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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The End of Normal (Matthew 1:18-25)

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Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019

            “How does your family celebrate Christmas?” You might be asked by an acquaintance as you sip beverages at a holiday party.  
            “Oh,” you respond, “we usually stay home, take it easy.  And your family?”
            He answers, “We normally travel to my in-laws’ place.”
            Normally?  Usually?  What are we talking about here?  We’re talking about the birth of Christ, that’s what!  Words like ‘normally’ and ‘usually’ don’t have a home in this story.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the story of God saving the world.  We retell and relive the story every year, but the repetition doesn’t normalize or demystify what’s happening.  God has acted and is acting among us.
            The story begins with a man and woman in ancient Israel, about 6BC, betrothed to be married.  The Jewish betrothal was more binding than what we consider an engagement today. 
            Today, a UNC senior and his girlfriend walk across campus.  They come to the Old Well, he drops to a knee, and proposes.  Through tears of joy, she says yes, and they’re engaged.  After graduation, she has a change of heart.  She gives the ring back, breaks off the engagement, and that’s it.  Tears are shed, feelings hurt, and dreams broken.  The law is not involved.  It’s sad, but it happens all the time.
            In ancient Israel a betrothal was a legal contract each family entered.  Aside from infidelity, betrothals weren’t broken.  The “giving and taking of sons and daughters in marriage” was a sign of normal life.  One of the ways a prophet would indicate God was about to bring the absolute disruption of society was to say “No more will they be given and taken in marriage.”[i]  I know I said “normal” does not fit in this story, but the story starts in the most normal of ways, with a betrothal. 
            When Joseph learns his betrothed is pregnant, and he has not slept with her, he reaches the normal conclusion.  She’s committed adultery.  Sadly, that too, was a common occurrence, common enough that there was a legal statute regarding it.  For ancient Israelites, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy was the law.  Deuteronomy 22:21 states that a woman guilty of adultery will be taken to the gate of her father’s home, and stoned to death there by the community. 
            It’s possible that by 6BC, death by stoning was no longer a normally practiced punishment for adultery.  Even if that’s the case, Mary the adulteress would be tattooed with shame, a fate almost like death in a shame-based culture.  You can bet that conservative legalists would watch Joseph closely.  How, Joseph, will you deal with this hussy you’ve taken for a wife?  Some people are sadistic in how eager they are to see harsh punishment laid down on people who mess up. 
            Joseph wasn’t listening to the heavy-handed conservative legalists.  He knew the law.  He had options in front of him.  He could ruin Mary’s name and Mary’s family name.  All he had to do was call for a public trial, which was within his rights.  But Joseph was a compassionate man.  He may have even forgiven Mary, but staying with her was not one of his options.  He did not think he could go through with the marriage, so he would handle it all with no fanfare.  Matthew writes, “her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” 
            Joseph did not know what was coming next.  He was operating in ordinary time, in everyday circumstances. For the sake of compassion, he would suck up the embarrassment and heartache and he would do it quietly.  He may have felt hurt by what he thought Mary did, but he wasn’t going to hurt her.  He would protect her reputation as much as he could, ending the whole thing quietly.
            The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the story of God saving the world.   Who are the human partners God employed in this story?  One was Mary.  We get her side of the story in Luke’s Gospel.  Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view.  He didn’t know God was watching.  He didn’t know he was about to become the earthly dad in the “holy family.”  He was an Israelite carpenter determined to the right thing even when the right thing seemed to come with no reward.  The one option he did not see available to him was staying with Mary.
            Renowned theologian Stanley Hauerwas sees Matthew’s gospel as an ongoing exercise to help us see the world through Christ.[ii]  When we see the world through Christ, we throw normal out the window.  We see people and circumstance differently, with new eyes.  For Hauerwas, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is a way of describing the beginning of new creation.  What does the world look like in the new creation?
            The first glimpse for Joseph comes in verse 20, when the story jumps from normal to something we can hardly imagine.  Circle that verse because it is where everything turns for him and for us.  The verse begins, “just when he had resolved to do this.”  ‘This’ is his compassionate response, mercy for Mary, unsatisfactory for the punishment-minded legalists, but revealing of this carpenter’s godly heart. 
            The next words, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream,” change everything.  “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” the angel tells Joseph, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  From the Holy Spirit; what does that even mean?
            Joseph was afraid.  Angel visits shock the heart.  And this would be just the first of many angel visits and fear-producing steps in this humble man’s journey.  But beyond the fear, Joseph was invited into something wonderful, a new work of God.  As we follow him through the story and experience it as he did, we too are invited to step into new creation, the wonderful story of God acting in the world.  We are beckoned by the story as Joseph was by the angel.  We may join in this new thing God is doing.  Faith in Jesus is the key that unlocks the door.
            Joseph wanted to do right by showing compassion to Mary, but he was still afraid of what people would think and say.  He was not ready to think outside the box in which he lived.  Without God’s help we aren’t ready for that either.
            Fear drove the legalists to want to punish adulteresses.  If they could righteously condemn her sin, they wouldn’t have to face their own.  We see so much condemnation of others in our own day, especially in politics and in the blogosphere and other social media platforms.  In America, we have a hair trigger. We’re ready to pounce with our words of shame for her – she messed up as a parent; or for him, he’s an addict and commits crimes to get his next fix; for this politician because I don’t like his policies; or for that coach – he doesn’t win enough; or for our own child – he’s not becoming who I think he ought to be.  We liberally toss around judgment.  It’s safe. 
            It’s scary to face our own shortcomings.  The outrage we spew in condemning others protects us from the more real, rawer work of seeing our own sins, seeing the damage we do, and confessing.  What does the angel then say, after telling Joseph not to be afraid because Mary is carrying a Holy Spirit baby?  “He will save his people from their sins.”
            Israel wanted a Savior.  Around the time Jesus was born, all kinds of people were claiming to be the Messiah.  Joseph along with every other Israelite knew the rhetoric.  A Savior Messiah will unite the people to rise up and with the power of God drive the Romans out of the Promised Land.  The Savior was supposed to save God’s people from foreign occupation.  They held this expectation because they did not understand that the real problem wasn’t Rome or Greece before them or Persia before them or Babylon before them.  The real problem was sin. 
            The angel promised Joseph that the baby his wife carried in her womb would be a Messiah to save Israel and the world from sin.  Homiletics professor David Lose notes the simplicity of the story.  Jesus was born of Mary in the normal way, the way all people are born.  He would live an extraordinary life, but then die, just as people die.  But, because of who he was, his death meant anyone who put their faith in him, would never again need to fear death.[iii]
            Jesus was an unexpected Messiah offering salvation to all people even though it wasn’t exactly the salvation they sought.  Joseph played a central role in the beginning of the story by obeying the angel in spite of his fear.  Each time his life turned from the normal he understood to some new twist he never would have imagined, he ventured deeper into the story of God. 
            You and I have our normal Christmas holiday traditions and practices.  We read the story every year.  This year, I think the story calls us to enter.  God acted to save the world in the birth of Jesus.  In our telling of his story, in our living out our faith in him by showing the type of compassion Joseph showed, God today draws us and the world into the salvation he offers.  Living the story, we accept that normal life has come to an end.  God has something we might not expect in mind.  It is better than anything we could ever ask or imagine. 

[i] Revelation 18:23 is one example of this.
[ii] Hauerwas, Stanley (2006), Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary  on the Bible, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids), p.24.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Tell What You See and Hear (Matthew 11:2-6)

“Tell what you Hear and See” (Matthew 11:2-6)
Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019
* First Sunday with new name – “Hillside Church.”

                In chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, Jesus sends messages to persecuted Christians in Asia Minor.  Here’s the final promise of the message to the church in the city of Pergamum, “To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).  A new name.
            When God called Abram, he renamed him Abraham.  Jacob God renamed Israel.  Andrew brought his impulsive, boisterous fisherman brother to meet Jesus.  Jesus took one look at the man and said, “You are Simon, son of John.  You are to be called Cephas,” Peter (John 1:42).  A new name.
            When the flood waters receded, Noah and his passengers disembarked on Mount Ararat.  When Moses dealt with a different ark, not a boat, but a gold-inlaid box carrying the law and samples of the manna God gave, he carried that ark to the top of Mount Sinai in order to meet God.  Atop Mount Carmel, in the power of God, Elijah defeated prophets of the false God Baal.  Psalm 148:9 invites mountains and hills to join nature’s song praising the Lord.  Isaiah 55:12 declares that the mountains and hills accepted the Psalm’s invitation.  “The mountains and the hills before you shall burst forth into song.”  Atop a mountain, three disciples, Peter, James, and John, see Jesus clothed with dazzling heavenly splendor (Matthew 17:2). 
            Where did Jesus win the victory, defeating death, covering our sins, and offering himself as the once and for all time sacrifice for humanity?  On a hill far away stood that old rugged cross.  Time and time again, God’s story is told on hills and mountains.  
            That’s what is happening here; God’s story is being told.  We will be a church for Chapel Hill, for everyone in Chapel Hill.  Hillside Church is here to tell God’s story, share God’s love, and help the people of our town see the way God is at work in their lives.  The late Senator Jesse Helms once derided us in his famous quip, “Why build another zoo?  Why not just build a fence around Chapel Hill?” 
We know better.  What Senator Helms mocked, we love.  We know Chapel Hill and Carrboro are exciting places full of interesting, beautiful people. We thank God for planting us here and giving us the privilege of being his storytellers.  We open our arms and our hearts to our community.
            Politicians and bigots today used less inflammatory language than Jesse Helms, but they still sneer as they describe the “Liberals” in Chapel Hill.  These so-called liberals are people Jesus loved.  He died for everyone in Carrboro and Chapel Hill and all the people living in the Triangle.  He wants us with Him for eternity.   “Hillside Church” is where people can come to be loved and introduced to the God who loves them. 
            A new name.  Hillside is the right name for us right now.  We’ve alluded to numerous times the story of God takes place on hills and mountains.  We’ve talked about our town’s name and what our town means.  Whatever anyone else has to say about our town, we know the people here are God’s beloved children.  We need God, and we as a church are here to point the way to God.  What about our church campus?
            Our church building, itself a setting in which we extend Godly hospitality, sits on a small hill.  If you think this slight incline insignificant, I invite you stand in the parking lot on a blustery day between November and early March.  As the wind whips up the grassy hill, it chills to the bone.  In this place, may the Spirit, the wind of God, blow fiercely, knocking our socks off, but also filling us that we may soar on Eagle’s wings.  In our people, in this place, from this Hillside, God bellows forth the blessing of salvation and life lived in Christ, free to all who would receive it. 
            John the Baptist had given his life to speak God’s word into the world’s pain.  For his efforts, the world almost swallowed him whole.  The wicked King Herod had John imprisoned when John publicly confronted him over his immoral marriage.  In isolation, only hearing reports when his followers were permitted to visit him, John wondered.  Alone, feeling cut off, he wondered. 
Matthew writes, “When John heard what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come’” (11:2)?  Hearing about Jesus, he had to ask.  John reacted to God in action.   That same impulse guides Hillside.  A widely used Bible study that first came out in the 90’s, Experiencing God, asks a simple set of questions.  Do we see where God is already working in the world?  Once we see, then will we join in where God is at work?
Having heard of Jesus’ actions, John, once so confident but now chained in the prisons of doubt, asks, “Are you the one?”  We have the post-crucifixion, post-resurrection perspective John did not.  We know the baby in the manger, the one baptized and anointed by the Spirit becomes the savior.  Are we living in what we know?  As a community committed to following and worshiping the crucified, resurrected Lord, are we showing him to the world?  John asked, “Are you the one?”  We have to ask, “Will we show the world Jesus is the one?”
Jesus responds to John’s disciples.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:4-5).  What do we hear and see?  The poor are all around us living throughout our town and in surrounding areas.  When we speak and act and open our doors to welcome the world in, do the poor receive good news?  The story John felt he was missing plays itself out every day here, in this space and in our community.  John was trying to respond to God at work.  Jesus honored John’s posture by inviting him to hear the story of healing that comes whenever Jesus is present.
If we share what we know of Jesus is it good news for our town, especially the poor and downtrodden?
We could describe the past two years in our church life as surprising.  We could say it has been tumultuous.  We may feel storm tossed.  At times the seemingly endless blows from unexpected places have pounded and exhausted us.  But God has raised us to our feet.  God has set a new vision before us, calling us back to the work He has always had for us. We are to help people become disciples of Jesus.  That’s always been this church’s calling and God has led us right back to that mission.  God has breathed new life into us. 
The next chapter in our story is the step forward we take.  John the Baptist played his role, died in Herod’s prison, and now awaits resurrection.  The disciples, after meeting with the risen Christ, played their roles.  They went through Jerusalem, then into Judea and all Samaria, and finally throughout the world, preaching salvation, making disciples, baptizing in Jesus’ name, and establishing churches. 
Now it is Hillside’s turn.  We share the hope of eternal life in Christ with all who come to us.  And, we equip all who go out from us, training them in the word of God and in knowledge of the Spirit of God that they might go in Jesus’ name wherever in the world God leads them. 
Jesus gathered his disciples around the table to offer bread and wine.  The bread reminded them of him.  Take and eat; this is my body, broken for you.  John’s suffering at Herod’s hands was a preview of the sorrow of Jesus beaten and crucified for us.  We eat the bread, his body.  We drink the cup, his blood, the blood of the new covenant.  In this act, we remember that we are united in Christ; whatever differences exist between people in our body of believers we are united in Christ.  In His blood, our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life.
One or two here have been with this church dating back to the 1960’s.  You are invited to this table, to this bread and cup, and to this new thing the Spirit of God is doing among us. 
Many of you were here when Carrboro Baptist Church became HillSong Church.  It’s still Carrboro Baptist, still HillSong, and is now Hillside.   Across the decades, we’re linked in our gratitude to God, in our love for him, and for one another.  You are invited to this table, and to this new thing God is doing, this Hillside adventure.
Some here have only been with us a few months; maybe today is even your first time.  You are invited to take communion and to the party afterward, and after that to live life with us – Hillside Church. 
Jesus told the messengers from John to go to him and tell what they had heard and seen.  Together as a church, we celebrate the salvation, the forgiveness, and the new life we have in Christ.  Then, we go into our little corner of the world to tell what God has done and is doing in Jesus, and we invite people to come be part of it.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Change Course, Eyes Forward (Matthew 3:1-12)

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Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019

            “I am the king!”  New Testament professor Michael Wilkens shouted that proclamation to the surprised students in his classroom.  Then he asked them what came to mind as he made that declaration.  Think about it.  When my first words were, “I am the king,” what, besides no you’re not ran through your mind?
            Professors Wilkins writes that one student said, “King Arthur and the round table.”  Another recalled that iconic scene from the movie Titanic and channeling his inner Leonardo DiCaprio shouted, “I’m the king of the world.”  Maybe you thought of a movie like The King’s Speech, or The Lion King, or the last installment of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. [i]
            Wilkins’ point of course is that we have to think about what it is to serve a king if we are to read Matthew rightly.  We Americans, with democracy deeply engrained in us, might find this difficult.  John’s message is the kingdom of God has come near because of the arrival of Jesus – King Jesus.  Wherever Jesus is the Kingdom is.  John the Baptist told the people of the Judean countryside in about 28AD that the Kingdom of Heaven had come. 
            Matthew says in chapter 3 verse 3 that John is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  Isaiah did not predict Jesus so much as Isaiah testified to what he saw God doing.  That’s important to remember.  Luther Theological Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis reminds us that Old Testament prophets were not forecasters, but truth-tellers.  Matthew, writing hundreds of years after Isaiah, believed Jesus was fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.  It was true when Isaiah said it in the 6th century BC but ultimate, final fulfillment would not come until the Messiah came.  John’s message was, the Messiah has come. 
            I thought about titling this message “Change Course and Don’t Look Back.”  But that would make the emphasis on the change and why it’s irreversible.  The heart of the message is God has acted and is acting.  We want to see what God’s doing; we want to be part of it.  So, yes, change is part of the good news.  That change is irreversible.  Once we come to know God in Jesus Christ, we are born again.  We become new creations.  We cannot go back to who we were before we knew Jesus.  Now that we are in Christ our lives don’t make any sense apart from him.  “Change Course and Don’t Look Back” is a good title.
            But, this morning, it’s not the best title.  The best is “Change Course and Eyes Forward.”  We have to keep our eyes forward because the entire story is about what God is doing.  The only way we see it and experience God and walk with God is to pay attention.  Last week, reading Matthew 24, we heard Jesus say, stay awake and be ready.  We have the eyes of our hearts open and focused on God.  In Jesus God has acted and is acting.  We want to see what God’s doing.  But why the phrase “Change Course?”
            John’s very first word is “Repent.”  Simply defined, it means we turn away from our sins and from a life of sin.  The charge, though, goes deeper.  We’re sorry for rebelling against God. We regret sins we’ve committed that hurt others, those around us, and ourselves, and bring offense to God.  Then, having expressed sorrow and brokenness, we completely reverse our life direction.  Repentance is change from a life apart from God to a life yearning for God, dependent on God, and moving the direction God indicates along the path God clears. 
            When I went through army basic training, the goal of the drill sergeants was to fix in our minds a new way of thinking and being in the world.  We hated all the push-ups.  They yelled “Drop and give me 10,” as a discipline, but it also made us stronger.  I’ve never been in the kind of shape I was in at the end of August, 1989.  Thirteen weeks of hundreds of push-ups a day will transform your body. 
            Physical fitness was just the tip of the iceberg.  If I came up to you and yelled, “Drop and give me 10,” you would look at me like I was crazy, and you certainly wouldn’t do push-ups because I commanded you to do so.  But in the army, you have to know to obey orders.  For one thing, it keeps the unit orderly and organized.  For another, in combat, with bombs exploding everywhere, you have to obey orders immediately.  It’s life or death. 
            Basic training is intense because they are trying to change who you are and how you see the world.  Thirty years later I still have dreams that I am back in the National Guard.  It is tattooed on my psyche.  John’s call to “Repent!” is even more serious.  When we turn away from sin and turn to Jesus, we abandon loyalty to systems, relational ties, and governments of this world. 
Every time I say the pledge of allegiance, I have to have a quick conversation in my own mind.  “Yes,” I tell myself, “I will serve my nation, the United States, and be a good citizen.  But that loyalty is nothing in light of who I am in Christ.  I belong to God as God’s property.  How I live out my life roles as husband, father, pastor, friend, and American citizen is defined by who I am in Christ and every one of those roles is subservient to the claims God makes on me.  When John says, “Repent!” that’s what he means.  Change the course of your life so completely that you see everything in your life in light of Jesus and who you are becoming in Him. 
It’s not easy.  Roads in Israel in 28 AD were rocky, full of bumps and holes.  The only time those roads would get clear was when someone extraordinarily important, royalty, was coming through.  John the Baptist, a prophet in the true sense of the word, saw repentance as the clearing the road to our hearts so we’d be ready for the arrival of King Jesus. 
Repentant, we quit behaviors that hurt others and offend God.  We have to give up activities that tempt us to sin.  We have to change the way we feel about people – even people who are evil to us.  We have to make faith an active, daily priority in our lives.  You know the things in your life that need to be jettisoned and the practices that need to be added so that you are attuned to God and alert to what God is up to.  Change is not easy.
John’s baptism helps, but it’s not the baptism that would get us to the point we are completely turned to God.  He immersed people in the water to symbolize that they were cleansed of sin.  However, John the Baptist knew full well that people come promising they repented, were baptized, and as soon as they came out of the water, returned to behaviors God condemns.  He was so aware of our tendency to choose our way instead of God's, he lashed out at religious leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees, who too often did this very thing (v.7).  He told them that if their water baptism were to mean anything, they would need to bear fruits worthy of repentance.  In other words, their lives would need to change and the change would be seen in how they treated people, especially poor, common peasants. 
Among others things, John saw Jesus as a great divider.  He referred to the practice of winnowing.  The harvested grain would be in great piles and the harvesters would use pitch forks to fling it up into the wind.  The useless chaff, the shell-likes husks, would blow away.  The weighty grain, the “fruit” fell back to earth to be gathered and stored in the barn. 
Jesus, says John, is holding his pitch fork.  He tosses our promises of repentance in the air.  He looks at our lives.  Any empty faith words we speak float off and are ultimately burned as kindling.  Our words that are anchored to a life of prayer, to acts of forgiveness, to service to our fellow humans, especially the poor and downcast – our anchored faith is gathered.  This is the fruit that signifies our repentance has taken hold in our lives. 
Can we, by the power of our wills, commit to such weighty, life change?  No, and John knew it.  That’s why his baptism was just the start.  “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but the one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (v.11).  Just as we are immersed in water by John, we are immersed in the Spirit of God.
Have you ever sat at a campfire and watched the logs burn down?  The wood changes, is consumed, and can never again be a log.  Precious metals are refined by fire.  It hurts, but also produces warmth and in refinement greater strength and beauty.  Baptized in the Holy Spirit, we become something totally new and cannot go back to what we were.  The reason John the Baptist flashes into the gospels unexpectedly and then is gone from it even more quickly is he’s not the story and didn’t want to be.
John drew everyone out of the cities to the wilderness, grabbed their attention, and then directed it to Jesus.  Matthew, writing this story about 40-50 years after these events happened included John’s part but only to get us to Jesus.  I have often wanted to do an extended study on John the Baptist, but each time I try, I realize he doesn’t want that.  The gospel writers who present him won’t give that.  This luminous time is John’s time and he uses his time to shine the spotlight on the arrival of the Savior, Jesus.  That’s where John wants us to look. 
I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but as we sing Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus, I invite you to turn from whatever you think, say, and do that hurts others and disregards God.  Turn away from that and turn to Jesus.  John the prophet, Matthew the storyteller, and I, a preacher descended from these giants, I, a miserable sinner who’s been saved by grace – we all shine the spotlight on Jesus so you’ll look there.  In him, God is saving the world.  You want to be part of that.
Next week, we start life as Hillside Church.  A group of pastors I pray with met at our building this past Thursday and one of them said, as we prayed, that he sensed something.  He sensed that God is acting, doing a new thing, and our launch of a new name is just the start!  This is the beginning of us seeing what God is doing and joining where God is at work. 
I don’t know your life’s direction.  This is your time to change course and fix your eyes on God.  Jesus’ arrival is a statement of God’s love for you.  Give your life to Him.

[i] Wilkins, Michael (2004), Matthew: The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan (Grand Rapids), p.148.