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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas Eve

“From Heaven to Earth” (John 1:1-5, 14-18)
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2017

            We from John’s gospel, chapter 1.  You are aware that there are four gospel, four ancient writers who set pen to paper to tell the story of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  We read John1, but, which of the four is the best to read on Christmas Eve?
All the action happens in Luke chapter 1.  An angel comes to the priest Zechariah as the old man gives the annual offering in the inner sanctum of the temple on the Day of Atonement.  The Heavenly messenger tells the aged holy man that he and his childless, post-menopausal wife will have a son.  Miraculous!  Then it happens.  That baby grows up to be John the Baptist, the prophet who prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah – Jesus.
            Zechariah’s wife who had the miracle pregnancy, Elizabeth, the mother of John, is the also the cousin of a young betrothed woman, not barely more than a girl, named Mary.  Mary was soon to wed Joseph, but they had not yet been together.  She was a virgin.  An angel comes to her to tell her she will have a son, before her marriage, before intimacy with her betrothed.  Another miracle! 
Newly pregnant, she journeys to see her cousin Elizabeth who is farther along in her pregnancy.  Elizabeth’s baby, still in the womb, leaps with glee at the approach of the mother of the Lord.  Luke chapter 1 is full of encounters with angels, miracle pregnancies, and people who respond to overwhelming news by worshiping God joyfully.
Upon flipping the page to Luke 2, the narrative become prosaic. 
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
If anything, Luke’s description of the actual birth of Jesus is understated.  Movies depicting this are much more dramatic than the actual Biblical account.  The film The Nativity Story from a few years ago depicts an exhausting, harrowing journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  In one scene, Joseph is guiding the donkey ridden by a very pregnant Mary.  They have to forge a waist-deep river that’s moving quite quickly.  As the water beats against them and Joseph stumbles trying to keep stable as he walks the rocky river bed, Mary sees a large, poisonous snake slithering through the water toward them.  The nervous donkey bucks sending Mary flying.  Joseph doesn’t hesitate.  He viciously grabs the snake and flings it.  Then he heroically lifts his pregnant wife out of the cold water, carries her to the safe river bank and retrieves the traumatized beast of burden so they can continue their journey.  That might have happened.  That or some episode like.
Luke doesn’t give us anything about the journey.  He just tells us there was a tax imposed by the imperial overlords: Rome!  Rome says move, and you move.  Like every other beleaguered Israelite, Joseph had to comply with the census by returning to the village of his birth.  Though it might not have seemed wise, he took his pregnant wife with him.  They made the 3-day walk.   Thus Jesus, the Messiah, was born, in the city of David, Bethlehem, just as prophecy hinted he would be.  Luke’s narrative of the actual birth is void of drama. 
The action resumes in verse 8 of Luke 2.  An angel terrifies a group of shepherds.  The divine messenger begins, “Do not be afraid.”  He then tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:10-11).  That angel is joined by a multitude – 100’s?  1000’s?  The night echoes with their angelic praise songs.  When they finish, then shepherds run to Bethlehem waking everyone until they find the grotto where a baby was born. 
Right away these men of the field know they have found the one.  Mary realizes she’s part of the biggest story in the history of the world.  She’s right at the center of it.  Luke must have known her, in her later years.  He probably wrote this gospel after he talked with Mary many times and after she had died.  Either he knew her, or he talked with people who had known her quite well.  He was able to tell us that she took it all in, quietly rejoicing in her heart and treasuring all that took place.
There is nothing quiet about those shepherds.  They thunder into the quiet village looking for the baby.  Once they find him, they thunder through the quiet village waking everyone to tell them what had happened.  Then, they thunder back out to the field so recently filled with angel-song.  Now that same hillside pasture is filled with the voices of shepherds as they praise God. 
Luke is where the action is.  Much of what we think of as the Biblical Christmas story comes in Luke.  Matthew Gospel doesn’t have any of this.  In Matthew, the angel visits Joseph in his dreams.  Matthew is not concerned with why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem.    He just puts them there and he doesn’t mention a stable at all.  Matthew tells us that angel convinced Joseph to stay with Mary even though she was pregnant and he had nothing to do with it. 
Luke says nothing about visitors from the East. The wise men are only in Matthew and by the time they arrive, the baby Jesus is probably closer to two and toddling around.  He and Joseph and Mary are in a house in Bethlehem.  The shepherds have long since exited stage right.  Yes, our tradition has the shepherds and the wise men all together at the stable nativity scene.  It’s a lovely tradition that my family maintains in our own nativity sets.  It is not Biblically accurate, but that’s OK.  It’s a tradition that blends the stories from Luke and Matthew.
Do not go searching for the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Mark.  Mark begins with Jesus at about age 30, getting baptized.  John’s gospel also does not mention the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem or angels visiting shepherds or a virgin birth or wise men from Persia visiting the child Jesus.  None of those aspects of the story are in John.  John gives us the theology behind the birth of Jesus.
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. … All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing was made” (John 1:1, 3).  This is the cosmic Christ.  The second person of the trinity, God the Son, who in the incarnation becomes Jesus, is the agent of creation.  This picture of the cosmic Christ, also found in Colossians 1 (v.15-20), is the opening of the Gospel of John. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but God the Son always existed.  In Jesus, God the son came to earth in human form. 
John’s initial way of referring to Jesus, God the Son, is the Word.  In chapter 1, verse 14, John says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s son full of grace and truth.   No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (v.18).  In that last statement John uses hyperbole as a part of his presentation of Jesus as the only path to God.  He wrote Gospel with the goal of showing who Jesus is so that readers will surrender their lives to Jesus and accept Him as their Lord and Master. 
Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and a few others in the Old Testament had seen God and lived to tell about it.  The parents of Samson are on this list.  So too are Noah and Enoch.  The thing is in all these cases, God made a special appearance to a specific individual for a specific purpose.  The specific purpose in the coming of Jesus was accessibility to God for all people.  In Jesus Christ crucified, Jesus Christ resurrected, the way to God is opened for all people.  With the ascension, reported in Acts 1, Jesus departed bodily, but then the Holy Spirit came as his lasting presence with all people in all places.  Christmas is the story of God come to earth so that you and I can know God, worship God, have forgiveness of sins, and follow God the rest of our lives. 
Luke gives the main story.  Matthew fills some details not in Luke.  Luke gives us Mary’s perspective.  Matthew gives us Joseph’s.  John lays out the theological significance of what God has done in Jesus.  God is with us, God the Spirit, active among us.  As John’s Gospel winds down, we read this in chapter 20, verse 30-31.  ” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  When we recognize the work of Christ among us, at work in the Spirit in our lives, then more signs are performed that point the world to God.  In other words, God did not stop doing new things at the close of the final book of the Bible.  God continues to be on the move, creating new life in the world.  God does this work through His church when His church is responsive to Him.  In us, the story continues.
A new year is about to begin.  As we celebrate Christmas, remember the year that was, 2017, look forward to new horizons, and as take the next steps in our lives, think about what it does say in that final book of the Bible, Revelation.  The mistaken notion is that Revelation is all about Heaven and the Gospel is all about how we get to Heaven.  Listen to what Revelation actually says.  “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among [women and men], He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’” (21:2-3). 
If the first act, the birth of Jesus, is God come to earth, the Word made flesh, then the second act, the book of Revelation, is the second coming of Jesus.  He comes.  We don’t go.  I love the Brad Paisley song, “When I Get Where I’m Going.”  The feeling of the song is lovely and sometimes brings me to tears.  But the Biblical message is ‘when Jesus gets where he’s going,’ and where he’s going is here.  It’s called the Second Coming.  The end of the story is Heaven, made new, joined with Earth, made new.  Christmas is the preview of the eternal joy we will have as sons and daughters of God living forever in God’s presence.  
We step to that ending when we put our trust in Jesus.  We trust him to remove our sins.  We trust him to rule our lives.  His will for us is better than our own.  Gospel means “good news.”  The Good News is that in Christ all sin is forgiven, all people are united in love and in a new community, the Kingdom of God. 
I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year.  If you have never given your heart to Christ, I encourage you to do that.  Email me if you have questions about how to become a Christian (  I would love talking with you about this. 
If you have been a Christ-follower in your life, but lately have turned away from Him, you can turn back to Him tonight.  That’s what repentance is, turning from sin, turning away from a destructive path, and turning to the Lord.  He’s waiting to receive you in love. 
If your relationship with God, in Christ, is great, if you are walking with Christ already, praise God.  He’s got new things instore for your life too.  As you move into 2018, open yourself to him afresh, seeking new mercies every morning.   

This sermon was done at our church’s Christmas Eve service.  We closed singing ‘Silent Night’ by candle light.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety (by Andrea Petersen)

Andrea Petersen gets intensely personal in her book “On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety.”  She tells of her lifelong struggle with identifying her own battle with anxiety disorders.  In the process, she is transparent not only about herself but also about her family.  She includes the time when she briefly lived, in high school, with a friend instead of with her parents because they had moved and she wanted to finish out the school year.   That disastrous idea was aborted midstream.  She also relays her father’s laid back parenting style, including a time he was supposed to be watching her, but was high on has, and she got into the hash. 

She clearly loves her parents and her husband and child. And all of them have been a part of her journey.  As she tells the story, she also relays the research and different approaches to treatment that have been used as psychology has evolved in its understanding of anxiety.  She comes at the issue from every conceivable angle, but she skillfully reminds the reader throughout that her work as a journalist comes from both her professional acumen and from her own tortured experience with anxiety.  A most telling observation comes at the end of the chapter in which she explore the connection to heredity and anxiety.  She writes, “Anxiety disorders almost certainly have multiple causes – from genetics to childhood trauma to how your parents interact with you.  And for any given person, the mix of these factors will be as singular as a fingerprint” (p.92).

In the closing chapter, Peterson shares some of the coping strategies that have enabled her to learn to live with anxiety and even thrive in spite of that anxiety.  She muses about what life would be like if she did not have anxiety, but then she quickly dismisses the notion.  “When I try to envision my life without all the experiences anxiety has given me – as well as the ones it has taken away – I don’t recognize myself” (p.260).  Her conclusion is realistic and hopeful. 

I read this book in order to help me love someone in my life who has an anxiety disorder.  And the book has indeed been helpful.  I recommend it for anyone who struggles with anxiety or for anyone who wants to better love and care for people they know with anxiety.

Monday, December 18, 2017

We Need Christmas (John 16:16-24)

Third Sunday of Advent: Joy
Sunday, December 17, 2017

The December issue of National Geographic arrived a few weeks ago.  The cover is the very famous work entitled “Head of Chris” painted by Rembrandt in the 1640’s.  Ah, we see what Geographic is doing.  It’s December, Christmas is coming, this is a magazine committed to popularizing culture, nature, and scientific discovery, and so, why not apply scientific sensibility to a world-wide cultural phenomenon, the religion behind Christmas. Why not take a scrutinizing look at the people who follow and worship Jesus, the man the baby in the manger grew up to become?
The caption on the cover confirms the intent. It says “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals about His Life.”  Do you catch all the implications within this simple sentence?  We just sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”  We think that the baby Jesus grows up to become the “Lord Jesus.”  We proclaim it, we sing it, we pray it, and we insist it is the truth of all truths.  But is this a legend, a story first century Jews made up as a part of a series of ecstatic prayer experiences?  Is the Lord Jesus not actually the real Jesus?  See the questions raised by that caption under Rembrandt’s painting on the cover of National Geographic?
With the question before us, where do we go? Where do we turn to find out the truth about “the real Jesus?” Do we turn to the internet?  You can sit and down type it into Google.  In case you wondered, Google took less than half a second to produce 33 million hits in response to this question.  Good luck sorting through all those sites, all of them based on someone’s agenda.  Where else could we go for help with this?  You might call Heather or me or Beth, Phil, or Angel for that matter.  Or Hong or Dina or Greg Meyers.  We all have seminary degrees.  Or, if you’re feeling intrepid, you may skip the professionally trained clergy and go straight to the Bible yourself.  Anyone who is literate can read the divinely inspired accounts and form their own understanding of “the real Jesus.”
National Geographic goes in a different direction.  Again, the words on the cover: “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals about His Life.” Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.”[i] It is a science, one that works hand-in-hand with its sister discipline, history, which is also practiced as an emotionally detached academic discipline.  National Geographic thinks that the science of archaeology will give us more fact-based truth about the historical figure of Jesus than anything we might find in biased accounts like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written from a faith perspective.  When a historian or archaeologist declares that faith and miracles and the supernatural are all fantasy and the only things that are real are the facts science can establish, it has the potential to suck the joy right out of Christianity for me.
I love National Geographic, a magazine that comes from a worldview that stands on scientific discovery and proof as the only standard for what is real.  The author of “The Real Jesus” article, Kristin Romey, appreciates what science can say, and also appreciates the limits on scientific inquiry.  There is no way the science of historical research can prove or disprove that an angel spoke to Mary and that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus.  National Geographic tends to default to the view that the virgin birth would have been legend, not something that actually happened.  Science has no category for something that occurs outside of scientifically established natural laws. 
When archaeology and history are practiced as sciences, what they can do is give as accurate a picture as possible about what human life and human society was like in the past – in this case the late first century BC and the first half of the first century A.D.  The article in National Geographic does a thorough job of showing how scientists have over and over verified that much of what we find in the four gospels is historically solid.  The cities reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were where those gospel-writers said they were.  Kristen Romey shows that based on what history can prove, Matthew and his three Gospel-writing peers got the facts right.  First century Israel was mostly likely the way they described it when Jesus was born, when he lived, and was crucified.    
If you’re tempted to say, “Oh, I didn’t need science to tell me that,” allow me to push back just a bit.   As followers of Jesus, we should all be enthusiastic supporters of S.T.E.A.M – science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.  No, we don’t need science for salvation.  However, Jesus commands us to love the Lord with all our mind.  Our church has many members who stretch their minds to the limit in their work, scientific research.  As a worshiping community, we need to foster an environment in which our students are encouraged to excel in science whether it is elementary school or a PhD program or anywhere in between.  We need to bless our members who are scientists and also are Jesus’ disciples.  Their work can be an offering to God and they should glorify Him by committing to excellence in their work. 
Science matters because there are things that can be proved.  For instance, if an ossuary, a bone box, was discovered, and it was proven to contain the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, our faith would be shattered.  We stand on the belief – a belief we insist is incontrovertible fact – that Jesus rose from the grave.  So, if we found what we know to be his grave, it better empty.  Or, our faith crumples. 
However, there are realities for which science cannot account.  Researchers can say what life was like in first century Nazareth, but they can’t prove or disprove that Jesus performed miracles there.  They can’t determine whether or not an angels appeared to shepherds in Bethlehem or spoke in Joseph’s dreams.  The author of the National Geographic piece was very fair on this point.  She traveled all over Israel – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Capernaum.  She met Christ followers from every country you can imagine.  From all over the globe, people traveled to worship Jesus on the ground where he actually walked.
At the end of her article Kristin Romey writes, “To sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence.  That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions [and] irreconcilable facts.  But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the son of God will be evidence enough” (p.68).  I appreciate her recognition of the both/and quality of the Jesus story.  There’s the Jesus who existed in history, and the Jesus who transcends and fulfills history.  They are one and the same and this Jesus is the subject of our worship. 
Christmas time sees us entering into a special season of worship.  The scientific study of Jesus gives us a framework to talk about the story in a post-enlightenment age.  But we need miracles because we need more than just what modern man’s technology can provide.  We don’t just need cures; we need hope.  We don’t just need life to be made easier; we need life to matter.  We don’t just need a few days off to rest and visit family; we need worship that reminds us we are transformed, a people made new in Christ.  The way Christmas has come to a place of importance for my own family helps me see why it is so important.

            Our kids sit around the computer with my wife Candy, and together, they play a simulation that includes a graphic with green and red wrapped presents, an old-time village decorated in Christmas lights, Christmas-related games, and a repeating track of delightful Christmas music in the background.  Beginning on December 1 and going all the way to the 25th, there is something new every day as they click on the globe icon.  Around the time supper is ending and the time for homework is nearing, I say, “Kids, it’s time for the globe,” and they assemble on the sofa and get the computer ready.  Every year.
            In darkness of the early morning, at this time, as we are rousing, getting breakfast, school lunches made, getting ready to catch the bus that comes at 7:05, I tell one of the kids, “plug the Christmas tree lights in.”
            In this season, when we are driving home from a basketball practice or a gymnastics class or Wednesday night youth group, from the back seat I hear, “Dad, can we drive through the neighborhood and look at the lights?”  I say, “Yes.”  We do this several times, pause to see how our neighbors have decorated to celebrate the season.  Every year.
            The pilgrimage to the theater to see the Nutcracker.  Decorating homemade cookies, little trees, stars, and Santa Claus’s.  I need this.
            Four or Five years ago, I had a nasty head cold that ran all through December.  I grumbled and growled.  I wanted nothing to do with Christmas songs or lights on houses or drives through our neighborhood.  Sometime around December 27th or 28th, my wife said, “You were a real grouch this Christmas.”  She was right.  That has stuck with me.  I don’t want to be that.  I need the joy of the season both from our faith and from our cultural ways of celebrating and living that faith.  I need that joy.
            I think most people do.  We spend Advent anticipating his birth as we relive the story, anticipating new things he will do in our lives in the coming year, and waiting with anxious patience for his return at the fulfillment of history, when history ends and God’s kingdom is fully ushered in.  John captures this spirit of longing, waiting, and uncertain in chapter 16 of his gospel.
            There, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his coming crucifixion and then resurrection and then ascension.  They don’t understand much of what he says, but they have the words, and after he is raised from death, and after they see him ascend in clouds and the Holy Spirit fills each one of them, they remember and understand in a new light. 
            “You will have pain,” he tells them.  “But your pain will turn into joy.”  Jesus’ words recall the prophet Isaiah who says, “The Lord gives beauty for ashes, gladness in place of grief” (61:3, my paraphrase).   This is what God does.  Our sin produces pain and death, and draws us away from God.  God, through the death and resurrection of Christ, defeats death, removes our sin, and gives us blessing.  Our pain turns to joy.
            Jesus continues in John 16:22, “You have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Grab a hold of this promise he made to 12.  Claim it for yourself.  These words are in the Bible, handed down to the church, to us, for us.  God, in the risen Christ, in the present Holy Spirit, takes your pain, give you joy, and protects it, so that you have joy unending, joy that cannot be ripped from you.
            And finally Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive; I have said these things my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (16:24; 15:11).
            Based on the assessment of all the available evidence, researchers have determined that Luke, John, and the other gospel writers give an accurate picture of first century Israel.  In terms of verified reporting, John can be trusted.  We know our own stories, how much we need the joy that is promised in the Bible, in the story of Jesus.  That Jesus himself said we can ask and God will give divine, unending, life-changing joy.  Why don’t we ask him to do that?
            I don’t know the specific challenges that block your path in life right now, but I suggest, we end our time with prayer.  Ask God to be with you as we sit together in the Advent season and you face whatever it is you face in your life.  Ask God to sit with you.  And, ask God to fill your heart with Jesus’ love, so that you can know without a doubt that His joy is in you, and your joy is complete.  This is something beyond explanation, something only God can give.  And he wants to.  So ask God in right now.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Love has Come

Love Has Come (John 13:34-35; 14:15-24)
Second Sunday of Advent: Love
December 10, 2017

            One of my favorite Christmas songs, popular about 35 years ago, was “Love has Come,” by Amy Grant.  Here are the lyrics from the second verse:
If I could have a special dream
Coming true on Christmas morn'
I would want the world to see
How his father smiled when Christ was born
The greatest gift the world has known!
So come on kids, look high and low
For all the toys you've dreamed to find
But I believe you'll never know
A greater joy than Jesus' love inside[i]

And then after the chorus begins, “Love has come, for the world to know.”  The song continues from there.
            As much I love that song, I never put to it the question I’ll ask right now.  Why did love need to come?  Wasn’t love already here?  Was love missing?  Hold onto that thought.  Was love missing?  Is that why God needed to come to earth and inhabit human skin?
            Now, hear the words of Jesus in John 13.  “I give you a new commandment.”  “New” is a favorite word of the New Testament.  In Christ we become new creations.  At the end of the last book, Revelation, God promises a New Heaven and a New Earth, which is actually this earth made new, joined with Heaven made new.  It sounds lovely, inviting, but why did Jesus feels the need to give a new commandment? And why was that the commandment he felt was necessary? “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
            We’ve got a love problem.  This lack of love prompted Jesus to give this specific command as a foundation in the new age that dawned with his coming.  His so called new command was actually an old command, dating back to Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.  When asked, on numerous occasions, what is the greatest of God’s commands, Jesus always responded the same way.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  And, love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is the core of the Christian life.  We love God with everything that is in us, with our very selves, with the fullness of our lives.  This love we give to God is seen, made manifest, in the way we love our neighbors.  And neighbor, as defined in the Bible, is anyone we meet.
            Jesus felt the need to say that because he looked around and he didn’t see God-worshippers or anyone else doing that.  Amy Grant wrote and performed a song that declared Love had come with Jesus’ arrival because she was a Jesus-follower (and still is).  Her understanding of the world was such that she believed without Jesus, this love was missing. 
            We look around and see deep pain.  The way people thought about love in Jesus’ day did not alleviate the suffering caused by disease, colonization, dehumanization of people, and poverty.  Today, there is as much pain around us as in Jesus’ day.  We have 2000 years of technological advancement, developments in medicine, intellectual development, and developments in mobility and communication.  Yet, with all that’s been achieved, we look around and see as much pain as ever.  As many people hurt now as they ever have, and this is true in wealthy nations like the United States, just as it is in poorer countries. 
            Humanity has a condition no doctor can treat, no medicine can cure, and no technology can fix.  Each of us commits our individual sins.  Each one us in our own way is an agent of pain through our sinfulness.  That’s not all we are.  We are also each made in the image of God, each one very good, as it says in Genesis 1.  But because we have free will, we sin.  We willingly turn from God.  The condition of sin plagues humanity and all of creation. 
            There are many results of the sin condition.  The sin condition bears fruit.  One example is divorce.  A divorce is a death, the death of a relationship in which both participants originally vowed to stay together “until death parted them.”  Then those vows are discarded and the divorce happens.  And the insidiousness of sin leads our society to say it’s no big deal, not even a bad thing. 
Another condition is sexual confusion and sex scandals.  We treat sex casually, ignoring God’s boundaries, which are in place to keep sex healthy and beautiful and tied to a relationship of love.  The idea that one would keep himself or herself and wait for marriage is seen as quaint, childish, or old-fashioned.  Society giggles at the thought that one would actually submit to scripture as a guide for sexuality.  This is another result of the condition of sin.
Poverty is another result.  People living empty lives, void of meaning and utterly lacking in direction is another reality produced by our sinful condition.  We could keep listing things.  The human body gets a virus and symptoms break out: aches and pains, a rash, nausea, a runny nose.  The world has contracted sin as a sickness and broken relationships, toxic sexuality, violence, poverty, and emptiness are some of the symptoms, the results of our condition.
Our ideas about what love is aren’t helping.  Love as a feeling can’t be trusted.  I don’t mean to say that feelings are bad.  I love it when I feel love for my family.  There’s nothing better than being in love.  But, let me tell if you haven’t ever been married, there are days when you feel a lot of things other than love.  It doesn’t mean you bail out.  I hear of people getting divorced because they’re “not in love anymore.”  Love isn’t something you go into or come out of, it is something that’s in you.  It’s something you give, even when you don’t feel it.  Feelings are real, but they can’t be the only thing that drives us or even the first thing.
Love as a feeling doesn’t help with the pain that sin has imposed on the world.  Neither does love as romance.  I’m a big fan of sappy love songs.  I enjoy the way they make me feel, especially the ones from Broadway musicals like Phantom of the Opera.  But I know that romance, as fantastic as it can be, is fleeting.  Starry-eyed love does not heal the world’s pain.  Even the few people who are lucky to live the fairytale ending have to wake the next day and live that day under the condition of sin. 
God saw the world as it is and continues to see the world as it is.  God’s response was to take on flesh and walk among us.  God knew sin was too powerful and we could not overcome it.  So, in Jesus God came.  Here’s how Amy Grant thinks about in her Christmas song:
Love has come
For the world to know
As the wise men knew
Such a long time ago
And I believe that angels sang
That hope had begun
When the god of glory
Who is full of mercy
Yes, the god of glory
Sent his son

            Chris Tomlin, in his Christmas song “Noel,” sets this love God showed in Jesus in theological categories.  The opening lines are “Love incarnate, love divine.”  “Love divine,” is Godly love – love that human beings are incapable of producing.  We could work on developing our society for another 2000 years and we’d be no closer to divine love.  We have to depend on God for it, and we desperately need it to fully be what we were created to be – God’s image bearers.
            “Love incarnate” means this Godly love is here.  Incarnation is the idea of being completely and permanently present.  When Jesus is referred to as the incarnation of God, we are declaring that God walked among us as a human being.  Jesus was not God disguised as a human.  Jesus emptied himself of his divinity, Paul says in Philippians 2.  He never stopped being God, but he emptied himself to the point that he was fully human.  He was fully present.  To sing “Love incarnate, love divine” as Advent worship is to insist that Jesus is love and in Jesus, God’s love is fully with us.
            The love is seen in Jesus’ interactions with people like blind beggars, outcast tax collectors, poor gentiles, scandalized prostitutes, and uneducated peasant fishermen.  All were welcomed.   The love is in all of Jesus’ teaching.  And ultimately, it is expressed in his sacrificial death for us.  How do we live into this love?
            In John 14, he tells the disciples and tells us today, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (v.15).  The verb “keep” has several connotations.  In saying, “keep my commandments,” Jesus tells us to pay attention.  The commands are “love God” and “love neighbor.”  So, we have to pay attention to God’s constant presence, and to the needs of hurting people around us.  We live into the love that has come by being attentive to people and to God.
            A second connotation is “observe.”  We love God by worshiping Him.  Our observance happens in our participation with the church in the singing of worship songs, communal prayer, and communal engagement with the Word of God.  We live into the love that has come by living lives of worship.
            A third connotation of the word “keep,” as in “keep my commandments” is fulfill.  Jesus’ will is done, his word fulfilled, when we extend ourselves to help others.  To whom will you show special kindness?  What hurting person will be blessed because you decided to give of yourself?  When we sacrifice our time, our resources, and our hearts on behalf of others, then the world begins to experience divine love.  The shallow, fleeting expressions of love that don’t help the world’s pain are eclipsed by the God love that lives in us and pours out of us because we have turned to Christ. 
            Divine love is not a feeling or sentiment, but a choice and action.  We can only live in this divine love with God’s help and Jesus also knew this.  So, in the same speech, John 14:16, he promises, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you the Advocate to be with you forever.”  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, God the Comforter, is with us, helping us see the love of God in real ways in our lives. 
            The world is in pain.  Maybe you know your own specific version of that pain.  Have no fear.  The Christmas story is that love has come in Jesus Christ.  We can know that love, live in that love, and draw other hurting people into that love of God.  It begins as we turn fully to Him.  Love has come.  Receive it by giving your heart to the Lord today.

[i] Songwriters: Amy Grant Gill / John Shane Keister / Michael Whitaker Smith
Love Has Come lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Capitol Christian Music Group

Monday, December 4, 2017

Hope for the Long Walk

Hope for the Long Walk (John 4:46-54)
First Sunday of Advent: Hope
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, December 3, 2017

Desire.  I wonder what this word brings to your mind.  Desire is something one absolutely must have, a “strong feeling of wanting something very badly.”[i]  Craving, longing, and yearning, are synonyms.  I am craving the sweets on the dessert table.  My grandfather died in 2006.  I am longing to play golf with him, or hear his lovable growl as he putters around the house.  I love my family, my work, my life, and yet deep inside, I find myself yearning for more. 
We meet a “royal official” in John 4:46.  The notes in the Oxford Annotated Bible say this was a Gentile military officer, a Roman stationed in Israel, in the city of Capernaum.  It sat right on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, but the official actually met Jesus in Cana which was as far from Capernaum as the Raleigh-Durham airport is from here, except in that time, you’d walk or go by mule.  He walked that 15 or so miles to meet Jesus because he desired something deeply.  His son was ill and the best doctors around were powerless to help.
Roman authorities for the most part looked on Jews with condescension.  They looked down on everyone that way.  They were the mighty Romans after all.  Yet he comes to Jesus begging.  We all come to that point in life.  We desire something and there’s no way we’ll get it.  So we beg God to deliver.  He didn’t know Jesus was God, but the talk of Jesus’ miracles had spread throughout Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, and other area towns.
The futility of desire led to desperation, maybe even despair.  This man of power was on his knees begging a carpenter turned itinerant teacher-preacher for a miracle.  He prostrated himself before a religious man of a religion he didn’t even follow.  What dreams do we have that become all-consuming desires that make us desperate to the point of despair? 
“I hope all is well with you.”  I write that in notes or emails I send to people I haven’t seen in a long time.  My desire, when I think about people I love, is that all would be well them.  I hope my friends and family can flourish in their careers and in their relationships.  This week, one of my best friends, Kevin died.  He was young – 39.  He had been married 1 month and 6 days.  He had been a senior pastor for about a year after many years in youth and college ministry.  He was just starting out. 
Last Sunday, he and his new wife Jackie posted pictures on Facebook of them going out to cut down their first Christmas tree as a couple.  They brought it home and decorated it.  Over the last month they’ve posted a flurry of wonderfully happy photos: wedding pictures, honeymoon photos, and pictures of them in the house together.  The Christmas tree pictures were posted Sunday night.  Monday morning, Kevin, a life-long weightlifter went to work out.  He collapsed.  How many years will it be before Jackie can enjoy hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree again?
Jesus and the desperate Roman official talk past each other.
“Please, miracle worker, heal my son.”
“Unless you see signs wonders you will not believe,” responds Jesus.
The man doesn’t care about believing!  Urgently he says, “Sir!  Come down before my little boy dies.”
When Jesus mentioned “signs and wonders,” I don’t think he was talking to the man.  His words came in response to the man’s plea, but I think he was actually talking to the crowd around them and to future generations who would live this story through reading John chapter 4. 
“Come down before my little boy dies.”
Finally Jesus looks at the man.  “Go.  Your son will live.”  And the man believed Jesus, turned around, and start the 15-mile trek back to Capernaum.  He had to stop for the night, then pick up the journey the next day.  Everyone in his household – wife, children, slaves, colleagues, neighbors – everyone knew why he took the trip to Cana.  Now, here comes a servant, smiling, weeping with joy, greeting him on his return. Breathless, he says, “Your son is alive and recovering from the illness.  He’s going to be well.”
“When did the healing begin?”
“Yesterday.  One in the afternoon;” the very hour Jesus told him his child would be fine. 
And John writes, “So he himself believed, along with his whole household.  Now this was the second sign Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee” (4:53).

Do we dare believe that hope is real?  Do we dare hold the hope that we sing about in Christmas songs and promise others when we tell them the good news found in the Christian faith?
When Jesus initially responds to the man, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” he sounds annoyed.  It  is as if Jesus is fed up with people demanding proof.  Yet at the end of the story, the narrator tells us this the second sign and we know there will be more to come.  Jesus tolerated the need for signs because he could see how weak our faith is even as he could see how much we need faith.
He commented on the frailty of people’s belief.  Then the man made a decision.  Jesus told him the boy would be fine and he believed.  At least he believed in the sense that he turned around and walked back to Capernaum.  As he trudged those 15 miles, was he scared out of his mind?  Did he walk along desperately repeating, “God please let his words be true?   God please let his words be true.   God please let his words be true.”  This man moves from the desire for his son’s healing to desperation to decision.  He decides to do what Jesus says.  In that decision to walk back to Capernaum, John writes he, “believed.”  His belief came in a decision to obey Jesus and accept his word.
Then, the servant tells of the healing and the man realizes it happened right when Jesus said, “Your son will live.”  Again in verse 53, John writes that he believed, only this is different.  This is the belief of a man who has seen God act.  The first instance was the belief of a man who hoped God’s word could be trusted.  At the end of the story we see the belief of a man who knows he can count on God. 

I mentioned Kevin who died just a month after marrying Jackie.  She has to go on with life.  She’ll have more Christmas trees to decorate.  It may be years before she has the strength to do it.  Healing will take time, but long before she met Kevin, she made the same decision this Roman official made.  She learned the story of God-come-to-earth, the baby in the manger.  She worshiped in churches where she heard preaching about the death of Jesus on the cross for her sins and for the sins of the world.  She has worshipped the Risen Lord Jesus on Easter Sunday.  Just as the Roman decided to believe Jesus and to take that long walk back to Capernaum, not knowing, she long ago decided to believe Jesus is the Savior.  She put her trust and hope in him. 
Now she’s on the long walk.  Now, she discovers whether the decision to believe will be confirmed by the presence of God in her life.  This story of the boy healed in John chapter 4 is no help to her.  Nor is it a real help to you if you are going through a crisis or loss in your life.  The idea that Kevin is with Jesus now, or resting peacefully awaiting resurrection, which is assured, is of no help today.  Kevin will be resurrected.  Jackie will be.  I will be.  That doesn’t help today.  Today, she’s really, really sad. 
At times the long walk is that way.  It’s long and hard and sad.  The shadows are so deep, we can’t see the sunshine around the bend.  This is where we need to remember something very important about the hope we have in Christ.  Yes, in Jesus God redeems the world.  Our sins are forgiven.  With his victory on the cross and resurrection, our hope of eternity spent with God is guaranteed.  But, there is more. 
The resurrected Jesus departed bodily but left behind the Holy Spirit of God.  In addition to forgiveness and new life and the hope of eternal life, we are promised the Holy Spirit.  That’s God with us, all the time.  Jesus speaks explicitly about this in John chapter 14.  He calls the Holy Spirit the “Advocate,” which could also be translated “Helper,” or “Comforter.”  In upcoming days, Jackie is going to meet God the Comforter and God will stay by her on every step of the long walk.  I pray that she will have her moment, where, like the Roman official, she realizes Jesus spoke truth.  I pray for Jackie that as she steps out on the long walk, the Holy Spirit will help her feel God’s presence.  God was with Kevin right to the end just as Kevin is with God now.  And God is with Jackie now, when hope seems so far away.  I pray she will allow herself to feel hope, of life with God.
I pray this for you too.  One of our long-time members, Marion Charles, lost her son Roy.  He was 65 and died during heart surgery. Marion is many steps further along the long walk to Capernaum.  She knows sadness, but she has seen God work.  Over and over, she has experienced the hope to which she steps. 
Maybe you have as well.  When you sing of hope at Christmas, it is a hope you know. 
Maybe you’re where Jackie is and with each step, you have to force yourself to believe.  With each painful step you pray “God please let hope be real.   God please let hope be real.   God please let hope be real.”  I promise you, you’re not on the walk alone.  God’s church walks with you.  God’s Holy Comforter walks with you.
Maybe you have other struggles or other things on your mind as you walk through life with God.  The promise of hope is assured.  God can be trusted.  Make the decision to believe.  Then walk into that belief.  We all can because the hope of the Gospel is that God the Comforter has come and is with each of us, the Holy Spirit walking the long walk with us.  We do not walk alone, but with God, every step.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Persistently Seeking Hope in God

The Nutcracker music is playing as the day winds down.  It is 7:42PM on the first Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.  This morning in worship, we had our regular English congregation, many Spanish-speakers from Iglesia del Amor de Dios, Karen-speakers (the Karen come from a Burmese tribe), and many Chinese-speakers.  In our Chapel Hill, NC, these worshipers from all over the world came together in Jesus’ name.  There were at 130 of praising the Lord together.
Yesterday, in Arlington, VA, I was in a gathering of more than 500, and just as ethnically diverse.  My good friend Kevin, a pastor in Luray, VA, and someone I mentored 12 years ago when he was getting started, died this past week.  He has cardiac arrest while weight-lifting, collapsed, and died.  He was just 39.  The mood at our worship service this morning was joyful, festive, happy.  We had a big potluck after worship, with tables decorated for Christmas.  The mood yesterday at Kevin’s funeral was somber, heavy. So much sadness.  Kevin’s mother was disconsolate. 
Now, on whatever music loop that’s playing, it’s shifted from The Nutcracker to ‘Star of Wonder.’  It’s the typical background music of Christmastime.  Our house has lights on the outside.  Our tree is up.  Our decorations are around.  I sit and reflect upon conflicting moods: joy from this morning’s worship, and sorrow from yesterday.  The first Sunday of December is, along with Easter, the highpoint of the year at our church and this morning was no exception.  Yesterday, grieving my young friend and protégé, was one of the lowest lows I’ve had in a while.  There’s a weight to grief and it has settled on me even as feel the true of joy of Christ’s birth.
Facebook has given me perspective.  Memories popup on Facebook.  The memory to pop up just now was from 2012, when I posted my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent that year.  The theme was the same as this morning – our search for hope.  The path for that search was different then than today.  In 2012, I lamented the divisiveness of politics (Obama v. Romney), and the specter of terrorism that hangs over us.  In spite of the negative waves emitted by politics and violence, I promised our church that God is present and can be trusted. 
This morning, 2017, I took our church through Kevin’s story and his parents’ and young wife’s sorrow at his death, and I invited the worshippers to contemplate their own losses.  Just as in 2012, I promised that God is present.  God is with us and God’s promises can be trusted.  I stood before the congregation this morning and said that.  I did the same in 2012 and many, many other occasions throughout my 20+ years preaching the Gospel. 
Am I right?  Is God’s here?  Can God be trusted?  I think the answer is ‘yes.’  I am sure it is.  But tonight, I feel so tired.  It’s more than fatigue.  It’s not malaise, though it feels a bit like that.  What heaviness is wearying me?  Grief?  Probably.  The lights in the house shine softly, warmly.  Right now, my kitchen table feels like a peaceful place.  But my tiredness is not a peaceful feeling.  What is it? 
Yes, I am sure that God is present and God’s presence is a source of unfailing hope.  Yes, I am sure this is so.  I don’t feel it at the moment, but feelings can’t usually be trusted.  At least mine can’t.  Yes, I will go on, year after year, preaching that God is here and God can be trusted.  I say it because it is true. 
It is true. 

Right now, I’m just tired.  And that’s OK too.  I’m not necessarily OK.  But it is OK that I am not OK.  Because God is here.