Archive for December, 2010

This Sunday is one of those unique days when worship leaders had to make a choice.  Do we leave the doors open or do we close them?

Many churches, including some near to my own, made the decision to close the doors.  Some made the call even before the snow had started to fall. 

When I started to drive in that Sunday, I knew that I would soon be getting calls.  “Are we open?”  And a few things when through my mind as I watched the snow fall.

First, we now have an emergency shelter for homeless men located at St. Mark’s Rivers Street Campus.  It’s staffed by church and community volunteers and it had been open the previous night.  That shelter helps to make St. Mark a church that serves as a beacon of hope for those on the fringes of society.  One thought was really, “What does it say if we can help get people into a warm place on early Sunday morning, but we’re going to let snowflakes force us to cancel ‘the’ major worship event we have together each week?”

And honestly, for 51 other Sundays this year,  people have made all kinds of decisions as to whether or not they can attend church on a particular Sunday.  If we give that freedom so many other days, then why do we need to change it just because some snow is falling?

It would have been easy for me as a pastor to say, “Shut the doors.” It means I get a day off to stay at home for “family time.”  It means I wouldn’t have to do a sermon twice that morning.  It would have meant I’d have had some extra time to recover from the Christmas Eve services.

But if we had cancelled the service that morning, I would have missed seeing people who were so excited and happy about the snow falling outside.  I would have missed our music director’s piano solo of “In the Bleak Midwinter” as large snow flakes fell in the windows behind her.  I would have missed out on the fact that two fo the hymns I picked for Sunday’s traditional service mentioned the word, “snow.” And I would have missed the warmth and the friendlieness of that traditional service.

Then, I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet some folks from other churches who attended our Blend (Contemporary) service because their own churches had called off activities.  I wouldn’t have had the chance to laugh, to pray, to worship and to talk about Jesus in such a warm and friendly setting.  We’d have missed the worship leader for the day’s story of how this Sunday without a band was “hairbrush Sunday” — where you turn up the music and sing loud just like you’re singing into your hairbrush at home.

And I would have missed out on two extremely memorable encounters with Christ and fellow Christians Sunday morning.

In fact, some churches really didn’t have to worry about closing. They had practically already announced they were weeks in advance with a light schedule of services for the day after Christmas.  Isn’t that like telegraphing, “You don’t really need to be here…”

I don’t take decisions to close a church lightly and I’m not mocking those who did pull that trigger.  But honestly, some of the posts on Facebook Sunday about cancelling the service made me smile.  Many said that “for the safety of our members,” we’re cancelling church today.

The reason it made me smile is because I’m finding myself to be more and more influenced by such Christian writers as Will Willimon and Rob Bell.  I started to think, “Is this what we’ve reduced faith and church to?  Is it something that we can only do when it’s warm and comfortable?”

The United Methodist Church is producing lots of studies to tell us something that we can already know by looking around us.  Church in America just isn’t as important as it once was.  Fewer people attend on a regular basis, fewer participate and fewer experience transformation in a body of believers.  Honestly, a lot of it is our own fault.  I heard a quote at a church conference a few years ago that is very fitting — “Your system is perfectly designed to get the results you’re currently getting.”

If church is a low-commitment task, that can only be viewed as safe and done only on days when the weather permits or we feel like it, then what does it say about the faith we’re instilling in believers.  Faith without risks isn’t faith at all.

Maybe some of these patterns we see would start to change if we had more churches that came with warning labels.

  • Danger:  Exposure will change your life.
  • Danger: There are expectations here.
  • Danger: This faith thing isn’t safe and comfortable. It’s quite the opposite.

Here’s to a dangerous church. A church that never takes a day off. A church that’s willing to fall flat on its face but is willing to get up and try again.

How about a faith that follows Jesus, the son of God who was raised in a small town of Nazareth, who did dangerous things including sacrificing his life on a cross?

Now, that would be a faith worth experiencing.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Christmas and what it represents in a church sense.

I’m not such a fan of the way that Christians sometimes act over this holiday.  Let me see if I can explain what I mean on this:

  • The “War on Christmas.”  Every year, someone somewhere is going to lament the “War on Christmas.”  Some news networks, some pundits, some pastors, some church lay folks act as if this War on Christmas is some new phenomenon.  Christmas is a war itself, an invasion, and it doesn’t announce its arrival with sugar, spice and puppy dog tails.  Christmas has been a war since its beginning and will continue to be so until the end. 
  • Leaving the “X” in.  I’m not sure where this particular battle line was drawn. Sometimes it’s credited to Franklin Graham.  However, there is nothing sacreligious with “Xmas.”  X is the Greek letter “chi” and it’s the first letters in the Greek word for Christ.  Charlamenge adopted the Chi-Rho symbol as the image for his empire.  The Chi-Rho symbol using an X and p are still used in churches today.  However, when we look at the word, Xmas, we have to be sure to pronounce it “Christ-mas” since that’s what the symbol stands for.
  • Happy Holidays.  Some folks get really bent out of shape when a clerk at a store, or anyone in general, looks at them and says, “Happy Holidays.”  There’s a song that’s being play on some Christian stations about the holiday being called “Christmas.”  There’s a church in Dallas that’s making a list (and, presumably, checking it twice) so that parishoners will know which stores to avoid while doing Christmas shopping.  By the way, that church pushes for you to avoid any store where you are greeted by ‘Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  Nothing like spreading the message of Christmas — Say what I want you to say or I’ll shop somewhere else!

And I try not to let those things anger me or put a damper on the way that I feel about Christmas, but sometimes it’s difficult to endure.

I often find myself left with a question.  What if we put as much energy into living our lives like Jesus taught as we do into fighting meaningless battles over “X”s and whether or not the clerk at the Mall said, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”  What if the gift we gave at Christmas was a life devoted to what it is we say we believe.

What if, and I know I’m thinking aloud here, what if we actually showed the world the love that is at the root of what we believe about Christmas? 

  • What if we shared a smile with a tired clerk who has been standing on his or her feet for the past eight hours so that he or she can have some money to provide Christmas for the ones he or she loves?
  • What if, instead of getting so wrapped up in battles with the commercial aspects of the holiday, that we turned our eyes on helping those at its bottom rung?
  • What if, instead of fighting a war against the way people frame Christmas, we decided to fight a war of our own?  What if we responded with an overflow of love?

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a pastor.  I just don’t get it because I’m supposed to love people and show grace and mercy.  It’s in the job, right?

Well, it’s also at the heart of what it means for us to live and follow and pattern our lives around the teaching of the Messiah who was born to two poor teen-agers in a war-torn world.

Maybe all of this wouldn’t be such a big deal if, instead of worrying over who is taking Christ out of Christmas, that we actually started to put Christ back in it through the way we live our lives.

Now that would be a Christmas to remember.

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Have you ever watched someone open a gift that they weren’t expecting?

It can be a strange combination of trying to control emotions and put on a happy face, especially if you were expecting something much different.

I saw this happen a few years ago with my youngest nephew, Walt.

Walt loved the movie, The Incredibles.  And so when we needed a little something extra to go with his gift for Christmas, I decided to get him an Incredibles Viewmaster.

We were running low on Christmas gift wrap and it wasn’t a big box, so I decided to wrap the gift in some Thomas the Tank Engine paper.  Thomas was another of Walt’s favorite things.

Even before we opened the gifts, Walt was walking around with this package, very happily and very proudly. 

He was ready to open that package.

And then I remember watching his face as he tore into that Thomas paper to reveal a Viewmaster.  All of his happiness turned to shock and anger.  And he blurted out, “Where’s my train?”

It wasn’t what he was expecting.  All of the signs, for Walt, pointed to a train.  The size of the box, the way it looked, the Thomas wrapping paper all said train.  But what was inside was something completely different.

And, well, Walt let us know how he felt.

There’s some of that very same thing that happens in the Christmas narrative we find in Scripture.

If we had been able to go back in time to those decades before Jesus’ arrival and we had been able to conduct a public opinion poll, we would find results such as this:

  • 90 percent believed that the Messiah was going to be powerful.
  • 85 percent believed that Messiah was going to raise up an army and run the Romans out of Israel,
  • Less than a fraction of 1 percent believed the Messiah was going to arrive to poor parents in one of the poorest towns in the entire country.

In other words, everyone saw the signs and when they put them together, the messiah was supposed to be much different than what they actually received.  The Jesus we see in the Christmas story isn’t what they were expecting.  Honestly, he rarely is.  He’s the unexpected God who works in the lives of imperfect people and empowers them to do incredible things.

So, on a day when we think about the unexpected, it really isn’t a stretch to turn to Joseph, the silent partner in the Christmas story.

There are some things that we need to know about Joseph and his situation to be able to understand what is going on here.  And I know this might blow some of our Nativity scenes out of the water.  But remember, Nativity scenes are only representations, images and symbols – not historically accurate representations.

  • Mary is from Nazareth. 
  • Joseph is from Bethlehem. 

Those two cities are separated by a ten-day walk that included a journey along roads where robbers frequently waited for passing travelers. 

In this time of the Bible, Mary and Joseph would have typically reached an age to be married.  Usually that was 12-14 for girls and 14-16 for boys.  When they reached this age, the family of the young man and woman would enter into an agreement.  The young man and the young woman are betrothed to one another.  In a sense, they are married, but only in name.  They are allowed to see each other in limited, supervised visits, but they are not allowed to start a family during this time.  This betrothal period lasted a year and in this time, the two families worked out the arrangements of the marriage. The family of Joseph would pay something to the family of Mary — an endowment if you will for this marriage.

If the young woman was unfaithful during this period, if she ended up getting pregnant, she suffered all of the punishment under the Jewish law.  The young man and his family had a right to end the marriage, while the young woman could have been stoned to death for her betrayal.  It didn’t really matter whether the man she was promised to was the father of the child.

There’s a point in the Biblical accounts where Mary knows that she is going to have a baby, so she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth.  Mary lives about a nine-days walk from Elizabeth and the town in which Elizabeth lives is a day’s walk from Bethlehem where Joseph lives.  So, we could imagine that at some point during her stay with Elizabeth, Mary goes to talk to Joseph.

I would have to imagine that this might have been one of the most difficult conversations in Biblical history — even if it isn‘t recorded.  I’m sure Mary had to be nervous as she began this conversation with Joseph.

 Joseph expected a typical marriage — a year’s wait and then, he and his wife move in together.

When Mary says, “I’m going to have a baby”  where must his mind have gone?  What?  You’re going to what?  And who’s baby did you say this was?

It is in this moment when the unexpected nature of God meets up with the sometimes predictability of our reality that we learn something about Joseph.  The Bible describes Joseph as a “good man.”  

He was a good man because scripture says that he wasn’t going to expose Mary as an adulterer under the law.  He wasn’t going to cast her out and shame her publicly.  He was going to quietly divorce her so that they both could move on. He wasn’t going to put Mary and this baby in any danger.

But then, Joseph gets a visit from an angel.  Today, of course, is the day we remember Angels with our Advent candle.  Angels are messengers — ones who bring a special message from God.

As Joseph is dreaming, he hears what God wants.  The message is Joseph, don’t be afraid.  Take Mary as your wife and bring her into your home.

It’s a pretty challenging situation to find yourself asked to take the son of God and to raise him as your own child.  But Joseph finds that this baby, this one he will call Jesus, is the one that has been promised.  He is Immanuel.  A name that means God with us.

Despite the fact that this is Jesus we’re talking about here, we still have to deal with the society in which Joseph and Mary live.  It’s quite possible that Joseph’s friends turned their backs on him.  The fact that Mary is carrying a child is a disgrace in this world and Joseph by his actions of taking Mary as his wife is openly admitting to adultery (at least he is in the eyes of his friends).

The quiet one

Have you noticed something about Joseph in scripture?  How many times has Joseph actually been quoted here? How many times have we actually read what Joseph says?

Joseph plays such a prominent role in this story.  And yet, he never says a word in scripture.

But sometimes, actions speak louder than words. Our key verse for today makes one of the loudest statements.

When Joseph wakes up, he obeys.

Joseph has been surprised by the news of a child he did not expect.

Joseph’s life has been transformed.  A carpenter is going to be the earthly father of Jesus.

Joseph is in a period of waiting, waiting at first on his marriage to be official to Mary.  Then, he is waiting on the arrival of the baby Jesus.

But here we see Joseph putting into action the word that we see on the fourth box today.  Joseph obeys.

In a simple statement, the course of the Christmas story is changed.  Joseph gets up and does what the angel has told him to do.

We don’t always get the things that we want from God.

We don’t always get them the way we want them or even in the time frame that we want them.

But we know that we are wrapped in God’s love. Christmas is our reminder of joy and peace and love. It’s our reminder that sometimes, in this world, things happen just the way they were predicted to!

But above all else, this carpenter from Bethlehem shows us that, all words aside, the greatest action in the Christmas story comes with a soon-to-be teenage father gets up from his pity party and obeys God.

What would change for you this Christmas, if you resolved to wake up and do as you are commanded?

What would our lives look like?

God loves to do amazing things in the unexpected.  All he asks in return is our obedience.

I know I have some God-given gifts and talents.  We all do.  But waiting is not one of my gifts.

And it really never has been.

I don’t like waiting in lines. I don’t like waiting in traffic. I don’t like waiting to have to be seated at restaurants. I  just don’t like to wait.

My inability to wait always seems to rear its head on Christmas Eve.  I could never sleep that night and I still have trouble doing it today.  I’d toss and I’d turn and I’d listen to sounds hoping to hear a bell or footstep.  And when I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d go and stand at the foot of my parents’ bed.

“Mama, Daddy, can we get up now?”

And my mother in the kindest, gentlest voice that one can muster in these situations would say, “No, go back to bed, it’s only 4:30!

I just don’t like to wait.

And this year might be worse than the past.

At home, Denise and Grace worked to get the house decorated.  And Grace, who turns 4 in January, is so excited about this Christmas.  Our Elf on the Shelf named Sarah arrives in a new spot every day and Grace and I have been talking about the Christmas Story every night before bed time.  And it’s a lot of fun to hear her sing Christmas songs.

I certainly get a big dose of Christmas at church.  I get to work with Julie, the queen of all things Christmas.  Julie has Christmas trees up while most people are still finishing off Halloween.

But Christmas is still a couple of weeks away and I’m still waiting. And I hate to wait! And I’m not the only one!

Today’s scripture lesson is about someone who was waiting.  In fact, a whole nation of people had been waiting – for more than 400 years – on the promised messiah. They waited through kings and leaders and invasions and wars and Roman occupation.  But, they waited!

Then, there was a glimpse of hope.

John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, shows up and he preaches these fiery sermons on repentance and he’s making everyone think back to those prophets of the Old Testament. Some even start to ask if John is the Messiah.

People are getting baptized and even the church leaders show up to take a look.  We talked about that last week.  And John tees off on the church of his day. And that’s OK.  All of us from time to time will accept a tough sermon that really steps on our toes.  But try that for an extended period of time and, well, a lot more parking spaces start to open up.

But John doesn’t just stop with harsh criticism of the church.  He moves right into meddling and he starts talking about politics.  King Herod had married his own sister-in-law under some shady circumstances and John publicly points out Herod’s sin.

Well, John’s preaching finally catches up with him.
And so when we reach our scripture text for today, we find that John is no longer on top of the mountain.  Now, he’s down in the valley and he’s got some questions.

READ MATTHEW 11:2-11

Imagine. You are doing everything it seems God has called you to do.  You’re a success. You’re on top of the world.  Everyone is bringing people out to hear your revivals and lots of people are jumping in the water to be baptized.  It just couldn’t get any better.

Then, it’s all jerked out from underneath you.

You’ve gone from the preacher that everyone wants to hear to a bona-fide enemy of the state.  You’ve moved from the freedom of the wilderness to the dark, musty, smelly conditions of a small prison cell.

And you are now looking ahead and seeing that your time might be pretty short.  The King has you where he wants you.  Execution is a real possibility.

The seeds of doubt start to enter your mind. Wasn’t I supposed to be preparing the way for the Messiah?   I thought I was the one who was making the road straight.

That’s got to be a kick in the stomach to anyone – especially the one was destined from his birth to speak on God’s behalf.

There’s always a dark combination that comes from seeds of doubt and too much time on your hands. And in his state of despair, John calls his followers together and he sends them to talk to Jesus.  There’s a question that John needs to know.

He asks, “Jesus are you the one that we’ve been waiting for, or should we keep waiting on another?”

John doesn’t like to wait either.  He needs to know.

If you want to make it a little more countrified, John is saying the equivalent of “Dang, Cuz.  I even jumped for you when I was still in my mama’s womb.  I’m out doing the work for you.  I’m in jail and you’re still free. What’s up with this?”

Maybe the truth is that John, who has been preaching that the Kingdom is here, has seen the kingdom and it’s not what he was hoping for

If Jesus came to set the captives free, then, maybe John’s really asking, “What about me?”

I wonder how John reacted to the answer that Jesus gives to his question.

Jesus’ response is to tell John’s disciples to report what they hear and see.  And Jesus begins to list some of the amazing things that have been happening in the Kingdom while John has been waiting.  People are being healed. The blind are seeing. The deaf are hearing.  The dead are being raised and Good News is being preached to the poor.

And Jesus lifts John up as the one preparing the way.

But still, the one who is making the paths straight is in prison. And he’s still waiting. And waiting.

THOSE WHO WAIT

Everyone waits for something.  We wait for news that will changes our lives or the lives of someone we know for the better.  We wait on the news of the arrival of a child. Sometimes we wait near a person we know or love as they drift that line between life and death.

So many times our only option is to wait.

And it’s never easy.

We just don’t like to wait because it’s hard, because it takes our energy, because while we’re waiting we can feel helpless.

But God’s view of waiting is much different.  God, by the way, waited for thousands of years for us to figure it out before the events of the season we call Christmas.  God waited as Jesus grew up. God waited in Jesus’ ministry.  God watches and waits while Jesus is on the cross. And God waited three days to bring him back.

And God still waits on us today to accept the love and the grace and the mercy that he gives to us simply because he loves us. God knows something about waiting.

I want, for a moment, to look at another passage about waiting – it’s God’s view of this activity that we so often don’t like.

Isaiah 40 is a passage about the nation of Israel.  Israel has been invaded, they are being held captive and they are waiting.  They are waiting for release and for freedom and for God to restore them to what they were.  And they’ve been waiting and waiting.

Here’s what the prophet Isaiah says about that.

If you have your GPS in front of you, you’ll notice what I’m talking about.  The Old Testament is written in Hebrew and the Hebrew word here, Quavah, that we translate as wait, really can have three meanings.

First, we wait ON God.  It sounds like something that happens when we go to a restaurant.  We are “waited on.”  In that same sense, we are the servants of God.  When we’re waiting on God, we’re serving him, we’re doing the things he has asked us to do and we’re sharing God’s love with the world around us.  In the language of the Old Testament, serve has the same meaning as another word that we commonly use.  It’s worship!  To wait on God is to serve and worship him.

Each and every day, we have opportunities to wait “on” God.  We encounter all kinds of people and for many of those, we’ll be the closest thing to Jesus they’ve ever experienced in their lives.  Pastor Rob Bell in his book Jesus wants to Save Christians says, that with every comment, every action, every interaction we have with others, we have the opportunity to bring Heaven or Hell to earth.  If we’re waiting on God, we’re making sure that the Kingdom of Heaven is the one that we’re building up.

Second, we wait FOR God.  We know the promises of God and we wait to see them come to fulfillment.  We can really call this faith. I knew I was called into ministry, went to seminary and started serving a church at the same time.  And there’s this wonderful feeling that now I’m where God wants me to be.

It was amazing the way that some things opened up and the opportunities that came along when I decided to answer the call to ministry.  I made it through seminary and I started to serve a church where the opening response was we’re willing to do anything, just tell us what we need to do.  And that’s a golden invitation because as pastors graduate from seminary and enter the world of ministry we have these visions that we’re actually called to make disciples, to grow communities of faith, to share the good news with the poor. I think Jesus said something about most of this stuff.

But then the resistance comes and some churches would just rather focus on surviving from one year to the next instead of growing.  And it’s easy as a pastor to find yourself depressed, rejected, heartbroken, to have your spirit shattered, because you find yourself still waiting for God.

Today, I find myself standing here.  In a sense, I’m still waiting, but on different things.  God doesn’t work on our time table and calendar.  God works at God’s pace.  And sometimes we have to wait for those promises to be fulfilled — and to have faith that they will.\

Third, we wait WITH God. In the middle of what we’re going through, in the moments when it feels as if all hope is lost.  When we’ve received a bad report, when we are unsure of what happens next.  No matter where we stand from the mountaintop to the valley beneath, God is standing there with us while we wait.

God’s promise is to never leave us nor forsake us.  That’s amazing love.

And whether we wait ON God, or FOR God or WITH God, what’s the key word?

We all wait.

That’s the message that Jesus gives to John.  Sometimes you have to wait.

That’s the message that Jesus gives to us. Sometimes in love, sometimes in faith, sometimes in service and worship, you have to wait.

If you can’t tell, I read and listen to a lot from Rob Bell.

Something he said this week stuck with me.  Advent is, for us, proof that sometimes, in this world, things happen just as promised.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to wait.

Waiting is a hard gift for us to open.  It’s a gift that sometimes we don’t want to deal with and sometimes we want to ignore.  I know, I hate to wait.  But God’s promise is that while we are waiting, we are wrapped in God’s love.  While we wait, we know that God is near, holding us close and lifting us up.  While we wait on God, we are strengthened from the inside out.

And that might be one of the best gifts of all.