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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Day Sermon, Dec 25, 2016

Welcome to our Home (Luke 2:4-7)

            I hope your Christmas morning is full of joy and smiles and warmth.  I am grateful to God for each of you and that you chose to be with us in worship on Christmas morning. 
It is a beautiful, special time, and a happy time, I hope.  With that said, I do hope that my discovery that for centuries we in the church have been reading the Bible incorrectly won’t diminish the holiday glow.  We know the story.  Joseph and Mary just barely make it into Bethlehem, discover their best shelter will be in a barn, and then baby Jesus comes, welcomed into the world by goats, chickens, and cows.  Our nativity scenes depict this narrative, one the church has rehearsed for centuries.
            However, we haven’t read Luke 2 very carefully and thus history has besmirched the reputation of innkeepers and homeowners in Bethlehem for 2 millennia.  Hospitality is a cherished value in the Middle East now and it was when Jesus was born.  Any self-respecting Bethlehem family would have gone out of its way to welcome Joseph and pregnant Mary.  And that is probably what actually happened. 
            The importance of hospitality in that part of the world is startling sometimes even to people from there. 
            Consider the Orthodox Initiative, a ministry of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Mediterranean region.  It is a ministry meant to serve Christians in the Middle East.  The Orthodox Initiative, which began in 2011, was established to encourage unity and to support Christians who are a persecuted minority in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the region.   The history of conflict in the past half-decade, especially in Iraq and Syria has been tragic.  Entire communities have been displaced. 
Iraqi and Syrian Christians have been especially hard hit.  Prior to the civil war in Syria, that country had one of the largest Christian populations in the Middle East.  Perhaps when you think of the Middle East, dangerous Islamic extremism comes to mind.  But, there are in fact millions of peaceful Muslims who are as much victims of terrorism as anyone else.  There, of course, millions of Jews.  And of course there are millions of Christians. 
Many have had to flee for their lives, leaving home behind.  Listen to what happened among a group of Syrian Christian refugees who had to spend Christmas in a refugee situation in Amman, Jordan.  This account comes one of the team members of the Orthodox Initiative who had traveled to the St. Ephraim’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Jordan.  She was there to serve the poor, displaced refugees.  She couldn’t believe what happened.
She writes,
When we arrived at the church families milled about the premises. Some were gathered in the narthex of the church, others were sitting on chairs nearby. It wasn’t until later that we realized that almost all of these families were living at the church. The coffee we were served, again and again, was an expression of hospitality. These refugee families, many of whom have one or two sets of clothes, were serving us their own coffee.

There in the church facilities were approximately 50 Syrian families sharing communal eating, sleeping, and bathing quarters. The Pastor and the congregation have converted the Church facilities into a complete hostel for the Syrian refugees. What was once a fellowship hall now sleeps 20. The meeting room houses 10 more. There is a shared kitchen, where church ladies once arranged coffee & sweets for fellowship hour following services.

Next we went upstairs, around the side of the church, and into a building that sits on top of the sanctuary & fellowship hall.. Mattresses covered the floors and old classrooms have been converted into shared bedrooms. The hallways serve as kitchens, laundry rooms, and storage spaces.

The Feeding of the 5000, a miracle that illustrates the abundance found in community, is a beloved story that the Orthodox Initiative director thought of when she reflected on Christmas dinner at St Ephraim’s Syriac Orthodox Church. What began as a humble desire to get to know the Syrian refugee families became a joyful Christmas dinner.

True to Middle Eastern hospitality standards, the Syrian families welcomed their guests, the staff and volunteers of the Orthodox Initiative, into their temporary living space inside the Orthodox Church. Preparation did not merely include getting out a table cloth and sweeping the floor. The Syrian families, who have fled from their homes and resettled in the St Ephraim’s Church’s Fellowship Hall, accommodated their guests by clearing out their living spaces and setting up tables and chairs to seat 100 people.

The atmosphere of the dinner was full of joy and peace, affording a welcome respite to the families from the trauma of fleeing violence in their home country only to arrive in Jordan with few possessions and resources. Relaxation permeated the hall with families sharing stories and memories. Upon arriving at the dinner, the Orthodox Initiative director felt a sense of nostalgia while she, “watched as families switched off lights in their homes and rooms and walked to the church to join the gathering. It was as if watching a classic Christmas movie.”[i]

            That spirit of hospitality that transformed a refugee ministry in Jordan in 2013 into a Christmas day filled with grace, joy, laughter, and love – that same hospitality was in Bethlehem when Joseph and Mary arrived and Jesus, God the Son, entered human flesh through birth, the same way we all come into life on this planet.  Luke hints at this in verse 6. 
            In the previous verse, Luke writes that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, registering because of the Roman tax.  Then in verse 6, “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.”  Jesus birth was but one of a series of events in Bethlehem at that time.
            I read a research paper[ii] that describes the typical home in first century Bethlehem.  Most people, whatever else they did, also did farming.  The blacksmith, the carpenter, the tanner – whatever the trade, the family also grew crops and had a few farm animals.  Most families were poor, so they only had a few animals. 
            Most families lived in one-rooms and brought their animals into the home at night.  The manger would be a space on the floor where animals ate while inside on cold nights.  The entire family was in very close proximity to the animals.  That they would give this space to Joseph and Mary, and then to Baby Jesus, was an example of giving the very best that they had. 
            Furthermore, the hospitality was a harbinger of the life Jesus would lead and call his followers to lead.  Besides Joseph and Mary and the host family, unknown to history, who were the first people to welcome Jesus into the world? Shepherds!  They fell very low on the social ladder.  Their work in keeping the flocks, so essential in society, rendered them “unclean.”  Many homes would not even welcome them in.  However, they would be very comfortable in the presence of animal’s feed trough.  Even as baby, Jesus welcomed the lowest of society and set the standard that all associated with him would gladly welcome all people.  The refugees, centuries later, welcoming the ministry that had come to care for them were simply Jesus followers following the lead of their master – our Lord. 
            A poor peasant family says to Joseph and Mary, welcome to our home.  This clears for the new born Jesus to find himself, not in a castle or palace, but in a stable.  Because he’s in a stable, shepherds, unwelcomed in so-called respectable places are able to come and worship the Son of God the angels told them about.  Thus in the birth of Jesus we a tone of welcome set, a standard he will demonstrate in his ministry and one his church will maintain.  His church continues to live up this standard even up to our day, when Christians who have been robbed of everything by war end up hosting the ministry that thought it was going to serve them. 
            Of course all of this leads to the conclusion I am sure you are suspecting.  We Christians in North America must maintain extravagant generosity in our own lives.  We extend ourselves in hospitality in our homes, in our relationships, and in our church.  This is absolutely so and we are called to this ministry, and I extremely every time I see how well our church does in giving hospitality.  However, that is actually not my conclusion this Christmas morning.
            My conclusion is instead an invitation to you.  The Christ who lay in a manger and welcomed shepherds and whose Holy Spirit inspired Syrian refugees in Jordan to welcome the Orthodox Initiative is the one who went to the cross to die for the sins of the world.  And we all need him.  We are all sinners.  You are a sinner.  I am.  Our sins wreck our lives, hurt us and others, and cut us off from God.  But, Jesus has covered our sins with his blood and forgiven us.  Our sins are no more.  We are made new.
He is the one who rose from the grave to conquer death and invite us to join him in resurrection.  So Jesus has utterly done away with the two things that destroy life – sin and death.  He cleans us, makes us new, and gives us eternal life.
The final word on hospitality is not that we should all practice it.  We should.  But the final word to you this Christmas morning is that Jesus is inviting you to come to Him and be welcomed into his family.  To you, Jesus says, “Welcome to my home.”  His home is the Kingdom of God.  You and I – we can be at home there. 
I began this morning by saying that I hoped your Christmas morning has been full of joy and smiles and warmth.  In reality, I don’t know what your Christmas has been like.  I know when people are in pain or going through a rough time, the holiday might magnify that hurt.  If that is you or if you have never given your life to Jesus, he is here.  His Holy Spirit is here beckoning your heart.  He wants to show divine hospitality to your spirit. 
Come to him.  That’s the final word.  God entered human flesh, died on the cross and rose because God loves you and me.  Today, Christmas Day, come, give your heart to Him and receive the welcome and the salvation He has for you.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Eve Sermon (2016)

The Earth Shall See Salvation (Isaiah 52:7-10)

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, 5:00PM

            Good news!
            Break forth into singing!
            At the return of the Lord, sing and shout for joy!
            All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God!  Among the other sentiments we share on this night, a reading from Isaiah sets the spiritual mood.  In celebrating the birth of Jesus, we recite the arrival of God’s salvation plan.  The prophet Isaiah bellows words that echo across history, and we Christians believe there is unique meaning in this Old Testament prophet’s expression, and that meaning is found in Jesus.  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  Or as Isaiah says, “All the ends of the earth shall see salvation.” All need it because we are lost in sin, and God loves us and thus sent Jesus for all of us. 
            We sing of our salvation in our Christmas songs.  We also retell the story when we sing these songs. 
When we sing (tune of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’), for Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love, we are singing Luke’s story.  Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth is the point of view that gives us angels and mangers and shepherds.  In Luke’s Gospel, the Father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, meets an angel.  An angel appears to Mary.  Joseph and Mary make the periled journey from Galilee, headed south but also climbing over mountains, thus headed “up” to Bethlehem.  Upon arrival, they find crowded inns and end up, probably in a family home, which included a feed trough for animals, the manger.  This is in Luke.
            Matthew tells of dreams.  Joseph dreams.  The wise men had dreams.  There is none of this dreaming in Luke.  Matthew tells of the visitors following the star and a flight to Egypt.  Wise men, Joseph, dreams, Herod – that’s all Matthew. 
Mark skips the birth stories altogether.  He begins his gospel with Jesus’ baptism. 
John, on the other hand, goes back, way back before even Genesis.  John says, that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  However, after John gives that cosmic perspective, he too skips ahead to Jesus and John the Baptist and the recruitment of disciples. 
            Of the four gospels, Luke provides most of the imagery we envision at Christmas and sing in our songs.  Matthew definitely finds his way into our Christmas songbook.  We three kings of orient are.  Bearing gifts we traverse afar.  That’s Matthew and there are others from Matthew.   But most of the Christmas hymns tell Luke’s story.  Including the ones we’ve sung tonight.
            The First Noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.  That’s Luke.
            Away in a manger, no crib for his bed.  The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.  Again, Luke.  We sing the second chapter of Luke more than any other passage in scripture, except maybe the Psalms.  I find it beautiful.  To me these are some of the most familiar, comforting, and meaningful worship songs we have.  People will refer them as ‘Christmas carols,’ and that’s not bad thing.  I have no problem with that wording.  But I don’t talk about that way. 
To me, Away in a Manger is a worship song.   Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.  Close by me forever, and love me I pray.  In difficult times, I pray that prayer.  God, please be with me.  Guide me through this.  Help me with the struggles I face and the obstacles to be overcome.  I love that Luke’s moving storytelling has inspired songs so familiar, we can sing them by heart.  In doing so, we tell the story Isaiah prophesied – the joyous proclamation of salvation in the coming of Jesus.
I have to mention that my wife gave me a Christmas warning.  She said, “Listen.  I’ve had enough of the heavy sermons.  They’re good, but, it is Christmas.  I need baby Jesus.  I need Mary and Joseph.  I need a manger.  I need to hear about peace and joy.”  I have been so instructed, and not just by her.  Years ago, before I even started in ministry, I was exploring the idea of being a pastor.  So, I visited a seminaries across the east, including the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  There, I sat in on the preaching class.  The professor told her students, would-be pastors, “When you’re preaching at Easter, talk about the resurrection.  Don’t try to get too creative.  At Easter, talk about the empty tomb.  When you’re preaching on Christmas Eve, mention Bethlehem and baby Jesus.”
Tonight, I have tried to abide by that professor’s instruction and more importantly, my wife’s direct admonition.  This is the night we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  This is the night we rejoice and thank God for Jesus’ coming.  On this night, we read Isaiah’s words – “Break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted His people; he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9).  And when we read Isaiah 52, we link his promise with the fulfillment in the coming of Jesus.  It all comes together.
As it does, telling moves into confessing.  “To know the risen Lord is not only to give an account of something that happened in the past.  It is an interior knowing that transforms the knower.”[i] 
Church historian Robert Louis Wilken observed that 2nd century Christians felt that only by believing in God and following Jesus could they understand God.  Their theology proceeded from their belief before it was worked out in their intellect.  When they attempted to explain Christianity, it was never simply an academic exercise in which they developed their theology.  Origin, Tertullian, Augustine – their theology was a product of their personal faith.  In some cases, they died for their confessions of faith in Jesus and were glad to do so. 
The word martyr actually means witness.  Once we decide to follow Jesus, the story becomes our story, and every example of Christian witness comes in the first person.  Beyond sharing information, our telling of the great drama of scripture is our confession what God has done in our lives. 
This night, I have tried to recite the story of Jesus’ birth.  Through our favorite, familiar songs, we have rehearsed the story we know so well.  Even non-church people have some familiarity with it.  We have read the scriptures.  I have spoken of Joseph and Mary and the manger.
Now, in order for this to be true proclamation, more than mere quaint narrating, I have to be a witness.  I have to tell what I have experienced in my own life.  I have to bear my soul because for me Christmas Eve is more than tradition, more than habit, and more than a necessary task of being a church leader.  Christmas Eve worship is a part of my life as a follower of Jesus.  Apart from God, my life makes no sense.
The coming of the Lord in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, is the coming of salvation.  And I stand before you as a man who needs, or who needed, to be saved.  I won’t give a line item accounting of my sins.  There are too many – and at the same time, there are none.  I know I have lived of life in which I made mistakes that absolutely cut me off from God.  I know that. 
Yet, I do not dwell on it because this Savior whose birth we rejoice has saved me.  I have confessed those sins and Jesus has nailed my sins to the cross.  That’s where my sins and my death are.  I stand in joy that only grows deeper and richer over time because with each passing year, I grow in my relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  This is not my accomplishment.  I am not bragging.  I am testifying.  I am singing and dancing.  I thrilled.  The life I have in the Lord is a gift God gives and then renews all the time.  The joy that grows is something God is growing in me as a gift to me.  God offers that gift to all.  In addition to testifying, singing, and dancing, I am inviting you.
The birth of Jesus, the birth of my salvation, is the birth of yours too.  Christmas marks God’s announcement.  All who know they are sinners can turn to Jesus, be forgiven and be adopted as sons and daughters of God.  If you have never given your life to Christ and received His grace, you can do so tonight.  You can come talk to me afterward and together, we’ll pray for your heart to be opened and the Holy Spirit of God to come in.  Jesus’ birthday can be the day you are born again.
Then, the story of it will be your story – the memory of your new life.  When you share that story, you are right there with the angels and the shepherds.  Whatever baggage has weighed down your soul is lifted by God’s love as God makes you new.  And like me, for you, telling the story is no longer narrating.  It is confessing.  You become the martyr – the witness – who testifies that the Lord is good and that in Jesus His Kingdom has come.
I titled this Christmas Eve message “The Earth Shall See Salvation.”  This is how it happens.  People like you and me tell the story of God.  This Christmas Eve Bethlehem chapter is but one installment.  When we tell it, we tell it as confession because we are saved and the story is ours.  Our telling is testimony.  People hear our testimony and the Holy Spirit works in their hearts.  They realize their need for God.  They confess their sins, receive Jesus into their hearts, and are born again.  Then they are testifying witnesses.  God is good and we can have life in his name.  And on and on, the Gospel – Good News – spreads until the Earth has seen salvation. 

(We conclude our service by singing “Silent Night”).

[i] Robert Louis Wilken (2003), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

Monday, December 19, 2016

Actions of a Faithful Witness (Matthew 1:18-25)

He has no recorded words in the Bible.  He is not thought of as Jesus’ real father.  He is completely off the scene by the time Jesus’ ministry begins.  He is not mentioned by later New Testament writers, either in the book of Acts, in Paul’s writings, or in the other epistles.  Joseph is a silent witness.  And yet, this silent witness is a portrait of faithful, God-honoring living in the most trying of times.  His shadow falls over the story of Jesus’ birth and we can learn a lot about what it means to be a God-follower from Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus.
            When I have taught the Bible to teens and elementary-aged kids, experiences where I had a limited amount of time, I zeroed in on two words – actions and attitudes.  I figured that if I could get students to focus on what they did and how they carried themselves as they did it, then they could consciously strive to live as Jesus lived.  Actions and attitudes: you don’t need to memorize passages of scripture or recite creedal formulas.  You don’t need to speak in public or to persuade people with your erudite arguments.  You simply do things that help and encourage others – actions; and, you do what you do in a way that shows love and conveys compassion – attitudes. 
            Though silent, Joseph, through his actions and his attitude, says a lot.   
            What jumps out from Matthew’s storytelling?  “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18).  What stands out as Matthew weaves this tale? 
            He assumes the listener already knows the story.  He’s not so much telling us something we haven’t heard before as he is giving his own commentary, his own slant on it.  I say this because he lays out something remarkable in a concise, unassuming way.  She was pregnant from the Holy Spirit?  That doesn’t happen every day.  Yet in Matthew’s prose, it sounds unremarkable.  It is as if this miracle pregnancy is but a prelude to something more significant that Matthew wants us to know.
            Premarital pregnancy was an absolute scandal in which no one would believe the excuse, “Well, God did it!”  Yeah right, Mary!  Please!  God did it?  Try another one! The law for the Jews was clear.  Deuteronomy 22:23: “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman.”  As Joseph’s betrothed, Mary was seen as his wife in the eyes of the community.  Even though their relationship had not been consummated, they were viewed as married.  The law of Deuteronomy 22 applied and was final.
            Why such an extreme penalty?  The end of Deuteronomy 22:23 – the last phrase of the verse – gives the reason.  Both man and woman shall die; “thus you shall purge evil from Israel.”  We minimize sexual trysts.  She was just having fun.  Or, we romanticize them.  She was forced into a marriage she didn’t want.  When she cheated on her husband, she was with the man she truly loved.  Either way, the unplanned pregnancy is easily ended with a quick trip to the abortion clinic.  In our cultural ethos, to make a fuss about adultery and abortion is silly and those who do are prudes, too old fashioned to keep up with the ways things are today.
            This casual dismissal of fidelity and of life is a sign on our culture’s sexual deviance.  Abortion was not an option or even a consideration in the first century.  And adultery and sexual misconduct wasn’t an offense or a violation.  It was much worse.  It was considered evil and was to be purged from the community of God’s people.
            Matthew writes with this understanding in mind, an understanding his readers would immediately grasp.  Before she was married, Mary was already pregnant.  That’s a big deal, a matter of life or death not just for her but for the entire community.  Yet Matthew passes over it so quickly, it is clear he find something else in the story even more significant. That more significant truth comes in the very next verse.
            “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (1:19).  Because his words weren’t recorded, we don’t know what kind of cursing, ranting, and railing Joseph.  His wife-to-be had cheated on him, or so he thought.  He surely wronged.  Maybe heartbroken too?  He could have had her stoned and gotten universal agreement in the community.  She would be set apart.  Every adult person in the village would surround her.  And they’d fire stones at her until she was dead.  Joseph could have done that.
            But, Matthew tells us he was a ‘righteous man.’  What sign indicated his moral fiber?  It was his willingness to discount the law in Deuteronomy and instead put her away quietly.  Even though Joseph never heard Jesus preach a sermon, he realized that love was behind the law of God and there were cases where loving dictated not heeding the letter of the law.  How do we know Joseph was righteous?  We know because he was willing to protect Mary from what he believed were the consequences of her actions. 
            He had nothing to gain.  In a culture stooped in poverty, a man’s riches came in the number of children he sired.  Now here was Joseph planning to gently break things off with the woman he believed had forsaken him for someone else.  We should point out, Mary was not unfaithful.  But from where Joseph stood, that’s what it looked like.  With nothing to gain, he let compassion for her be what drove his actions.  His attitude was one of love. 
            It was to this man – a man hurt, but resolved to care for Mary – to this man the angel appeared.  Joseph already lived his faith when the angel laid out the entire plan.  Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and the child, a son, was to be name “Jesus,” which means ‘salvation.’  His birth fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah.  His coming fit within the story of God’s salvation of the world through the people of Israel. 
            After’s Joseph’s big moment – what to do when I find out my fiancĂ© is pregnant – things moved very quickly through the narrative.  After compassion drove this man to care for Mary, he had so many dreams we wouldn’t blame him if he was afraid to go to sleep at night.  First, once settled in Bethlehem, he and Mary had visitors – strange, wealthy astronomers who believed the birth was foretold in the stars.  These exotic men gave gifts which instantly made Mary and Joseph rich.
            However, before he could even design the deluxe carpenter shot he dreamed about, he was warned in a dream that Herod was going to kill every child in Bethlehem.  So, Joseph took Mary and baby Jesus and their newly acquired wealth to the land of Israel’s ancient enemies – Egypt. We don’t know how long they were there.  More importantly, upon arrival, Joseph didn’t know how long he would be there.  But, one night, the angel appeared in his dreams once again to tell him to go home.  Joseph, as he had every other time, obeyed.  However, fear drove him to settle in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.  Herod was dead, yes, but his insane son Archelaus was on the throne and he was just as dangerous.
            Then we flip to Matthew chapter 3, 27 years have passed, and Joseph is never mentioned again.  I suppose that if we had his words, we’d see how much is like any of us – a flawed human being who cursed a blue streak when he hammered his thumb instead of the nail, drowned in his own doubt of the word of God, and yelled in impatience at preteen Jesus.  Imagine the way you sometimes blunder.  Joseph surely made some of the same mistakes.  That’s why I find it so encouraging to focus on his attitudes and his actions.
            You and I can put love and compassion as a top priority the way Joseph did.  You and I let our hearts be governed by love and mercy and that love and mercy can embolden us to follow God’s lead even when doing so seems insane.  Joseph had never heard the gospel from Jesus, yet he understood it because he was intent on being true to God.  Whatever limits we have in our knowledge, we can set ourselves to obey the Lord, have attitudes of love, and those attitudes can drive us to be witnesses testifying to God’s goodness as we live our daily lives.
            Joseph didn’t know he was going to be the adoptive father of the son of God who would grow up to be the Savior of the world.  He didn’t know he was going to meet Magi from Persia, the wise men, and be hunted by a crazed, murderous king.  He thought he was a simple carpenter from an insignificant village marrying a simple girl from the same village. 
            We don’t know what will come about in our lives in the next few hours or in the week to come.  It might be a Christmas week like many Christmas’s of the past.  Or something completely unexpected may pop up – something that changes us.  Either way, we go forth with an attitude of love and committed to actions that point the world to Jesus.  As with Joseph, in our lives, God takes it from there.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Joy in the Waiting (James 5:7-11)

3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

          Work hard for God by sharing God’s love.  Use your resources to feed people who are hungry.  Through invitation and friendship and conversation, help people who have no knowledge of God come to know God through faith in Jesus.  Encourage Christians, friends who have gone through pain, by standing with them and helping them.  Help.  Provide.  Evangelize.  Work.

          On the other hand …

          Sit in silent, blissful stillness as blessings from God wash over you.  In the exultant triumph of music, experience the glory of God.  See God’s goodness in friends who bring happiness to you in the things they do for you.  Bask in God’s majesty as you meet God in creation, in nature.  Marvel.  Relate.  Listen.  Be blessed.

          Is the faith dynamic clear?  As we live in relation to God through Jesus, we live in a dynamic of reaching and receiving.  We reach for the Kingdom of God when we work for justice, when tell others about Jesus, and when we work to build up the church community and help the family of God be a community of love and welcome.  All of this takes proactive effort on our parts.  As an individual believer, being a Christ-follower involves complete commitment.
          At the same time, we know that the greatest blessings of life are those God gives when we have not earned them and sometimes when we least expect them.  This is very hard, because we are a hard-working people who like to think that we get by on our own capabilities.  We have to resist the urge to claim independence.  We are dependent.  We depend on God’s grace for joy, for spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and for eternal life. 
          We reach and we receive in relation to God.  When we think of who we are as a body of believers and as individuals, we understand the necessity of both.  We do not neglect the work of discipleship telling ourselves “God will take care of it.”  We go to work.  We study for the exam.  We pay our bills.  We raise our families.  We contribute to society.  We build up the church.  Through spiritual disciplines we grow and mature as disciples.
          At the same time, we do not count on our own efforts.  We work hard in all things, all the while knowing our best blessings come as gifts God gives.  We neither neglect work, nor do we deceive ourselves into depending on our own efforts.  We live in a reach-receive dynamic.  It is a beautiful way to live as we enter the story of the birth of Jesus.  In entering the story and reliving his birth we see that our lives don’t make sense apart from Jesus.

          Our family does not go to the mall or toy stores – never, ever.  But somethings cannot be avoided indefinitely.  My 8th grade son Igor sings in his school choir and we want to support him.  So, when they do their annual holiday concert at Barnes and Noble bookstore, our family goes. 
          It seems like every time I am in there, Barnes and Noble has sacrificed space that used to be used for book shelves.  In that space, they sell other things, like toys.  I cannot imagine Toy ‘R Us selling more stuff for kids than what they had in the Barnes and Noble we recently visited for the choir concert.  It was plenty for my 2nd grader and 4th grader to look at and wonder at as they waited for Igor’s concert to start and waited even more longingly for Christmas morning to arrive.
          “Daddy, come look at this!”
          “Oh Dad, you have to see this!”
          I thought maybe the two of them were going to rend me apart, rip me into two pieces.  And maybe they wouldn’t notice as long as each one had one of my hands they could drag to football card collector’s set or the American girl doll or the Lego this or the Lego Friends that.  It was fun to watch them, but it was also clear that my children, at that moment, were not interested in receiving blessings on Christmas morning.  They were reaching for what they wanted. 
          And it is OK.  It is OK that in that moment they expelled the holiday energy bubbling up inside because they know they have a mom and dad who love them and who want to give them good things.  On Christmas morning, they will be happy with what they receive.  They won’t dwell on the 55 things on their lists that aren’t under the tree.  They’ll celebrate the goodness they receive.  (I hope).  The reaching and the receiving are both part of this season.  So is the waiting. 
          Three stages of waiting have an accent that is unique to the Christmas season.  First we wait for the birth of Christ.  It’s tempting to say, “No, Jesus was born 2000 years ago.”  We wait for his birth in the sense that a part of our worship is to enter the story of God and human beings, and a key point in the story is the miraculous birth to Virgin Mary.  We know that her premarital pregnancy caused a scandal.  We know Joseph was a faithful and good and stayed with her in spite of the scandal. We know the Roman census forced them to make the ill-advised journey to the Joseph’s family town of Bethlehem.  We know they make it.  We know that so many people had to do this because of an imperial overlord unconcerned about how his edicts inconvenienced an entire populace and so there was no place to stay.  We know that this led to the Savior being born in a barn, a stable. 
          Knowing all of it, we enter the story.  Waiting for the birth is as much a part of the waiting of Christmas as is waiting for Santa Claus and presents under the tree.  We can’t hurry it along.  We put up our tree, we hang our stockings, we decorate our homes in lights, but no matter what we do, December 25 does not get here until December 25.  And Jesus is not born until we arrive in Bethlehem.  Ask Heather.  The baby comes when it is time and not before.  For all our reaching, the blessing is one we receive. 
          There’s another stage of waiting.  From Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year – we call this the holiday season.  But there’s a waiting that is beyond this, a waiting that hits us any time of the year throughout our lives.  We wait for God to act. 
          You’re a Christian, certain that the only way to have a meaningful life is to live in relation to Jesus as his follower.  And someone you care about has not committed to Christ.  Your dear friend is ambivalent about faith.  You’ve prayed.  You’ve witnessed to your friend.  Now, you’re waiting for God to reveal God’s very self to your friend in such a dramatic that like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, your friend cannot resist God any more.  You’ve done all you can, but you know you have no control over God or your friend’s responses.  So you wait hoping your friend will turn to Christ.
          You are at a decision point.  What comes next in your life?  You’ve made a list of pros and cons if you choose ‘A,’ and a list of pros and cons if you choose ‘B.’  You have researched.  You have thought it through and discussed it with close friends.  They are praying too.  But you don’t want to move until God shows you the way. So now you’re waiting for God to speak. 
          We could list numerous other ways we wait for God to act.  The young person trying to discern God’s call waits.  The horrible powerlessness in the room aptly named, the waiting room, where we hope the doctor will tell us our dad is going to make it, God has healed him.  Waiting for the birth of Jesus reminds of our lives spent waiting for God to act.
          Also we think of the ultimate waiting: we wait upon the return of Christ, which is promised in the Bible.  He who defeated death in his resurrection then ascended to the right hand of the father.  He will return.  We don’t know when, so we wait.  The New Testament story reveals that his return means wars will end forever.  Evil and death will be permanently defeated.  All who have died in Christ will rise as Jesus rose.  And we will live together in relationships of love in the Kingdom of God forever. 
          The New Testament book of James says, “Be patient beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (5:7).  The final judgment, the resurrection of all people, and the end of days is what is meant by the phrase ‘the coming of the Lord.’  James counsels patience because we have to live faithfully until Jesus returns. 
How are do maintain joy as we wait?
The word ‘patient’ connotes endurance.  The church James wrote to was under persecution.  They were minority group victimized by prejudice and sometimes terrorized by government officials.  The church told by James to be endure was at times afraid for its very survival.  In this context, they were to go beyond just surviving and actually called to thrive as witnesses that drew the world to God through knowledge of Jesus.  James and other early church leaders taught the church to share the joy of Christ with a lost and hurting world.  That divine mandate has passed to us
Thus in verse 9, he addresses the church members as ‘beloved.’  They are family.  They are not a group of like-minded individuals.  They are not an institution or a non-profit agency.  They are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Beloved. 
Think of our church family that way.  The United State government has classifications for us – non-profit; religious organization.  People on the street have notions of what goes on in here.  People in other religions will describe us in one way or another.  We know that we are a family, sisters and brothers linked in the heart because of Jesus.  When James writes “beloved” in verse 9, he’s writing to us.
“Do not grumble against each other.” 
Reaching for the Kingdom of God leads us to be too self-reliant.  Those who do more or accomplish more may have more recognition within the community of faith.  Maybe they appear more Christian or one might say they more advanced as Christ followers.  Retreat to a posture where we only wait to receive can lead to spiritual sloth where we never grow.  The waiting to receive might produce a person who makes a commitment to Jesus but after that never lives a Christ follower.  An outside observer would never know that person has anything to do with Jesus. 
We reach and we receive – the life of faith is both.  Waiting for the birth of the promised one; waiting for God to act in our lives; waiting for the final resurrection; throughout our waiting, we live actively, and we live gratefully.  We reach for the Kingdom while receiving blessings from God.  And we do this as a community of peace.
Much of James echoes the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places.  In chapter 2, verse 8, James repeats Jesus’ royal law – “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Thus two instructions from James color our living as we wait: be patient and do not grumble against one another.  Waiting purposefully, as people who grow in our faith, and gratefully, as people who receive blessings, and waiting peacefully, we come to a wonderful discovery.  Joy is in the waiting.
We will end our worship singing these word.  “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains: and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strains.  Gloria, Gloria, Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” 
Earlier we sang “Joy to the world.”  We’ve been singing these songs for three weeks now and will continue through the end of the year.  As a family together – a family of peace and love, not bickering and resentment – we wait, together.  The joy reaches its height in the manger, but it has already come. 
“Daddy, come and see this.”  That longing joy is there.
“My friend, come with me to church this weekend.  There are many nice people ready to welcome you and love you as you are.”  That welcoming joy is here and is growing.
With the eyes of our hearts fixed on God, the motion of present joy, coming joy, growing joy need not be unsettling.  The motion can actually be reassuring that God is present and at work among us.
The Christmas season has every emotion.  Every one.  I believe that when we are in Christ no matter what else we have, we can also have joy.  Reach for it.  Receive it.  Wait for it.  And do all of this in the embrace of the family of God, the body of Christ, the church.  In Christ, God beckons you to come to His loving arms.  Come to him today.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10

The Knowledge of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-10)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
Return of the Remnant of Israel and Judah
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

        A few years ago my father did something not many church goers do.  He took a sabbatical from his church.  He is a deacon and a Bible study leader.  But for six weeks, he visited other congregations.  Before doing this, he told his pastor and his the class he taught.  “I am not leaving our church,” he assured them.  “I am just visiting other congregations.”
        Dad is a Baptist in Roanoke, VA.  On his Sabbatical, he went to the downtown Episcopalian Church.  He went to the Greek Orthodox Church in town.  One Sunday, he attended the large, downtown Catholic Church.  For six weeks, he was with the body of Christ worshipping, but not with his home church.  And when the Sabbatical was over, he resumed his duties in his home church.  He came back with a bigger sense of the body of Christ and a fuller picture of who God is.
        One of the highlights was the Catholic Church.  My dad’s church is almost exclusively Caucasian.  There is diversity.  The church has a lot of age diversity.  It is comprised of many generations.  There is surely ideology diversity.  Whenever 300 or 400 people are gathered, you have different ideas.  However, ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically, dad’s church is pretty uniform.  In the Catholic Church, during the mass when they took the body and blood of Christ, the people went to the front, and it was people from every tribe and nation.  Black, white, Asian, young, old, rich, poor; each feasted on the offering of Jesus.
The racial and ethnic diversity blew my dad away because he doesn’t see that every week in church.  As people proceeded to the front he felt a divine appropriateness.  This felt right.  At the Lord’s Table, that’s where the world should gather in peace and love. 
Isaiah saw it coming.  God’s would usher in a new day, a day in which we embrace one another and together stand in the light of God’s love.  Isaiah painted it for us in unexpected hues.  The wolf nuzzling the lamb; the leopard cuddling the baby goat; the grizzly palling around with the heifer; Isaiah saw peace extending throughout creation and this peace stood upon the one filled with the Spirit of the Lord.  We read in the New Testament that at his baptism, the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus.  Then, that same Spirit filled him and drove him to ministry.
The Spirit drove Jesus to a wilderness confrontation with Satan.  The Spirit affirmed him at the transfiguration, and comforted him before he went to the cross for us.
We stand, seeing the same peace Isaiah saw.  We stand on who we are in Christ. 
This morning, in his name, we gather at the table confessing our sins and receiving his grace.  All are invited to come and receive the bread – his body broken for our sins.  All are invited to drink from the cup – his blood poured out for us.  As you come, open your heart to God and receive the grace and love he has for you.  As you wait to approach, take note of those who are around you, waiting their turn at the table.  We are part of a community of faith, the family of God.  Look at your brothers and sisters in Christ.  See the community of which you are part.  Even if this is your first time among us, you are a part of us because God brought you here.  So come. Receive the blessing of God, forgiveness and new life.