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Tuesday, December 29 2015
Pastor Becca Ehrlich
Christmas Eve 2015; Luke 2:1-20
Have you ever seen a TV show or movie with a dream sequence? Sometimes they make that part look like it’s real so you think it’s real-- until a character wakes up and you realize it was all a dream. I always hate that, because then I feel like I was duped. Not cool, Wizard of Oz, not cool.
But most of the time, a dream sequence looks UNreal. There’s a sort of haze around everyone and everything. Things happen that are larger than life. People do things they wouldn’t normally do, things happen that wouldn’t normally happen. It’s clear that what’s going on isn’t real-- it’s in someone’s head.
It reminds me of a video that went viral about a kid named David who had just had surgery at the dentist. He’s a bit out of it from the anesthesia afterwards. And he asks his Dad, “Is this real life??” Anyone see that video…?? Everything seemed hazy and different to him, so he wasn’t sure if he was in real life or in a dream!
And I think we have this tendency to think of the Christmas story as a sort of dream sequence, not part of real life. When we picture the birth of Jesus, everything looks hazy and unreal, like a dream. All the stable animals are around, perfectly placed, and Mary and Joseph are looking down, smiling at a calm and quiet baby Jesus, who’s asleep. Oh yeah, and Jesus has a glowy halo around his head. Can’t forget the halo.
But reality is much messier than the dream. This is REAL LIFE. We’ve got an unwed pregnant teenager, Mary, whose fiancé Joseph was going to break up with her when he found out she was pregnant (and NOT by him). When she’s so pregnant she’s about to pop, they have to travel many miles to Bethlehem, so they can be counted for an official census. And when they get there, everywhere is packed because everyone ELSE and their mother had to travel for the census too. So they have to stay in a messy stable with no heat and smelly animals.
And, oh yeah, Mary gives birth in this foreign place, with no one to help but Joseph. I don’t have to tell you that the miracle of birth is ANYTHING but peaceful and perfect and clean, even under the best of circumstances. Now imagine a woman having to give birth in a barn, where animals have done their business and there’s that and dirt and hay everywhere. Wait, on second thought don’t imagine it. That’s incredibly gross. What a great image to give you tonight. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Here’s the thing. Our tendency to airbrush the Christmas story as a dream sequence means that we think of it as perfect, which I can tell you it was not. But even more than that, airbrushing the Christmas story means that we think of it as unreal, a dream, not actually happening.
And I’m here to tell you tonight that Jesus’ birth, God coming to us, was the most REAL thing that has ever happened to the world.
It was real to Mary and Joseph, who were scared and far away from home. Yet they trusted God and knew that this baby was someone special, because this baby’s dad was God.
It was real to those shepherds, who were outsiders in society. Forced to stay with their sheep at all times, they were dirty, and they were kept from entering most places in town. Yet, a messenger of God, an angel, and all of the angel’s friends show up to tell them that the Messiah, the one who would save them, had been born. And so they rush into the town, where they were hardly ever welcomed, and see Jesus, and praise God for this amazing thing that had happened.
It was real to Simeon and Anna, two prophets hanging out in the temple who realized who Jesus was and what he would eventually do—and told people so.
It was real to the magi, the Wise men, who we hear about in Matthew’s Gospel. These men traveled many miles later in the story to follow a star. They see Jesus, bring him presents and honor him, and then leave a different way to protect him.
It was real to King Herod-- so real, in fact, that he had all the male children born in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger killed, because he didn’t want to lose his power to the real King.
But the story doesn’t end there. The story becomes even more real.
Jesus grows up. And this story of Jesus is real to his disciples, his students, who follow him and learn from him as he serves people, about God and what it means to be a Jesus follower.
It is real to the people who Jesus heals from their illnesses. It is real to the thousands upon thousands of people he teaches about God’s love and acceptance. It is real to the little children who come to Jesus and are blessed by him.
It is real to the religious officials who start planning his death because he threatens their power.
And it is real to those who watched him die on the cross, when his only crime was loving people and wanting them to know God more.
The Christmas story we celebrate today isn’t just the story of Jesus’ birthday that we remember once a year. It is the very real story of God coming to us in human form, of Jesus bringing forgiveness and salvation to us.
It is the real story of Jesus coming to us, loving us so much that he was ready to die for us. It is the real moment of his death, when everything we have done wrong, our sins, died with him. It is the real moment when, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead so that we could share in his resurrection and have him as our living God with us, forever.
It is the reality that we are loved by Jesus, beyond anything we could imagine, and we are offered this salvation, this eternal life with him, no questions asked. Jesus was born, and died, for you.
There is an old story about two little trees on a mountaintop. They stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: “I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I’ll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!”
The second little tree looked down into the valley below where men and women were busy in the town. “I don’t want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me, they’ll raise their eyes to heaven, and I’ll point to God. I’ll be the tallest tree in the whole world.”
Years passed. The rain came, the sun shone, and the little trees grew tall. One day two woodcutters climbed the mountain.
The first woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, “This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining axe, the first tree fell.
“Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest. I shall hold wonderful treasure!” the first tree said.
The second tree felt her heart sink when the second woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven.
But the woodcutter never even looked up. “Any kind of tree will do for me,” he muttered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the second tree fell.
The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought him to a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a feedbox for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, or with treasure. He was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry farm animals.
The second tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard. “What happened?” the once tall tree wondered. “All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God.” Many, many days and night passed. The two trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feedbox. “I wish I could make a cradle for him,” her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and the sturdy wood. “This manger is beautiful,” she said.
And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world, Jesus.
One Friday morning years later, the second tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth tremble with joy beneath her, the second tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the second tree strong. And every time people thought of the second tree, the one that Jesus was nailed to, they would think of God, and know that God loved them. She pointed to what God had done for all of humanity.
And that was WAY better than being the tallest tree in the whole world.
When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate not only Jesus’ birth, but we celebrate his death and resurrection, because THAT’S the full and real story. Those two trees had a role in the greatest story ever told. Jesus’ birth is just the beginning. It is the beginning of the salvation of our world, of Jesus loving and saving YOU.
THAT is why we celebrate Christmas. It’s not just about the birth of a little baby boy. It’s about what this boy, God in human flesh, will grow up to do. Today we celebrate Jesus’ birth-- AND we also celebrate what Jesus has done for us— he died and rose for you, so that you could be with him forever. And that’s the most amazing gift of all.
Is this gift of salvation real? You bet it is. Is this real life? You bet it is! Jesus, our real and amazing Savior, was born and died for you. And that, my friends, is the most real gift of all. Amen.
Tuesday, December 22 2015
Pastor Becca Ehrlich
Sending Christmas cards is a pretty big tradition this time of year. How many of you send Christmas cards…? And there’s always a smaller group of people who are over-achievers who also write a yearly Christmas letter, that chronicles the family’s adventures over the past year. Anyone want to admit that they do that…? I think that’s great. I’m just too lazy to do it!
So I was chilling on the couch and playing around on the internet a few nights ago, when I came across something someone posted on their blog. And it was their family’s Christmas letter.
But this Christmas letter was different. The title: “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card.” (http://www.dlmayfield.com/dl-mayfield/2015/12/9/the-brutally-honest-christmas-card?fb_action_ids=10156316290120603&fb_action_types=og.likes) This is just part of what they wrote:
Hello! Greetings from the Mayfields. This was our hardest year ever, and we still haven't recovered!
In the past year we:
Left our mission organization. I experienced a traumatizing pregnancy and birth and nearly died. Our baby was born a month early and had to be hospitalized for several scary days at 6 weeks old. We moved across the country and said goodbye to amazing friends and jobs. We put our daughter through a hell of a lot of transition. Our baby never did learn to sleep very good. Our van broke down never to be resurrected. We moved to the outer edges of Portland, a food-and-culture desert. We moved into a cramped, loud, chaotic apartment complex. Our upstairs neighbors drove their car into my daughter's bedroom. My husband got a job but it is taking forever to get back on our feet financially. Every month we hope that this time we won't qualify for food stamps, but it hasn't happened yet. My anxiety got so bad my body decided to get depressed in order to "fix things." I wrestled with my book manuscript, but it's hard to edit when you are sad and aren't sleeping and have little people to care for. We became very isolated, partly on purpose, partly because we didn't have the energy to reach out to old friends.
It was the year of hard things. Temper tantrums, anxiety disorders, strange fevers, panic attacks, shut-down souls. We have been in survival mode since April, we are shocked that we are still not out. We grit our teeth as we agonize over every purchase, every stomp from above that keeps us up at night, as we stick close to our apartment complex due to lack of money and a baby who doesn't like to be out too long. Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity. It doesn't really help.
I have to say, my first reaction when I read this extremely truthful letter was feeling uncomfortable. Usually in Christmas letters, even if something sad happened, the letter tends to still have an upbeat tone, right? This one, however, didn’t even try to sugar-coat what had happened to them. They just very matter-of-factly said what had been going on, and how hard it’s been.
And this letter got me thinking. We are typically taught, starting when we’re young, to keep our problems to ourselves. We aren’t supposed to share those things that we struggle with in life, because we think other people will be burdened with our stuff, and they’ll know that we aren’t perfect, that we don’t have it all together.
This carries over into our usual small talk with people. “How are you?” someone will ask. And what do we usually say…? Yeah, something like “good” or “fine”. And sometimes that is true, we are doing well or fine. But those responses tend to be automatic. Even if we aren’t fine, we still say we are, because we don’t want to tell people what we are dealing with.
So when we come across something like this “Brutally Honest Christmas Card,” we can feel incredibly uncomfortable. Very rarely are we this honest with our lives.
But here’s the thing. By being so honest, the Mayfields show us that it’s OK to struggle and not have it all together. We are all dealing with stuff. When we think of healing, we usually think of physical healing, in our bodies. And sometimes we need that—I know that I do. But all of us have things we struggle with in our lives that are in need of healing.
We may have family stuff, relationship stuff, financial issues, job stuff, emotional stuff, mental illness, physical illness, spiritual doubts, sinfulness, friend stuff… we all have something in our lives that needs the healing touch of God. Our lives are never perfect.
And Paul knew this. We read in our passage from his second letter to the Corinthians in verse 7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Clay jars. Not concrete jars, or steel jars. Clay jars. And anything made of clay can be broken pretty easily. Paul is saying that WE are the clay jars. WE break easily. WE are broken.
But Paul also says that although we are breakable, we hold God’s treasure in us. Because we are broken, it’s clear to us and others that all those good things that we have and are able to do come from God, not from us.
Remember the “Brutally Honest Christmas Card” from the Mayfields? Well, there’s more to the letter. Let me read the rest of it to you:
But the other day we came home after being at my parent's house for a few days (they were fixing my daughter's wall, due to the aforementioned car) and as we walked in I said I missed this place. Just a tiny, pleasant, normal thought. It felt like our place. It didn't feel like a huge mistake. I wasn't resentful, or despondent. I missed our apartment. That was a pretty big deal.
And I do, I see glimmers of our new normal. I cut all my hair off. Neighbors dropped by Afghan food and we ate it standing up in my kitchen, wanting to cry with how good it tasted, how lovely it felt. My husband wears ties and listens to problems from people on a wide spectrum of mental health and resources. The baby giggles at everyone, baring his dimples. My daughter taught herself to read this year, she is friends with blonde boys named Lucas and black-haired boys named Mohammed, and now she gets to spend every holiday with cherished cousins and grandparents who dote on her. I'm going to start an English class in January. My baby is going to start crawling. We are going to have a savings account again. We are going to have to keep learning to be generous, vulnerable, hopeful, grateful. We might go to church more Sundays than not.
But perhaps the most significant thing is that Jesus is no longer an abstract person, a walking theology, a list of do's and dont's to me. This is the year I recognized him as my battered, bruised brother, and I see how he never once left my side.
Every year I think now this year, this is the year I finally *get* Advent. The sadness, the waiting, the longing for all things to be made new. And every year I do understand it a little bit better. This does not show any sign of stopping.
It's been our hardest year yet my husband said. He paused for a minute. But our kids sure are great. We don't have the energy to pretend we are OK, because we aren't really. But the light around us remains, we take our mercies as we get them, we see a new year just around the corner. Maybe, just maybe, this one will be a little bit easier.
Even though they had their worst year ever, the Mayfields could see Jesus with them. Jesus, God in human flesh, who suffered and died, for us. Our God knows suffering, knows pain. He felt it himself, struggled with it himself. Jesus is with us in our pain and struggles, in our messes, in those things that need healing.
When Jesus walked this earth as a man, one of the major parts of his ministry was healing others. He healed physical ailments, but also spiritual ailments, emotional ailments, and social ailments. His healing work showed people that the power of God can break into our world in surprising ways. He did not heal everyone on the planet, and we don’t know why. But we do know that Jesus is always with us, healing us in ways we would never expect.
And knowing that Jesus’ healing presence is with us in all of this means that we have hope. Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”
Being a Christian doesn’t mean that everything will go the way we want. It doesn’t mean that our lives will be perfect, that everything will be fixed all the time. But it does mean that we know who is with us, and who we will be with forever when we die. We know that our savior Jesus Christ is the one who saves us.
Our struggles in this life are not the end of the story. We are not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed, because we know that we are always loved by Jesus and that his love transcends the trials we are dealing with. We know that he is healing us, sometimes in different ways than we would expect or want. And we know that when we finally meet Jesus face to face in heaven, none of this will matter anymore, because we will be whole.
Tonight, at our healing service, I’d like you to think about one or two things, and/or people in your own life that are in need of healing. And during the time that we’ve set aside after the prayers, you are invited to come forward and receive prayer for those things.
It says in James, chapter 5: “3 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
And so, we will pray today. You are also encouraged to pray on your own during this time as well. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
Let’s pray. Gracious Father, we thank you for sending your son Jesus to heal the sick and to die for us on the cross. May the Holy Spirit be powerfully present tonight as we pray for healing and restoration in our lives. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Tuesday, December 08 2015
Pastor Becca Ehrlich
When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I did some babysitting on the side for some extra cash. Most of the time, I thought it was a ton of fun. I basically got paid to play with kids. Changing diapers and putting kids to bed was a little less fun, but still, all in all it was a good side job.
Until, one time, I was charged with the job of giving two kids a bath.
It did not go well. I had no clue what I was doing. I was nervous and scared before we even started, and I’m pretty sure the kids could smell my fear.
It wasn’t long before there was soap and water everywhere. I made the water too hot to start. When I tried to wash them, they screamed bloody blue murder— they were so loud, I was terrified a neighbor would call the police on me. Shampoo got in their eyes, which made them scream even more. They kept trying to get out of the tub and run away while soaking wet, which made the bathroom look like a flood zone.
The joke was on me, because while I was finishing up with the youngest son in the bath, the oldest son had escaped after I dried him off and had gone rolling around in the garage. He came back covered in dirt and dust and who knows what else.
Which just goes to show—we work so hard to clean kids up, and they just go out and get dirty again! I wanted to give them to their parents spotless, but no matter what I did, they would get dirty again.
In our reading from Malachi, Chapter 3, we hear about God’s messenger. He’s described in verses 2 and 3: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver….”
So, God’s messenger is one who refines, cleanses, and purifies.
When I read this passage, I realized that I had no clue what it means to refine and purify silver. Well, I looked it up. To purify silver, you have to put the metal into the center of fire, where the heat is most intense. And that way, the impurities either burn off or are separated from the pure silver. The stuff that’s not worth anything and is impure is called “dross.” Once the dross separates or burns off, you are left with the pure silver.
Clearly, this messenger is much better at cleaning than I was! While the cleaning I gave those kids in the bath was very temporary, the refining and purifying that God’s messenger does is not.
And who is this messenger? Well, we read the passage from Malachi today because many scholars believe the one described is John the Baptist. The guy in our Gospel passage, who prepared the way for Jesus’ coming. The guy who hung out in the desert, baptizing people for forgiveness, preaching to people, telling them that new life is possible.
So, John is the one who was refining, cleansing, and purifying, so that Jesus—God in human form—could come to save the world.
But John didn’t do it alone.
John was called by God to do what he did. In the Song of Zechariah that we read as our Call to Worship/read together as our Psalm for the day, we heard all of the things John was called to do:
“For you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
John did this refining and cleansing and purifying with God’s help—because God is the ultimate refiner and cleanser and purifier.
Sometimes when God is in the process of refining or purifying us, it can feel difficult or tough. Just like the silversmith, who has to put the silver in the hottest part of the fire, we too have to have heat applied to us to purify us. Not literal heat, usually, but God can “turn up the heat” to refine and cleanse us.
And what does that do? Well, we found out that when silver is purified, the impurities either burn off or rise to the surface as dross. Then the dross is thrown away, and what’s left is just pure silver.
So, when God refines us, God is applying heat and separating the pure from the not pure, the good from the bad, the garbage from the valuable. God is getting rid of that stuff that is unnecessary or messing up our lives, and God is showing the part of us which is loving and good.
This is different than what people have called the “turn or burn” way of looking at faith in Jesus. Anyone hear that before? Basically, the theory is that you have two choices: 1) You have to turn away from your sins and change how you live and believe in Jesus OR 2) you burn in Hell. “Turn or Burn.”
But God’s refining fire is a different kind of fire. Rather than terrifying people with the thought of burning in hell for all eternity, God uses fire to cleanse and purify us, so that we can be who God wants us to be.
There is a story about a woman who read the same passage we did, in Malachi. So she went to a silversmith and asked him about his job so she could understand the passage better. He told her how he has to hold the metal in the hottest part of the fire, and how he is able to separate the pure metal from the impurities.
“How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” she asked him.
He smiled and answered: “That’s the easy part. I know the silver is fully refined when I see my image reflected in it.”
So if God is the one purifying and refining us, it is God who wishes to see God’s image reflected in us. This is why God turns up the heat on us and works to refine us—God wants to be able to see God’s own face reflected in us.
And our God is in the business of making us and the world more like God. The words in Isaiah are repeated by Luke “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
This is what God intends. This is why God wants to burn off the impurities. God wants inequalities to end, the paths for us straight, the rough paths smooth.
And this promise is for all people. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” It doesn’t say, only people who do certain things, or only people who say the right things, or only people who look and act like the people we know. The salvation of God is offered to all people, in all places, in all walks of life.
Because Jesus, God in human flesh, was in the business of purifying and refining and cleansing. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, so that they could talk to him and see that there was a different way to live. He healed people so that they could glorify and serve God. He stopped people from stoning a woman who had committed adultery and told her to “Go and sin no more.”
And he brought forth the ultimate purification when he died on the cross, and took our sins on himself. He died for every sin we have done, are doing, or will do. He took our sins on himself, so that we could be pure in the sight of God.
And this salvation, this purification Jesus did for us, is for everyone. Jesus offers this purification and salvation to all people, from every race and nation, from every walk of life. Jesus wants all people to know his saving power and love.
And Jesus empowers us to be like John the Baptist—to cry out out in the wilderness, to prepare the way of the Lord. By telling someone we know about Jesus’ love and salvation, we are preparing the way for them to see Jesus to acting in their own life.
I invite you to today to not only think about how God is “turning up the heat” to purify you in your spiritual life, but to also think about one person in your life that you could tell your faith journey to, and open a way for them to know Jesus. Who do you know who needs to know Jesus, and his refining love? Amen.