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Monday, January 11, 2021

"Stirred Up" (Haggaiv1:12-15)


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Sunday, January 10, 2020


            We read the Bible to hear God and relate to God.  It’s not the only way we relate to God.  Throughout the New Testament and throughout church history we see the Holy Spirit speak in dreams and directly to believers’ spirits.  Romans 1 confirms that God speaks through nature.  God can speak through a preacher’s sermon.  There are countless ways to hear God.  The Bible is the one way that is shared by all believers.  We all have the same Bible.  We don’t just read it just to say we read it. We read to hear God and grow in our relationship with God.  Hold onto that word, ‘relationship,’ because that’s the main idea.

            As I read Haggai 1 this past week, two incidents helped me hear God speak to this specific moment in history. First, Tuesday night out elders met.  We feel impatient at home, socially distanced due to spread of the very dangerous Coronavirus.  We want life to open up!  With initial roll out of vaccines, in my mind I jumped ahead of where are.  I began imagining us conducting ministries as we had before the pandemic began.  I imagined us doing that very soon. It is the pastor’s job to lay out for the church a path for achieving that imagined future. 

            We’re just not there yet.  Yes, vaccines are here.  However, with family gatherings around the holidays and colder weather driving more and more folks inside, breathing one another’s air, the number of cases has spiked.  I hear people argue that COVID-19 has been hyped up, and it’s not as bad the media make it out to be, and it’s no worse than a bad strain of the flu.  Cases have risen so sharply in North Carolina; we are running low on ICU in beds.  Just let that sink in; here in North Carolina, we could run out of ICU slots.  Vaccines are here.  One day, COVID-19 will be behind us.  We aren’t there yet, and right now it has gotten worse.

            Our elders did their job Tuesday.  They guided the pastor.  They helped me see the situation as it currently is.  It was sobering for me, but also hopeful.  We are doing good in the middle of the pandemic.  We host the food pantry and blood banks.  We stay connected through streaming worship and Zoom Bible studies.  God has enable us to make financial contributions to other ministries in our area.  God is working through Hillside Church to bless Chapel Hill.

            I am thankful God speaks through our elders.  Reflecting on that meeting, I realize God was speaking to me then.  God spoke through them to me, but also showed me how He is speaking to all of us through the words of scripture.  We need to bring our hearts along when we read Haggai 1.  If we willingly read with our full selves, emotions and all, we will be stirred up by Haggai.

            Speaking of being stirred up … after that Tuesday night meeting came Wednesday.  Refusing to accept the results of an election that have been affirmed by dozens of court decisions, rowdy supporters of Donald Trump gathered on Wednesday on the National Mall in Washington DC.  Riled up by the defiant words of the president himself, they stormed the U.S. capitol.  The videos we all watched on the news over and over of our own congress having to shelter in place because of violent insurrection have horrified us. 

            I had one church member say in a group conversation on Zoom, “I am sure Rob is going to talk about this Sunday.”  After she said that, how could I not?  Another member said she spent the day weeping as she watched the videos and digested the images of chaos and violence and disrespect of our democracy.  How could I not address this?

            What struck me on Friday is how easily the real issue comes to the fore when held alongside what’s happening in Haggai.  As we read last week, Haggai reports God’s frustration that His people were dragging their heels in rebuilding the temple.  Rebuilding the temple would put worship back at the center of Israelite community life.  Worship is the primary context for us to live in relationship with God.  There’s that word again, ‘relationship.’ Humans were created to worship God.  We were made for relationship with God. 

            After hearing Haggai, Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua obeyed the Lord.  These leaders led the people to worship God.  Haggai then writes that the remnant, not an overwhelming mass of people, but the small group who remained followed the governor and high priest’s lead.  They obeyed God. 

            God responded to this overture of worship and reverence from the people with a promise.  “I am with you,” God said.  This is one of the foundational assurances of the Bible.  It’s not a guarantee that all that’s wrong is fixed in the blink of an eye.  It’s the promise that the living God will not abandon us in the face of the storm.  Instead, God stays with us, holding us, even in the darkest hour.

            After that promise of presence, Haggai writes that the Spirit of Lord stirred up Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua and the people.  Stirred by God’s spirit, they got to work.  By the time Haggai’s protégé, the prophet Zechariah was writing his prophecy, the new temple was ready to be dedicated.  Stirred by God, the people did the work they previously thought was too hard. 

            Now, let this improbable temple building work stand side-by-side with what happened at the capital.  We need to be stirred up.  However, who is doing the stirring?  I don’t endorse candidates or political parties.  I know in our church we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, swing voters, and people who hate politics.  If you think you know my politics, you might be surprised. 

On Wednesday, a group of mostly white people, allowed themselves to be stirred up by Donald Trump to the point that they committed an act terrorism and insurrection.  If there is justice, every person who crossed the barricades will be tried and convicted of acts of terror on American soil.  Our senators and representatives, doing their jobs, representing us, were literally terrified by supporters of our president.

            We need to be stirred up, as the people in Haggai were stirred up, but by whom?.  Who motivates us to act?  Who we listen to shows what we do when we’re inspired.

            Campaigning, before he was ever elected, Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women and dragging them around by the vagina, but he used a much crasser term than vagina.  Also, he openly mocked a reporter who has a disability.  How, in the 21st century, can we tolerate a leader, who mocks people with disabilities?  Tolerate?   We made him president and then followed his lead in making a mockery of our cherished democracy.

When white supremacists held a rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Trump insisted there were “good people” among the white supremacists, avowed racists.  He refused to condemn white supremacy.  Later in his presidency, when given the opportunity to do so, he again refused to condemn white supremacy, and he has embraced the endorsement and support of racists. 

He decried nations in Africa as “Shit-hole” countries.  I am sure someone is unhappy to hear a pastor say “shit” in the sermon.  I am equally sure the people offended by me did not utter a word of condemnation when the president said it.  I am quoting him.  I have visited more than one African country and have traveled to the continent 10 times as well meeting scores of Africans here in the U.S.  I don’t know where the president gets the idea that these are shit-hole countries.  Some of the most beautiful, proud, welcoming people I know and count as life-long friends are Africans who follow Jesus with a dedication I pray I could come close to matching.  They’re not shit-holes.  You’re wrong Mr.  President.  I know from experience.

If I said any of the things he said, I’d be fired, and should be.  The mess in Washington on Wednesday happened because too many of us have allowed ourselves to be stirred up this president.  Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua and the people were stirred up the Holy Spirit.

What does it look like when we are stirred up by the Spirit?  Temples get built.  Churches figure out how to do worship and small group and stay as safe as possible in the midst of a dangerous, contagious, worldwide pandemic.  Food pantries and Blood banks, happen at the church.  The church of Jesus Christ is known for doing good and loving people.

I see in our church people stirred up by the Spirit.  We are doing vital ministry while at the same time showing patience and discovering new ways to be God’s church.  Stirred by the Spirit, we call out evil.  What happened at the capital last week, a mob following the whims of a foolish, self-serving, self-promoting president, was evil.  We name it. 

Stirred up by the Spirit, we welcome people of different political stripes and viewpoints.  We come together in the death and resurrection of the one we all love and follow, our Lord, Jesus Christ. 

Stirred up by the Spirit, we stand in confidence, knowing that our God is with us, we are His people, He secures our future, and He holds us in His arms.  No politics, no event, no pandemic can disrupt our relationship with God in Christ.  That defines who we are.

Church, we exist to worship and serve Jesus, and to share his gospel.  We love others, follow him, spread hope, and help people God sends to us find their own way into relationship with him.


"What Time is It?" (Haggai 1:1-11)


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Sunday, January 3, 2021


            What time is it?

            It’s the first Sunday of the year, so it time for resolutions?  I’m going to lose weight.  This year, I’ll read the Bible more.  I’m going to be kinder.  I am going to watch less tv and read more books.  I’ll exercise five times a week.  I’ll learn a new hobby.  I’ll discover creativity.  Happy new year!

            Resolutions indicate that we think change is needed in our lives.  We need to start over.  Why?  We’ve gotten off track.  The problem is if you’ve failed at New Year’s resolutions enough times, maybe you’ve given up on the idea of starting over.  Maybe you don’t think things can change.  Maybe you’ve settled upon just grinding through whatever miseries come.  That’s not a resurrection mindset, but it is one many churchgoers have.

            We worship and we talk about the great love of God.  Our sins are nailed to Jesus’ cross.  He rose, conquering death, and he invites us to join him in resurrection.  It’s the ultimate do-over. We earnestly declare that we believe this. 

            Do we really?  Do we live like forgiveness and second chances actually happen?  Or, are we resigned to the notion that things will always be how they are now and any hope for change is just a recipe for disappointment?  Can there be anything actually new in the New Year?

            What time is it?

            Don’t we at least believe that as we put the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 in the rearview mirror 2021 will be a little better?  A little easier?  We harbor no big ambitions, just a possibility that we’ll see slight gains with the myriad frustrations of 2020 behind us.  Here’s a small ‘hurray’ for tempered expectations.

            January 3, 2021: what time is it?

            In Haggai, a small book of prophecy near the back of the Old Testament, we find debate what time it is.  Haggai quotes God who quotes the people who say, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (Haggai 1:2). 

            The most influential people of Jerusalem society – priests, wealthy families, and the royal household -  were exiled to Babylon in 586 BC.  Haggai, one of the most precisely dated books in either testament comes along almost 70 years later.  The first of the four messages is dated the first day of the 6th month, Elul, or August 29, 520 B.C.

            A lot happened in 70 years.  The Persians defeated the Babylonians, and the Persians had a different policy regarding the people they conquered.  They wanted the Jews to return to Israel and re-establish worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Originally the centerpiece of Israelite religious practice had been the law, Torah, and the land.  Then Solomon built a house for God.  Solomon’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world.  Israelite faith found a home in the temple.  There were Psalms written specifically for the time of year when they go up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.  God is all-powerful.  God could be worshiped anywhere, and was.  But there was something special about the temple. Then Babylon burned Jerusalem and destroyed that temple.

            Haggai along with 2nd Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Isaiah chapters 56-66, and the prophet Zechariah, as well as some of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, give us the story and the perspective of Israel, after exile.  The exile is over.  Now what do the people of God do?  What time is it?  The Pandemic is about to be over?  Now what do we do?

            Haggai quoted God who quoted the people who said, “It’s not yet time to rebuild the temple.”  What time is it?  Was it just too exhausting for those who returned from exile, tired and haggard, to think about rebuilding?  They would get re-established in life and then get to the temple, eventually. 

            It’s not time to build the temple just yet.  Really, God asked.  Then what time is it?  God asked, “Is it time for you yourselves to live in paneled houses while the Lord’s house lies in ruins” (1:4)?  I don’t want to hear Haggai ask me these questions.  I don’t want to squirm under God’s scrutinizing gaze. 

God is love.  God is compassion.  God takes us as we are.  That doesn’t mean we tell God how things are.  God tells us how things are and God tells us who we are.  God told those returning exiles, “You have [planted a lot] but harvested very little; you have clothes but are not warm enough; you earn wages, but then put your coins in bags with holes. … The heavens have withheld rain and the earth has withheld produce” (v.6, 10-11). 

Rebuilding is long, hard work, and sometimes it seems impossibly big.  We’ll never get there.  That’s how it looks.  But God’s point to his people in Haggai is their struggles are directly tied to their neglect of living out their faith in God.  That neglect is seen in their failure to rebuild the temple.  “Why is there no rain?” God asks.  “Why won’t crops grow?  Because my house lies in ruins while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (1:9).  Things won’t be right until that pile of ash and stone is replaced with a rebuilt temple.  Rebuilding shows that the people trust God.

Standing at the threshold of a new year and a new time, Haggai interrogates us.  What do we see?  Are we focused on the pain and loss of the past year, or the potential of the new?  Are we occupied with the mess the world is in or with the creative power of God who brings order out of chaos? Are we paralyzed by depressing piles of rubble, or energized to do the rebuilding work God has given us?

Haggai interrogates us.  One of Israel’s points of devastating failure came when the nation entrusted herself to alliances with more powerful neighboring nations instead of putting her in trust in the all-powerful God.  Who do we trust?  Of course, we wear masks and socially distance and will get the vaccine and do all the necessary things to live safely.  However, the question stands.  In whom do we put our ultimate trust?  The governor of North Carolina, or the North Carolina secretary of health, Mandy Cohen?  Ourselves?  In whom do we trust?

What time is it?  What do we see?  Who do we trust?

Haggai, speaking on August 29, 520 B.C. wanted the people of God to give their full allegiance to God and find their sense life in God by rebuilding the temple.  At the dawn of the 2021, the people of God are to give full allegiance to Him, and we are to find our life in Him. 

We know from Romans and other New Testament writings that in Christ we, the church, are included among the people of God.  We know from the Gospels that all the purposes of the temple find fulfillment in Christ.  We know from 1 Corinthians that we, the church, are the body of Christ, submitted to the Holy Spirit  Empowered by that Spirit, we do the work of sharing Jesus with the world.

It’s time for us to be the church.  Of course, we sit with people in their messes, but we don’t leave them there.  Of course, we hold the hands of those who mourn and weep with them, but we know joy, not tears, are the end of the story when we are in Christ.  This week I talked with a friend, another pastor here in Chapel Hill.  He’s had several members die of COVID-19.  It has been a hard, hard year for him and his church.  But he holds on to the resurrection because he’s in Christ.  In Christ, it is always time for new life and new creation. 

What time is it?  It is time for us to be the church.  It is time for Hillside Church to discover God’s vision for us.  It’s time for us to lean into the vision.  We are a community of witnesses who testify to all the ways we are blessed by Jesus.  It is time for us to love others and share Gospel hope with Chapel Hill.

The name Haggai means ‘feast.’  Those beaten-down Jews straggling back to Israel from their Babylonian captivity saw their homeland devasted.  Filled with grief, celebration was the furthest thing from their minds.  They didn’t feel like they were in any condition to begin something new. 

God thought otherwise. God sent a man named ‘feast’ to tell them a new day had dawned, a day that belonged to the Lord of the feast.  I am here to announce that in Chapel Hill, at Hillside Church, a new day is dawning.  We won’t have a potluck supper next month, but it is coming.  In our hearts, in our minds, and in our mental orientation, we, right now, are to begin preparing to embrace God’s purpose for us as His people. 

Following the prophet named ‘Feast,’ we end up at the feet of the Savior, Jesus, the giver of abundant life.  The prophet insisted the temple be rebuilt.  Jesus our Lord is the fulfillment of the temple’s purpose and we meet God in Him.

We are His people.  So, we must ready ourselves.  What time is it?  It is time, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to proclaim salvation in Jesus, to gather in His name, to uplift the hurting and downcast, and to joyfully build his community, his church.  This is His time and we are His people.  We have His work to do.  Let’s do it with joy.


Monday, January 4, 2021

Pray Like God Hears You and the Community Matters


Pray Like God Hears You (1-5-2020)

            Pray like God hears you and our community matters.

            OK, what’s this about?  It’s the first of Monday of the New Year.  I went for a walk through the neighborhood that’s adjacent to our church’s lot.  We are surrounded by neighbors of varying stories.  The hundreds of people who live within a quarterback’s throw of our property are characterized by diversity: income diversity, racial diversity, political diversity, varying family set-ups, religious diversity, and education diversity. 

            As I walked through the neighborhood and thought about it and prayed for the people who live there, a thought hit me. So, I posed my thought as a question to God.  “Why can’t three or four of these households, people who are currently unchurched, find their way to Jesus at Hillside church in 2021?” 

            We – the Hillside Church family – need to pray like we think God is listening.  We need to commit ourselves to this in 2021.  We can pray about many things, but one item that must be a priority among our many prayers, is a concern for the lost and unchurched of Chapel Hill.  We need to pray that God will show us how to reach the people right around us with the message and love of Jesus. 

            Many of our neighbors are in churches on Sundays.  Many more are not.  Those are the ones we want to reach with Jesus’ love.  God longs for these who are indifferent to faith and worship to turn to Him.  We are His messengers, commissioned to love people and help them find their way to Jesus. 

            This has to be more than a nice newsletter article from the pastor, something easily discarded and forgotten. We have to make prayer one of the centering activities of our lives so that our lives wouldn’t make sense apart from prayer.  For the story of the salvation of 100’s around us and for the story of our own church’s faithfulness to God’s call, we must commit to prayer and witness. 

            As you pray and share your faith, I request that you add a special emphasis for Chapel Hill, and specifically the people who live within 1 mile of our church’s property.  Our town has a reputation for being erudite, snobby, godless, materialistic, and decadent.  The reputation gets overstated as many followers of Jesus do live here.  Yet the grain of truth in the stereotype serves to remind us that Chapel Hill is our mission field.  Our primary mission is to help people meet Jesus and become his disciples.  In 2021, we – the people of Hillside – recommit to full dedication to our mission, one we carry out with hope and joy.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

"Identifying Marks of the Church" (Matthew 25:31-36)


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Sunday, December 27, 2020


            Back in the 1990’s Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, and Saddleback Community Church in southern California were both a big deal.  Both churches drew 1000’s to their weekend services.  Each became known for being exemplars of a “seeker-sensitive” model as opposed to the stuffy, unwelcoming traditional church.  These churches had cool music.  You could dress however you wanted when you attended.  You didn’t have to put on your “Sunday best” or act in a certain way.  These churches grew rapidly into megachurches because they had innovative, charismatic leaders, and they were known for doing church differently. 

            What is the church known for?

            The Crystal Cathedral, also in southern California, preceded the churches I mentioned as a mega church with a celebrity pastor.  The Crystal Cathedral had huge windows that opened so you could see in from the parking lot.  You’d tune your radio to the right station, you could hear everything, and you’d actually gone to church, seen it all, and heard it all without ever leaving your car.  Convenient!

            What is the church known for?

            A new church here in Chapel Hill, Jubilee Baptist, wants to help people locked in debt, get out of debt.  It’s as wonderful a name for a church as I have heard – Jubilee.  They are trying to live into the name, based on the Old Testament year of Jubilee in which debts were forgiven and everyone in the community could start over.  This church wants to be known for helping people find freedom in Christ.

            What is the church known for?

            Today there are a lot of mega churches, usually known for their celebrity pastors, The Summit in Durham, Elevation Church in Charlotte, Lakewood in Houston, with best-selling author/pastor Joel Osteen.  The Manhattan branch of Hillsong United not had a high profile pastor, but a lot of famous people in the congregation every Sunday.  These oversized operations are known for their glitz, fame, and big productions.

            What is the church known for?  What should it be known for?

            Every congregation I’ve mentioned, however big and famous or small and unknown has its good qualities and its weaknesses.  I pray God will bless every one of these churches and I hope people attending worship services in in these varying faith communities meet Jesus. 

It doesn’t matter how many Instagram followers you have, or how many people come to watch you in concert, or how much you get paid to play basketball.  You need Jesus!  Everyone needs Jesus.  Whether you come to know Jesus through the oversized ministry of a glitzy megachurch or the simple, understated witness of a small country chapel, either way, it’s Jesus.  Everyone needs Jesus.

            We are Hillside Church.  We have existed as a congregation for about 118 years, and have operated under our present name for 1 year.  On this final Sunday of 2020, I invite you, the people of Hillside, to contemplate a question specifically with our church in mind.  What are we, as a church, known for?  What should we be known for?

             “When the Son of Man comes in his glory …” says Jesus.  He’s talking about his return, the Second Coming.  At that time, he will divide everyone up, and we want to be on his right side.  To those at his right he says, “Come, you that are blessed …, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v.34).

            There’s another option.  To those on his left he says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v.41).  Jesus presents this as two options: kingdom prepared as an inheritance or fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  I want the kingdom.  I want to avoid the fire. 

            How do those who inherit the kingdom get there, and how can we be among them?  Why are these fortunate ones gifted entry into God’s kingdom?  Jesus tells them, “I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty, and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

            Note a couple of things.  First, the blessed one taken into God’s kingdom did not know they were serving Jesus when they cared for those Jesus calls “least of these.”  When they volunteered for a hospital visitation ministry, they just thought they were going to pray with people in the hospital and encourage them.   It wasn’t O, I’m doing this for Jesus. It was just compassion.  When they donated to the clothing drive, contributed money to Children’s hope chest, performed individual acts of compassion to help hurting people they met, it was just that: a heart of love helping someone who needed the help. 

            I point that out because this passage is not an explanation for how to get to heaven when you die.  In this passage, Jesus explains the characteristics of those who are heaven-bound.  They had no idea that their acts of compassion in this life had any effect on the way they would spend eternity.  They discovered that after they heard the judgment.

            That’s the second important observation.  When Jesus tells this parable, he’s just days away from being arrested.  This is one of the final messages he’ll give.  He’s talking about something that is a done deal.  The sheep and the goats’ fates had been decided and their eternal fortunes were directly tied to how they cared for the most vulnerable and needy people in society.

            That would be a third observation to make.  Jesus identifies himself with the needy and the poor and the struggling.  When the blessed visited people in prison, it doesn’t people wrongly imprisoned.  They were compassionate God-worshipers who cared for prisoners; and those prisoners were guilty.  Jesus even identified himself with the guilty and said when we love them, we’re loving him. 

            The blessed did not understand their acts of compassion would impact their eternal fates, the decision was already made, and Jesus himself identified with the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned.

            Earlier I mentioned churches with famous pastors, churches with different approaches, and different churches here in Chapel Hill and around the country to demonstrate that different churches are known for different things.  I want the people of our church to inherit that kingdom God promised the blessed.  But that comes later, at the end.  Right now, the question facing us is what, in 2021, will Hillside Church be known for. 

            I pray that our members will be known as compassionate, welcoming people who share the love of Jesus with all who come our way.  I pray that around town, when you hear “Hillside,” people will say, “That’s a loving, welcoming church.”  It’s far more important that we be defined by love than that we be known for our creative innovations or rapid numeric growth.  We’d love to have more people in church, and I want us to be creative; however, the biggest aim is that we be known for how well we love as we point people to Jesus. 

            We show our compassion through our ministries.  We are developing a local ministry platform that includes 2 food pantry distributions a month, on-site blood drives every other month, a mobile dental bus in June, and our handyman ministry, once social distancing restrictions are lifted.  We will also resume our tutoring ministries once we’re past COVID-19, and our elders have approved contributing funds to another tutoring ministry here in town during the pandemic.  In all these works, we love hungry people, financially struggling people, and people who have specific needs.  Our motivation is love and compassion. 

Heaven will take care of itself later.  We are driven to bring God’s love to people right now.    We need our members to enthusiastically pray for these ministries and be a part of them.  The vaccine is here.  2021 is not going to be like 2020.  We’ll soon be able to re-enter life and when you do my fellow Hillside member, do it as a disciple of Jesus, determined to love the most unlikely of people with the zeal you’d show if you were loving Jesus himself.

            Our attitude is as important as our programming.  I can stand here every Sunday and do a run-down of our ministry programs and explain our vision for a platform of works of compassion.  This vision will come to life as our members embrace it and live it. 

Many already are!  The volunteer spirit and the generosity of our most committed members is a picture of Jesus.  As you re-engage with the church in the new year, take your cues from those already involved in works of compassion.  Ask God to give you a heart for what matters most to Him.  Decide how you will love Jesus in 2021 by loving people who need help. 

A new year lies before us.  We can put pandemics and contentious politics in the rearview mirror.  This is our time to look to Jesus and decide what our church will be known for.  The need is all around us, so we remember that where needy people are, Jesus is.  We welcome Him in and go out to him.  We do for the “least” because compassion, welcome, and love is who we are.”


Monday, December 28, 2020

"A Memory that Lives" - Christmas Eve 2020


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Christmas Eve, 2020


            Fisher Court, in Clawson, MI, a suburb of Detroit is where I spent my childhood.  From the end of our short driveway, you could see the elementary school a half block away to your right and town hall a full block and a half to your left.  On the other side of town hall was the baseball fields where I played little league.  The fields were on the grounds of the junior high school.  We call it “junior high” back then, 7th and 8th grade.  The junior high was connected to the senior by our town pool, a wonderful, indoor poor.  It had a high dive and a 12-foot deep-end.  One of the great accomplishments of my life was touching bottom in that deep- end. 

            A Christmastime, when it would be completely dark by 6PM, we would drive one mile to my grandmother’s house.  As we passed the town hall, we kids were thrilled to see the town’s nativity set-up illuminated by neon lights, with glimmering letters that said “Noel.”  When we saw the baby Jesus in the manger, whichever one of us kids saw “Noel” first would shout, “Sing for it, Daddy.”   My dad’s baritone voice would belt out “The First Noel, the Angel did say.”  It feels like we made that trip and asked my dad to sing like that about 100 times.  Every time I remember it, the number grows. 

That memory sticks out for me; maybe your family did something one year, one Christmas.  It affected.  Twenty years later, forty years later, you look back and you swear, “Oh we did that every year.”

What stuck out from that night in Mary’s mind?  Was it how tired she was, making that journey to Bethlehem by donkey while pregnant?  Was it the kindness of the innkeeper?  Our tradition slants the story, casting the barnyard birth as one more misfortune.  Poor Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, relegated to a night among farm animals with no room in the inn.  We forget that hospitality was an ultimate value in the ancient near east.  Joseph and Mary may have been grateful that someone gave them a safe, warm, dry, private place for the baby to be born.  We cast our modern sensibilities, but Jesus was certainly not the first or last to be born in such hard circumstances.  The story shows his humble beginnings.  His entire life, he would identify with peasants and he would alienate governors, priests, and kings. 

What did Mary remember?  The visit by excited shepherds?  The nearness of angels?  Relief at a healthy birth?  The steadfast, quiet compassion of her new husband Joseph? 

What sticks out for you as a Christmas memory, something that transcends time and becomes bigger with each passing year?  How we experience events in our memory impacts us as much as the original event.  When this time of year comes round, what thoughts, unbidden creep into your consciousness?  What memories flood your mind, blindsiding you?

Some are wonderful memories? When I remember yelling “Sing for it, Daddy,” in my memory, my father is an opera-quality baritone belting out “The First Noel.”  I know my dad, in actuality, is a passable church-choir bass-baritone, but not a professional singer.  Knowing that does not change my memory, where my dad sounds just a little better than Josh Groban as we drive and he sings.

I know many of our stories of the birth of Jesus have taken on legendary status that more resembles rich story-telling than precisely recorded history.  Yes, Jesus was born of the virgin, Mary.  Yes, his birth was in a Bethlehem stable because Joseph and many other Bethlehemites were forced to go there by the edict of a Roman census.  Beyond these barebone facts, a story surrounds the birth of the Savior.  In churches like ours, in grand cathedrals where thousands worship, in candlelit, third-world village chapels where less than a dozen gather, and in numerous other places worldwide, God moves in the telling of the story just as God moved in Mary and Joseph and shepherds and the innkeeper the night of Jesus’ birth. 

We have our memory and our memory defines us in powerful ways.  Our entry and re-entry into this story that we hear and believe shapes us.  Part of who we are as God-worshippers is tied to the hearing and telling of the birth of Christ each year.  It’s no longer the year from Hell, 2020!  Not tonight.  Tonight, it’s Christmas Eve, and we are transported to Bethlehem.  Like a thousand Christmas Eves prior, we are gathered with church and family once again for the birth of Christ. 

Moments stand out in our memory.  My mind is fixed upon a moment in 1986 or 1987.  I am not sure of the year, but I remember the moment vividly.  We were staying at my Grandmother’s house on 7 Mile Road in Detroit.  We had gone out.  When we got back to the house, I can see my grandmother’s face as she opened the front door.  Something was wrong.  Someone had broken in and robbed her while we were out.  She lived in a high-crime city, Detroit, and crime came her way Christmas Eve.  It didn’t feel very good at the time, but what I take away from the moment is our family was together, and the feeling of being violated did not last.  The love of family and the spirit of making it a merry Christmas anyway is what lasted.

What moments were fixed in Mary’s mind from that night?  What moments come back to you with instant recall when it is Christmas Eve and you sink from the immediacy of the present into the fullness of your entire story?

From moments and memory, we have to move forward, but not too quickly.  We don’t rush to what’s next. We take our time.   Christmas Eve is not time to rush anywhere.  But calmly, deliberately, we know tomorrow comes and life continues forward.

Mary and Joseph would settle in Bethlehem, but not for long. Within a year, strange visitors from the East, the Magi came.  These Persians gave extravagant gifts to this poor family.  God told Joseph in a dream that had to leave, and so they fled to Egypt, to avoid the murder of Jesus at the hands of Herod’s soldiers.  Then, finally, God told Joseph in a dream they were to return, and they did, settling in Nazareth.  They raised Jesus there. 

We savor the moments that live in our memories.  We also move forward from those moments.  We move forward in faith.  That’s what Mary and Joseph did.  They cherished the baby Jesus, and, in faith, raised the child Jesus.

Think on cherished memories Christmas Eve evokes in your heart.  Take a moment. Ponder them.  Consider what memories might be made tonight, Christmas Eve 2020.  God is here and loves us.  God has you in His hands.  On this very night, His spirit can bless you so that you’re empowered to face whatever life brings next.

As we close our service and sing “Silent Night,” open yourself to God.  Receive what God gives.  Open your heart to receive God’s spirit.  You don’t need to ponder moving forward right now.  Just sit in this moment before God.  Receive his love as His Spirit washes over you. 

Leaving worship full, you will have all you need to go forward in faith. 


"The Humble Glory of Christmas" (Romans 16:25-27)


watch it here -

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2020


            To God be the glory!  Shepherds in the countryside not far from Bethlehem looked to the sky where they saw something not witnessed by the most advanced telescopes we have: hundreds, thousands of angels.  “The Heavenly host [praised] God saying, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14).

Mary certainly couldn’t hold in her praise.  A virgin in a purity-based culture, she was pregnant.  No scandal could be worse for a young woman, yet, it came to her because the Holy Spirit came to her.  They didn’t even know God would act in this way.  Once she understood, she went to visit her much older cousin, Elizabeth.  Already having experienced menopause, and also childless, Elizabeth was pregnant.  Who better to understand the miracle that had come to Mary? 

When she arrived Elizabeth said to her, “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42).  And Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (1:46b-49). 

That reading was from Luke’s gospel.  Luke 1 & 2 are frequently read during Advent and at Christmas.  Romans 16 is not a familiar Advent text, but Paul’s words of doxology say it perfectly!  “To the only wise God … be glory forever” (16:27).

            Mary’s life is about to become very difficult.  She will make a harrowing journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, while pregnant.  Social scorn will come, as her pregnancy came before her marriage was consummated.  She will deliver her child in a barnyard-cave, surrounded by smelly animals.  As that child grows, she will misunderstand him, and sense her own insufficiency to be parent to the Son of God.  Finally, she will watch as he dies on a Roman cross.

            Of course, she doesn’t know all of that at this point in the story as she sits with Elizabeth and praises God.  All she knows is God called and she responded in faith.  She’s part of what God is doing. God has acted, and she feels blessed, so she raises her voice to praise God.  She feels favored.  She says God has done great things for her.

            Do we get it?  Even people who don’t go to church and aren’t involved in faith can pick up from popular media the religious connection of the season. Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We know that, but why is his birth something to celebrate?  Why do words of wonder, gratitude, and joy erupt from Mary?  Why should they erupt from us?  What makes this good news, the best news?  Why is God worthy of glory?

God is not a glory hound who desperately needs to hear us extol his greatness.  The person who constantly puffs himself up is tiresome.  The all-star basketball player indignantly confronts the critical the reporter.  “Don’t you question my basket skills.”  I remember hearing one draft pick, a 19-year-old entering the NBA, tell an interviewer, “I am very humble.”  Then he went on to describe all the ways he is great.  Or think of the actor confronting a director on a movie set.  He puts down his fellow cast members and demands special treatment.  Consider the politician who inflates his own record.  “I’ve done more for the military than any other leader in our country’s history.  I’ve done more for our economy than anyone else ever has.”  We recoil at such bombast.  No one likes braggart. 

In the Bible we see that God expects to be praised.  Read Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Read the prophets and Job 38-41.  Is God as haughty, ego-inflated, and desperately needy for praise as so many of our celebrities are?  The answer would be ‘yes’ if God were a woman or a man.  God is not.  God something else entirely.  Praising God is the only appropriate response to God’s action. 

God’s glory flows out of God’s love.[i]  Where the self-promoting politician is unbearably arrogant, God, sovereign of the universe and creator of everything, is infinitely humble.  God, who actually has reason to say, ‘hey, the best you can do is worship me,’ instead lowers himself to the form of a human being, a baby born into a peasant family at a difficult time in history among a people under the heel of the powerful, imposing Romans.  God steps out of limitless heavenly grandeur to walk the tough, dusty roads of 1st century Palestine as a poor Jewish man. 

Why praise God?  Look at what God did.  The bigger question is why did God lower God’s self in this way.  He dressed in human skin, subjecting God’s own self to the struggles and pains faced by the poor all over the world.  Why did God do that?

Love!  That’s the answer.  God loves us.  Paul elaborated on this earlier in the letter, Romans 5.  Verse 5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Also verse 8, “God proved his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”  The logic in Romans and throughout the New Testament stands out with great clarity.  Every human sins.  Sin cuts us off from God.  We cannot overcome our sin, so God became one of us – Jesus.

Jesus died even though he did not deserve death.  Jesus suffered that cruel penalty taking on himself the death sin brings, even though he never sinned.  When we say “God is love” our evidence is Jesus, bloody and bruised, hanging on the cross where we should be.  God’s expression of love comes in the form of self-sacrifice.  So, when we glorify God, and there are plenty of reasons to do so, the chief attribute is God’s love.  God’s love is a humble, sacrificial love.  God doesn’t say, “I’ve done more for you than anyone else ever has.”  God says, “I love you enough to die in your place.  I will take you as you are, all the warts and blemishes, and I will make you new.” Then, God does it. 

Grab hold of this! So many people around us are down on themselves.  Maybe you are one. Maybe you feel like life is full of disappointments and failure.  The depression intensifies as it seems that everyone around you has a lot of holiday cheer while you wallow in sorrow.  And you feel like it’s your fault.  Listen!  God loves you more than you can know.  You are precious, of incredible worth, and God cherishes you.  Believe it.  Receive God’s love.  It’s a gift you don’t have to earn. 

Worshiping on Sundays at church is a regular practice for Christians.  Many more people attend worship Advent and Lent.  A lot of attendees miss as many Sundays as they come throughout the year, but leading up to Christmas, more and more people feel drawn to church.  As we ponder the story, Jesus born and lain in a manger, angels singing as hillside shepherds watch and wonder, does it feel different?  Do you feel drawn to seek God?  Does anything in you stir? 

Worship during the season of Advent serves as a rhythm of remembering.[ii]  We know the story.  We’ve seen this movie before.  We listen to again in order to enter the story.  We want to feel the chill of the night air, take in the pungent smells of the manger, and hear the newborn’s cries. 

After his barnyard birth the story moves to his ministry.  Jesus restored the sight of blind beggars and turned water to wine to prolong the celebration of a country peasant’s wedding.  Yet he refused to perform when King Herod demanded miracles.  He bestowed wisdom upon the Pharisee Nicodemus who visited him secretly at night, but would not answer the inquiring Greeks who visited Jerusalem at Passover in search of a new philosophy to scrutinize.  He traveled with poor fishermen, tax collectors of questionable moral character, and a known violent revolutionary, Simon the Zealot.  He entrusted the group finances to a known thief, Judas Iscariot, giving him the opportunity to become honest, knowing he probably wouldn’t take that opportunity.  Yet Jesus refused to answer when the Roman Governor Pilate demanded Jesus give an accounting of himself. 

To God be the glory, but a humble glory indeed!  In the doxology of Romans 16 Paul declares God will strengthen us through the Gospel – the story of Jesus – and through the proclamation of Jesus.  I mentioned how difficult life can be, especially at Christmastime.  Paul’s offer is that the story of Jesus and our participation in telling that story fills us with divine strength. 

That’s what filled Mary when she sang her song.  That’s what filled the sky when angels praised God the night of Jesus’ birth.  That spiritual power filled our members as they baked hundreds of treats given away at yesterday’s food pantry.  This divine strength drove Paul to embrace being arrested if that’s what it took for him to tell Roman leaders and even the emperor himself the story of Jesus.  He knew of what he spoke when he declared that the gospel of Jesus our Savior strengthens us (16:25). 

So, we enter the story.  We tell it with our own voices.  Mary with Elizabeth; angels and shepherds; Paul in his letters; and us – God’s church gathered on the fourth Sunday Advent.  Our voices join the eternal chorus giving God glory.  We see what God has done and we praise Him!  We can’t hold it in. 


[ii] Achtemeier, Paul (1985).  Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Romans, John Knox Press (Atlanta), p.239.