Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Joy

Preached on the First Sunday in Christmastide, December 27, 2015
Scripture readings: Isaiah 52:7-15; Luke 2:8-20
About five miles west of the town where I did most of my growing up there is a special place that has strong Christmas memories for me and for my family. The place is called the Sutter Buttes.
Sutter Buttes: February 2014
The valley were I grew up is about eighty feet above sea level, at that point. The tallest peaks of the Buttes are sharp volcanic outcroppings from a million year old volcano. The tallest of these outcroppings range between fifteen hundred and twenty-one hundred feet high.
The Buttes were the magic ingredient in a valley that is flat as a table. The Buttes formed the giant silhouette of our sunsets. On winter mornings the Buttes were where mists wrapped themselves around the base of the peaks, or low clouds draped themselves over their shoulders. On very cold, rainy mornings, the tops of the Buttes would be tipped with snow. The Buttes are, for my hometown, what the Umtanum Ridge, across the Columbia River, is for us, here in Desert Aire.
I grew up in a place where travelers try to get through as fast as possible. I don’t think that any of them “ooh” or “ah” at the place: although a lot of people used to stop in my home town because there was a traffic signal on the highway.
The Buttes are the “ooh’s” and “ah’s” of life for those who live in the sight of them. The Buttes, like the Umtanum Ridge across our river, are our geography of ecstasy and joy. The soul also has its own geography of ecstasy and joy.
Umtanum Ridge: 2015
“Great joy” is the hope of Christmas. “A Savior has been born to you. He is Christ, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11) Even if we didn’t know what those words meant, something would tell us that they must mean something great. But we might give up on understanding them because we can’t find a way to make sense of them.
They mean something great, and I have often thought of God as a mountain in his greatness. One of the old Hebrew names for God is “El Shaddai”; or the “God of the mountains”. We translate it as “God Almighty”.
I have always loved mountains. Actual climbing (hand over hand and toe over toe is not for me, but finding some other way to be on top of mountains, or just to be on them, has always excited me and given me joy.
In my year of seminary internship at Lake Tahoe I had a favorite mountain and it had a trail to the top. It was Mount Rose, more than ten thousand feet high. The fall, and spring, and summer when I lived there, I got to the top of Mount Rose several times.
God is a mountain. Jesus is a mountain. God is Jesus. Jesus is God in flesh and blood: so strange and wonderful, so big, so much a mountain.
Umtanum Ridge 2015
Jesus is Savior, and Christ, and Lord. It means that Jesus is something great like a mountain; and so much greater than that.
Jesus is Savior. He is the one who comes to our rescue. There’s this thing called sin. There’s a verse in the New Testament (Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Rome) that says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. (Romans 3:23)
The “sin” word is a word from the sport of archery. It means missing the mark. It’s the same with shooting a gun. You can overshoot, or undershoot. You can veer to the right, or veer to the left. On a bad day you can do this a lot. On a good day, you still do it.
In life we miss the mark over and over. We overshoot. We undershoot. We do all of that.
To deal with this, you either make yourselves happy by getting to be better than other people, and you know what other people think of that. Or you lower your expectations and tell yourself it’s OK to miss the mark.
In life, it’s at least a matter of what you do with your hopes and dreams. It’s a matter of what you do about what you would like to be. What would you like to be, for yourself and for others?
Perhaps it’s ok to miss what you hope and dream for. You can hope and dream for less.
The Bible tells us to hope and dream differently. It says that each one of us is made in the image of God. It’s like being created for the purpose of being a mountain, and then not being a mountain after all. It’s like the mountain that is across the river from us, and it’s essentially inaccessible to us. And we learn to live with that.
The baby Jesus was a mountain, and so were Mary and Joseph, and so were the shepherds (although shepherds were often despised for their dirtiness and they were suspected of having sticky fingers, in another way, because things seemed to disappear when the shepherds came to town).
The baby Jesus was a mountain, and all the others who became part of his mission became (in some way) like him (because of him); to their great surprise. They are all like that to me. They still influence us and people all over the world.
Jesus is the mountain that is never inaccessible to us, because he comes to us and he makes our lives so much more than we have settled for. Imagine that you decided to settle for something less than joy, and then joy comes to you. Maybe joy comes to you in the form of love, or faithfulness, or in the form of an ability, or a gift, or a mission in life.
In Jesus, joy comes in love and faithfulness. Joy comes in the forgiveness that changes you. It enables you to give the same forgiveness and grace to others that you have received from him.
In Jesus a mountain identifies with you and wants to be part of you. In Jesus a mountain will die for you on the cross, so that he can live inside you. Saving means rescuing, and you have been rescued by the mountain that has come to you.
Jesus is the Christ. Christ means king, but the Jewish kings were not made kings by wearing a crown. They were made kings by being anointed with oil (I mean with olive oil poured on their head).
Olive oil was the main fat in the diet of ancient Middle Eastern people. Olive oil (as fat) was just what we like our fat to be; abundant and rich. If Jesus were a non-kosher food, he would be more rich and wonderful than bacon!
The anointing of olive oil was a symbol of fatness. It meant that kings were meant to be fat and rich and abundant in what they could share with you, and in what their friendship could be for you.
You may want to be a king or queen yourself, and live a fat life by doing good things for others. Sooner or later you need to learn what you knew as a little child; that it can be the most amazing, comforting, and wonderful thing in the world when someone else does something for you; when someone else serves you and takes care of you in love. The Christ is that someone.
A king was like a shepherd. In fact shepherd was an Old Testament alternative title for king. The good shepherd led his sheep to green pastures and still waters. The good shepherd led his sheep safely through the dark and dreadful valleys and never went away, and never stopped being good. Jesus is the Christ, because Jesus is your good shepherd and your good giver.
Jesus is Lord. Lord means boss and master. Jesus wants to be your boss, but not for the joy of bossing you around. Jesus wants to be boss for you. He wants to be master for you in this world.
When the angel called Jesus the Lord, it meant that Jesus is the Lord of all. Jesus is where you come from and he wants to be your companion and your destination. Jesus is the real Lord of this world and of the universe. Jesus is Lord of time and space. That would seem to put Jesus beyond you, but Jesus is the mountain who comes to you.
My Buttes have always been inaccessible. The people who own them (or own the access to them) don’t want to let anyone to come in unless they are willing to pay a lot of money. I could have taken a tour in them not too long ago if I had been willing to spend eighty dollars for the tour.
My Christmas memories of the Buttes are not about the peaks themselves, but about the slightly higher ground at their feet. My home town has a river that is lined with levees because of the danger of flooding.
I have two memories of evacuating around Christmas and staying with friends of my parents. They were friends who lived on higher ground at the bottom of the high places.
Sutter Buttes
One time, as an adult, when I went down to see my folks just after Christmas, and we had to evacuate. The river was almost to the top of the levees and there was a good chance that the levees would break and flood our house.
We stayed in the home of some people who lived at the base of the Buttes. They were friends of my dad. We spent a day and a night in that house with thirty other people and I got to sleep under their Christmas tree.
The very first time we evacuated was our first Christmas after moving to my new home town. I had just turned thirteen and school was out for Christmas vacation. A warm spell was melting an especially heavy snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My dad’s foreman and his family lived out toward the Buttes and they offered to let us stay with them.
We put our Christmas presents on the top shelves of our closets and we left the house to whatever its fate would be. It was a warm, and bright, and beautiful, and dangerous day.
I remember playing all day long with the foreman’s son. I was still young enough to play.
That was a good day. By the end of the day, the river had gone down and the levees were intact, and our town and our home were safe again. I had spent that day near the foot of our special mountains, and that had been good news to be able to go there.
I know my parents must have been stressed out like crazy. The joy of Jesus comes to people who are in dire straits. Mary and Joseph had the stress of having a baby in something like a stable in a cave, and not knowing where they would go next, because the timing of the baby was a scandal that everyone would hold against them. The shepherds were outcasts who had great joy to share with those who wouldn’t believe them or trust them. And it’s true that no one seems to have believed them. We read of no one else but the wise men coming to Jesus.
They were all living in the shelter of a mountain that came to them. The Lord was the mountain that sheltered them. In that mountain named Jesus they had a special form of joy. No one else could understand it, but it was good to be there.

This is the joy that Jesus gives to his people. This is the joy that Jesus promises you. This is the joy that we have to share with others.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Intimacy

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015
Scripture readings: Genesis 32:22-30; Luke 2:1-7
“The time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn. She wrapped him in clothes, and placed him in a feed trough.” (Luke 2:6-7)
Christmas Decorations
Riverside Community Church
December 2015
We know that this wasn’t all that Mary did (or that Mary and Joseph did together). We know they must have found water to wash the baby; and they must have held the baby too.
What we call “swaddling clothes” (in the old translations) were a square of cloth with another long, long narrow strip of cloth. The square went around the baby diagonally. The long strip of cloth was wrapped around and around the baby, up and down, up and down. It kept the baby from moving much.
Swaddling clothes seem sort of inhumane to me. Have you ever thought about that? And, yet, everybody in that part of the world, in those ancient times, began their lives wrapped up tight in swaddling clothes.
In another way, in my profound ignorance about babies, I imagine swaddling clothes as the primitive technology for a permanent hug: a hug that never let go. Perhaps it was like a hug that made a baby feel almost permanently safe and cared for. But, surely, Mary also hugged Jesus a lot.
Orphanages found, long ago, that the little babies who came to them needed to be hugged often, or else they would probably die.
I remember how, when I was small, I loved to give and receive what I learned to call “bear hugs”. I remember giving my mom bear hugs when she would come and tuck me in at night.
I remember when I was four years old, and it was evening on my Aunt Lorraine’s and Uncle Henry’s front porch in Toledo, Ohio. I remember hugging my dad and telling him I loved him. And I can remember him teaching me, then and there, not to do that any more. He told me that boys don’t hug other boys or tell them that they love them, and that I shouldn’t do that with him either. And that was the end of that.
I was in my forties before my dad suddenly, and unexpectedly, started to hug me and tell me that he loved me. But the old, original lesson to a four-year-old was hard to unlearn.
I have to admit that it never came easily for me to hug my dad back when he started hugging me in my adult life. It always seemed strange.
I think it was because, for a four year old, my father was like a runaway from me, although he was always there.
The human race is a species of runaways. In the Garden of Eden we ran away from God. Adam ran away from Eve, emotionally and spiritually, when he blamed her, in the presence of God, for his own betrayal of God. We are a race of runaways.
We try to find someone to love us and hug us, but even believers often choose whom to love without God’s help and blessing. So many people are looking for love in all the wrong places. Even though they seem to be looking for love, they are also running from it at the same time.
Today we have more and more people looking for love without giving and receiving the promises that are the only way to make true love possible. We are runaways from all promises and vows, and we have forgotten that true love loves to make promises.
Promises are like a hug of words that come from the heart. Vows from the heart are the heart seeking to give and receive faithfulness. Promises and vows from the heart are intimacy. So in a world that pretends to have intimacy all the time, without rules, we are really runaways from intimacy.
Such is the world we live in. It explains why human beings can do what they do to each other all around the world. This is the real identity of what we call sin.
Sin is not something you can make a list of, although such lists do exist. Sin is everything that we do to run away from love and faithfulness towards God and towards others.
There seems to be no cure for this runaway life of the human race. Except that the one who is greater than us wants to give us the hope and the experience of intimacy.
Intimacy was the gift to all humans in their creation. Intimacy is the gift that God came, in Jesus, to give back to us.
But we see a picture of this God much further back in time. We see this God coming to the runaway named Jacob, to wrestle with Jacob in the dark.
It was no accident. And although Jacob thought that the mysterious wrester was trying to get away from, that was not the wrestler’s intention at all. God held Jacob in his arms, against Jacob’s will, so that he could bless him, and give him a new name, and a new identity.
In the fullness of time, this God went so much further, in the beautiful story that we remember at Christmas. God became our mysterious wrestler in Jesus.
God was born as a baby who was swaddled and hugged in order to grab, and hold, and hug this world of runaways and not let go however much we struggle. God was born as a baby to hug us, and give us a new name and a new identity, and to help us be wrestlers and huggers of the world he loves so much.
Some people are looking for intelligence. Some people are looking for enlightenment. God is looking to have a hug with us. Maybe it is the infinite and unconditional hug of God that provides all the intelligence and enlightenment that we need. The hug of God gives us a new name and a new identity; a new heart and mind.
Remember someone reaching out their arms to hug you? After your inner picture of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, and after the many other pictures we may have of Jesus in our hearts, the great picture of Jesus with his arms stretched out on the cross is the great picture of God reaching out to hug us and the whole world.
Both the manger and the cross are God’s promise of the intimacy. It is the intimacy that comes from grace, and from the forgiveness that gives us a new heart. This makes us ready to be genuinely loved as God made us to be loved.
The Lord’s Supper is also a part of the intimacy of God’s heart. Here God reveals himself as the one who can come inside us, and feed our souls, and give us the life that comes with everlasting intimacy.
The preacher and author Timothy Keller wrote this: “Christmas is an invitation to know Christ personally. Christmas is an invitation by God to say: Look what I’ve done to come near to you. Now draw near to me. I don’t want to be a concept. I want to be a friend.”

Now, all that is left for us to do is to receive him. Let’s hug the one who was born in Bethlehem; the one who was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the one who died on the cross, in order to hug us and make us new. Then we can hug, with Jesus, the world that Jesus wrestles with and loves.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Deliverance

Preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015 

Scripture readings: Exodus 2:23-25; Luke 1:57-80

God is involved in the world. God is involved with your life. The Book of Exodus tells us that the Lord “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”
In the Neighborhood:
Desert Aire/Mattawa, December 2015
In the Bible, to say that you remember something is not to say that you have it on your mind. To remember a thing means to get involved.
To remember people means to get involved with them. To remember someone when they are in trouble is to help them, and rescue them.
This is what the God of the Bible is about, all the way through its story. This is what our God is about: getting involved in the work of the rescue of the world. If this God is our God, then his job is our job.
God entered our world of time and space, and flesh and blood, in the Baby Jesus, in order to come to the world’s rescue: to come to our rescue. The baby of Zechariah and Elizabeth was a messenger for the rescue mission of God, in Jesus.
Zechariah called the mission by many names: rescue, deliverance, salvation. He said the Lord was coming: “to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear…” (Luke 1:74)
He said the Lord’s mission was a mission of mercy: “By which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)
Zechariah said that his tiny son would grow up to prepare the way of the Lord: “To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:77)
All of this tells us that God’s deliverance, the rescue mission of God, is a very big thing. It involves everything about the world as we know it. It involves everything in your life and mine. It involves the life we live now. It involves the eternal life to come. It involves a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21:1)
Photos around Home
Desert Aire/Mattawa: December 2015
Now, “to be rescued from the hands of our enemies, and to serve the Lord without fear,” would have meant something very clear to people like Zechariah. It meant getting rid of the Romans.
Their land was occupied by the Romans, who were not there to help them, but to rule them, and not go away. King Herod worked for the Romans and did their bidding. In order to help them rule his people, Herod expanded a fortress on the north side of the Temple in Jerusalem, and handed it over to the Romans.
This fortress served a number of purposes that only Herod could have conceived, because he was very clever. The walls of the fortress overlooked the Temple courtyards. Soldiers could shoot into the Temple from the walls. There was a tunnel from the fortress that came out into the main courtyard of the Temple. Soldiers could enter the main gathering area of the Temple at will, at the slightest sign of disturbance.
The holy robes of the high priest, which were his required uniform on special occasions, were kept in a chest in the Roman fortress. On high holy days, the high priest had to come to the Roman governor, or to his officer, in order to borrow his own robes, and then bring them back, for safekeeping, when he was finished.
The Jewish high priests once served for life, but in New Testament times they served at the pleasure and whim of the Romans. They could not serve the Lord without fear. And the people could not worship in the Temple without fear.
That was their world. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesied that the coming king, the baby that his own baby would serve, would rescue his people so that they could serve God without fear.
There are two things to learn from this.
For one thing, Jesus rescues us from fear by giving us the gift of responding to fear with faithfulness, courage, compassion, and love.
One example in my life is that I have never really overcome my fear of preaching. I do it for love, and I try to do it out of faithfulness to the Lord and to you.
Another example was one time, when I got a call from a parent who told me that their adult son was very upset; and could I, please, come and talk with him. The voice on the phone was actually fearful, and I was too inexperienced to understand what it meant, so I went to the house and walked into a room where there was a young guy holding a revolver to his head.
I felt fear and danger. Someone holding a gun to their own head can turn it around, and point it at your head. I knew that.
I spent the next couple hours talking to him until he put the gun down and promised not to use it for the time being. I never went into a situation like that again.
What you do is ask, over the phone, if that person has hurt themselves or others, or has threatened themselves or others, and then you call 911. I don’t have the training or the resources to properly handle a situation like that, and if you are like me, you need to call 911. That’s what I did the next time that parent called me about their son; when I asked if he was endangering himself, and I was told that he was.
I do have to tell you that I got a call from this guy years later and he was living a happy and productive life. He was even thinking about going into the ministry. I’ve lost track of him since.
I did what I felt that I had to do at the time. I cannot say that I served God without fear, but I served God without being ruled by my fear. I did it in faithfulness and love. I believe that Jesus has a unique power to enable us to serve in faithfulness and love, without being ruled by fear.
Other faiths may teach their people to serve without fear. But Jesus teaches us to serve, overcoming our fears in compassion and love, and not in fanaticism or extremism. The fact that God became a baby in Bethlehem, and a man on a cross dying for the sins of the world, is a God who overcomes the weakness and fear in the world, never as a fanatic, but always with a faithful and sacrificial love.
Plenty of times the Lord and his angels say, “Fear not.” This is not a cure for fear, but a promise that your fears need not overcome you.
Where is your fear ruling you? The Lord and his angels say “Fear not!”
It also needs to be said that the kingdom of God is opposed to all the things that create fear in this world, and Christians are called to stand up to those things. The day will come when the time is complete, and the kingdom will come, and all causes of fear will come to an end. That too is a promise. Fear not!
Zechariah said that, “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness, and in the shadow of death.” Zechariah was talking about his own darkness as well as the darkness felt by everyone else in the world.
Zechariah was living in the shadow of unfulfilled waiting. Just as the people of Israel had been waiting centuries for the messiah without seeing anything come of all that waiting, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been waiting decades for a child. The long waiting had made a hollow place in their faith. Their faith was like an empty aluminum can that you can push in with your finger. The long waiting had formed a kind of cloud and darkness over the life of a good man and woman.
God is good at waiting. I guess he is patient and recommends patience to us. Patience is God’s way of bringing fruit and fullness to people’s lives. And waiting is part of patience.
Unfulfilled waiting feels like a shadow. It feels like the darkness of night. But God promises to shine and bring his light to those who wait. Then you will see what was there all along. God was there all along.
Since Jesus came, the same is true of death. Death looks dark. Death can look as if there is nothing there. But the Lord is there. Jesus has died, and has risen, and rules in heaven and on earth. Jesus is in the shadow of death, and his light will shine there.
Zechariah said that human beings would experience salvation in the forgiveness of their sins. I once heard that people are fairly ready to forgive you if you are wrong. But they really hate to forgive you if you are right. Of course they’re that way because they want to be the ones who are right, not the ones who are wrong. I’m glad I’m not like that. Aren’t you glad you’re not like that?
There is a lot to be said about this. Suffice it to say that our lives will not bear much fruit if we don’t recognize our own need for grace, our own need for forgiveness. We need to realize that, unless we seek grace and forgiveness from God, and from other people, from the very core of our being, we will miss God’s mark for our life. We will miss God’s desire and design for our life.
We cannot heal ourselves, or those who have had to put up with us. We must come to the Lord, and to others, for mercy, and grace, and forgiveness.
The cross is the ultimate place where we find our sins taken away. But I find that the Baby in Bethlehem is the sign of God’s extreme humility that takes our sins away.
God is not too proud to forgive us even though true forgiveness always comes at a great cost. Words of forgiveness are never enough.
God’s humility is what makes the cross possible. The way of the cross, for Jesus, was not a matter of a few hours on the hill of Calvary.
The way of the cross, for Jesus, took his whole life. It took years of the Lord’s quietness and patience. It began with his birth.
The way of the cross was the pattern of his own life on earth. Now Jesus follows the same pattern of quietness, patience, and humility in our lives.
We don’t really want this as much as we think we do. We certainly don’t want him to be quiet. We don’t realize that this quietness and patience come from his humility. His refusal to stop being quiet and patient with us comes from his humility.
He refuses to stop and go away and leave us alone. If God were proud he wouldn’t keep going after us. He wouldn’t keep waiting for us. Christmas is a sign of this God, and the promise and the hope he gives to us.
When we truly see this, it becomes part of the reason why we can’t say no to him. The ability to see this persistent and inescapable humility is the reason why we surrender to him, in the end. We see that he refuses to leave us alone.

Whether we know it or not, our hearts cry out for God’s deliverance: the conquest of fear, and darkness, and sin. We find it in the God whom we meet in Jesus, whose birth, and life, and death, and rising are a rescue mission to bring God’s deliverance to us and to the world.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Topsy-Turvy Ways

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2015

Scripture readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Luke 1:39-56

A Bit of Snow, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
November-December 2015
There was a boy playing baseball all by himself. He yelled, “I am the greatest batter in the world!” And he tossed his ball up in the air, and when it came down he swung at it, and he missed, and he yelled, “Strike One!” Then he yelled again, “I am the greatest batter in the world!” and he tossed his ball up in the air, and when it came down, he swung at it again, and he missed, and he yelled, “Strike two!” And he yelled, “I am the greatest batter in the world!” and he tossed that ball up in the air, and when it came down, he swung at it again, and he missed, and he yelled, “Strike three!
Wow! What a pitcher! I am the greatest pitcher in the world!”
Now that's not bad. There is one thing you can say about that boy. He was playing his game in the spirit of an undeserved happiness. I believe that this is what true humility is like: like living in the presence of an undeserved happiness. The boy shows us the picture of what true, childlike humility is.
We normally think of humility as painful and sad. But I believe that the pain and sadness only happen when we are learning humility against our wills. Elizabeth and Mary show us the picture of what humility is like when the lesson has been learned.
If we had been there, we might have noticed two things. We might have noticed that we were in the presence of holiness. (By holiness, I mean that we might have noticed that we were in the presence of something of the greatest importance and purpose.) We also would surely have smiled and laughed out loud at the sight of the weathered old pregnant woman and the young pregnant teenager singing to each other.
Some years ago, one of my churches put on a cantata for Holy Week. It was a long piece of classical music written by a French opera composer. (“The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Theodore Dubois) It was seriously artistic music. After the concert, someone from the audience came up to me and told me how much he had enjoyed it. He said, “You all sounded just like ordinary people singing opera.”
Think of the possibilities in that double edged compliment. In fact the director was going to record us so that we could each have a copy as a souvenir, but he decided not even to let us hear it: ordinary people singing opera. We understood without asking why. But we enjoyed doing what we did with an undeserved happiness.
Ancient Elizabeth was the mother of a prophet. Young Mary was the Mother of God (in a way; not in eternity, but in time). These things didn’t fit together very well. Who, in heaven’s name, could possibly be in charge of such a mixed up scheme. It was holy and hilarious.
David was the eighth son. Seven was the number of perfection. Eight was just redundant. The seven brothers were men and warriors who looked the part of kings. David was just a kid, and he acted like it too. David was the straggler. The brothers weren’t a litter, but David was the runt of them.
David, for all his faults and moral struggles, was the picture of what a king should be, and that was the picture that God followed when God became human. What a crazy, mixed up idea. David was the shepherd king, and Jesus’ first followers were the shepherds.
Mary and Elizabeth give us a picture of holiness, and singing, and laughter; and then there is danger too.
Both Elizabeth and Mary were women in danger: Elizabeth, bearing a child in her old age (that wasn’t safe); and Mary, secretly pregnant with a child who could get her into a lot of trouble, with Joseph, and with their two families, and with the whole village where they planned to live, and have a business, and raise their family. Both of their lives were at risk. And here they were singing!
These two women, or these two girls (for women are always girls, in heart, which is why they live longer than men), stood at the very center of what God was doing in the universe, yet no scholar or ruler in the world would have taken them seriously. They weren’t just singing. They were prophesying. They were prophets full of the Holy Spirit. Their songs were about the future, and the part they were playing in the kingdom of God.
If anyone with any real authority took them seriously, these two women would be in trouble again. They would have to be put in their place. And yet they were singing. For the moment, they were absolutely confident and happy.
They knew that their happiness was incomprehensible to others. They knew it would be a scandal to others. They knew that their happiness had nothing to do with who they were, or with what they had done; because they weren’t anyone in particular. In fact, they were second class human beings; because they were women living in their time and place.
They had not done anything at all to cause the reason for their happiness. Their happiness was gracious and undeserved. God had accepted them. God had given them a part to play that they could never be qualified for.
Their happiness wasn’t for show. No one of importance was paying attention. Their happiness wasn’t pretend. And it wasn’t crazy.
Along with Zechariah, these women were among the three people in the whole world who knew what was really going on in the world. They were the only ones in the world who were in touch with reality.
Many people in the world go around thinking they are happy when they don’t have the slightest notion of the things that really belong to happiness. But these women knew. Every one in the world would have thought these women were crazy: but, compared with them, it was everyone else who was crazy.
Here we see a picture of part of our Christmas hope. These women knew what God was really doing; and what truly mattered most to God. They knew what God intended to do through them. And they could take a good sober look at themselves, and sing and laugh about it all. It was well worth all the potential risks, and dangers, and the skepticism of others.
What this picture tells us is that God’s promise is that the world is crazy and we are not. Human power does not overrule God’s cause, God’s power, God’s kingdom.
For instance; the emperor Augustus, in Rome, was ordering a census of his empire. His royal decree forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, instead of in Nazareth. They traveled in obedience to the orders of the Roman emperor.
But the Old Testament prophet Micah had predicted the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), seven hundred years before it happened. So who was on top of things? Who was making things happen?
The culture of the Roman Empire held that dignity and power were the ultimate values. The Kingdom of God held that humility and faithful love were the ultimate values.
Rome held the power, and maintained the roads. The Roman peace enabled the disciples of Jesus to travel and bring the good news to the known world, with a minimum of trouble. And so, who was really making things happen?
The Greeks and Romans, together, had built a civilization that had so many outposts, spread so far, that the disciples of Jesus, knowing a little Greek, could make themselves understood from Britain, to Ethiopia, to India. Because of the power of Greece and Rome, the disciples could spread the gospel and its values of humility and faithful love farther than the emperor could send his own soldiers.
What happened in Rome was of the greatest importance. And what Jesus would do, and what the disciples and the early Christians would do, would have a growing influence in the Roman capital. And what happened in Rome, in the long struggle between the Christians and the pagans, would serve the kingdom of Jesus.
There were times, for a couple of centuries in Rome, where portions of the church had to truly go underground, living in the caves and catacombs beneath the capital, in order to survive. But the Kingdom of Jesus survived the Kingdom of Rome.
So, who was really in charge?  In the very middle of history, God is in charge. At the very end of history, God will be in charge.
The Lord’s Supper is a table set in a topsy-turvy world. There are people and parts of society that look like they are on top, but they are not. They look like they are the future, but they are not.
The Lord’s Table is the table of a kingdom where it is the poor, the small, those held in contempt, who are fed. It teaches us to be very careful about the ones we think of as poor, and small, and contemptible. Those who think they are something, and those who think they are the future, are always sent away empty.

The kingdom is designed for those who can enjoy the presence of an undeserved happiness. King Jesus found his happiness in places where it seemed the most unlikely for someone who came down from heaven. The hands that move the world were the hands in a manger that wrapped tightly around the finger of Mary. The heart that rules the world was pierced, by a Roman spear on the cross. And here we come to be fed by this hand, and loved by this heart, and saved by the real King who rules here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Good Enabling

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 6, 2015
Scripture readings: Exodus 4:1-17; Luke 1:26-38

A fireman was telling an elementary school class what to do in case of a fire. He said, “First, go to the door and feel the door.See if it’s hot. Then get down on your knees. Does anyone here know why you ought to get down on your knees?” One of the kids said, “Sure, to start praying so God will get us out of this mess.”
Photos around Crab Creek, WA
November 2015
Mary and Moses share one thing in common. They both see something coming where they will need a lot of help, or else they will end up in a big mess for sure.
When we meet Mary, in the Gospels, she is engaged, or betrothed, to Joseph. In her time and place, Mary would have been betrothed about the age of twelve, or maybe a year or two older, and the period of betrothal would have lasted for a year, no less, and not much more.
If Joseph were just starting out in life, at this point, he would have been about sixteen or seventeen. Most boys would have been pulled out of the synagogue school at the age of ten or twelve, in order to start serious work, either working on the farm, or the fishing boat, or in a trade or a craft as apprentices. After several years of training and practice, a boy should have enough experience to pull his own weight and support a family on his own.
Betrothal was just as binding and exclusive as marriage. If Joseph had died during their betrothal, Mary would have been considered a widow. But the caution was that absolutely no physical contact between them was allowed during the betrothal. Mary and Joseph lived in a culture nourished by the Old Testament scriptures, which were very strict about this.
There were high expectations of sexual purity and holiness, because all men and women are the image of God. If Mary were found to be pregnant, with Joseph having nothing to do with it; she would have been executed by the villagers, who would have dragged her to the edge of town and stoned her. Or else she could have been stabbed or strangled by a relative in either Joseph’s or Mary’s family. This still happens in that part of the world.
If Joseph claimed to be the father of a child that was conceived during the betrothal, they would both become sources of shame for their families and they would have a rocky life, wherever they lived, if anyone knew about the timing of this child. People would whisper about this child and make snide comments that the child would hear, especially if they did like what the child was doing.
Every normal girl in Israel dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah, the Christ. But something was wrong with the timing of this birth. The angel’s message seemed to put the conception of this child, and the resulting pregnancy, out of sync with the time set for her marriage. 
The angel’s message frightened Mary, because it seemed to her that God was requiring two things of her. First, God was announcing her part in something that would put her in extreme danger. Second, God was announcing her part in something that was either impossible or unthinkable. And so Mary asked the angel: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
She was asking, “How will God make this happen? How will God work in order to enable this thing to work out? How will God help me? How will God help me?”
The angel says: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.”
This simply means there will be a miracle. The Lord will make things happen by the power of his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, in part, the personal presence of the life-giving power of God.
The angel means that what will happen with Mary will be the same as what happened in the creation of the universe. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, the scriptures talk about the Spirit of God hovering over the unformed universe. The power of the Holy Spirit overshadowed the work to be done. The Spirit enabled the miracle of the creation of the universe.
So with Mary, the Holy Spirit would overshadow her with the living presence of the life-giving power of God. This would produce a life within her that was truly her child, and yet not the result of any human action, or wisdom, or preparation. God would enable her to be part of something impossible by the conventional wisdom of human beings.
Then the Lord would enable another miracle, of a different sort, to happen. The Holy Spirit would enable Mary and Joseph to raise this child. This would be especially challenging in light of the fact that everyone who knew about the timing of this birth would look down on the child, and on them.
They would be able to do it with God’s help. This also seemed impossible, in the sense that it seemed impossibly unfair. But nothing is impossible with God.
The angel told Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” This is what I want us to think about, just a bit. We have taken some time to look at Mary’s situation. And I think it is simple to understand that she was suddenly aware of her tremendous need for God’s help. Here was something that almost made her knees buckle to think of.
Only God could make this work. It was God’s enabling that Mary was looking for, praying for, and hoping for.
I think we learn in life to be afraid of hope: even of this hope that God will enable us. Rather than learn to hope more, we learn to hope less. Christmas is one of God’s antidotes to the loss of hope.
Christmas is one of the two greatest miracles. One miracle is the miracle of Easter. God, as a human just like us, died as a human and conquered death, and now he shares his victory with us. The other greatest miracle is Christmas. God became human and God took humanity into himself. In Jesus, God is one of us. This is what Christians believe.
It is one thing to think of a supreme being supernaturally present with you, or in you, who is completely different from you. To think of Christ (God as a real human being) being with you, and in you, is something entirely greater.
In Christ, God experienced being one of us. God learned to be us by experience.
Christ in you knows how to be a baby. He knows how to be helpless and how to have someone else take care of him in the humblest ways. In Christ, you know how to be helpless and how to accept help.
Christ in you knows how to be a kid learning to do things, learning what not to do, learning how to cope with others. Christ in you knows how to play. Christ in you knows how to laugh and rest.
Christ in you knows how to stay true to what is right in spite of the pressure of the whole world against you. Christ in you knows how to sacrifice. Christ in you knows how to see other people, and how you can see yourself.
Christ in you knows how to pray. Christ in you knows how to work, and how to live with the knowledge that others are depending totally upon you; just as Christ had to fend for his own family’s survival (his mother, his brothers and sisters, after Joseph died).
Christ in you knows how to be hot, or cold, or hungry, or tired. Christ in you knows how to be in pain. Christ in you knows how to live. Christ in you knows how to die. Christ in you knows the way to everlasting life. He has the key.
As I look at Christmas as the proof that nothing is impossible with God, I see something I didn’t expect. I think it was only impossible for God to take a respectable, comprehensible, and comfortable approach to becoming Mary’s baby. It was impossible for God to come at the right time for Mary and Joseph. It was impossible for God not to be born in a stable and discovered by shepherds instead of respectable people.
At the humblest level, God came to help. He knew that people with our needs need a God who knows how to live and be with them when life seems impossible. It was impossible for God to let us face the impossible alone.
Most of the things I hope for are normal, easy, comfortable, respectable things. I would be too embarrassed to tell you what things those are, and you would be embarrassed to hear them. The Bible teaches me to expect something completely different from anything I can possibly imagine.
Put yourself in Moses’ position. Moses had run for his life to escape from Egypt, because he had sided with the Hebrew slaves. Then his life changed for the better. He found a niche for himself in the desert. He married and started a family and work to do. Moses found a normal, safe way of life.
Moses, after having made a life for himself, as a shepherd in the wilderness, had become happy and comfortable. He hoped that this good life would never end. Moses’ idea of nothing being impossible with God would have been to have God allow his comfortable way of life to continue for the rest of his life.
God had a different purpose for Moses, in which a different and more difficult way of living would not be impossible. In this new way of life it would not be impossible for Moses to go back to Egypt and make himself the enemy of the ruler of the most powerful nation on earth.
It would not be impossible for Moses to turn stubborn, slave-minded people to the very same way of living that God was teaching him: that nothing was impossible with God. With God it would not be impossible for Moses to speak in public so that people would listen, even though (apparently) Moses had a speech defect.
Saying that he was slow of speech means that it took Moses a long time to get words out. It means that he stuttered and stammered. In other places (Acts 7:18), the scriptures speak of Moses as being a powerful speaker, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t stutter or stammer.
One of the most powerful speakers I knew, in college, was Bob Stommel, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. It took great effort for Bob to walk. People had to read for him, and write for him. Even though he had a first class brain (he really did), it was deeply buried in a hopeless body.
It was painful to listen to Bob try to talk. He often had to repeat himself two or three times in order to make himself understood. But Bob’s terrible handicap, combined with his faith, made whatever he tried to say worth listening to. With God nothing is impossible.
Moses didn’t need the healing of his speech in order to do God’s purpose. All Moses needed to do was to make himself available to God. All Moses needed was to be willing. The fact that nothing was impossible with God meant that he could be himself, and stutter, and stammer, and serve.
It was the same with Mary. Mary had no special status or wisdom, no training or preparation. She would be able to do what God called upon her to do because she knew that God would be with her, and in her. All Mary had to offer was her availability and her willingness to serve. As for the rest; there was nothing impossible with God.
It is the same with us. It is the same with the church.
Home, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
December 2015
All of God’s great people, along with Moses and Mary, found that God’s design for them was sometimes difficult, and dangerous, and unthinkable, and impossible: but nothing is impossible with God. And this is especially a Christmas hope.
The gospel, the good news, is about God coming into the world at its best and at its very worst. The good news is about God getting involved in the impossible, and God leading his people through it.
I found a quote by a writer named Peter Larson. He wrote this: “Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked “No Entrance” and left through a door marked “No Exit.” (In Christianity Today, Dec. ’05 p. 62, quoting him from “Prism (Jan/Feb 2001)
The Christmas hope is about who God is. He is a God who doesn’t bother reading the signs that take away our spirit and our hope. God enables us to move, and grow, and persevere as he calls us to believe and follow him. God enables us to do this with hope. God is the best enabler.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Fruitfulness

Preached on November 29, 2015, First Sunday in Advent

Scripture reading: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 1:5-25

My parents were married in 1951, on the 17th day of February. I was born in 1951, on the 24th day of November. That means I was born nine months and seven days after my parents’ wedding day (forty-one weeks). And I seem to remember, once, a long, long time ago, someone saying to my mom, “You were a fertile myrtle.”
Photos Taken at Desert Aire WA: November 2015
I was their first fruit. And, as their first fruit, the timing of my arrival was as quick, and as precise, and as respectable as anyone could wish.
I gave this sermon the title “fruitfulness” because I was afraid to call it a fertility sermon. And then I know so little about either one.
Fruitfulness and fertility can be a painful and embarrassing subject, whether we are talking about Sarah and Elizabeth, or Abraham and Zechariah, women or men. The opposite of being fruitful and fertile is to be barren.
Some of the most important stories in the Bible are about barrenness, and fertility, and fruitfulness. The stories tell us of babies promised and delayed to the point of impossibility. The stories tell us of babies in danger. God himself came to earth as a special kind of impossible baby who was nearly killed by the soldiers of the king.
The truth is that this goes far beyond the subject of motherhood and fatherhood. Human beings have, in their heart, the desire and longing to be fruitful. We think about being productive, of having something to give, of making a difference.
The Bible is full of the thought of every kind of fruitfulness. One of my old favorite verses in the Bible comes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” This fruitfulness is not about babies.
Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit; fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) This has nothing to do with babies, either.
The desire to be fruitful seems to be a part of our simply being God’s creatures: be fruitful and multiply. (Genesis 1:28) But God has a purpose and plan for all his creatures and (as human beings) we give thought and prayer to God’s purpose for us. For Abraham and Sarah a child was not only part of their desire for parenthood. The baby was also part of God’s promise for something much bigger. Remember God said to Abraham: “I will bless you so you shall be a blessing...By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” (Genesis 12) Fruitfulness is about blessing: making life full and happy. Sarah’s baby was all about the fullness and happiness of the world.
The Bible is the story about God’s love and it is also about our inclusion in God’s love. In that story, there are very important promises about babies. But it is not so much that the promises are about babies. The real point is that the babies are about promises. The promises are about God’s love for the world, God’s love for people, and God’s love for us.
The sin that spoiled the world was the desire of our first father and mother (Adam and Eve) to be free from love. They didn’t want to escape from love, but they also didn’t want to be dependant on God’s love.
They didn’t want to be dependant on God’s love alone. They wanted something more to fall back on.
They wanted to know everything for themselves. They wanted to know about good and evil, which was another way of wanting to know what was good for them and what was bad for them. They wanted to judge their options for themselves. They wanted to be qualified to make their own choices, to prove themselves, and to be in charge of their own fruitfulness. They would have the power to decide what their fruitfulness would be, and how to achieve it.
Because they didn’t want to be tied to the love of God they took actions that carried them outside of the story of God’s love. They didn’t lose God’s love. God still loved them. They were like intelligent plants that uprooted themselves from the soil of God’s love. They were like children who ran away from home.
The scars of their uprooting and the scars of their running away became our spiritual genetics. It was the loving gift of God to our first father and mother to give them this awesome responsibility: to decide what we, their children, would be in their footsteps.
Every parent has some responsibility in that direction, but no parent since the Garden of Eden has had such great power to channel the nature of all their children down to this day. God loves us infinitely, but our inherited instinct is either to run from love, or resist it, or control it, or make our own substitutes for it.
Until we have a new life in Jesus, until we die and rise with the one who died and rose for us, we are part of the old human race that doesn’t know how to be at home in the story of love. We need to be born into a new life with the God who became a baby for us in Jesus. In Jesus God has recreated a new human race that can bear the fruit of love.
Instead, we run. We resist. We control. We make our own substitutes. We bear fruit but we are not fruitful. We are like the root stock rose bush growing in my back yard. It was full of leaves and full of luxuriant growth, and it only bore one rose last summer.
The story of God’s love in the Bible shows us that, in the world as it is, and in us when we have at least one foot firmly planted in this world, fruitfulness is a miracle. Fruitfulness is really not our thing. Fruitfulness is God’s thing.
God promised Elizabeth and Zechariah a baby who would be named John, and who would be called John the Baptist (meaning that he would baptize people). This baby would grow up to be part of the story of restoring God’s love to the world and making a new and fruitful world through the kingdom of Jesus.
The message was, “He will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous: to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17) John would grow up to play his part in the love of God. That love, in Jesus, would restore relationships, and enable people to live with wisdom, and to be ready to be taken into God’s story of love.
What makes a person fruitful? I remember a man who was very successful in industrial construction. He had over a hundred employees. He turned the business over to his sons and they led the business into bankruptcy. (Well there was a recession going on.) This man and his wife were lucky to have saved their own home from being lost to the banks.
This man and his wife were wonderful Christian people. They were gracious people. They were loved by their family, and by their community, and by their church.
They were smart and talented, and I will remember their intelligence and talent. But I will also remember their faith and their love. They were my friends. The fruit, for me, was that I belonged to them and they belonged to me. I was with them and they ere with me through some difficult times, but the fruit wasn’t exactly to be found there. The fruit even a matter of owing anything to each other for the sake of our friendship and love. The fruit was simply a matter of love.
In the Bible, fruitfulness is not a matter of achievement, at all. Fruitfulness is not a matter of productivity. Abraham and Sarah developed great wealth even though they were nomads. Zechariah and Elizabeth had an important role in their society. Their fruitfulness was not in that wealth or in their role. Abraham and Sarah had an impossible baby. Elizabeth and Zechariah had an impossible baby. Neither baby was an achievement or a possession. Both babies were miracles.
If you read more of the stories of these people you will see that both Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s promises. Abraham laughed in an earlier chapter of Genesis. Zechariah doubted and questioned God’s promises and he got a scolding for it and, since he didn’t know when to shut up, God shut him up for a while.
They were all people of faith, but they were not people of perfect faith. They were also people of doubt and questions. I think the true faith that God looks for is the kind of faith that keeps having faith, even in the midst of doubt. After all, real faith is faith placed in God much more than it is any faith that we might place in ourselves.
Have you ever laughed at God or thought he was talking nonsense? If you have then you have the faith of Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth. You have a faith of Biblical proportions. Then, for you, faith means trusting that God’s faithfulness is greater than your faith. God’s faithfulness is what matters. The author and preacher Timothy Keller writes this: “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” That is fruitfulness.
Henry Nouwen wrote about fruitfulness. Read his book “Lifesigns”. He sees the fruitfulness of love coming in three ways: weakness, thankfulness, and caring. God is the one who leads the way to this fruitfulness of love.
God bore the fruit that saves us by becoming weak. God became the baby in the manger, and he and his parents had to run for their lives in order to survive the soldiers of King Herod. God became a carpenter, and next he became a migrant teacher with no roof over his head. At last God became a victim of injustice, with a mockery of a trial and an illegal execution. God was dead and buried in Jesus. God became weak. That is how God was able to rise from the dead to give us victory in life and death.
We bear fruit when we become weak. You bear fruit when your children know that you become afraid for them. You bear fruit when you say, “I’m sorry.” You bear fruit when you act on the conviction that the needs of other people are more important than your own; that the needs of other people are stronger and your needs are weaker.
God also bore fruit by being thankful. In the sixth chapter of John, a crowd had come to Jesus in a remote place and there was no food for them to eat, except for the fact that one boy had brought five small loaves of barley bread and two small dried fish. Jesus gave thanks for the boy’s food and fed the crowd of thousands. (John 6:1-13) Before Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back to life, he thanked his Father for listening to his prayer, even before he prayed it. (John 11:41-42) When God came down to live in front of us, in Jesus, he gave thanks. The fruitfulness of God’s love comes from his thanks.
There is a Christian singer/songwriter called tobyMac. Is real name is Toby McKeehan. I don’t think I have ever heard a thing he has sung or written, but there was a quote from him on Face Book that says this: “There are people out there who would love to have your bad days.” Maybe this would not be true for all your bad days, but most of us have homes, and food, and warmth, and fellowship. Many of us can walk, and talk, and hear, and think. And we have known love.
Thankfulness is the way to enjoy giftedness. Thankfulness is enjoyment. Thankfulness gives us the peace and freedom to bear fruit; that is, to give love and caring to others.
God bears fruit by caring. This means taking care. Jesus didn’t control people. He did command people, but he also gave them freedom. He gave them choice. He asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) He asked the lame man, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) In the Book of Acts we can read about how (after Jesus rose from the dead) the apostles told the story of God’s love in Jesus. On one occasion, Peter described Jesus this way, “He went around doing good.” (Acts 10:38)
We bear fruit by finding ways to take care of other people, and our community, and our world. We may have abilities and resources that enable us to do this in special ways, but we may not have special ways. We may not have any other ability than to take care of what we see and hear any way we can.
We bear fruit by taking care, even if we don’t think it will accomplish anything. We bear fruit by taking care, even though it will do nothing for us. Paul wrote, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The love of God bore fruit by caring; by taking care of those who did not know how to appreciate him.

The time to celebrate the birth of Jesus is on its way. This is the celebration of God’s fruitfulness. In Jesus we can see God’s weakness, God’s thankfulness, God’s caring. This bears fruit in us and through us. God’s fruit helps us die to our unfruitful nature and be reborn into the new fruitful world of Jesus and his kingdom.