This blog is mostly sermons of a pastor serving Riverside Community Church, Mattawa/Desert Aire, Washington. An eremite is someone who lives in a wilderness or desert of some kind. I have often lived in remote places. Early Christian eremites lived under the discipline of solitude within the discipline of community. I try to be involved in worshiping, studying, and praying with others; and serving others wherever I find myself. I try to keep up with my correspondence in the electronic desert.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Christmas Hopes - God's Joy
Preached on the First Sunday in Christmastide, December 27, 2015
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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