Category Archives: Sermon

What To Do When It Snows! – 2nd Samuel 23:20-23

Considering they are calling for our second round of winter weather within just two weeks, I thought it might be good to discuss appropriate activities for when the winter weather sets in.

There was once a woman driving through town who became lost in a massive snowstorm. She started to panic, but then remembered what her dad had told her years ago, “If you ever get lost in a snowstorm, just pullover and wait for a snowplow to come along and then follow the plow.

Sure enough a snowplow came along and she fell right in behind it.

She followed the plow for about forty-five minutes, until the plow came to a stop and the driver walked to her door and asked what she was doing. She told him what her father had told her about following the snowplow. He just nodded and smiled, “Well, I’m finished with Wal-Mart now, but you can follow me over to Sears if you want to.”

What do you do when it snows?

Some folks go out and play…snowball fights, building snowmen, sledding, skiing, snowboarding, and making snow angels…

Some folks go out and work, shoveling and scrapping driveways and sidewalks…

Some folks stay in and watch movies or read a book, maybe sitting by a warm fireplace…

Some folks may get on the phone and make calls, checking on friends and family, or getting in touch with someone they haven’t seen in a while…

Some folks just go about their day to day business as if nothing special has happened…

What is your favorite childhood memory of a snow day?

I have two, both of them involved the community.  The first one came after what I believe was a long period without snow and we finally had a great snowfall.  We lived in a neighborhood in which within the block (two streets that probably encompassed the distance from here to the parsonage) there were probably about eight of us within all within one to two years age difference.  I can’t remember exactly how old we were, but when this snow came one of the girls on the street I lived was sick at home with the chickenpox.  The rest of us all felt bad that she could not come out and join us in the fun, so we stopped what we were doing and built a snowman in her front yard for her while she watched out the window.

The second one not nearly the act of compassion of the first one…and it was not a snowy day, it was the night of a snowy day.

I only went once, but it was an adventure I will never forget.  Night would fall, and folks would make a pilgrimage to Butner Lake (now called Holt Reservoir—the name of which bears a significant connection to a member of Dale Crisp—it is a small world after all).  Fire barrels would be lit along the roadway and up an unbelievable hill.  We would all climb to the top of the hill (the hill is the length of 1 ½ football fields with a 150-foot drop), on the way down, you would have to dodge folks climbing the hill, folks wrecking on their way down the hill, and the fire barrels all while running a good 20-25 miles per hour.  You would pick up enough speed coming down the hill, that if you rode it out once leveling out, you would probably clear from here to Houston’s house, and possibly beyond.  If you weren’t careful, the end of the run would shoot you out onto Old Oxford Highway (the stretch of highway that would connect Durham and Oxford before I-85 was completed).  It was high speed and adrenaline pumping fun.

Did you realize that the Bible gives us a picture of what Biblical folks would do on a snowy day?  Who, other than those that I’ve told since I’ve been here, know where to find it?

It is found tucked away in the 23rd chapter of 2nd Samuel (or in 1st Chronicles 11):

Benaiah son of Jehoiada was a valiant warrior from Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds; he struck down two sons of Ariel of Moab. He also went down and killed a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen. And he killed an Egyptian, a handsome man. The Egyptian had a spear in his hand; but Benaiah went against him with a staff, snatched the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand, and killed him with his own spear. Such were the things Benaiah son of Jehoiada did, and won a name beside the three warriors. He was renowned among the Thirty, but he did not attain to the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard. [1]

How many of you knew the Bible offered this snowy day description?

Now we do not know what precipitated this event between Benaiah and the lion.  We do not know if there was a lion that had been causing trouble for the people of the region.  We do not know if this pit was a trap that had been laid for the lion.  We do not know if, perhaps, Benaiah was simply out walking, enjoying a stroll on a snowy day, and encountered a lion, or if the lion found him.  It is possible that Benaiah saw the lion and tracked him down in order to kill him.

What we do know is that on a day when snow had fallen, Benaiah went down in a pit, and killed a lion.  Benaiah entered a high risk, dangerous situation, and came out the victor.  He did not run, he did not hide, he met the challenge head on.

Just how dangerous was this challenge.  Think of it.  We are not talking about a kitty cat or a tame circus lion, but a wild lion.  Think also of the pit…the space in which Benaiah went toe to toe with the lion was not a wide-open space with lots of room to run, but a pit, which means, most likely, no quick exit.  Now think about the snow…think of any walking in the snow you may have done in our recent storm.  There is no quick movement when it comes to snow…there is not a lot of traction…and attempts at running can result in a face or rear-end planted in the snow in a hurry.  These are the conditions of the challenge that Benaiah took on.

What do we do on a day when snow has fallen?  What do we do when we encounter a lion on a day when snow has fallen?  Do we run, do we hide, or do we meet the challenge head on?

What are our snowy day lions?

Maybe it is a situation at work…a major project that has been presented to us to complete…or maybe trouble with a co-worker or supervisor…

Maybe it is an illness or disease and the treatment that we must face that is going to wreak havoc on our bodies…

Maybe it is rehab following surgery, illness, or injury…

Maybe it is having to move to a new location or a new job…

Maybe it is a challenging class or activity in school…

Maybe it is facing down a bully…

Maybe it is starting a new ministry or joining a ministry in an area that makes you uncomfortable…

Maybe it is taking an unpopular stand against a public injustice…

You get the idea…we have snowy days and lions that we encounter in our lives on a regular basis…

Again, I ask, what do we do…do we run, hide, or face it head on?

How do we find the courage that Benaiah had?  How do we face a lion in a pit on a snowy day?

The Bible does not tell us of Benaiah’s relationship with God…but we know that he was among God’s chosen people…the Israelites.  We do know about our relationship with God and His faithfulness.  We have seen God’s faithfulness in the snowy days and lions that Christ faced…the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes…the demons and diseases…the critics and hecklers…the Roman leaders and soldiers…the cross…and despite it all…Christ faced them without backing down and came out victorious…

We know that the same God who was with Benaiah…the same God who was with Christ…is with us and will be with us as we face the snowy days and lions in our lives…the times where the things that threaten us and roar in our faces…the times where the traction under us seems uncertain.  When we turn to Him, God will give us the strength to stand firm and sure…safe and secure from all alarms…for we know the promise of Christ…“What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”[2] With God we can face any lion in any condition and know that we will win.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Spiritual Warfare: Who Is The Enemy? – Ephesians 6:10-17

We know who we are fighting, don’t we? It is the liberals, or is it the conservatives? It is the gay community, or is it those who oppose same-sex marriage? It is Islam, or is it those who disparage other faiths? It is the gun-control activists, or is the members of the NRA? It is the illegal immigrants living among us, or is it those who want stricter immigration laws? And obviously, it is the drug dealer, the violent criminal and the terrorist, right? Like I said, we know who we are supposed to be fighting, right? If we don’t, there are plenty of folks who will tell us who we are supposed to fight, aren’t there? And every time that a there’s a controversy, a tragedy happens, or an attack occurs , battle plans are put together and lines in the sand are drawn—and along each of these lines, church folks around the nation join in, readily attacking or demonizing those on the other side.
The problem is, my brothers and sisters, that when the People of God begin attacking those who disagree with them, it reveals that we have forgotten who we are, who we serve, and who the real enemy is.
I have to believe that Paul repeatedly faced this problem which led him to write as he did this letter to the church in Ephesus. We read over and over in Paul’s letters as he addresses divisions in the church—with folks arguing over everything from what foods were morally okay to eat, to what Hebrew laws needed to be followed, to which of the apostles were to be considered authoritative and followed, to what gifts were the greatest, to how to address sin within the church. The churches to which he wrote also found themselves in conflict with the society around them, with the influence of pagan temples, civil rights, and governmental pressures.
As members of the churches chose sides and were determined that they knew who they were battling, Paul writes:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
What was Paul saying? Paul was speaking to those churches, and those in the churches, saying, “when you look at those brothers and sisters in Christ who stand on the other side of the line you have drawn, when you look at those in the community around you that you have decided are who you need to claim victory over, rethink yourselves. They are not the ones you are called to battle. They are not the ones who you need to claim victory over. They are not your enemy.” Paul says, “your struggle is not with those with whom you live—not with those of blood and flesh; not with those whom God knit together in their mother’s womb; not with those whom God has given life by filling their spirits with His very breath; and not with those for whom Christ offered His very life.”
My brothers and sisters, we are not in a battle against liberals or conservatives. We are not in a battle against the gay community or those who hold fast to Traditional marriage or those who believe guys are guys and gals are gals. We are not in a battle against Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Jews, Agnostics, Atheists, or anyone else along the religious or non-religious spectrum. We are not in a battle with gun-control advocates or gun-wielding 2nd amendment activists. We are not in a battle with immigrants, whether they are legal or undocumented. We are not in a battle with those who wish to see any non-citizens deported. We are not even in a battle with the drug dealer, violent criminal or terrorist. Each one of those folks, like each of us, breath in and out the very breath that God placed within us…each one of them, like each of us are those for whom Christ hung on the cross and offered his life to save. Each of the folks who stand on the other side of the line from us, like each of us, are those for whom Christ’s resurrection offers the promise of a new, forgiven, and redeemed life.
Our battle, our war, our fight, is not a contest simply waged on this earthly plane. Our battle extends beyond what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. We are engaged in a spiritual warfare. Our battle is against the power of darkness and the forces of evil. This is a war much bigger than we we may even imagine.
The front lines of this battle are fought first on our knees and then on our feet in the streets. We are called to engage in this warfare wherever we see darkness and evil. We are called to fight the evils of human trafficking and the slave trade. We are called to fight the darkness of addiction. We are called to fight the evil of racism, ageism, sexism, and every other area of oppressing another living being. We are called to stand against the destruction of life—whether it be that of an unborn child or a person on death row, whether it be through genocide or the disregard of oppressive living conditions. Wherever we see satan at work is where we are called to go…yet we are not to give into his wiles, but to stand against them.
And as we stand against satan, we must be careful not to give in to fighting the battles his way. Out of the chaos that was General Conference two years ago, one of the positive lights that stood out was the sermon of Bishop James Swanson of the Mississippi Conference. During that sermon, Bishop Swanson proclaimed, “It’s all right for you to disagree with me but it’s not all right for you to hate me. It’s all right for you to plot to win, but never use the weapons of [satan] against the people of God.” I would go one further than the Bishop and say that we, as the People of God, should never pick up and use the weapons of satan against anyone that Christ shed His blood to save.
What are those weapons that we should never find in our arsenal? What are the tools of darkness and evil that we must avoid? Among them are hate, lying and deceit, humiliation, abuse, condemnation, and alienation…any weapon that would seek to destroy another person, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. These are tools of the one who would deceive us in telling us that is the way to defeat our enemy. When we pick up those tools, we begin fighting on the side of the one that we should be seeking to claim Christ’s Victory over.
In this war, my friends, we are called to equip ourselves with the divine weapons of battle. What are they? Paul tells us clearly, and in the coming weeks, we will explore each one individually as we engage in this war by putting on the Armor of God: the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…shoes that lead us to places to proclaimed the gospel of peace…the shield of faith…the helmet of salvation…and our only offensive weapon…the Sword of the Spirit.
Now that we know who our true battle is with…let us commit ourselves to this war…and make ready to equip ourselves to wage it God’s way!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Contracts and Covenants

I’ve been asked several times during the time that I have been pastoring congregations, “what is a covenant?” I’ve often asked the question of others, “what do you think of when you hear the word covenant?” We read the word frequently through Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, but sometimes within the New. In the life of the church we hear it when we talk about the Baptismal Covenant or a Wedding Covenant. Tonight we join together and will observe a Covenant Renewal Service, so I thought it would be a good time for us to consider the question together, “What is a covenant?”
Far too many times when I have asked folks what a covenant is…and sadly I’ve even heard some pastors present it this way, they look at covenant is just being the biblical word equivalent of “contract.” We know what contracts are. We sign a contract when we purchase a new car or a new house. We might sign a contract for employment opportunities or a credit application. There are times in schools or even families where there might be behavioral contracts put into place.
The thing is, my brothers and sisters, there is a vast difference between a contract and a covenant.
Let’s consider a contract for purchasing a boat, since we are here on Harkers Island, and I’ve seen quite a few more for sale here than I have in other places I have pastored. Let’s say Dale has decided to sell his boat. I am interested in purchasing the boat. Dale and I work out a deal. I agree to pay him $18,000 for his boat, he agrees to give me the boat in exchange for $18,000. The key to understanding a contract is each person’s action is dependent upon the actions of the other person. In other words, if I don’t give Dale the $18,000, Dale doesn’t give me the boat. If Dale doesn’t provide me with the boat, I don’t give him the $18,000.
We can give thanks to God that a covenant is nothing like a contract. We see the stark difference between the two as we read through God’s Word. God does not contact individuals and say, “Let’s get together and draw out a covenant with one another.” What we read in Scripture, from Noah on, is that God declares, “This is my covenant I am establishing with you.” God initiates the covenant in a one-sided manner. He invites Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the Hebrew people as a whole into a relationship with Him that He is establishing.
Once God initiates the covenant, once He invites the individual or the nation as a whole into a covenantal relationship, the people are asked to respond. The invitation to covenantal relationship includes expectation. God establishes the covenant with Noah and sends he and his family out to be fruitful and multiply. God establishes the covenant with Abraham and tells him that he must leave his homeland and go the land that God would reveal to him while in journey. God establishes the covenant with Israel through Moses, offering them the Ten Commandments and tell the people they are now to abide by the Law.
We begin to see a little difference between the contract and covenant here…with the one-sided initiation…but so far, it doesn’t seem like a great deal of difference with a contract…but we aren’t finished yet.
With a contract we noted, that if one person doesn’t fulfill their part of the contract it renders the agreement null and void. If Dale and I had the contract about my paying him for the boat, and we set that arrangement upon on payment plans, and I stop paying, then Dale will likely either sue me or come and take his boat back…and our contract is null and void.
Covenants don’t operate this way. Just as we repeatedly see God establishing covenants with His people throughout Scripture, we as often see the people of God turning away from God. If covenants operated like contracts, God could simply say, “Fine. You lost your chance. I’ll go find another people to be my people.” However, Scripture reveals to us that is not how God works.
Contracts are often sealed by handshakes and/or signatures. Covenants, on the other hand, are sealed and bound by love. Throughout Scripture we see time and again that even as God’s people fail on their part of the covenant, God is standing there waiting for them to return—waiting for them to turn their lives around in repentance. Not only does God wait for the people to return, He aids them in making that return.
God does the same with each of us. God has established a relationship with us by pouring out His Holy Spirit and drawing us to Himself. Our baptism is recognition of that invitation to relationship and our surrender of our lives to Him. Often, though, we fail to live out lives that are reflective of that invitation and surrender. We sin, taking our lives back for ourselves rather than given over to God. Yet, no matter where we have been in our lives…no matter how far off track we have strayed from God and lived contrary to the will of God…no matter how far we have drifted away from the time of our Baptism…God remains there, waiting for us to return…pouring out His Spirit beckoning for us to return…giving us the strength to return…loving us the whole time….ready to renew a relationship with us and give us the ability to live out our side of the covenant. He does this through His Son, Jesus Christ, who offered His life in our place for our sin, paying our penalty…and giving us His Spirit that we might actually become holy. That’s covenant living…that would be like Dale telling me to keep the boat, enjoy the boat, keep making the payments, and here’s the money to pay me off.
Tonight we gather to renew the covenant made at our Baptism and commit our lives once more to live for God. We have come here because God loves us so much that He sent his Son into the world that all might be saved, and that we might have the chance to begin our lives with a fresh start.
Through the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, God has given us the ability to live out our side of the covenant. He continually fills us with the Holy Spirit that we might be made holy and be able to live holy lives. He has brought us together tonight, to receive His Spirit and ask us to turn our lives back over to Him. We come tonight to be a part of the new Covenant that God has established through Jesus Christ as promised by the prophet Jeremiah. We come here, gathered as the people gathered around King Josiah and together renewed their covenant with God. We come here, my brothers and sisters, offering our lives back to God and allowing Him to put his law within us and write it upon our hearts.
Praise be to God!
The Covenant Renewal Service that I invite you to participate in tonight, was of particular importance to John Wesley. He began using it in the 1780’s with the Methodist Societies that met. The Covenant that we will offer up today is almost an exact replica of the service that Wesley celebrated in 1780.
The Invitation and Covenant Prayer that I now offer for you to participate in should be done with complete reverence and sincerity. The prayers that we offer up, we offer as a vow before God. I invite each of you to participate and take your bulletin home and sign it as a reminder of your commitment. Place it somewhere that it can be a reminder of the Covenant between God and yourself.

A War Cry: The Magi – Matthew 2:1-18

 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the darkness of Christmas…or at least the darkness of the nativity story as the first Christmas occurred without Christmas carols and Christmas trees, without blinking lights or elves in Christmas tights…, or as Dr. Suess would put it: “it came without ribbons!…it came without tags!…it came without packages, boxes, or bags.”[i]  Since mid-November we have been explored the dark world into which Jesus was born as God declared that the time had come for evil, sin, and even death to be defeated.

We journeyed to tiny Bethlehem with its history of idolatry, prejudice, betrayal, brutal violence, and death.

We walked with Mary as she put her relationship with her family, and even her own life, on the line to respond to God’s call to service—and found herself a rejected, outcast, teenage pregnant mom-to-be.

We stood by Joseph as he chose not to reject Mary and in taking her into his life risked his reputation, his financial security, and his family connections and in Bethlehem realizing those losses.

We encountered the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, come down from His throne in Heaven and born in a stable surrounded not by angels bowing and worshipping, but by animals, their feed, and their waste.

Next we found the shepherds in the darkness of night watching their flocks as a division of God’s warrior angels appeared to proclaim the birth of the Messiah.

Finally, last week we encountered Simeon and Anna in the Temple who, though praising God for having the opportunity to witness the Messiah before their death, also gave testimony to the dark and painful future that Jesus would have—a lifetime of conflict leading to the cross.

However, believe it or not, we have not encountered the darkest part of those that are incorporated into the first couple of years of Jesus’ life…and that part is tied to the star that broke into the darkness of the evening Jesus was born.

It was an unsettled time.  People had grown wearing of being ruled over by one empire and then another.  Many times the weariness had led to uprisings and revolts, however against Rome, these revolts were quickly put down.  However, it wasn’t just Rome that folks worried about since Herod had come into power.  Herod would never tolerate a revolt.  He was determined not to lose the power that had been granted him by Rome.  Herod had been known to have his own children and wife put to death out of fear that they were plotting to steal the throne out from under him.  I don’t know for sure, but I am thinking that people probably had gotten to the point that were scared to criticize him, lest they “be disappeared.”

Into this dark, tense, war-like scene, enter a group of magi.  Because of the number of gifts they carried with them (which we will get to later) we have usually said that there were three…some have even assigned them names and nationalities…however we do not know the names, nationalities, or even the number by way of the Scriptures, all of that has simply derived from a variety of church traditions.  Some have said that they were kings, however many scholars, that they were astrologers.  Having noticed a new star in the sky—connected it to a prophecy they had heard or read—and then followed the star for two years, looking for a child that had been born when the star had appeared (their understanding is that the child that had been born under that star would be king), they were possibly Persian members of the Zoroastrian religion.

These magi would have made folks uneasy to start with, foreigners that weren’t even Roman, entering Jerusalem.  They approached Herod and told him that they had come in search of the new king that they might worship him—they came to Herod, the current king, thinking that the new baby would likely have been his child.  We read that this proclamation made Herod and all of Jerusalem uneasy.  Herod would have grown upset, figuring that this “newborn king” was a legitimate threat to his throne…the rest of Jerusalem would have most likely been uneasy, not out of worry about the new baby on the scene, but out of concern with what Herod would do to quench the threat of losing power.  The end of our reading this morning shows that Jerusalem’s fears were well founded—for here we see the war between God and evil escalate as evil, through Herod, tries to stifle the plans of God.

Herod, after finding information from his advisors, directs the magi to Bethlehem, asking them to report where they found the child that he may go and worship this little boy.  The magi, we figure are wise enough to know that Herod had ulterior motives, but in case they didn’t, God sent yet another “dream angel” to discourage them from returning to Herod after they found young Jesus.

You remember that I said when we began this series that Bethlehem’s history, particularly from Judges, would garner a movie about its story an NC-17 rating?  Well, what happens next, when Herod realizes that the magi have ditched him, would help push the entire nativity story in that direction.  Infuriated, and worried that his rule was in jeopardy, taking into account the two years that the magi had followed the star, possibly inspired by the Egyptian pharaoh of old, had all the boys in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger, slaughtered.  Talk about evil taking a great swing back at God as a result of God’s declaration of war…

While the magi may have avoided becoming embroiled in Herod’s plan to quickly rid Israel of any threat to his throne—their visit contained their own message of darkness.  While Luke conveyed the warning to Mary through Simeon—it was the gifts that the magi brought through which Matthew offers his foreshadowing of the trouble to come.

The magi have brought with them three gifts.  The first is gold.  It is a gift fitting for a king—in that time, it was considered the richest of metals; the gold would also be able to serve as a resource to help aid Mary and Joseph who had risked, and now seemed to be without, financial security.  The frankincense, often burned during worship, would be a nod to the priestly role that Jesus would take.  However, it was the myrrh that would contribute to our dark picture.  Myrrh had two primary uses in the time of Jesus…one was that of a painkiller…the other is when it is used as a form of embalming fluid.  These two are the instances, the only instances, in which myrrh appears later within the gospels—the first is when myrrh mixed with wine is offered to Jesus as he hung on the cross, possibly to ease his pain, or maybe to get him to relax and stop fighting for breath and lead death overtake him.  The second instance is when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus remove Jesus’ body from the cross and prepare him for burial—myrrh is mentioned among the spices they brought to anoint Jesus’ body as they placed him in the tomb.  Here, amongst the gifts of those who followed the star to find the One who would be King, not only of the Jews, but in reality, all of Creation—an offering to the High Priest of high priests—was a gift that underlined the fact that this tiny baby was a gift of joy and sorrow, for those tiny hands which would wrap themselves around one of Mary or Joseph’s fingers would one day be pierced with a nail—as the One who was rejected in Bethlehem, and in Nazareth, and in the Gadarenes, would also be rejected in Jerusalem and hung upon a cross.

So, some may be asking, if we have spent these two months reflecting on all this darkness of the Christmas story, is there anywhere that we find the call to celebration and light?  Is there reason that we might put up the trees, hang the lights, and find joy in the season?

Very much so…God did not leave Bethlehem in its remote darkness and sin but chose to enter into the darkness and wage war on sin and evil with “the light of the world.”

While evil tried to defeat God by having Joseph abandon Mary, God moved Joseph to stay by her side.

While evil tried to gain the upper hand in the war through Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents—an act of unspeakable, unimaginable evil—God prevailed by directing Mary and Joseph to flee with their toddler to Egypt, later to return to Nazareth.

Later evil would try to prevail at the cross, only to have the empty tomb declare God’s victory.

The truth of Christmas, my friends, is that while darkness and evil may still wage a battle here and there, sometimes in unspeakable ways, we worship the God who has already claimed the ultimate victory and we proclaim this through our lights that cut into the darkness and our carols that break the silence and turn mourning into rejoicing.

May the joy of Christmas that God has not left us to suffer in sin and evil but entered in to our dark world fill us not just during December and early January, but all year long…

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

[i] How the Grinch Stole Christmas

A War Cry: Simeon and Anna Luke 2:22-38

We’re nearing the end of our journey, as we’ve been considering God’s Christmas declaration of war on evil, sin, and death. Bethlehem indicated that there is no place too small or with too dark a history for God to enter into and redeem. Mary and Joseph’s entry into God’s service showed us what it means to risk everything, family, friends, finances, reputation, and life in order to serve God. The baby Jesus called us to a life of humble service, where we put the needs of others above ourselves, and never consider any area of service beneath us. The shepherds and angels remind us we can have peace in all things because God has come to be among us and that this message is a message to us all…every one of us…regardless of how insignificant others try to make us feel.

Some would think we’re done at this point, others would suggest that we have one more group to cover, namely the wise men.  Considering that the wise men did not show up at the manger, but likely at Mary and Joseph’s home when Jesus was a toddler, for reasons we’ll get into next week on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we have an additional stop to make on our War Cry journey. It is an event that would have taken place between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the wise men—it is also continues to highlight the darkness we have encountered in our journey of God’s battle plan—today we turn to the presentation of Jesus at the Temple as part of Mary’s purification rites.

Have you ever received a Christmas or maybe birthday present that was what you had always wanted, or at least longed for for a long time?  Maybe you received it sometime over the last week.  Maybe it was some other time.  If we have ever received that gift, and remember the excitement that we felt, then we might understand a slight bit of the excitement that Simeon felt that day.

Simeon was a holy man.  He had longed to see Israel relieved from the oppression that the nation had been under for as long as he could remember. God’s people had been under control other than God’s for years. He wanted to see the people of God’s covenant freed. In the midst of his faithful longing, he had received a visit from God’s Spirit and received a promise that he would not die before he saw the One who would bring the salvation of God’s people—the Messiah, God’s Anointed.

One day, prompted by the Holy Spirit, maybe realizing what was about to happen, maybe just having one of those inexplicable urges that he just had to be somewhere, Simeon went to the Temple. That same day, Mary, Joseph, and the infant, Jesus, had made their way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for the presentation of Jesus, and for the priest to declare that Mary, Jesus, and possibly Joseph to be clean, having waited the appropriate amount of time, and brought the required sacrifice after coming in contact with the blood associated with childbirth.

As they walk in with Mary possibly cradling the baby Jesus, the Spirit prompts Simeon to turn and see them, and opens his eyes to who Jesus is.  With that realization, Simeon rushes over and sweeps Jesus from the arms of Mary.  In today’s world, Mary and Joseph would have been standing there in shock, terrified about what this lunatic might be getting ready to do to their child, they might even would’ve yelled for someone to call thru police, or whipped out their smartphones and dialed 911 themselves.  However, this was a different time, and despite both of them having been visited by angels who had indicated what a special child Jesus would be, and despite the visit from the shepherds, Mary and Joseph stood in quiet amazement at what Simeon was declaring about their son.

Simeon begins to sing praises to God, giving thanks to God for God’s faithfulness in keeping His promise and that the redemption of Israel was at hand. We hear these words: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Sounds like a great celebration, right?  No hint of all the darkness or pain of God’s War here, right?  Well, that seems like the direction it’s going, until Simeon turns and begins talking to Mary, offering words that would have to haunt her for the next 33 years.  There we find the words of God’s battle plan and more sorrow for this young mom, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

What is Simeon talking about?  Simeon’s words to Mary paint a picture of the counter-cultural ministry of Jesus, and the reaction to it.  We see in Jesus’ ministry the raising of many.  We see the literal raising of the synagogue leader’s daughter, the widow’s son, and, of course, Lazarus.  However we also see many others raised—the quadriplegic that had been lowered by his friends through the roof, the man who had laid by the pool of Bethesda for half a lifetime, and the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years.  We see him lift up the significance of those that society would cast aside, the tax collector, the prostitute, and other sinners, those who had been considered not worthy of becoming a rabbi’s disciple and returned to their family businesses such as fishing, little children who were meant to be not heard and not seen, women who were considered to be of no greater value than an asset of their husbands, lepers, the blind, demoniacs, as well as Samaritans and Gentiles, )people of mixed race and foreigners).  It was all of these that society pushed aside or ignored that rose in response to the teaching and touch of Jesus.

Simeon, though, spoke of the falling of many at the words of Jesus.  Where are the fallen?  We see many who fell as a result of an encounter with Jesus—the pig farmers who watched their herd run off the cliff into the ocean when filled with the demons of the Gadarenes demoniacs brining the whole town to beg Jesus to leave, rather than celebrate the life-changing encounter, there was the rich young ruler who went away sad when told by Jesus to go and sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus, there were the religious elite whose teachings kept themselves lifted up and everyone else in their place found every effort to trap Jesus reversed on themselves, and even found themselves on the receiving end of Jesus’ ridicule as Jesus called those who accused Him of being in league with Beelzebub of being children of Satan themselves, there were the money changers and sacrificial animal sellers in the Temple courts, and even Judas Iscariot who could not accept that Jesus was the Messiah he had been longing for all these years.

Each of these efforts, of lifting the fallen and bringing down those who placed themselves above others, led to the opposition that Jesus faced.  From the forgiving sins, to healings on the Sabbath, to the cleansing of the Temple, the religious leaders began plotting to bring the ministry of Jesus to an end.  They bribed Judas Iscariot to show them where to find Jesus as Jesus prayed in the Garden.  They were so opposed to Jesus that they resulted to seeking out folks to break one of the Ten Commandments as they actively sought out people to bear false witness against Jesus.  They used peer pressure to sway the crowd to ask for the release of a murderer over the release of Jesus when given the option by Pilate.  All of this was seen by those around Jesus, but Jesus also encountered opposition on a completely different plane as Satan appeared to tempt him in the wilderness, tried to  use Peter’s confusion over what the Messiah was to look like to tempt Jesus to take a different route, and at the last tempted Jesus to choose self-preservation over the cup God of self-sacrifice that the Father had set before Him.

What does this mean for all of us, my friends?  If it means that if we are followers of Jesus, if we claim to be disciples of Christ, then the words of Simeon will apply to us as well. We will be responsible for the raising and felling of many. Our lives and ministry will be counter-cultural…we will not be satisfied with the status quo.  We will seek to raise those who find themselves at the bottom.  We will reach out to those who are sick and struggling and seek to lift them up.  We will reach out and touch those that society has said are untouchable and worthless—the homeless, the undocumented, the sinners striving for repentant lives, and others.  We will expend our energy to counter the “-isms” of our culture—sexism, ageism, racism, classism, or any other effort to categorize a group of people in a way that makes them less, and force the world to recognized the value and significance of each and every life—that all are a precious, valued life before God.

Our following of Jesus will cause many to stumble or fall—as we call for forgiveness in a world where getting even is seen not only as a strength, but a right; as we call for personal responsibility in a culture that is quick to blame someone else for our own mistakes; as we call to place others’ needs and a commitment to God above ourselves in a culture that says, “look out for number one”; and as we confront those who would suggest that following Jesus is only about believing the right thing, not necessarily doing the right thing, or the flipside of that doing the right thing, not believing that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.

In doing these things, we join the War Cry that rose from the manger, and most likely sounded out through the Temple as He was presented, committing ourselves to the battle plan of God.  And as we do, let us all, let the whole Church, join Anna in praising God for this child and pointing others to the One who came not only to redeem Jerusalem but also the whole world.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

 

 

Christmas Carol Countdown* (Wednesday Night Worship)

A survey was taken over the last several weeks and the results, though minimal, are in.  Tonight, we will enjoy the top six Christmas carols of our congregation.  There were five songs tied for second, and a final song that stood alone at the top of the standings. The lyrics will be on the screen, so please feel free to sing along.

At number six we have a song of mysterious origin.  It is perhaps one of the first Christmas carols taught to children.  It seems to date back to the latter part of the 1800’s.  It has been wrongly attributed to Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation.  It was said that he would sing it to his children every night.  The legend grew to him singing it to children across Germany.  Interestingly, though, is the fact that not a single mother in Germany was familiar with the song prior to its introduction from the United States to them.  The authorship continues to remain uncertain, though many believe its roots are here in the United States.  There is no question, though, that the image it paints is of a night of joy, a night of peace, a night of hope, the night of the birth of Jesus, as He was laid, “Away in a Manger.”

Number five’s authorship is pretty solid, though the two who composed it originally could only have come together by the moving Spirit of God.  Noel Regney was a French classical composer who found himself in Nazi Germany during World War II and having to fight his way back into France.  His love of music drew him to the United States, specifically New York City.  He walked into the Beverly Hotel and was immediately drawn to a beautiful woman playing popular music on the piano.  Though he spoke little English and was a classical composer and she didn’t understand French with a passion for rock and roll, in less than a month the two were married. Regney composed a poem to help him find hope in a world seemingly entrenched in war, and asked his wife to set it to music.  Despite a rocky start, in 1963, Bing Crosby’s decision to record the song solidified its place in Christmas music history…let’s hear “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Our fourth-place song also has French origins.  In 1847 the parish priest of a small French town asked a infrequently attending businessman, Placide Cappeau de Roquemanure, who was known for his poetry to write a poem for the Christmas Eve mass.  Honored he began to write, but became so inspired by his own writing, he determined it needed to be put to music.  He turned to his friend, classical composer, Adolphe Charles Adams.  Despite his misgivings, Adams, a man of Jewish ancestry, set to work and put the piece to music.  It was quickly embraced by the French Catholics, until Placide waked away from the church entirely and the church discovered the musician was Jewish.  The church began to denounce the song, but the people began to embrace it.  It was later embraced in America during the Civil War…and then in 1906, it became the first song to be heard across the airwaves, as Reginald Fessenden, chemist for Thomas Edison, spoke into a microphone reading the Christmas story from Luke, and then as he completed his reading, he picked up his violin and began playing, “O Holy Night.”

We stick with the sacred night scene as we move into the third place song, and encounter a song that arose out of desperation as much as inspiration.  The location was Austria…the year 1818.  Assistant priest Joseph Mohr was making final preparations for the perfect Christmas Eve service when he suddenly discovered that the church’s aged organ was worn out and wouldn’t play…after striving for hours to get it fixed, Mohr threw up a desperation prayer that God would reveal to him how to bring music to the service (he didn’t have access to Youtube 😉).  God drew his mind back to a Christmas poem he had written two years earlier.  Just hours before the service, Mohr made his way over to the local school teacher who also served as the church organist and told him what was going on with the organ…he pulled out the poem and asked Franz Gruber to come up with music that the choir could quickly learn accompanied by guitar.  The clock continued to tick and with just hours to spare, Gruber met Mohr at the church with the guitar chords in place…after quickly teaching the song to the choir, at midnight they stood before the congregation to introduce “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” or as we know it, “Silent Night, Holy Night!”

Though its tune can be traced all the way back to the 1500’s, possibly even King Henry VIII, the hymn didn’t come to light until the 1800’s in England.  Insurance man by day, but poet at heart, William Chatterton Dix was a prolific poet.  It was a nearly fatal illness that brought a renewal of faith to Dix and as he recovered he became a great hymn writer.  However, Dix lived in an era where Christmas was not really celebrated as we do today.  The Puritan society that he was part of feared that if we set aside a special day celebrating the birth of Jesus it would be transformed into a day more of pagan rituals than a serious time of worship…given what consumerism has transformed it to, they may not have been far off.  However, despite the societal norm, Dix felt compelled to write a special hymn focused on the birth of Christ.  They hymn was published under the name “The Manger Throne,” then paired with the much beloved King Henry VIII tune “Greensleeves” and all the world joined Dix and the first audience of Christmas in asking “What Child Is This?”

We now find ourselves at the most requested Christmas carol of our congregation.  This song is actually the newest of the songs we consider tonight.  It was originally written as a poem from the perspective of a reporter interviewing Mary on her perspective of being the mother of Jesus.  Unfortunately, the author could not find a suitable tune to match up with the power of the words.  It was as members of the Gaither Vocal Band that words met music.  Mark Lowery offered his words to musician Buddy Green and a few weeks later the song was born…recorded first by Michael English and then by Kathy Mattea the popularity of the song continues to grow as more and more of us ask, “Mary Did You Know?”

My brothers and sisters, as we continue our journey through the next nine days of Christmas, may these and all the Christmas Carols we love take such a deep root in our heart that they become part of our lives every day that we may carry the joy of Christmas into each and every day of the year.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amen.

*Historical Information is taken from “Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins

A War Cry: Angels and Shepherds – Luke 2:8-20 (HIUMC – Christmas Eve Sunday Morning)

When you think of Christmas angels, what images come to mind? For most of us, pageants over the years, have left us with images of pretty, young angels, often female, singing over a field of shepherds. [Maybe a little something like this.]

What if, however, we pictured the group of angels, less like a professional music group dressed in choir robes singing…and more like [this],

a group of angels, swords by their sides, standing in military formation, who just happened to be gifted in music and singing. Why this image? We’ll explore that in just a few moments.
Let’s take a moment to remember where we have been on this journey, that we have entitled, “A War Cry,” so we will have a grounding point for where we find ourselves today. We began our journey by noting that while Christmas time has traditionally been a point of thinking about “peace o’er all the earth,” an image highlighted in 1914 with the Christmas cease-fire during World War I, that in reality, Christmas is God’s declaration of war on evil, sin, and death.
We began in Bethlehem. We recalled that Bethlehem’s history was a very dark history…throughout the Old Testament, Bethlehem was associated with death, betrayal, idolatry, violence, brutality, sorrow, and prejudice. It was no Garden of Eden, and yet, it is the location that God chose to declare war on those very things that marred the history of this tiny town. For us, this means that there is no life too small and no history too putrid that God will not enter in, fight for, and declare victory.
Next, we considered Mary. We reflected on the fact that while she submitted herself to taking part in God’s war plan, that she didn’t jump up and run to the recruiting office to volunteer, but when God said, “I want you,” with fear and trembling, and probably a little hesitancy, she put her life and her relationship with her family on the line, and said, “…let it be with me according to your word,” with the promise that she would survive as God’s presence would be with her.
Joseph, put family, finances, and reputation on the line as he agreed to serve God, by marrying Mary, his teenage fiancée who had become pregnant by someone other than himself prior to their becoming wed. We saw that both Mary and Joseph experienced the cost of their commitment to God’s service as they found themselves alone, in the stables, with Mary giving birth amongst the sounds and smells of the animals.
It was in this humble and humiliating location that we encountered the fourth element of our series…the one who uttered the “War Cry,” the baby Jesus. We realized that in giving our lives to the service of Jesus, we must be willing to endure the same humiliation He did. This is the One who stepped from the glory of the Heavenly throne room, to be nursed at a woman’s breast, endure wearing soiled garments until they could be changed, face the same temptations we face day in and day out, and then be crucified as a common criminal, all to bring us victory over sin and death…and He says, “come, follow me.”
Today we move from inside the little town of Bethlehem, to the fields outside the city gates. Here we encounter the shepherds who have the joy of working the night shift taking care of the sheep. While there may be a bleat here and there, for the most part the sheep were probably sleeping and not grazing. This did not lessen the workload of the shepherds, it most likely increased it, as they would have to be on watch for any four, or two-legged thieves that would seek to steal or destroy the sheep that were under their care. Suddenly the darkness of their night as illuminated in a way that most likely startled and surprised them, and there standing in their midst was an Angel of the Lord. Remember, angels as they appeared on earth, from the time of Abraham were not noted by their winged appearances (those appearances were reserved for visions of heaven), but when God’s people encountered angels, they looked not too differently than you or I. Suddenly this angel appears in dazzling light before the shepherds, seemingly coming out of nowhere—think of the Air Force member suddenly appearing in the Smithsonian with his chello, catching everyone by complete surprise…to bring it to Downeast, think of being out on a shrimp boat and having an Admiral suddenly appear on the bow of the boat.
No wonder the angel began his speech by saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great Joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord….” Then, just as suddenly as the first angel had appeared before the shepherds, a whole multitude of the heavenly hosts joined him. Two notes on this—one is about “multitude.” I have often thought, well maybe there were 20 or 30 angels in this angelic chorus…but if we consider the ways that Luke uses the Greek word plethos through his gospel, from the fish that the disciples caught when throwing their nets off the side of the boat, to the number of people that gathered on the plain to hear Jesus teach, Luke is encouraging us to think in terms of hundreds and thousands of angels that appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem—no wonder the lead angel had said, “fear not.” The second note is the Greek word that refers to “hosts,” and will move us from considering the sweet angelic cherubs we usually think of singing sweetly over the plain, to thinking more in terms of the Air Force descending upon the Smithsonian, the Greek word translated hosts is strateia—a word consistently considered to have military connotations. So here we have enough of God’s heavenly warriors to fill anywhere from a battalion to a brigade to a whole division, standing before these shepherds—thinking back to the shrimp boat, picture the sudden appearance of a battleship and aircraft carrier appearing alongside the boat—the sides of both vessels lined with sailers. These members of God’s army appearing over the plain just happen to be gifted musicians and are singing God’s praises, offering up prayer to God, and words of encouragement to those who were listening in reference to the Messiah who had been born—singing of the child laying in the manger: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” They proclaimed peace, the peace we considered last night, the peace of knowing that God has come to be with us, the peace that comes from the assurance that God has already claimed victory over everything that would assail His people.
And this message was brought to shepherds…shepherds of all people…out in the middle of field in the middle of the night. Why shepherds out in the middle of nowhere? Why did the angels not appear in downtown Jerusalem…where the large crowds would have been located? Why not appear at the gates of the Temple at the height of the business day—I mean, think about it, if they had waited until halfway through the next day to proclaim this message in Jerusalem, it would have given Mary a little time to rest from her journey and the stress of unassisted childbirth.
Yet that is not when and where God sent them…God sent his messengers to this open field in the middle of the night to a group of shepherds out under the stars. Was it to avoid a panic that might have ensued had a battalion or legion of angels appeared in the middle of downtown Jerusalem? Could be, but I don’t think so.
Consider who the shepherds were. They were not the most beloved people of the community. They spent their days and nights amongst the sheep. They probably smelled a lot like the sheep. They were often forgotten. Consider when Samuel came looking to Jesse for one of his sons to anoint as king of Israel. Jesse brought all of his sons forward except for David who was out in the fields taking care of the sheep…the forgotten son…the one who was too small and insignificant that later when Goliath arrived on the scene, he remained at home while his brothers went to war. This is who the angel and the heavenly host went to, to carry the message that the Messiah had been born.
Why? Several possible reasons. First, the Psalmists and the prophets had used a parallel of God as shepherd…God being the one who would gather and care for His sheep, providing for their needs. Yet, and I think more importantly, it is because the shepherds would have been the humble, forgotten, “least of these,” of their time. Remember the message of the angel when he arrived, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The message the angel brought is for all people. Have you ever been in a situation where something is declared to be for everyone, and you think that means everyone else but you—that you aren’t important enough, you are good enough, you aren’t special enough for it to include you? That’s how the shepherds might have felt if they overheard the news from someone having spotted the angels in Jerusalem—yet in this field there is no mistaking who the angels are talking to—the “all” of the people includes them—the angel says, “to YOU” is born this day.
Hear that this Christmas Eve morning….especially if you have ever, or even now, felt like you weren’t important enough, special enough, significant enough for anyone, much less God, to care about…that message to the shepherds is a message for you—important enough that God would send a whole legion of angels here to declare it…”for to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” He has come…he has dwelt among us…He has been, is, and always will be with us…each of us…all of us…thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Preparing for Peace – Isaiah 9:6-7, John 14:27, John 16:33 (Saturday December 23, 2017 – “Fourth Sunday In Advent”)

Peace…peace…peace. We hear that word more this time of year, probably, than any other. We talk about it. We sing about it. We pray for it. We crave it, perhaps, more than anything else—whether we realize it or not. After all, shouldn’t that be the highlight of this time of year as we gather to celebrate the the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Yet, for many of us, peace is more elusive this time of year than any other.
Our calendars disrupt our peace. There are church services and other faith activities…. parades… school programs… work and sometimes work Christmas parties… family gatherings… decorating… shopping… wrapping… cooking and baking… phone calls and Christmas cards… Peace? Who has time for peace?
The weather disrupts our peace. In North Carolina that’s a given. It’s rainy. It’s sunny. It’s cold. It’s hot. We’re outside playing ball in shorts and short sleeves. We’re huddled on the under blankets while wearing our winter pajamas. All in one week. All in one day. Peace? Things are too unpredictable to find peace.
Our finances disrupt our faith. Job layoffs… business closings… unemployment… Gifts and meals that aren’t part of our regular budget… thinking about the bills that will come in on gifts bought on credit… Unexpected home repairs…doctors visits…car maintenance…. Peace? All the money in the world wouldn’t finance peace.
Our health disrupts our peace. We fail to do enough push always and stay at the table far too long. We have what Davey’s girlfriend terms “snacksidents” munching on something every time we walk by the table, counter, and/or island. Heartburn. Food allergies. Colds and viruses jump on us, our children, our grandchildren. Emergency surgeries. Planned procedures. Rehab. Physical therapy. Unexpected and undesired results from medical tests. Peace? We’re too sick to think about it.
Our families disrupt our peace. Yes, I said it. Most of us think it but would’ve dare voice it, but it’s true. Little Johnny changes his wish list for the 20th time. On December 23rd we remember we forgot a gift for our spouse. We have to travel across state or across country to visit family members…or the family members all converge on our home and want to come at the same time. Both sides of the family want to have their family gatherings at the same time in different towns. Family you haven’t heard from in years suddenly shows up…or worse, another year passes, and you still haven’t heard from them. Family members who don’t get along somehow end up sitting beside each other at the Christmas dinner. We are reminded of those, who because of divorce, death, or other disruption, are no longer with us to celebrate the season. Peace? We can’t relate to peace.
Peace? Peace in most of our lives tends to be more elusive than a white Christmas on Harkers Island. And yet, 8 out of 34 Christmas cards we have received this year mention peace.
It begs us to ask the question, just what is peace? Most of us would define peace as “the lack of conflict”—an absence of physical or psychological attacks between nations, between political parties, between communities, or between family members. And yet around the globe there are wars and conflicts raging, even in places where peacekeeping troops are on the ground. And even in our homes Peace seems to be missing where there is yelling and sometimes physical confrontation—between siblings…between parent and child…between husband and wife. All of us longing for peace…even as we read the papers about bombs being blown up…cars are being driven into crowds…gunmen opening fire in church…If Isaiah’s Prince of Peace has come…why does it feel like we are no closer to peace than before that baby’s cry erupted in the midst of cattle and donkeys and sheep and camels?
We are here tonight to proclaim that there is no “if” about it…the Prince of Peace…the Holy One, has come. The one that Isaiah promised would arrive, did arrive in Bethlehem on that star-lit night, and he came to bring us peace. Yet, as he would later share with the disciples on the night which led to the most violent day of his life, the peace He offers, the peace that the Jesus pours out upon us, the peace that began that night, is different than the peace that the world offers. “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Later, he would add, after telling them of all the trouble that they will encounter, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
That, my brothers and sisters, is the Christmas peace that we gather tonight to celebrate…that is the peace that we prepare for. It is a peace that is not dependent upon the conditions in which we find ourselves. It is a peace that is not rooted and grounded in the absence of war or conflict. It is not a peace that is dependent upon an absence of family conflict. It is not a peace that requires smooth sailing and sunny days. The peace of the Prince of Peace is a peace that is anchors itself in Jesus. It is a peace that is available to all who come into a relationship with Him. It is a peace that comes from knowing that nothing, absolutely nothing in all this world can truly destroy us. It is a peace that comes from knowing that anything we face from terrorist attacks to Alzheimer’s and Cancer to family collapses and abandonments to bankruptcy to the loss of a loved one can never rip us out of the loving embrace which our God has placed around us. It is the peace of knowing that no matter what, God has already declared Victory and that while the battles may rage, the war has has been won.
This is the peace that the Isaiah and the angels proclaimed…this is the peace that God through Jesus delivers…it is the peace on a baby’s face asleep in a manger…it is the peace of the silence of an empty tomb. May we also this peace to reign in our hearts this night, through the Christmas season, and forever more.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Not Always What We Expected – Matthew 7:7-11

 

That doesn’t seem like a very Christmassy Scripture passage does it?  I mean this is the time of year when we gather for Christmas messages and we expect to hear about Quirinius and Bethlehem…Mary and Joseph…shepherds and angels…and maybe a wise man or two or three (depending on what Michael and the other Chris-myth busters tell us).  Yet here I am talking about asking, knocking, and seeking…alone with bread and rocks, fish and snakes.  Well, you’ve got to think about it…this season is all about asking (Santa), knocking (on doors as you go visiting or caroling), and seeking (that elusive perfect present).

Going back to the asking part…particularly the asking Santa part…I think I am going to petition congress to pass a law that a child may only speak to Santa once per year.  Over the course of my life I have found that Santa’s head has to be spinning.  When I have had children visit Santa one more than one occasion during the year, because he keeps showing up, at the mall, at the school, at the church, I have had almost every child change from one visit to another visit exactly what they were asking Santa for…and each new visit reveals something that they had not mentioned before, or any time in the last six months.  We’ve had lots of conversations with our kids over the years that when you tell Santa what you want, it is not like giving Santa a shopping list or a construction list of just exactly what he will be expected to provide.  We tell our kids that they are just offering suggestions to Santa and that sometimes Santa just gets some of those things.  We’ve also told the kids that sometimes Santa doesn’t go with any of the things on the list and ends up doing something he thinks will be even better.

I remember about fourteen years ago there was a little boy who knew exactly what he wanted for Christmas.  It didn’t matter how many Santas he saw, the request was always the same.  He wanted a drum set.  That was it.  That was all he wanted.  A drum set.  Every time someone would ask him what he was getting for Christmas he would tell them a drum set.  Christmas morning came.  He came out, I know, looking for a drum set…only there wasn’t one.  There were a few small gifts from Santa for him, but no drum set…only a note left on the tree.  Santa had written him a note explaining that he felt it would be better if he waited a little while before getting a drum set, but in the meantime he was leaving him the gift of piano lessons.  While there might have been a tinge of sadness that morning, I don’t think there has been a moment of regret by him, us, or many others in the years gone by that Santa gave him piano lessons rather than a set of drums.

Sometimes we get what we want…sometimes what we get is not always what we want.  Sometimes what we think we want is not exactly what we need to receive.

For centuries the people of Judah…God’s people… had waited for a Messiah.  They were tired.  They were tired of being invaded by one enemy after another.  They were tired of having to be in exile in first one place then another.  The prophets had predicted that a Messiah would come.  They knew that despite the darkness around them a light was coming.  They knew that God would not leave them. They knew that God would raise up the Messiah…the one who would rule from the throne of David forever.  They also knew just want they wanted and what they expected in this Messiah.  He would come riding into down on a white stallion, sword by his side, commanding an army of angels.  He would uproot the powers that were in control and lift Israel to its rightful place as above all other nations.  When this Messiah came they knew they would no longer be subject to the powers of the day…they would no longer be ruled by Syria or Babylon or Persia or Greece or Rome…instead, those nations would bow to them.  That’s what they cried out to God for…that’s what they wanted…that’s what they expected….  That’s what they asked for…that’s what they knocked on the doors of heaven for…that’s what they sought in everyone who would lead a rebellion against the powers that governed them…and…God sent the Messiah.

And yet what they God was not exactly what they expected…

He didn’t come riding into Jerusalem on a white stallion, but instead rode into Bethlehem in a young girl’s womb as she likely rode on a donkey.  They didn’t proceed to any royal palace, but instead found themselves rejected by Joseph’s family and relegated to cave full of livestock.  When he was born, he wasn’t laid son the finest silk sheets, but on the rough hay of a feeding trough.  He wasn’t raised learning the skill of wielding the sword and spear of a soldier, but rather the hammer and nails of a carpenter.  When he began gathering His followers he didn’t proclaim a message calling for the overthrow of Rome, but instead began preaching about loving your enemies, doing good to those who persecuted you.  He didn’t hobnob and network among the elite and wealthy, but instead spent time with the filth of the towns.  And when he challenged the way of the religious elite and proved not to be the warrior-king they expected Him to be, they crucified Him.

It wasn’t until three days later when an empty tomb was found that it was revealed that while God did not give them what they expected…what they thought they wanted…He gave them exactly what they needed…He gave us exactly what we needed…freedom from enemies far greater than Babylon or Rome…we found freedom from both sin and death.  There is no better gift that God could give.

Some kids ask for a drum set and get piano lessons…

Some children may ask for bread and fish…and we know those parents are going to give them a rock or a snake…

Some folks may ask for a warrior…thanks be to God…he knew and knows what we need, and we remember at Christmas, He gave us a Savior!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

A War Cry: A Baby – Luke 2:1-7

 

Our war march began in Bethlehem.  We recognized that this little town is more than a sleepy little village of Christmas cards and carols, and holds a very dark history—a history of idolatry and betrayal, a history of prejudice and brutality, a history of violence and death.  When the Lord of all Creation decided to take on sin and evil once and for all, He entered on front lines—He entered this town plagued with its diminutive size and its past.  In doing so, God says to each of us, “there is no place that is too small and no place too dark for Me to enter in and bring light, hope, and victory.”

As we continued, we discovered Mary—not the Mary that so many young girls volunteer to be in all her splendor and glory in the popular Christmas pageants—but the real Mary, a scared, hesitant volunteer in God’s battle plan.  A young thirteen year old girl who risked and was rejected by family and her community, and possibly narrowly escaped stoning, as she found herself unwed and pregnant.  Her only refuge, an older cousin and her husband, who were in the midst of their own holy pregnancy, a fiancé that had at one point decided to abandon her—but moved up the wedding date and married her early, and the power of the Holy Spirit filling her with the assurance that she was bearing God’s rescue plan to the world.

The fiancé turned husband, Joseph, after His own divine “war council,” agreed to enter into this plan to bring God’s salvation into the world and in doing so placed his reputation, financial security, and family relations on the line.  The rejection of his family in Bethlehem, relegating he, his laboring wife, and his son-to-be-born stepson to the filthy family stable proved that sometimes the worst case scenario does play out.  Yet when it does, we can be assured that it will not prevent God from brining his plan and glory into the world.

Humiliation from the beginning…

Can you imagine…

…having created the first of humanity from the dust of the ground, breathing into that man the very breath that gave him life…being the one who knits together each life in their mother’s womb…now finding Himself clinging to life, tied to an umbilical cord that pumps the same life force He created into Him, and traveling that same canal that gives birth to each life, He, the Breather of life, gasping for His own first breath with a cry…

…having spoken the lush green Garden of Eden into existence…with its pristine clear waters and deep blue skies finding Himself laid in the feeding trough of animals in a cave that was filled with the odor of sweating animals and their waste?

…having provided quail and manna in the desert to His people who were starving to needing to suckle at Mary’s bosom for nourishment?

…having been seated in the holy throne room, in the midst of all the angels singing praises to His Name because His holiness radiated pure light to finding Himself dependent upon having His soiled garments changed and being cleaned up by hands other than His own…

Can you imagine anything more humiliating?

Humiliation to the end…

Can you imagine…

…having brought the waters of the Red Sea crashing down upon Pharaoh and his army standing before the judgment seat of Governor Pilate…

…having been the One who brought Gideon and his three hundred men victory over the Midianites and Amalekites who were as “countless as the sand on the seashore,”[i] being beaten and whipped by a couple of Roman soldiers until His flesh hung loose.

…having worn a crown made up of the light of the stars of the skies having His brow pierced by a crown of thorns forced upon His head as soldiers spit on Him and mock His reign.

…having been the One who put enough strength in the arms of Samson to bring down the pagan house upon the Philistines having His arms stretched out and nailed to a cross.

Can you imagine anything more humiliating?

As Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi:

…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.[ii]

Born in a barn…

Raised by a carpenter…

Eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners…

Touching lepers…

Washing feet…

Dying with two thieves…

The Great ‘I Am’ enduring humiliation to bring us salvation.

If the God of the universe is willing to undergo that kind of humiliation from the stable to the cross to bring us salvation, what are we willing to endure to join Him as He continues to wage war in our world?  Paul, as he reflected on the humility of Christ, preceded those verses by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[iii]

Are we willing to come out of our homes and offices to sit, not with a business owner or city official, but to dine with the homeless?

Are we willing to cheerfully complete any task offered us, whether it uses our specific skills or talents, or is something others would consider menial work that anyone could do?  Are we willing to wipe noses and bottoms, take out trash, roll silverware, or do whatever needs doing?

Are we willing to have our character questioned and motives discerned?

Can we say, with the Psalmist, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house [simply tasked with serving amongst the beggars] of my God than live in the tents of wickedness…”[iv]?

This morning our Savior, who was born in a barn, ate with sinners, and died upon a cross, invites us to come and join Him in his humiliation and commit our lives to serving Him not only wherever He may send us, but however, He may ask.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

 

 

[i] Judges 7:12

[ii] Philippians 2:6-8

[iii] Philippians 2:5

[iv] Psalm 84:10