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Thursday, December 26 2013

Luke 2:1-20

    It was 29 and a half years ago that my first son, Philip, was born.  My second son, Matthew, just 28 years ago.  And as any parent of a new-born will tell you – having a baby – well – it’s kind of a big deal.  
    But I remember the joy Nancy and I experienced!  Well – for Nancy joy – and relief!  I remember at first feeling somewhat awkward – I didn’t know what to do.  Could I touch him?  Could I hold him?  Could I tell him how long I had waited for this moment?  And when Matthew came along 18 months later – it was another joy – and relief.

    Most of you know – as Nancy and I do – that a child changes everything.   

    And that’s why you’re here tonight.  It’s kind of a big deal!  You’re here tonight because you know that not only does a child change everything – you know that this child – this baby whose birth we celebrate and remember tonight – the birth of Jesus the Christ over 2000 years ago – it’s kind of a big deal because it changed everything.   

    When the future king of England – Prince George – was born back in July – the whole world heard about it – and watched on the news.  But when Jesus was born – he came without fanfare.  No flags waving.  No trumpets blaring.  Yes – there was the angelic chorus who made the announcement to shepherds – but still – his was a simple birth in an out of the way place called Bethlehem.  Born on the dirt floor of a filthy stable.  Placed in a feeding trough for farm animals.   That’s the Christmas story.  That’s the story we know.  But the story of Jesus – the complete story of Christmas – is so much more than shepherds and angels and wise men.  This is more than just a cute story of a cute baby born 2000 years ago in Bethlehem.

    His birth is different than any other birth.  Why is that?  Glad you asked.  Let me tell you why.   
    In Jesus Christ God has come to earth.  And the fact that God has come to earth in the person of His Son Jesus Christ tells me that God has not given up on us.    Did you know that?  God has not given up on you.  

    God could have given up.  He could have abandoned us and His entire creation.  He could have started all over somewhere else.  But He didn’t.  He loves us.  So he came to earth to be like one of us.  And through the life that Jesus lived – and the death he died – and the fact that he is raised from the dead means that God’s love is kind of a big deal.   

    What does the Bible say?  “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Kind of a big deal.

    God loves the world.  God loves this world that He created.  He’s not going to abandon it.  He’s not going to abandon you.  No matter what’s going on in your life right now – God’s not going to abandon you.  And I know that some of you are struggling.  With finances.  With a broken relationship.  With illness.  With loss.  With grief. You’re out of a job or you’re struggling in school.  Or maybe you’re just not sure about this whole Jesus thing.  Maybe you don’t even know why you’re here tonight.  

    The whole purpose of tonight is to remind us that in Jesus Christ God has come to us.  He wants to be with us.  He wants to be with you.  And through the person and the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit – we can get to know him.  Not just know about him – but to get to know him.  And in getting to know him – he can touch our hearts and change our lives.

    Look.  Just about everybody – whether they are believers or not – just about everybody knows the story that we are telling tonight.  But let me tell you something.  Knowing about God – knowing about Jesus – or just knowing the Christmas story about his birth in Bethlehem is not enough.  We can know him.  

    That’s one of the things that Jesus prayed for – that we might know him.  In the Garden before His arrest, he prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

    In the Old Testament, God is known as the great “I AM.”  In the New Testament Jesus comes along – and he changes the message to “I am here.”  You see, this God that we worship – this God who reveals Himself in the person of Jesus Christ – is not a God who is somewhere way out there.  No.  The Christmas message says, “I am here, and I want to show you how to know me.”

    So you see, you can know him.  You can get to know him.  But just how do you do that?  Again – glad you asked.  First he comes to us in His word – the Bible.  He comes to us in his holy supper.  He comes to us in our fellowship.  Remember what Jesus Said? 

“Wherever two or three [or more] are gathered together in my name – there I am in the midst of them.”  And because we can know him – not just know about him – not just know the story of his birth – he can effect real change in our lives.  If we let him.

    The problem is, however, that sometimes the only one who really wants change is a wet baby.  We don’t always like change.

    But the fact remains that Jesus Christ makes a difference in your life and mine.  I like what the Bible says in 2 Corinthians.  “So if anyone is in Christ, that man – that woman – is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17)

    At this time of year, we are treated to a great number of Christmas specials on TV.  One favorite is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  So when I say the name “Ebenezer Scrooge,” what comes to mind?  Let me read to you something written by a man named Steve Goodier.  

    He says, “I have a friend who used to teach literature to high school students.  He once told me how maligned the name of Ebenezer Scrooge has become.  ‘Dickens never meant for Scrooge to be a villain.  Yes, Scrooge was a miser and disliked by pretty much everybody.  But my friend reminds me that the story doesn't end there.  It doesn't end with Scrooge dying a miserable and lonely death.  The point of the story is that Scrooge WAKES UP.  After the restless night of ghost visitations, he wakes up and decides that things truly can be different.  He can choose to be compassionate, generous and happy.  He understands that he can behave toward others in a different way.  He can look at things differently.  His miserable past does not need to determine his future.  It’s an amazing story of grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – grace, repentance and forgiveness – which lead to a life that was changed.

    “His life story illustrates the words of George Elliot: ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been.’

     “‘To this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with somebody stingy and selfish when it should be just the opposite.  Scrooge woke up and made different decisions.  He lived the rest of his life a model of generosity and joy and goodwill toward all.  Nobody ever ‘kept Christmas,’ Dickens tells us, like Ebenezer Scrooge.

    And then Goodier goes on to say, “I regularly remind myself that it is not too late to be what I might have been.  And I'm learning that anything can happen...when I wake up and make different decisions.”

    Yes, I know, “A Christmas Carol” and Ebenezer Scrooge are works of fiction.  But the point should not be missed.  The purpose of Christmas – the birth of the Christ child – is to show us just how much the Father does love us.  How much the Father does love you.  And that we can get to know him – not just know about him.  And that he came for a purpose – to make himself known to us – to forgive us – to welcome us into his Kingdom – and like Ebenezer Scrooge – live lives that are different from our old way of life – not just to realize that we are forgiven – BUT also to give us a home in heaven – a home with God forever.  

    That’s what this night is all about.  The Christmas story that we tell here is a wakeup call.  It’s a call for us to WAKE UP!  And that’s why we tell the story – and will keep on telling the story.  The whole story of Jesus.  We tell the story – because his story can change your story.  
    The angels shout the story to the shepherds.  But it is up to the shepherds to decide what to do with it.  You have heard the story tonight.  What will you do with it?  You can listen to it, and leave it behind when you leave here tonight.  Or you can let yourself be embraced by it.  You can let Jesus make a difference for your life now and for the life to come.  Eternity hangs in the balance.  

    So yes, we are named – we are claimed – we are welcomed into the Kingdom of God in the waters of baptism – but still there is that moment – or more likely a long series of “aha” moments – when the meaning becomes clear.  When the purpose of the Christmas story takes on meaning – again, more than just a cute story about a cute baby born in Bethlehem – when you and I have those “aha” moments when the message becomes real.  

    So when you leave here tonight, I don’t want you to say, “Wow!  Wasn’t that a wonderful Christmas Eve service!”  I want you to say, “Wow!  Don’t we have a wonderful Savior!”

    You see – something very special happened in our world two thousand years ago.  A baby was born in Bethlehem, a baby who makes it possible for us to know and to love God.     And if you’re willing – he can and he will make a difference in your life.      
    Yeah!  It’s that kind of a big deal            Amen


Posted by: AT 11:54 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, December 26 2013

Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-16

    When I meet with couples who want to get married, I spend a lot of time with them – helping to prepare them for what they are going to face as a married couple.  The joys – the challenges – just about everything that I can share from my own experience after 31 years of marriage.  And there is no subject that is off limits.

    One of the things that I always touch on is the need of this couple to have a will or some kind of estate planning document in place after they are married.  And one of the areas I touch on has to do with any children that might eventually be born to – or adopted by – the couple.

    And what I tell them is this.  Should children come into your life, you will want to name guardians.  Who is it that you want to take care of your children in the unlikely event that both of you should be removed from the picture?  Because if you don’t name who you want as your children’s guardians, I guarantee you that your respective families will fight over it.  And the state will step in and appoint guardians.  And by the way – whoever it is that you want to be your children’s guardians – it would be a good idea that you ask them first.

    Well, something like that happened a little bit more than 2000 years ago.  God needed to select a couple who would be willing to be guardians – a mother and a step father – for the Son of God.  

    And that’s what happened.  Our Gospel reading involves a pregnancy.  A very special pregnancy to be sure.  The baby’s mother is named Mary.  Now Matthew doesn’t tell us the details that we need to know here.  It is the Gospel writer Luke who lets us know that an angel appeared to Mary and told her that she has found favor with God – and that God has chosen her to bear a son whose name will be Jesus.  And Mary believes the angel – in other words – Mary says yes to be the mother of the Son of God – and lo and behold – Mary becomes pregnant.

    Now here’s the deal.  If you know the story, you know that this is no ordinary pregnancy.  The child conceived in Mary is by the Holy Spirit.  We can only imagine what Joseph thought – Joseph the man to whom Mary was betrothed to be married – what Joseph thought when Mary broke the word to him that she was pregnant.  

    You see, here’s the problem.  Mary and Joseph are betrothed.  That means that they are engaged to be married – and in those days it was almost like a marriage.  It was legally binding.  And if Joseph had died before they had been married, Mary would have been considered to be a widow.  

    Also understand that in those days, people were betrothed – engaged to be married – did not live together first.  Furthermore – there was no intimate, physical relationship – if you know what I mean.  So Joseph knows.  Joseph knows that the baby is not his.  In fact – although the conversation between Joseph and the innkeeper at Bethlehem is not recorded for us – tradition has it that when Mary and Joseph finally arrive in Bethlehem some months down the road, Mary and Joseph approach the innkeeper who tells them there is no room in the inn.  Joseph says, “But my wife is pregnant.”  And the innkeeper says, “Well – that’s not my fault.”  To which Joseph replies, “Well – it’s not my fault either.”

    I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.  Anyway, back to our text.  So when Joseph hears that Mary is with child – what’s Joseph want to do?  He wants to divorce her – quietly.  Again – it takes another visit from an angel – this time in a dream – to convince Joseph otherwise.  That the baby in Mary’s womb is indeed a very special child – that this child is of the Holy Spirit.  Only then does Joseph say, “yes,” to take Mary as his wife – and to rear this child to be born as though he were his own.

    A fascinating birth – of a miraculous conception – that ultimately lead to a miraculous birth.

    But it is not the birth of Jesus that I want to focus on today.  Let’s save that for Christmas Eve.  What I want to focus on today is the message of the angel to Joseph.  In a fulfillment of prophecy from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, we hear the angel say,

    “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’”

    Emmanuel!  God is with us!
    Now just think about that for a moment.  God – our God – the God of the universe – almighty – all powerful – takes on human flesh – becomes like one of us – as a baby.  In Jesus – God becomes a man.  That is something we would not expect – and he appears in a place we would not expect God to be.

    Let me share with you a story.  This is a story about Sir “William Lawrence Bragg, who at age 25, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

    “Bragg was an amateur gardener.  When his career moved him to London to head the Royal Institution, he reluctantly left behind the beautiful Cambridge garden he had spent so many years perfecting.  Life in a city apartment made him restless and unhappy until he found an ingenious solution to his problem.

    “Dressed in old gardening clothes with a spade over one shoulder, he patrolled the streets of a nearby wealthy district until he found a house whose garden tempted him.  Then he rang the doorbell and tipping his hat respectfully to the lady of the house, introduced himself as ‘Willie,’ an odd-job gardener with one free afternoon a week.  His employer found Willie to be an absolute treasure.

    “Alas, one day, a knowledgeable visitor looked out through her window, and gasped, ‘Good heavens!  What is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?’”

    In the same way you and I should gasp, “Good heavens!  What is God doing in that stable?”

    Now, that suggests that you and I probably would have done things a little differently.  But this is what God chose to do.  God chose to be among us – to be like one of us – born of a woman – born in a stable – born in a little out of the way place called Bethlehem. Full humanity in undiminished deity.  

    That’s who Jesus is!  Immanuel!  God with US!  Matthew lets us know through the story of Joseph and his dream that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s “Emmanuel” prophecy.  

    Like one half of a bookend – here in the first chapter of Matthew we learn that Jesus is God with us.  The other half of the bookend comes in the last chapter of the book of Matthew.  Chapter 28.  The last thing that Jesus says to his disciples is this.  “And remember – I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

    I am with you – always.  I am Immanuel!  God with us – always.

    And then Matthew reminds of that fact in the middle of his Gospel – in chapter 18 – where we hear Jesus say these words, “Where two or three [or more] are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

    Folks – it doesn’t get any clearer than that.  But why has God chosen to be known to us as Immanuel?  Why has he chosen to be “God with us?”  Well – let me suggest that perhaps – when it comes to us and our salvation – perhaps that was the only way that it could have been done.  The only way it would have worked.  Perhaps the following will help.

    “Pastor Clifford Stewart of Louisville, Kentucky, sent his parents a microwave oven one Christmas.  Now I’m thinking that this had to have happened some 30 to 40 years ago.  And his parents were excited, because they too could now be a part of the instant generation.  However, when his dad unpacked the microwave and plugged it in, they were stumped.  They couldn’t figure out how to make it work.  Even after reading the instructions, they couldn’t get it to work.

    “Two days later, Pastor Stewart’s mother was playing bridge with a friend and confessed her inability to get that microwave oven even to boil water. ‘To get this darned thing to work, I really don’t need better directions; I need my son to come along with the gift!’

    Pastor Stewart went on to say, “When God gave the gift of salvation, he didn’t send a booklet of complicated instructions for us to figure out; God sent his son.”  To show us the way.  To be our Savior.  

    Jesus – Immanuel – is God with us.
    Jesus – Immanuel – fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy.
    Jesus – Immanuel – is the One who is there wherever two or three or more are gathered together in his name.
    Jesus – Immanuel – is with you no matter what is going on your life right now.
    Jesus – Immanuel – promises to be with us until the end of the age.
    Jesus – Immanuel.  Past – present – future.  God is with us!




Posted by: AT 11:14 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, December 17 2013

Matthew 11:2-11

Okay folks.  Here we are.  Just [10] [11] days and counting.  Are you ready?  Are you ready yet?  Got your shopping done?  Your cards and letters written, addressed, stamped and mailed?  How are you doing?  There’s not much time left.  So you’d better get ready.

You’ve got to agree that no matter how things are going for you in your preparations right now, this is indeed an exciting time of the year.  But for most of us, it can also be downright hectic.  And if you’ve got little children in your house – or children of any age at your house – that’s even more true.  I know.  I’ve been there.  I have two sons of my own.  Even though they are both in their late 20’s now, I know what it’s like.  Christmas brings with it an anticipation – an excitement – unlike any other time of the year.  We’re getting ready for something.  Something big.   And our old friend John the Baptist is back to remind us of what it is we’re getting ready for.

We met John last week, with his fiery message of repentance.  Today, we find that John is in prison.  He is guilty of charging the local king, King Herod, with adultery.  And he was right.  The Herod in question is not Herod the Great – the Herod that the wise men run into from the Christmas story found in Matthew’s gospel.  No, this is Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas.  He has an affair with his brother’s wife – has his brother killed – and marries his brother’s wife.  So John lets Herod Antipas know just how wrong he was to do that – and of course, it lands him in Herod’s jail.

But in spite of the fact that John is saying things that get him into trouble with Herod – John’s primary function is to serve as a messenger – a messenger preparing a way for the coming of the Messiah.  And let me just remind you once again that the word “Messiah” is Hebrew for “The anointed One” – so Jesus – God’s Messiah – is God’s anointed one.  And in Greek, the word becomes Xristos – and that of course is why we in English have come to know him as Jesus the Christ.  Christ is not His last name, but his title – Jesus the Christ – or Jesus the Messiah.

The prophets had been announcing the coming of Messiah for centuries.  The one promised by God – a Savior – who would come and deliver God’s people from darkness, injustice, tyranny.   So that’s the first thing I want us to see today.  God sends a Savior.  The reason why this is such a wonderful season – a season of great joy – is that it reminds us that a Savior has come.  And that’s what John has been telling everybody.  John knows about the Messiah – the promise of a coming Savior.

And one day, Jesus comes along, and John sees him and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  In other words, “There He is.  The One who is to come.  The Messiah – the Savior has come.”  And Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River, and immediately, the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him.”  This is not an ordinary baptism!

The second thing I want us to see is that when Jesus comes as Messiah – as the Savior – not everyone recognizes him.  Today we find that even John is having second thoughts.  You’ve gotta wonder if somehow John has forgotten all that stuff that happened with Jesus down there by the river.  And he sends a few of his followers to ask Jesus if he really is the one to come – in other words, if he is the Messiah – or are we to wait for another?

And Jesus says, “You go and tell John what you see and hear.  The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”  Well, hey!  Aren’t these things the very things that the prophet Isaiah said would happen when Messiah came?  Well, yeah.  You can read it for yourself again in Isaiah 35.

You see, even John expresses doubts.  Which is quite understandable.   John is under some stress.  After all, you would be too if you were in prison with the likelihood that Herod might hand you your head on a platter.

You know what it’s like to be under stress from time to time.  You do and so do I.  It’s those dark moments in life.  Moments sometimes when it feels like God has abandoned you. Or at least is silent.  “I prayed and prayed, and God didn’t answer my prayers,” we say.   Well, it isn’t that God hasn’t answered your prayers. It’s just that God hasn’t answered your prayers the way you want God to answer your prayers.  Remember?  Sometimes God says yes.  Sometimes God says no.   And sometimes God says “Not now.  Wait.”

Sometimes the answers we get are not what we expected.  And sometimes we have our doubts.  Well, you know something??  When that’s the case, it’s good to know we’re in good company.  John also has his doubts.  But he doesn’t sit on his doubts.  He asks.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I wonder, even after all John experienced with Jesus, if he had doubts because Jesus was not what he expected.  Maybe John was expecting – along with the rest of Israel at the time – a different kind of Messiah.  “I’m in Herod’s stinking prison, Jesus.  Maybe now would be a good time to show your stuff, and rescue me.  Overthrow Herod. Overthrow the Romans.  Set the people free.”

Maybe Jesus was not what he expected.  Jesus does not come on a horse or chariot ready to do battle.  He is not a conquering hero who has come to overthrow the Romans.  No.  The reason why we have – every year – an Advent and a Christmas – is to remind everyone that Messiah – Jesus – Christ – does not come as a conquering general.  He comes to us – he comes to us as a child.  A baby.  And maybe that’s not what we expected either.  But it is by first coming as a child that he is able to change everything.

The trouble back when Jesus walked the earth is that most folks didn’t recognize him.  Now I can understand that.  There are a lot of folks walking around today who don’t recognize him either.  

As I said earlier, this time of year can be hectic.  Sometimes that alone might keep us from recognizing Jesus for who he is.  Let me share with you the story of a woman who was Christmas shopping with her children.  After many hours of looking at row after row of toys and everything else imaginable, and after hours of hearing both of her kids wanting everything they saw in the store, she finally made it to the elevator.  She was feeling – like so many of us do – the stress of the season.  You know, parties to go to, food to prepare – and to eat – cookies to bake – cards to send, taking great care to send one to everyone who sends you one – getting the perfect gift or gifts for everyone on your list.  She was just feeling overwhelmed.

Finally the elevator doors opened and there was already a crowd on the elevator.  She pushed her way in with her kids and all their bags of stuff.  When the doors closed, she couldn’t take it anymore and stated, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up, and shot.”

From the back of the car everyone heard a quiet, calm voice respond, “Don’t worry.  We already crucified him.”  For the rest of the trip down, the elevator was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

God promised a Savior.  Not a general.  Not a conquering hero on a horse.  When the Savior came – and even as he comes to us today – some still don’t recognize him.  BUT – the good news is – that for those who do recognize him, he changes their lives.

This Advent/Christmas season – let me remind you of these things once again
1 – We have the promise of a coming Messiah – the Christ – a Savior.
2 – In Jesus we have the fulfillment of that promise.
3 – Not everyone recognizes him.  But to those who do recognize him, he has the power to change lives.

And that’s kind of a slogan we use around here at this time of year.  “We tell the story because His story can change your story.”

The question is – will you accept – will you receive – this Messiah – this Jesus into your hearts and your lives and your homes?  To – prepare – a place for him there?  Will you let him be what he was meant to be?  Not a conquering hero – but one who conquers sin, death and the power of the devil – not on a horse – but on a cross – for you?

Jesus might not always be what we expected.  And He might not always answer every prayer the way you want them to be answered.   And when you think about it, that’s a good thing.  If we expect Jesus to be like a kind of cosmic Santa Claus who gives us whatever we ask for – then we have the wrong idea of who He is and why He came.   

No.  I declare to you today that Jesus the Messiah has come.  And he still comes today – to make a difference – in your life and mine.   And that is the reason why he came – to change lives – to forgive sins – and to show you just how much the Father does love you.  

In all of your busyness – in all of your preparations – in your purchases – in your greetings – and in your gatherings – hold Jesus at the center of everything you do.  He loves you.  And wants to be with you.  Even when it feels like he is absent or is silent – he is there, and he cares for you.  

Make room for him in your life, will you?  Let him change your life – today.    



Posted by: AT 08:41 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, December 09 2013

Luke 3:1-12

          How many of you have begun receiving Christmas cards already?   How many of you have already sent yours?  That must mean the rest of us haven’t started yet – or we don’t plan on sending any.   Sometimes Nancy and I don’t get ours out until early January – at which point they become Epiphany cards. 

          Now – how many of you have received – or plan to send – Christmas greeting cards with John the Baptist on the cover?  No one?  Why not?  Every year – in every Advent season – we read about him.  It’s John’s purpose to prepare the way for the Christ – the coming Messiah.  So – every year – before we meet the Christ born in Bethlehem, it seems that we have to meet – we have to listen to – his harsh words of judgment. 

          So – no John the Baptist greeting cards? 

          I must confess that I have never sent one.  Never received one.  I have never even seen a John the Baptist greeting card.  Can you picture it?

          “Greetings from our house to yours.  Our thoughts to you at this time are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire.”

          Just kind of warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

          And yet – even though we would never think of sending a greeting card with John’s message – every year in the church – in every Advent season – we have to meet John before we meet Jesus.  And again – it is John’s message that we need to hear – the message that tells us to repent – to prepare the way of the Lord.  

          But just what does it mean to repent?        Repentance begins with

acknowledging your need for forgiveness.  You know – a small dose of healthy guilt will often make us feel that way.  And of course you can’t repent of something that you don’t identify.  So the first thing you need to do in order to repent is to identify just what it is that you need to be forgiven of. 

          The second thing after you admit you have sinned – you’ve identified the sin – is to express contrition.  To say to God, “I’m sorry.”  “I’m sorry” for my sins – things I’ve said that I shouldn’t have said – things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done.  Even thoughts I have thought that I shouldn’t have thought.  That’s called contrition.  That’s called sorrow for sin.  And it’s an important step.

          But repentance is so much more than just saying, “I’m sorry.”  “I’m sorry,” doesn’t take it far enough.  Repentance at the heart of its meaning is that your life gets turned around.  Turned right around.  1800.  Go in the other direction.  If your life is going in the wrong direction – turn it around. That’s what repentance means. 

          And yet I know that you know – that when we are honest with ourselves – honest with God – and honest with each other – I know just how hard that is to do.  It’s not something I can do all by myself.  It’s God who gets us turned around.  It is God who reaches out – God who touches – God who embraces – us.  And only when that happens can we hope to repent – and ask God to turn our lives around.

          You see – we carry around a lot of baggage.  A lot of stuff and junk that’s dragging us down.  The problem is that we can’t get rid of that baggage on our own.  Only God can do that for us. 

          So John calls us to repent.  And that might not sound like good news.  Who wants somebody else to tell them they need to repent?  “Hey buddy – you need to repent!”  And yet – and yet – the call to repent is really good news.  God hears our prayers – God hears our confession – God forgives – AND – God gets to work in your life – in my life – and gets us turned around.  That’s Good News!

          And there’s more good news from John.  Listen to what he says.  He says, “One who is more powerful than I” – in other words, Jesus – “One who is more powerful than I is coming…, to gather the wheat” – that’s you and me folks – “into his granary.”  Again, a message just like last week that Christ is coming again – and when he comes – he will take us with him to be with him forever.   

          Repentance – true repentance – comes about when God reaches out to us in the person of His Son Jesus Christ – and embraces us baggage and all.

          Let me share with you a story by David Mazel, who once wrote a short newspaper story entitled, “The Night I Ran Away.”

          “Perhaps every child has thought, at one time or another, of running away from home.  Most do not, having the wisdom to get over hurt feelings and stay put in the warmth of their parents’ love.  But some actually do run away.  I was one of them.”

          “I even snitched my father’s suitcase to pack my things in – my father’s beloved suitcase.  It had belonged originally to his great-grandfather, who brought it with him from Poland to America, with all his worldly goods in it.  Though small – 2’ X 2’ – it was deep and sturdy.  Outside it was soft brown leather, and inside, mulberry-colored cloth.  Many fingers, thimbles, needles and threads had mended and re-mended it over the years.  Its handle had a lining of genuine fleece – very sweet to hold.

          “Full of hurt I have long since forgotten – I left on the door to my room the note, ‘Papa, Mama, I’m running away.  You’ll be sorry.’”

          “Then I sneaked out of the house, carrying the suitcase packed with my favorite toys, books and clothes.

          “It was night, and snowing heavily.  Clouds and clouds of snow swirled endlessly ahead.  Flakes landed in my eyelashes, sticking there and making me blink.  Light in lamp-posts high above the blotted out streets and sidewalks seemed to spin and spin ever more slowly, like tops forgotten by sleepy children.

          “I got as far as a hill overlooking railroad tracks, about two blocks from home.  A big sooty blur that was a locomotive pulling a long line of freight cars puffed by.  For a moment, I had the notion to run down the hill and hop aboard, to go make my brave way in the world alone.

          “But then, I thought of my father, and how in his work he often had to go places, and how lost he would be without his suitcase.  And I thought, too, of my warm room.  I turned back and headed home. 

          “Halfway there, my father met me.  He had followed my footprints in the snow. I stopped before him, feeling foolish and guilty.  ‘It’s not mine,’ I said, holding the suitcase out to him.  ‘It’s yours.’

          “He took it, and then knelt down and embraced me.  He wouldn’t let me walk back home but insisted on carrying me.  With one hand he carried the suitcase, and with the other, snug against his shoulder, me.

          “My mother was waiting for us on the lighted porch.  When she saw me, all sticky-wet with snow, she didn’t know whether to scold me or cry for gladness.  She wrung her hands and said, ‘Just look at that boy!’

          “And then she gathered me into her arms.”

          That’s the way it is with God, you know.  We can run away from God – run away from the things of God – run away from the people of God.  I don’t know how far any of us might ever get away – but let me tell you.  When we run away – when we leave the comfort of God’s house – I have it on good authority that God will come after us –looking for us.  And when he finds us – he takes our old, filthy baggage, and removes those burdens from us.  He reaches out and embraces us, and gathers us in to his open, waiting arms.  And he covers us with His holiness – His righteousness – as a gift.

          During this Advent season, we need to listen to John.  Anything that prevents the coming of the Christ of Christmas into our hearts – into our lives – or into our homes – whatever it is – it needs to be identified – a sorrow for sin expressed – and then there needs to be a turning away from whatever it is that keeps the Christ of Christmas at arm’s length.  No matter what it is.  That’s what we need to run away from.  Run away from what separates us from God – and into the arms of a loving God who is just waiting to embrace us.      

          The Good News is that God makes this possible.  God makes repentance possible.  And when repentance happens – real change – real transformation – a new life in Jesus Christ can begin! 

          Jesus is God’s embrace.  The Good News of Advent and Christmas is that through Jesus Christ God has come.  God has come to you.  God has come looking for you.  So no matter what you’ve done – no matter where you’ve been – no matter how long you’ve been away – through Jesus Christ God comes to us – embraces us – and welcomes us home!


Posted by: AT 10:04 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, December 02 2013

Matthew 24:36-44
    I trust you all had a good Thanksgiving.  Did you have a good Thanksgiving?  My family and I did.  And I know a lot of people traveled and are traveling this weekend.  The weather on Tuesday and Wednesday wasn’t the greatest.  Made traveling a bit of a challenge for some.  And for another year I managed to stay away from the stores on Friday.  Which really isn’t hard for me to do on any day of the year.  

    By the way, did any of you go shopping Friday?  How’d it go?  Nancy and I saw a few folks camped outside of Target on Thursday around noon when we stopped at Wegman’s to pick up a few items for our Thanksgiving dinner.  Let me say – and I hope I’m not insulting anybody here today – but I don’t understand why people do that.  The camping out for days ahead thing.   Hey, it’s cold out there.  And how much are they really saving?  Well – I guess if they didn’t think it was worth it – they wouldn’t do it.    

    I know that Black Friday is important to stores and merchants.  And if you are a careful shopper, you can get a good deal on a variety of items for sale.  I understand that.  I bought myself a television – I mean I bought my family a television – on a Black Friday some three years ago – you know – middle of the afternoon – no waiting in line – no camping out over night.  I got what I came for and left. 
    But now that Thanksgiving is past, it’s time to take a look at the next big holiday.  And of course you know I’m talking about Christmas.  Christmas.  People are getting ready for Christmas.   And for just about everybody – just about everyone of us – that means getting our Christmas shopping done.  And if you’re really good at that – you try to get it done early.  That’s why so many people are camping out to be the first in line, I guess.  Fighting the crowds on Black Friday.  You saw that on the news, right?  People literally fighting. Over what?  Stuff!  

        These are the people who are connected and in sync with the season.  Or are they?  I want to talk to you today about what it means to be connected and in sync with the season.  You need to know – and I trust that you already know – that we disciples of Jesus Christ tend to look at this time of year differently than the rest of the world looks at things.  You know that, right?  And I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with going shopping and buying gifts for each other.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  

    Unless – or until – that’s ALL that this time of the year is about.  

    Yeah – people are connected and in sync – one way or another – with the season.  But let me tell ya – for we who are followers of Jesus Christ – it is my hope that we are connected and in sync with the season for the right reasons.  But before I say more about that, let me turn your attention to what being in sync might look like.  
(Watch on YouTube:

    How many of you took piano or organ lessons as a kid?  You remember those metronomes, right?  I really didn’t like playing to a metronome.  But when I did, it showed me just how out of sync – out of rhythm – I was with the music.   But listening to the metronome made me a better musician. When you have the right rhythm – when you’re in sync with the rhythm – the music is sweeter.

    Now – the first time I watched that video, I was in awe.  And I thought, “How do these inanimate objects get into sync with each other.”  And then I noticed that they were all sitting on the same platform – a platform that itself has a rhythm of its own.  And it was to this rhythm – the common base to which all of these metronomes were connected – that put all of the metronomes into sync.   

    The metronomes started out as independent units, tick tocking to their own rhythms.  Now, this may seem a little whimsical – and you might be asking, “What’s this got to do with Advent?”  Glad you asked.   

    All of us are individuals.  We each have our own rhythms – the way we think – the way we believe – the things that we value, and so on.  More specifically – when it comes to this time of year – we each have our own special ways of celebrating – of getting ready – to celebrate Christmas.  But this four week season of Advent calls us – really, it calls out to us – “Get ready!  Get connected!  Be in sync with what this season is all about.”  

    Like independently clicking metronomes we share a common platform.  A common faith.  A common purpose.  We share a Savior in common – a Savior who is Christ the Lord.   

    You see, the world looks at this time of the year as a time to get ready – ready for a different kind of Christmas – and I do believe that we Americans do celebrate two different kinds of Christmases.  One has to do with what you can find at the mall – and the other one – well, the other one has to do with Jesus.  And why he came, and what it means that God came to us in human flesh.  So yes, there are two different Christmases that we celebrate.  And I know – it’s almost always a struggle to keep them separated – because in so many ways they are intimately woven together.  And yet – I would hope that we know how and where to make those distinctions.  You understand where I’m coming from on this, right?

    So Advent.  A time to get ready.  We prepare.  And as Christians – as we prepare – there are actually two Advents that we prepare for.  On the one hand, we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Messiah who came to us as a child born in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago.  BUT as our Gospel reading from Matthew reminds us – on the other hand, we are also to get ready – to be prepared – looking forward to our future hope – to that time in the future when Christ will come again.  It’s a both/and.  
    So how do we do that?  First of all, we stay prepared by staying connected to God and choosing to bring our lives into sync with God.  Worshipping God on a regular basis.  Reading God’s Word daily.  Praying daily.  Spending time and developing friendships with God’s people.  Serving God and serving others by putting into practice our congregation’s mission statement which is to love God and love our neighbor.  

    And that loving our neighbor part means we learn what it means to be in sync not only with God – but being connected to and being in sync with each other.  Folks – our children don’t need more things.  What they need is more time with people who love them.  We adults don’t need more stuff.  What we need is to connect with God through Jesus Christ, and also with each other.  Sharing the Good News message – the excitement that Jesus is born – that he is born in us – and that someday he will come again.  

    So instead of being in sync with a world that is into manic consumer panic – let me encourage you this Advent season to be connected and in sync with those things that really matter.   We have a story to tell during this Advent/Christmas season that the world needs to hear – and that we also need to hear over and over again.

    I like how Paul R. Abernathy, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., puts it:  “We do not recount the record of our redemption simply to recall ancient biblical texts. No. We retell the story so that it takes deeper root in us. We retell the story so that we become the story, the church seasons becoming active verbs in our lives. We retell the story so that we always ‘Advent,’ being alert to the coming of Jesus to us. We retell the story so that we always ‘Christmas,’ being animated by the birth of Jesus in us.”

    Alert to the coming of Jesus.  Animated by the birth of Jesus.  Folks – the bottom line is this – the extraordinary good news of Advent is this – God chooses to be with us.  God chooses to be with you.  God enters into our world in the person of His Son Jesus Christ – and He desires to connect with us so that we might be in sync with Him.  



Posted by: AT 10:48 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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