Sunday, December 31, 2017

God Send Us a Happy New Year

God Send Us a Happy New Year
Matthew 24:3-14
            Today’s title is the refrain of the only New Year’s carol I know.  The tune Greensleeves has, as far as I know, three sets of words.  The original words are a song of lost love for the lady Greensleeves.  Most of us know the Christmas words, “What Child Is This.”  The third set of lyrics is the carol God Send Us a Happy New Year
            Each year, right after Christmas Day, we begin wishing everyone, “Happy New Year!”  It’s a nice sentiment, and a good wish, for all of us hope that the new year will be better than the last one.  That hope is what’s behind the baby new year replacing the tired old man who represents the year that’s ending.  Even if the past year has been one of our best we hope the new one will be an improvement.  We’ll make more money or get a better job.  Our family situation will improve.  Our kids will behave better, or win that college scholarship, or get the job that will make them financially independent of us.  We’ll get along with our spouse better, or, if we’re single, we’ll finally meet the right one!
            One of our greatest hopes, I suspect, is that our political situation will improve.  There will be fewer places in the world with open hostilities.  There will be fewer refugees cut off from their homes.  The political parties in this country will finally remember they exist to help the people and not just to win elections.  Whatever we hope for, it comes down to “God send us a happy new year.”
            Every generation since Jesus Christ’s resurrection has believed the end times were near.  The early disciples were sure Christ would return immediately, get rid of the Romans, set everything right, and take them to the place he promised in John’s gospel.  The early Christians were so convinced of this they worried that their loved ones who had died would miss out.  Paul had to reassure the Thessalonians that when Christ returned those who had died would be taken up first.  They wouldn’t lose their heavenly reward.
            Down through the centuries people have bemoaned the state of world affairs and become convinced that Jesus would return and put an end to the suffering of God’s people.  Didn’t he tell his disciples that there would be wars, earthquakes and famines—not to mention tornadoes and hurricanes, oppression and slavery, terrorism and torture?  Surely things have gotten so bad, each succeeding generation believed, that the end was imminent.
            Yet the world continues.  There has never been peace.  There have always been earthquakes and famines.  Every year we have devastating weather conditions.  Crime continues to be a problem because many people do not respect the rule of law.  We pray for peace but peace doesn’t come.  We pray for healing for loved ones but it doesn’t happen.  Is it any wonder we lose hope?  Is it any wonder we pray for an end to trouble, to war, terrorism, torture, crime, disease, but feel deep in our hearts that nothing will change, that conditions are so hopeless that the end must be near?
            So we pray, “God, send us a happy new year,” all the while believing that the only way it can be happy is if it’s the last one the world will ever see.  The world’s situation—the nation’s situation has become so terrible that only complete destruction will change things for the better.
            We must remember that God is working his purpose out.  God is taking all the strands of our lives, all the strands of world events and weaving them into the tapestry of the kingdom. 

Let’s make this new year happy by living into that promise, no matter how long it takes to be fulfilled.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

One Tiny Light

One Tiny Light
John 1:1-9
            In the beginning, God spoke. “Let there be light!”  And there was light.
            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
            Christians believe that the Word (capital W) was—and is—Jesus Christ.  Paul says (Colossians 1:15-17) that Jesus Christ existed before anything else came into being, and that all things were created by him, through him, and for him.  John says the same thing in abbreviated form in vv. 2-3: “Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him” (Jerusalem Bible:  this is slightly different from the way this verse is usually translated but I think it’s easier to understand). God spoke the Word—and all things came into being.
            God’s first command was: “Let there be light.”  Many centuries later John called Jesus Christ, “the light of humankind.”  John tells us that Jesus Christ referred to himself as, “the Light of the world” (8:12).  This is one of seven “I am” statements John records.  Jesus also called himself “the Bread of Life,” “the door of the sheep,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the resurrection and the life,” “the way, the truth, and the life,” and “the true vine.”  Taken together they paint an accurate picture of who Jesus Christ was, his relationship to the world, and why he came to earth.  Since John focuses on Jesus as the light of the world at the beginning of his gospel, let’s do the same.
            From the beginning light plays an important part in Scripture.  It is God’s first creation.  If we accept the big bang theory (and there is nothing contradictory between this theory and God’s creation of the cosmos), the bang released the energy of light, cooling over time to form suns, moons, planets, and other celestial objects.  God said, “Let there be light,” and light exploded into the emptiness of space.  What a sight that must have been!      
In the ancient world the darkness of night was complete.  Yes, there was the light provided by the moon and stars, but no other source of illumination.  There were no streetlights, no neon signs, no automobile headlights—not even a bulb on a front porch.  In darkness that complete any source of light would stand out with a brilliance difficult for us to imagine.
            When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world he is not comparing himself to other sources of light.  He is comparing himself to the total darkness that surrounded him.  Jesus Christ came into a world that was as spiritually dark as it was physically dark.  In John 8 Jesus is trying to help the Jewish leaders understand the darkness of their souls.  He tells them they can’t see him for who he is—worse yet, they cannot know his Father, because their darkness prevents them.  Their spiritual condition was like walking about on a moonless night without even a candle to light the way.
            As brilliantly as Christ’s light shone during his time on earth, it shines even more brilliantly now.  We see his light reflected in millions upon millions of people scattered throughout the world, all shining with the glow from the Light of the world.
            But that light didn’t begin brightly.  On that first Christmas night, two thousand years ago, it was merely a pinpoint, shining out of a stable, reflected in the faces of his parents—but it was enough.  That tiny light was enough to dispel the darkness, and the darkness couldn’t extinguish it. 
            “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”  This is what God accomplished in the birth of that one tiny light

May the light of Jesus Christ dispel the darkness of our souls and the darkness of the world he came to save.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Working Things Out

Working Things Out
Romans 8:28
            Life gets complicated.  It begins simple enough.  When we’re babies our needs are basic.  We need to eat.  We need to sleep.  We need to be changed.  We need to be touched and held.  Perhaps the most complicated need is to be loved, but even that seems easily achieved by most little ones.
            As we grow, our needs become more complex.  We still need food, sleep, clothing—and most of all love and affection—but we also need things to occupy our attention:  toys, books, bikes, computers, phones, cars, jobs, houses—you get the point.  Eventually we reach the place where our needs become simple once more.  We need someone to care for us much as we did at the beginning of life. 
            The time when our needs become more and more complex is the longest part of our life.  Complicating matters is the problem most people have of trying to separate needs from wants.  Even as children we say, “I need…” when we mean, “I want…” 
Sorting through the complicating issues of life is what we must do in order to become adults.  Deciding the difference between basic needs, less important needs, and wants is almost never easy.  Choosing the right path from the several which are open to us can leave us frustrated and nervous.  Have we made the right choice?  Should we have chosen B rather than A, or C rather than D?  How will our choices play out?  What will be the consequences?  Where will our chosen path lead us?
Rather than letting the need to choose freeze us in place, we forge ahead, hoping we have done the right thing, made the right decision—trying to look into the future.  When we express our worry or frustration, someone is likely to say, “Welcome to the real world.”
If we think our decisions are problematic, if we believe our choices are difficult, imagine the first century world of Mary and Joseph.  Mary was a young girl—early teens—about to be married to Joseph.  We have no idea how old Joseph was.  One train of belief says he was much older than Mary, but we have no way of knowing.  The Bible is silent about Joseph’s age.  The gospel writers didn’t think it was important.  Young or old, he was caught in a web of circumstances that were difficult to understand and even more difficult to work his way through.
Imagine your fiancĂ© saying to you, “I’m pregnant.  No, I haven’t been with another man.  An angel told me I was going to have a son—God’s Son.  I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”
What would you do?  Joseph decided to do the practical—and for that time the kind thing, and end the betrothal quietly.  Then an angel appeared to him and told him he had been chosen to be the earthly father of this heavenly child.
Imagine yourself in Mary’s shoes.  An angel tells you that you are going to give birth to the Savior of the world.  You—an ordinary young girl, on the verge of womanhood, have been chosen for the highest honor ever bestowed on a woman. 
What would you do?  Mary did the almost unimaginable thing.  She said “Yes!”
Here are these two people, faced with the most unusual pregnancy in the history of the world, trying to adjust to what in that culture could be a damning situation, accepting the assignment, and having faith that all would be well.

And all was well, because all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called to fulfill God’s purpose.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love Came Down at Christmas
1 John 4:7-12
            “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
            John gives us these words in the third chapter of his first letter.  The entire letter is a love fest.  The word love pops up every few verses.  God loves us.  We ought to love God.  We demonstrate our love for God by loving others.  I once had a minister friend tell me that John’s version of the gospel was difficult to preach on a frequent basis because all he talked about was love.
            And yet, what else motivated God’s decision to send Jesus to earth?  What other emotion could we claim as the basis for the incarnation?  Compassion?  Perhaps: but isn’t compassion motivated by love?  Certainly not sympathy.  Sympathy doesn’t carry enough emotional weight for such an auspicious event.  Not anger, for obvious reasons.  Pity?  I don’t believe God would send the Messiah to such a horrific end out of pity.  It had to be love—love for all of humankind, certainly, but more specifically, love for each of us individually.  “In this the love of God was made manifest among us,” says John (4:9), “that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”
            John learned the height and depth of God’s love from Jesus.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  You remember—John 3:16. Jesus didn’t stop there, but went on to say, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  How could anyone love more than that?  How could anyone demonstrate love more fully?
            We don’t know how old Jesus was when he became self-aware—that is, when he knew who he was and why he was here?  He showed evidence of self-knowledge at the age of 12, Luke tells us, when his parents found him in the temple with the teachers.  We can be pretty sure he didn’t have this self-awareness as a tiny baby lying in a manger.  There are legends of Jesus’ early years that don’t ring true because of the level of self-awareness they require to be true.
            What we do know is that by the time he began his public ministry he knew who he was, what his purpose was on earth, and what his end would be.  All of this was secondary to the single most important characteristic of Jesus’ life and ministry—self-giving love.
            John tells us that God is love (4:8).  He tells us in the prologue to his gospel (1:18) that no one has ever seen God, then repeats these words in this letter (4:12).  He makes it clear that those who saw Jesus saw God, for Jesus was God in human form—God, walking, talking, healing, reconciling, shaping, molding—loving.
            But John says something more, something important for those who call themselves Christians.  In 4:12, John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
            There you have it!  Here is the end product of God’s love for humankind.  God is love.  God sent Jesus out of love to show us what love looked like and to teach us how to love.  If we love one another we become demonstrators of God’s love.  We can’t be love without showing love, and we can’t claim to love God unless we love those around us with the same love God does.
            “Little children,” John says (3:18), “let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.” 
This is how God loves. 
This is how Jesus loves.

 Can we love any differently?”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

And the Word Became Flesh

And the Word Became Flesh
            These words have become so familiar that I’m afraid they’ve lost their impact.  This is a too-common occurrence.  Words that should mean something no longer do.  We’ve heard them, read them, said them so often that we use them without thinking about the depth of their meaning.  The prime example is the Lord’s Prayer.  We say it by rote, not paying attention to what we’re asking for.  These words should send shudders through us, for what we’re asking from God is not only life-changing but also culture-changing.  Here’s a challenge:  read the Lord’s Prayer.  Pay close attention to every syllable. Think about what you’re saying.  My guess is you’ll never be able to say it by rote again.
            John is testifying to what he has experienced.  This is not something he’s heard about or read about.  He was there—there from the beginning.  Jesus called him—personally—while he and his brother were engaged in their work as fishermen.  He followed Jesus from the Sea of Galilee to the cross.  If we believe his gospel, he was the only disciple at the cross.  So he was there from the beginning to the end.
            What does John tell us?
            Jesus is the Word.  In the beginning, God spoke, and it was so.  The universe came into being.  Word became action. Jesus was the Word through which creation happened.  As Paul says so profoundly in Colossians, all things were made through him and for him.
            Jesus is the Light.  Jesus says so in John’s gospel.  Other gospel writers tell us Jesus said we are the light, but doesn’t that happen only after Jesus gives us the power to be the light?  No matter how bright we are, we only reflect light—Jesus, the true light of the world, who enlightens everyone.  Even John the Baptist was reflected light.  John the Baptist (John the apostle tells us) “was not that light [italics mine], but came to bear witness to that light.”  Like John the Baptist, we are sent into the world to bear witness to the light that is Jesus Christ.
            Jesus is the Word become flesh.  At creation the Word became action.  At the incarnation the word became flesh.  In the words of Thomas a` Kempis, “That God, the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortal’s sake.” For our sakes the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that “whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).”
            John saw all this—and he was not alone.  “And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  John speaks for all the gospel writers, for all the apostles, for all Jesus’ followers—everyone who walked with him from Galilee through to the resurrection when he says, “we beheld his glory.”
            And so we have Jesus:
                        The Word,
                        The Light,
                        The Truth,
                        The Life,
                        Flesh, and bone and sinew, and muscle—the Word inexplicably become human.

            Thomas a` Kempis says, “O love, how deep, how broad, how high.  How passing thought and fantasy.”  We should be so overwhelmed by these words that we stand in awe at this gift, that God should take our mortal form so we might live with God.  How can we not be amazed, awestruck—speechless at these words?   “And the Word became flesh.”  Amen, and amen.