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.

1 comment:

  1. Mercy, grace and forgiveness.
    Wonderful sermon.
    I love the photo of the Santa. Even SANTA can be prickly, as can we all and are in need of forgiveness!
    Peace to you and joy during the holy days of Christmas.