Sunday, December 30, 2018

A God of Surprises

A God of Surprises
Luke 2:1-7
            The waiting is over.  The presents have been unwrapped.  The living room looks like a tornado zone.  There are no more surprises—or are there?
            For Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of surprises.  True, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph were surprised months before with birth announcements from angels, but it’s really Christmas that begins the surprises—surprises that continue down to this moment.
            For Mary and Joseph there were surprises throughout Jesus’ childhood.  They began with the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, continued with the pronouncements of Simeon and Anna in the temple after Jesus’ birth, and, according to Luke’s account, culminated with Jesus and the teachers of the law during the temple visit when he was twelve. 
Each of these events—and, I’m sure, many others that were not recorded—must have continually surprised the couple.  What kind of child was this, who so many people took notice of?  Yes, they had been told—warned is perhaps a better word—that this baby was different, special, blessed by God.  Still, I’m sure they didn’t have any idea that his birth and early life would result in so much attention from so many quarters.
From Luke’s narrative we might assume that, following the Passover temple visit, Jesus settled down into a relatively normal teenage and young adult life—and it might well be.  Certainly nothing he did between twelve and thirty caught the attention of anyone enough to remember and write it down.  We have many legends from these years, but no corroboration of their truthfulness.  Indeed, they sound outrageous enough to be easily discredited.   Also, we can be sure someone somewhere would have taken notice of Jesus if he had done anything worthy of notice.  The Pharisees were always looking for bright young recruits.  Remember Paul?
If we look at Jesus’ adult life we’ll see that, again, this was just the beginning of the surprises.  From approximately age thirty to age thirty-three, Jesus seems to have created one surprise after another in Galilee and Judea.  Healing miracles, turning water into wine, calming storms, feeding multitudes using tiny amounts of food—all these are recounted in the gospels.  At the end of John’s gospel he says that what we read is just a fraction of what Jesus did.
Overshadowing the miracles was Jesus’ teaching.  As someone has said, those Jesus fed would have gotten hungry again.  Those Jesus healed and raised from the dead would have eventually sickened and died from some other cause.  There would have been other storms.  All these miracles were temporary.  The teaching was eternal.
I don’t believe Jesus was executed for performing miracles.  It was his teaching that ran afoul of the religious authorities.  It was his teaching that upset them, because it ran counter to what they had been saying—and claiming to be the correct interpretation of God’s law.  It was the surprises in his words that led to his death.
But all these surprises were, again, only the beginning.  The resurrection began another round of surprises—surprises which continue to confound us.  Just when we think we have Jesus all figured out, and believe we know how to interpret his life and his words, he confronts us with another surprise.  Whenever we try to put him in one of our theological boxes he says, “No, that’s not right.  This is what I meant.  Here’s what I want you to do.”  And it’s always what we least expect.  I’ve said (jokingly) how else would a guy who grew up in Brooklyn, wind up preaching in a denomination he’d never heard of through the first two-thirds of his life, in Southaven, Mississippi?  God continues to be full of surprises.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Isaiah 40:29-31
            Every December my wife and I watch some of the Christmas movies on a channel sponsored by a company known for its greeting cards.  I’m sure you can figure out which channel and which company I mean.
            Every year several new movies are introduced.  They follow the same general plot line as previous films.  A young single person (usually, but not always female) who works for a big-city company is sent to a small town on some business mission.  While there she (or he) meets the love of her/his life, leaves the big-city company to find happiness and the true meaning of Christmas in the small town.
            This year we’ve noticed a few themes which run through most of the movies.  First, in the past, the big city company boss has always been on the grouchy side.  This year, when the young person announces her (his) decision to move, the boss is more understanding.
            Another theme this year is baking Christmas cookies, one of the activities that hooks the big-city newcomer to the small-town way of life.  This involves a small-town family, usually related in some way to the opposite gender love interest.  The third theme is snowball fights; not serious ones of course, but more like throwing handfuls of snow in fun.
            I say this not to arouse interest in these movies, which can be really hokey, but because, for some reason, my blogs this Advent season also seem to be following a theme.  Without meaning to, I’ve gotten stuck on patience and waiting. 
It’s a good theme, and one that needs to be focused on.  Our lives are much too busy.  When I tell people the activities my wife and I are involved in, they say, “You’re not retired!”  I tell them the difference between now and when I was working full-time is that I can say “No!” much more easily.  I’m busy, but doing mostly the things I want to do.
For most of us this is a time of year when it’s easy to get frazzled and run out of patience.  We’re afraid if we get too involved in one activity we’ll run out of time, and Christmas will arrive without us completing all the preparations we need to make.  We know we put most of the pressure on ourselves, but that doesn’t change things.  We spend the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas (if not several weeks before) in overdrive, trying to make the celebration as perfect as we can. 
Would our families be upset if that last string of lights didn’t get put up on the front porch, or there were only ten dozen Christmas cookies instead of twelve dozen?  Maybe so, but they’d get over it, and Christmas would still be Christmas.
During what usually turns out to be the busiest time of the year, we need to hear the words God spoke through Isaiah.  True, the circumstances were different.  Judah had been in captivity so long that many of the people had never seen their homeland.  They were despondent, discouraged, believing they would never see Jerusalem again.  Isaiah wants them to remember that God is the Everlasting God, the Creator, the One who does not grow weary and faint.  The strongest of mortals will, at some time, become frazzled, but God never will.
When Isaiah speaks of people renewing their strength, and flying like eagles, he is referring to the captives returning to Judah.  But it’s a good reminder for all of us at this time of year.  Put off wrapping the presents, or baking the cookies, or stringing the lights for a few minutes.  Instead, use that time to wait on the Lord, and renew your strength.  Your Christmas celebration will be more complete—and more enjoyable for it.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Active Waiting

Active Waiting
Acts 1:4, 12-14
            This time of year patience is in short supply.  This is supposed to be the season of patience—as well as of love and joy, but it often doesn’t turn out that way.  We hear about fights breaking out in stores between shoppers trying to purchase the same item—an item they want to give to someone they love.  If this sounds confusing, that’s humanity for you.
            Waiting is especially difficult for children.  Their sense of time is more immediate than that of adults (except, of course, when we want them to get ready to go someplace they don’t want to go), so they find it difficult to accept long wait times.
            Waiting must have been difficult for Christ’s disciples.  From the moment he began revealing the kingdom of God to them they had great expectations.  When they contemplated their future in the kingdom—not as peasants under the double oppression of Roman and Jewish authorities, but as Jesus’ hand-picked cabinet—they must have been as impatient as any child between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
            We read the beginning of Acts against the background of the crucifixion and resurrection.  They are past events.  Jesus has been with his followers a period of time since the resurrection, and is about to leave them—although they don’t know that yet. 
            Jesus takes them to the Mount of Olives, significant because most Jewish apocalyptic prophecies name this place as the beginning of the action.  The disciples must have been even more filled with anticipation than they were on Palm Sunday, just a few short weeks ago.  Surely this was the time and place the angel armies would descend and the kingdom—bringing all their perks and privileges—would begin. 
            But it wasn’t.  Jesus gave them a few final words, including an admonishment that they were not to know the time when the kingdom would be fully realized, then told them to return to Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Not knowing what the Holy Spirit was, they must have been like kids eyeing that big package under the tree—the one way in the back—wondering what might be in it, and who it was for.  But like kids in December they had to wait for the right time to find out what the gift was.  
During the wait they could have sat around, looking at each other, wondering aloud and to themselves what they were waiting for, but they didn’t.  Jesus’ message had gotten through to them enough so they knew they had to do something, and that something was pray.  Luke tells us that they “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” as they waited—for who knew what!  It was a gift, and if it came from Jesus then it was an important gift—a big gift.  So they waited, and prayed, and waited, and prayed.
August Rodin, the sculptor, said, “Patience is also a form of action.”  He knew that creating a work of art couldn’t be rushed.  It needed time to evolve, time for the creative process to work.  During the wait, things were happening, ideas were developing.  Under the surface the creative juices were flowing.  The ground was being prepared for the next creative step, but the action was taking place out of sight.
Patience is a form of action.  When the time was right, the Holy Spirit came—and the disciples were prepared, because they had been praying.  In due time Christmas morning will come, and what’s in that big box will be sweeter for the waiting.
It’s a lesson we all must learn.  Wait patiently, but wait actively.  In due time God will come, and our joy will be complete.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


Romans 8:18-25
            Advent is the season of hope.  Students hope school will be out for Christmas vacation soon.  Children hope they will get all the presents they’ve asked Santa for.  Workers hope Christmas Eve will come before their boss loses his temper one more time.  Parents hope this Christmas will be less hectic than the last.  Families hope they will get through Christmas dinner before the fighting breaks out—again!
            Christians play a game of hope.  We believe the Messiah came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.  Yet as we work our way through our Advent calendars, sing the hymns and listen to the sermons based on Advent themes, and read our Advent devotionals we experience once again the hope Israel felt the hundreds of years they waited for the messiah to appear. 
            Advent is also a time to take stock of our relationship with God, for during this season the hope we feel for Jesus Christ’s return is intensified.  We want to be ready, because Jesus warned his followers that he will come “like a thief in the night,” without warning.  We cannot be caught napping.  As we prepare our homes for the Christmas celebration, and prepare our hearts to experience again the wonder of that Christmas Eve birth so long ago, we prepare our lives to welcome the conquering Jesus when he returns to bring the kingdom of God to earth.
            Paul expands this idea.  He says not only Christians, but the whole of creation hopes for Christ’s return.  To illustrate the extent of the agony that creation experiences, Paul uses the metaphor of childbirth, which involves another expression of hope.  As the expectant mother deals with wave after wave of pain, she hopes not so much for the pain to be over (although there is certainly that aspect) but for the safe appearance and the health of the longed-for child.  Although never experiencing the pains of childbirth firsthand, Paul understands the aptness of the metaphor.  Creation, like an expectant mother, waits groaningly to be “set free from its bondage to decay.”  The return of Christ will begin the perfection of God’s creation and the complete sanctification of those who have served him well.
            In the frenzy of Christmas preparations it is easy to lose sight of the cosmic aspects of Advent.  The old saying, “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget your first objective was to drain the swamp” applies here.  Preparing the food, buying and wrapping the presents, cleaning and decorating the house, writing and mailing the Christmas greetings—all of this can overwhelm us so that we lose sight of “the reason for the season.”  Our hope is reduced to wanting to finish the mountain of work before we run out of time, energy and patience.
            I think Paul understood all that, even though he didn’t have to deal with a twenty-first century Christmas season.  Some paint a picture of Paul as an impatient man, and there is proof in Scripture to back up that image.  Perhaps he was reminding himself as well as reminding the Roman Christians to keep hope at the center of life.  Believing he would still be alive at Christ’s return he was impatient to see the Messiah appear.  We can almost hear him saying, “Patience! Patience!  It will happen. Wait!  Wait! He will come.”
            As children wait for the presents they cannot see, so Paul encourages us to wait for the events we cannot see.  As we prepare our hearts this Advent for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth, we long for what we cannot see.  Paul reminds us that we do not hope for what we can already see—what lies in front of us.  We can only hope for what we cannot see:  the fulfillment of the promise given so long ago—the completion of our salvation.