Waiting for Christmas: Waiting for the Messenger, Mark 1:1-8

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The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

We have an image in our head of what a Christmas angel looks like.

Pastor and writer Nancy Rockwell notes that in the bible, and especially at Christmas, God speaks to us through angels. Mary got an angel. Joseph got an angel. Even Elizabeth and Zechariah got an angel. We have in classical art this vision of an angel as a beautiful, winged person of indeterminate gender, wearing a white robe and having a brilliant halo around their heads. In scripture, though, angels are rarely described as such. Sometimes they are terrifying, winged creatures. Sometimes, they are simply a plain dressed person.

But in Advent this year, Mark gives us a different kind of angel. An angel is, simply put, a messenger of God. And Mark gives us a messenger, but not one we expect. He is no divine being, but a man. A good and holy man, but a messenger and angel nonetheless. A scraggly, rough hewn, camel shirt-wearing, locust eating messenger. And this messenger gives us the good news that we are to take to heart this day: Someone special, someone powerful, is coming. We’d better repent and get ready.

I love the lectionary, because it gives me such wonderful excuses to subvert expectations, even my own.

This mini-sermon series for you this season is called “Waiting for Christmas.” Christmas isn’t here yet. I stealth-started it last week, and this week continues. Christmas is a day that we wait expectantly for, and it’s hard not get excited. With the gift giving, and parties and parades, we want to celebrate Christmas ASAP. But we can’t. Not ’til the 25th. We have to wait.

In the meantime, while we wait, we must also prepare, and this year we prepare by reading the least conventionally Christmas-y gospel, Mark. Luke tells the story of Mary and Elizabeth. Matthew tells the story of Joseph and Herod. John tells the story of creation from a Christian perspective. And Mark…starts in a river-bottom with John, telling people to repent. It’s as un-traditional as it gets. But in a way, it’s message just as important.

John came first, and came to make a way for Jesus to arrive. We too must make the way for Christ.

Washing Yourself Clean

John is a famous figure in the bible, but in his own time, he was known as an infamous rabble rouser–and an extremely popular one at that.

He wasn’t, as many people think, a “Baptist,” as in the modern denomination. He was a Baptist, in that he baptized people, using a ritual of purification on anyone and everyone who came to him. He preached in the wilderness, and people came in droves to hear him speak.

Why though? Was it spectacle? Partly, probably. John was known for his inflammatory speech. He was always willing to push boundaries and speak truth to power. But I think it was something more. He was at the front of a movement, not unlike the Methodist movement in the 1700’s. He God people interested in an idea that is to this day controversial: Repentance.

John’s entire message boiled down to repentance. Repentance is an old Hebrew concept. The word in Hebrew is “shuv.” To do that is to simply turn completely around and walk in  the other direction. It’s an about face, for you military folk. Repentance is not simply just “changing one’s mind” as we tend to think of it. It is a radical change of life, and that was John’s message.

The weird part about his Repentance message, though, was that people wanted to hear it.

Getting crowds of people to follow you out to the wilderness, just so you can yell at them about completely turning their life around was, oddly enough, music to these people’s ears. They not only wanted to hear this message, they needed this message. Life in first-century Israel was no walk in the park. Rome occupied their nation. Their religious leaders were collaborators with the occupiers. War and death surrounded them. So why not? Why not follow someone who wanted a radical change to everything? And why not be at ground zero of that change?

The way John led this movement was not only through preaching, but baptism. Baptism, in its most simple explanation, is a cleansing. You clean yourself outwardly as a mark of inward cleansing and purification. John did not discriminate. His only condition was the commitment to completely re-orient yourself toward God.

Simple, right? But you see, that’s the thing. To do that, you have to admit you were going the wrong way.

We don’t like admitting we were wrong. We can say that we made mistakes, but admitting you were wrong is a much bigger step. We like thinking that we are going in the generally correct direction on our own, and maybe need to adjust course a little. But repentance isn’t a minor course correction. It’s going the opposite way. It’s going in a different way altogether, because any way we can make on our own is not God’s way. God’s way does not look like our way. God’s way looks backwards, from the outside. We’re loathe to give up going our own way. Why, we would undo all of our progress in life if we actually did that!

So we don’t want to confess. We don’t want to admit that we were wrong. And we don’t really want to repent, because to do that would be to admit we did something wrong. These days, we’re more likely to double down on our sin and say, “Actually, I’m going to keep on going my way, just because you told me to go in another direction, simply because I don’t like being told what to do! And you can’t make me change! I’m like this because my daddy and momma were like this, and their daddy and momma were like this. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. And you’re the wrong one for criticizing my way of life. I learned everything I need to know a long time ago, and you have nothing that can change my mind or my direction in life.”

Repentance requires us to go another way. It requires humility. It requires openness to something new. It requires us to change everything, because that’s what it takes to prepare the world for something else, something bigger.

Preparing the Way

John came to prepare the way for Jesus to arrive in the world.

John’s role was foretold in the Old Testament. He would carry with him a voice, a very old voice, one that would sound less like someone out of today and more like someone out of a history book. His voice would sound like Samuel, telling David that he was the wicked one. His voice would sound like Elijah, calling Ahab to abandon Baal and embrace the God of his ancestors. His voice would sound like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Habakkuk. His words would bring a nation to its knees. All because someone even greater, more important, more powerful was coming. And he won’t come in the way you expect it.

If the messenger angel today comes in the form of John the Baptist, the savior of the world is not going to come like we expect him to look either. He’s not going to look like Captain America or Superman, nor will he look like Dirty Harry or John Wayne. He’s not going to look like any kind of hero that we would recognize. John came to prepare the way for this backwards looking savior. The savior himself would in turn come to John to get baptized, yet another reversal, even for John’s expectations. He did so because he needed to set the precedent. The world’s going to change, and we have to be ready for it to change.

So prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a highway. His messengers are ratty homeless wanderers. His brothers are tax collectors and fishermen, his sisters are prostitutes and widows. His enemies are the self-proclaiming righteous, the pastors and bible-thumping politicians, guarding themselves with billboards and bumper stickers. His exalted are mere children. His beloved are the meek and the powerless. His kingdom will belong to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the broken-hearted, the repentant. He is coming. Prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.

 

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Waiting for Christmas: Waiting for the Master, Mark 13:24-37

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24 “But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Happy new year! New Christian year, that is.

For reasons that go back thousands of years, the Christian year does not line up with the calendar year. Rather, it begins four weeks before the festival of Christ’s Birth, better known as Christ’s Mass, or Christmas. In a way it makes sense: why not begin our year with the beginning of the earthly life of our Lord and Savior?
But they did so with a sly underlying motive: before we get to the good stuff on Christmas, we have to have a season of waiting. Waiting for the good in the world to break through. Waiting for light and joy to erupt into a world shrouded in darkness. This season is Advent.
It’s a season of waiting for Christians, which also means it’s a season of irony, because in practice, the festival of Christmas begins the day after American Thanksgiving. (or sooner, depending on if you work in retail.)
All around us are the trappings of Christ’s birth–the ribbons, the banners, the festive trees and garlands, and music–while we are spiritually engaging in a season of apocalyptic expectation. As we wait for Christ’s first birth, we also engage in a season of remembering that we are patiently awaiting the coming age, the Kingdom of Heaven. In Advent, we’re caught between two worlds, two times. Professor Karoline Lewis says that “Advent asks us not to treat this time differently but to live in time differently altogether.” ( source: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007).
It begs a question for us: how do we spend our time? Do we use it well? Or do we waste it? Do we fret about, wallowing in the tyranny of the present? Do we every pay any mind to the eternal in our day-to-day doings? When you wake up and drink your coffee, do you think at all about where you are in the grand cosmic scheme of things? Do you ever stop to think that in the vast creation of God, your life is of significance and importance to God? That in this wide world, God still hears you, loves you, and has blessings set aside just for you? If you did, would you change how you live your life? Or would you do everything the same?
I’ll admit, wasting time is something I am guilty of. But then again, who isn’t? We in our modern age are experts at wasting time. Advent is the perfect season for us to turn that around. We turn our eyes to the coming age, and prepare ourselves for not just another memorial of the birth of Christ, but to the future birth of a new heaven and a new earth.

Dark Days

First off, what Christmas season would be complete without a grim apocalyptic vision from the Son of Man himself?
I’m only joking a little bit here. It’s a stark difference from the kind of scriptures we might be used to thinking of during the run-up to Christmas. Advent is a season of unexpectedness after all. We think of Christmas and we think of the Nativity, of a young man and woman crouched in a small stable, surrounded by animals, basking in the glow of a bright star, and in the odd peace that comes after the chaos of childbirth. After all the screaming and pain of labor, all the emotions bend toward loving glances and comfort. We think of the shepherds arriving after being treated to a heavenly choir. We think even of the Wise Men, who shouldn’t really be in the Nativity until 12 days after Christmas itself. We think of these Hallmark card scenes, etched in our cultural memory. But the truth is, Advent is not as much about the afterglow of Christmas itself. It’s much more about pregnancy. Women, then, can tell you that pregnancy is anything but peaceful.
Pregnancy is chaos, up to the end. First, a new life is growing inside you. You can feel it. A woman’s body changes because of it. Fluctuations of emotions and physical pains/aches/cravings rock a woman’s body. There’s a flurry of activity. There’s the building of a nursery, the gathering of baby supplies like diapers, washcloths, bibs and bottles, baby clothes and God knows what else. All the while, you are not only working your heiny off, you’re waiting. Something is coming that has already begun to change your life and will change it drastically when it finally arrives. This child will change it all. Sometimes, it might even feel like your baby is the end of the world! And it is. The world as you know it will end, and a new, different one will take its place.
That, my friends, is why we read Jesus’s little Apocalypse here at the beginning of Advent. The world truly is going to change. It’ll even be kind of scary when it does change.
Now, a baby coming into the world won’t blot all the stars from the sky. But when Christ comes again? I’ll take Jesus’s word on that that things will be a little cataclysmic. Of course, apocalypses do speak in extremes, as well as in symbols.
One has to remember that apocalypses are what are known as “crisis literature,” works written to make sense of a crisis, and written to give hope to those living in crisis. If there was ever a time of crisis, though, it’s now.
A crisis is actually a word from Greek medicine, of all things. It comes from the word Krinean, “to decide,” and it’s derivative “krisis,” or “a decision.” It’s the point during an illness where it can go either way, leading to either healing, or death. It’s the highest point of a fever, when it will either break, or prove fatal.
We live now, as ever, in a crisis. From the personal scale of work, family, community, and the like, all the way to the global scale, like climate change, the economy, and world diplomacy. Though we have endured crises before, the crisis of today’s world seems to dwarf all others. And yet…
And yet we have survived all the other crises, for better or worse. Life goes on. And there is a reason for that. The reason being? The master is in control, and the master will return.

A House At Work

Jesus uses two parables to explain his little Apocalypse. One includes a fig tree, the other a house awaiting its master. I will focus on the second one, because I feel it more applicable to how we ought to go about waiting for the Master to return.
Jesus long ago promised us that he would return, and when he does, the ends of the earth would meet the ends of heaven, and the two would be one and the same. Before that would be a crisis, but at the end of the crisis, the fever will break and will be reunited in glory with God. We will see God face to face. Until then, we have work to do.
We don’t know when Jesus will return. We’ve thought that Jesus would return soon for 2000 years now, and he has not yet done so. But that doesn’t mean we can be idle in our waiting, thinking he won’t come yet. We must act as if Jesus, the Master, will return any day now. What will we be doing when he returns?
Will we be active, or idle? Will we be bickering, infighting, and backbiting? Will we be robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak? Will we be acting like we do on Saturday night, or will we be acting like we do on Sunday Morning?
We’ve all been given different jobs to do in this world. Each of us has a different vocation, but always that vocation is pointed towards giving the glory to God. So are you giving the glory to God in your life?
In what you do, are you waiting earnestly for the Lord? Are you doing what God has asked us to do? Are you treating not only this time differently, but are you treating time itself differently? Are you living from day to day with heaven on your mind? Are you being a good steward of God’s creation? Are you treating your fellow human being with dignity, respect, and love? Are you preparing a way for the Lord to come, a space for him to dwell?
Advent is here. Christmas is coming. So is the Kingdom of God. So I will ask one more time: Are you ready for the Master to arrive? In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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Oil in the Lamp, Matthew 25:1-13

oil in the lamp promo

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom.Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

“When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’

“Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’

“But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.

11 “Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’

12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

13 “Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.

–Matthew 25:1-13

 

People can go to extreme lengths to be “prepared.”

Take for example my old Scoutmaster, Mr. Menger. Mr. Menger was a great scoutmaster, and he, along with several of the adults in my scout troop, got me ready for a life of goodness, virtue and service. As many of you know, the Boy Scout Motto is “Be Prepared.” It’s a solid motto to live by, because you never know what you’re going to encounter in this world, especially in the wilds of nature.

Mr. Menger took the scout motto I think as far as it can go. The man had an REI bill that probably cost as much as a down payment on a house. The dude bought every gadget, gizmo, and state of the art wilderness survival tool money could buy. GPS trackers, titanium walking sticks, tents made of high tech fibers, boots that cost  far more than any boot could be worth, breathable Columbia and North Face hiking gear. You name it, he bought three of them.

Of course, inevitably half of the gizmos didn’t work or weren’t needed. I remember giving a hearty laugh when his titanium alloy walking stick broke in half.

He’s not alone though. More and more, people tend to stockpile and hoard out of a fear of not being ready.

Several years ago there was a show on National Geographic called Doomsday Preppers, where it would give an episode to different people preparing their houses–and their lives–for the end of the world. Be it through nuclear apocalypse or otherwise, they’d hoard weaponry, food, fuel, and other supplies, turning their house into a fortress. Happy homes transformed into castles, for the fear of the end.

It was a bleak show, but also a funny one in a way, at least to me. I’ve actually met people who prep in this way, stockpiling freeze-dried food and building silos for canned goods. In a way, to me, it’s a consumption and hoarding turned into a hobby, a lifestyle. This lifestyle is both sad and frightening, because in my mind, you’ve let fear define your life. Most of all? You’re preparing in the wrong way, according to Jesus Christ.

The parable of the Bridesmaids is, like many other parables, is simple to hear, but hard to grasp. On the face of it, it’s divisive between two groups of people, those prepared and those not. However, more meaning is always found beneath the surface. Jesus wants us to be prepared, to stay awake, and not be afraid or forgetful of what is truly important.

Caught Off-Guard

The story Jesus uses, one of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom to come for a wedding, may not be the most applicable to today, but the meaning still exists for us.

There’s about 2000 years of wedding tradition changes between us and the story, for example. We don’t celebrate the same way anymore. In a modern wedding, the one we have to wait for and on is not the groom but the bride. Bridesmaids perform a more ceremonial role today, where as then, these would be not friends of the bride, but her servants. And certainly, a wedding wouldn’t start in the middle of the night. We don’t even use oil lamps anymore unless the power goes out in our house and we have an old hurricane lamp kicking around. So there’s a significant amount of distance between us and this parable, which in a way, defeats the purpose of a parable. Parables are meant to use ordinary events to explain extraordinary ideas.

Nevertheless, we still can glean the meaning behind it all, even without the immanence of the experience. We still get waiting. We still get weddings. And we still, for the most part, understand why you need oil in a lamp, although for us, we’d just switch it out for batteries and a flashlight. So say for example, you’re waiting for someone to arrive to take you to a bonfire in the middle of the woods. Ten people are waiting, five wise, five foolish. Five have flashlights with good batteries, five forgot to bring a flashlight. When the five fools arrive at the rendezvous point, they see the wise ones’ flashlight, and go out to the CVS and pick up a little flashlight for the hike. While they’re gone, the party leader arrives, and they are left behind without directions. No cell service in the middle of the woods, either. They’re left out, because they weren’t prepared in the way they needed to be.

Because that’s the thing, right? The bridesmaids were prepared for a wedding. They probably had their makeup and their hair all done up, and their finest dresses on, but one detail they forgot wound up being the one that got them left out of the party.

I’m sure it felt like a small detail. They probably didn’t know that the groom would come in the middle of the night. They more than likely simply didn’t think of this one unlikely situation, and they had so much other stuff to do that it slipped their minds. Weddings are like that, after all. But that’s just it: half did think ahead. Half thought about what they would need in an emergency and planned ahead. They didn’t base their life around it, and hoard the oil, but they made sure they had it if they needed it. They didn’t want to be caught off guard.

Focus on the Right Things

Oil in the lamp. Seems a small thing to be left without. But it made all the difference in the end, because it was essential. And there’s so much that we, in our own lives, in our own faiths, think is relatively unimportant, but becomes essential in the end.

Jesus was telling this to his disciples, who in the previous chapter, were obsessing about the end of all things, and when, specifically, it would come. Jesus responded by simply saying that there would be signs, that disasters would happen, and that you would know it when it happened. As for specifics, Jesus did not give that out. Instead, he gave them this parable, along with a couple more, which we’ll discuss in their own time. He never told them the answer to the question, but rather, that in the meantime, they should get ready.

So how should they get ready? What DO we need to have prepared? How ought we to live in preparation for Jesus’s coming?

Let me go back a sec and think about the Doomsday Preppers.

These are people who have planned out to the Nth degree the end times. Every eventuality has been planned out, so much so that they are well stocked for any disaster that might arise. In the process, they have made their entire lives about the end of the world, and surviving. All their money, free time, and energy goes to their preparations. Is that what Jesus is saying here? Is Jesus telling us to live like a doomsday prepper, holed up in our basements, waiting for the bombs to fall? Does that sound like this parable at all? No, I don’t think it quite matches up.

For instance, these young bridesmaids weren’t prepping for the end of the world. They were waiting on a wedding. Jesus repeatedly compares the end of the world to a wedding feast, and a wedding feast is a party! And if it’s anything like Jesus says, his grand wedding feast will be the biggest party ever. New Year’s Rocking Eve hasn’t got anything on this party. Jesus wants us to know that what’s going to happen will be important and earthshaking, but also fun, and exciting, and joyous.

So rather than preparing ourselves for the end of the world with stockpiles and shelters, what if we prepared for the end as if it was a party?

What if we got excited for it, because it will be a joyous occasion? What if we made preparations for something not disastrous, but something magical? And what if our preparations were joyous in the process?

If that’s the case, we don’t need to hoard supplies. But something tells me there’s another dimension to this as well. Jesus’ most vicious criticisms came from the religious officials of the day, the priests and the pharisees. Jesus responded in kind to them. They criticized him for being a false prophet, and not maintaining religious cleanliness and purity according to the Torah. For associating with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus accused them of being false prophets as well–for not practicing what they preach. For focusing on all the unimportant things when the most necessary thing is what is forgotten.

They focused on a lot of the small laws, regulations and practices. Things like eating the right foods, washing your hands, not working on the sabbath in any way, and 600 other rules like that one. Jesus wanted them to focus on the law, but the law they needed the most: the law of love. Not the minutia of wedding planning, but the most basic things, like light. If you’re going to have a wedding, you’re going to need some kind of light source. You gotta have oil in your lamp to keep the light going.

That oil for the light will make everything else possible. You can’t see the decorations if there is no light. You can’t find you’re way to the party if you don’t have light. Without the light of love, none of the other rules makes any sense! It’s  Because the point of it all is love, joy, peace, kindness, and gentleness. Love is light, and light drives out the darkness.

Love Light’s the Way

The end of everything, though the signs will be destructive and chaotic, is not something to be scared of. We aren’t supposed to hole ourselves up in a bunker. Nor are we supposed to religiously shut ourselves off from the world, judging and condemning. We are supposed to be prepared for a wedding, a party. We need to be ready to walk in the darkness and bear the light. To do that, we need oil to light the way.

So don’t be afraid. Be ready for the coming of the Lord, but don’t be afraid, or malicious. Be bearers of the light, and get ready for a party. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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Beloved Children of God, 1 John 3:1-8

See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us.

Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. Every person who practices sin commits an act of rebellion, and sin is rebellion. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and there is no sin in him. Every person who remains in relationship to him does not sin. Any person who sins has not seen him or known him.

Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous. The person who practices sin belongs to the devil, because the devil has been sinning since the beginning. God’s Son appeared for this purpose: to destroy the works of the devil.

All-Saints-Day-Dove-Sitting-On-Olive-Branch-ClipartFor better or for worse, our families define us. Family is one of the most important influences on our lives: our personalities, our talents, our health, our success, and our failures, can often be traced back to the family.

Take mine for example. I grew up in a rather privileged position. Solidly middle class, grew up mostly in small towns or suburbia, to two college educated people who never divorced. Already, I had advantages that most of my friends did not have. While it may not have predicted my successes or failures in life, it definitely influenced them.

Beyond economics, I was raised by big cookers and big eaters–my waistline didn’t have a chance. My family loved music, and so I was bound to be in some capacity, a music lover. We weren’t very athletic, but we were fairly good readers. Already a template was in place for the person I would become. Oh, and by the way, we were religious. That accounts a great deal for why I  stand before you today. So yes, for good or for ill, my family definitely got me where I am today.

However, a family is more than just a mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, grandma and grandpa. A family goes beyond genetics. A family is bound, rather, by blood.

Genetics and blood relation, to me, are not the same. Genetics accounts for a lot. But blood goes much farther. I have many friends that I would consider brothers and sisters, not because of our genetic  relation, but because of the blood we have  bled,  sweated together. Crunch time in school, writing papers or studying for exams. Camping together, falling, and picking each other back up. Most of all, sharing in the cup of communion. Blood ties us, and makes us a family. Strange? Abnormal? Perhaps. But family nonetheless.

Today we observe All Saints’ Sunday, which in a manner of speaking, is a family reunion of all of the Children of God. Brothers and Sisters, Mothers and Daughters, Fathers and Sons, all throughout time, bound by the blood of Christ, are reunited this day as we pay attention and homage to the church eternal, invisible, one, holy, apostolic and universal. Today is the day we remember the saints!

A saint, for those who might be confused, is anyone who is a part of the church. Not just the named ones you’ve heard about from the Catholic church, but anyone and everyone who has been born again in Christ, who has died in Christ, and will be risen in Christ. You remain a part of the church after you die, but more than that, you remain a brother or a sister in Christ. Therefore it’s good to take time to reflect on this divine mystery: we are the beloved children of God.

The Father’s Kind of Love

As much as we are defined by our family, a family is defined by how it interacts with each other. The founder of our family, the Christian family, is the God the Father.

One of the fun things about the letters of John is how  much they are kind of an interpretation of the gospel of John. The letter writer, probably a disciple of John writing his words in his name, uses many of the ideas and motifs of the gospel to write to early church communities. If it were music, he’d be writing these letters in the same key, with some melodies lifted here and there to remind them of the gospel.

As such, one of the most examined ideas in the letter is the character of God, that character being defined as love. So much so that he goes as far as to claim that God IS love, as bold a proclamation as one can make. If we then are God’s children, God’s family, our relationship to God is one of love. Love as a father, a parent, would have for a child is stronger than most any other kind of love there is, and that is the love that defines our relationship to God.

So how is it is we became God’s family?

After all, there is only one Son of God, and he is Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t have any children. How can we therefore claim that God is our father? John fills in that blank by using the language of adoption. Adoption, in the world that John inhabited, was a fairly common practice, and not always done as a loving couple taking in an orphaned child. Sometimes a family would legally adopt an young teenager, or even a grown man, so that the lineage and property would be taken care of. In those cases, adoption is about inheritance.

For us, we benefit in both ways. We were taken in by God because God loves us, wants us to grow and prosper and bear fruit. God also give us the inheritance of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

As you see then, all those in Christ, saints living and dead, are bound together as a family of love. We aren’t a family by genetics, although some are related. We are a family bound by love, love poured out for you and for many on the cross. That love fills our cup today, and that love should cover any disagreements, any arguments, any divisions we have. If we but remember that we are all children of God, bound together by love, then what could keep us apart?

The Strains of Sin

There’s always something though, isn’t there. Something can always get in between us. That something is a three letter word that so many people hate to think about. The think that can tear us apart is sin.

The community in particular that the letter of John was written to was being divided by certain influential people. John used the somewhat unpolitic phrase “antichrists.” Harsh, perhaps, but accurate, because if Jesus was the ultimate example of unity and love, these people did the opposite of that. They pit the family of God against itself, and led to all kinds of divisions and arguments. John saw this behavior as not only un-Christlike, but anti-Christ, against Christ.

Sadly, in any family there’s bound to be a few bad seeds that cause nothing but conflict.

These people seek it out intentionally, for whatever reason. They see it as a means to an end, a means to get power, or to get their way. It doesn’t matter what violence might occur in ripping a family apart. These people divide, and make everything worse. The term for this is “triangulation,” talking to one person and pitting them against another person so that in the space between, this divider gains power over both sides.

The Christian family is not without its “antichrists.” It’s not just one person at the end of days, oh no. It’s many people over the history of the church. People who seek power, preaching a Gospel that is wholly unlike that of Christ, all to gain something they want. They commit a great sin in doing this: removing Christ from the center of their lives, and placing themselves there instead.

Brothers and sisters, we must resist people like this in our church. We must resist self-seeking ambition, instead seeking only the vision of the kingdom of God. We must practice putting aside differences among ourselves so that we can remember that we are truly bound together by the blood of Christ, not destined to be pitted against each other by petty grievance or ambition. We are a stronger family than that. We must be.

Under One Roof, At One Table

Brothers, Sisters, we are the family of God. We are all children of God, Co-heirs of he kingdom. Today is a celebration of that.

In this place, under this roof, at this table, we re-forge the bonds of family. We eat the body, we drink the blood, and we are reconciled to God and to one another. That’s something worth celebrating. That’s worth singing about. That’s worth dancing about. Most of all, that’s worth sharing. There’s always more room under this roof, space at the table. The good news is not something to be hoarded or denied to anyone, but to be shared. So go, and open up these doors. The saints are gathered here, singing the praises of God and sharing the food and drink at the table. They always will. And there’s always room for one more. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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A Taxing Argument, Matthew 22:15-22

A Taxing Argument promo

Sometimes, Jesus puts everyone in a difficult situation and it’s really hard to deal with.

Jesus doesn’t pull punches, but in that sense, he also makes it so that we have to receive the punches. We have to take our lumps. It’s hard. It’s hard to actually do what Jesus says, because we have a history and an inclination to do the opposite. As he puts the pharisees in their place today, Jesus puts us in ours as well. He asks us the most difficult question he could ask us: where is your loyalty? Who is your authority? And What are you going to do about it?

Jesus’s statement on taxes, a response to a trap from the religious authorities, is a trap for us too.

It’s almost flippant how he says it, but the implications are drastic. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render to God what belongs to God, or so the older KJV English will say. It’s almost off-handed. But here’s the thing–it really isn’t. The effortless paradox he presents us with has vexed the faithful for generations. It’s obvious what he’s implying–that everything belongs to God–but because it’s obvious it makes us question what everything entails. It makes us question: is it really right to pay taxes? Is it really right to do this, when we know that everything truly belongs to God? And if that is the case, what then belongs to Caesar, the emperor, the government?

I have been told  all my life that there are three things you don’t talk about in public: money, politics, and religion, and here Jesus has combined all three in this glib challenge to the Pharisees. So you see how difficult of a position we are truly put in! Jesus doesn’t care about our self-made rules so that we can go along to get along. He doesn’t care what inner conflicts this presents us with. What he cares about is righteousness: who is righteous, and what do we do to be righteous?

The Idol In Our Pockets

Let’s get this one piece of this puzzle squared away first: Idolatry is the sin that Jesus is confronted by in this story.

Now it’s obvious that the Pharisees and Temple Priests wanted Jesus gone. They either wanted him to be irrelevant, or be killed by the mob or Rome, whichever comes first. The best way for them to do this was to get him to answer the most difficult and dangerous question they could think of, one with no good answer: Should we pay taxes to Rome? Rome, the occupying empire, had after all brought many good things to the people of Israel, like solid infrastructure, roads, and the like. All Israel had to do was pay taxes, and live with Roman soldiers on every street, and support the Roman government.

Some people had few problems with this. These people were privileged enough that they could pay the taxes, and that they were friendly enough with the romans that they had no worry of arrest or attack. Many of these people were in the Temple authorities and the Pharisees circles. Seen as collaborators, there was widespread suspicion of these people by the general population. If Jesus answered yes, you should pay taxes, the people would see him as a collaborator with the Romans, and abandon him. If he said you shouldn’t pay taxes, well, that’s a great reason to get thrown in jail and killed by Romans. So they had him caught. But Jesus knew better.

Sometimes I really wish I had Jesus’ ability to quip a meaningful retort at the right time. I frequently experience something known as esprit de l’escalier, or “the spirit of the staircase.” It’s a French term for that feeling of coming up with the perfect comeback too late, as you’re going down the stairs out of someone’s house. But while esprit de l’escalier is upon me, the Spirit of God is with Jesus  in his inspired challenge: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.

To illustrate this point, he uses the fact that the Roman currency had the faces of their emperor on them.

This, of course, is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make graven images, or idols. In a very real way, by even handling Roman money, the people of Israel were complicit in idolatry. It was a heated topic of debate among the Jewish people at the time. Does having Roman coins with engraved images on them count as Idolatry? For a people as careful as the Jews were about going out of their way to not be sinful, they treaded a fine line with currency.

In a very real way, there was an idol in everyone’s pocket, and if you didn’t have it, the taxman cometh and taketh you away. So what to do? Jesus says give to Caesar what belongs to him–that which has his face on it. He also says give to God what’s God’s–meaning everything else. But is that right? Are we too small to grasp what he really means?

Battling Kingdoms

So let’s get down to brass tacks: what belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar, the emperor, the nation, the government, the world?

What, exactly, is a nation owed? Nations, after all, are man-made constructs. A political boundary may have some kind of physical marker or dividing line, like a river or a mountain range, but in the end, a boundary is artificial. We collect ourselves into nations for many reasons: sharing of resources, general administrative duties, defense, infrastructure, and many more. But a lot, if not all of this is voluntary; we pay taxes to support these artificial constructs, and those taxes are compulsory. We are made to pay taxes because, as citizens, we have a civil contract to uphold.

Some go above and beyond to support a government. Some are active in politics and campaigns. Some volunteer for military service. Some work in the bureaucracies, both local and national. Some people uphold laws in police forces. Some people teach in the public schools because they believe in an informed citizenry. There are many benefits to a nation.

So perhaps let’s come at this in a different way: What does a Christian owe a nation?

A citizen owes a nation many things, but Christians are resident aliens, citizens of a kingdom not of this earth. We belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. And that requires a whole different set of rules, values, and actions, ones that sometimes rub against the values and requirements of a nation.

We are called, as God’s children to ten main commandments, and one over-arching commandment. They are (put very simply):

The Lord is our God, and have no other gods before God.

Don’t make idols.

Don’t use the Lord’s name as if it had no significance.

Take a sabbath every seven days, and keep it holy.

Honor your parents.

Don’t Kill.

Don’t commit adultery.

Don’t steal.

Don’t lie.

Don’t covet.

The over-arching commandment, covering all of them, is to Love your God and to Love your neighbor. These are our ideals, our virtues, our teachings, our commandments, and as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we ought to follow these above and beyond all other laws.

So when do the ten commandments rub up against the laws of a nation? You might be surprised to see how often it happens.

Let’s start with the first couple of them: Don’t worship anything else but God, and don’t make false idols. Well, shucks, we constantly mess up on this one don’t we? There are many rival gods for us to worship in our nation. Between the trappings of patriotism, the graven images found on our currency, and our flag, we have competing idols all around us. And yes, there are some who elevate the flag above the cross, and as Christians, we must be clear about who we are allegiant to. Patriotism can absolutely conflict with our convictions and commandments as Christians, especially in the battlefield of the heart.

Let’s push further. Our currency has the phrase “In God We Trust” on it. A nice thought, perhaps, but is it not ironic that we use the Lord’s name on money, a something that in and of itself isn’t evil, but can be elevated to the status of an idol? Can that not be claimed as using the Lord’s name in vain?

How about the Sabbath? I’m not saying that we ought to close all the stores on Sunday, but we certainly don’t value rest in our culture. We don’t make allowances for much outside of work, to be honest. There even was an article earlier this week entitled: “Work, Sleep, Family, Friends, and Fitness–Pick 3.” The article in question was basically a manifesto that in modern working life, you only have room for 3 of those activities in your life. How tragic. How monstrous. How utterly demonic a mindset is that! That certainly goes against the 5th commandment of honoring your parents/family?

The other five are less complex, and align more with our nations laws, but we still have soldiers who kill. We still don’t punish or shame adultery nearly enough. We glorify those who rip people off in the name of capitalism and consumerism. Our legal system is nothing but a network of liars and corruption. Our entire monetary system is based on our covetousness.

Now don’t take this as a screed against our country, or as me bashing the nation I was born into, and am a citizen of. I very much appreciate this nation, the freedoms it offers, and the people who serve it.

But I will not waver and say that my true allegiance does not lie with this world or this nation. My true home is not here. I am, and always will be, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and I will do what believe to be the best citizen of that nation that I can. As we all should. If you are a Christian, you are a citizen of another kingdom, unlike any other. If you claim the name of Christian, you will be held accountable to the commandments of God, to love God, and to love your neighbor, even if that means defying the values and norms of our earthly home.

Jesus makes the concession that we must give that nation what it is owed, but always with the understanding that God supersedes it always. God’s kingdom takes precedence.

So give to the world what it is owed, but first give to God what is God’s. That is your challenge today, and always, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Question when God’s laws and principles rub up against what we are supposed to be like or value on this earth, in this nation. Know that you are an alien among other nations, not of this world. Act like it too. It may not be popular. Heck, it may not be safe. But in the end, you will have fulfilled God’s command, and in doing so, you will make this world a little more like heaven. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Blessed Wresting, Genesis 32:22-31

Blessed Wrestling Promo

 

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[b] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.

It’s time, I think, for a change of pace.

For the past several months, I have been doing a lot of preaching primarily on the New Testament. In fact, I looked back, and the last time I preached on the Old Testament was in March, when I preached on Isaiah. Wesley once said that he was a “man of one book,” meaning that the New Testament and Old Testament ought not be separated but bound together as one, cohesive story of God and God’s people.

Free-YourselfSo I’m taking this time to shift gears, and for the next eight weeks, I’m going to be preaching on passages from Genesis and Exodus. I’ll be following the lectionary passages, and what’s interesting is that when I took the time to examine them all, a theme began emerging: a theme of liberation. Being set free is one of the most consistent actions in the story of Israel, God’s chosen people, and God’s continued work in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus set us free from sin, completing the mission God set out to do with his people Israel. But the work started a long time ago. So I want to explore how God set people free in the earliest history of his people, and how we might encounter God’s liberating presence in our own lives. For the next eight weeks, I’ll be starting a sermon series called “Set Free: God’s Liberation of Israel” and see the liberating work of God from the very beginning, and find ourselves in the midst of new liberation every day.

So to start, let’s go to a story that is probably one of my favorite Old Testament stories, because it is so formative for the history of the Jewish people, but also my own faith: Jacob wrestling with God.

That this story is so important to the Jewish people is no secret. Jacob did eventually get a new name from God, that name being Israel–a name with many translations, but ultimately comes back to this event, a name which means “he who struggles with God.” Other translations it’s “God’s triumph” or “is triumphant with God”. It’s a weird name for a person, and an even weirder name for an entire people, but it’s the name they revere and keep to this day. That means that this event, right here, is the birth of Israel in a way. And Israel’s story is not only a story of struggle, but of liberation. It’s from this initial struggle that a nation, a history, and faith is born.

jacob iconJacob’s Long Winding Road

To arrive at this legendary wrestling match, you need to know how Jacob got to this point. Rather, how Jacob hit rock bottom.

Jacob’s whole life is defined by his craftiness and his nature as a trickster. He was named Jacob because that translates to “He who replaces” or “He who supplants” because as he was being born, he was grabbing his twin brother by the ankles. He grew up, and tricked his brother Esau many times, once by getting Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup, and another by getting his father Isaac’s blessing by impersonating Esau. So to start out life with such an antagonistic streak in order to gain personal  wealth and power is an audacious way to be.

But it doesn’t stop there. From here, he runs away from Esau’s wrath and lives with his uncle Laban. With Laban, he has an able teacher in the ways of craft. Their story is of constant loving one-upmanship. Jacob tricks Laban into giving him more livestock than Laban intended. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah before he can marry Rachel. On and on, they’re constantly trying to out-trick each other, making each other smarter. Until one day, that is, when Jacob can’t out-trick his way out of a situation, which brings us to the wrestling match with God.

See, Jacob got word that his brother Esau was on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men, and quite frankly, that’s a pretty dangerous situation. Jacob knows he’s in a tight spot.

His past ways finally caught up to him. He did have a plan to get out of dying…but that meant that he would have to lose a lot of his wealth that he had worked so hard to attain. He sent ahead of him 3 waves of people bearing his livestock and riches to meet his brother, and when they did meet him, they would give his belongings to his brother as a gift. To live meant to lose all he had gained by trickery and deceit.

See, that’s the trouble with investing everything into being a trickster. By all means, being a trickster has advantages. When your opponent outclasses you in strength and power, you have to rely on your mind to get you out of trouble. That the Jewish faith reveres Jacob and his trickster ways can tell you a lot about their mindset. Outsiders love a good trickster story. Outcasts. Smaller countries in the midst of larger, powerful nations. Owing your status based on the power of your mind can be a powerful history to draw on, and a guide for future action. There are far worse people you could base your history on than a trickster. Though he was devious, he still was history for a whole people, a forefather to trace your life to.

As anyone can tell you, being a trickster has disadvantages too. In your own life, it can cost you relationships. It can cost you credibility. In Jacob’s case, it might even cost you your life. It begs the question: what is your life worth? Is it your possessions that matter? Or is it the possibility of a future? Would you be able to say you would start from zero if it meant you could live another day, possibly in peace with someone you wronged?

jacob wrestles with godA Blessed Struggle

Before the day on which he was to meet his brother, Jacob has this dream that I read to you, in which he wrestles with a mysterious man, who turns out to be God.

Jacob struggles with the mystery wrestler until dawn, and then the mystery man wounds Jacob to where he could not fight anymore. Holding on for dear life, Jacob then demands that he would not let go until he received a blessing. An odd request, but this is the kind of thing that Jacob has done his entire life. He received many intangible blessings in his life: his birthright, his inheritance, and many other things. A blessing means many things, but in this case, it is the spoils of victory. Jacob wants something in return for his long fighting match with the mystery man. The mystery man, of course, acquiesces, and grants him of all things, a new name–a very God thing to do. That name, Israel, which I discussed earlier, is the turning point for Jacob’s whole life. It’s a transformation, from scoundrel to full humanity. Jacob was defined by his desire to supplant and gain. Israel, now, is defined by struggle, yes, conflict, but also triumph. Victory is his name, and so will be his future, but only after much conflict.

Jacob, the following day, meets with Esau and is surprisingly not attacked, but embraced. Moved by Jacob’s gesture of goodwill and giving, something Jacob had never done for Esau, he embraced him as a brother, reunited in love.

Jacob, in the end, not only retained his hard-fought wealth, but gained something as intangible as a name: he gained a true brother. That chapter of his life is no more. balance. Everything being in order, nothing out of balance, he then goes on to have more blessed life with his neighbors.

Limping Triumph

Israel would never forget this story, nor it’s mark on his life. After all, the struggle left him with a limp for the rest of his life.

A limp, like a scar, is a reminder of a story. It’s a lasting wound that never goes away, changes how you approach life. Anyone with some kind of physical impairment can relate to that. If you are hard of hearing, you need a hearing aid, and that requires adjustments to your life. If you have diabetes, it requires you to change your diet and habits. If you have poor eyesight, you need to take care of your glasses and contacts. To live, we always must make adjustments to your life. But what kind of adjustment is required when you have a limp from fighting with God?

I always go back to this story because understanding that Israel, and by proxy we, will always have struggles with God. Struggles with belief, with God’s actions, with sin in this world–all of it will be with us. We won’t have a day without some kind of conflict, until the very end of days. But it is through that conflict, we might find balance, even if we sacrifice a bit of ourselves to find it. Balance requires adjustment, and so to right ourselves with God, we must ask ourselves: what must we adjust in our lives to be in balance, in harmony, with God?

To be a follower of God requires not only faith, but sacrifice of ourselves. It means giving up something about ourselves so that we might be more like God.

We do so treasure our sins. Jacob treasured his ability to trick his way out of danger. But he couldn’t trick Esau anymore, and you can’t trick God when you wrestle with him. He had to sacrifice his safety and get his hands dirty, and actually face his conflicts. There is a time for safety, and there is a time for confronting your problems and dealing with them.

Through this blessed wrestling match, Jacob gained freedom and liberation from the prison of trickery and deceit that he built for himself. Jacob was changed into Israel, he who struggles with God. Who will you become when you encounter God? And what will God free you from? Ponder this, and pray for the freedom that is possible when you wrestle with God. Amen.

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Never the Wrong Time, Luke 2:1-20

Note: This sermon was delivered on July 30th. We held a “Christmas in July” service, with songs and scripture reflecting a different season of the church. This came as a surprise to the church, as we didn’t warn them what the leadership was doing…which was super fun to see! So enjoy this weird, out of place sermon. I really enjoyed writing and delivering it, so I hope you all enjoy it too.

Never the Wrong Time title card

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

 

christmasparty2.pngMerry Christmas! I suppose this whole service is a bit of a surprise to you all, but, quite honestly, you should be used to surprises by now. I mean, this is the church, and what if anything should we celebrate but surprising joy?

 

Think about it. When you first encountered Jesus, truly and fully, were you not thrown off? Were you expecting to receive the promise of a new life, freed from the pain of suffering and death in the fullness of time? If you have, I expect you were. Even if you were raised in the church, you would probably have been surprised when you have that personal conviction of sin, and the personal revelation that you are saved from it. At least that’s the hope. And if you haven’t, consider this one such surprising moment from God.

 

christmasburnoutCelebrating Christmas is incredibly important to us, if not religiously, then culturally.

We spend months planning for it every year. We spend hundreds, maybe thousands, on gifts, travel and parties. We love the season, its lights, its sounds, its festival nature. But truth be told, when we finally get to Christmas day, we’re often so tired of Christmas that the magic has worn off.

 

So let’s let today be the surprise that Christmas was meant to be. People in the ancient world were expecting a messiah, but that messiah’s arrival would have been a surprise, without any fanfare or forewarning of actual dates. When the Messiah actually did come, there were no lights in the streets or songs in the taverns. Rather, the streets were quiet, the people were upset because of the census, and nobody was expecting a boy born in a manger was to be the king of kings, lord of lords, prince of peace. Jesus and his birth was a surprise. So celebrating Christmas when we least expect it is probably the most authentic way we can appreciate his birth.

 

Jesus was probably not born on December 25th, anyways. More than likely, according to historians, he was probably born in April or May. So truth be told, it’s never the wrong time to celebrate the incarnation of God into the world.

 

Unexpected Joy

 

christmas_painting_holy_family_nativity_346b67145c1bd980447b174c9544629b

Art by Heidi Malott, http://www.heidimalott.com

The story itself is one nobody expected. 

 

Mary didn’t have on her calendar the day an angel was supposed to come to her and tell her she would bear the son of God. Joseph certainly didn’t plan on being engaged to a woman already pregnant, nor did Joseph’s family, nor the village of Nazareth. Joseph was an upright citizen, and though poor, a hard and good worker. Mary was a just a kid, thirteen or fourteen. Nobody expected any of this to happen.

 

Nor did anyone really expect the emperor to call for a census, leading to the mass migration of people to their ancestral hometowns. This was the first census, after all. Mary and Joseph probably did not expect that they would have to deliver a child in the midst of this travel, let alone the night they arrived in Bethlehem. The angels definitely didn’t expect to see and entire army of angels singing in the night sky on this unassuming night in the late spring. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect of all people a bunch of shepherds to come and see them while they delivered a baby in a stable filled with animals, and all the smells that come with animals.

 

The Magi didn’t expect to see a star in the sky where there wasn’t one before, nor did they expect that when they looked up which star it was, that it would be a star that would foretell the coming of a king. They didn’t expect when they arrived at the palace of the country the king would rule in that the king would be surprised. The king didn’t expect news of a new king being born, especially when he himself hadn’t sired a son.

So you see, this entire story is about surprising, unexpected events happening to all kinds of people, from all over and with every kind of background.

 

The birth of Jesus affected everyone differently, too. For some, it inspired fear and dread. For others, hope and light. For some, awe and adoration. For others, hardship and persecution. For everyone it caught off guard, this miraculous event was truly a surprising time. And as it turns out, it came at the right time, which is any time. There would have been no better time for Jesus to have been born. And there’s no better time than now for us to recognize the miracle of Jesus in our own lives.

 

Jesus Breaks In Without Warning

 

Celebrating Christmas in July, then is an opportunity to reflect on the revelation that God himself broke into the world, without warning, and changed everything just by being born.

 

75 manger12010[1]By being born, God changed the nature of reality. For beforehand, humanity was absent divinity. We were truly and completely unholy. But because Jesus came, and was born of a human, and made fully human and divine, he united humanity and divinity itself. Because he was human and divine, he made it so that we can have hope of being made like him, more holy, more like God. He opened up a pathway for us to God.

 

God came in Jesus so that we could know God better, but also that God could know us better. True, God knows all, but in the experiences of Jesus Christ, the Godhead experienced humanity like never before. God was born. God was taught what it means to be human, with all the happiness and messiness that involves. God was in diapers. God had friends, played with friends as a child. God went to weddings, and funerals. God celebrated, and God wept. God, as made known to us in Jesus Christ, experienced humanity in its fullness.

 

Knowing that God was human makes it possible for us to understand him better, and in that way, we know that Jesus truly loves us humans, warts and all.

 

He knew the depravity we were capable, and his still loved us. He knew cruelty, but he also knew kindness. He knew the power of humanity to do great things empowered by the Holy Spirit. He saw it in unexpected places, and forced us to look where we would never look. And it all started by forcing us to look in a stable for a king. Look at the shepherds as his first honored guests. Look at Kings as the shallow, paranoid creatures they are. Look at foreign wise men as bearing the promise from the outside. Look at the refugee, because Jesus became one in Egypt. Look where you never would, and you will be surprised by joy.

 

The Time is Now

 

In celebrating his birth in the wrong month, so to speak, we see how powerful it truly is that he came at all, when nobody expected. Jesus came as a surprise, so that we all can be saved, so that we all can have hope.

 

We’re in the dead heat of July, soon to be August. We have so much on our plates, we often lose sight of what gives us hope. So I invite you to look for hope. Look for joy where you least expect it. Look, and remember when you first encountered Jesus. Look, and seek goodness where none may have been thought to exist.

 

Seek first that goodness, and know that it’s never the wrong time to have hope, to see joy, and to live with unexpected happiness. You may yet bear the surprising good news of Jesus to someone who needs it, and can’t wait for “the right month” for us to do it. Do it now. Live like it’s Christmas everyday. It’s never the wrong time to have hope, share goodwill to all people, and bear the light to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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