Wednesday, December 25, 2013

God Is With Us

December 24, 2013 –– Christmas Eve Vigil
Matthew 1:18–25
God Is With Us

Christmas takes us into the heart of what it means to be human. Humanity has not changed so much over thousands of years. When the Lord gave the first promise of a “young woman” bearing a son, King Ahaz was worried about enemies that hated him. The threat was destruction and death. We find ourselves threatened the same way today. Whether it is the destruction and death that comes from terrorism and war, the destruction of a natural disaster or bodies that wear out,  or death by accident, local violence or disease, human existence lives under a constant threat. Eventually we die.  We cannot grasp the incredible power of Christmas unless we face the truth of the things that threaten us and our too-real fears.

We have a new baby in our house. Our daughter, who for now lives in a small studio apartment in our basement, gave us our fourth grandchild a month ago. He’s a boy, and we’ve not had a child this young in our house for about thirty-seven years––more than long enough for me to have forgotten how fragile and dependent an infant is. When I prepare his bottle I often think of the many infants in this world who do not have enough to eat. I think about the evil that even now threatens my tiny grandson.

This new baby boy in our home, whose needs (and cries) seem to take priority over everything else, has been a fresh and ongoing reminder to me of the incredible thing God did. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible condensed himself into a human baby. That kind of vulnerability, freely taken by God in order to come close to us and show us his love, is beyond comprehension. God is with us! What does this really mean?

We have come here tonight in the name of Jesus Christ. Christians do not have a “holiday” celebration for its own sake. We are not gathered here merely to add one more thing to a list of seasonal festivities. This is something God promised over 2700 years ago through the prophet Isaiah, and the promise was fulfilled.

Yet we in the Church have heard this all our lives, so much so that we can become immune. The world hears it, and modern presuppositions say it can’t be true―a nice story, maybe, but not true. It’s further complicated because no one can fully comprehend it.... Son of God and Son of Mary.... divine and human. The eternal becomes encapsulated in time. The Creator becomes one of the created. The Mighty One comes as a helpless babe. The Holy One is rubbing elbows with the sinful.

If we are honest, there is something about God getting so close that is frightening. While we want some way to escape a world that threatens and hurts, we would like for it to come so that we are still in control. For all the hope that Christmas offers―and I mean the real Christmas, in contrast to so much of the silliness and materialism that tries to dilute the literal story in the Bible―it seems obvious that an unbelieving world wants to keep this Son of God and Son of Mary at a distance. It’s okay to sing in public about Frosty the Snowman, but not about Jesus the Savior.

When King Ahaz was offered a special baby as a sign of God’s deliverance, he did not want it. When Joseph first heard about Mary’s baby he did not want it; he was ready to break the engagement. What do we do when God starts getting close in our lives? Especially in a way that appears uncomfortable?

Ahaz and Joseph went in two different directions. If you read the OT story, Ahaz went ahead with his own plan for deliverance in spite of God’s word. Joseph, on the other hand, listened and obeyed when the angel spoke to him in the dream: what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:20b–21).

The sign that had been promised so long ago was coming true. A son was about to be born, a baby that was both Son of God and Son of Mary. The result of this is a Savior, the very thing all of us need so badly. God has come, and he has come to save us.

One of the Christmas carols that probably all of us know well has a verse that is a great prayer:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today....
O come to us.... abide with us.... 
our Lord Emmanuel

May that be the prayer of your heart. There is nothing more important. It is what this night is all about. God is with us.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 15, 2013


December 15, 2013 –– Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1–10 / James 5:7–10 / Matthew 11:2–11

Waiting is hard for most people. Waiting for Christmas Day is hard for children. It’s hard to wait when a big turkey dinner is cooking; the smell fills the house, and you are hungry. Waiting is hard when you are in a supermarket and have just a few items, then you get to the checkout and the lines are backed up with people who have full carts. Waiting is hard when you hit some problem on the interstate where traffic is backed up for several miles. For some of us, waiting is even hard when you just missed the green light and have to wait though a whole cycle.

Long-term waiting seems like an extinct species in our culture. It is common for people who want some expensive, but non-essential, item not to wait and save for the money to buy it; they go into debt to have it now. More and more couples who are “in love” do not wait for marriage before sexual intimacy. There is a surrender in our society to a spirit that says, “I want it, and I want it now!” Do we in the Church understand that embracing this attitude is sin?

A major emphasis of Advent is waiting. Throughout the Bible God’s people are waiting more than anything else. God is not in the instant-gratification business (but we might consider the evidence that the devil is). Getting what we want is rooted in selfishness. Satan made selfish desire ultimately appealing to Eve. Getting what we want now compounds it. Because we are broken, waiting is a hard thing. Yet God uses waiting to develop faith and hope in us. Satan tries to use waiting to defeat us―for us to become so obsessed with what we want and when we want it that we allow unfulfilled desire to affect everything else.

Advent is a time to take a head-on look at this issue of waiting. Today’s Scripture texts help us see three ways that waiting can affect our spiritual lives. We are warned not to allow waiting to cause us to be discouraged, distracted or demanding.

Think about John the Baptist. After an initial popular ministry he was put in prison. He had preached that One greater than himself was coming, but sitting in a jail can dampen one’s enthusiasm. Maybe John was waiting for the Coming One to make everything right―including a rescue from jail. Finally he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?

Why did John ask this? He was probably discouraged. He was stuck in prison and waiting. John’s discouragement may have been exacerbated once it was clear that no popular Messianic expectations were being reported. So often we nurture our ability to wait by thinking God is going to work a certain way, but if God doesn’t work the way we think he should, it discourages our waiting.

Is it accurate to suggest that a spiritually discouraged person is a complaining person? How easily little irritants in life turn us into complainers! (I am preaching to myself.) James exhorts, Do not complain, brothers and sisters.... He reminds us of the patience a farmer needs (most of us are so far removed from basic agriculture that the example doesn’t connect). He commends the example of hardship and patience that we find in the prophets. They faced real hardships––like John being put in prison. We live in a world that tries to convince us that life needs to be easy and pleasant all the time, and if it’s not, it is our “right” to be discouraged and complain.

Once we are discouraged, we are vulnerable to distraction. We find other ways to compensate for the pain of waiting. The world will always offer us something that seems innocent, but it can cause spiritual weakness. We may no longer feel “discouraged”―but it’s because we are distracted. Something else can give us temporary comfort and joy, then we are not focused on our Lord and waiting on his promise to come.

And if that state of mind goes for too long, we develop demanding spirits. We embrace an attitude that all but insists that we get what we want and that we get it now. Surrendering to an attitude like this is spiritual death. The person who refuses to wait patiently―the person who demands his own way―is cutting himself off from the Spirit of Jesus.

Advent is a time of expectation. The question today is: What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for God to do things your way? Could it be that God isn’t even part of the equation, but you are simply waiting for what you want (and you’ve decided you can’t be happy until you have it)? Or, on the other hand, are we waiting on the Lord? Maybe it would help to reflect on the idea of Christians as people living in a Waiting Room! Advent calls us to this, and the Church has wisely built this time into the rhythm of our spiritual lives to help us not become discouraged, distracted or demanding. You see, as we live in this world, we can be waiting on the Lord wherever we are and whatever else we are doing.  Advent is waiting.... on the Lord.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Rest & Renewal

Wednesday: 11 December, 2013 –– 2nd Week in Advent
Isaiah 40:25–31 / Matthew 11:28–30
Rest & Renewal

Weariness is a reality. Our bodies get tired.

Sometimes it’s a satisfying weariness. We’ve worked hard and accomplished much, and rest comes easily at the end of a long, hard day.

Too often, it seems, we experience another kind of weariness. It’s the restlessness that comes from worry and stress. It’s the awareness of a foreboding cloud which seems always to be hovering all too near.

It’s to that kind of burden we hear the words of our Lord: Come to me.... and I will give you rest.

This is because Jesus is the Word made Flesh. God has entered our situation. Jesus knows what it’s like to live a human life in a weary world.

At the same time,
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.

The most wearying thing we can do (or try to do) is to control what is beyond our control. So much of our worry and stress is about things we want to direct or change. Those are the things where God invites us to come to him.... and TRUST. I have to remind myself that even if I had the power to control things, I don’t have the wisdom to control things. God has both!

So Jesus says, Come to me.... leave it with me.... believe that my love is big enough to bring life even out of death. Because,
they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Tuesday: 10 December, 2013 –– 2nd Week in Advent
Matthew 18:12–14

....will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?

The assumed answer to Jesus’ question is yes. I am afraid a common answer today would be no. We live in an expendable world.

The military has given us the phrase “collateral damage” –– it usually refers to non-military targets or even civilian casualties which are considered expendable in order to meet an objective. We have become accustomed to “planned obsolescence” –– planning and making products in such a way that they become out-of-date or useless within a known time period. We live in such an opulent society that almost anything can easily be replaced. Matter-of-fact abortion is perhaps the ultimate step of living as if human life itself is routinely expendable.

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol we are shown the ugliness of Scrooge’s disposition in the dialogue:
“I help to support the establishments.... those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can't go there; and many would rather die.” 
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Do we really think that “losers” are worth the time and trouble of our love and care? Do we believe that our Lord desires the conversion of the person who is blasphemous or perverted or cruel? Jesus says, It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.

May our Lord help us to see with his eyes and love as he loves. In the kingdom of God, no one is expendable.

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