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.


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