Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under the World's Madness

Preached on Sunday, December 28, 2014

Scripture reading: Matthew 2:1-18

Photos Taken near Mattawa-Desert Aire: December 2014
I probably shouldn’t say this but, when my mom watches the news (which she does most of the time), when she sees something or someone she doesn’t like, she is likely to shout, or turn it off, or at least change the channel. She might walk out of the room.
Even if we don’t do this, we can understand the feeling.
It’s the same way with watching and listening to the world. Sometimes I want to shout at it, and turn it off, or make it stop. We live in a world that deserves to be shouted at, and turned off.
Matthew’s story of the massacre of the boy babies in Bethlehem shows us just such a world. The whole Bible shows us such a world: dictators, governments which kill innocent people, lying leaders, secret meetings. We have just read about this in the Gospel.
If there had been radio, and television, and the internet in Bible times, there would also have been something like CNN (the Cable News Network) and Fox News. And there would have been news junkies thousands of years ago.
The Bible shows us that the God who made the world and keeps it going is a sort of world-watching-news--junkie-God. He watches and listens to the world twenty four hours a day, seven days a week; and he’s been doing that since time began.
I think the Bible shows us God having shouting scenes with the world. It even shows us scenes with God throwing stuff at the screen of the world. But there are no “turning the whole thing off” scenes with God. There are no “walking out of the room” scenes with God.
God’s way of watching and listening to the world is not like one of us sitting in a chair and looking at a screen. God’s way of watching and listening is that God became a baby in the news we would like to shout at and turn off. That is how God watches and listens to the news of this world.
God became a baby who “had a price on his head”. God became a baby whom powerful people wanted killed at all cost.
In all of the news that we hate, in all those things about life that we hate, God watches and listens to it all like a baby in a massacre. By being here with us like this God makes the world a very different place than what we think it is.
Eventually, when Jesus grew up, the powerful people got their way, but that didn’t end they way they expected. It was God who got his way by being a refugee baby. It was God who got his way by being a man on a cross. That is where our life and our salvation come from. That is where our strength and our faith come from.
The people who estimate such things estimate that there may have been between twenty and forty babies killed by the soldiers of King Herod, in Bethlehem and its vicinity.
Bethlehem was a small place. Twenty to forty babies was a lot.
And Bethlehem was an old place. Everyone there was somehow related to each other. It made their pain all the stronger.
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem because his people came from there. He had relatives in Bethlehem. Jesus could well have had cousins who were among the murdered babies.
Bethlehem is only four miles away from Jerusalem. If the family ever met together (say, around the holy days of Passover, when they would all be in Jerusalem) stories about the massacre would have been repeated. Someone would have said to the little Jesus, “Jesus, my boy, do you know why you are alive, because of what happened in Bethlehem when you were born?”
The boy Jesus would have known about the dead babies, and his own escape. Jesus would have learned that others had died because of him, and for him. Their death put Herod off Jesus’ track, and so (in a way) they died to save him.
This helps us get a glimpse of how God is involved in the world. This experience of Jesus shows us what goes on in the heart of God who sees and hears everything all the time. God was not simply present spiritually at the scene of the massacre. God was a particular baby, with terrified parents, narrowly escaping from a village where other babies were about to be killed.
God came down from heaven in Jesus in order to die for the sins of the world. But God is very, very close to those sins as a particular sufferer within this world in which he died.
Everything we read about God centers on this. When God created a universe and a world full of his beauty, he did it as a God who would become a baby running for his life in that world. When God led his people out of slavery in Egypt, he did it as a God who would become a baby who escaped for his life to Egypt and then be brought back to Israel as a toddler to save a world from the slavery of sin by dying on a cross.
In all the horrible violence of the Old Testament, the God who led his people through slaughter is the same God who would become a baby carried by his parents away from slaughter in that violent world. God is the victim of everything we want to shout at and shut off.
There is a doctor (Dr. Ian Crozier) who went to Sierra Leone in West Africa this past summer to fight the Ebola epidemic. He ended up getting the disease, and being one of the worst cases to ever survive the disease. Before the end, Ebola makes the body of the infected person bleed all over, inside and out. Even the eyes bleed, and Dr. Crozier has scars on his eyes. But he wants to go back to Ebola country when he has recuperated.
The doctor has seen and endured terrible things in this world, but he does not want to shout at it, or turn his back, or turn it off. Well, he does want to turn it off: but not like a TV screen that just goes blank. He wants to go there and serve there to change the world.
The God we worship is a God who does that. We see it in Jesus. God goes into the madness of the world to save it. What do God’s people do?
God could call us to go, somehow, to West Africa, or the Middle East. Or, maybe, in our very safe and sheltered part of the world, there are ways in which the world we want to shout at (the world we want to stop) comes very close to us. There is illness. There is discouragement. There is depression. There is loss. There is grief. There is abuse. There is addiction. There is cruelty. There is neglect. There is indifference. There is conflict and division.
You might see the world you want to shout at damaging someone in your family, or a neighbor. You might see the help, or the change, or the involvement that is needed. You might pray to see the involvement to which God is calling you.
When Matthew tells us about Jesus and his family he gives us connections between what happed to them and what was said centuries before by the prophets. You might say that these are signs that God has a plan in place and, if we only wait, we will see God’s plan take shape. This is true.
Well meaning religious people will tell you to trust God’s plan when you are hurting or struggling. This is good, but there is more. The connections to the prophets in the story of Jesus are usually not meant to tell us that things happen because the Bible says so. They happen because God can be trusted to get involved in a way that comes from his heart.
God called his son, His people Israel, out of slavery in Egypt. (Hosea 11:1) So “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” is about a God who saves people from slavery.
God loves being true to himself over and over again. He loves saving, so he is glad to come out of Egypt as the little son Jesus, for the purpose of saving his people from their slavery to the sins that make the madness of this world.
He called himself out of Egypt, in Jesus, to save all people from the motivation to sin that creates a world that makes us want to shout at the world and turn it off. He called himself out of Egypt, in Jesus, to save all people from the meaningless suffering that makes us want to shout and shut it all off.
“Rachel weeping for her children” is about both grief and hope. (Jeremiah 31:15) Jeremiah spoke of this weeping as the weeping of Israel for her children going off to exile in Babylon. But it is also about God bringing the children of Israel home again from exile. The God who came in Jesus is the God who loves to bring us out of our own exile. Our sins separate us from our true home where we can become the people God created us to be.
The mothers of Bethlehem wept because their loss was real, but the powerful baby feared by King Herod, the baby who survived, the baby for whom the other babies died would die for them. The baby who escaped would grow up to know their pain. He would grow up to be killed, in his own time, as the babies of Bethlehem were killed, by the powers of a world gone mad.
The God who sees and hears all weeping and loss, also feels it and dies for it in Jesus. God, in Jesus, did not really escape the slaughter of this world, and he didn’t even want to escape. What he did was intentional and he did it for love.
This is a calling to us, in this mad world. We belong to a God who chose to belong to this world by his involvement in our creation and in the pain of our salvation.
We are called to be involved, in whatever way God shows us. God chose, first of all, to be personally present, and we are called to be present, and not walk away from the needs that face us in this world.
God, in Jesus, expressed love with great strength. He took care of people and he gave them forgiveness. The early Christians couldn’t do much to change the world, but they took care of people and they practiced forgiveness and mercy. They did this as individual disciples and they did it as a church.
Is there some way that we can show this love to the part of the world where we live. What is there, around us, that needs love? What needs our blessing? What needs our care?
Matthew tells us, in his first chapter, that God came into this world in order to demonstrate that a prediction made by Isaiah was true after all. “They will call him Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
God is “God with us” because he went the all the way with being with us. Our God is a God who makes what he is real to the extreme.
This is one of the secrets of Christmas. Underneath all of this world’s madness, God is with us. God took the madness of this world upon himself so that we could experience his presence in a world that tempts us to shout and turn our backs. There is a steadiness here: the steadiness of a salvation that comes through a God who chooses to be with this world.

God is involved, and we can be involved in this world with him. It’s the very best way to be with him while we are in this world.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under the Shepherds' Unworthiness

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

Scripture reading: Luke 2:1-20

Photos Taken at Desert Aire, WA: December 2014
The ancient rabbi’s had a tradition of looking down on shepherds. This is strange, because the Old Testament is full of positive references to shepherds. The Lord is our shepherd. (psalm 23) The kings of Israel and Judah were called shepherds. The Messiah (the Christ) would be called the shepherd.
But the rabbis were in love with the purity and perfection of God. They thought this was part of his majesty and glory. So they were always trying to get their people into the discipline of purity and perfection in the form of cleanness. They were always washing everything, all the time, and it all had to be done a certain way.
Being a shepherd was dirty work. Sheep are dirty. The shepherd’s couldn’t have carried around all the water that the rabbis’ washing rules would have required of them, even if they had wanted to.
And they grazed their sheep on other people’s property. They were suspected of having sticky fingers, meaning something more than being dirty: meaning that things went missing when the shepherds had come and gone.
The rabbis ruled that a shepherd’s testimony was not admissible in a trial. The shepherds, for their part, developed special a code of conduct that required them to live down to the low expectations of others.
In the light of this, it stands to reason that, naturally, God would choose the shepherd’s to be his most authoritative witnesses to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in Bethlehem. The angel messengers didn’t bring the good news to King Herod, or to the priests in the Temple, or to some school of rabbis debating the laws of cleanness.
Some people are certain that these shepherds must have been very special (much better than your average shepherd) in order to be entrusted with such a wonderful message. But that would be just as wrong as thinking that we must be better than your average person in order to be entrusted with such a wonderful message. That would be a serious mistake. That would be the kind of mistake that only people like us could make.
The God we first meet in the baby Jesus grew up to be called “the friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19) God does his best work, and God has the greatest freedom to be truly himself, when he works through the rough and the unworthy.
God saw to it that he would come into this world through a girl named Mary who was pregnant before her wedding. God, as a boy, was raised by a man named Joseph, who took personal responsibility for such a girl.
Of course they were innocent, but they were judged by others as if they were guilty and unclean. Sometimes their neighbors wouldn’t even call Jesus the son of Joseph; they called him Mary’s son, and you know what that means. (Mark 6:3)
A God who took his own majesty seriously would never come to earth to die on a cross for the sins of the world. A pure and perfect God would never use a manger, a feed trough for animals, as a sign of his kingdom.
For people like the shepherds, who never took their own worthiness seriously, the manger was the perfect sign for the king of the kingdom of God. The manger told them that this king would be perfect for them. The baby in the manger told them that the kingdom of God was simply and truly designed for the rough and the unworthy.
The shepherds were the perfect sign of the kingdom of God for Mary and Joseph. I think God chose them because they would be a comfort to Mary and Joseph.
Mary and Joseph had probably held the high ambition in life of being poor but respectable. Their baby had taken away their respectability, because the timing of the baby made them suspect. Jesus was making their life really rough even though, through him, they were being intimately touched by God.
And here came these shepherds who were born and raised to be rough. They had no ambitions of respectability. But the shepherds had been intimately touched by God. They knew that God was at work in that baby, and so they knew that God was at work in Joseph and Mary, who were having such a hard time. The shepherds were the perfect sign of the gospel. They were perfect sign of the good news that Mary and Joseph needed to remember.
My first church, after I was ordained, was on the Oregon coast. The town had its share of tourist businesses, and artists, and summer houses, but it was mostly a lumber mill town. I never before had lived in a place where I knew so many people who had jail and prison records, or who went to jail or to prison after I met them.
Mill workers were expected by others (and they expected each other) to live the code of the rough life. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol. There were lots of fights, especially around the tavern. I remember hearing about a knifing. I remember hearing about a shooting.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made, in that first church, was that I didn’t spend time in the tavern. I would have served Jesus better if I had spent time in the tavern.
I think it was my first Sunday there, that one of the church members told me that she hoped I had big feet. She said I would need big feet to fill Mickey’s shoes.
Mickey was my predecessor who had died a couple years before I came there. He was a lay-minister (unordained, or untrained, whatever that means) and he had served that church for twenty years.
After his stint in the Army and fighting in Italy in World War Two, he came to Lakeside and worked in the mill. He lived the life of the mill worker. For years he was devoted to the rough life: until he met Jesus, and then his life began to change. But I think he was always true to his story. He became good with a rough goodness.
Mickey met Jesus largely with the help of a guy named Hutch. Hutch taught the adult Sunday school class in that church forever. When I was there I taught the older kids, but sometimes I would sit in on Hutch’s class.
Hutch was a great Christian. The life of Jesus was strong in him. Hutch knew this Jesus of the manger and the cross.
Hutch had been one of those mill workers who lived the rough life; who lived down to the low expectations of others. He did his time in the tavern and he told me how he used to walk down the street carrying a pipe in his back pocket (not a pipe for smoking but for fighting). And then he met Jesus, and his old roughness changed into a rough goodness.
Hutch was older thank Mickey, but he was the perfect sign of the Lord of the manger and the cross. In a sense it was the unworthiness and roughness of Hutch that got through to Mickey, so that Mickey could meet the Lord of the manger and the cross.
Or it was the story of roughness and unworthiness touched by the grace and power of God that got through to Mickey. It was that version of the good news that gave Mickey those big shoes I was called upon to fill.
We have a God who is not impressed with our worthiness. Chances are that no one else will be impressed by our worthiness either. The God of the manger is the master of touching people in their roughness, and touching them in their unworthiness, and shaping them there, and giving them wisdom there, and making himself visible there.
If you know Jesus, then you have a manger or a cross in your life where Jesus lives. If you don’t know Jesus, then you have a manger or a cross that Jesus wants to occupy.
Your good impressions, and your successes, and your self-confidence will not be a sign of the Lord named Jesus. The only place others will see the true sign of Jesus in you will be in some manger or some cross where you have met Jesus.

This is one of the secrets of Christmas. This is what makes Christmas one of the signs of the good news of the gospel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christms Secrets - The Cross under Bethlehem's Floor

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 21, 2014

Scripture reading: Luke 1:2-7

Our family home is barely a mile west of the levee on the Feather River, in the Sacramento Valley. It’s a nice, easy little walk.
One of Two Pictures Taken at the Feather River:
In a Drought Year, January 2014
Inside the levee the ground slopes down a bit through a park and down to the boat launch. That’s where a trail begins. It winds for not quite another mile through some woods and brush around a bend in the river. When I get to the end of the trail, I turn around and head for home.
About five miles north of there, there is a bridge that crosses the river. That’s where they measure the depth of the water during the winter flood season. The monitor stage is ninety five feet high. Flood stage is about one hundred and three feet. The danger stage is about one hundred and four feet high. That’s a lot of water.
I forget how high the water gets before the authorities start warning people to evacuate. I suspect it was about ninety five feet high and rising the two times that we evacuated.
Both times were voluntary. My parents have always been careful about not getting caught in a flood.
Feather River: January 2014
Both times were in December. Once, when I was thirteen, it was just before Christmas. I remember helping put our unopened presents on the high shelves of our closets.
The second time was only about fifteen years ago. I had flown down for a late “post-Christmas” Christmas with my folks. There was a lot of snow in the mountains and the tropical rain storms that they call “the pineapple express” came rolling in. The rain melted the snow pack very fast.
The river must have measured about ninety five feet and rising. So my mom and dad and I evacuated and went to some friends of my parents in a nearby town that was on a little bit higher ground.
Their house was packed with people. The river wasn’t going down, and so we spent the night, and there were still people everywhere.
My parents slept in their friends’ camper in front of the house. I slept on the living room floor. The room was wall to wall people. The chairs and the sofa were occupied. Somebody’s grandma was sleeping in the recliner next to the Christmas tree.
I slept with my head under the tree. Fortunately, it was after Christmas, so there was room for me there.
Luke tells us that the newborn Jesus slept in a manger because there was no room anywhere else. If you read the history of the birth of Jesus, or watch a documentary about it, you will hear different ways that people or scholars make sense of what Matthew and Luke wrote. Even people of faith and scholars who are faithful speculate about how it could have happened. Luke gives us very little information apart from the basics. Matthew gives us even less.
Pictures Taken at Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
The word translated as inn could simply mean a place where people rested and slept.
On one hand, an inn would be such a resting place. As early as the middle of the second century, Christians in the Holy Land wrote about Mary and Joseph staying in the stable cave under the inn at Bethlehem, and about Jesus being born there. (As reported by Justin Martyr)
On the other hand Christians descended from the original people of the area will say, “No, no, no; people back then believed in hospitality to those in need. Surely, Mary and Joseph would have found someone in Bethlehem who was willing to take them in. The only problem would have come from all the visitors in town for the Roman census.
All the rooms for resting, meaning all the rooms in houses with floors, would be full. The typical house of the day would be a house of one or (perhaps) two rooms. What you would find, upon entering such a house, would be a ground level space, with mangers, and that was where the family’s live stock was kept. It was a space without a real floor. The rest of the house had a raised floor, and that is where people did their indoor living, and resting, and sleeping.
If all of the resting places in all the houses of Bethlehem were committed and full, then hospitality would result in someone saying to Joseph, something like this, “Our home is full, but our home is yours, if you are willing to accept our poor hospitality, we have no room for you to rest except where we keep our animals.”
The animals would be tied up outside in a safe place or taken to a neighbor’s house. Mary and Joseph would sleep on the ground beneath the floor, and that is where Jesus would be born. Then Jesus would be wrapped up and laid to sleep in one of the mangers in that low place for the animals.
The report of the stable cave under the inn is so ancient that I simply trust it. One way or another, the truth is that Jesus was born lower than the floors of Bethlehem. This was the cross that he and his family carried: the fact that there was room for others, but not for them.
The truth is that, in the end, the world decided that there was no room at all for Jesus, except on the cross. The best government of the ancient world and the best faith of the ancient world had no room for Jesus.
The best that human nature has to offer, outside of God, is a life that is in love with itself. Even we, as God’s, people have a desire for independence rooted in our hearts. We still have an independence that longs to shut out God’s interference. It is the nature of our rebellion against God to have no room for God himself.
This is at the heart of what we call sin. In the Bible, sin is an archery word that means missing the mark. Sin means missing the mark of what we were created to be. It means missing the mark of what God, in Christ, is ready to make us so that we can come into our real room, in our real house, where we can live in his love. And so we turn tables on God. In the room we claim for ourselves, we give God no room.
There is the line from the Book of Revelations, in which Jesus says to us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20) Is there a room in your life (is there some part of your life, or your thoughts, or your memories, or your relationship with others) where Jesus has no room? Is there some place in your life where you do not want him to enter, and live, and change you?
Then Jesus asks an even greater thing of us. Jesus, who carried the cross of the world having no room for him, asks us to look for him in those people for whom the world has no room. In the gospels Jesus accused some of his own people of not having room for him because they didn’t make room in their lives for those who are without a room to rest in. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me….As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” (Matthew 25:42-45)
Even when we think we make room for Jesus, we may be wrong. To make room for Jesus we must make room in our lives for the people who are looked down on, and ignored, and shut out in this world.
Jesus is so much more extreme than we like him to be, because he wants us to take care of prisoners. Prisoners are people who have broken laws. They have been destructive to themselves and to others. There is no one so low, no one so lost, no one so foolish, no one so different from us that we are not to see Jesus in them and to treat them as we would treat Jesus.
Jesus was born lower than the floors of Bethlehem so that we must know that there is no one so low as Jesus is. Then think of this, if we are not low with him, where are we?
What people do you see as being of the least value in the world? They are Christ to you. If there is no room in your heart for them, there is no room for Jesus. Jesus himself says it.
There may be a time when you are low. Sometime you will be sure that there is no room for you. People may be unfair to you. They may say false things about you and refuse to shake your hand. You may have done something so horrible that you cannot forgive yourself. You may lose something so precious to you that you can’t imagine life without it: your career, your spouse or your child, your home, your health, your joy and sanity, maybe even your faith.
So Jesus willingly became a person for whom there was no room. And when his last room grew as painful and as lonely as a cross, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)
Riverside Community Church, Desert Aire:
December 2014 
Would we have blamed Mary and Joseph for feeling forsaken? They were having a hard, hard time of it. It was a strange road that God had put them on, as he does with us. There was precious little room for them and for their baby.
Yet God is there. God is that baby. God left the most spacious room in the world, the place of real rest, to take our room-less lives and our restless hearts into his room and rest.
Jesus gives us room now and rest now; though you may not realize it. When you share the same room with Jesus every day, and share his rest, then you become a new person. You give room to others. You share your room with them. You give others rest. You share your rest with them.

Sometimes that giving and sharing will be your cross; just as it was a real cross for Jesus. That is one of the secrets of Christmas. You give and share yourself as Jesus did. Then you will give to others something good, because Jesus has found room for himself in you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under the World's Power

Preached on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 14, 2014

Scripture reading: Luke 2:1-5

Two young brothers were known all over town for their trouble making. The boys’ parents were at their wits’ end.
Four Pictures Taken at Desert Aire WA: November 2014
Then they heard that there was a new minister in town and, since no one else had been able to make a difference in their sons, they were so desperate that they were willing to try anything new. So they called the new pastor and he said he would talk with the boys, one at a time, starting with the youngest.
He came to their house, and sat in the living room, and stared the youngest boy in the eyes for about five minutes. Then he asked, “Where is God?” The boy stared back. The minister spoke, louder than before, “Where Is God?”
The boy kept staring back, but he was a few shades paler than he was before. Then the minister shouted, “Where Is God!”
The boy screamed, and he tore up the stairs, and he ran to the room he shared with his brother. He grabbed his brother and yelled, “We’re in big trouble!” His older brother said, “How come?” And the littler boy said, “God is missing, and they think we did it!”
In the time leading up to the birth of Jesus, God’s people may have been wondering where God was, or what God wanted them to do in order for him to come in a way that they could see him. They believed, but they didn’t see, and so they struggled to make the presence of God take shape in the form they thought was promised to them.
They were looking for the kingdom and they thought it should come with power to set them free. God’s power was there but they didn’t see it or understand how that power works.
In the scripture that we read this morning we saw those big Roman names of big people in the centers of worldly power and wealth that seemed to control the lives of ordinary people. There was the Emperor (Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus) at the top of the world. There was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who was something like a former president of the Roman Senate, and a general, and a governor of several provinces at different times: more than once, at more than one level.
Quirinius was a man who served the power that he knew. Without realizing it, by putting the emperor’s decree into effect for his province, Quirinius was serving an alien power that he did not know. Quirinius, the imperial Governor of Syria, signed a paper that made Joseph take Mary from their home in Nazareth of Galilee on a long ninety mile walk to Bethlehem of Judea.
The world power that was Rome was a complete system that stood between God’s people and their longing for a life in which they would not need to ask, “Where is God?” Rome took God’s people into an alien world ruled by a vast conspiracy of power, and wealth, and force that blocked them at every turn. Their world was ruled by a power and a system that was not their friend. Their world seemed designed to hold them down, hold them back, and suck them dry.
They wanted to be free. They wanted to prosper. They wanted to be fulfilled. They wanted to prove themselves and their cause. They wanted to be winners. We would all like to achieve this. We would all to be a success, to be winners.
Without this, we don’t feel free. Instead, we find reasons for not being able to do what we want. We feel poor as if we had a Rome of our own sucking our life and our energy and our resources. We feel robbed of being what will make us happy. If we can’t prove ourselves the way we want, we feel like losers. We look at ourselves and at our situation and we don’t see where God is.
There’s a story from the old days in Poland about a little Jewish boy who would grow up to be one of the great rabbis of his time. Someone made him this offer: “I’ll give you a coin if you can tell me where God lives.” The boy answered: “I’ll give you two coins if you can tell me where he doesn’t.” (Story of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Ger)
If we could go back to the world of Rome and the Emperor Augustus and the Governor Quirinius, we might actually see God in a lot of places. We might see God in all the roads and ships the Romans were building so that the disciples of Jesus would be able to carry the message of Jesus all over the place. We might see God in the Roman peace that eliminated the old borders and frontiers that might have stopped the news of Jesus from being carried so far, fast around the ancient world. We might see God in the synagogues of the Roman occupied Holy Land and the Temple in Jerusalem where so many people were praying for the savior and the kingdom of God to come. And it would all be true. But I don’t know if God’s people looked at these things and saw enough to show them where God was.
If we could go back to that world, the place where we would find God most was inside the body of a woman, the same kind of place where all babies come from: where miracles come from. There was a woman named Mary who was walking to Bethlehem, if her husband wasn’t able to acquire a donkey. God was inside Mary.
Perhaps she walked part of her journey on a Roman road. It was certainly a road where Roman soldiers marched and Roman couriers rode on the business of power. Mary’s husband, Joseph, walked beside her; or in front of the donkey, holding the reins, like in the pictures and the songs.
It would have been treason to say that there was any king but Caesar, but Caesar was only a servant (and an unwilling servant at that) of the real king who was inside Mary’s womb. The Emperor Caesar made a decree, but the real law was made long ago by the king who was now living inside Mary.
There was the prophecy that the king of the kingdom of God would come from Bethlehem. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of your will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)
The real king was the baby who was much older than Caesar and much older than the world. The capital of his birth was not the center of the world’s power in Rome, but village of Bethlehem. The first king-sized bed was a manger.
It was an accusation made by the Greeks of the old religion that the disciples were people who “turned the world upside down”. (Acts 17:6) And they spoke the truth, because the disciples belonged to a king who was born, and lived, and died to turn the world upside down. Our world, and the powers that seem to control it, and that seem to control us; the world that makes us say “what’s the use”; the world that makes us decide what’s possible or not; needs to be turned upside down, and that turning upside down is God’s specialty. It’s his gift to us. It is what we see, when we see God in Jesus.
God would be born in a manger and die on a cross. That is upside down from our way of thinking. It is like having a treasure map and missing a clue because the map has to be held upside down so that we can read it.
God’s heart, as we meet him, is Jesus. God’s heart is manger shaped and cross shaped. God is in the gift of receiving but, first and foremost, God is in the gift of giving.
When the world was pushing Mary and Joseph around and keeping a pregnant mother from staying safe at home, God was there in the cross of their journey. That road was one of many that would create the love that would surround the growing boy named Jesus. The strongest love is not created on the easy roads, but on the hard roads.
In a life of many hard roads, Joseph and Mary shared such faith, and such love, and such poverty, and such joy for Jesus that it made them one of the greatest success stories in history. That is how salvation came into the world.
Coyote in Desert Aire WA: December 2014
At least we can say that winning is found in the little things where many people miss it. When we die we will not regret that we didn’t spend more time at work making money instead of spending time with our family (if we have a family) or instead of spending time with the people who are God’s gift to us.
It’s true that we grow in our love for others as we watch them give themselves for us. It’s true that we grow in our love for others as we receive gifts of love from them.
It’s also true that we grow in our love for others as we let them watch our giving ourselves for them. We grow in our love for others as we give to them.
Maybe not everyone finds this, but I have seen this at work, not just in the people who serve in the helping and teaching professions. I have seen love grow in the care-giving that happens in families. A parent loves their child because they have nursed them, and wiped their bottoms, and taught them, and spent sleepless nights over them. And the same truth works out the other way around.
Giving is the real center of power and wealth; but giving is not the center of force. None of the great forces of this world can stop the power and the plan of God. None of the great forces of this world, even at their most cruel and brutal, can keep the power of God from working.
We have family heritages and histories where great forces like depressions, and world wars, and the vast slaughters of innocent people were the places where God’s unseen power was still at work.
People found amazing ways to give, and to love, and to be the hands and the feet and the voice of God made flesh. Both the people who were swallowed up and lost in those forces and the people who survived them achieved love, and courage, and devotion.
I sometimes wonder how the power of the world as it is (the power that seems to move the world) is shaping the generations today. The power that moves the world as it is can frighten those of us who have been shaped by an older world. It can frighten us when we think of the future of those who are younger than we are.
But the same hidden power that made life, and love, and giving, and courage possible in the older worlds is still at work, under the surface. There is a higher power than we can see when we ask, “Where is God?”
Riverside Community Church
Desert Aire WA
December 2014
A woman I used to visit in an assisted living home would often tell me about what she described as “the secret working of good”. We have a God who lived out this secret working as the baby in Mary, and in the manger, and on the cross. The powers of this world cannot stop that greater power that moves in the secret working of good.
The story about the Empire and the Holy Family simply helps us to see where God is. We need to see this.
The Lord’s Supper serves in the same way. It shows us where God is. It gives us the gospel. It gives us the message of Jesus.
The message is not only in powerful things like great art and music and big buildings and great programs. These can be moving and inspiring, but they don’t go to the heart of the truth.
The real power is found in little pieces of bread and sips from a cup, because God (in Christ) is willing to give us himself here. The power is found in the God who is found in Christ, who gives us himself to us through each other.

It is all a mystery: the power of the cross beneath the power of the world. Yes, it can be hard to see. But it’s one of the secrets of Christmas.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under Joseph's Love

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 7, 2014

Scripture reading: Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph loved God and Mary enough to do the wrong thing. This was what God wanted and what Mary needed. This is what true righteousness does, and the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph was righteous.
Pictures at Desert Aire, WA; November 2014
It can be hard to be righteous when you are young and trying to figure out what it really means to be a man, or a woman, or (most of all) a grownup. Joseph (counter to what the old carols say) would have been young. If Joseph’s life followed the normal pattern, he would find a good girl like Mary, and he had done that. Then he would negotiate and make arrangements with her family to get betrothed or engaged to her, and he had done that. Then he would work, and save, and plan, during the year that followed, in order to get ready for their marriage and prepare for their future life together. Joseph was on his way there.
Being normal meant that Joseph’s full plan would be accomplished by the time he was about eighteen, or nineteen, or twenty. So Joseph would be young.
Joseph had received a little bit of early education in the synagogue school so that he could read the scriptures and do some arithmetic. Then he had gone to work, maybe around the age of ten or so, to get training and experience as a carpenter; maybe from his own father, or from an uncle or cousin.
Joseph contributed to his family’s income and his room and board. He took his training seriously. He worked hard and learned all that he could, because he was probably a righteous boy and he wanted to be respected. He wanted to be trusted with responsibility. Then people would want him to work for them, and that felt good. The evidence of this would have pleased the good parents of a good girl like Mary. It would have helped Joseph cinch the deal.
Joseph saved up for the bride price that he would pay for Mary. He saved what he could for his future business, and for the start of what would be their home together.
Joseph was almost there. He was joyful at the thought of Mary. He wasn’t allowed much contact with her, and they would never be allowed to be alone together. That would have been completely wrong. But Joseph would have seen her and watched her.
Mary, he could tell, cared about much that he cared about. He could tell that she thought before she spoke and acted. Mary tried to say and do the right thing, the decent thing, the honorable thing; the graceful and the lovely thing. Yes, Mary was righteous too.
Then Mary left for a long visit to cousins in the south. She was gone for months. When Mary returned, there was a slight swelling of her belly. Could it be fat?
No, it was something else. It was something wrong. It was not the right thing, the decent thing. It was not the honorable thing; the graceful, lovely thing. It was the wrong thing.
How could Mary betray and shame him like that? How could Mary betray and shame her family, and her self?
Now there was a right thing for Joseph to do; or a menu of possible right things.
There was the law of God in the Old Testament. It was for the purpose of guarding the holiness and righteousness of God’s people. The Old Testament law was designed to protect the holiness of the human body, the holiness of sex, the holiness of children, and the holiness of marriage and family. The law was for more than teaching, it was for enforcement. It required the holiness of every foundation of human life, and so sex outside of marriage was punishable by public execution by stoning. (Deuteronomy 22:24ff)
The rabbis worried that when people were truly intent on being holy, they might become recklessly holy. They might break the law in their effort to keep it. So they might make holiness unholy, and inhuman, and ugly. So the rabbis created a comprehensive set of precautions and preconditions around this sort of execution so as to make it difficult and uncommon. But it could still happen. Someone was bound to bring it up.
Because of the rabbis’ complicated reasoning, there was another private way of execution: a sort of black market form of execution. At Joseph’s discretion he or a member of his family could quietly kill Mary for the sake of their own injured honor. If Joseph dawdled, then Mary’s own family might do the deed. These things happened and they still do happen in that part of the world.
There was another way than death. At Joseph’s discretion, there could be a public divorce, or a private divorce. In both cases, there would be shame upon Mary and her family, and Mary would have to go away.
The newer translations often give Joseph’s preferred option as divorce. The original Greek literally says (as the King James Version says it) that he “was minded to put her away privily (or privately).” To put someone away can mean any number of things, whether in ancient Greek or in modern English. It could mean “kill” and there is nothing else, in the literal words as they stand, to give us a final answer as to what Joseph was considering as the right thing to do.
The one thing that Joseph was not allowed to do was to marry Mary, unless he was the true guilty party. Then Joseph would have dishonored both families, and Mary, and himself.
It was an issue as big as the village of Nazareth and as big as both of their extended families; and family was almost everything. Joseph was innocent so, if he cared about doing the right thing for everyone involved, as he was required to do; if he was truly righteous in the sense that he had been taught by everyone during all his young life; then he must not marry Mary. No one would tell him anything different.
But God told Joseph something completely different.
We know so little about Joseph. We don’t know how long Joseph lived after Jesus turned twelve. We don’t know whether Joseph lived to understand his own relationship to the child who was swelling Mary’s belly, except that he understood himself to be part of a deeply scandalous and misunderstood miracle.
Let’s reflect on Joseph, and on the effect his choice had upon the rest of his life. What was it that resulted from Joseph doing what everyone else believed to be wrong? Joseph was called to follow Jesus, which included taking up his own cross.
It was the cross of dishonor and shame. It was the cross of misunderstanding. It was the cross of suffering out of love for the weak and needy. It was the cross of suffering for the sins of others. It was the cross of a love that committed itself to be present in a world of sin and sinners. It was the cross that made Joseph, on a human level, a man who was very much like the man this child Jesus would prove to be, when he grew up. Joseph would prove to be, in his own way like Jesus, and so (in his own way) Joseph was very much the father of Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary.
Mary was as innocent as Joseph, but she would be labeled as a sinner, as worse than most, because she was more caught than most. There was, after all, that baby boy who was the evidence of her sin.
Innocent Joseph took Mary’s label on himself. He identified with sinners and people judged him alongside Mary.
There were people who wouldn’t do business with him. A good carpenter would make a good living. Although Joseph was surely a good carpenter, he chose to be poor. At the very least, Joseph chose to be a laughing stock.
The people who thought of themselves as righteous would call Mary and Joseph sinners. They would judge them. Joseph was righteous but (even before he got fresh orders from God) he was inclined to be quiet about others. The righteous tend to love teachable moments when they can speak up and make a point. Joseph was righteous and he wasn’t going to say anything at all. Joseph was righteous and stood up for the one who would be blamed. Joseph stood up for her and he stood with her, and took the blame with her. That is true righteousness.
Joseph was a secret hero. Mary was in danger. Joseph came to her rescue. The word salvation means, at its heart, rescue from danger, and harm, and crisis. Salvation from sin is the same thing. Joseph was a kind of savior (and a kind savior, at that) for Mary.
It’s why he took her with him to Bethlehem. Joseph could have handled the census business in Bethlehem by himself. Men of the family were the official, legal agents for their families.
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem to keep her safe from the dangers of neighbors and cousins who resented her. There was no telling what form their meanness would take without him beside her. Joseph was Mary’s hero and savior.
There’s a verse in Isaiah where God tells us something about himself. God says, “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a savior; there is none but me.” (Isaiah 45:21)
In Matthew, the angel told Joseph who this boy would be. “You are to give him the name Jesus; because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) This boy, who grew up to die for our sins on the cross, was truly what only God can be. This boy, this man Jesus, is what God says that only he, himself, is: “a righteous God and a savior.”
Joseph had a heart after God’s own heart; a heart after Jesus’ own heart. Joseph knew he was not God, but he did try to be a savior, and that was essential to his righteousness.
Matthew tells us about another prophecy from Isaiah about Mary and Jesus. ‘“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
It is the nature of God, who loves us enough to rescue us from danger, and harm, and crisis, and everything that threatens to separate us from God and from each other – it is the nature of this God to be “God with us”.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that this is his own nature. “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Jesus is God with us.
Joseph had a heart after God’s own heart, and after Jesus’ own heart. He chose to be with Mary always. Holding Jesus, Joseph held in his arms, and he held in his heart, “God with us”. Every day Joseph was a living, breathing example to the growing Jesus, of what it means to be with anyone in need.
Jesus knew that Joseph was the person chosen by God to be with him always, for as long as he could. Jesus grew up every day in the presence of an earthly father whose earthly heart was like his own heart, as he was coming to know himself.
Joseph was just as human as we are. Before the angel came, Matthew tells us that Joseph was “considering” what to do, but that word for thinking is an emotional word. It speaks of the presence of anger in Joseph’s heart. The letter of James says, “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20 KJV) Or: “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (NIV)
Joseph was innocent, but this miraculous child also brought Joseph the burden of bearing the brunt of a sinful world and carrying that burden for those he loved. In order to join Mary and live with her, sharing the dishonor and the hardships that would come from it, Joseph had to change his anger into grace.
Personal anger makes our righteousness into self-righteousness. When the reasons for our anger get personal we run afoul of the old proverb that no one really understands. We talk about “hating sin but loving the sinner”. But we don’t really do it. We make things hard for the sinner just to make sure they appreciate our love. In Jesus we see that whatever we may call the anger of God is revealed as grace, and as being with others, and as standing by them.
This is what God did in Christ on the cross. The language of about anger turned into wounds and blood. Anger became faithfulness and grace, even to death. Jesus made excuses for those who crucified him and mocked him. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Imagine that. God makes excuses for you and me: not to enable us but to make us know ourselves and know him better.
God and his Son have a different righteousness than we do. Isaiah says this about the savior who was coming to Mary and Joseph. “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruise reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice….” (Isaiah 42:2-3)
Joseph was a quiet, angry young man, who became quieter, and turned his anger into costly grace. It was costly to him but so needed by Mary, and by the whole world, and by us.
The word righteous sounds strange and ugly to the world because it sees an ugly righteousness in the people who claim to love God. But Joseph was truly righteous with God’s righteousness, and no one gave him any credit for it.
It was a secret, a Christmas secret. It was the cross he carried under his love for God, and for Mary, and for the child.
We can carry that cross in our own way; because Jesus grew up to carry his cross for us. He came to “save his people from their sins.”

That’s us. It’s also the world. The God who is “God with us” calls us to lovingly stand with the world he came to save in order to prove just who God is: the God who we meet in Jesus.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under Mary's Faith

Preached on the First Sunday in Advent, Novmeber 30, 2014
Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38

(This is one of my older sermons. I unpacked it this fall of 2014 and it is only one of two that I have been able to find from my first Advent as pastor in Lakeside, Oregon.
Photos taken near Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
I decided, this new year in a new place, to reach back a bit, if possible. Coming to Lakeside, a neighboring pastor named Dick Cochran, a former missionary in Iraq and Lebanon, made me acquainted with some new ideas (ancient ideas) about the suffering present in the Christmas Story.
There was no date written on the original copy of this sermon, but I recognized it right away. I had been ordained for scarcely more than a month and I wrote it out so surprising carefully. I clearly draw out the element of danger and future suffering for Mary. I know that I intended to point to the cross, though it wasn’t clear in this one. That is the meaning of the bracketed paragraph: the only real addition to this sermon. I know I made the connection in the other sermons, included the really, really long one that is the only other surviving part of that series.
So here is that sermon from when I was 30. It’s the sermon I preached long ago, except for the bracketed paragraph on the cross.
I must say that I was 27 when I graduated from seminary (in December 1978) but it took me 2 years to pass the “Bible Exegesis Ordination Exam” the exam that was necessary to prove that you could competently build a sermon from a selected Biblical text, beginning with the original languages.
By the time I finally passed that last exam, I didn’t look very promising (more than two years living with my parents and doing seasonal agricultural work in a cannery). I had a hard time receiving a call from a church. I was ordained on the basis of my call to Lakeside October 8, 1981 and preached this sermon November 29, 1981. It was a sweet time for me. Well, here it is.)

Light from a Mediterranean sun shone soft and fine, sharp and clear. It massaged the hill country that surrounded the high Lake Galilee. It warmed the crowded huddle of stone houses in Nazareth.
Strong patterns of shadow and brightness fell in the narrow streets and tiny courtyards where people worked. But, somewhere, behind all that sunshine, the greater brightness of God was at work. He prepared to surprise a young girl named Mary. Somewhere in the brightness, an angel was approaching with a message for her.
The girl (she was only a young teenager) walked with her empty clay water jar through the streets to the town well, in the grotto of the hill on which the town was built. She had too much on her mind to pay attention to the odd turns and crooked steps of the way she had gone so many times.
She thought how, someday soon, she would walk to this same well, but down a different street, from a different house, Joseph’s house (her own house). With all there was to do till then; wedding, husband, and new home were still far off and yet very close.
She was a girl from a good family and everything had to be done just right. Her betrothal would last the full year. Everyday, her mother, her sisters, and she did a little more to get ready; weaving sturdy cloth for the dresses that would last most of the rest of her life; the embroidered patterns on her wedding gown, which would become her best dress, grew inch by inch. After all, of all the days in the life of a Palestinian girl, what were her proudest moments? Surely even the future days of her children’s births would not be the royal thing that her wedding would be.
Hundreds of people, days upon days, would feast and drink in her honor, and complement her beauty, and her goodness. Otherwise a girl’s glory was rare. After the wedding it would be years of quiet, hard work until her own daughters became brides like her and left her.
As she walked toward the town well, she approached the center of her life, for which she had been raised, the day when the pattern for her whole life would be settled. She would take her place with her husband as one of the sturdy, respectable mothers of Nazareth.
Mary was young, but her plans were set. She knew what her future would be.
Mary could never have foreseen that all this would soon be changed, because God did not altogether share her plan. God, too, wanted her to become a wife and a mother, just as she did. But he would throw in something extra.
God, in his love and favor would give Mary a surprising gift. The gift would be a unique calling, and the calling, given out of the love of God, would bring an unexpected, surprising responsibility, and challenge, and danger.
Christian people, who are never understood without understanding the love of God, find that living with God brings not only his love, but some of love’s surprising and unexpected responsibilities, and sometimes fear. These unexpected responsibilities change our plans. They catch us completely off guard, with no other preparation but the faith and the trust which God has nourished through many other surprises and fears.
The story in the Gospel of Luke tells us how Mary met the surprise of God with shock and fear, and how her fear turned to trust and acceptance. It tells us that we can do the same.
Mary approached the arched entrance to the wellspring which flowed in the cool shadow of a small grotto in the hillside. It was the village’s only well, and the popular place for the women to rest and gossip on warm days.
How strange! Mary heard no voices. The shadows were quiet and empty.
Mary listened to the sound of water filling her empty jar. Then she heard another noise. A voice called her name. “Hello, Mary.” Plain words: strange voice!
She turned, and there is no way to describe what she saw. But this is what she heard. “Hail, O favored one; the Lord is with you.”
Without a second thought, she knew that there was more to the message than what the plain words said. We read that, “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It almost hurt.
The saying of the angel troubled her. It spoke of the love of God, but surely she already knew that. She felt it many times without needing an angel to tell her.
She was troubled because she would have read or (if she had not been taught how to read) she would have heard, many times, the stories of long ago, how God had his first meetings with those whom he called to serve him. She must have known or feared that she was being “set up”: set up by God.
Why, the scene was too perfect. It was all there: the light, the visionary angel, the voice of the greeting which seemed to echo because it pounded on her heart.
Her heart told her that she would be given something hard to do; something that would seem impossible. It was the pure love in the voice that gave this away.
You’ve heard something like it. You’ve heard the voice of love say, “Daddy, I love you. But I haven’t started my science project yet, and it’s due tomorrow.” “Honey, I love you. Do you remember that noise the car made that worried me?” Where love is the most genuine we hear it in the times of the strongest need.
Even while we feel inconvenienced by the demands which love makes, there is something in us that craves the responsibility as much as we crave the love. This is one of the things we are created for.
Almost everyone wants to think of themselves as caring people who are ready to give something of themselves for others.
What stops us is the fear that the demands (the challenge) of the responsibility will be too much for us. You might experiment with this. If there is any problem or person that makes you uncomfortable, ask God to help you to be the one to find out what to do about it, and then just see if you don’t discover a little fear (or even anger) in the pit of your stomach at what God might say.
Mary was afraid, but she said nothing. Her silence spoke for her.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Quite a prophecy: Mary should have been impressed. But her answer tells us what concerned her most. “How can this be, since I have no husband?”
This is a polite English translation. In the Greek, she says that she has “no sexual relations with any man”. The force of the Greek, in fact, says, “How can this thing happen? I have not, am not, and do not intend to have relations with a man until I’m married.”
Mary is saying, as firmly as she can to this angel, “What are you asking me to do?”
Think back, just fifty years. How would it look, for an engaged girl to be pregnant, and her fiancée not know anything about it?
In Mary’s time, among her people, this was the same as adultery. The formal, legal punishment was death. There would be either a public execution by stoning that would bring shame upon her and her family; or the fiancée, or one of the two families, could kill her quietly: maybe slit her throat. No one would object. These things happened, and life went on, for the living. In fact it was more or less expected.
In fact, if Joseph didn’t do anything about it, even if he were the real father, the family would be shamed and outcast. There would be no wedding, or no wedding anyone would attend.
No one would speak respectfully to Mary, or about Mary, ever again. No one would do business with Joseph. He would be ruined, if he wanted to do business with his own people.
Well, in a small town, maybe people would get over it. But, if they did, it would take years, and it would never really be forgotten. What was the angel asking her to do?
‘And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”’
Mary was told that this thing would be in God’s hands, by his spiritual power. She was not asked to do anything wrong. But she was also not reassured that her fears would go away. She was not told that anyone, not even Joseph, would understand what was happening, or would believe her if she told them. She still might be rejected and even killed, though there was that promise that the baby would be born and live.
Her picture of her life was gone. Even though she did everything right, even though she lived with complete integrity, things would never be easy for her. But this was promised, that God was at work here. God was in charge. Nothing was impossible for God. This would be a great thing; perhaps the greatest thing ever done since the creation of the world.
[Mary didn’t know, yet, that she would watch this son die on a cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. She didn’t know anything about how her son would say that if anyone truly followed him they would have to take up their own cross in order to follow him. We are the ones who know this. Mary was different from us really only in this way, without knowing all this, she did it. She carried Jesus. She took up Jesus, and her life as a mother, and her faith in her own son as her savior and Lord was her cross. We are called to carry crosses of our own.]
Through Mary, the Lord himself, God himself, was coming into the world, to live with his people: to be their king, and give them the forgiveness of sins.
In some way, each one of you, each one of us, is a mother of Christ. Each one of us is called to bring Christ and his forgiveness into the world. In some ways Christ can come in simple easy ways: by the attitude you show to others; by the stands you take for goodness, compassion, and for the right; by making peace where there is no peace, or where no peace is wanted; by the love you show; and by the witness you make when people ask you why you do and say strange things.
God will never command you to do the slightest thing that would violate the purest conscience, but he may ask you to do what you don’t think is fair to you. God may ask you to do what you are not prepared to do. God may ask you to do something that destroys your plans. God may ask you to live in a way your family and neighbors don’t understand. They won’t comprehend you.
They may not understand you just being here at all (praying and singing songs and listening to me talk), but that is the very least of it. They may not understand why you live as if you are a forgiven sinner who must forgive others. They will wonder what you really think of them, even when you love them unconditionally.
They won’t understand unless, or until, they know that they need the same love poured out in Christ. But you are people upon whom the Holy Spirit has come, overshadowed by the power of the Most High: so that what is born in you will be called holy.
You may not have planned it that way; but here you are.
Mary remembered who she was and who God is and she said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”
She was able to pray, “Lord, your will be done.”
That is how it is for us.
The responsibility, challenge, danger, of being God’s people makes its claim on us only because of God’s favor and love; because we know we are loved and we love God back.

If there is anything in this that can frighten, worry, or weigh on you, remember how it can come to be that you may do it. You are not doing your own work. God is doing his own work in you. His Spirit will help you because he is in charge. Knowing this when he comes to you in love, only say this, “Behold your servant. Let it be done according to your word.”