Christmas Eve 2012

How desparately we long for hope.

And when it seems impossible to believe that hope can be fulfilled we often end up mocking the attempts people make to dispel the darkness. Despair is a terrible place to live, and a difficult place to leave, particularly when we have heard it all before. I was reminded of the Lonfellow poem, tuned into the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It happened in a very moving sermon by the pastor of the congregation I call home (Rev. Harry Dow).

The texts for the day are, of course, familiar ones. Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14. Isaiah begins with the familiar words, “People who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Darkness. Before the light. No light will seem great, or even be recognized until darkess has overtaken the scene. Darkness doesn’t change what is present; it obscures what is there already. It hides from our view those things which are within our reach, things that are capable of bringing us aid, yet go unused and unappreciated because we either couldn’t see them at all or because we took them for something other than what they are.

Wadsowrth’s poem was written in a time of darkness. Sure, the sun came up on schedule each day, yet darkness prevailed in the minds and experiences of so many people who could not see things for what they were. It was 1863, with a nation torn in the midst of a war with itself. There was no peace on earth to match the words that accompanied the announcement of Christ’s coming. Truth be told, it has ever been thus at many points in the world and its history; it has ever been thus in the experiences of communities, of individual persons, in households, in workplaces, even in congregations. There is no peace in Congress, nor in Syria, Egypt, or Connecticut. It’s really dark, and some people even despair of walking any further.

“Then peeled the bells more loud and deep; God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” Buried within the triumpant final stanza of Wadsworth’s hymn is the entertaining of the idea that God has died, or is in fact asleep, indifferent to what is happening around us. It’s an easy conclusion at which to arrive–if we have not taken the time or the effort to know Him and His way of working in this world. When light arrives upon a dark scene, it is not the light that we look at, at least not directly. It is the light that allows us to see everything else, as C. S. Lewis put it so well. It is only by the light that we can detect and identify evil as evil, and thereby be assured that it is the intruder, not the norm for our world, our lives, our futures. Without the light that lightens every person, we would be left to conclude that sickness, poverty, pain, despair, and hopelessness are the way things are and are likely to be. Without the light shining into the corners we would not know ourselves as we are, or more importantly, as we should be and in fact can be, provided we turn ever more consistently toward the light that brings us life.

I know too many people living in despair. Some of them know the light is there, but a shade has been drawn temporarily across their view of the world, and it is darker than ever because their eyes had once become accustomed to the light now obscured. I pray for them and all who never saw the light before, that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail and God’s peace may come upon them anew.

Advent 2012. Fourth Sunday

It’s getting close, isn’t it? Anticipation becomes reality in just a day or two, depending on when individual families hold their celebrations of the coming of Christ into our world. He has already entered, has He not? Yet there is more to come.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent focus on the Second Coming of the Christ we celebrate even now. Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36. All of them point to the need for preparation, noting that things may turn rather unpleasant by the time Christ comes to culminate what He has already begun. He will, indeed, finish what He started.

We attempt all sorts of things and invent all sorts of devices in order to make life better. There is something about our nature that yearns for a sense of confidence that we are moving forward, that something better is possible. We want to make it happen. For many folks the route to the good life is one that must be self-created and self-trod; we have to do it our way, as Frank Sinatra’s classic song has it. We in the western portion of the world are especially given to doing it our own way. It is encouraged in our children, who are constantly told that they can be anything they want to be. What so often happens is that the options presented for them to desire turn out to be rather thin. It has been said that the worst thing in the world is not to fail to reach one’s dreams; it is to reach them and find that they do not satisfy. That is an emptiness plaguing far too many people in what we thought were wonderful places.

We were made for better things. We were made for God. It is doubtful that there was ever a more fulfilled person than Jesus of Nazareth. We should celebrate him not only because He came to us, but because he came that we might have life, in all its abundance intended by our Creator. We were made to enjoy, grow with, learn from, interact with, provide and receive guidance from one another. When we do we find happiness. But we don’t trust one another enough to risk the openness and honesty about ourselves that this mutuality requires. So we guard ourselves and withdraw from the other. We focus on how different he/she is from ourselves. We build walls to protect us from them; if necessary we strike at them before they strike at us. In the process, we forget what the image of God is all about and where it resides. We lost all ability to relate even to the Image Himself.

Jesus has come not only to show us God (He IS the visible image of the invisible God), but by doing it in the flesh he showed us how to find that image, and therefore that value in each other person so created. That’s why all of the focus on unjust relationships that comes with Advent readings come as warnings to us. We need to rethink our relationship with God, allow Him to restore it in Christ, and move among others in the transactions of life with His vision and version of who they are and of who they may become if the Savior moves in them.

That, I believe, is being prepared for His coming, and the way to look for it gladly, no matter what our circumstance. We know He will complete His work; we long to be participants in it. The fortunate among us know it to be so.

Advent 2012. Dec.22

Have you ever been amazed at what you thought you knew, only to find it might be otherwise? What kind of response did you offer? Denial of the new perspective, in spite of solid evidence presented? Anger toward the purveyor of the new word, recognizing he/she has challenged you in an area central to your self-understanding? Embracing the new so quickly and tightly that the old becomes a scoffing point, along with those who continue to hold that which you once believed in common? If the belief is ultimately insignificant, it might not matter. But what if it concerns something that really matters?

Today’s texts are among those which would be challenging to Israelites who first heard them. But they might also challenge some of what we think we know, particularly in the conservative wing of Christianity. Micah 4:1-5; Luke 1:46-55; Ephesians 2:11-22. The promise of a coming day; the dawn of its fulfillment; the extension of the promise to all mankind.

What, one may ask, is so different about this message? Haven’t we always spoken of God’s saving action in Christ? Haven’t we continually upheld the virgin birth, the divine AND human nature of Christ, and the holiness of God? Yes. But also no? What about scattering the proud and haughty, bringing princes down from thrones, exalting the lowly, satisfying the hungry, sending the rich away empty-handed? Are these concerns separable from God’s holiness and mercy extending from generation to generation, the mighty arm of the Lord doing tremendous things? Have we weakened the force, the shattering of pre-conceptions and preferred understandings and settled into a comfortable but powerless version of the faith?

Mary’s “Magnificat” has rung through centuries of Christian reading and song. It follows not too many verses after the quintessential expression of faith: I am the Lord’s servant; let it be done to me according to your word. What a far cry this is from some of today’s supposedly faithful expressions: I am God’s child; let it be done to me according to what I claim. God’s Christ brings down the rich; some desire to be among them. God’s Christ brings down the proud and haughty; some in His name exhibit those very traits. God’s Christ finds delight in giving good things to the poor; some prefer to heap abuse upon them, assuming all of them to lack redemption-worthy status.
When God’s concerns become ours we are ready for His coming. Until that time, we might wish to approach the coming of the Lord with a bit more caution.

There is cause for rejoicing. We have demonstrated repeatedly, through a very wide range of political, economic, and social arrangements, that as a race we are incapable of producing the kind of world in which justice and righteousness dwell securely. We sing “Joy to the World” because the Lord, who does make all things new, has come. And it remains for us and for the world to receive its rightful king. He is a king to receive, with all His authority over every structure and plan we might devise to fix the world or to secure our own place within it. He is not a means to our own ends. We come from different social, political, marital, and economic stations in life. But He rules the world with truth and grace—the whole world, including high and low, rich and poor. Faithfulness allows Him to do to each of us and with each of us who claim His name as He chooses. Just like an unsuspecting and unpretentious teen-age girl named Mary.

Advent 2012. Dec.21

Somehow, Santa Claus knows who has been naughty or nice; and he will come on Christmas Eve with the just rewards for all the little girls and boys. The assumption, of course, is that the very fact of his coming with good things for the nice kids will provide enough incentive to keep naughtiness at bay. If only life were so simple.

Today’s Advent readings talk about another coming. Isaiah 42:1-11; Hebrews 10:32-39; Psalm 80:1-7. The word is not primarily about one who brings presents for good people and withholds them from the bad ones. Quite simply, there are no good people. We’ve all been found out in our naughtiness, as our hearts have confirmed when we looked at what God requires of us—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. We’ve neglected all of them at some point. Perhaps the biggest difference among people is not in the shortcomings, but in the public visibility of those shortcomings. We lack Santa Claus knowledge, let alone truly divine knowledge of naughty and nice.

The ultimate blessings of God are to be found not under trees or in malls, or in our businesses and professions, those some of these will indeed prove to be His gifts from time to time. His blessing is nothing less than citizenship in His eternal kingdom. And it belongs not to those who perform, but to those who persevere. It is for those who believe His Word, not those who benefit from prosperity.

There is some parallel with the children’s song, however. Preparation is required for this Coming. It’s much harder, however. For some, it will be very painful and costly in ways that are not true for others; yet it is often those who persevere under affliction that have the greatest grasp and appreciation for what lies ahead, for the sake of which they continue to fix their sight on ultimate, not penultimate things. It’s those penultimate—the “almost” but not quite ultimate—things that trip us up. Good church families, nice music, strong family bonds, freedom of worship and expression, sufficiency of material goods, etc., are all good, yet penultimate things. They can all be provided here and now.

The true and lasting rewards can only be given by the One whose reward comes with Him, whose coming cannot be mimicked by another. We’ll all know. Some of us will be found faithful, persuaded by the Spirit groaning within that faithfulness transcends niceness. Niceness gives way under pressure; faithfulness is refined by it. And it is thereby prepared for things unimagined, to which the best in Santa’s bag can only faintly point.

Advent 2012. Dec.20

The question was asked in a London newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world?” After a host of predictable replies, the following was submitted and signed by the venerable G. K. Chesterton: “Dear Sirs, In reply to your question of what is wrong with the world: I am.”

If we are, as Chesterton so poignantly suggested, at the heart of the problem, it might also be the case that we are not the solution. Christianity has always maintained precisely this, as the line in the Nicene Creed summarizes so clearly regarding the coming of Christ, “for us and for our salvation” came to earth. As Advent moves toward its climax, it is good for us to ponder the indispensable truth that Christ’s coming cannot be untethered from the fact of human sin. Today’s texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:10-18.

The season of reflection and repentance is not an unending time of self-loathing. That would be the wrong conclusion to draw from all of the passages pointing to the ways in which we have sinned against God by our conscious and unconscious refusals of the cries of people in need, whether for sustenance, justice, mercy, or hope. Those failings are real, and we are culpable. But the word of hope is that the word of judgment is not final. Furthermore, the news is that no effort of our own will suffice to undo the damage we have done to self and others. The effort, no, the accomplishment of the Coming One, will take away our sins. Behold the Lamb of God.

There is much talk in theology circles today about the nature of the atonement. Teachers debate the best way to encapsulate the saving effect of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some hold fast to the penal substitution concept, some think this to be inadequate, some consider it to be entirely wrong-headed from the beginning. I have no desire to resolve such disputes. But I cannot wish to see a Christianity without a cross and an empty tomb. To read the Bible without these is dishonest. To hope for redemption without them is wishful thinking. To pretend that they do not matter is to remain caught in the messiness of humanity with no hope for anything better.

The incarnation (literally, the enfleshment, the entry of the divine Son of God into a human body) has many wide-ranging ramifications for human life. We often undervalue the human life of Jesus, the manner in which he portrays what our lives are intended to be, and the real meaning of his words about how to respond to the Father. We underestimate the power that His Spirit brings to truly transform people and relationships. And we do well to extend our grasp of how differently he was to orient our lives and longings. But we cannot go there without the central truth that His death was not an accident or a tragedy, or without acknowledging that for this he was sent into the world. It is His death, resurrection, and ascension that do away with sin once and for all, which make it possible for God to remember our lawless deeds no more.

For this he came.

Advent 2012. Dec.19

Things aren’t always what they appear to be. How often have we heard such words, sometimes as warning and sometimes as hope, depending upon how it is that things appear at the given moment.

Today’s readings are Micah 4:8-13, a text which gives bad news but promises that it will not be the final word; Isaiah 11:1-9, the familiar vision of a just and beautiful order yet to come; and Luke 7:31-35, a complaint by Jesus over people who have lost their capacity to discern things by God’s way of reckoning.

It is so easy to be caught up in the moment. We see what is and react as though it is the only moment we will have. If it is a joyful moment, we want to hang on to it as long as possible, believing that life should always be as carefree and exuberant as it is at the height of the party. If the moment is disastrous, we can fall into despair, perhaps being temporarily aroused by an invitation to hope, but being too overwhelmed by loss to imagine the real possibilities of gain. How can we know what sort of attitude to adopt in our temporal experiences of either great joy or great sadness? What sort of confidence should we allow ourselves that the final word is a good word? How shall we know whether to consider the good moments as filled with the promise of more like them, only better, or as momentary respite in a world of pain and confusion? How can we be assured that the afflictions of life are indeed momentary rather than permanent?

The promise of Advent is the lens through which we are learning the proper attitude toward all of life. The personal entry of God into human flesh and life carries with it the promise of fulfillment, in spite of appearances. Things may look bleak; but if God is in the midst of the bleakness, hope can never be far from sight.

This promise is far more easily repeated than it is embraced when life seems to come unglued. We’ve been disappointed by forces well beyond our control, we’ve been left alone by those we’ve trusted, we’ve seen our cherished ways of life disintegrate around us, and sometimes we’ve been most disappointed in our own failures to walk in the ways of Christ to which we’ve committed ourselves. Through each of these paths enters a darkness that seems unbroken by any coming dawn. It’s in these moments, when we are most tempted to allow despair to rule that we should turn to the Scriptures again and read the whole story, one that tells us to expect troubles, trials, tribulations—but to expect redemption from them to come by the person and power of Christ.

People do walk in darkness; but the great light they have seen as followers of Christ shines through at just the right time. And the longer it seems to linger just below the horizon, the more brightly it will shine when the daylight blazes with joy. This is the Word of the Lord; He has spoken it. He has come; He will come again. Don’t allow your vision to be clouded over before it happens.

Advent 2012. Dec.18

God does what He has said He will do. That should come as no surprise to anyone who seriously entertains the idea that God does exist and does speak. Sometimes the words He has spoken are of judgment, sometimes of great blessing. He carries through on both counts.

Today’s Advent readings are illustrative of both kinds of messages from the Almighty One. Numbers 16:20-35; Isaiah 11:1-9; Acts 28:23-31. The first recounts God’s judgment upon a rebellious group during the exodus from Egypt; the second announces the coming of the Messiah; the third recaptures the theme of judgment upon those who rebel but extend the blessing of that same Messiah to all mankind. This was the intent of God’s calling of Israel from the beginning.

It’s tough to sell the idea of judgment in our day. It really is against the grain of the culture of easy acceptance, lowered standards, inclusiveness at the expense of truth, and dismissal of responsibility. We have refined the art of rationalizing all manner of immorality and injustice, abhorring no behavior except that which dares to witness to accountability. Or maybe we are not so different from any other generation after all. In the times of Moses, usurpers to the offices of prophet and priest wanted to redefine the expectations of God, shaping them according their own image. Today we simply cut out the messy step of tethering our preferred way of living to a deity at all.

Before anyone concludes that this is just another gloom and doom message, however, a closer look needs to be given at what has always been the result of going our own way and leading others to do the same. It always turns out badly, whether it was the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, or the Romans. Or contemporary western cultures. As God indicated, there would always be a day of reckoning for those insensitive to the demands of justice and righteousness. But along with that announcement came the stunning word that He Himself would step into the gap, bring healing, bind up the wounds, and be with us.

That promise had gripped Paul so powerfully that he turned from the most feared of religious zealots to the most fearless of life proclaimers. Transformation indeed! The same God who carried out His threats of judgment had also followed through on His promise of bringing a new hope , not only to Paul’s native Israeli, but to all who would hear the voice of their Creator and turn toward Him, hear His word Word and accept His grace.

The final recorded words of the apostle are still spoken:”I want you to realize that this salvation from God is also available to the Gentiles, and they will accept it.” God’s promise fulfilled. It will continue to be spoken to the rebellious. And where hearts are not so hardened, ears still able to hear, and eyes willing to see the salvation He promised is still going forth. What hardens our hearts, stops our ears, and closes our eyes is any attempt at remaking God’s words and ways to conform to our own. May we be open to every softening, opening, clearing word that comes from the saving One who is coming to bring us the life we really are seeking.

Advent 2012. Dec.17

We can blame it on the Enlightenment if we want to. We can blame it on something more wide-ranging like the Fall of Adam if we wish. We might blame it on the incapacity of those in the positions to carry out their responsibilities well. Choose your culprit.

We are talking about the inability or unwillingness most of us have when it comes to submitting to leadership. Today’s Advent texts have much to say about it. Numbers 16:1-19; Isaiah 11:1-9; Hebrews 13:7-17. These texts all have something to say about what true leadership is and why it matters to us even now in an age where individual autonomy (literally, self-rule) is the mantra of the day.

The One who is coming is one who judges. We easily overlook such facts even though they are right there in our favorite Advent readings, given to us every year, even in supposedly “non-liturgical” church traditions. But without this part of the story we are left without a basis from which to assess the governing or judging of any regime we might encounter in our own political life and history. “He will never judge by appearance, false evidence, or hearsay. He will defend the poor and the exploited. He will rule against the wicked and destroy them with the breath of His mouth. He will be clothed with fairness and truth” (Isa. 11:3-5). And the result will be a beautiful world indeed.

Peace, righteousness, justice, opportunity to live and grow without disruption from unabated evil. We want it. We also want to define it. And we so easily do so in terms that are not necessarily in keeping with the truth as it is in Jesus. Sometimes our approximations of His righteousness and justice are so far off kilter that they result in oppression of grotesque magnitude; sometimes they just make life more unpleasant than we believe it ought to be. But His own person and His own words form the standards by which all human attempts at governing are to be measured. And that is true even within the household of God.

The Old Testament reading from Numbers recounts the rebellion of Korah, who wanted to usurp the authority God had designated to another. The results were not pretty. In the New Testament reading, the people of God are told to submit to their leaders, something Korah was unwilling to do. We have seen repeatedly what happens in churches, congregations, and denominations when one of two things occurs. On one hand we have leaders who lead without a spirit finely tuned to the things of God; on the other hand, we have people all too willing to assume their own authority when they were not assigned such duties by the Spirit of Christ.

There are too many voices in today’s Christian culture calling for the end of leadership distinctions in the church. People who fill those roles are not special by virtue of their call; but the office to which they are called is special, and it entails special accountability. While it may seem to be out of the realm of an Advent theme, the call for today is to consider what the rule of Christ is and how it is to be followed until the day he returns personally. We know what He is looking for.

Advent 2012. Third Sunday

The last thing that Advent promises is a generic faith. It certainly does not advocate a search for meaning and spirituality wherever one may find it, wherever one feels blessed.

The texts for the Third Sunday of Advent are Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, and Luke 3:7-18. As always, I encourage you to read these passages. It might take a few facebook minutes from your schedule, but the words found in these texts will assuredly be of greater value.

What these texts speak about is the coming of a very specific person. It is a coming with specific characteristics, particular hopes, and particular expectations and preparation. And it offers a particular standpoint from which to gaze upon a world filled with both good and evil. That standpoint is not dependent upon our analysis of the perceived balance between the two extremes; it is instead a standpoint of faith. And it is a particular kind of faith in that particular person whose coming had been announced.

The One who is expected will bring cause for great rejoicing, especially by the ones who have suffered under oppression. But it is a coming in which everyone has a stake, a hope, and a future. “With his love, he will calm all your fears.” (Zeph. 3:17, NLT) He will deal severely with oppressor and save the weak and helpless ones. He will give a good name for those who have been unjustly disparaged. We all want justice in the world. We don’t know where to turn to find it. It is in his hands, and there alone. All our efforts at maintaining justice are noble and good; but they are also flawed, sometimes seriously so.

That justice will not stop with meting out punishment for only the most notorious offenders. No one gets a free pass simply because they see their particular station in life as insignificant. When John went to preach and prepare the way for Jesus he called on particular persons to exhibit their desire for a share in the kingdom by changing their ways personally. He didn’t tell them to march on Jerusalem, much less on Rome; he told them to do the things they do daily with righteousness and fairness, with consideration of the other over whom the status quo allowed them an upper hand.

There is something uplifting about being held responsible. It tells us that what we do matters, that our decisions our meaningful, and that our lives are of importance. If it does not matter what we do, we are diminished. And if we are accountable not just to a parent or teacher or arbitrary ruler, but by the Maker of heaven and earth, we gain significance. And if that very Maker comes in person and asks us to give an account, we might want to hide. Or we might want to accept his invitation to turn from whatever ways we have walked disobediently and be healed of the damage we have done to ourselves and of the damage others have done to us.

Generic spirituality cannot do this. If faith is something we “like to believe” or imagine, with no evidentiary basis beyond our own preference, we will never be delivered in the day of the Lord’s appearing. Believing “just so” stories cannot prepare us for participation in what God is doing to redeem the world, however much psychological comfort they bring temporarily. But for those who hear His word and look for His coming, there is opportunity to see His redemption at work in the midst of whatever ills the world brings upon us. The true, the good, the just, the praiseworthy; people of the Redeemer can look for these things daily, even as life seems to crumble about us.

Advent 2012. Dec.15

I wonder what this child will turn out to be.

It’s tempting to say that this is the universally implied question every time a child is born into a family. It was a question vocalized by people in a small Palestinian village, served by a priest named Zechariah quite a few generations ago. The incident is recounted in one of today’s Advent texts, Luke 1:57-66. (Other texts return us to the prophetic hope of the Messiah’s coming: Amos 9:8-15; Isaiah 12:2-6.)

The truth is that not everyone values children in the way John was valued at his birth. We don’t generally have fathers who could not believe some angelic promise that he would become a parent at all, only to have him lose the capacity for speech until he writes out the name he has been instructed to bestow on the boy. In this first century account, people were so stunned by what took place in Zechariah’s own life that they, quite reasonably, concluded that the son would be someone special someday. It would be nice to think that we feel that way about every child; but we do not. In many cases, children are seen more as a burden than as a cause for hope; they are unplanned, unwanted, and unprepared for all too often. It’s not the hope they represent but the hope their presence denies to their parents. It’s the limitations to personal fulfillment or accomplishment they bring that bothers us at times.

But not always. We as a nation are stunned today by what has taken place in our midst. We do not have the capacity to enter fully into the grief of parents whose children were taken from them. Along with the children went the hopes and dreams for what they might have become. I think the outpouring of emotion from all segments of our world betrays the fact that we should have expectations, we should find joy in the unfolding answers to the question of what these children—each of them—may become. Perhaps there is a future doctor who will touch bodies for healing; maybe a lawyer who will change the legal landscape with a wise new solution to some conundrum; maybe an engineer who invents a new way of solving a previously intractable problem. On a less grand scale, we anticipate seeing children go through the various markers of maturity, with celebrations of each advancement in life.

What if the answer to the questions surrounding John’s future has been answered accurately when they were first voiced? What if someone with prophetic insight had said he would become some sort of eccentric social misfit who stayed out of society entirely, but developed a following by preaching in out of the way places? “Oh.” End of conversation.

Among the victims of the terrible events in Sandy Hook may have been one who would have prepared the way for the Christ to come to another person, another community. We’ll never know. We do know that the message of hope must go forward; without that message, all are doomed to meaningless lives. All of the destruction we encounter will have the final word. We have sufficient evidence that our society and culture are incapable of fixing themselves. We long for a long-expected Jesus to free us from our fears and our sins. And how blessed our the feet of those who bring and will bring good news.