my sense of God’s real presence in my life.
            This year I will do something I don’t always do.  On Christmas Eve I intend to preach an evangelistic sermon in which I urge hearers to come to terms with God by reaching to Jesus for salvation.  The coming of God in Jesus Christ is God’s offer of himself to a world that’s stuck in sin and bound for death.  Jesus is God’s way of changing course for people who will receive the salvation he extends.  Jesus is “the game changer” (to use that overused and often misused phrase).
            Many who come for worship on Christmas Eve will be people who are already believers.  I pray the music, the prayer, the candles, the readings, and the sermon will call those individuals to a deeper awareness and attentiveness to their own personal relationships with Jesus.  And I pray God will speak through the service to seekers who only come to church one night out of the year – Christmas Eve.
            If you think of it, pray for our worship at HillSong on Christmas Eve, 2015.  If you know you’ll be here, see if one of your friends who isn’t really into Jesus might come with you.  Invite a friend.  Let that be one of your Advent disciplines.  That act of extending yourself and inviting a friend who is an “outsider” to Christianity will be an act of discipleship.  It will be an act that moves faith to the center for you this Christmas.
            That’s my prayer for my kids, for myself, for you, and for all who are part of our Christmas as HillSong this year.  I pray faith in the living Lord, the risen Jesus, will cover over and fill all the ways we celebrate and live in the season.

Fall on Your Knees (Mal. 3:7; Lk. 12:35-36)

Our youth pastor Nathan gave the sermon for the first Sunday of Advent.  If you'd like a recording of his sermon, contact our church office or email me.

Here are my thoughts on the text of Nathan's sermon.

     Writer Philip Yancey says he has met the most fulfilled, godly people among the poorest of the poor in prison cells, leper colonies, and inner city slums.  In these dark places, where daily life is survival, and just barely, he has encountered truly holy people who are indeed, very close to God. 
Yancey quotes author John Cheever who said, “The main emotion of the adult American who has all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.”[i] I don’t know how Cheever knows that.  I do, though, find the quote compelling. 
Is it true? 
You can test it yourself, this season, leading to Christmas.  As you shop for that new game system or that new I-phone or some other gift that will bring great happiness when pulled from under the tree and unwrapped, ask yourself, is this were happiness and joy are found?  The main emotion of the one who has everything is disappointment.
          I don’t know if that is true.  I know the world is wounded.  I know there is disappointment aplenty in our community.  There is as much disappointment as there is affluence.
          There is also emptiness. 
          My friend wrote a book which he sent to several of us to review.  In his writing, he identifies a worldview that has no place for God and that accepts that humanity has evolved from simpler life forms.  Millions of years ago, simple chemical interactions came together to produce life – single-celled organisms.  Over the eons, these beings evolved to more and more complex organisms up to the present day.  And today we have us, beings with self-awareness. 
          When we die, our bodies will decompose and eventually go back to the dirt from which we came.  My friend, Steve Davis, a pastor whose church is near Fort Bragg, calls us “dirt in transition.”[ii]  This is the worldview he’s describing.
He does not believe that.  He actually believes we are created beings.  Even if evolution is the process, it is a process God created and each one of us is made in God’s image. 
          But many people are materialists.  They cannot by way of empirical observation prove God’s existence, so they assume there is no God.  They not only accept that humans are “dirt in transition,” they are sure of it. 
In terms of meaning, this worldview comes up empty.  Our lives no meaning beyond what we come up with ourselves.  If the only meaning we have is what we or other humans create, it is totally arbitrary.  No matter what we desire, we are in fact just complex chemical compositions fated to die.

          So is that the human condition?  Philip Yancey cites Loren Eiseley a materialist who makes art out science.  Eiseley thinks that when we long for meaning, the idea that there is something more than the world we see, we are like frogs croaking through the night.  “We’re here.  We’re here.  We’re here.”[iii]  And we hope against reality that something out there notices. 
          This bleakness is in the Bible.  The book of Ecclesiastes opens by saying, “Vanities of vanities.  All is vanity” (1:2).  So for Christmas, buy the I-phone for your girlfriend.  Maybe she’ll be happy, at least until the next one comes out.   Then, well, buy the next thing.

          This disappointment and meaninglessness leads to all manners of catastrophe.  On a small scale, people who cannot afford expensive things are envious and disheartened because they cannot have what others have.  Those who can afford those things are disheartened and disillusioned because the expensive toys don’t bring any real happiness.  The longed-for fulfillment never comes.
          On a larger scale, the emptiness leads us collectively to create myths.  Some myths are couched in religious terms that lead us to accept lies or to join movements that wreak havoc, like terrorist groups.  Other myths wear the colors of patriotism.  In our country that is blended with the myth of the middle class American life.  That is where happiness lies.
          Well, no, not really.  This is not where happiness lies! But our advertisers and our politicians have become wealthy selling this myth.  We get convinced and we buy it all time and in bulk around Christmas time.   In longing for something more, meaninglessness and emptiness and disappointment lead women and men to, create the means of their own destruction. 

          What if the incarnation is God’s response to our desperate longing for something more? 

Incarnation is the word we use to explain God becoming human.  In the birth of Jesus, God entered the world in a new way.  God had always been and always is present.  Nothing is hidden from God. There is never a time when you or I are alone, unseen.  God always is with us and sees us.
          In the incarnation, God is present in a unique way.  God took on human flesh as a complete human being with DNA, with a growth process from fetus to new born, from toddler to adolescent to adult.  Jesus was as human as you or I are human. 
          What I am asking us to consider is this.  What if God doing that – becoming human – was God’s way of responding to our condition, a depression of utter meaninglessness?  What if God came in Jesus in order to show us who we are and who we can be? 
          This assumes that God responds to human beings.  I believe the Bible shows over and over that God is a responsive God.  And I think God’s ultimate response to human pain is God’s coming as Jesus.  If Jesus is God’s embodied response, God’s love embodied, then we are saying God does respond to us. 

          So what then? 
We are empty when we try to find meaning for ourselves.  God responds to impoverished souls by becoming one of us in order to show us love, to die for our sins, to overcome death in resurrection, and then to invite us to faith and life and relationship as we find ourselves in Jesus.  We have the condition and God’s response. 
What of it? 
          How do we respond to God’s action in Jesus Christ?  Chew on this.  We’re ontologically bankrupt.  We have nothing that brings significance.  Then God comes and fills us with joy and meaning and purpose.  What do we do? 
          The great hymn “O Holy Night” gives part of the answer.  In that hymn, we sing these words.
                   A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
                   For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Yes, in the coming Christ, all Heaven had broken loose.  Meaning?  Significance?  Purpose?  We clumps of dirt in transition are invited into an eternal relationship of love with the holy God through the action of God-in-the-flesh!  What do we do?  The song gives the answer.
                   Fall on our knees.  O Hear the angel voices.
                   O night divine.  O night when Christ was born

          We don’t kneel very much in our worship services.  Sometimes individuals will come during prayer time after the sermon, kneel at the steps and either bow their heads or look to the cross.  In these profound moments, the kneeling is a beautiful gesture done to show that the one praying knows who God is.  That’s what we say in kneeling.  I know who God is.  And I know it is not me.
          Through the mouth of the prophet, God said the following (Isaiah 45):
          22 Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn,
    from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear.”
24 Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
    are righteousness and strength;
all who were incensed against him
    shall come to him and be ashamed.

          Every knee shall bow.  I wonder if this word from Isaiah was on Peter’s mind the first time he met Jesus and saw a miracle.  He threw himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet in worship and in humiliation (Luke 5:7-9). 
I wonder if Paul had this Isaiah passage before him when he wrote in Romans 14:11 that every knee shall bow to the Lord. 
We find a similar sentiment in Philippians 2.  There, Paul is quoting what most scholars believe was an extremely early hymn, possibly sung within just a just few years of the resurrection.  The gospels weren’t written until probably the 60’s or later.  First Thessalonians was the earliest of Paul’s letters.  The hymn he quotes in Philippians 2 might be the earliest actual written Christian work.  In it is the declaration that upon seeing Jesus in glory, everyone will have no choice but to bow in reverence.  This will be an act of humiliation, not an act of faith.  Every knee shall bow.

What I am suggesting is that now, when our response to God is a faith response, not a response that comes after judgment, we choose to kneel.  There is precedent for making this choice.
Throughout the book Revelation there is kneeling.  First, the author, John of Patmos, falls at Jesus’ feet (ch. 1). Then the elders who spend their time in Heaven on thrones, exalted, threw themselves down before Him (ch. 4, 11).   The otherworldly “living creatures” we meet in the vision do the same (ch. 5).  These are instances of people as well as divine beings choosing to kneel and worship.

We find ourselves in a time when we can choose.  Today, God does not force us to kneel, to worship, to give homage.  God helps.  The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins.  This means, the Holy Spirit shows us the extent to which our sins destroy our lives and the lives of those we love.  The Holy Spirit pricks our consciences, awakens our minds, appeals to our hearts, and opens our eyes.  But God does not force us to worship.  It is our choice and it is one I urge us to consider. 
The prophet Malachi offers a perfect word for us as we live in the days leading up to Christmas.  In Malachi, God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you” (3:7).  Then Malachi writes that the Lord took notice of those who revered Him and said, “They shall be my special possession on the day when I act” (3:17). 
When we kneel before Jesus Christ, we are saying, we are not God.  He is.  He is the source of hope because he brings forgiveness of sin, healing of wounds, restoration of hearts, and an invitation to life.  He gives us meaning when he shows us what love is and fills us with this love and nudges us to share it.  Also, in humility and with great compassion, we invites others to come to Him. 
We are not the source of own meaning.  We are not responsible for filling our own emptiness.  He accomplishes all of this in us when we look to the Lord and when we live in love. 
It starts when we follow the song’s prompt and fall on our knees.  No longer are we consumed with ourselves.  We die to self and find ourselves born again, made new, called into resurrection where our bodies are no longer clumps of dirt, but incorruptible, made of the stuff of Heaven. 

What is Christmas going to be for you this year?  Who can say?  Not me. 
But, here is what I can say.  Of all the things that fill the season, the shopping, the TV specials, the office and school Christmas parties, the decorating, and the other traditions, Christmas is a time of worship.  As you read this, say this out loud, over and over, until it rings in your heart.  Christmas is a time of worship.
          Look at your nativity set.  The lowly shepherds and the gathered magi together kneel before the baby Jesus.  As we worship this Christmas season, may we worship while kneeling before the glorified, risen Lord.  May we discover the joy and happiness that can only be found there. 

[i] P. Yancey (2014). Vanishing Grace (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI), p.208.
[ii] S. Davis (2015).  Faith in Your Handwriting (self published, on Amazon Kindle reader).
[iii] Yancey, p.137.