Christmas

Good to Great


Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel,”


which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a close look at Jesus’ earthly parents. Matthew focuses on the good Jew Joseph; Luke spends more time examining Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary’s perspective. Let’s start with Dad.

Joseph was a righteous man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in the story we have heard today. By “righteous,” the author of Matthew is implying Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone Joseph believed had wronged him terribly. He was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond good behavior to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on the tasks given him as soon as he awoke. He also would receive other instructions from God (head to Egypt, now go home) in a similar manner, and again act without hesitation, despite how odd they might have seemed.

I’m certainly not God, but I’m going to ask Joseph to do something else today. I’m going to ask him to serve as an example of what is possible when we move from good to great. By that, I mean when we move in our lives from laudable righteousness to radical obedience, regardless of what obedience may cost us in this world.

Note that Joseph’s righteousness is described as an ongoing state; certainly he was considered righteous by those around him before he learned Mary was pregnant, and before God began to speak to him through angels and dreams.

We can assume saving Mary cost Joseph a great deal in terms of how he appeared to others, who watched the situation without angelic guidance. To call already pregnant Mary his wife, he had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that almost certainly would begin in a small village: “Joseph could not control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

If Joseph had been about being righteous before human beings, he actually would have chosen to ignore God. Instead, he followed the difficult path, acting as if God’s will is all that matters.

Most of us gathered here today have achieved some appearance of righteousness in the eyes of other people. Success in worldly matters can make us seem righteous. We are perceived by others as “blessed.”

Even without financial success, we can take on roles in life that carry with them the veneer of righteousness. People in what we might call the “helping” professions certainly have it: Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and maybe even clergy seem to have some  sort of special status akin to righteousness, at least until doing something to lose it.

Dedicated churchgoers certainly can have an air of righteousness about them, particularly if they are known for giving and service to others.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s all good, quite worthy of notice.

But what about that next level? What about that radical obedience Joseph demonstrated? What does it take to work on God’s behalf as God alters the world for the better?

Well, first of all, we have to be careful not to get too comfortable in our situations. Biblically, we know contentment is a good thing, but we don’t want to settle into a righteous-looking life as if it were a big, comfy couch.

We miss so many opportunities when we are content to the point of being complacent. I would note the danger of such complacency increases as we get older, when we should have more time and freedom to explore radical responses to God’s call on us.

Beyond getting up off the big, comfy couch, we also have to be alert, listening to what God says to us. Joseph heard from God and recognized God’s truth for what it was. Our righteous praying and use of Scripture should have a result: We should hear from God from time to time, in ways that challenge us.

And of course, we need courage. We often simply need to regain that old-fashioned idea that this life, while precious, may even be shortened or put at risk when we really go to work for God—and that even losing our lives while working for God is not that big a deal, if we really have faith in what comes next.

Buck up, little Christians!

I do not know what each of you might be called to do. I do not know what I might be called to do, or what we as a church might be called to do. I just know there is much more to do as we await Christ’s return.

I pray I have just afflicted the comfortable so we, with Christ as our message and the Holy Spirit as our guide, will do the work of God in radical ways. That’s where the story of Joseph takes me, anyway.

Advertisements

The Glory of His Work

Sixth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Hebrews 1:1-13 (NRSV)

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son;
   today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be his Father,
   and he will be my Son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
   and his servants flames of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
   and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
   with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

And,

“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
   and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
   they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
   and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
   and your years will never end.”

But to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
   until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?


God came down. That is the essence of the Christmas story—God came down among us from an infinite place and situation we can barely imagine to save his creation from sin.

It’s a beautiful story. Do you want to hear the Christmas story one more time this Christmas Day? It’s always worth hearing, even if you heard it last night, on Christmas Eve.

The author of our Hebrews text this morning evoked that Christmas story, and he wanted us to remember God came down in all his glory, despite God voluntarily reducing himself to be among us. By glory, we simply mean that his perfect holiness was shining through, even at moments when human beings dulled by sin could not always see the glory.

The Hebrews author reminds us that yes, this Jesus is God among us. Through him, all things were made, an assertion echoed in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Yes, this Jesus is eternal, and life is rooted in him.

Yes, this Jesus is worthy of worship. This expression of God as Son shares the throne in heaven with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, three in one. Even the angels in heaven bow down to the Christ, and when he was born to a human mother in this world, the angels came down, too, visible to shepherds as God’s divine messengers.

God’s glory shines all around us even today. We simply have to remember to look for it, to ask God to remove the scales from our sin-dulled eyes, and the glory is there.

There is the glory of creation. We like to cite creation as evidence of God’s presence here in Ten Mile, particularly when I ask during prayer time where we’ve seen God. There’s nothing wrong with pointing to nature, even though it often continues to be red in tooth and claw. We’re just echoing Romans 1:20:

“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

We see God’s glory in each other, too. You hear people from other religions talk about the “divine spark” within humans. We have notions along those lines in Christianity, too. We know from the creation story that we were made in God’s image, although we quickly became cracked, distorted reflections because of sin.

Jesus came among us to be the perfect reflection, the exact imprint, and when we accept that truth and profess our belief in him as Savior, we begin to do a better job day by day of reflecting God’s glory to others. As Jesus rose from the dead, resurrected, we rise above our own dying each day and are transformed, knowing that we also will be resurrected in full.

In our worship services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Luminary UMC, we have had the joy of taking some of our brothers and sisters through baptisms, confirmations and reaffirmations of faith. We believe the “divine spark” was visible at those moments. As each formally accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, we believe the Holy Spirit began to work in the person in new ways.

Who knows what God will do through them? An act of re-creation, I am sure. These new Christians are being remade, just as the world is being remade, and as the church of believers grows, God’s glory should become more evident.

Let’s pause now and once again glorify God.

Like your angels, Lord, we bow our heads to you. We lift our hands and voices in praise. And yes, we even dare to look upon your beauty and majesty, our hearts filled with hope and joy, knowing you accept our praise and rejoin us to you despite our sin.

Inspire us this day with a new sense of your glory. Let us reflect your glory to others, that they may know the truth of who you are, and your kingdom may grow.

Thank you for the birth of Jesus Christ. Thank you for his life perfectly lived, and his perfectly obedient death. Thank you for the glory of the resurrection.

May the hope and glory of Christmas sustain us throughout the year.

Amen.


The featured image is “Glory of the Newborn Christ,” ceiling painting by Daniel Gran, 1694-1757.

Upcoming Series

After a couple of weeks off, I’m looking forward to beginning a sermon series for Advent and Christmas. Here’s what I have planned:

What Has God Wrought?

Nov. 27: Isaiah 2:1-5. “A Universal Work”
Dec. 4: Isaiah 11:1-10. “An Ancient Work”
Dec. 11: Isaiah 35:1-10. “A Work Within Us”
Dec. 18: Isaiah 7:10-16. “A Strange Work”
Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve): Luke 2:1-20. “The Beauty of His Work”
Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day): Hebrews 1:1-13. “The Glory of His Work”

In the Beginning

John 1:1-5, 9-14

This time of year, Christian minds quickly go to a baby in a manger. But we also are invited to contemplate an astounding idea: The true nature of what is within the child.

Last week, I mentioned that if you accept that Simeon saw the face of God when gazing upon the baby Jesus, then you understand a central tenet of Christianity. Jesus is God among us, God taking on flesh in order to be among his creation and, ultimately, to save his creation from sin and death.

The opening of the Gospel of John takes this idea and runs with it. As we read it, we are asked to put aside notions of time and space and understand the godly essence of Jesus has always existed and always will exist.

We are told there is an an aspect of God we can think of as “the Word.” When we see God as creative, as life-giving, we are seeing the Word. In Greek it is logos, which we also might translate as “truth” or “reason,” if we trust some of the meaning ancient Greek philosophers read into the concept.

This high-minded notion of creativity, truth and reason existing beyond space and time—indeed, making space and time—is overwhelming to try to grasp. My head hurts just trying to think about it. And yet, in all of this, there also is love. And God loves his little human creations so much that this endless aspect of God, this Word, concentrated and shrank himself enough to inhabit flesh.

That is what Christmas is about, by the way. The Word inhabited flesh.

When you begin to get this notion of the Word walking among us, a lot of Jesus’ miracles make more sense. Of course the loaves and the fishes were superabundant; the aspect of God that made every fish and every grain of wheat that ever existed was present.

Of course he could heal a man born blind, even though no one had ever heard of such a miracle. A little spit and dirt mixed into a mud, and voilà, new eyes. The aspect of God that made every eye that had ever existed was present.

Of course Jesus rose from the dead, made indestructible. The battered body contained the inventor of life, and he would not be restrained.

To ease the theological headaches we sometimes get from such big thoughts, we also have this notion of Jesus being the “Son of God,” an idea we also see reflected in the Gospel of John. I’ve seen people struggle with this, taking the phrase too literally, saying, “No, Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is the Son of God.” But we have to remember, we call Jesus “Son of God” as a reminder that a new being was created in Mary’s womb, one fully divine but bearing human flesh.

Saying “Son of God” also makes our lives a little easier; the idea is simpler to grasp. It is hard to talk about Jesus in the high-flying language of John’s first chapter all the time.

The beauty of Christianity is that while we’re invited to stretch our minds, to exercise our imaginations, no great leaps of thinking are required for a relationship with God. Theologians can spend a lifetime studying Christology, but at the same time, a child, through simple belief, can be saved and brought into a relationship with God through Christ.

John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Belief is enough.

As you contemplate the baby in the manger this year, may your Christmas be merry, and may your visions of God be magnificent.

Another Voice

Luke 1:46-55

As I launch into a new sermon series, I need to give credit where credit is due. All four of these 2015 Advent sermons are inspired by Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas’ book “The Scriptures Sing of Christmas.” For older folks raised in Sunday school, many of these Bible passages are familiar, and I link to them in the King James Version for this series, simply because this translation is what they will most likely remember.

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to take a close look at some positively lyrical Bible passages. In fact, some of them are historically thought of as songs, and have continued to be practiced as such in one way or another.

We begin with what is sometimes called “The Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise to God after learning she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, due to give birth to the promised messiah. Songs of praise can also be songs of revolution, we quickly learn.

Mary declared something glorious had happened; at the same time, she made clear that God’s intervention in the world was designed to create great upheaval. God showed this by beginning a divine invasion of a fallen world via the womb of a girl who was, by the standards of her day, barely a person.

Mary lived in a rural, outlying village of no importance, one embedded in a region where the people were considered rubes, identifiable by their accents. Even the more prominent of her people had fallen from power, their so-called “Promised Land” now representing little more than the frontier edge of the mighty Roman Empire.

How does God reach everywhere? By starting pretty much in the middle of nowhere. All he asks is that people “fear” him, that is, show the creator the respect the creator is due, and great mercy comes forth.

The proud? They will be scattered. God says so, and little Mary declared it loudly.

The mighty? They will lose their positions, to be replaced by the least. God says so.

The hungry will be fed, and the rich will find themselves empty. God says so.

Mary’s song was part of a larger promise, a promise God made to the people of Israel. It took thousands of years for the messiah to come, and even today God has not completely fulfilled these big, revolutionary promises. God works in his own time, but we must never forget, God says so, and what God promises does happen.

It is easy for us to forget where God is taking us. We are all drawn to worldly power. Once again, we find ourselves in an election cycle. Money rules, bluster seems to be the only winning strategy, and the proud spend a lot of time imagining what they will do if voters will just give them the chance.

Perhaps our Advent season can be a corrective to some of this. Mary’s song provides us with another voice to hear when we consider wars and rumors of wars, refugees’ cries for help, and even the real meaning of Christmas, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the design on a Starbucks cup.

Mary spoke first because her unborn child was not yet able, despite being divine. About three decades later, Jesus re-sang Mary’s song with his life.

He warned the proud of their folly, of their need to humbly submit to God.

He told the mighty they would fall, that the first would be last and the last would be first.

He fed the hungry with his own miraculous hands, and he told us to do the same.

And then he went further and actually started the process by which everything is changing and will be changed forever. He gave up his own life on the cross to defeat sin and death.

It’s a song worth singing with our own lives.


Featured image: Detail from “The Magnificat,” James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Let It Be with Me

Cranach, "Madonna Under the Fir Tree," 1510, public domain

Cranach, “Madonna Under the Fir Tree,” 1510, public domain

The mother of Jesus should fascinate us. I know Protestants sometime feel Roman Catholics go too far in their devotion to Mary, but in our reaction to that devotion, we can fail to pause and really appreciate Mary.

Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.) After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the Messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.

So, what made Mary so special?

Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or John the Baptist, or great historic figures?

If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list, and Mary seems to have been full of both. In addition, God asked Mary to take on an astonishing task, one many older women would resist. She responded with one childlike question about process, and then made a simple statement, “Let it be with me.”

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 13 or 14, but Luke 1:46-55 records her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help us establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all. As the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.

And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.

The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.

First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot compare their lives to Christ’s and remain convinced they are somehow superior creatures.

Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.

If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life potentially made whole by Christ.

Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.

“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”

Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.

Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season; may we learn to say, “Let it be with me.”

Really Good Folk

There’s the right thing to do, and then there’s the really right thing to do. Usually, God has to show us the latter.

The Bible calls us to remember the different roles faithful human beings played in the arrival and upbringing of Jesus Christ on earth. The stories of Joseph and Mary have a particular twist to them that we should keep in mind whenever we’re trying to discern God’s will.

Joseph was a righteous or “just” man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in his story as found in Matthew 1:18-25. By “just,” the author of Matthew is saying that Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone he believed had wronged him terribly. Joseph was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond even high standards of goodness to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

To follow God’s will, Joseph had to do several difficult things. He had to trust that his relationship with God was strong enough to let him hear God correctly. He had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that may have happened in his village: “Joseph cannot control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

And most of all, he had to take on a challenge few people would feel equipped to handle, the protection and rearing of the Savior.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on this task as soon as he awoke.

In Luke, which focuses more on Mary’s story, we see a similar ability to go beyond the human definition of what is right and dwell in God’s holy plan. When Mary prophetically utters what we now know as the “Magnificat,” we see a mind open to God’s extraordinary plan to turn the world topsy-turvy through Christ.

I believe we still experience Joseph and Mary moments today. There are decisions we face where there are at least two answers, one demonstrably good to the world, the second riskier but even more in tune with something new that God seems to be doing.

Maybe the decision lies in how we deal with our spouses or raise our children. Maybe it has to do with the work of our church. Perhaps it is in the very calling God has placed on our lives.

The key is to stay in tune with God through prayer, study and worship, and then watch for God’s guidance in such moments. We’re left then to ask ourselves, “Can I respond as bravely as Joseph  and Mary?”

It’s not hard to get to “yes” if we keep in mind the lesson of the coming Christmas season. God is with us, and as the angels tell us repeatedly, we have nothing to fear.