Sunday, December 23, 2012

New Beginnings

New Beginnings
Isaiah 65:17-18
So much of the Bible is about new things.  Isaiah uses the word “new” frequently.  He talks about new moons, new songs, a new heaven and earth, new names.  Jeremiah promises a new covenant (31:31).  New is important.  While we respect and honor old traditions, it is easy to become so stuck in the past that we cannot move on to accept anything new. 
Many of us know people who can’t let go of the past, whether that past is good or bad.  Some are so enthralled with past events, past achievements, past glories that they spend their time and energy reminiscing.  Others suffered so much in the past from bad relationships, bad health, or bad choices that they work hard at maintaining that misery and spreading it like germs to everyone around them.
But that’s not what Isaiah wants us to hear.  Through him God said, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”  Don’t misunderstand.  This was not some kind of spiritual amnesia, where God’s people would forget their past.  What Isaiah was saying was that the new thing God was about to do would so eclipse what had gone before that people would willingly set the past aside for a far more glorious future.  God says through Isaiah, “But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create.”  Don’t bemoan the passing of the old.  Set it aside because what is coming is so much better.
In his last years, when my father was more than ready to give up the body which so sorely tried him, and move on to the new one he believed with all his heart was waiting for him, he would say, “Those who have already passed to their heavenly reward are up there saying, ‘Those fools down there!  Striving so hard to stay alive when what they have waiting up here is so much better!’ ”
Those of us who still enjoy good health, and feel we have a few years left to enjoy loved ones and loved experiences down here may not agree with him.  But we know that, as good as life is right now, God has something even better in store for us—maybe right around the corner; maybe with the turning of the year.  We don’t have to wait for heaven for God’s blessings.  We can enjoy God’s gifts here and now.
In a few days we will ring out the old year and ring in the new, just as we do every December 31/January 1.  It is appropriate that we should look back and see how far we’ve come.  But let us not fail to look forward, lest we miss the blessings that God has in store for us.  That is what January means.  The month is named for the Roman god Janus, who had two faces so he could look forward and backward—backward to remember past glories, trials, accomplishments and failures; forward with a sense of vision at the possibilities offered by the future.
As we prepare for our own January experience, remember the words of Brian Wren.
This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
Time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
For by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty Spirit, now as then,
Can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope are born again.
Then let us with the Spirit’s daring, step from the past and leave behind
Our disappointment, guilt and grieving, seeking new paths and sure to find.
Christ is alive, and goes before us to show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new.
May you experience a happy and blessed New Year.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
John 1:1-5, 14
There was a cartoon in the paper recently.  A little girl is sitting on her father’s lap.  They are reading a book about the Christmas story.  She asks: “Did Santa Claus and Jesus go to school together?”
We chuckle at her na├»ve question—but don’t we all suffer from the same kind of confusion?  How can we help it when the two appear together so frequently in Christmas settings?  Santa’s sleigh is right next to the manger scene in gaudy lawn displays, in department stores, and in home decorations.  There’s even a picture (meant, I’m sure, to show the proper relationship between the two) of Santa kneeling at the manger.  But does this send the right message?  Like the little girl in the cartoon, won’t people confusingly connect the two?
The original Santa Claus—St. Nicholas—was a religious figure.  He was known for his generosity in providing gifts to those who needed food, clothing or other essentials.  He did his good works in the name of Jesus and out of his commitment to live his life for Christ.  Similarly, the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus” is about a ruler who cared so much for his subjects that, in the name of Jesus Christ, he put himself to some discomfort to provide food, drink and firewood for a poor peasant out struggling in the cold, deep snow of winter.
How we have corrupted these images!  We expect Santa Claus to bring not just the necessities of life to those who can’t afford them, but to meet our every wish and desire.  Remember the song, Santa Baby?  Is this what St. Nicholas intended us to become?
Don’t get me wrong!  I’m far from Scrooge.  There’s no “Bah! Humbug!” in my vocabulary.  At our house we watch every sentimental Christmas movie we can, and even shed tears during Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street.  I believe Santa Claus should be part of every child’s growing up.  The longer kids can retain their innocent belief in Santa the better.  Santa Claus provides us with one of the few positive role models whose image has not been tarnished.
What concerns me is confusing Santa with God.  When our prayers are indistinguishable from letters to Santa, when we expect God to provide us not with what we need but with what we think we want, when we confuse God’s blessings with Santa’s bag of goodies, we are in danger of settling for a lesser god, one we create in our image rather than the other way round.
Jesus told us that whatever we asked for in his name would be granted; but when we ask as if we’re taking a walk through F.A.O. Schwartz, we’ve misinterpreted Jesus’ words and trivialized the act of prayer.  When we ask for things and don’t get them perhaps we should take another look at our wish list to see if we’re asking for the wrong things.
First century Judah looked for a military messiah whose mission was to free her from the bondage of the Roman Empire.  God sent a Messiah to free the nation from the bondage of sin.  The religious leaders wanted a messiah who would reaffirm their version of the law.  God sent a Messiah who called them to return to the law’s core message:  love God, and demonstrate our love for God by the way we treat the rest of creation.
Let us remember that Jesus came as the Word made flesh to show us what God intended us to be.  The Son of God came not to be ministered to, but to minister; not to take, but to give.
As we prepare our homes for the celebration of Christmas, let us prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah who will not necessarily give us everything on our wish list, but who promises to teach  us how to live so that what he does gives will be sufficient. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

From Malachi to Matthew

From Malachi to Matthew
Malachi 3:1-4
Matthew 3:1-17
            The Bible leaves a huge gap between Malachi and Matthew.  What happened during these years?  We know that several empires conquered tiny Judah.  Israel had all but disappeared before the Babylonian captivity, but Judah remained. Much diminished in stature in the Middle East, Judah had the misfortune to lie at a crossroads.  Nations wishing to expand southward towards Egypt had to pass through—indeed, pass over—Judah, a task which wasn’t difficult. 
            Judah had periods of freedom.  The Maccabees led revolts against their overlords and threw off the yoke of bondage, but it was relatively short-lived.  As soon as one conqueror left, another moved in.  Judah knew very little peace in the almost 700 years between the prophecies of Malachi and the events of Matthew.
            The culmination of these events was Judah’s conquest by Rome, whose rule was particularly oppressive.  The Romans wanted those they had defeated to understand their place in the order of things—at the bottom.  Revolt was put down quickly and cruelly.  The empire intended that no one would ever forget who was in charge.  Their rule was absolute.
            Malachi said, “Behold I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me.  And the Lord whom ye seek will suddenly come to his temple.”  So Judah hoped and waited all those years.  Who would this messenger be?  Was it one of the Maccabees?  No, for they had their day on  stage and were gone.  Was it the Messiah, whom Isaiah had promised?  What would he be like?  Would he come at the head of an army of angels?  Micah had said the Lord would suddenly come to his temple.  Would he arrive on a cloud?  In an instant?
            Micah had been short on these details, but he did promise retribution.  The messenger would be a refiner’s fire and a cleansing agent.  He would change the priesthood, making it as pure as fine gold or silver.  Many would not be able to stand in his presence, or endure his judgments.  But when—when would he come?
            Surely the messenger would come now.  How could things get any worse?  Could any captors be more hateful and hated than the Romans?  If ever a nation wanted a deliverer, it was Judah in the first century BCE.
            And the messenger came.  He was from the tribe of Levi, for his father Zechariah was a priest.  He preached repentance, and offered baptism for the remission of sins.  But what a creature he was!  Living in the wilderness, and dressing in weird clothing, eating a diet not fit for civilized people—this couldn’t possibly be the messenger Micah had promised!
            Yet people flocked to hear his preaching and be baptized by him in the muddy Jordan River.  Not much more than a creek, the river was not the place to take a cleansing bath.  And yet the people came to hear him and respond to his message.
            But what was he saying?  “I am not the one you’re looking for.  I’m only the messenger of the messenger.  There’s another one coming who is far greater than I.  If you think my message is difficult, wait till you hear his.”
Then Jesus stood among them.  The Lord had come—not to the  temple, but to his temple.  Jesus had come bringing a message of hope and of peace—not to conquer, to throw off the Roman yoke, but to end the oppression of sin, to exchange its yoke for his own.  Not to bring outward peace, but to bring the peace which dwells within those who commit to serving him. Micah’s prophecy had been fulfilled.  God’s messenger had come.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

God So Loved

God So Loved
John 3:14-17
            God loved the world.
            God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to be the world’s Savior.  When this world had become thoroughly broken through sin, and had reached the place where God said, “It’s time,” God sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world God had created out of love.
We have no conception of this kind of love.  Many New Testament authors attempt to give us some idea, but all fall short.  We understand human love.  We see it in action.  Men and women love their spouses, sometimes sacrificing their careers and independence to care for a partner.  Parents love their children, giving up what they’d like for themselves so their offspring can have what they need or want.  Sometimes love means standing by while one we care about learns the lesson that some paths lead to destruction.
            At times human love seems to transcend rationality.  Men and women consciously put themselves in harm’s way to defend the law or their country, or risk their lives in rescue operations.  News sources bring us, along with the latest criminal activity, infidelities and other bad news, the occasional human interest story to brighten our day and demonstrate that there is good in the world.  A policeman reaches into his pocket to buy boots and socks for a homeless person.  Youth and adults go on mission trips to bring medical help, needed construction assistance and the love of God to those in need.
            Human love enriches our lives, helps us see the good in people, and sets an example for us to follow.  But human love has its limits.  As sacrificial as human love can be, it is not boundless.  At some point, whether through exhausted resources or for some other reason, human love ends.  God’s love is boundless.  It never ends.
His love has no limits, his grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto men;
For out of his infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
Annie Johnson Flint
            We read these words, sing them joyfully, but cannot comprehend the love that would redeem not just a few close acquaintances or fellow citizens, but sacrifice for all creation.  How God must have rejoiced on the seventh day, standing back and saying, “That’s good!”  What pleasure God must have taken to see all the beauties of nature, and humankind—the crown of creation—stretched out in a panorama.  How this same God must have grieved when those creatures, who had been made a little lower than angels, through their own willfulness desecrated that beautiful creation with the ugliness of sin.
            Like a potter at a wheel God could have destroyed this  creation and started over.  But God chose another way.  God chose to redeem creation through sacrificial love that surpasses anything we can fathom.
            This Christmas season, as we decorate our homes, buy presents for those we love, and prepare for holiday celebrations, let us remember the reason for the season—redemption.
            God loves the world.  God so loves the world that in the fullness of time God chose to redeem the world we ruined through selfishness and sin.  What wondrous, boundless love is this, that through God’s loving gift we can find salvation.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Simple Solutions

Simple Solutions
Isaiah 7:14
Isaiah 40:9-11
“For every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.” 
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), “the sage of Baltimore,” was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and a scholar of American English.  With that resume it’s no wonder he scoffed at simple solutions to complex problems. 
Faced as we are with problems even more complex than those troubling his generation, we’re still tempted to opt for simple solutions.  Whether we approach those problems from the left, right, or center, we’re sure if our leaders would only…, everything would be fine.  It’s easy to forget that many of the situations troubling us were caused by adopting too-simple solutions—solutions that failed to take into account all the ramifications of applying a too-quick fix.
Lest we think the simple solution mentality is a modern failing, a look at Genesis should convince us the urge to oversimplify is as old as humanity.  Adam and Eve tried to achieve god status by eating forbidden fruit.  Cain figured if he got his brother Abel out of the way he’d gain God’s favor.  The people of Babel thought a tower would bring them into God’s presence.  In each case (and many others) people sought an easy solution.
This was the case in first century Judah.  Since Samuel, God’s people had tried to achieve the status of Important Player in the Middle East.  They thought a king would do it, and for a while it worked.  Under David and Solomon Israel became a mighty—if small—nation, exerting influence far out of proportion to its size.  Solomon thought he could do even better if he added the gods of his foreign wives to the mix.  His descendants moved even farther in this direction, resulting in defeat, captivity, and the almost complete destruction of the nation. 
Having discovered that kingship didn’t make them great, Israel tried another direction.  In Isaiah’s prophecies they saw the promise of a messiah, a leader sent from God.  This messiah would right all Israel’s wrongs, make her politically and militarily important, and bring her to the leadership position God’s people deserved.
And so they waited, and prayed, and hoped, longing for the day God would redeem them from insignificance.  But the promised leader didn’t come, and things got progressively worse, culminating in oppressive dominance by the conquering Romans and the puppet kingship of Herod —and still no messiah, no savior sent from heaven.
Is it any wonder they missed a baby born in a manger?  Is it any wonder they missed an iterant preacher whose followers were common folk?  Is it any wonder they missed a man executed by the Romans as a common criminal, dismissed by the religious leaders as a rabble rouser and trouble maker?  Yet this baby, this preacher, this thorn in the flesh of the religious and political elite was the Messiah for whom Israel had been praying all those years.  They wanted one who would conquer Israel’s enemies.  God sent One who would conquer death and sin.
Are we any less short-sighted today?  We say, “Christ is the answer” with all the glibness of first century Pharisees quoting the law.  Yes, Jesus is the solution for all the world’s problems, but that solution is not a simple one.  Applying Jesus’ message to the world’s problems is a complex task.  As Jesus called Israel to repentance, so he calls us to work for him wherever it leads.  When we commit ourselves to his service, it’s the beginning of a lifetime of discovering how difficult it is to follow him.