Monthly Archives: December 2019

What Child Is This?

Jesus was born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem during the reign of King Herod. After Jesus’ birth a group of spiritual priests from the East came to Jerusalem and inquired of the people, “Where is the child who is born king of the Jewish people? We observed his star rising in the sky and we’ve come to bow before him in worship.”

King Herod was shaken to the core when he heard this, and not only him, but all of Jerusalem was disturbed when they heard this news. So he called a meeting of the Jewish ruling priests and religious scholars, demanding that they tell him where the promised Messiah was prophesied to be born.

“He will be born in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,” they told him. “Because the prophecy states:

And you, little Bethlehem,
are not insignificant among the clans of Judah,
for out of you will emerge
the Shepherd-King of my people Israel!”

Then Herod secretly summoned the spiritual priests from the East to ascertain the exact time the star first appeared. And he told them, “Now go to Bethlehem and carefully look there for the child, and when you’ve found him, report to me so that I can go and bow down and worship him too.”

And so they left, and on their way to Bethlehem, suddenly the same star they had seen in the East reappeared! Amazed, they watched as it went ahead of them and stopped directly over the place where the child was. 10 And when they saw the star, they were so ecstatic that they shouted and celebrated with unrestrained joy. 11 When they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, they were overcome. Falling to the ground at his feet they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure boxes full of gifts and presented him with gold, frank-incense, and myrrh. 12 Afterward they returned to their own country by another route because God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.

They Escape to Egypt

13 After they had gone, Joseph had another dream. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Get up now and flee to Egypt. Take Mary and the little child and stay there until I tell you to leave, for Herod intends to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So that very night he got up and took Jesus and his mother and made their escape to Egypt 15 and remained there until Herod died. All of this fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through his prophet:

I summon my Son out of Egypt.

16 When Herod realized that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated. So he sent soldiers with orders to slaughter every baby boy two years old and younger in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding countryside, based on the time frame he was given from interrogating the wise men. 17 This fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

18 I hear the screams of anguish,
weeping, and wailing in Ramah.
Rachel is weeping uncontrollably for her children.
And she refuses to be comforted,
because they are dead and gone.

They Return to Nazareth

19 After Herod died, the angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph in a dream while he was still in Egypt, 20 saying, “Go back to the land of Israel and take the child and his mother with you, for those who sought to kill the child are dead.”

21 So he awoke and took Jesus and Mary and returned to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus, Herod’s son, had succeeded him as ruler over all of the territory of Judah, he was afraid to go back. Then he had another dream from God, warning him to avoid that region and instructing him instead to go to the province of Galilee. 23 So he settled his family in the village of Nazareth, fulfilling the prophecy that he would be known as the “Branch.”    Matthew 2:1-23 (The Passion Translation)

It had been an exciting day and the Holy Family was tired.  They made an early night of it, dreaming about the visit of the Magi.  Such gifts!  Gold (symbol of the deity of Christ.)  Frankincense (pointing to his life of holiness, perfection and devotion.)  Myrrh, an embalming spice, reminding us of his death on a cross.

Such treasures!  Whatever would they do with them?  Joseph dreamed of how much better the family could live with that much in treasure, when his dream took a sharp turn.  “Get up now!  Leave here at once.  Head for Egypt.  Herod is trying to kill the child.”

They packed quickly, not forgetting the gifts of the Magi.  As quietly as possible they slipped out the door of their little home and headed to the edge of town.  At one point they passed a soldier. Had he received his orders to kill children, yet?  They held their breath.  The looked at them, sneered and sent them on their way.  Whew, that was close.  They found their way to the highway heading to Egypt.  Providentially,  they came upon caravan of people headed that way. They slipped in, trying to keep a low profile.

Suddenly, they heard the screams and cries.  Herod’s soldiers had arrived and all the baby boys two-years-old or younger were killed then left in their parents’ arms.  Rachel weeping for her children; Rachel couldn’t be comforted.  Joseph and Mary pushed on.  They would hear those screams in their nightmares for a long, long time.

An evil, toxic king out to save his throne at any cost, even the cost of innocent children.  A young family forced to escape their home and immigrate to a foreign land.  They would encounter a different culture, new language and sneers from those who had many gods to worship, unlike those Jews!

We hear the sound of swords drawn from the soldiers’ sheaths.  We smell blood and death.  We see the immigrant caravan heading out of danger to something new.  We stand inside the beautiful palace of a king who doesn’t have to see the results of his killing orders.  He’ll only relax his guard slightly because there will always be someone else to threaten him and his throne.

The birth of one child shakes the earth to its core.  The status quo is broken.  Heartless, evil kings try to control it, but there’s no controlling God.  Herod and his son, Archelaus, only think they’re victorious.  They haven’t a clue.

Children are still innocent victims today, as they have been through the millennia.  They are separated at the borders from their immigrant parents, not understanding what they’ve done.  They sit in over-crowded classrooms, stomachs growling.  They witness violent death, holding their dead in their arms.  They are sold for labor and sex trafficking.

Why would God let this happen, we ask?  How can we let this happen?  What can we do?  The problem is too big for us.  Most of us have a passionate desire to save the children, but the scale of the work needed is insurmountable.  Herod wins again.

Or does he?

The good news is that God in Christ is constantly at work in the world:  children are being fed by many organizations within your community.  Our education system, as broken as it seems, is still working to meet these beaten and broken young people where they are and find meaningful ways to reach out.  Even going so far as to allow their teachers to march on the state’s capital for additional educational funding.

Churches reach out in countless ways to make a difference.  And how many of you, dear readers, write checks to organizations or stuff money in the Christmas Kettles?  As long as Herod is out there protecting his fragile ego with guns and whips and belts and words, there are countless others who stand up for these children and say,  “No!  What you’re doing is wrong.”

Child labor laws have been enacted.  Child protection policies are taking on new improved ways of protecting the innocent victims.  Strides are being made because a lot of “someones” spoke up.

God is at work throughout our world, calling us to fight injustice and save the children.  When we resist, it’s because we’re overwhelmed.  We’re uncomfortable and we can’t believe that people could be so cruel and callous.

The suffering of a community at the hands of Herod’s troops couldn’t match the stubborn trust of Joseph.  Loss and darkness are not the final word.  Hope remains as long as we trust in the ultimate faithfulness of God.

There are two kinds of power.  Herod lived in ivory palaces, surrounded by armies and wealth, puffing out his chest and displaying his power through violence and killing.

Jesus lived quietly in a Galilean town few people had even heard of.  He offered ministry that included all; restoration for the broken and, yes, even the puffed up; and revealed his power in love and humility.

We know that evil still exists today and tyrants still occupy thrones doling out threats and death sentences.  The innocent victims are the children.  We’ve met some of them.  Maybe we’ve even walked with them, for a short time.  We all have, I believe, and when we do we offer God’s healing and they draw on that blessing.

The job is too much for one person to take on.  When we’re all in it, in our corner of the world, making a difference, the results multiply over and over again.  And Herod finally fails.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Waiting Well: Don’t Drop the Baby

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

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

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus.  (Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV)

A man, a woman and unborn baby.  Not the usual ingredients for a world-changing event.

Joseph and Mary are as good as married.  She hasn’t moved into his home, yet, so they haven’t consummated the marriage.  Mary becomes pregnant.  Only one way THAT can happen, right?

What’s a bride-groom to do?  Cultural and religious pressure is all over this.   He can “out” her and she and the child will be ostracized for life.  He chooses to divorce her quietly.  Perhaps she can go away to have the child.

I wonder why.  Does he love her so much that he wants to protect her?  Or does he  want to keep his name out of it and hang onto to some shred of dignity and privacy? We don’t know.

What we know about Joseph we have to read between the lines to discover.  He’s a just man.  He’s sympathetic and kind, unwilling to expose Mary.  He’s obedient to God’s will as delivered to him in a dream.

How many dreams do you remember when you awaken?  Perhaps a few.  And what they mean is often hard to interupt.  Once in great while we have insight, but not often.  This dream is different.

An angel appears and they have a talk. 

“I know this isn’t what you expected, Joseph.  But, don’t fear.  It’s okay to take Mary as your wife.  She’s been faithful to you and to God.  The child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  Joseph believes the angel.  He trusts that this is God speaking to him.  That’s what it’s like when you talk to God.  The impossible becomes doable.

“Now, Joseph.  I want you to be the child’s earthly father.  You’ll have naming rights as the father and I have one all picked out: “YHWH saves.  YHWH helps.”

Joshua.  Jesus. 

Joseph trusted and listened.  He chose to go against the cultural norms, believing that God was intervening in history to bring a savior into the world. 

God intervened in history to smooth the way for this couple who could have a lot to answer for.  God continues to intervene with us so that we don’t “drop the baby.”  God won’t permit cultural mores and expectations to mess with God’s grace and goodness.

If we take this story out of the churchy, Christmasy norm and really look inside it, we discover a scary thing.  Are we too comfortable to risk our wealth or status?  Have we missed opportunities for God to use us in world changing ways? What is our trust level?

God calls us.  We answer the call out of trust, not knowing where we’re going or how we’ll arrive.  We trust that something wonderful is promised.  Something surprising.

When a church enters into a new mission project, they answer the call with many questions.  Do we have enough money? time? energy? people?  What if something bad happens?  What if something good comes out of it?  What will we do next?  It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff, unable to see the bottom. 

Trust brings them into unexpected places in unexpected ways.  Sometimes cultural expectations are set aside because “it’s the right thing to do.” 

As we approach Christmas Day, I wonder what my readers are thinking and doing?  What difficulties in our world concern, even worry you?  What difficulties in your personal world concern you? 

Do we still need a savior today?  After all, we have life and auto and home and medical insurance.  We live in the wealthiest nation in the world.  Do we still need a savior today?

I say we do.  I trust that God has been at work for thousands of years, bringing this world to something wonderful and awe-inspiring.  I believe two thousand years ago, God stepped up this journey allowing us to have glimpse at what God is about.  God in Christ showed us how to live.

So when we ponder the questions about our happiness and contentment in life and what we need to be truly happy, I wonder if we might divert those questions in a different way.

Ask, why are you here?  What purpose does God have in mind for you?  What is your understanding of where you’ll go when your earthly life ends?  What is your life all about?

These are risky questions because they cause us to enter risky territory.  Just like Joseph and Mary.  Joseph had decisions to make.  He could follow the cultural norms or he could trust a dream.  He chose the latter, not knowing where it would take him, or what his life would be like as a result.

Joseph’s example points to really good news.  When God interrupts or intervenes in our lives, we don’t have to “drop the baby.”  We can accept and trust and move into this new plan knowing God doesn’t abandon.

It may mean setting aside cultural pressures and questions: What will people think? say? do?  Our trust is shaken until God shows up and assures us that God is truly in charge.  Interruptions and detours that are God-given invite us to embrace them and move into a deeper life of service to God. 

Scripture is too rich to look at from only one dimension.  Without Matthew, we would know very little about Joseph.  His story is filled with courage and trust.  He could have left Mary.  He could have “dropped the baby.” 

Instead, he believed God and the world has never been the same.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Waiting Well: That’s OK, I’ll Wait

When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b] disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone[d] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?[e] Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  (Matthew 11:2-11 NRSV)

When have you doubted?  Doubted God?  Doubted Christ?  Doubted your faith?  It’s okay to admit it — we all doubt.  Sometimes for a moment; other times for weeks and months.

We doubt because we’ve seen something horrifying and say, “Why would God let this happen?”  We doubt because we’re impatient for the kingdom to arrive.  It’s been 2,000 years for heaven’s sake!  We doubt because we read scripture and see a different interpretation and we wonder what’s true?

We doubt for various reasons.  It’s part of our faith journey and it has the power to take us deeper into our faith.

Take John the Baptizer.  He’s languishing in prison awaiting Herod’s decision on his fate.  He may be released, he may be executed.  He’s the one who pointed to Jesus early on.  John announced that someone greater than he was coming and it was time to get their lives in order.  With strong words he, announced that “…the ax [was] lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.” (Matthew 3:10 NRSV)

What we read further on, though, is Jesus teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn, and the meek.  Blessed are you who crave righteousness.  Blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted and when people revile and hate you.

Where’s the ax and the fire?  Are you really The One?

He sends his disciples with that message.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11:3b)

Jesus could have given him the short answer, “Yes.  I’m the One.”  The thing is, it’s not a convincing answer.  So, Jesus responds by pointing at his work.  “Look around you and see the results.”  The list is lengthy:  the blind see, the crippled are walking around, skin diseases are cleaned, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor are receiving the good news.

Oh.  Okay then.  I guess you’re the One.

But, Jesus has one more statement to add before John’s disciples return with the message.  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (v. 6)

Blessed is anyone who sees my work for what it is.  Blessed is anyone who hears the truth of my message.

Jesus is busy in his ministry of healing and preaching.  John is in prison trying hard to trust.  John’s disciples are confused.  The crowd is trying to understand.

Feel familiar?

We’re busy in our work, even if it’s retirement, reaching out to others in one way or another.  Many of us live in prisons of our own  making, uncomfortable with the new or angry at the staid and stale.  We’re often confused and we attempt to gain understanding.  Only to fall into doubt all over again.

It’s OK, Jesus.  I’ll wait.

I’ll wait because you ask too much of me.  Instead of freeing me from my prison, you leave me here.  I’ll wait for another because I’ve been waiting over 2,000 years and you still haven’t returned.  I’ll wait because your challenge that I serve the poor and crippled and hunger and lonely is simply too much.

Maybe I’ll wait for someone else.  Someone with soft flowing robes who’ll provide me with earthly security and comfort.  Someone who hates my enemies.  Someone who doesn’t make uncomfortable demands.

John was the one who pointed to Jesus as The One who was to come.  Yet, even he needed to have his eyes and ears opened to the new reality in Jesus Christ.

The good news is, we’re invited into this new reality that the world labels as counter-cultural.  We resist because we’re afraid of the insecurity of the unknown.  We want peace on Earth now.  Today.  We’re tired of the 2,000-year-old promise.  We’re tired and worn out and we need healing of our own.

Healing arrives in the form of eyes opened to see Christ’s work in the world today.  Healing arrives in the form of ears opened to hear peace-filled words in an angry world.  Healing arrives when we see the efforts of so many people who are feeding the hungry and healing the sick.

I see in John my own doubts.  I’ve learned to embrace them and use them to deepen my own faith.  Surprisingly, it can be the doubts that cause me to step out and do something.

In a world of instant gratification, it’s good to slow down and smell the roses.  I choose not to wait.  I choose to step out in faith and, yes, doubt, to serve where Jesus sends me.  I’m scared most of the time because of the unknown.  And when doubt gets in my way, I remember to look at the example Jesus set and remember his final words, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Waiting Well: Quick. Look Busy!

11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.  (Romans 13:11-14 Common English Bible)

In the bathroom of a popular restaurant resides a sign that reads, “Don’t worry about the future.  God is already there.”

That, to me, is what lies at the heart of eschatology, the study of end times.

Books and movies and presentations about end times abound.  In my lifetime I’ve witnessed groups and cults who have predicted the exact date when Christ will return.  Scripture has been used and stretched and cut and pasted to fit someone’s image of what is to come.

We all have our image of what the world will look like when Christ returns.  Most of us cling to a hope of the end of time.  Hope.  That’s what our faith provides us.  We can live today because we have hope and trust in the future that God has mapped out for us.

So, what do we do in the meantime?  Look busy?  As if we’re fooling God into thinking that we’re doing something important in the kingdom?  I’ve often said, “Let’s get back to work.”  What does that look like?  Will any work do?  Or is there more to it?

To answer that question we turn to Paul and his letter to some early Christians in the capital of the Roman Empire.

Paul says to wake up from sleep.  He believed that Christ’s coming was imminent.  Meanwhile, the Christians were allowing themselves a form of hypnotism that would make them feel good in the moment.  They attended festivals to celebrate the grape harvest that often turned into riotous drunkenness.  They were sexually promiscuous.  Their behavior was outrageous, acting without any restraint, quarreling and fighting and obsessing.  Some burned with jealousy and rage.

Paul called on them to return to an ethical way of life.  Wake up!  Unclutter your life with this nonsense that draws you further and further away from the God you worship.  Get your priorities in line. Return to ethical living.  Face reality.

My dear readers, I trust that you’re not running out to worship the god of the harvest; that you’re not attending orgies of any kind.  Those of you I know are ethical, loving Christians.  So, what does this have to do with you?

When I was working in the business world, I received a promotion that entailed my working closely with our customers.  My job was to visit with them monthly either by telephone or in person.  I would travel to their office and we always extended an invitation to visit our offices to see how we handled their products.

It was an exciting prospect, filled with challenges and opportunities.  Until the fun went out of it.  I was caught up in a hamster wheel, barring creativity and enjoyment.  One day I studied my calendar and realized that each day was filled with appointments and travel plans.  If a day on the calendar was blank, I would find a way to fill it up or else I wasn’t successful.

I trust I’m not the only one who has filled up life with “stuff” in order to hypnotize ourselves to get through life.  As long as we’re busy, we’re doing something and that’s all that matters.

Cluttered calendars and cupboards.  Confused priorities.  Disorganized minds and hearts.  These are what “protect” us from facing our reality:  the reality that Christ is really coming.  It could be in ten minutes, ten years, ten millenniums.  We don’t know.  And that leaves us feeling uncertain.  So, quick!  Look busy!

Uncertainty.  We like to know what’s going to happen and when.  Hence our crowded calendars.  We need to be in control.  Sometimes out of control people get caught up in drug or alcohol abuse, over- or under-eating, workaholism,  or any number of methods to regain control.

Scriptural uncertainty is different because it’s at the heart of our faith.  Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything.  Our journey into discipleship is to search out and understand the ambiguities in the Bible and how they play out in our lives.

So, how do we move into this First Week of Advent?  What might our journey to the manger look like this year?

First, acknowledge that Christ will return.  Some day.  Whether you’re a disciple of the “Left Behind” series or “The Late Great Planet Earth,” or simply uninformed about end times at all.  Simply acknowledge.  He’s coming.

Second, look at your life and see what deadens you.  What keeps you from responding to God’s salvation?  Where in your life are you living less ethically than you want to? Where have you lost joy?

What clutters  your life?  Anger, malice, judgementalism.  Maybe what clutters your life is the place you need to work.  For example, perhaps your passion is working for justice, fairness, equality and peace.

Now, move toward the light.  Recognize  your deep desires and step into them.  That’s where you begin to find joy and hope.  Even in difficult times, joy is waiting to be found.  Live in the light by performing acts that are worthy of it.  Live today in anticipation of God’s new reality.

When we live in the light, we perform acts that are worthy of Christ.  We can live in anticipation of God’s new reality without fear.  We quit deadening our response to it.  It might feel uncomfortable.  Step into it, anyway.  The journey can clarify your thoughts and actions.  The journey can help you clean out the debris and find your passion.  Allow yourself to find joy and hope whenever you struggle.

Dag Hammarskjold, former General Secretary of the United Nations, wrote in his journal, “For all that has been — Thanks!  To all that will be — Yes.”

God is always at work, offering us something better.  Not necessarily easier.  A transformed life takes work and time and intentionality.  God is always at work to transform us, to make us new, to lead us to new places of joy and hope.

In this season of Advent, my prayer for all of us is to sort out the clutter, whatever or wherever it may be; to remind ourselves that our ethical lifestyle really does make a difference; and to arrive at the manger this year with a deeper understanding: this vulnerable child is more powerful than any pharaoh or king or leader.

Christ is coming!

What will he see when he returns?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


%d bloggers like this: