Monday, December 26, 2016

The Incarnation - The Homecoming

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

Scripture readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20; John 1:1, 14-18

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (and made his dwelling among us) full of grace and truth….” (John 1:9)
Houses around Desert Aire, WA: December 2016
“The Word” is God speaking to us. It’s God’s self-expression, in which we hear and see his glory, his grace, and his truth at work.
We call this Word the only Son of the Father. It’s deep. It is also the love that lives within God making itself (or himself) real for us. It’s deep. It’s much bigger than us.
The Apostle John, who wrote this gospel, was a well-to-do Jewish fisherman who lived by the Sea of Galilee, in the north part of the Holy Land. There were a lot of Greek speaking people around there, and so John is good with Greek. He writes a very simple, plain spoken form of Greek; but he’s a simple man who is also an intelligent man, and he writes deep. And he writes out of the thoughts of generations of his people.
So, the Greek word he uses for God, the Word, dwelling among us harks back to the Old Testament, when the Jewish people wandered around the desert and lived in tents. It especially takes us back to the Exodus when the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt and traveled through the wilderness to the promised land. John uses a Greek word that could just as well say that “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”
I like that because it reminds me of happy things in my family: that tent-pitching thing. Pitching our tent was always a classic time in my family, when I was growing up.
We went camping every summer for a couple weeks. Plenty of other people had campers, but my Dad always said that it wasn’t really camping unless you had a tent.
For my family, like for the people of Israel, that time of tents was a time of escape. For my family, our time in tents was also the Promised Land. For Israel, it wasn’t the promised land, but it was the time when they were most themselves, for better and for worse, walking with the Lord in the desert.
There was a special tent that was pitched every time they stopped. It was the Lord’s tent. The priests of Israel would pitch the Lord’s tent, as God had commanded, in the exact middle of the camp ground.
In Jesus, God has pitched his tent right in the middle of us. He pitched this tent without anyone’s help, except for the help of Mary and Joseph. You might say that all of human life is not a sturdy house, but only a tent: whether you recognize it or not.
The Lord has his tent right in the middle of wherever we are. Do you know that the Lord is right in the middle of wherever you are?
Jesus is God with us. The fact that we are all tenting together is not an escape. It’s the fact that we are on a journey together. And camping means living where the basics are pretty obvious and they take a lot of work.
God pitching his tent with you, and you knowing it, helps sort out the basics. When you really know that God has pitched his ten right in the middle of where you are, you realize that you’re not on an escape and you pay more attention, like most of the old-timers did, to the things that are really important.
For my family, camping was when we were all the most real and, in some ways, we were at our best. All of us are at our most real, and at our most authentic, when we pitch our tents where God pitches his. There’s no real privacy and, when you’re camping, that’s OK. Everybody sees and hears, and everyone knows, including God, and that’s OK.
The tent in Exodus was the place where God’s glory came down, and you could see it. John tells us that the place where God’s glory is really seen (much more than in that tent in Exodus) is the tent we call Jesus. In Jesus, we see that God’s true glory isn’t the cloud of smoke, or the pillar of fire, or the roar of thunder and lightning on the mountain.
God’s glory is to be one of us. God’s glory is to be a baby. God’s glory is to be a craftsman. The Creator was glad to become a carpenter. God’s glory is to sacrifice for people he loves. The Creator, who gave life to the universe, was glad to die to save sinners, and make them a new creation.
The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are full of trouble. If we don’t see this, it’s only because people have gone out of their way to dress up those stories, in books and on the screen.
The gospels tell us plainly about all the trouble of Christmas, if we pay attention. Luke tells us that it was orders for a tax census by the Roman Emperor that took the Holy Family away from their home in Nazareth so that they could be counted in Bethlehem. Matthew gives us King Herod’ command for his soldiers to slaughter the babies in Bethlehem.
John only tells us that there’s a struggle with the darkness. He tells us (in verse 5 of chapter one) that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it.
We know what it feels like to wonder if the darkness is overcoming the light. We seem to be entering in one of the most unsettled times of the past one hundred years. We live in a time of growing fear, and anger, and doubt, and confusion about the truth.
Jesus grew up to tell us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43) and we can see how far our world has gone from that. We know how hard it has become for us to do it. Yes, the darkness tries to overcome us all.
In Jesus, we have an antidote to the darkness. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” And we read that he is “full of grace and truth.”
The truth of God is a fact, but the truth of God is more than facts. Truth here is just as much about what we mean about trueness when we say that a person is “true blue”. God is true, meaning he is faithful through and through. Jesus shows us the kind of God we can count on.
And grace is about forgiveness, but that’s only because forgiveness is a beautiful gift. A good dancer moves with grace, and that is part of what the Bible means by God’s grace that we see in Jesus.
God, and what God has done in Jesus, is simply beautiful. Jesus is beautiful: in a very manly way, but, also, he is beautiful in a way that can touch the hearts of men and women, boys and girls.
This is the antidote to the world as it is. And the darkness has not overcome it.

They say that all babies are beautiful: so, what about God in the manger? Nowhere else has the ultimate reality become a baby, and a man on a cross. What normal human being would have thought of it, or taken it seriously. We believe this is the real grace and truth that come from God. We believe that this is something that only God could think of, and only God could pull it off. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Incarnation - Stooping Low to Meet God

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2016

Scripture readings: Isaiah 53:1-6; John 1:9-13

The word incarnation is a big word. It’s an old word from the Latin language. It means “embodied in flesh”. It means made flesh and blood. It means made human.
Around Home and Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
December 2016
It describes what we celebrate at Christmas. God came to earth in the flesh: God himself became a human being: a human baby, like any other baby. Like any other baby: except God was a baby who would grow up to give his life for the sins of the world; and to give us light and life; and to give us himself.
The Gospel of John calls Jesus the Word: God speaking himself. The Word is God making himself into a message. It says, “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The thing about Christmas is that, when God became a particular human baby, in Bethlehem, God was speaking himself in that life he had taken into himself.
The story of the first Christmas is God describing himself. God is living out who he really is and what he wants for himself, and for us, in that manger, in that stable, in Bethlehem.
John says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not (did not recognize him). He came into his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:10-11) And this perfectly describes what we see in Bethlehem.
Now Jesus was born at a time of great spiritual discontent both for the Jews and the pagans. There was a lot of searching, and praying, and questioning going on. But, when God’s answer arrived, nobody seemed to notice.
Well, some noticed. But John is pretty clear that the normal thing was not to notice, not to receive, not to be open to what God was doing. That is the human condition. That is the way humans are. It’s the way we are, if we are normal humans.
So when you are discontent, or questioning, or searching, the lesson is that God is there speaking to you, shining his light on you, and you just don’t see it. And you don’t receive it: that is, if you are normal; because that’s the normal thing, according to the Bible. At least that’s that state of our being normal that God wants to overcome.
The pagan Greeks and Romans were discontented with the old paganism. They were looking for newer answers among what they called “The Mysteries”. In the Mysteries, there were special places you could go in order to be initiated into hidden truths that would give you a new spiritual life. Stories of the gods and the great heroes would be acted out in gorgeous pageants, as if it were theater, with music, and singing, and dancing, and art, and special staging affects.
Those who attended the mysteries would experience inspiration and ecstasy. They believed that this experience was their spiritual rebirth and the promise of everlasting life. But their inspiration was mere excitement.
The Jews were waiting and searching for a great warrior king to lead them to victory over their enemies; and to bring the Lord’s people to power, and success, and glory.
The pagans and the Jews were looking up; looking up to hear a divine message, a spiritual message: God’s word to them.
But the lesson which was made flesh in Bethlehem is that you don’t look up to find the spiritual truth. In some strange way, you have to look down.
This is hard for us, if we are normal human beings. The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, said it. This is how the Lord, the Savior, would come. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)  
You look down into the messes and weaknesses of this world, and of your own life, and that is where you can hear the Lord speaking to you. If the Lord loves you just the way you are (and he does) you will never know God, or hear God, unless you know what he sees when he loves you just as you are.
There was a girl I was in love with, when I was twenty years old. I even asked her the question: “Would you ever consider marrying a guy who was going into the ministry?” But, even though she didn’t want to do that, the great thing about her was that she could see right through me, and laugh at me, and still like me, even though I might not deserve it.
One of my problems was that I didn’t always want to admit that I was the guy she liked just as I was. I wanted her to look at me as if I were someone she knew I wasn’t. But she even saw through this, and she still liked me, and she could make me laugh at myself.
I was a very serious Christian and, as such, I would have been much better off if I had known how to deal with myself just as I was. To really know God, and know one’s self, one must be able to look down to the struggles and the weaknesses of one’s own life, and hear what God is saying just there, in his infinite love.
We want to look up for peace, and joy, and fullness, and love. God is full of peace, and joy, and fullness, and love. When we experience these things, we experience the presence of God. These things are heavenly, but they were meant to be found on earth too. God means for us to find these blessings in our deepest and greatest needs.
The heavenly things became rare, and almost disappeared, when sin and evil came into the world. When peace, and joy, and fullness, and love disappear, we have trouble believing that God is present. We don’t know where God is, or what God is doing.
So God became flesh and blood in order to be in our world, such as it is. He became a baby in a town where King Herod ordered all the baby boys under the age of two to be killed in order kill the baby king.
We hate this about the world, and God agrees with us. But God became flesh and blood in order to be wherever peace, and joy, and fullness, and love are absent, so that we can have him especially there. We have a lot of trouble recognizing this and receiving it.
We don’t know the actual date, or month (and we’re not even sure of the year), when Jesus was born. We only know that he deliberately came down from light into darkness in order to shine in the darkness.
This is why ancient Christians chose the idea of Christ being born in the winter, near the winter solstice, in the cold and dark. Knowing this, we add their wisdom to what the gospels tell us about the beginnings of his life in this world: on a straw bed, in a feed trough for livestock, in a stable, in the cave, under an inn, in an obscure village of an occupied, defeated country, in a violent corner of the ancient world.
The novelist Taylor Caldwell wrote this about a dark period of her life: “I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.” (Taylor Caldwell, “Family Circle”, Dec. 24, 1961)
When we look down to where we really are, we can find God there with us, working for us, working for our new life.
If you’re lucky, you can look back and down, into your childhood, and remember the faith of your parents, or your grandparents, or Sunday Schools, or Vacation Bible School teachers, who taught you things that you once knew to be real, when you were ten and much closer to the ground. But now you are tall, and you look up when you should be looking down.
Or you should look down to see the people who are doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God. Or you should look down, in love, and see the people who need justice, or who need mercy, or who need to walk humbly with their God.
There are people around us who are living demonstrations of the grace of God, or the need for grace, but we want to look up to better people, smarter people, cooler people. We spend our time looking at famous people and thinking about them.
The normal thing is to look up. You may very well find something when you look up, and call it Jesus, and call it God. But it won’t really be the real Jesus, who chose the feed trough of a stable for his first bed. You have to look closer to the ground to truly find Jesus as he wants you to know him, and to know yourself as he knows you.
Excitement is a high. Repentance (which means adjusting your life to the real truth) is a low. But Jesus is with the low. We think inspiration comes with excitement, but it really comes with repentance: with a kind of looking down and turning around.
Sometimes we think that faith means looking up to receive God’s blessings, God’s help, God’s strength, God’s mercy. But, in a way, faith is looking down, looking low, because it means trusting. It means letting the Lord be God. A preacher asked a child, “What does Lord mean?” And the child answered, “He’s the boss!”
John wrote “But to those who received him, who believed in his name...” When you receive someone, they may be the guest and you are the host, but the host is the servant. You look low to serve the one you have welcomed. Jesus did this for us. We look low for Jesus.
“But to those who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God.” God became a child to make us children. It means knowing our dependence; knowing who to listen to. It means imitating and following. We aim high, but we start low.
The wife of one of my cousins posted on Facebook ten “Perks of Being Sixty and Older”. One of them was “People no longer view you as a hypochondriac.” I could see that one. The one I disagreed with was: “There is nothing left to learn the hard way.” I commented that I’m still learning plenty of things the hard way.
Children start out wanting to be like their dads and moms. We want to be like Jesus. And we know that this means learning to do what the child in Bethlehem grew up to do. We aim high, but we start low.
There is one way we don’t look high enough, and that is to see what the Lord wants to do with us. We are not usually very ambitious about letting God have his way with us. We have plans of our own, and we are more than happy if God cooperates with our own ideas and plans. God doesn’t usually do this.
C. S. Lewis wrote about God’s high plans: "Imagine yourself a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.
But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to?
The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up the towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a little decent cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." (CS Lewis, “Mere Christianity”, Chapter 9)
If we look low enough at ourselves, we’ll understand why we need the gift of freedom that comes from the humility of God in the manger, and on the cross. God came low to make us capable of something beyond our wildest dreams, and hopes, and ambitions: something beyond our deepest desires.
God came low to pay the price for our entry into a new life as the sons and daughters of God. Some translations say that he gave us this as a right. Others translate the gift as “the power to become children of God.” Both are correct.
We need both: the right and the power. We need the right and privilege of entry; the open door and the greeting. And we need the power of God. We need what it takes to grow up into that privilege; that new life.
Christmas first tells us to look low. When you look low, you will hear the Word and his message to you where you are. The Word made flesh (Jesus), the Word of God, will find you and make you his child.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Incarnation - How to Incarnate It

Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
Scripture readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; John 1:6-9

Christmas celebrates the most important thing that has ever happened since the creation of the universe. In a sense, it’s more important even than the crucifixion and resurrection, because these would be impossible without the greatest miracle of all.
Home: Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
December 2016
Christmas celebrates God becoming human. The God who made all things, the God who keeps all things in existence became one living cell in a woman’s womb. The God of heaven and earth was happy to become what some people refer to as a fetus, and God made that fetus as holy as any human life, by his making it his own.
The God of the universe was born in the same ordinary way as any other human baby, in order to save the world, in order to save us, in order to make us into new people: born again, born spiritually, to become his everlasting family. God became a human being.
If all the other religions of the world are supposed to lead to the same place, no other religion on earth leads you to this. It has nothing to do with how we arrive at the divine. It has to do with what the divine has done to arrive at us; to do something for us, to do something with us and in us.
And yet, when we say this, we’re not claiming to be wonderful, ourselves. We are not claiming to be the center of the universe. We are only claiming that God is love, and that God acts on that love; and we are glad.
This is the greatest thing that has ever happened.
Now the amazing thing about God’s greatest work is not only that he has done this for every human being. The amazing thing about God’s greatest work is that he has made us to be a part of it. God’s greatest work requires human beings to point it out. It requires human witnesses: if anyone is going to believe it, if anyone is going to benefit from it.
God’s greatest work requires people to listen to other people, in order to benefit from it. But, if that’s true, then his people will know how to listen to everyone else in order to know how those other people will hear the message best.
“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light.” (John 1:6-8)
Now when we read the words, “There was a man sent from God...” it puts John the Baptist in the same line as all the other people sent from God: prophets, ancient forefather and foremothers, judges, leaders, kings; all of them called by God; all of them sent with a purpose; to share in God’s work, to be witnesses, to speak for God and point people to God, to point people to the light. These words also put us in line with John, if we believe that this is how God works.
There is a long, long line of such people (including us) because this is the way God works. When God is working, God calls and sends people to get to work in order to be his witnesses. The story line of the whole Bible teaches us that it only takes one God to get his intended work done, but that his intended work also requires countless people, working together, over time, with that one God, to get God’s intended work done.
When the Lord started laying the foundation for his coming in Bethlehem (centuries before it happened) he started at the very dawn of history. The Lord called and sent a human family. That was the family of Abraham and Sarah.
Truth be told: it was a dysfunctional family; that family of Abraham. They must have been chosen and sent to show how imperfect people can walk with God by faith. They show how imperfect people can have a living, true relationship with God, by learning to trust God.
Abraham and his family (which became the people of Israel) were not great or impressive to those who knew them. But they were still sent from God.
When God wanted to create a perfect, written word he, involved people. To some of them, the Lord said, “Do this! Be this!” To others the Lord said, “Remember this! Pass this on! Speak this! Write this! Copy this down!”
The people who “Spoke this and wrote this” were often prophets who spoke and wrote for God. Isaiah is one of those great prophets who pointed to the Light that is Jesus. He wrote, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Emmanuel is a word that means that there would be a child born of whom it could be truly said that he was, “God With Us”, because that is what Emmanuel means. It tells us that God recognizes no limits to his intention to be with us.
The Book of Isaiah is an example of God using human words in such a way as to make them his own words. First of all, God’s word is the message Isaiah hears. But then Isaiah questions and complains to God lots of times, and that also gets written into the book of God’s word. Isaiah tells us about the hypocrisy, and doubts, and sins, of the faithless people who are in conflict with Isaiah, and with God. It all goes into the book. It all becomes God’s word to us.
The Old Testament books of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon come from King Solomon, who started out well enough. As a young man, he started to rule by seeking wisdom from God.
But, with years of experience, Solomon went from good to bad, and from bad to worse. He mistreated his own citizens. He put his own power, and luxury, and sensuality, and his relationships with other nations, ahead of his faithfulness to God.
And God judged him. The Lord split up the kingdom of Israel because of Solomon. But Solomon, during his life, collected the sayings of people who were wiser than the man he became, and God made them scripture in the book of Proverbs.
Solomon had a harem that was a sea of sex. But God drew out of Solomon a love song that has been used to represent God’s love for his people, in the Song of Solomon.
That’s is the way God is. God can do that. Normal people, imperfect people, sinful and doubting people, all become a part of what God is doing; willingly or unwillingly. They all become part of the message which is God’s word to us. In that sense, they all become witnesses.
So, it isn’t strange that, when the word became flesh, when God became human, he kept working the same way. Imperfect people, people with messy lives, who knew how much they needed God, recognized this about Jesus, and they wanted to be with him. They liked to be with Jesus, even though they didn’t understand exactly who he was.
But they knew that Jesus had a place for them. Jesus made room for them. He told his stories to them. And his stories (his parables) were about them. Stories about people like them could be stories that told the truth about God. Our stories can tell the truth about God.
God became flesh. God became human, because he loved us. And it was the people who knew their imperfection who loved him best, and understood him best.
The self-righteous people (who didn’t want to see themselves as they truly were) found his light confusing and dangerous. But the people who had no illusions found his light to be safe, and healing, and saving. They were the ones who could bear witness to the light best.
John the Baptist, the man sent from God, was a man on a pedestal, in many ways. A lot of people hoped that he might be the Messiah, the Christ. A lot of people hated him because they thought he was setting himself up to be the Messiah, the Christ.
But John, the gospel-writer, writes about John the Baptist and makes it plain that John was only a witness, only a pointer, and that John the Baptist knew this. When important people paid attention to him and asked him who he was, John mostly told them who he was not.
The gospel says this about the first witness to Jesus: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” I think that when we try to serve the Lord, or share who he is with others, or to share his love with others, the first thing we need to do is remember who we are not, and what we are not. We are not the light. We don’t need to pretend to be what we are not.
It’s the same with us as a group, as a fellowship of Christians, as a church. We don’t need to claim the church to be what it is not.
Even together, we are not the light. It’s true that the baby Jesus would grow up to tell us: “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) But I believe it’s best for us to remember that we are not the light, except when we let Jesus live out his own life through us.
We can say that there are people here who have seen the darkness, and now they have seen the light. That is what we all are. And we are thankful, truly thankful for the light.
We can say that Jesus is here, helping us. We can say that we are amazed and saved by the humbleness of God loving even us, and sharing himself with us: sharing himself in that amazing baby who grew up to die, who grew up to give us a new life based on his faithfulness to us on the cross.
The Lord’s Supper is about this God who is so humble that he came to be witnessed by people who knew far too much about the darkness. He came to be seen, and heard. God came, in Jesus, to be touched by us, and to touch us. In Jesus, God became flesh and blood.
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus wants us to remember, to see, to hear, to touch. He wants us to be in touch. He wants us to be in touch with something real, something that has made us new people, with something worth sharing: as simple and as solid as a loaf of bread.
Even such a humble, real thing as a meal of bread and grape juice is not too strange a place to make Jesus real. Jesus comes to us through words in a book. Jesus comes to us through prayer. Jesus comes to us through others. Jesus comes to us through his calling to serve, and through his calling to be his witnesses. Jesus comes to us through every meal we eat. And Jesus comes to us through this sacrament.
It’s not only the idea or the thought of him that comes to us in all these ways. Jesus is better than that. Jesus is here: God with us.
To be a Christian is to know who we are not, yet still bear witness to the one who has given us light to live by. We can do this because this is what God wants.

This is the way God works. Because no one who thinks he has enough light of his own can ever say anything worth saying about Jesus, the light of the world.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Incarnation - The Conquering Light

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2016

Scripture readings: Psalm 8; John 1:3-5

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Riverside Community Church
Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
December 2016
There is a great war going on, in this world, between good and evil, between love and hate, between light and darkness. What we celebrate, at Christmas, is a victory of the light over the darkness. It’s a victory that the darkness cannot overcome.
But it’s a strange war. And there are two strange things about it.
One of the strange things is the way people respond to it. Some people respond by saying that there is no such war at all. They say there are no such things as light and darkness, only shades of gray.
They say there are no such things as an absolute right against an absolute wrong. When they say such things, do they only mean that absolute right and wrong simply don’t apply to them?
But we are all born into this world, and we all share the human nature that we see at work around us. In times like ours it should be easy to see the absolute wrongs of this world: vengeance, cruelty, injustice, oppression, lies; abuse, addiction, and the use of money and power to break down common people, and their communities, and their liberties.
These are like the tentacles of death reaching out to strangle life. These are like a cloud of darkness trying to snuff out the light.
John says that there is a life and light which are stronger than this death and darkness. He says that the Word (who is Christ, who is God) has life and light: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
Life and light, here in the gospel, are easy enough to understand. They are everything good. They are every good thing. They are kindness and devotion, faithfulness and humility, innocence and justice, peace and generosity, joy, truth, hope, work, rest, creativity, helpfulness. These are all part of something that is absolutely good. These things are all wrapped up in good passions. They are all part of love.
It is a strange war; the war between good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate. It is a strange war because God makes a strange choice of weapons, doesn’t he? And this confuses us.
In Psalm 8, David speaks of the war against the enemy, the foe, and the avenger. What weapon does God create, to resist and defeat his enemies? God’s chosen weapon is the praise on the lips of babies, and infants, and little children. The message of the baby cannot be overcome by the darkness.
Then David looks at human nature and asks: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” How does God deal with human pitifulness, and lowness, and helplessness, and sin? God deals with human nature through compassion, mercy, and love. God deals with human nature through grace. “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor?”
In the New Testament, we read that the Father does this through his Son: by his Son becoming, for a little while, lower than the angels; by his Son becoming a human baby in a stable, a human among all the rest of us, and a man hanging in our place on the cross.
God is love, and he used himself (becoming human like us) to be his own weapon. In Jesus, God is the light that the darkness cannot overcome. Jesus the baby, Jesus the man, Jesus the crucified, is God’s weapon for the light of the world.
John says: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This tells us what the Lord loved, and came to save.
The praise on the lips of the baby in Bethlehem was his love for everything that he had made. There was nothing he did not make or love. He loved it all, and he came to claim it all by becoming the little bundle wondered at by Mary and Joseph. That is what the words mean.
There’s a novel by Wendell Berry, where the main character, named Jayber Crow, is converted by love, and he tells how he grew in his understanding of God’s love: “Could I not see how even divine omnipotence might, by the force of its love, be swayed down into the world? Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?” (“Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry, chapter 32, p. 251)
Evil, death, darkness, has great power. In one sense, it always succeeds. It’s so easy to destroy what’s good.
All of us know how to destroy. Sad to say, surely, we have all taken our turn destroying something or someone. A hasty word can wound a child, or a grown-up. There are times when we want to hurt people, if only to share our own hurt with them. Another person’s peace or happiness can make us angry and destructive.
One spiteful word or action can destroy a day, or wound a human heart for life. And yet some people say there is no such thing as sin. Any caring person should see that the power of such a sin lives within them, within their own heart: that others have used this power against them, and that they have used this power against others.
And then there are the world-sized sins, hatreds, and evils. What an easy thing, to destroy a tribe, or a nation, or a way of life. And this is done, time after time, for someone else’s power, or wealth, or anger, or mere convenience.
The reason why evil, death, and hate seem so successful to us is that we live in the created world of time and space. The darkness that we fear comes from the rebellion of part of the creation against our creator.
God is love, and there were angels and souls who wanted freedom from God; and they could have no freedom from God without freedom from his love. They had to love God less, if they wanted freedom from God. They couldn’t be free from God, from whom all life comes, without being free from his life. They couldn’t be free from God who shines in the darkness, without being free from that light.
The enemy and the avenger have great power, but only in time and space. Their power is not eternal, but souls are eternal. We are living souls. We are made to live forever. We can live outside this world of time and space.
We can be set free. God’s love can change us in ways that will last forever. We can love others forever, and be changed by their love forever. We are made for loves that are too big for time. We are made for loves that are eternal. This is why grief hurts so much, when death interrupts our love.
Since God is love, his weapons, in this strange war, don’t look like weapons. God’s weapons are compassion, mercy, forgiveness, patience, grace, sacrifice, crucifixion: crucifixion beginning with incarnation; the cross and the baby. God gives battle to darkness and hate by becoming one baby, one vulnerable human being. This is how God so loves the world.
If we are children of God, then we are children of the baby of Bethlehem. In some strange way that baby is our father. We learn from the story of Christmas how to live, in practice, the light that the darkness cannot overcome.
What do we learn here about being God’s children in the world? What do we learn about the power of love?
God deals with us, and with our whole world, by means of a manger and a cross, and everything in between. This is not what we would have expected or deserved, but it was the only thing that could save us, the only thing that could reach inside us in order to change us, and make us new people, people of life and light.
The manger and the cross are mercy and grace. They are what we need, and not what we deserve. And that is part of what we need to bring to this world, ourselves: mercy and grace.
To be the children of God, we need to bring to the world what it needs, and not what it deserves. This is how we are to treat our neighbors, our friends, and our family. This is how we are to treat our enemies. This is how we are to treat our church, our community, our country, and the whole world. We are to think of what they need, and not of what they deserve.
Now it is true that what some people may need is the equivalent of a good kick in the behind. If the love of God tells you to give them that kick, then that is the kindest thing that love can do.
But, then, what comes next?  What if God gave us the good swift kick we deserved, and dusted himself off, and said, “Well, my work here is done!”?
In the kingdom of God, there is always a next thing that is needed. In our own lives, when we have given what was needed (even if it was that good kick), there is always the question of the next thing.
Our most important decisions every day come down to this: shall we give what is needed, or shall we give what is deserved? That is the light that the darkness cannot overcome.

That is what we have in Christ. That is what Christmas is about. If we belong to Jesus, then we are called to do our part in the victory of light and the conquering of the darkness. We are called to live out God’s light for others, trusting that, in Jesus Christ, we cannot be overcome by the darkness, because the darkness can never overcome him.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Incarnation - Speak to Me, Baby!

Preached on the First Sunday in Advent, November 27, 2016

Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-3; John 1:1-2

There was a new baby in the family: as normal and as perfect a baby as you could hope for. The problem was, after the end of the first year, the parents noticed that he wasn’t talking. In fact, except for crying and laughing, this was a strangely quiet baby.
Walking near the Columbia River
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
November 2016
They began taking their little son to the doctors for testing, but the doctors couldn’t find any signs of anything wrong. The baby passed all the physical and cognitive tests for his age with flying colors.
At the age of four, the boy still hadn’t spoken a single word. Then, one day, at lunch, the boy looked straight at his mother and clearly said, “Mom, this soup is way too salty.” “Oh son, my son, you talked? You’ve never talked before. How come you’ve never talked until now?”
And the boy said, “Well, up till now, everything’s been just fine.”
Even if we couldn’t talk, we are made to express ourselves. It can be with a look, a sign, a sigh, or an expression. It can be with our actions, with gardens, with art, with music, with making things, or making things happen.
We express ourselves through what we do for others, or through what we do to others. The list goes on and on.
We’re made to express ourselves, and to receive what others express, because we are all made in the image of God. The God who speaks in the Bible is the God who expresses himself, from all eternity, and the Gospel of John calls God’s self-expression “The Word”.
Since God never changes, our God has always been a God who expresses himself, and so “The Word” has always been with God. Since “The Word” expresses what God is, “The Word” is what God is. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)
I know this is deep. But I can’t help going on with it. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews starts out like this: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)
If I said nothing more than the words “Jesus is awesome” (with all the power of that misused word “awesome”) then I would have done my job. Jesus is awesome. There!
But, going on from that, in our preparation for Christmas, over the next few weeks, I want us to look at the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John. There are no Christmas stories in the Gospel of John, but these first eighteen verses tell us the meaning of Christmas. They tell us the heavenly side of what happened when Jesus was born as that baby in Bethlehem.
Before Jesus ever spoke a word with those sweet little lips of his, Jesus was God’s eternal self-expression. Jesus was, and is, God speaking to us. When we put up our Christmas decorations, if we have a Nativity set and the child in the manger, we should look at it and say, “Speak to me, Baby!”
As Christians, we often connect the word to the Bible, and that’s a fair thing to do. The Bible is the written word of God.
But Jesus is the Living and Eternal Word of God. Jesus speaks through the written word. In fact, the disciples and writers of the New Testament believed that all of the scriptures were all about Jesus.
But Jesus also speaks through his life and actions. And Jesus speaks through us, his disciples. And, since Jesus speaks through us, he also speaks to us through others, especially through other disciples. And Jesus speaks to us through our lives. The truth is that Jesus speaks to us from everywhere and through everything and through everyone.
When we meet Jesus as the God who expresses himself and speaks to us, we need to see how he does it. The written word shows us how he did it and that should give us a clue as to how he does it now.
Jesus spoke by meeting people and relating to them. Jesus told people to do something. Jesus told people to trust him. Jesus did wonderful things for them, whether they asked him or not. Jesus asked people questions. Jesus answered questions with strange answers that left people with more questions than they had before. Jesus spoke by challenging people who didn’t want to be challenged. Jesus argued with people.
More than the other Gospels, John shows us Jesus in conversation with others. The Gospel of John shows us that the Eternal Word of God is interactive. John shows us the conversational and relational God.
When John says that the Word was with God, he uses a particular Greek word for “with” that doesn’t mean “side by side”. It means something more like “face to face”. The Word who is God is also face to face with God. I’m only telling you what it says.
God himself is an eternal interaction, face to face: which may be a part of what it means to say that God is love. God was, and is, never alone. It’s the eternal nature of God to be a relationship, and this is what he has made us for, in his image.
The Word whom we meet in the baby of Bethlehem is clearly not about information or even instructions. The Word is about relationships and conversations. Even the work of the Word, in creating the universe, was about relationships leading up to us.
Because of the issue that we call sin, the issue that has damaged the image of God in us and damaged God’s expression of himself through us, what we have in this world is a vast system of broken relationships: some of them horribly broken. This brokenness seems to feed on itself and multiply itself; and it brings ugliness, and fear, and anger into our world.
Sometimes it seems to make the world into a place where God is absent. But God, who is all about expression, reached into a world that couldn’t see beyond itself so that it could see God again, and hear God’s voice, and be healed by God’s work: as a baby, and a carpenter, and a condemned man on a cross.
The words “in the beginning” are John’s way of reaching back to the very first words of the Book of Genesis and the story of the creation. He tells us that God first expressed himself in time and space by means of creation. The Word spoke, and everything happened. Everything came into being, step by step.
Jesus is the unchanging Word of God, and he is still in the business of expressing himself by creation. Creation isn’t something that was done a long time ago. Creation has never stopped, because God has never stopped being himself.
This involves you, and me, and every human being. The fact that Jesus is the self-expression of the unchanging God means that, when we see him come onto the scene of our world of history, and time, and space, he comes to be the creator, as always.
The Word of God isn’t just about words. In the Bible words are nothing if they don’t have the integrity of making something happen: and it better be something good.
For us, the cross, where Jesus died, is just as powerful as the word that said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:1) The baby in Bethlehem, the man on the cross, and the empty tomb are the Word of God to us. They are messages, acted out, and given to us, that have the integrity of making something new happen. God wants to make that creation happen to you, and to everyone you know, and to everyone on earth.
God wants to be known because, if we can truly know him, then we can truly love him, and by loving him we can receive him, and by receiving him we can live. We can be a new creation. We can be born again.
In the second chapter of Genesis, the story pictures God making us out of clay. God still expresses himself by close and even messy actions and relationships. That’s what he wants to do with every one of us, and with everyone in the world.
Genesis shows us the picture of a God who gets his hands dirty in order to be involved in his universe; and in the lives of people who are created to be his living images in this universe. The cross was a dirty and bloody business that left its mark and stain upon the hands of God. God loved doing that because he loves his world and those who live in it.
Being a Christian is not about the right information, but about God expressing himself to us so that we can be his new expressions, in his image, for a world that needs to hear from God. This world needs the creating, and healing, and life-changing Word (the Word that comes to our rescue, which is what “saving” is all about). We carry that Word as we carry Jesus with us in this world.
We are called to be the Word of God in this world because we are called to be like Jesus and follow him. We are to share Jesus with words, but the Word of God is more than words. The Word of God spoke through his birth in Bethlehem, through his life and actions, through his healings and his care for others, and through his death and resurrection.
I saw a posting on Facebook the other day that asked this question: “Want to keep Christ in Christmas?” It said: “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (possibly written by Sarah Benchley, in a photo on Facebook)
This is a message. This is the expression of the Word of God. We live together in a mission field that needs us to carry this Word to others.
The baby does speak. The baby of the Word is God invading our world so that we can see him and hear him again. This is the baby we meet at Christmas time. This is what the Baby came to give to our world, and he wants to give it through us. He wants to give himself to the world through us.