Sunday, January 31, 2016

Of Humans and Angels

Humans and Angels
Isaiah 6:1-8
            Speaking of God, John Milton said:  “…his state is kingly.  Thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest…” (Sonnet On His Blindness)
            Milton’s picture of heaven conjures images of angels flying hither and thither on divine errands, moving at unimaginable speeds wherever the Holy One commands, anxious to do God’s bidding.  We get much the same picture from Isaiah’s vision in the temple.  God is enthroned “high and lifted up,” seated in divine majesty, overwhelming the temple and Isaiah with sight, sound, and presence.  Hovering around the Lord of hosts are the seraphim, the highest order of angels.  We sense constant motion.  These divine creatures are there to praise God unceasingly, and to perform whatever tasks God commands.  We are overwhelmed by the awesomeness of God, the majesty of God.  Here is a King who can command seemingly limitless messengers to fulfill God’s least instruction.
            I think angels fascinate us because we don’t know quite how to take them.  How do we relate to beings so powerful and mobile, whose only functions are to praise and obey?  We speak fondly of our guardian angels.  We know they exist—if they exist—not because we desire or deserve them, but because God wills them.  We respect them for what they do for us, but we know we have no power over them.
            A few months ago I discovered a piece of paper in my files entitled, “Scraps.”  That’s the only identification I have.  There is no hint as to what they are scraps of, or whose scraps they are.  Yet the statements are so powerful that they command my attention.  One is about angels.
            “The angels,” he said, “have no senses; their experience is purely intellectual and spiritual.  That is why we know something about God which they don’t.  There are particular aspects of His love and joy which can be communicated to a created being only by sensuous experience.  Something of God which the Seraphim can never quite understand flows into us from the blue of the sky, the taste of honey, the delicious embrace of water whether cold or hot, and even from sleep itself.”
            Several years ago Hollywood made a movie called Michael.  The archangel comes from heaven to bring two young people together—sort of a guardian angel idea, the kind of thing we like to think of angels doing—even as we know it’s got to be somewhere well below God’s list of important world affairs to influence.
            Michael is played, unlikely as it may sound, by John Travolta.  He has been given a task which he must complete, but he cannot take part in the joys of earth.  He doesn’t sleep.  While the person he is interacting with spends the night in peaceful slumber, he stands—watching, waiting—in the corner of the room.  Throughout the movie there is a clear disconnect between the angel and humans.  Neither can truly experience the other’s world.
            In Psalm 8, David says to God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them…?  You have made them a little lower than the angels…”  A little lower than the angels perhaps in some things, but significantly more important than angels in others.  Human beings, not angels are the crown of God’s creation.  This world in all its beauty was created for human beings to enjoy, not angels.  God sent Jesus to this world to reconcile human beings, not angels.  Of course, we might argue that, apart from Satan and his fallen angels the heavenly beings don’t need reconciling, but I think that misses the point.

            God loves humankind enough to create a world—a universe—for our pleasure and use.  God gives us gifts and blessings that overwhelm us with their generosity.  No angel can say that.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Handling Plan B

Handling Plan B
Genesis 12:1-4
            On my desk at church is one of those goose-necked lamps.  It’s about two feet long side to side and is made of some metal that attracts magnets.  This is great, because I can attach my favorite refrigerator magnets to the lamp and see them whenever I’m working at my desk.  One that I really like says, “Life is all about how you handle Plan B.”
            How true, how true! Before I die I would like to meet someone whose life had gone according to the way he/she planned it.  Over my many years of teaching, countless students have told me exactly what they had planned for their lives.  Not one has ever come back and said the plan worked out perfectly.  I remember one young man who told me in eighth grade that he was going to attend medical school, then law school.  He wound up in military intelligence.  Go figure!
            Abram was a successful businessman living in Haran.  He was married to a beautiful woman (Sarai), and although they had no children, he lived close to his father and his nephew, so there was a loving, extended family.  Everything was great!  Then God came calling. 
             “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”  There’s more, of course.  God promised to make him the father of a great nation, and to bless him so he could become a blessing to others.  But the significant part is that God told him to go, and to go on faith.
            What would you do in that situation?  Would you go?  Would you sell your house, give up your job, leave your friends and family, pull up stakes and move out on faith, not knowing where you’d end up?  If you decided to do it, would you go willingly, or would you grumble, complain, worry, sulk—or just sigh a lot?
            The writer of Genesis tells us, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…”—and this was no easy matter.  When he moved so did everything he owned.  There was no question of liquidating property.  Instead, he moved his entire household—wife, servants, flocks, herds, tents, and all.  His only GPS was God’s directions.  Talk about scary!
            We can cite other examples of people God called to follow Plan B.  Peter, Andrew, James and John were planning on living out their lives in the family business.  They would fish as long as they were physically able, then turn things over to their sons as their fathers had done with them.  Then God came calling.
            Saul had his future planned.  He was on track to become an eminent Jewish scholar, perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin.  After all, he was studying with Gamaliel, one of the leading teachers of the day.  He was the Pharisees’ fair haired boy.  Such enthusiasm!  Such passion!  And what a persecutor!  What could stop him now?  Then God came calling.
            Mary was looking forward to a blessed, peaceful life as Joseph’s wife.  She’d keep his house, have his children, share with him the joy of their Jewish religion, make the Sabbath celebration beautiful and proper.  What could go wrong?  Then God came calling.
            What will you do when God comes calling?  How will you handle Plan B—or Plan C, or D?  God may call you to several changes in your lifetime, and you will have to answer each time.  Are you ready for the next plan—for God’s next call?  How will you respond?
            “So Abram went as the Lord had told him.”  I can tell you from personal experience that these changes are not always easy.  Sometimes they take you to places you’d rather not go, to jobs you’d rather avoid, to situations that are huge challenges.

            But staying behind is never an option when God comes calling.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"And the Child Grew"

“And the Child Grew”
Luke 2:40
            I have spent a lot of time this past two months thinking about Jesus and his family.  It’s always appropriate to do that during Advent and Christmas, but they have been on my mind even more than usual since I have been preaching and writing about them—the main characters in the Christmas story.  I’ve even broadened the idea of family to include Herod and the Magi.  You can’t get much broader than that.
            Matthew skips right from the birth story (well, the relocation to Nazareth) to the adult John the Baptist.  John moves to the same place right after his prologue.  Mark introduces us immediately to the adult Jesus as he begins his ministry.  Luke lingers for a few verses, giving us a look—however brief—into Jesus’ childhood.  We read about his circumcision, his visit to the temple with his parents to complete the process of Mary’s post-pregnancy purification, and his trip to Jerusalem with his family for Passover at age twelve. 
Left unaddressed is one of the great questions:  When did Jesus become aware that he was divine?  While there are many legends about his childhood that are based on that awareness, there is nothing in Scripture that lets us know when the boy Jesus knew his real parentage and his destiny.  Luke gives us a hint:  Jesus knew by the time he was twelve.
Luke says, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”  (2:40)
We know that most children grow and become strong.  Thanks to good nutrition, the natural exercise of childhood, and the shepherding of parents and other family members, most children grow to adulthood with reasonable good health and strength.  Children who have the privilege of attending good schools also become filled with wisdom—at least with knowledge which, with the proper encouragement can grow into wisdom.  Wisdom is really the application of the knowledge we accumulate throughout our lives.
“And the favor of God was upon him.”  While we believe that all children belong to God, and are therefore loved and favored, Christians believe that God blessed Jesus in a way that was different from the way all other children are regarded.  In some mysterious way that we can’t completely understand, the essence of God was poured into this child at the moment of conception. 
We call this the Incarnation—God made flesh.  The child Jesus grew into the man Jesus who lived to show us how God wants us to live; who died to redeem us and reconcile us to God; and who was raised to give all humanity the promise of eternal life with God.  No other child can make that claim.  As C. S. Lewis said, either Jesus Christ was who he says he was, or he was a madman or a charlatan.  There is no middle ground.
But what about those children who don’t grow?  Those whose lives are cut short by disease, or disaster, or bullets or other untimely deaths?  What about those children who attend schools so hopelessly inadequate that there is no chance of an education that can lead to knowledge and wisdom?  What about those children who are abused physically or emotionally by parents or other adults who take out their frustrations, inadequacies, or terrible upbringings on ones who are helpless to fight back?  What about those children who are exploited to slake the desires of the adults who should be protecting them?  Aren’t these children favored by God?

The answer, of course is that all children deserve the chance to grow, and learn, and become healthy, loving, caring adults.  We must do all we can to insure that this happens because God cares for every one of them.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

O Foolish Galatians!

O Foolish Galatians!
Galatians 5:13-24
            Have you ever wanted to write a letter and tell someone exactly what you think?  Unfortunately, it can get you in more trouble than it’s worth.  I’ve been told, “Be careful what you put in writing.  It may come back to haunt you.”  It’s true—and it has happened.
            Paul is one writer who doesn’t have any qualms about saying what he thinks.  “Hang the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!”  “Let the chips fall where they may!”  “What I have written, I have written!”  And other assorted clich├ęs.
            In his letters to the Corinthians Paul leaves no room for doubt as to how he feels about that church.  He loves those people—cares deeply what happens to them, but he makes sure they know he is unhappy with the way they are behaving towards one another.
            He’s also unhappy with the Galatians—although he makes it clear he understands their troubles are not all their fault.  Someone has come to town and convinced them that they have to become Jews before they can become Christians.  There is logic here:  Christianity started out as a Jewish sect.  The early followers of “The Way” were Jews.  However, it quickly became clear that the good news was for all people, and many Gentiles were attracted to this new religion.
Like all good teachers Paul knew that education begins where the student is and proceeds from that point.  He also knew that he had been called to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the pagan world.  He was to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  This man who had been brought up in the strictest of all Jewish sects understood that none of it mattered.  What was important was belief in Jesus Christ.  No need to take on the encumbrances of Jewish law.  Jesus had come to free people from all bondage, and that meant the strictures of dogma as well as slavery to sin.
Paul spends four chapters—the first two-thirds of his letter—telling these new Christians that they have been bewitched by teachers who do not have their best interests at heart.  Instead of freedom they wish to impose a new kind of slavery—slavery to an outmoded code of law in place of slavery to sin.  Paul will have none of it.  “You have been freed!” he says.  “Why would you put yourself in bondage again?”
But Paul makes it clear that freedom is not license.  Christians are still subject to what James in his letter refers to as “the law of love.”  Paul says (5:14), “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Jesus said (in part) the same thing when asked which was the greatest commandment. 
The law of love trumps all other laws.  If we love God, if we “walk by the Spirit,” we will put away the works of the flesh—and Paul gives a comprehensive list of them in vv. 19-21.  But the law of love doesn’t end there.  It’s not enough to shun evil.  That only gets us from reverse to neutral.  In order to move to drive we must grow the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Paul tells us, “against such things there is no law.”

It is easy to get wrapped up in formalities, in doctrine, in dogma, in law.  It is, after all, easier to follow a prescribed system than to be constantly asking, “What should I do in this situation?”  It is much more difficult to apply the law of love to our lives, since every situation is unique.  Every person we meet requires a different application of the fruit of the Spirit.  We must be in constant contact with God so that the Holy Spirit more and more directs our lives, more and more encourages the growth of spiritual fruit within us.  As that happens we will have to worry less and less about being foolish.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Best Gifts

The Best Gifts
Matthew 2:1-12
            Why do we give gifts at Christmas?  I’ve heard different answers.  One is that we give gifts because God gave us a gift—Jesus Christ, and all that gift represents.  Another answer is that the magi brought gifts to the Christ Child, so we give each other gifts to commemorate their generosity.  In fact, some cultures give gifts on Epiphany (the celebration of the arrival of the magi) rather than on Christmas Day. 
            There are some lovely legends about gifts given on Christmas Eve.  One that I like is said to have happened during a Christmas Eve service in a church where it was believed that if a gift of sufficient generosity was given, the church’s bells would spontaneously ring.  After everyone had brought their gifts—some as spectacular as a crown and heaps of gold—a little boy brought one silver coin.  His older brother had started to church with him, but stopped on the way to help an old woman who had fallen in the snow.  He knew if he didn’t care for her she would freeze to death.  As the younger brother laid the coin on the altar, the bells began to ring.
            There are other stories like this.  The song “The Little Drummer Boy” comes to mind.  In each case the gift brought forth a response—not for its value in earthly wealth, but for the value added because it was given from a loving heart.
            In the 1950’s there was a TV show I loved to watch on Thursday nights.  I was usually home alone because of my parents’ involvement in church activities which were intended for adults rather than for pre-teens.  The show was Dragnet.  It featured Detective Joe Friday (actor Jack Webb) of the Los Angeles Police Department.  I’m sure he had fewer lines each episode than any other central figure on any TV show in history.  A man of few words, he and his partner managed to solve whatever case they were given each week in less than a half hour.  Perhaps he could solve the cases so easily because he didn’t waste time talking.
            One year, around Christmas time, Friday and his partner were sent to a church.  The pastor greeted them at the door and told them the statue of the baby Jesus had gone missing from the manger scene.  He couldn’t imagine why someone had taken the figure, but it was definitely gone.  There were no suspects.
            The detectives spent most of the half hour that night interviewing anyone who might have seen the theft, or have any idea who might have taken it—to no avail.  Near the end of the show they were no closer to solving the case than they had been at the beginning.
            Then a little boy arrived at the church pulling a red wagon.  In the wagon was the baby Jesus.  Friday asked the boy why he had taken the figure.  The answer was simple.  He had prayed hard to Jesus for a wagon for Christmas.  If he got the wagon, Jesus would get the first ride.  The boy got the wagon, the baby got the ride.  Case solved.
            O, that we might have such simple faith!  O, that we might have such overwhelming gratitude!  We who receive blessings upon blessings every day of our lives often forget to be thankful for them.  Is it because we are overwhelmed by so many?  Or is it because we expect them as a matter of course—our due?  Perhaps we get so busy with our daily lives that we forget to show our gratitude to the God who so richly blesses us.
            In each of these stories it was a simple gift that “rang the bells.”  The humble piety of a child, uncorrupted by the world’s values expressed a love of God that touched both human hearts and God’s heart.

            This Christmas season remember to give God thanks for all God has done for you.