Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Baby Jesus - Christmas Love

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013
Scripture readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20
I have an old, old friend named John (I have several friends named John). This friend John, who is a computer genius, is a Buddhist.
He wasn’t brought up that way. He started out as a Southern Baptist. As an adult he converted and became a Roman Catholic, and from there he became a Buddhist. So, spiritually, he has gone on a long journey in a strange direction. He and I have talked and emailed about his journey any number of times.
John has told me why he became unsatisfied with the Christian faith. He uses a famous ancient Buddhist painting to illustrate his point. There is a painting of the Buddha pointing to the moon. The moon stands for reality and truth. The Buddha points to the truth as an advisor, or spiritual wise man.
My friend John thinks that Jesus could have been painted into a similar painting (of Jesus pointing to the moon). He feels that Christians have focused on Jesus, or even on Jesus’ finger, instead of seeing what Jesus was pointing to.
My friend John doesn’t believe that Jesus really meant, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” to refer to himself, except as an example of someone who truly knows and follows the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)
My friend John likes to think of either Jesus or the Buddha pointing to the moon. John likes to think of himself as someone who points to the moon: pointing to truth, to reality, and to life.
Years ago I asked John what he would do if he saw the moon pointing to him. And he said, “I would run!”
But Jesus is like the moon pointing to us. We believe that Jesus is God, reality itself, become human. God became flesh and blood, as we are; not only out of compassion, but out of perfect attachment, out of sheer love.
This is a strange thing; I know. But it is impossible to be truly and fully human without knowing that the moon is pointing to you; pointing to each individual who lives, pointing to the whole world.
Some years ago Janet Camp and her kids went on a mission to orphanages in Russia. Her heart broke at the thought of the neglect that surrounded these children; how babies and little kids fall farther and farther behind in their growth and their development because they receive no loving attention. They receive no word or touch of love.
Babies and children need to be held, and hugged, and smiled at, and spoken to, and played with, if they are to grow, and develop, and thrive. They need to know that they are loved. They need to have their lives defined by the fact that they are real people who are really loved. Without this attentive love, young human lives wither. Babies will physically whither and even die.
Even adults wither without love. All human beings need this. They all need love pointing visibly to them, singling them out, telling them that they matter, telling them that they are important.
The primary thing is not for us to believe in ourselves, but for us to know that someone else believes in us. If all you have in life is a belief in yourself, you will not have a rich and happy life. If you have others who believe in you, then you have everything.
Even adults need to hear the words “I love you”, spoken clearly, either said aloud, or remembered loud enough in their memories. All of us need to know that someone is pointing to us, or has pointed to us, in the deepest way of love.
This is not an accident. This is not a result of evolutionary development. It is built into the very universe, because (in spite of all its apparent suffering and sin) the universe has been created, in love and for love, by a God who is love.
Our moon of reality is the God who created us and who came down from heaven in Jesus. God came down, like a moon coming down to earth (if such a thing could happen and not destroy the planet). God came down, in the baby in the manger, to point to each and every human being, including each of you, and to say, “I love you. I love you infinitely. I love each one as if you were my only one.”
Luke tells us about the meeting of some shepherds with some angels that happened when Christ was born. “Suddenly the angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:9-11)
The angel of the Lord means the angel sent from God. The angel is like someone pointing to the moon.
The savior who is Christ the Lord means the savior who is Christ and who is God himself, pointing to you. Savior means someone who comes to the rescue. Savior is a word of compassion, and caring, and love.
The birth of the savior who is Christ the Lord is the birth of the one who loves you. He is God coming to earth to be your rescuer, the one who says, loudest in all the world, “I love you.”
His tiny arms reach out for you in the manger. His strong wounded hands reach out for you on the cross.
When we know this, of course we point to him. We point to Jesus. But Jesus is God with us, pointing back.  When we know this we receive his peace. And we become his peacemakers. And we work to share his peace with the whole world.

This is the first lesson of Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Wise Men - Christmas Worship

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2013
Scripture Readings

 Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

They say that life is not about arriving, but about enjoying the journey. I am not sure what to think of that saying. Around Christmas time I usually make a journey, and I am very interested in arriving.
December 2013: Washtucna Church and Manse
The story of the wise men, who followed the star to Jesus, is about a journey that was every bit as important as their arriving. Sure they did arrive, but I think they hardly did more than stay the night. Their journey is what we remember.
The story of the wise men who followed the star to Jesus is also a story about gifts. Matthew gives us a list of those gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are meaningful, significant gifts; royal and costly gifts: but the gifts were not the most important thing. Much more important were the gifts they received from Jesus because of their journey
Their greatest gift to Jesus was their journey. All their kingly gifts were probably not as costly to them as that journey they made; hundreds of miles or more, over deserts, and over the hostile borders between Rome and Persia.
Only the wise men gave such a gift: the gift of a dangerous, difficult journey. They gave their journey to honor Jesus, the King of the Kingdom of God. No one else gave Jesus such a gift, even though there was a whole city full of people in Jerusalem who knew what those wise men were looking for.
The journey of the wise men symbolized what the prophet Isaiah talked about: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:4 & 6) Their journey was the first installment of a gift that the world has yet to give. The whole world has not yet made the journey to Jesus, but it will.
When you make a long journey with gifts for loved ones at Christmas, it is your journey that is your greatest gift. Your journey is the biggest and most difficult statement of your love.
If your whole life is a journey, the same holds true. If we are all on a life-journey, then our journey is our greatest gift to this world in which we live. Our journey is our gift to those we love and to those who travel alongside us. Our journey of love is our gift to Jesus who traveled such a long way for us: from heaven to earth.
His journey was his grace. Of course grace means gift. Our life’s journey is our worship, just as the wise men journeyed to worship the king.
In the story of the wise men, the journey and the gifts are all bound up into one simple thing, and so are ours. Our journey and our gifts are really the same thing. They are our worship of the king.
There are many gifts of the journey. Let’s think about just a few.
First, let’s look at two gifts that God gave the wise men through the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. These are also his gifts to us. They are the grace of God.
The first gift is shown by the star. As the wise men would have understood it; what brought Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, and what brought them through their long journey to Jesus, was an event so big that it was advertized across the universe: it involved all of heaven and earth. It is at the heart of what God has been doing for all time. He has done it for you, but much bigger than you.
Matthew and the wise men never explained exactly what the star was. They saw it at its rising, so it was a star that appeared on the eastern horizon as most stars do. Otherwise it behaves oddly.
Ancient people called everything up in the sky stars. The stars were stars. The planets were moving stars. The sun was a planet that ruled the day. The moon was a planet that ruled the night. The comets were moving stars. The seeming coming together of planets, so that they appeared to touch or group together in the sky, was also called a star. The star that led to Jesus was a star that came and went.
Now this coming together of stars is called a conjunction of the planets. There was, in the year 7 BC, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces. It happened three times during that year.
The way people thought in those days Jupiter stood for royalty, Saturn stood for Israel, and Pisces stood for the beginning of new age. So the conjunction meant that a king would be born in Israel who would bring the end of an age, and the beginning of a new one.
The king would change the way that the whole creation had worked for a very long time. Things would be different because this king was born.
A record of this conjunction has been found on a clay tablet in the ruins of an ancient observatory in Sippar, Babylonia, in what is now Iraq. This record shows that Jupiter and Saturn came together and reappeared on May 29th, and October 3rd, and December 4th of the year 7 BC. It’s possible that the mention of the star moving and appearing over the place where Jesus was means that it reappeared when they arrived in Bethlehem.
This is not a justification of astrology, or even of astronomy. The star shows us that God put into motion a plan as big and as ancient as the universe in order to draw representatives from the nations to visit him when he became a human baby in Bethlehem. God intended to prove that he had a plan to draw all people to him, even if his own people ignored him.
He did this, at the beginning of time, by arranging the galaxies, and the stars of the universe, and the courses of the planets in our solar system in such a way to produce that star. When the time came, if anyone was looking up for meaning in the stars, they would be able to see the sign of his coming written in the sky. They might follow that star to meet the king.
So the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem was also built into the shape of the universe, so that we could have the story of their journey to Jesus. Our lives in Christ, the way we come to faith in him, the way we persevere and grow in Christ, the way Christ shapes the way we live with all our relationships and our choices in life, are somehow a part of a story as big as the universe.
Our lives are not little things. They do not hang by a thread. They may seem to. But they don’t. We hang by something stronger than the universe and that is why our lives can be a journey that worships the king who set all of this in motion.
There is something stronger than ourselves that brings us to Christ, and holds us in Christ. This it is the very thing that Paul talks about in the eighth chapter of Romans, where he writes: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This is our faith: that God ensures the outcome of the gift of our life’s journey of worship.
What God did in Bethlehem, what God did on the cross and in the empty tomb are woven into the universe of which we are a part. What God has woven into the cosmos can get woven into us. Our coming to God in Christ and our life in God in Christ are part of a strong, cosmic thing that God has done.
That is what the wise men were journeying to see. That is what we actually believe. It is what the Bible teaches us to believe.
The wise men set out, following the star, knowing this; but, in the end, they found something completely unexpected and surprising. This is the nature of a journey with God; to find something that you never expected or understood.
It was wise, according to the conventional wisdom, to seek the new king in the Jewish capital, in Jerusalem. It was wise to consult King Herod. It was wise to expect that kings would breed kings. But this was not God’s way or God’s wisdom.
What the wise men discovered in Bethlehem was the lowliness and the humility of the majesty of God. This was completely unexpected. It was an absolute surprise. God expressed his power by making his home with the poor, and the weak, and the needy. He came to make his home in those parts of our lives where we find it hardest to worship him.
The majesty of Herod was majestically cruel to the people he ruled, and they suffered for it. The majesty of God was different from the majesty of Herod, or even of the emperor in Rome. The majesty of God chose to live among those who experienced the injustices, the fears, the sins, and the evils of this world.
When we experience our greatest need, our greatest loss, our greatest weakness, we are experiencing the very reason why God came into this world. We are experiencing the very reason God comes to us.
When we see another person in need, in loss, in weakness, that is when we see our calling to go to them with the lowliness and the humbleness of God in our heart, to be with them and help them. We simply go to them, and love them with the love of the God that we see in Bethlehem. That is where God’s majesty and power want to found.
The baby of Bethlehem is where we see the face of God. This is the secret of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. God is the God of the manger, and the carpenter’s shop. God is the God of the cross. God is the God of a tomb that he himself occupied and left behind.
This is the true nature of God. He approaches what he has made when it is broken weeping; and he is willing to be broken and weeping in order to mend it. This is the power of God.
We start our journey wanting to be dazzled. We want to walk on clouds. In Bethlehem we find out that something entirely different matters. We find our calling to journey in the humility of God.
These are the gifts that God, in Jesus, gave to the wise men. They are part of the gospel, and they are God’s gifts to us as well. These gifts make us fit for our journey, and they guide us to the destination of our deepest worship.
There are other gifts.
Herod was an example of a false gift; the example of a life that seeks to be in control and in the spotlight. The wise men were a contrast to Herod right from the start. To go on a journey, until fairly modern times, was definitely to risk being out of control. To journey was to be prepared for what might happen, and yet knowing that you could never really be prepared, and never truly be in control.
The journey to Jesus means that you surrender your will to be in charge. You stop insisting that life be what you want it to be. This is one of the gifts the wise men show to us.
All good things begin this way. A good marriage begins this way. So does parenthood. Any calling to serve God begins this way. The life of a child of God begins and ends with the surrender of your will to be in charge. It’s the end of your being in control. It begins and ends with the preparation of the lowliness, and the humility, and the certainty of the unexpected; the certainty of surprise.
Only the wise men went to Bethlehem, even though all Jerusalem knew what they were up to. The priests and the scholars of the law represented those who were closest to God, yet they were too afraid to take the chance of angering King Herod. Making Herod mad was often fatal.
They were right to be afraid, but they should have been more afraid not to go with the wise men. Journeying to Jesus in fear and danger would have been real worship. They would have been change and they would have become new people.
The wise men had the same right as anyone else to be afraid, but they had the passion to go on anyway. One of the gifts of the journey is to not let fear conquer your passion: your love for life, your love for others, and your love for God. John in his first letter says this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
The final gift of the wise men was that even though they made their journey to find something they expected, they also expected to find the unexpected.
They knew they would be changed by their journey. They did not know how they would be changed. They did not know what they would learn. But they were willing to go. And that is the faith of all the people of God. Our willingness to change, and learn, and grow is what makes our life into a journey of worship. Real faith depends on this.
 When Isaiah says, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” it means that it is God’s design for the whole world to join in this journey of faith. The whole world will find that God’s destination for them will make it into a new world.
This journey of the world began long ago, when the Lord called Abraham to travel to a land that he would show him.  (Genesis 12:1) Abraham is the prime example of what it means to be a person of faith; to travel to a place one can never know beforehand. This is our journey.
As with the wise men, our journey to Jesus is a journey to something we do not fully understand, as yet. But it is a journey to the dawn and to the light.
Jesus is like the star that lights the way. Only the fact is that Jesus is the way. Jesus, in his manger, and in his shop, and on his cross, and in his getting up out of the tomb, is just him being hard at work mending the world and setting it to rights.

Everything Jesus is, and everything he has done, is devoted to mending us and setting us right. This is the meaning of our journey, and this is what points the way to our destination of a life that worships the king. This is a purpose we can share with everyone.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Shepherds - A Christmas Joy

Preached on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 15
Scriptures: 2 Samuel 6:1-16; Luke 2:8-20
The story we read about King David, and the story we read about the birth of Jesus go together. They both tell us about joyful shepherds. King David had been a shepherd boy. The shepherds were the only people of Bethlehem to be called by the angels to visit the baby shepherd king.
Advent 2013:
Palouse Falls & Canyon, Washtucna Community Church
Shepherds became a picture for how the people of Israel came to think about their kings and leaders. Shepherds became their picture of the Messiah, and their picture of God himself. Psalm 23 says it: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” It sounded great.
But, by the time of Jesus, real shepherds had come down a lot in the world. All of the Pharisees’ rules about washing and being clean left them with a religiously unclean reputation.
They lived in a land where water was scarce. They worked with livestock who commonly presented them so many of the things that their religion of cleanliness said not to touch: blood, and goo, and pooh.
Uncleanness was considered contagious. People avoided them, and never touched them.
Plus, they were poor and they lived out of sight in the hills. Who knew what they were up to out there? When they passed through town things seemed to go missing. Their testimony was not allowed in a court of law. Shepherds were no-goods who lived down to other people’s low expectations.
But the shepherds, in Luke’s gospel, are joyful, because they have good news. They have found the Messiah, the Christ: a Messiah who seemed exactly for people like them. Here was a Messiah, not for kings and governments, but for shepherds; a Messiah for peasants and the poor: not in a palace but a stable, not in a bed but a manger (a feed trough for livestock). The Messiah had come to run-down, tiny Bethlehem. That was the good news.
David was a shepherd in Bethlehem when it was only hard work, and not bad work. David became a king, but he stayed a shepherd, in his heart, for the real King. He was the one who first wrote those words: “The Lord is my shepherd.”  David was joyful because he believed he could bring his king home to be his new neighbor.
There was that little boy who ran into the house, after a good spring rain, yelling, “Mommy, mommy the toads are moving into our yard. There stools are here already!”
God’s furniture was arriving in Jerusalem. The best part of it was a golden box called the Ark of the Covenant (the box of the promise). It was shaped like a boxy chair, or throne, with angels for armrests.
Inside the seat of the box were the stone tablets on which Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. There was also a jar of manna, the strange, grainy stuff that the people of Israel ate in the wilderness, which appeared on the ground every morning, except on the day of rest. And there was the staff of Aaron that had come to life as an almond tree.
The amazing thing about the Ark, this chair, was that no one was allowed to sit on it, or even to touch it. It was too holy to handle and so it was carried around on poles. It was the throne of God. As holy and as scary as this chair could be, it meant that God was moving into the neighborhood.
He was never seen sitting there, with the naked eye, but it was the moveable place where God chose to come and be present, when the time was right. The Ark, the box of the promise, stood for the presence of the awesome and living God.
So when David brought the ark to Jerusalem, he brought the real King to their town. This was great news. The Shepherd David was full of joy.
David was so happy that he danced for joy. He did a crazy dance in a revealing costume. As a symbol of his desire to serve the Lord, he wore a type of clothing worn by the priests who served in the holy place where the Ark was kept. It was a short work robe, called an ephod. It is just a Hebrew word for a plain white wool tunic that barely reached down to the knee. Now the high priest wore a long ephod, down to his feet with a little fringe of bells and beads.
David didn’t dress like a high priest. He was just a shepherd, even though he was a King. So he wore a common ephod, the priestly work robe. It was short so it wouldn’t trip them up, or drag on the bloody ground when they sacrificed cattle, and sheep, and goats. And they wore a loincloth (a kind of underwear) underneath, just like everyone wore.
David’s wife, Queen Michal, was the daughter of King Saul. Saul wasn’t born a king, but he acted and thought like a king. He worried about his honor and his power, as a king, and he taught his daughter to think like royalty.
Now a kingly man (like Michal’s father) had far too much dignity to be seen working, or dressed down for work. For a king to wear a robe that barely reached his knees (like common work clothes) was as shameful as being naked. For a real king to move fast, like David was in his dance (unless you were in battle) was undignified and shameful. A king could watch dancing, but not do it. A king was too important to dance for joy. A kingly king (like Michal thought her husband David ought to be) was too big, too important, a man to act out his joy.
The lowly shepherds of the gospels weren’t big enough to share the joy of the good news. The kingly shepherd, David, was supposed to be too big to share the joy of the good news. But, too bad for that! They all forgot about themselves and their size in life, and they enjoyed it anyway.
Sometimes there is bad news: grim, and hard, and tough, and scary. God himself doesn’t like bad news, even when he has to give it. God has designed the whole direction of his work to bring good news. And God’s good news usually has something to do with God choosing to come to us in a new way.
This was true in David’s Jerusalem. God would be with his people in a new way. This was also true in the shepherds’ Bethlehem. This is true here and now. God wants to come to us. God is coming. God wants to do something new with us. God wants to be with us in a new way.
God is doing something. God wants to be found by you. God will lead you to himself, to be “God with you”. That’s the news we have read about, today. It is the source of God’s joy that is given to small, self-forgetting people like the shepherds
The good news is worth rejoicing about. I think Advent and Christmas challenge us to see how ready we are to truly enjoy truly good news, and not leave it out of Christmas.
There are so many things that get in the way of this. There was the lowly shepherds’ raw deal in life, and the way they had built their lives by living down to the low expectations of others.
There was Michal’s dignity and coolness. She was cool in the worst sense of the word. She was too cool for joy.
We have a raw deal. Or we are too dignified or cool to change. We have got to be rational. We have got to be serious. We have got to be realistic. We have got to get so many things done. We are in over our heads. There are dangers and risks ahead. There are burdens to bear. There are people who rely on us. All these things make us too big, too much the center, to enjoy the news of God with us. It all comes down to, “Yes, but….”
Michal needed, more than anything, to tuck up her royal robes and dance. She needed to stop being so darn big. The shepherds left their flocks to God and forgot about them. They ran to see the king in the manger. They were not too small for the best news in the world to be their good news. Running was their dance.
God’s good news gives you better things to think about than about what you have or don’t have; what you might lose, or what you have lost; how you look to others, and to yourself; what your possibilities may be, compared with others. God’s good news gives you better things to think about.
You are loved by God. You can still receive that love, and enjoy it, and share it. Like David, you are not too big for this, like the shepherds you are not too small.
The proof of God’s good news is that baby in the manger. That is where God comes to you. We want a nice palace for God to come to us. God comes to whatever place in our life serves as, and smells like, a manger in a stable.
Jesus lying in a manger was a sign that things were not going well for Mary and Joseph. No one would take them in, but God was with them anyway.
It was the same kind of sign to the shepherds. No one wanted to touch them, but God let them come and perhaps touch him. Mary and Joseph were outcasts too and they wouldn’t have said “no”.
The shepherds were too small in life to be believed, but they told everyone anyway? They were happy; what did they care? They made an impression on the whole town, but we don’t see the town going to meet their Messiah. The others must have felt too big and important to bother and find this joy.
Jesus was the living presence of God with the shepherds. Jesus, in the manger, was a sign just for them, or for anyone else who could see himself or herself typecast in the shepherds’ part. We can know the joy of Christmas if we are like Linus with his embarrassing, dirty blanket in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
The manger is just as important as the cross, because it is just as humble as the cross. They are both desperate in their own ways. They are both a sacrifice for the sins of the world. The manger (like the cross) says that God is for you, no matter what. His birth is for you, to bring you to him; just as you are, without any games, or pretending, or posing.

God will not leave you just as you are, but God wants start something new with you. He wants you to know him and enjoy him. You can never be “not quite good enough” for him. The manger says he came for you, unless you are too big for him.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Joseph: A Christmas Courage

Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013
Scripture ReadingsIsaiah 42:1-4; Matthew 1:18-25
There was a woman who finally gave up on her husband as a gift giver. Without fail, if he didn’t give her a household appliance, he would give her a power tool, or at least something that had a motor in it.
November 2013: Around Washtucna & the Palouse
I’m not much better than that, as a gift giver. My problem, as a gift giver, is that I am always tempted to give the people I love gifts that I think they really should like, if only they knew better. That means that I give them books. I am tempted to give gifts to them that are really for me, and not for them.
Joseph had a choice to make, as a gift giver. His gift was himself. That was a “given”. The problem was for him to decide what kind of man, what kind of person, he would be for Mary, and for God. Would he be the gift Mary needed and God wanted, or would he insist on being the kind of gift that came easiest to him.
Mary was pregnant, and Joseph had nothing to do with it, and Joseph didn’t know what to think. It must be said that Joseph may have hardly known Mary at all, even though they lived in the same small town. Except for within the home and the extended family, boys and girls, men and women had very little contact with each other. It was not allowed.
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. Now, by “man”, Matthew means that Joseph was probably at least sixteen years old.
There is an ancient tradition that Joseph was an old man. That is why traditional Christian art and the Christmas carols show us an old Joseph. I believe that the traditional thought was that, if Joseph was an old man, and a widower with children from his first wife, he wouldn’t be so tempted to be a complete husband to Mary in every possible way.
The Bible doesn’t tell us his age. The Bible doesn’t tell us that there was anything out of the ordinary about their marriage, after Jesus was born.
In that time and place, men were usually betrothed or engaged between the ages of sixteen and twenty. Girls like Mary were sometimes betrothed as early as the age of twelve; usually before they were sixteen.
A simple reading of Matthew would give us no reason to suppose anything but what was normal for marriage in their time and place. We would simply assume that both Joseph and Mary were young. We have no reason not to assume that they what we would consider kids. And here they were, trying to decide what kind of gift they were supposed to be to each other.
The other thing about Joseph being a righteous man (or a righteous boy) is that (even in the Bible) being righteous has nothing to do with being superior. It has nothing to do with thinking we are any better than anyone else. Being righteous means doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason.
It means, above all, obeying the commandments of God. It means following God’s rules, not by calculation but as a matter of the heart. Being righteous means living in a way that shows that you have the right motives and that your heart is in the right place.
Since Mary was pregnant, and since pregnancy always came about in a certain way, and since Joseph had nothing to do with this, Joseph may have thought that the right thing to do was for him to very, very, very quietly divorce Mary. But that would be a tricky thing to pull of without endangering Mary, because there was one other option.
In their culture, engagement or betrothal could only be ended by divorce or by death. Those were the only two right things to do. Such a pregnancy could only reasonably happen because Joseph lost control or because Mary as unfaithful. Both were bad, but there was nothing worse than unfaithfulness. In the case of Joseph’s innocence, Mary could be brought for judgment before the town elders and condemned to death by stoning.
There was something else involved in doing what was right and Joseph may have thought of it. There was a line from the prophet Isaiah, saying that the Messiah, when he arrived, would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.
Joseph knew that something deep in the heart was important if one were to be truly righteous; truly right in the way you lived in this world and related to the people around you. The words of Isaiah tell us that there is a special kind of righteousness that is made of gentleness and kindness. True righteousness needs to be strong, but strength can be gentle and kind.
Gentleness and kindness are rare qualities, even in the best of times. And so Joseph may have thought that the right thing to do was to divorce Mary quietly, kindly and gently: and then, perhaps, send her off to live with distant relatives who would not be so concerned with their own honor (in this situation) that they would be a danger to Mary, for honor’s sake. In this way (perhaps) she would not suffer so much for what she must have done.
Would this choice make Joseph make the kind of person, that Mary needed him to be, and that God expected him to be?
There was something even more serious than this. Mary claimed that this child within her was more miraculous than any other baby in the world. This baby was a miracle of the Holy Spirit: the work of God. This baby was the very real presence of God, in this world of ours.
Even if Joseph believed this: who else would believe it? People would believe the worst and act accordingly.
In the Old Testament, the Lord told the prophet Isaiah this about what kind of Savior his people were to expect: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…” (Isaiah 42:3) This is what the Messiah would be like. This would be the essential nature, the core personality, of the king of the kingdom of God.
There is a good reason why we can believe that this was the kind of Messiah that Joseph hoped for. There is a reason why this may have been the kind of kingdom of God that Joseph waited for. The reason is that this is what Joseph made himself to be for Mary. This was his gift to her, and to God.
She was in danger of being stoned to death for something she had not done. If she was not killed, she would live a life of shame. She might never marry, because no good man would marry her. She and her child would always be followed by whispers, and gossip, and accusations, and insults, and mistreatment.
Mary and her child were in danger of being bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. In the village culture of Galilee they would be outsiders and outcasts all their lives.
God sent a message to Joseph and told him not to be afraid to join them in their fate. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” (Matthew 1:20)
If Joseph listened to God, he would be joining Mary and the child in their shame. He would be claiming responsibility for this child. He would be claiming this child as his own: and so Joseph would be advertising his personal irresponsibility for the rest of his life. That is what everyone would think, and they would treat him accordingly.
To be the man that Mary needed and God wanted, Joseph would have to face his fear of dishonor and rejection by his community and his family. Joseph was young, and everything in his world taught him to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife, and to take her shame upon himself.
Joseph made the choice as if he were not afraid. This is what true courage does. Courage chooses to take a frightening action as though you are not afraid.
It was through courage that Joseph became a part of Mary’s world, and a part Jesus’ world, and a part of our world. Without courage the good news of Christmas would have been a different story. Joseph identified himself with Mary’s shame, and bore it himself, for as long as he lived.
Joseph gave Jesus one of the greatest gifts that any father can give his child. Think of what the boy Jesus saw in Joseph. Joseph really lay down his life for Mary and Jesus.
Our reading in Matthew tells us two other things about Jesus. One is that Jesus fulfills a prophecy about God working through a child whose name or title is “Immanuel” (which means God with us). (Matthew 1:23) Jesus is “Immanuel”: God simply being with us: God simply being himself.
The other thing is that Jesus’ name had a special meaning for him (even though it was a common name in his time and place). Jesus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves”. Matthew puts it this way, “for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Joseph served his wife, served his son, served others, and served God by being with them, with all his heart. His deepest gift to them was his willingness to simply be there with them: just to be himself and not go away. But first Joseph needed to receive God’s gift of courage.
This is what God has done for us in Jesus. Whether he is in the manger, or in the carpenter shop, or on the cross, Jesus is “God with us”. He gives himself for us and this is our salvation. He gives us all that he is, just as he is, in himself.
And even though Mary had not sinned the way everyone thought, Joseph quietly identified with her. Joseph did the work that a radical, and outrageous, and almost unforgiveable forgiveness would require, even though he knew that she had done nothing wrong.
In the manger, and in the carpenter shop, and on the cross, God, in Christ, identifies with our sins, and bears them for us. In a later story about the night before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed to his Father that he would not be required to drink from the cup of the cross. He prayed to escape from the horrible thing that the cross was. Then he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:29-44)
Jesus agonized over the cross until he literally sweated blood. God came down to our world, in Jesus, to make the gift of courage a part of our salvation. The righteousness of Joseph, that does the right thing, in the right way, from the heart, requires this courage. This is our salvation.
Christmas is about the gospel. It is the good news about the God who is always with us; who bears our sins in Jesus and does not go away. Joseph is an invitation for us to bear the role of Jesus in this world.
In Joseph, and in Jesus, we are called to see the people and the situations that are the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks of this world. In Jesus, and in Joseph, we are called to be there, to simply be present, and to do our humble quiet work for them, even when the world misunderstands us. This will require a courage that only the presence of God can give.

The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Jesus where he feeds us with himself. His giving himself to us enables us to have the grace and the courage to give ourselves to others (and to the world for his sake) so that his will may be done.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mary - A Christmas Faith

Preached on December 1, 2013
Scripture readings” Deuteronomy 22:23-24; Luke 1:26-38
My old friend and mentor Dick Cochran has always been highly competitive, and he has this story that he has often told against himself, on the affect his competitive nature had on his kids. Once, Dick was playing tennis with one of his teenage sons. The son hit the ball into Dick’s court. Dick didn’t hit the ball, and he called the ball out. Wherever it hit, it was very close. The boy challenged his dad and said, “No, it was in!” “It was out!” “It was in!” Dick said, “And I say it was out. I’m your father. and I’m a minister of the gospel. If you can’t trust me, then who can you trust?” And the boy said, “Yeah I know, and that’s what worries me!”
Near the Palouse River: September 2013
Trust and faith: the gospel is about this. The Christmas story is about this. There would be no Christmas story without trust and faith.
We hear it in Mary’s words to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) It was as if Mary said, “May the Lord do with me whatever he wants. I trust the Lord.”
Nowadays the word “whatever” means indifference. It means that you don’t care. For Mary, it meant caring absolutely. It meant absolute faith in the faithfulness (the trustworthiness, the reliability) of God.
For us, for Christians, the word “whatever” (when we say it to God) should also be that kind of absolute caring and surrender to the desires of God. We can learn about this caring and surrender (this trust and faith) as we look at Mary saying yes to God.
But first I would simply like us to see the first great mystery here. Here is something that Mary said “yes” to. Could she have said “no” instead?
The angel says that “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) It was God’s will for Mary to be the mother of the eternal Son of God, who has neither beginning nor ending. It was God’s will.
But Mary was afraid of the message. Mary had questions. And then Mary settled her fears and questions, for the time being, and she said “yes”. If you are given something that you can fear, and resist, and question, and then make a decision about, then we are not talking only about the will of God. We are talking about a calling: an invitation, a decision: a choice.
Mary’s decision, her choice, hinged on whether she had the faith and trust to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.” I will trust him.
We have decisions to make every day. We have choices every time a new situation comes up. We are asked to do something. We are forced to deal with things that challenge us. We have our priorities tested. We have our morals and ethics tested. Meeting life as a real follower of Jesus hinges on whether we have enough faith and trust in the faithfulness of God to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”
Is this your calling, or is it not? Are you here for some other purpose than this?
Now, if Mary was the Lord’s servant, her calling led to something else. This calling would make her the mother of the Lord Jesus; the mother of the Messiah; the mother of the king of the everlasting kingdom of God.
All of this is implied in the words of the angel Gabriel: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:3-33)
Mary was being given the greatest calling in the world. At the same time, she was being given the most dangerous calling in the world.
Every Jewish girl dreamed of growing up to be the mother of the Messiah. It was a calling to the highest level of fulfillment a woman could have. It was a calling to the highest level of what we would call success that a woman was considered capable of.
But this calling was obviously going to be deadly dangerous, or at least full of conflict, misunderstanding, and humiliation. The boundaries of parenthood and marriage were so holy that the Old Testament law made them an issue of life and death.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph. The marriage had not yet taken place, but they were pledged in marriage and, if Joseph happened to die before the time of their engagement was completed, Mary would be considered Joseph’s widow.
The Old Testament (as we read in Deuteronomy 22:23-24) made this promise so holy that her life would be in danger if it seemed that she had had a sexual relationship outside of marriage. The child would be the proof of her sin; a sin that could be punished by death.
Our reading in Deuteronomy orders the community to take such people out to the edge of the village and stone them to death. If this wasn’t done, there was the danger that a member of Joseph’s or Mary’s own family would kill her, to preserve the honor of their family.
The angel said the child would come by a miracle of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph would have nothing to do with the producing of this child. If he were to accept this child, he would have to trust Mary. He would need to have absolute faith in her.
But, even in ancient times, everyone knew where babies came from. There are no virgin births in the Jewish scriptures (except for one single prophecy), and there is only one virgin birth in the whole Bible.
Even if Mary were not killed, she would be shamed for life. No one would believe her. If Joseph showed the weakness of believing her, and marrying her, he would also be shamed for life.
The child would grow up being called ugly names behind his back and to his face. Joseph’s business would suffer. The whole family would be the target of nasty laughter. God’s calling to Mary would certainly lead her on this path.
If you are a servant of the Lord, and if you choose to live a way of life based on faith, and if you choose to explain yourself in terms of your faith and your love for the Lord, then you will sooner or later be laughed at. You will be passed over. You will be unfavorably evaluated, or misunderstood and looked down on, and made fun of, because of it.
There will probably be some people who call themselves Christians who will treat you just the same. And that will hurt most of all.
Mary’s son was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the king of the kingdom of God. Mary was a kingdom person. She could be counted on to meet life on the terms of the kingdom of God. She could be counted on to make choices and decisions that other people would never dream of making. The fact that other people would not understand, and would not change their ways to suit her, did not deter her from living the kingdom of God way.
Faith and trust mean not being deterred from thinking, and talking, and living, and reacting a different way. The love and grace of God will make you into a nonconformist if you are faithful: if you mean it when you say, “I am the servant of the Lord.”
Now I want to warn you against a false notion of what it means to be a nonconformist. Some nonconformists are strange, eccentric, awkward, and weird.
Some Christians are this way, God love them all. They don’t have to be this way. Sometimes it just happens.
The reason they don’t have to be is found in a fuller understanding of the word grace. Grace is the unconditional gift of God’s love; but grace also means beauty.
The angel told Mary, “You are highly favored” and “you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:28 & 30) This word for favor translates the same Greek word as does grace (“charis”).
Even in English, the word “gracious” means at least two things. Graciousness can mean generosity, as in the grace of God, or human courtesy. And grace can also mean a kind of beauty of movement: a fluid coordination. A gracious life can be a beautiful life, or a handsome life. It is a life that shows a pattern of ability and coordination that comes from the grace of God.
A bit later in the gospel of Luke, Luke tells us that Jesus, as a boy, grew… in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52) As Jesus grew up and made enemies, what those enemies hated the most was the fact that most people really liked Jesus, even though he was so different. Our lives can be different in a beautiful way (a handsome way) coordinated by the grace of God.
Christians sometimes try very hard to not be weird by conforming to everyone else. But such Christians know very little about the grace and power of God, because they are dominated by their fear of what other people are thinking.
Think bout it! Surely you are thankful for knowing some people in this world who are not just like everyone else. The difference makes them nonconformists who are not weird.
God’s grace means that you are greatly loved. His friendship for you is infinitely deep. Being deeply befriended and greatly loved can make you absolutely a different person without being weird: crazy yes; but weird, no.
Great love is what you find in Jesus. And you can hear the words that were spoken to Mary spoken to you, “Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30)
One of the amazing things about Mary’s calling is that (although it required everything that was in her) it didn’t demand anything that would be unnatural for her. She was just a very young woman, like any other young woman living in her time and place, who was called to be a mother.
Her mission was to be a person through whom God came into the world in a unique way, but God would do this simply by Mary being herself. She was willing to simply be there trusting that God would work through her.
In a sense, our mission is the same. What ever choices God gives us are ways though which he wants to come into the world through us. He will take care of his own arrival.
All we are asked to do is to “be there”, and to be ourselves, and to carry out the tasks that life gives us, as well as we know how. God’s calling is simply for us to be our grace-given selves.
The woman who said, “Let it be to me as you have said” had a son who said to his father, the night before he was crucified, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) It really is the same response, both mother and son, after all.
Mary was saying a hard thing to say. It was a hard thing to be brave and trusting enough to say. Without knowing about the cross, she said “yes” to the God of the cross, and the resurrection.
The God of the cross and the God of the resurrection came into her womb, in Jesus, in order to say the words, “Not my will, but yours be done” and to give himself up for the life of the world. Mary said “yes” to a Savior God, whose love and friendship would set her free.
Mary said yes to a calling that was far from easy. The life to which God called her demanded that she give her all. She could not have had the energy and focus to live that life, if she didn’t choose to trust and have faith in the faithfulness of God.
As Christmas comes near we can think of a God who wants to be near. This God came near, and took our life into his own life. He became a baby who would grow up to love us to the depth of laying down his life for us. He died so that he could take away from us the power of sin and death and say to you, “You have found favor with me.”
To be his servant is not easy, but it is a life of love and friendship. You love, and are loved by, a faithful, savior God. You serve him with the same love that led him to give his life for the world.
When you celebrate Christmas this year think about the faith that made the Christmas story possible. Think how the Christmas story teaches you to live. Think about the faithful God who calls you, in that miraculous birth, to make yourself available to him through faith.