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.

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