Friday, January 1, 2016

Christmas Eve Message 2015

Some thoughts from Christmas Eve...

What if Mary Had Scrapbooked…
Christmas Eve Message 2015

Do you ever wonder if Mary scrapbooked? Sometimes I think we’d all like to see Mary’s baby book for Jesus, and a scrapbook of her engagement, maybe, too. Some selfies of the trip to Bethlehem would answer quite a few questions for us. We’d really like to see a snapshot of the angels—either Gabriel or the whole host of them. I heard a preacher once say that all angels are male, and how that was important for people to understand. I’m not sure why it was so important, but I can say that people have spent a lot of time trying to draw or paint or sculpt what the angels looked like.
And wouldn’t it be nice to know more about the shepherds that showed up? Did they smell as bad as we think they would have? How long did they stay? What did they do with their sheep? What did they do after they left?
Maybe we’d also like to know what the manger actually looked like. I read an article a couple years ago that talked about how there is no way Jesus was born out back in a stable or a cave with no other family around because that is not how the culture would have worked. There may not have been room in the guestroom (which is one translation of the Greek word that’s usually translated as “the inn”), but there would have been space for Mary and Joseph in a common room, where animals also spent the night inside. If Joseph were traveling back to his ancestral home, any distant family member would have been obligated to welcome him, if he could state his lineage. So, where did they stay? Were there really animals in the room with them? And what family members attended to Mary? How did the whole birth go?
The writer of Luke does tell us several interesting details about the birth of Jesus: who was the ruler at the time, why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, and who came and visited after Jesus was born—but he seems to tell us just enough to leave us wanting more information. Maybe it’s the scientific nature of our society, or maybe it’s just human nature: we want all the facts and we want to know who is right about them and who is wrong. Just what did Jesus look like? And how old was Mary? We want the facts. Just the facts.
Yet, Luke, or more importantly, God, just doesn’t quite work that way. Luke apparently tells us just as much as we really need to know, though we might think we need to know more. And the writer of John, well he doesn’t satisfy our curiosity about Jesus’ birth at all! “The Word was with God and the Word was God,” and all this other nonsense—what does it all mean?
It’s quite an incredible story. And God had been telling the people for years that something was going to happen—we hear that from Isaiah and all the prophets. Still, for as much as the prophets had nagged and preached for years and years, the people still didn’t understand what God was doing. With as many details as we can gather from Luke, there is still enough mystery about the whole thing that we may very often just miss what is going on here. You see, as incredible of a story as it is, and with as many questions as it leaves us with, what Luke does tell us is meant to be enough. Verse 20 ends with this statement: “Everything happened just as they [the shepherds] had been told.” Though we don’t have all the details here, we have confirmation, and there are witnesses, that the story is true…even if we don’t know how it all looked. And isn’t that what faith is about—that we believe in what we haven’t seen? The writer of Hebrews even defines faith that way, right?
It is mystery, this incarnation, why God would come as a plain old human baby. The real human nature of Jesus is both the greatest gift and the biggest scandal of all. For God to become one just like us means not only that God knows what we’ve been through but also that we can learn to become more like God…if we are willing to. And though we’d like to see some scrapbooks of Jesus’ birth and life, sometimes his being just like us gets a little too close for comfort. You mean that God would be here in our midst? Would come to show us a new way of being? Would expect us to pay attention to such an incredible story? It seems too good to be true…or too difficult to be true, sometimes. We might be a little more comfortable with such a story and such a God if we could keep a safe distance. We might like it if Jesus weren’t quite just like us. If here weren’t really human, then we could give ourselves a break. But one of my friends likes to point out that Jesus was not a superhero whose superpower was dying for our sins. Jesus was a real human, just so that the rest of us humans could be changed forever by his simple birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection.
It is a strange story, indeed. If we are familiar with the “end” of it, then the fact that the beginning is a little mysterious should not surprise us at all. In a few months we will again tell ourselves more of this strange story. We might again wish for some snapshots or actual film footage of what went on. And we will again be left with a whole lot of questions…but God has given us imagination, even without all the details. And better than that, God has given us certainty in the promise of God’s Word and through the living flesh of God’s Son that, indeed, it is true, and we are right to come in praise and celebration, with joy and hope, even in the dark of night, looking for a little baby boy. Jesus. The Christ. Emmanuel. God with us.

Christ is born! Merry Christmas!

2015 Sermon for the Longest Night

I'm a little late posting this, but this was my sermon for my Longest Night of the Year service, on December 21st.

God’s Lifelong Love Letter
Longest Night Service 2015

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5 and he shall be the one of peace.
~Micah 5:2-5 NRSV

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
 ~1 John 3:1-2 NRSV

I made what may ultimately be a mistake when I downloaded what my cell phone calls “Kids Mode.” My son loves to use my phone in Kids Mode. He has developed a certain sense of entitlement about it, that he should be allowed to use Kids Mode when he wants it, at any given moment when I am not actively using my phone…and sometimes when I am using it! Sometimes, I attempt to entice him to use his own Leap Frog tablet, which has a number of similar features and, probably more importantly, is something I never aspire to use for my own purposes.

This may all be fairly irrelevant, except for one thing that is true about both my phone and my son’s tablet: they have video and audio recording capability, which seems to be quite intriguing for him. No matter how often he records himself, though, what he says or sings always has a similar message: how much he loves his mom, and, to a lesser extent, his dad, and anyone or anything else that is on his mind at the time. I must admit that I am not in any way upset to have multiple video and audio clips of my 4-year-old professing his love for me. I only hope that I will somehow be able to retain these clips for the next 20 years, or so, to listen to in times when he won’t be caught dead admitting I am even his mom, much less how much he loves me.

All this is to say that I have begun to wonder if much of our life experiences and our faith experiences are not God’s seemingly repetitive recordings of one completely life-altering truth: how much God loves us. Now, I’ll be honest: the prophet Micah does not just talk about God’s love. And scripture does not tell us only of God’s love. There is much more to God than that. But even in the midst of some pretty scary stuff, Micah looks ahead to a day when a promised leader will come and bring peace to the people…that one we believe is Jesus…who came from a small backwoods town that no one would have thought twice about. But when it came to where and when and how it would all happen, there was God, saying as God had so many times before, “I love you a lot…enough to come and walk right along with you, to make things right again…”

So much of our lives does not feel like a message of love from God. Perhaps the problem is that we are not always interested in how much God loves us. We find many other shiny things to chase after, and we become weighed down with so many burdens that love for us from others, especially from God, seems terribly unlikely. How can God love us, when we are sometimes grumpy? When we are sometimes so pitiful and unhappy and petty? How can God love us, when we keep making the same mistakes, over and over again?

More than this, though, we are often plagued by a seeming certainty that God, indeed, does not love us. The job didn’t work out the way we thought it would. The diagnosis was not what we had hoped for. The mail came, and there were no seasonal greetings, but bills we know we can’t quite pay. No, perhaps God does not love us. After all, things seem so bleak all around us. People are killing other people. People are living without basic needs being met. Cash flow seems to be drying up for all but a privileged few. There is fear…uncertainty…anxiety…a certain sense of darkness and gloom that seems to settle over everything. Does God love us? Really?

And then, from the midst of the trials and conflicts and persecution of the early church, the writer of 1 John, speaks: “This is the message that we have heard from him and announce to you: ‘God is light and there is no darkness in him at all.’” And later on he reminds us, “See what love the Father has given us [lavished upon us, one translation says], that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

That is what we are. And God loves us so much…

A couple of years ago there was a popular love song called “I Choose You,” by Sara Bareilles, which I really liked. Part of it goes like this:

There was a time when I would have believed them
If they told me that you could not come true
Just love's illusion
But then you found me
And everything changed
And I believe in something again

My whole heart
Will be yours forever
This is a beautiful start
To a lifelong love letter

Have you seen any of God’s lifelong love letter for you recently? It’s hard, this time of year. There’s a lot else going on. We are pulled in many directions. We seem to live from emotion to emotion, from party to party…or maybe just from day to day, holding on as tightly as we can. Sometimes, the love of God does seem like an illusion.

But some guy came from some backwater town, a long time ago, after being born in a crowded house without a guestroom for his mom and dad to stay in…and he was God. And he came to show us love in person. Because the only thing that’s better than a letter is a face-to-face visit…and God came and did that because a love letter was just not quite enough…

It’s dark outside. I have to admit, the darkness feels like it’s been winning a bit, lately. Some days have been kind of rough, too busy, emotions a little too raw, sleep a little too scarce, the news a little too painful. Two funerals in Advent is plenty.

But that writer of 1 John tells me this:

9 God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
~1 John 4:9-12 NRSV

“We love because he first loved us.” God does love us. The Bible—that love letter—tells us so. Thanks be to God. Amen.