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Tuesday, December 27 2016
So as far back as I can remember, I grew up with a security blanket. You know, a blanket that you carry around with you everywhere, your parents thrust into your face when you’re crying your eyes out, the one thing you can’t sleep without as a kid. Anyone else have one of those…?
My security blanket was light pink… although by the time I grew out of using it, it was more like gray with some splashes of pink. And I’m not sure this is weird or not—feel free to tell me if it is—but I named my blanket. Did anyone else do that…? Please make me feel better! Well, the name of my blanket was…drum roll please… Pink Blanket. Seriously. I was not a very original child, apparently. So kids, make sure to name your blanket something cool. Because someday, you may end up in front of hundreds of people on Christmas Eve, talking about how lame the name of your blanket was!
Whenever I watch Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang in their TV cartoons, I feel better about my security blanket history. It’s because I can intimately relate to Linus. Linus is the one who walks around everywhere carrying a blue security blanket. I’ve never seen him without it near him. And although Linus is a very smart, mature character, he still holds on to his blanket like the world is about to end.
Every year, my family has the tradition of watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. Anyone else watch that every year…? Well, Linus is a big deal in it. When Charlie Brown gets annoyed about everything and yells out “IS THERE ANYONE WHO CAN TELL ME WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT??”—Linus is the one who calmly walks center-stage, asks for a spotlight, and tells everyone what the true meaning of Christmas is.
And what he says is the story we just read from the Bible. He talks about how Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. And Mary gives birth to God’s son Jesus there. And then an angel shows up to the shepherds, tells them not to be afraid, and to go see where the savior of the world has been born. And then a whole bunch of the angel’s friends show up to give glory to God, and the shepherds run to see the baby Jesus, and are excited about what God is doing.
This part of the cartoon, when Linus speaks, always gave me goosebumps, even when I was really little-- because Linus tells the Christmas story from the Bible with such passion and conviction, telling Charlie Brown and their friends what Christmas really is all about.
I recently read something about this part of the cartoon that makes it even more special. Blogger and writer Jason Soroski points something out that blew my mind.
So Linus is telling the story of that first Christmas, and he’s holding his blue security blanket, as he always does. But when he gets to the part where the angel shows up to tell the shepherds about Jesus’ birth—the part where the angel says to them “Fear not”—Linus actually DROPS HIS SECURITY BLANKET. Like, the blanket that he is never separated from, that makes him feel safe, he DROPS IT when recounting how the angel tells the shepherds “Fear not”.
This is a huge deal. Have you ever tried to separate a kid from their security blanket?? It’s not pretty. But Linus drops the blanket on his own during that part of the Christmas story.
And Jason Soroski points out that it’s not a coincidence that he drops the blanket at that point. He drops it during the words “Fear not”. That blanket, that gave him security when he was afraid or uncertain or nervous, is no longer needed in that moment-- because Linus doesn’t have to be afraid anymore. Just as the angel told the shepherds “fear not—Jesus is born”, we hear that for Linus, and for us. We don’t have to hold on to those things that we think give us security—because Jesus was born for us. Jesus gives us true security. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.
Linus knew this immediately and drops his blanket, knowing that Jesus is the one who comforts him and keeps him safe. He no longer needs that blanket in the same way. He realized that Jesus is the only one who can take away his fears, the only who gives us true security.
And if you seen A Charlie Brown Christmas, you may remember that at the end of the show, the children gather around the tiny little Christmas tree. And Linus actually wraps his security blanket at the base of the tree as a tree skirt, and all the kids sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Linus is able to leave that blanket at the foot of the tree while worshiping Jesus while singing that famous Christmas carol because he knows now that it’s Jesus who he can trust. The blanket is laid down in order that he can worship Jesus fully, who takes away his fears. He no longer needs to hold on to that blanket. He can worship Jesus without holding on to something that gives him a false sense of security.
As we worship Jesus today and celebrate Jesus’ birth, we too are reminded to lay down those things that give us a sense of false security. We all have something in our lives that we hold on to for dear life, thinking that it gives us hope in the midst of fear or uncertainty. Money. Accomplishments. A house. A car. A specific person. A specific goal in life.
No matter what it is, all of those things will fall short. Only Jesus, the savior born to us, gives us true security. We are able to “fear not” because our lord and savior Jesus, has things under control. He died for us so we could live a life free of fear and guilt, so that we could be free of our fear and uncertainty about what the future holds. No matter what happens, we know that as Jesus followers, we will have eternal life with Jesus. And the birth of Jesus is the beginning of that “fear not” story.
So today, as we celebrate Christmas, may we, as Linus did, lay down those things that give us false security. Let us worship Jesus whole-heartedly as the one who takes away our fears and uncertainties, and gives us hope. Let us sing of Jesus’ birth, knowing that this baby will grow up to be the savior of the world.
As we read in the Bible, and as Linus reminds us, let us “Fear Not”. Amen?
Tuesday, December 27 2016
Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
The late Erma Bombeck, was one of America’s best-loved columnists. I like what she wrote about something that happened to her one time in the post office.
“Most of us have never seen anyone smile in the Post Office. The Post Office instead is like a clinic for lower back pain. Well, I was in line yesterday, when the door opened and in walked a lady with a big smile on her face weighted down with boxes for mailing. She held the door open for her three little girls who filed in, each carrying a package. It was quite obvious that they had never seen the inside of a Post Office.
“She bounded over to a man standing over a counter pasting stamps and asked, ‘Are you a carrier?’
“Of what?” he snapped.
“Another one in line growled, “To the back of the line, lady!”
Her eyes fairly danced with excitement as she announced to no one in particular, ‘It certainly is a nice day, and just think, girls, Christmas is only one week away.”
“Will granddad get his presents?” asked one child.
“Of course, he will,” said her mother “We’ve got it all timed just about right. On Christmas Eve he’ll be sitting around the fire, the door bell will ring and a postman will knock and say, with a big smile, “Merry Christmas from your family in Arizona.”
Every eye in the Post Office turned to stare at this cross between Mary Poppins and Tiny Tim.
“Look girls, doesn’t the Post Office look like Santa is on his way?”
We all looked around. With the exception of Santa pointing his finger at us from a poster and warning, “Mail early” the place had the spirit of a Recovery Room.
Finally she got to the head of the line. “When will dad get these packages?” she asked.
The postal clerk shrugged, “Depends. Maybe by New Year’s or we could get ‘em there in one day.”
“One day would be fine!” she exclaimed.
“It’ll cost you,” he said, scribbling down some figures. “$45.83.”
The woman hesitated, then picked out one box and said, “This one must get there by Christmas Day. It’s my father’s birthday.”
The clerk shook his head and said, “Boy, that guy’s a loser. Imagine having a birthday on Christmas. One present fits all. Thank God I don’t know of anyone born on Christmas Day.”
The man behind me whispered loudly, “Thank God, I do.”
My apologies to any of you whose birthday is either the 24th or the 25th. My beloved wife Nancy with whom I am well pleased – celebrates hers on the 21st. She never liked the fact that her birthday was so close to Christmas. She always felt cheated. Early in our marriage I made a joke about it. I have never, ever joked about it again! The marriage obviously survived that episode, and so did I!
Nonetheless, I like this story told by Erma Bombeck. And I don’t even think I need to ask, but I’m going to ask anyway, “Do you know anyone—do you know THE One—whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas?” Can you say like the man who whispered loudly in the Post Office, “Thank God, I do.”
Because I know you know the story. And what strikes me about this story – this story that most of us know so well—is that it – well – it’s kind of a game changer. It contains all the joys and hopes and celebration that we are looking for – that perhaps each of us has come here to this place tonight to experience. This is kind of a big deal, wouldn’t you agree? In fact – I’d say it is a game changer. And that’s a good thing – for us!
Still there are some who might question why it is that there is so much fuss and bother. If you’re here tonight – and you’re not sure what this is all about – you’ve heard the story – you know the story – but perhaps you’re a bit skeptical about this whole “God come to earth through Jesus” stuff. Well, let me tell you why it’s such a big deal – a game changer.
At Christmas we talk about giving gifts. And we make a fuss. But let me tell you what all the fuss is really about. The real gift – the real focus of this night – is on this one great gift that God is giving to all of us.
It is the gift of God himself. The gift of God with us. In the person of His son Jesus Christ. And let me tell you – what a joy it is to receive Jesus Christ into our hearts, into our homes, into our lives. The greatest gift. The only gift we really need. I’m not diminishing all those other gifts and presents, but this is the one gift that we really need.
And the gift God gives is not just the gift of God’s Son Jesus Christ, but the gifts that comes along with the gift. The reading from Titus tells us what some of these gifts are: First grace. Then salvation. Hope. Goodness and loving kindness. Mercy.
Now listen! Those are all kind of big church words. But these words let us know who God is – that God is good, and loving, and kind – and that what God wants to give us is grace and mercy. And it’s all because of Jesus. Through his life, death and resurrection – God makes it possible for us to be forgiven. And because we are forgiven – we have eternal life with God forever. That’s kind of a big deal, yeah?
So all these big church words – grace, mercy, hope, loving kindness and so forth – all pretty much mean the same thing. So how would it be if I focus on just two of those words – words that we use to talk about all that God does for us. Grace and mercy.
Now, traditionally I use the definition I learned in confirmation class – I can’t believe I’m going to say this – nearly 50 years ago. You’ve heard me say this before – “Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.” Say that with me. Grace is what? “God’s undeserved love and favor.” Underscore the word, “undeserved.” Ok? Alright? God loves you just because that’s who God is and that’s what God does.
Another definition I like is this. “Grace is what we get that we do not deserve. Mercy is where we don’t get what we truly do deserve.” Grace is what we get that we do not deserve. Mercy is where we don’t get what we truly do deserve. Ok. Chew on that for a while. In other words, God’s undeserved love and favor.
Philip Yancey is the author of many best-selling Christian books. Yancey was once asked if he could define grace.
He said, "I don't even try. Jesus talked a lot about grace, but mainly through stories. So Yancey proceeds to tell a story that happened to him. “I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic in a rental car, and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, ‘How much do I owe?'
"The woman says, ‘Nothing. You're all clear.'
"I said I was late and she smiled, ‘Yes, but there's a one-hour grace period.'
"So I asked, ‘Oh really, what is grace?'
"And she said, ‘I don't know.' (They must not cover that in Hertz training classes.)
"I guess what it means is that even though you're supposed to pay, you don't have to." That's a good start to a definition.
Even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to. You see, Jesus paid the price for the gift that God is giving you tonight so that you wouldn’t have to. You don’t have to pay for Grace. Mercy. Peace. Pardon. Forgiveness. Eternal life with God forever. These are the gifts Jesus gives. God our Immanuel – and again, there’s another big church word. Immanuel simply means “God is with us.” So God – our Immanuel – has come to us in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. And that is why we make such a fuss.
So, what do you make of all this? This Christmas story? Cute little story? Shepherds and angels – a baby born in a stable? What do you make of all this? Whatever your answer – you’d better be right. Why? Because eternity is too long to be wrong. Eternity is too long to be wrong. We have got to get this right.
Think about it. You know the story – but do you know the Jesus whose story we celebrate tonight? AND I think – more importantly – what are you going to take away with you tonight when you leave this place? Before you leave here – I want you to think about what it is that you’re going to take away with you tonight.
BECAUSE – and I say this a lot – no matter where you’ve been – no matter what you’ve done – and if you’re prone to wander – no matter how long you’ve been away – please know this. God is giving you a gift. The gift of Himself – in the person of Jesus Christ. And along with Jesus – you get grace – God’s undeserved love and favor. You get mercy. Peace. Pardon. Forgiveness. Eternal life with God forever. Kind of a big deal? Yeah! A real game changer. In fact, I would say that it’s Hu-jah! Ok, I’ll try to stop saying that.
Hey! Just accept the fact that you’re accepted. It’s all gift. And that’s why we make a fuss. This is what we celebrate – the night when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared. Amen
Monday, December 19 2016
Well, it’s almost Christmas—and if you’re like most people, you have majorly mixed feelings about that.
I’m not saying that Christmas can’t be a happy time. We know that it can—we have images all around us on TV and online and in print media showing us how happy Christmas can be. We see happy kids opening presents, family and friends gathered around a table eating a huge meal in celebration, Norman Rockwell kind of stuff. And those images make us feel like they can become reality.
And they can…. to an extent. But no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, Christmas is NEVER perfect. Hence the mixed feelings—we know this is a joyous time of year, and parts of it are really fun and really great-- but we have other stuff going on that makes Christmas an emotional mixed bag.
Maybe you’ve been running around like a chicken with your head cut off, trying to get everything done before Christmas comes, and the stress is getting to you.
Maybe you’re disappointed because a loved one isn’t able to travel to be with you.
Maybe Christmastime reminds you of less happy things-- like loved ones who have gone to eternal life and are no longer with you, of children who have grown and moved away and have less time for family, of happier times gone by.
Maybe you simply feel guilty because you are unable to feel as joyful and happy as everyone says you should at Christmastime.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook a brutally honest status last week. She said, “Stressing so much about Xmas. How do I tell my son I have no money to buy him anything? So broke I just bought groceries for first time in a month. I don't know what to do. Poor kid didn't get much for his birthday and now Xmas. He's gonna think I don’t love him.”
So even though we have a lot of good stuff going on at Christmastime, it can also be a difficult time for us for a whole lot of reasons.
Well, I’m here to tell you today that we’re in good company. Leading up to the very first Christmas ever, things were not all hugs and puppies and rainbows either.
We read a few minutes ago in the Gospel of Matthew how Joseph was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Joseph and Mary are engaged. Being engaged back then was a legally binding agreement—it meant that they were legally bound to one another, but hadn’t consummated the marriage and weren’t living together yet.
And… Mary is pregnant. And since Joseph and she haven’t, you know, gotten together yet, he knows without a doubt this baby isn’t his. This is not a good place to be. This is the stuff of Maury and Jerry Springer and crazy TV paternity tests.
Except it isn’t, because Mary knows exactly who the father is. It’s God.
Now you tell ME how well that conversation would go over with Joseph.
“Honey, I’m pregnant.”
“Ummmmmm…. OK, so how on God’s green earth did THAT happen??”
“God. The Holy Spirit made me pregnant. I’m carrying God’s son.”
“…………….RIGHT. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”
It’s not hard to understand why Joseph is having a hard time with this.
So he makes a plan. Rather than calling out her sin of adultery publically, which would mean stoning and death for Mary, he decides to break off the engagement quietly. Feeling conflicted, but probably generally OK with this decision, he heads to bed.
And while asleep, he has a dream. An angel, a messenger from God, shows up, and tells him to marry Mary, because she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that they should name the baby Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (The original version of Jesus’ name, Yeshua, means “to rescue” or “to deliver” or “to save”).
Now unlike most of us, who would wake up from that dream and be like, “WOAH, I gotta lay off the pickles and Christmas cookies before bed,” Joseph does exactly what the angels says to do. He marries Mary, and she gives birth to a son, who they name Jesus.
And that son, God in human form, grows up to do amazing things. He walks on water. He calms storms. He heals people. He casts out demons. He teaches people about God’s love. And he does the most amazing thing of all—dies on a cross so that we could be made right with God and have eternal life with him.
The crazy thing is that God worked through all of the uncertainty and stress and even death to make this amazingness happen. God can work good through the crazy.
In our healing service tonight, we have on our hearts and minds all of the crazy in our lives. We bring physical ailments, emotional upsets, mental disorders, worry over family and friends, spiritual doubts.
And we know that because God is good (all the time) and all the time (God is good), God doesn’t cause these bad things to happen. Because God has given us the gift of free will, we live in a broken world where sin and illness and other bad things happen to us, because life happens. We live in the crazy.
But here’s the thing. Even though we know God doesn’t CAUSE the crazy, God is so awesome that God WORKS IN the crazy. God can work good even in the midst of awful, crazy things.
There’s another Joseph in the Bible, in the Old Testament, in the very first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis. And this Joseph was also no stranger to the crazy in life. His eleven brothers were jealous because he was the favorite son of their dad Jacob, so they planned to kill him-- but decided instead to sell him into foreign slavery so they’d at least make a buck on the deal.
What happens after that is a whole HOST of crazy-- as if being sold into slavery wasn’t enough. Joseph ends up going all the way to Egypt. And when he declines the sexual advances of his master’s wife, she falsely accuses HIM of making a pass at HER and he gets thrown in prison, with no end to his sentence in sight. While in prison, he gets a reputation for being an interpreter of dreams (How’s that for fun—both major Josephs in the Bible deal with dreams—how cool is that??), and eventually the Pharoah hears of him and summons him to interpret his dreams. When Joseph interprets Pharoah’s dreams as a future prediction about a major famine, he makes Joseph his right hand man to plan for the upcoming famine.
But the crazy doesn’t stop there—when Joseph’s brothers back in Canaan are starving because of the famine, they travel to Egypt and begs one of Egypt’s major leaders, Joseph, for food—except they don’t recognize Joseph at all. Eventually, Joseph tells them who he is and provides food for them. How’s that for poetic justice? They try to get rid of him, yet he’s the one who feeds them when he has the choice to get rid of THEM!
And at the end of the story, the brothers are worried Joseph will seek revenge for what they did to him. But Joseph says to them (I’m using the Message version, because it’s just so good): “Don’t be afraid. Do I act for God? Don’t you see, you planned evil against me, but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people.”
So although Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery to get rid of him, and then Joseph gets unfairly thrown in jail, God was able to still work good out of all the crazy and Joseph ended up saving lives by planning for the famine. God works good through the crazy.
God worked good through the crazy that first Christmas too. An unwed pregnant teen, check. A fiancé who is freaking out and about to break up with her, check. Having to travel when Mary is heavily pregnant and about to pop out said kid, check. Giving birth far away from home in a stable, check. All of that is pretty crazy. But God is able to work good through the crazy, and ultimately save lives, through Jesus’ birth and death. God works good through the crazy.
And it isn’t just for people in the Bible either. God works good through the crazy in YOUR life. No matter what you’re going through right now, God can make good happen in the midst of all the crazy. Even when it feels like the crazy is overwhelming and nothing good could come from it, God is acting and working in ways we would never expect. God works good through the crazy.
So as we worship during this healing service, as we continue to move towards Christmas, and as we live on this roller coaster that we call life and experience all of the crazy things life throws at us, may we always be reminded that GOD WORKS GOOD THROUGH THE CRAZY. Amen?
Wednesday, December 14 2016
Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10
“‘Tis the season to be jolly.” Or so one popular secular Christmas song tells us anyway. But at this time of year, you can’t miss it. The sights and sounds of Christmas are everywhere! In the malls. On the radio. In restaurants. Christmas songs – both sacred and secular. Some are rather silly, but many speak of the tremendous joy of this season.
And they’re right. We Christians do have good reason to celebrate and rejoice. Christmas is coming. The Savior of the world has come near.
Amazing, isn’t it? That the birth of a baby could bring us this much joy – year after year after year.
Let me tell you a story told by the late Dr. Bryant Kirkland. He had been at one time the pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He tells of traveling to preach on the West Coast one winter:
“I needed the time on that three hour flight to study and prepare,” he said, “so I buckled down and let everyone near me feel the tension – that said, ‘don’t bother me. I’m a busy man with places to go and work to do.’
“And wouldn’t you know it, a young woman and a baby slipped into the seat next to mine. I thought, ‘This will be difficult.’ So I kept a straight face, and looked very Presbyterian.
“It lasted for about six minutes. Pretty soon this little boy began fussing around. ‘Man, man,’ he cooed at me. I couldn’t resist. So I put my sermon back into the briefcase, picked him up out of the seat, and just loved him all the way across the country.
“When we landed in Los Angeles, his mother said to me, ‘Thank you for doing that. He lost his father not long ago, and he has no man to muss him up like that and love him. Thank you so very much.’”
“And Dr. Kirkland realized as he got off the plane and pushed into the crowd, just how much joy and peace that little boy had brought into his own heart, when he least expected it would happen.”
Sometimes – well, maybe almost all of the time – a child will do that for us. One of the reasons I love doing baptisms. I get to hold that child in my arms. I mean, you just watch sometime – watch as I sway back and forth. It’s involuntary. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it.
We eww and ahh over newborns. And sometimes a child can even get into the heart of a man or a woman that has been locked up tight for years. You know what I mean?
Folks – isn’t THAT what Advent and Christmas are all about? Isn’t that it? Isn’t that why Jesus came? To unlock hearts that have been locked up tight for years? We do indeed celebrate –every year we celebrate – his coming to us and living among us as a human being – but born as a baby. And what joy!
He came – and he still comes to us – to open up our hearts. To set us free. Free from the big three. Do you remember what they are? Sin, death, and the devil or evil. AND he came to bring us joy!
In our Gospel reading today from Matthew, disciples of John the Baptizer come to Jesus asking on behalf of John, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” What does Jesus say?
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
The blind receive their sight,
The lame walk,
The lepers are cleansed
The deaf hear
The dead are raised
The poor have good news brought to them.”
This is not a coincidence! What Jesus is saying is that He Himself is fulfilling the ancient hope spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. We heard Isaiah’s message in our first reading today just a few moments ago. Isaiah chapter 35. So Jesus says, “Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind see – the deaf hear – the lame walk – the poor have good news preached to them. I am the One – and besides me, there is no other.” Is it any wonder that so many who come into contact with Jesus are filled with joy!
Is it any wonder that we who meet Jesus here today are filled with joy – and especially at this time of year! Listen. The Hebrew language has a wonderful word – a wonderful name – that is given to Jesus. We hear that name a lot at this time of year. And that word – you’ve heard it before – that word, that name is Immanuel. And it means “God with us.”
Let me point out to you another sentence in our reading from Isaiah. “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come.”
And you know what? God did come. God has come. God incarnate. God in the flesh. God in the person of Jesus Christ. And because of Jesus, there is a way out of our darkness – there is a way out of our sinfulness. A way out of those things that rob us of joy. God has come. And God still comes to us today. We are not alone because of Jesus – Immanuel – God is still with us today.
As I look at the world the way it is these days, and you know, you can talk about this need, that need, and the other need. But you know what the world’s greatest need right now is? What your need and my greatest need right now is? The thing that we want the most? We want God. We want to know that God is a part of our lives, and that God cares, and that God is with us. And with us to bring all the hope and the peace and the joy and the love that God so desperately want to give. Those are what we want. Those are what we need.
Think about it. Why in the world do people make such a fuss at this time of year? Why? It is to acknowledge that Jesus is “God with us!” We make a fuss to celebrate that Jesus is our Immanuel!
Quite often – in fact prit near every week – I pray that the Holy Spirit will invade and infiltrate this place. I pray that the Holy Spirit would invade and infiltrate the hearts and minds and lives of everyone – all of us – who gather here week after week after week. Especially those among us who just might have their hearts locked up tight. And I pray that the Holy Spirit will come to make a difference.
And you know what? The Holy Spirit does come. And He does invade and He does infiltrate and He reveals Jesus Christ to us.
And then, what does Jesus do? Well, one of the things Jesus does is to come to bring us joy! The problem for us is that there are too many joy stealers out there. There are often circumstances beyond our control that steal our joy. Sometimes there are even voices that tell us, “You have no right to be happy.” Don’t listen to them. These are the joy stealers – the things that steal your joy.
A man by the name of Richard Leider tell of a time when he was leading a backpacking safari in East Africa. He says:
“I had a state of the art backpack loaded with every gadget imaginable. My group was accompanied by a Masai chief who carried a knife and a stick only. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted while the chief was fresh as a daisy. He asked me to show him what was in my pack. As I did – explaining why each item was crucial – he asked me, “But does all of this make you happy?”
“I ended up leaving about half of my stuff in the Masai village. Actually, I could have left more.”
Folks, Jesus came to relieve us of the unnecessary baggage we carry around. He came to bring us joy. We don’t have to listen to the voices from the past that tell us that we’re no good. We don’t have to listen to the voice of sin and guilt and shame.
Why? Because Jesus, our Immanuel, has come near.
As we approach the manger this Christmas. Please notice that the manger is a very small space. And then please notice that there isn’t room in there for all that baggage we carry around. And you know – we all do. We all have extra – unnecessary baggage that we carry around with us.
And then I want you to remember – I want you to notice – that that tiny manger leads to a cross. That’s where I want you to leave your baggage. Leave your baggage there at the foot of the cross. All the “you’re no good” messages from the past. All the joy stealers – the things that steal your joy. Leave them there. And don’t pick them up again. DON’T pick them up again!
Remember that Jesus came to bring us life – the abundant life. A life filled with joy.
This past week, I was listening to NPR in my car. I heard the same program twice. And both times I heard the moderator quoting someone who said, “I will to joy.” And I said to myself, “I’m going to use that phrase in my sermon this weekend. Want to hear it again? “I will to joy.”
Folks, let me ask you. Do you have the will to joy? Are you here today to awaken to joy? God our Immanuel is here. Jesus has come. He has come to bring us joy. So no matter where you’ve been. No matter what you’ve done. And if you’re prone to wander – no matter how long you’ve been away. Jesus has come. He comes to you – to forgive you – to be with you – and to have your joy restored.
So ‘tis the season… to be jolly?” Nah! Tis the season to be joyful!
So awaken to joy! Choose to have the will to joy. Why? Because Christ has come. Our Immanuel. God. Is. With. Us.
Tuesday, December 06 2016
Well, here we are – and it’s early December. Already. When you’re young – when you’re a child – it seems like Christmas will never get here. But now that I am – well – a bit older – each Christmas seems to get here faster and faster. Quite frankly, it seems to me that we did this just a couple of months ago. Am I the only one who feels this way?
Well – it’s early December, and we’ve still got lots of time – it’s only 3 weeks – before Christmas Eve rolls around, yes? Well – that all depends. That all depends on what it is that you do to get ready for the celebration of Christmas.
Things like – oh, I don’t know – writing an annual Christmas letter. Now I know, not everybody writes an annual Christmas letter, but some of us do. And we either love them or hate them. You know which letters I’m talking about, right? They’re sometimes called brag letters. The ones where people high light all of the wonderful things that have happened to them in the past year – and the wonderful places they have visited. Have you noticed that they never ever contain any of the drama – or dysfunction of the past 12 months. No – the writers of those letters just wouldn’t want to let anyone know that life is less than perfect.
So we either love them or hate them. So let me ask – how many of you write an annual Christmas letter? Anybody? Come on, let’s be honest. I gotta tell ya that I actually love ‘em. And it’s true confession time here. I love ‘em because I write one myself. My very own personal – brag letter! Every year. And I have been for the past – I don’t know – almost 35, 36 years or more. I’ve been writing them longer than I’ve been married. So yes – I’m guilty! Guilty as charged! For Nancy and me it’s a way to brag – I mean – it’s a way to let our friends and family know what we’ve been up to over the past twelve months. And the other thing it does – it serves for us as a family history. We save them, and we can go back to them – kind of like a diary. Helps us remember where we were and what we were doing in any given year. So yeah – love ‘em or hate ‘em. Christmas letters do serve their purposes, whether you like those purposes or not.
Now, if you get those kinds of letters from family and friends – and you tend to hate them – I know – you’ve probably got good reason to. But let me let you in a little secret. The people who are writing about all of the wonderful things that happened to them in the past year – and all of the wonderful places they visited – are telling you just half the story. Their “perfect” life is not any more perfect than yours.
So don’t let those Christmas letters fool you. Because I know that they can create a certain envy. “Oh, I wish my life were more like so-and-so’s.” Just remember that there is stuff and junk in every person’s life – there is dysfunction in every family – stuff and junk and dysfunction that – quite frankly – we don’t write about because it’s stuff we don’t want people to know about. Except maybe our therapist!
Well – I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Christmas letters some of us write. They are just one of the things among many that we do at this time of year to help us get ready – to help us get ready – to celebrate Christmas. The other stuff might include shopping. Baking. Putting lights on the house. Setting up the tree. Going to office Christmas parties. Sending Christmas cards. You know, some or all of these things are the things that we do to get ready.
And along with all of these things – quite often – comes stress. And although some stress in our lives is both helpful and necessary – I’m talking about the bad stress that leads to anxiety and worry. Now I don’t know what your stress triggers are – but I do know that there is some stress that comes along with getting ready. It can be any or all of these things that I’ve mentioned that we do at this time to get ready for the Christmas celebration.
But let me tell you something. The Advent season – is not designed – it’s not meant to bring these bad stressors into our lives. This four week season of the year – these four weeks before Christmas – are designed to help us to focus on Jesus. Advent is designed to remind us that Christ is near– that Christ is with us.
So most of the focus during this season of advent and Christmas will be on the Incarnation. Now, I know, that’s one of those big church words. Incarnation. I try to define it every time I use it. Incarnation simply means that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem – you know, the Christmas story – when Jesus was born it was God coming to us – in the flesh. That’s pretty much what the word Incarnation means. It’s God taking on human flesh – and becoming like one of us. The Latin word Carne literally means flesh or meat. So Incarnation is the big church word we use to describe God coming to us in the flesh – in the person of Jesus Christ.
One of the things we focus on during Advent is the first coming of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. A second focus is the second coming of Christ. That was the message we heard last week. We just don’t know when that will be. So what we know – and what we focus on during Advent – is that Christ has already come to us a first time. Christmas celebrates that first coming. The second thing we know is that he will come a second time, we just don’t know when. But squeezed in between his first coming and his second coming we talk about a third way that Christ comes to us. And he comes to us in the here and now. He is present with us in the here and now. SO Christ’s coming is not just a past event. It’s not just a future event. It’s a here and now event. And when you look at it that way – you can see that Christ’s promise to be with us always really is a very big deal. And it is a wonderful thing.
Now let’s go back to that stress stuff. Advent was never designed to bring bad stress into our lives, but to relieve it. Listen carefully! Each weekend in Advent – as we light the candles on the Advent wreath – we focus on four gifts that Jesus brings us. There are certainly others to be sure – but these are the four we focus on – in this order: hope, peace, joy and love. Hope, peace, joy and love. And isn’t that what you really want? Anybody? Come on, you can talk to me.
Having said that the Advent message is hope, peace, joy and love – and that these are what we really want for Christmas – I find it kind of challenging to bring our gospel reading into focus at this point. John the Baptist. I mean, who here doesn’t love hearing about John the Baptist – and his wonderful message that goes something like this: “You brood of vipers!” Now doesn’t that just warm the cockles of your heart? You know, I have never heard in my life one person making that their confirmation verse on the day of their confirmation. I have yet to see a Christmas greeting card with John’s message printed across the front. “You brood of vipers! Merry Christmas from our house to yours.”
So why in the world do we have John’s fiery preaching as one of our Advent readings? Glad you asked. Let me tell you why.
This is why we hear about John every year in Advent. You can set aside the brood of vipers thing – that’s not our message – and pay attention to the opening line, where John invites us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The Kingdom of heaven – Jesus – God in the flesh – comes near. In fact –as I already told you – he is here. I can’t think of a better way to rise up to meet him – then to get into the practice of repentance. That’s why we listen to John. That’s why we begin our worship services with a time of repentance – and more importantly – to hear that we are forgiven. I need to hear – you need to hear – that you and I are forgiven. What a wonderful way to meet Jesus the Christ – than to know – that you – are forgiven.
Hey! You know all those things that people don’t write about in their Christmas letters? All that stuff and junk and dysfunction and disharmony that you don’t write about – and that I don’t write about either? Here is where we can bring all of our stuff and junk – the things that we are not proud of. Things that we would never want anyone to know about. We can leave them here at the foot of the cross. And take great joy – and have peace in your heart – in hearing these words, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And although those Christmas letters make it sound like the writer is living an enviable life – maybe even the perfect life – let me remind you that their life is no more perfect than yours. They are in need of forgiveness just as much as you are. Just remember that.
So let me tell you once again. Advent s a great time for me to remind you – Christ has come, Christ is with us now, and Christ promises to come again. Our willingness to repent is a great way to get ready to meet him. Having said that, I want you to know – that I know – that none of us will ever live a perfect life. But still what we can do is focus on living a life of right relationship with God and with the people around us – yes? This, I think, is the key to living the joy filled life that I am convinced is what you really want.
So instead of letting the stress and anxiety of this season get to you – heck – the stress and anxiety that life itself can bring – and maybe even a little guilt at not being perfect – why not let go of those – why not let Christ give you the things you really want for Christmas. What you really want are what these four candles represent. Hope. Peace. Joy. And love. And, oh yes, the fifth candle – the one in the middle – I didn’t tell you about that one – that represents Jesus – the best gift – the gift of Christ Jesus himself.