Monday, January 22, 2018

Second Chances: Dangerous Opportunities

"Second Chances:  Dangerous Opportunities"
Jonah 3:1-4

In his sensitive novel, The Fall, the French writer Albert Camus described a man who faced a crisis.  The man had wandered into a bar in Amsterdam, making his confession to a bartender, hoping for some alcohol laced absolution from his crisis.  The bartender listened attentively to the painful confession:

That particular night in November, I was returning to the West Bank.  It was past midnight, a rainy mist was falling and there were a few people on the street.  On the bridge, I passed behind a figure leaning over the railing and seeming to stare at the river.  On closer view I made out a slim, young woman dressed in black...I went on after a moments hesitation.  I had gone some 50 yards when I hear the sound—which despite the distance seemed dreadfully loud in the midnight silence—a body striking the water.  I stopped without turning around.  Almost at once I heard a cry for help, which was repeated several times; then it ceased.  The silence seemed interminable.  I wanted to run, and yet did not stir.  I told myself I had to be quick and then an irresistible weakness settled over me.  “Too late; too far,” I told myself.  Then, slowly, under the rain, I went away.  I informed no one.

On the last page of the novel, the man returned to the scene of the event that had been the greatest crisis in his life, and cried out into the night and to the river below:

O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!

That’s the trouble with the crises’ we face in life:  we never seem to get a second chance.  Words we speak can’t be stuffed back into our mouths to be spoken again, differently.  Actions can’t be done over.  Inaction can’t be turned into action in order to rectify certain consequences.  Deeds done are done deeds.

As I recently heard one speaker say, “I only have seen the world spin in the opposite direction, thus reversing time, once.  That was in the movie Superman II when Superman flew around the world the wrong way real fast.  And that was just a movie.”

None of us ever get to go backwards in order to re-do an action, re-make a decision, or re-speak certain words.  We may wish to do that with all our hearts, but all the wishing will not make it so.  What we did is what we did.  Period.

Even though we can’t go back and re-do what we did, we can go forward and try again.  We can go forward and make a new decision, a new choice, take a new action.

There are times when those opportunities come along.  We get belched up out of the stinking mess we had gotten ourselves into and we face the possibility of a new chance.  That is the opportunity side of any crisis.  It may also be the danger side, if we continue to make harmful decisions and take hurtful actions, or just do nothing at all.

Jonah was fortunate in his crisis in that he was dealing with God.  God was going to give Jonah a second chance.  My beliefs about God tell me that most second, third, and fourth chances are made available to us by God.  Whether we realize it or not.

God was not going to take the crisis away from Jonah, seeing as how Jonah didn’t want to have any part of it in the first place.  God was gracious.  But Jonah’s second chance still was the challenge to preach against the wickedness of that “great city Ninevah.”  Jonah still had to face it.

What God was asking Jonah to do was not easy.  God was giving Jonah a second chance, yes, but God didn’t jerk Jonah out of the whale, pick him up out of the whale barf, wipe him off, and say, “Poor, poor boy; I won’t ask you to do that horrible thing I asked you to do again.  I’m so sorry I upset you so much.”

Instead, God did pick Jonah up, set him on his feet, and said, “Go get yourself hosed off, and I’ll meet you back at square one.  Then we’ll start this all over again and see what happens this time.”

Jonah did as God said.  Got himself back to “go,” got the same instructions for how the game was supposed to be played.  This time, Jonah decided to play by the rules.  Those are the kinds of second chances God provides us, testing, as it were, our levels of courage and willingness to accept an opportunity from God, even if it might be dangerous or risky.

In that way, Jonah found himself in a long line of people God had dealt with in a similar way.

You will remember Moses, asked by God to go back to Egypt, after Moses had killed an Egyptian soldier.  God asked Moses to go back, face the most powerful leader in the known world, and demand from Pharaoh the release of all the Hebrew slaves.

You will remember Abraham, who faced a double barreled summons from God.  One barrel was to leave his family and homeland to go to a place that would be shown him, wherever that was.  He was to leave his family and everything that defined stability for him and move out toward a very destabilizing and unknown future.

The second barrel for Abraham, as you will remember, was the utterly astonishing request from God that Abraham take his son Issac to a nearby mountain top and burn him alive as a sacrifice to God.  Which Abraham almost did before God blew out the match, so-to-speak.

You will remember Saul, who became Israel’s first king.  He was wandering around the countryside looking for his father’s lost donkeys.  Up comes this weird old man, the prophet Samuel (whom we met in last week’s sermon as a seven year old boy in the Temple) who began pouring olive oil on Saul’s head.  Then Samuel said, “You are king over all Israel.”  What was Saul supposed to do?  Go home and tell his daddy, “I’m the king!”?  And where is Saul supposed to go?  There’s no capital.  No government.  No precedent for what kind of leadership he’s supposed to enact.  Saul was the first.  God, through Samuel, made Saul king and said, essentially, “Go to it!”  But go to what?

Are you beginning to see a pattern of how God does things?  Both in first and second chances?  There are so many who could be mentioned:  Joseph, Jeremiah, Job, Elijah, David, Paul, you and I.  What is God looking for in all of these stories that can’t be summed up in some kind of second chance courage?

Courage is the drive that makes second chances full of opportunity.  Courage is what makes a person get up after they’ve fallen on their face and, given the opportunity by God, try again.  It doesn’t take courage to make the same bad decision, to live old dysfunctional patters over and over again.  It doesn’t take courage to do something that has no risk in it.  No danger.  No opportunity.

There is an African tribal story about how one young warrior bragged, “I’m not afraid of anything.  Once I even cut off a lion’s tail with my short-bladed knife.”
One of the tribes elders asked, “Why did not you cut off the lion’s head?”
The warrior looked around at the other elders, and with a sheepish tone said, “Because someone else had already cut it off.”

Courage means facing the dangerous opportunities—the second, third, or fourth chances that God provides for us and running with them.  Usually it means facing lions that still have their heads on, and are very much alive.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.  ‘Go to that great city of Ninevah and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’”

The request of God to Jonah was clear.
Go to Ninevah, that capital of the Assyrian Empire, the greatest city in the world.
Go to Ninevah, that city of unsurpassed magnificence and beauty.
Go to Ninevah, that city full of temples, and royal palaces, and political power, and engineering wonders.
Go to Ninevah, that city with some of the most learned people, who study at one of the world’s greatest libraries.
Go to Ninevah, Jonah, and tell those people, as great as they think they are, they’re messed up.  As much as they live with everything else there is to have in the world, they aren’t living with me.
Go to Ninevah and tell them as religious as they think they are, there is only one God, and I am that God.  Tell them this, one God has expectations for their lifestyle choices, that those expectations are being frustrated by their faithless selfishness.
Go, Jonah; go to Ninevah and speak loud and clear.  You have a second chance.  Let’s see what you can do this time.

Now, tell me that wouldn’t take some courage.  I know that courage, in our country, in our culture, seems to be in short supply these days.  But the lions we face are put there by God.  God does that because God wants us to get a sense of what we are capable of doing.

But more importantly, God wants us to see what God can do through us as we face the lion-sized crises together.  Aren’t we tired of just cutting the tails off of lions that have already been beheaded?  Don’t we desire, deep down, for another chance to stand up to the lions we face, the challenges of second chances that God brings our way, and say, “Come on.  Come on!  Let’s see what the Lord and I can do!”

Monday, January 15, 2018

Meeting God For The Very First Time

"Meeting God For The Very First Time"
1 Samuel 3:1-10

Think back to the first time you had a meet up with God.  Were you a child?  A teen?  An adult?

Other believers might tell you, you have to have one of those “A-ha moments” and you have to know exactly when that was.  Memorize the date so you can spout it out the next time the Mormons come to your door.

But that’s not how God always works.  If you were to have one of those kinds of moments, and then you thought about it long enough, you’d probably see that God was at work for a long time trying to get your attention.  You just didn’t recognize it until that one sterling moment when everything fell into place for you, God-wise.

I’m assuming that most of you have read the title for this sermon by now.  You may have looked at it and thought, “I have already met the Lord; if Steve is getting all evangelistic, it’s too late—I’m already a believer.  Steve doesn’t need to convince me to come to the Lord, I’m already there.”

And that’s what I’m assuming.  That all of you are already there.  You’ve had a meet up with God.  So you can lower your shields—I’m not coming at you like the Borg, telling you, “Resistance is futile.”  (If you don’t know who the Borg are, ask someone who watches Star Trek.)

Anyway,  after you have had some kind of first encounter with God, and you know God is real, there’s another kind of experience you may have.  Months or years after your meet up with God, you may experience, “the silence.”   A time when God doesn’t speak.

That’s where we are in the story just read about old Eli the priest.  He was a faithful and wise man, who served God in the temple.  Eli had a couple of sons who were on par with Donald Trump’s sons—you never knew which one was more stupid; you just had to wait for the news story of the day to confirm that.  But besides that, or in spite of that, people looked up to Eli as the wise, old codger priest.  He did what God wanted him to do.  At least he thought he was doing that.  Because God was silent.

The opening verse sets up that fact for our story:
In those days, when the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under the direction of Eli, there were very few messages from the LORD, and visions from God were quite rare.

So our story opens with a dilemma.  It isn’t a problem with Eli.  Or with Samuel.  It’s a problem with God.  God has gone silent.  Nothing is happening spiritually.  God appears to be taking a vacation from being God, or, at least, taking some serious down time.

You wouldn’t think God has a problem communicating.  You know how it is with your spouse or your kid.
“How are you doing?”
“What did you do today?”
“Were you alive today?”

We don’t expect to have that kind of conversation with God Almighty.  Especially when things aren’t going so hot in our lives and we need a little spiritual convo with the Lord.  It’s not a good sign when we try to spark up a little prayer dialogue with God, you push the power button on your God-remote and not only is there no picture, there is no sound.  We’ve already established that you know God is for real, but just not real attentive at the moment.

No message.  No vision.

There’s bound to be some confusion.  For the priest, Eli, his whole job was about talking with God, going into the Holy of Holies, and coming back out to report what God had said.  But day-after-day, Eli comes out from behind the curtain and shrugs his shoulders in front of the other priests.  Nothing.  Why is God silent?  Why does God go silent, especially when you need a message from God?

Part of the problem in our day is that there are too many people out there who think they are hearing messages from God all the time. They purport to know what God is thinking all the time, and they are not shy in telling the rest of us about their direct line to the Almighty.  From my perspective, all that is purely arrogant.  For us, it seems that there are too many voices and visions, many of which are conflicting and hokey.  In my mind, God may be just as silent when there are a lot of supposed visions and voices going on, as in Eli’s time when God was just silent—no words, no vision.  In our day and time, it isn’t that God is speaking a lot; it’s just that people are speaking for God—blah, blah, blah, and more blah.

What do you do, when God goes into silent mode?

There isn’t a whole lot you can do.  God is in charge of when God speaks and when God chooses not to speak.  If we take Eli and Samuel’s story as a guide, I think there are some things we can learn.

First, we wait.  Eli didn’t talk ill of God for God’s silence.  Eli knew that all he could do is wait on God.  And Eli taught Samuel about waiting.  It wasn’t a lethargic waiting.  Both were carrying on with their duties.

The story tells us that there was an oil lamp that burned over the Ark of the Covenant.  While they waited for a word from the Lord, they tended the lamp.  They made sure there was oil and the flame was kept burning.

In verse 15 we are told that one of the priests duties was to open the doors of the temple each morning.  Eli took care of that, even though he was mostly blind and couldn’t see where he was going.

In other words, while you are waiting on the Lord for a word or a vision, you still carry on with what might be called your spiritual chores.  You don’t give up on the daily routines that you would normally do if the Lord was speaking to you every day.  You don’t give up.  You keep going.  You keep putting one foot in front of the other, until the day God graces you with a word or vision from above.  You keep praying, even though it’s a one way conversation for the time being.

Because, that day will come.  God will finally speak.  The Voice-of-God drought will end.  As our story tells us, “Then the LORD called, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’”

There are a couple of things about this that are important.  First, to whom God finally spoke.  God spoke to Samuel.  The boy.  Not the old, blind priest.  In those days, a 7 year old boy would be chosen to attend to the inner part of the sanctuary where the Ark of God sat.  That 7 year old boy would remain in service to the Temple for the rest of his life.  So we can assume old Eli the priest had been there his whole life, but had not heard from God.  Now, a new seven year old boy—Samuel—begins his life long service, and is the one God chose to speak to.

We don’t get to choose whom God speaks to.  Often the one God chooses to communicate with is someone unexpected.  I remember my daughter Kristin waking up one morning and saying, “Daddy, I had a dream.”
I said, “Oh, what was your dream.”
She said, “I dreamed God came down from heaven and played with me in my room.  Then God took me up to heaven and we played up there.  Then God brought me back to my room and put me to bed.”
I remember being silent.  I remember wondering why God would give such a vision to my young daughter and what it was all about?  I was somewhat afraid, to tell you the truth.  But for some reason, God chose to reveal himself in a most amazing way to my daughter.  It’s something I’ve wondered about for the over 30 years she has been alive.  But like I said, we don’t get to have a say as to who and when God speaks.   For the story we’re looking at this morning, about Samuel, God chose to speak to a seven year old.

There is something funny about the next part of the Eli and Samuel story.  When God speaks to young Samuel, he thinks Eli is the one calling out to him.  The funny thing about that is that Samuel’s sleeping mat would have been right next to the Ark of God.  Samuel is laying down next to the golden chest that houses the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments.  Samuel is sleeping right next to the seat of God, where it was believed God sat when God finally did speak to the priest.

But where does Samuel go when he hears the Voice?  To Eli.  Clear away from the sacred golden chest, into another place in the temple, the room where the old man is sleeping.  What’s semi-funny about that is, when God’s silence is finally broken, God’s Voice is not recognized.  Even Eli the priest doesn’t know what’s going on.  It takes Eli three times to finally get an inkling of what an amazing thing is happening.

It speaks to me about the times God is—finally—so close, and we don’t realize it.  We go searching in other places for who the owner of that mysterious Voice is, not realizing it is God Almighty breaking a long silence.

There are times, when I may be talking with someone who is feeling this absence of God, this apparent cooling down of God toward them.  They may be hurting terribly.  They have run to God, but they seem to end up running towards a place where God isn’t.  And they don’t understand.

I say, “You know those times you are hugging someone and they are hugging you so close, you can’t see them?  That’s what it is like during some of those times you feel like God is absent.  It isn’t that God is so far away from you.  It’s more that God is holding you so close you can’t see the One who’s holding you.”

That’s how it was for Samuel.  God was so close, maybe sitting right there on the Ark of God, but Samuel didn’t look up from his bed to see if God was there.  Instead, Samuel runs to Eli.  If Samuel had just turned his head, he would have seen God Almighty.  That may be all it takes for us as well—to just turn our head, and speak with God who is right there.

Once old Eli understands what must be going on, he gives young Samuel his instructions:  “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”

Even though Eli has never heard the Voice of God, or may have never been spoken to by God during his life-long service in the Temple, he at least knew how to recognize when God was speaking.  Even though he doesn’t get to hear the Voice of God, Eli gets to instruct another, a child really, in how to listen for and respond to God when God speaks.

Because, Samuel didn’t know.  Samuel may not have known what he was doing in the first place, not understanding why he was the one chosen by Eli to hang around this place for the rest of his life.  The story tell us, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord...” (verse 7).  So not only has Eli probably never heard from God, Samuel doesn’t even know who God is, is chosen to serve this unknown and unknowable God, and all of a sudden, out of no where speaks to the boy.

Now Samuel was going to find out about God.  And Eli would get to be Samuel’s spiritual mentor.   I think that is one of the most important parts of being a parent or grandparent, if you have already met up with God—to be a spiritual mentor.  Maybe you have never heard God’s Voice.  It is still important to teach our children how to listen for that Voice, and how to respond when the maybe long silent Voice finally speaks.

At the end of this part of Samuel’s story, a part that wasn’t read, at verse 19, it says, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”  Samuel had met God for the very first time.  In this very first meeting, Samuel met the God he had never known.  In this very first meeting, Samuel is given a mission to speak for God—to speak words of change, words that built up a people, and words that would tear down what needed to come to an end.  In this very first meeting, Samuel was beginning to understand that he must now be willing to be used by this God who rarely spoke, and to live for God’s own purposes.

I like that phrase of how God affected Samuel, that God “...let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.”  When we really meet God for the first time, and all the ongoing times, when we let God’s Voice be our own, our words aren’t lead balloons.  They don’t just fall to the ground.  They are full of meaning and full of power, because those words are full of God.

If you haven’t heard from God in a long while, keep tending the flame.  Keep opening the doors.  Keep paying attention.  Keep waiting.  Maybe God won’t speak to you, but to someone close to you, and by so doing you will equally be blessed.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Word To Stand Against Other Words

"A Word To Stand Against Other Words"
Mark 1:4-11

Most of you know I don't have television.  By that I mean I don't have any cable hook up or antenna.  I watch some shows on Netflix every now and then.  But mostly, when I'm home, I read.

So I was in KC after Christmas at Ryan and Amanda's and we watched some basketball games on TV.  And as you know, those of you who watch a lot of TV, there are commercials.  A lot of commercials.  I have forgotten how many, and the messages that are covertly or blatantly embedded in those commercials.  Most of those messages, whether you are realizing it or not, are negative.

There are a lot of subtle negative words out there.  The negative words in the commercials are hidden in the promises the commercials make.  Most commercials start with an unspoken, negative assumption aimed at you the audience:  you're too fat, too ugly, too blemished, don't eat right, don't dress right, don't drive the right car, don't treat yourself right, deserve better, etc. etc.  Basically, the message is, we're no good, worthless, a nobody.  The commercials make a promise to help us become a better person and more respectable, in their image.  But the assumption behind the promise is there is something terribly wrong with you that needs to be made better, or done over.

We usually bite at the promise because it causes us too much pain to think very long about their assumptions about our worthless state.  Yet, when we stop to think about those assumptions, they are so blatant and so persistent that we soon believe they are true.  Their negative poisons slowly make their way into our self-image and they do their work.  I am no good.  I am worthless.  I am a nobody.

That whole negative commercial campaign leads to the terrible trap of self-rejection.  Our need for power, our desire to be a success, our dreams to be popular, are all ways we try to avoid the trap of self-rejection.  We do all we can to not feel like a lesser-than.  We don't want to appear that way in someone else's eyes.  Especially not in our own eyes.  We run from the voices and the words that tell us we are not worthwhile or lovable.  We run toward the voices that tell us we can be worthwhile.  What we don't realize is those voices are speaking words that have a back-handed slap in them.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, monk, and spiritual adviser to many, author of so many great books on the Christian spiritual life, once wrote:

How many of us spend our lives hoping that some person, thing or event will come along to give us that final feeling of inner well-being we so desire?  But as long as we are waiting for that mysterious moment, we will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied.  That is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run.  This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out.  This is the path to spiritual death.  (Weavings, vol. VII, no. 2, page 9)

What word can stand against all the negative words that scream out our worthlessness?  What word can put us at peace with ourselves?  What word can give us rest from what Nouwen calls the helter-skelter, anxious restlessness of never being fully satisfied?

I think God has many words that will stand against all those negative words.  But there is one that may stand above them all.  It is a word God speaks to Jesus when Jesus is baptized.  Jesus comes up out of the water of the Jordan River, the sky splits open, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and God speaks.  What a dramatic scene.  What a powerfully awesome event.  But what tender words God speaks:

"You are my own Son, my beloved, and I am pleased with you."

The most powerful word is the one right in the middle of God's tender statement:  beloved.  What a beautiful word.  God speaks the word again to Jesus when Jesus is praying with Peter, James, and John.  Suddenly, Jesus is all aglow, and Elijah the prophet, and Moses the lawgiver, are standing with Jesus.  Peter, James, and John hear God speak the same words God spoke at Jesus' baptism with a little twist:

"This is my son, my beloved; listen to what he says."

I remember how my father always introduced me to his golfing buddies.  When I would caddy for him, which was often, and there was someone new I didn't know, we'd stand there on the first tee, and my father would grab me around the neck and squeeze me tight with those work glove sized fingers of his and say, "This is my son Stephen; but we call him Arizona because he's our number 'two-son' (Tuscon)."  You can go ahead and groan.  Everyone else did at all his silly puns.

But I remember another time, when my father was much older, that he looked me in the face and hugged me, and told me he loved me, and that he was proud of me.  It was the only time he did so.  Why he waited so long to speak those words I'll never know.  I just know how good I felt once those words were spoken.  I vowed that I would never let my children wait so long for them to hear me say, "You are my beloved; I love you and I'm proud of you."  I tell them every time I talk with them.

"You are my son, my beloved," God said to Jesus.  Yes, it's true Jesus held a special place in the heart of God as God's dear Son.  Yes, God had a special mission of love for Jesus to fulfill.  And you may think, God feels such love only for Jesus as the appointed Savior, but not for you.  Your self-rejection voices start echoing through your head.

But all of the New Testament shouts this word above the brazen negativity the world would rather have us hear.  The apostle Paul made sure people heard the Good News, the Good Word.  Those who have faith in Jesus Christ are God's beloved.  The church is like a beloved bride in God's eyes.  We are especially chosen, holy and beloved by God.  To each one of you, God comes and speaks as tenderly as God did to Jesus, "You are my beloved."

I receive a lot of emails from mission organizations—especially at this time of year.  Most of the emails try to tell the stories of their work, about people with whom they work, and how they try to share the Good News that we are God's beloved.  And they are asking for money, of course.

One poignant story I saved was about Maria and her daughter Christina who lived on the outskirts of a Brazilian city.  In their small house were dirt floors and very few furnishings.  In a word, they were very poor.  Maria's husband had died when Christina was an infant.  By the time Christina was 15 years old, life was still very hard.

Christina always dreamed of the city and what exciting adventures she could have there.  She fantasized how her life of poverty would become magically transformed into a life of excitement and luxury.  Maria's heart broke one morning when she awoke to find Christina gone.  Maria found a note that said not to worry; that Christina would be OK; that she had gone to the city, to a new life.  But all Maria knew was that she must find her daughter.  Maria knew what the city was like.  After a month of worry, Maria grabbed up some clothes, all the money she had, and ran out of the house.

On her way to the bus stop she went into a drugstore to get one last thing.  She sat in one of those picture booths, closed the curtain, and spent as much money as she could on pictures of herself.  With her purse full of strips of black and white pictures of herself, she boarded the bus for Rio de Janeiro.

Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money, and she knew that her daughter was stubborn and would not give up.  Maria also knew that when pride meets hunger, that a person will do things that otherwise they'd never do.  Knowing this, Maria began her search in bars, hotels, and nightclubs.  She went to them all, and at each place she left her picture taped to a bathroom mirror, or stuck on a bulletin board, or fastened to a phone booth.  On the back of each picture she wrote Christina a note.

It wasn't long before both money and pictures ran out.  Maria had to return home without finding Christina.  The weary mother wept as the bus began its journey back to her home.

A few weeks later, Christina came down some hotel stairs.  Her young face was tired.  Her brown eyes, that once danced with youth, now showed pain and fear.  Her young girl's dream had quickly become an awful nightmare.  She longed to trade a horrible life of prostitution for a trip back home to her village.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face.  She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother.  Christina's heart broke as she removed the picture from the mirror.  Tears came freely as she read the compelling words on the back of the picture:  "Whatever you've done, whatever you've become, it doesn't matter.  I love you.  Please come home."

And she did.

There are pictures of God all over the place.  Pictorial reminders of our loving God.  Within each picture is the compelling word that stands above and against all negative words, that has the only power to release us from any trap of self-rejection we may find ourselves caught up in:  "Whatever you've done, whatever you have become, it doesn't matter.  You are my beloved.  You will always be my beloved.  Please, just come home."

In a world full of negative words, we don't expect to hear ourselves called, "the Beloved."  We doubt it at first.  We think we know better—that God has it all wrong.  That we get to trump God's love with our belief of our own worthlessness.  But then we get a glimpse of light behind that word, and the voice of love that spoke it.  Even a glimpse of that light becomes a beacon strong enough to weaken the degrading powers of darkness, and shine a path for us toward home.

We hear a gentle, soft Voice calling us by our name—a name much more intimate even than the name our parents gave us, the name that expressed our true identity.  It is the only name that fulfills the heart's deepest yearnings, spoken by the One who created our hearts in the first place.  That name is Beloved.

We see people all around us desiring, often without being fully aware of it, trying to catch a glimpse of the love that has claimed us as His own.  What if they heard their name Beloved?  Would there be any reason to cling to negative, self-rejecting words anymore?  Wouldn't those words disappear as fast as snow under the heat of a summer's sun?  Oh, that all could hear, really hear these words:  "You are my sons and daughters; my Beloved!"

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

No Backup Plan

"No Backup Plan"
Matthew 28:19
Jennifer Barten

When Jesus got to heaven after being on earth one of the angels eagerly asked to speak to him, telling Jesus he was fascinated with the humans.
Hearing that, Jesus made time for the angel asking what he wanted to discuss.
“The humans didn’t get them,” said the angel. “They looked at you like you had two heads when you spoke in parable, didn’t understand what you were saying when you spoke on the mound and every time you performed a miracle they acted like it was something they had never seen before, even though many of them had watched you do it so many times! Then even after seeing all of this and knowing you were special, they still killed you. I just don’t get it and it makes me sad that you were down there doing all this work for nothing.”
“For nothing?!” Jesus exclaimed, “how can you say it was for nothing?!”
“Well you are gone,” said the angel. “They killed you. They obviously didn’t take you seriously enough to save you so it was all for nothing.”
“It wasn’t done for nothing,” said Jesus. “Look at the earth. Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene and so many others are down there proclaiming my word right now. If all goes as planned they will get others to believe and in 2000 years people will still be spreading my word.”
The angel looked at Jesus confused at this and spouted “The people! The people! You expect the people to spread the word?! They didn’t understand what you were saying! They killed you and you expect them to keep you alive through your word! This is never going to work. What’s your backup plan?”
To that Jesus replied “there is none.”
When Jesus died on the cross for us, He left us to spread the word.
Before dying, Jesus called on Peter and Paul. Paul called on Timothy, who helped Paul call on many. Because of one of those many, we were eventually called on and it's now our turn to call on others, if the Word of God is to live.

Since the Vivid Vision team has started and made it a priority for us to bring others into the church, I have heard many people say that all their friends have a church and are believers so they don’t have anyone to invite to church. I am going to disagree with this statement. It isn’t just about bringing your friends into the church, but all.

In the short story Light of the World by Evelyn Underhill, she says “It is easy for us as devout Christians to look what others are doing and think they have no religious sense at all. Think of what people must have thought of three men wondering around looking at the star and bringing a baby such odd gifts. Had that happened today people would have said, they are not the sort of people we want in our church. But remember the child who began by receiving those wondering pilgrims and odd gifts had a women of the streets for his faithful follower and two thieves for his comrades in the end. Looking at those two extremes let us try to learn a little of his love and apply that to our lives.

Since coming to church here, I have heard Steve ask more than once, if you are the only Bible someone reads, what will they learn? I think when Underhill told her story, that is what she was asking. Are we just trying to invite those to church who we want to be friends with that are like us or are we inviting everyone to church?
I think Underhill needed to add to her thoughts though and go deeper. Once inviting people to church and getting them in the door, what will they find? Will they find that Christians are people who go to church on Sunday, gossip behind each other’s back, cuss often and speak down to each other or will they find open people who love everyone and are trying to make a positive difference in the world by volunteering and helping others?
In the book God’s Country by Brad Roth he says in order to make people want to connect us to God, we must first make a connection with them on a personal level. Only after we do that can we have them connect us to the church and to God. Roth then went on to say that living the gospel is less about doing and more about becoming. Our job isn’t to go out and quote scripture telling everyone what the Bible says but to go out and live the Bible on a daily basis.
While we have all heard this before, it is usually easier said than done. I know at many points in my life I have been pushed by God to go do His work and had excuses as to why I couldn’t. I didn’t feel worthy to do what He was asking, I didn’t know the scripture well enough, I wasn’t sure I heard Him right or understood exactly what He wanted. We all can find excuses and shortcoming to prevent us from being all that He has asked.
In the book “The Broken Way” by Ann Voskamp she says “God does great things through the greatly wounded. God sees the broken as the best and he calls the best in the broken. He calls the wounded to the be the world changers.”
We see what she is saying all through the Bible. After Moses sees the burning bush he tells God to send someone who is smarter and speaks better. God didn’t listen. The women at the well who had many flaws from the outside, Jesus used her to tell so many people his story. David, Elijah and Hannah were all broken and yet God used their weaknesses to help build up his kingdom.
Through the first part of Paul’s life, he did many horrible things and yet at the end he was one of God’s most faithful servants telling others that if they wanted to know what a Christian looked like, to see how he lived.
God gave each of us many gifts and though we may see ourselves as broken and flawed, God plans to use the gift He gave us, just as he used all the people previously mentioned.
When we go out and tell people about God and share the good news, are we doing it not only when talking to them but through all our actions?
In November of this year Christianity Today posted an article about how Christians used to say media portrayed us badly and that is why we got a bad reputation. It went on to say, the media no longer pays attention to Christians and yet we still have a bad reputation, only now it is Christians faults. The article discussed how people are getting online and posting mean and negative things or posting badly about other people. We, as Christians, the article said, are no longer just saying these things to a few people but throwing it online for the whole world to see, showing everyone that we aren’t living a very Christian life and that we are often the hypocrites the outside world thought we were. The article went on to say that before we can expect others to change, we must first change ourselves by not talking about others, not posting our dirty laundry online and not judging others for their actions but by loving others, no matter their background or situation.
I have heard it said that we were born 2000 years too late to give room to Christ. I disagree with this statement. We have been given the opportunity to have faith without seeing Jesus perform the miracles firsthand, without hearing him speak on the mound and without seeing his face. Even without all of that, we have been given the chance to do what those who knew Him in the flesh did. We do it, exactly as they did. By offering a hand to those in need, a smile to a stranger and a hospitality to all we meet. For a Christian, duty shouldn’t be why we do any of these things. It is not a duty to do as Christ asked, but a privilege.

Part of the privilege is knowing that Jesus had so much faith in us, He didn’t have a backup plan for how to get His word out.

When most people don’t have a backup plan or plan b, they are confident their original plan is going to work. They trust that whatever they have planned will workout logistically and they don’t need to come up with an alternative.  Which means that Jesus trusted us so much when he was on earth that he didn’t come up with a backup plan to spread the word around him.
Along with not having a backup plan for how to spread His word, God doesn’t want us to have a backup plan. He wants us to trust in Him so fully that we don’t one.
In order to do this we must put God at the center of all things we do and trust that no matter what happens He will take care of us. If we are truly doing this, others will see how we are living and we will start to fulfill what He had in store for us.
A gentleman once spoke to a group about going from Muslim to Christianity. The gentleman humbly explained to the group there is a compelling contrast between the way he was taught as a Muslim to view faith and the way he sees faith being perceived in the lives of many Christians. He drew a circle and a small dot inside the circle.

Then he told the group that since he’d become a Christian, what he sees is that the circle of the Christian seems to be his life, and the dot is his faith. The contrast is that when he was a Muslim, he was taught that the circle was to be his faith and the dot his life.

How often do we all make our lives about us and the dot about God? I know I have been struggling with this in my life. Awhile back I came to realize that I volunteer on a ton of committees, for multiple organization and events but have no idea if this is how God wants me spending my time. I always say yes, without asking God if it is really what I should be doing with my time and energy.

As I thought about it, it wasn’t just my volunteering but all of my life. I love to read but rarely ask God what he wants me to read. I don’t ask God about the little stuff in my life near enough, just the big stuff. I spend my few hours with God during devotionals and prayer times during the day, but often get caught up in my running around and don’t turn to him for everything as I should.
If we are truly trusting in God, we won’t make decisions before praying, no words will leave our mouths without thinking first and no snap judgements will be made.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon says we are only remembered for three generations so we need to do what we can with the time we have. Even though Solomon says we are only remembered for three generations, he, Jesus and others in the Bible have managed to be remembered for so much longer because Jesus's plan worked.

In order for it to keep working though, we must take steps to keep it moving in the right direction.

Both Moses and Jonah experienced amazing things. Moses saw a burning bush and Jonah was in a whales belly. Neither of them made the Bible for those reasons though. Both made it into the Bible for what they did next. They trusted in God and did the impossible. Moses saved thousands from slavery and changed the way Egypt was ran because of it and Jonah turned the biggest city the world back to God. Will our story be one of Moses’s and Jonah’s of what we did next or will our story be forgotten in three generations because we were unwilling to take the next step?

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Christmas Guest

"The Christmas Guest"
Philippians 4:5

“Show a gentle attitude toward everyone.  The Lord is coming soon.”  (Philippians 4:5)

The rich smell of leather hung about Conrad’s cobbler shop.  It is a small shop attached to his home.  All about his shop are racks of boots and shoes, some new, ready to be sold; others waiting for a finishing touch of polish or lace.  And there are a couple of shelves with older boots, someone’s old comfortable friends in need of a stitch here, or a new sole there.  All of his tools lay about his bench, and near the bench there is a pot-bellied stove with the door cocked partly open with the orange glow of burning coals glaring out.

Through the shop door that leads to his adjoining home can be seen the room that serves as living room and dining room.  In the center of the room there is a table with a white cloth, and the table is set for three people.  A hand-carved crèche scene stands on a small table against the wall near the fireplace.  A rocking chair is there with a little stool for propping one’s feet next to the crackling logs in the fire.  Evergreen branches loosely decorate the fireplace mantle.

It is Christmas Eve, and Martha, Conrad’s wife, is bustling about putting the finishing touches on the table.  Conrad glances at her occasionally, but is more intent on pulling the white ruffled curtain back from the window and peering out into the night.  Martha is cheerful, but Conrad has a more anxious expression on his face.

“Does this table look alright, Conrad?”
“It looks fine, Martha.  The white table cloth is a good idea.  It looks like a table set in one of the big houses on the hill.”

Martha keeps exchanging dishes, and moving them from one place to another, and finally, talking more to herself than to Conrad, says, “But I wish our dishes matched.  People like us usually don’t serve a meal such as this.  I hope our Guest will understand that we don’t have extra dishes.”
Conrad looks at the table and looks at his wife and looks back out the window.  “What if He doesn’t come?”
“If He said in your dream He is coming, He will come,” Martha assures her husband.  Conrad keeps his nose pressed to the window glass.

“I hear footsteps!” Conrad says with a sense of excitement.  “Quick, Martha, take off your apron.”
“I can’t serve a meal without having my apron on,” Martha protests.  “I won’t feel dressed.”
Not willing to argue the point, Conrad throws open the door.  In walks Hans.  “Merry Christmas, Conrad!  Merry Christmas, Martha!”
“Oh, it’s only you.  Merry Christmas, Hans,” Conrad mutters with a detectable note of disappointment.
“It’s only me, you say?  Who are you expecting?  Ah-ha.  I see you ARE expecting company.  Such a fancy table, Martha.  You must be expecting someone special.”
“We are expecting someone very special.”  Martha looks over to Conrad, hoping that he will take over the conversation.  But he is peering out the window again, oblivious to the dialogue going on behind him.  “Conrad had a dream last night,” she continues, “that the Lord Jesus would come to be our guest this Christmas so we have prepared for him.
Conrad lets out a big sigh, which fogs the window in front of him.  “Of course, we don’t know that He will come.”
“But if he does, we are ready for Him,” Martha tries to be reassuring.

Hans steps over to Conrad and puts his hand on the big cobbler’s shoulder.  “If He has promised, surely He will keep His promise.”  Giving Conrad a clap on the back, Hans makes a motion toward the door.  “I must go.  My family is waiting.  But I wanted to stop in to bring greetings to my oldest friends on Christmas Eve.”  He turns to Conrad again and says, “I’d like to stay and greet your guest, but perhaps you will do so for me?”
“If he comes,” says Conrad without expression.
“He will come.  Good night and keep well.”  Hans’ smile reflects in Conrad’s dark eyes.

Conrad closes the door behind his friend and returns to his vigil at the window.  “I am being foolish.  Why should the Lord Jesus come here?  It is a great honor and I have done nothing to deserve it.”
“We can none of us do anything to deserve the grace of God,” says Martha, as she returns from the kitchen with a freshly opened jar of pickles.

“Some one is coming,” Conrad motions to his wife as he goes to the door.  He opens the door only to be facing a beggar wearing a shredded shirt with a loose overcoat that has holes in it large enough to ride a horse through.  On one foot he is wearing a shoe that has a sole held on by a few threads and it is the flapping of that sole that Conrad heard approaching.  On the other foot are some strips of cloth wrapped around in mummy style.  They are soaked through from the snow.  “Can you spare a coin?  Just one coin for Christmas Eve?” the man moans.
“And what would you do with a coin if I gave you one?  All the shops are already closed.”
“I ask your pardon, sir.  I only hoped—sometimes at Christmas—I did not mean to bother...”. The beggar turns to leave, and Conrad grabs him by a strip of his coat and says, “Here!  Where are you going?  Come in, come in.”  The man finds himself being pulled into the room and the door is shut behind him.
“Oh, you poor man,” says Martha.  “You’re half frozen.  Come over here to the fire.”  She pulls up the chair for the man to sit, and the stool for him to prop up his feet.
“Have you no shoes?” the cobbler asks.  Not waiting for an answer, for it is obvious what the answer is, Conrad calls to Martha, who has gone into another room.  “Martha, have you a pair of socks hidden away?”
She slowly walks through the door into the living room holding a pair of new socks.  “Yes,” and here she pauses.  “I just finished knitting them last night.  They were to be a Christmas present for you,” she says to her husband.
“I couldn’t accept them,” the beggar protests.  Conrad turns and enters his cobbler shop, while Martha continues to push the socks into the beggar’s hands.  “It is so easy to knit a pair of socks.  I will have another pair for Conrad in two evening’s work.”
Conrad reappears with a pair of boots, and the beggar continues to protest.  “I can’t take your boots.”
“They aren’t mine,” Conrad replies.  “Well, I suppose they are.  I made them.  But I made them for someone who needs a pair, which you certainly do.”

And before he knows it, the beggar has a new pair of socks, a new pair of boots, and food was coming out of no where.   “You will need a bowl of soup to warm you inside,” Martha says, and along with it she brings a leg of the fowl and a dish of vegetables.
“We will have to find someplace for you to sleep,” says Conrad.
“That won’t be necessary,” replies the man.  “I am on my way to a place where many of my kind gather.  I wouldn’t have stopped but I saw your light and I was so cold.”
“Well, my friend, will you have more?”
“Thank you, sir, but I have eaten enough.  I thank you for the food and for the socks and the boots.  Now I will be on my way.  I shall be the warmest, most content man among them.”
Martha handed him a bag of cookies.  “Share them with your friends,” she says.
“Thank you!  Thank you for everything.  Merry Christmas!”  The man turns through the door and is gone back into the night.

“He was a nice man,” Conrad says to his wife.
“Yes,” his wife agrees.  “So well-spoken and appreciative of what we gave him.”
“How does the turkey look with one of its legs missing,” Conrad asks.
“Not bad at all,” says Martha.  “If I carry the platter with the cut side toward me, you will scarcely notice it.”

Just then there is a knock at the door.  “He has come!” Conrad runs to the door to open it to the expected Guest.  But there stands an old woman with a large bundle slung over her back, shivering from cold.  “I saw your light.  May I come in and rest myself for only a moment?”
“Certainly,” Conrad says, motioning her toward the fireplace.  “Let me take your bundle.”
Martha comes and stands beside her.  “You poor woman!  Why are you on the road tonight?”
“Oh, my landlord gave me a fine Christmas present, he did.  This morning he turned me out of my cottage.  He said he was going to fix it up and get twice as much rent for it as I can pay, so he said it would be a good time for me to move out.”
“Where will you go?” both Conrad and Martha ask simultaneously.
“That is no problem.  I have a son who lives with his family in the next town.  They do not know that their Christmas present this year is that grandma is coming to stay.  But, I know they will be happy to have me.”
“Even though it is none of my business,” Martha says with some concern, “couldn’t your son have helped you move.  That pack is too heavy for you to carry.”
“My son would have helped me move if he had known what had happened.  But he doesn’t.  And since I was going to spend Christmas at their house anyway, I thought I’d just take my things with me.  I have so little, I had no idea the pack would get so heavy.  But I am rested now, and will be on my way.”
“Conrad, you must go along and carry the pack for her.”
“Yes, of course,” he says, as he gets up and goes over to the wooden pegs by the door and put on his coat and scarf.
“No, no,” the woman protests.  “You are expecting company.  The table is set for three.”  Conrad looks at the empty chairs and says, “He will understand that we mean no disrespect if I am not here to greet Him.”
“Thank you for your kindness.  You do not have to come with me.”
“I may not have to, but I want to,” Conrad replies.  Taking her bundle over his shoulder, Conrad ushers her out the door.
“Merry Christmas,” Martha calls out to her as she disappears in the snowy evening.

Martha closes the door and paces over toward the crèche scene set up on the little table.  She is thinking about her husband, and how he is such a good man in so many ways.  She fingers each piece of the little scene, until they come to rest on the crib with the figure of the baby Jesus in it.  “You, baby,” she speaks softly, almost reverently.  “You said you would come tonight.  Please come.  Conrad wishes his dream will come true, and he will be so honored.”

Her hushed prayer is cut short by the sound of a child crying somewhere outside—nearby.  She puts the crib back in its place and the door swings open.  “Conrad, are you back already?  And this child with you—what is wrong?”
As he hangs up his coat and scarf, he looks down at the sobbing child and says, “This woman,” pointing to his wife.  “So many questions at once.”
Martha kneels beside the child and takes off his cap and gives him a handkerchief to wipe his nose.
“We met the old woman’s son on the way,” Conrad begins.  “He was coming to find her.  He had been worried because she was so late.  MY, but he was furious when he heard what the landlord had done, and on Christmas no less!  She will have a good home with him.  As to this one, I found him on the way back but can’t get anything out of him except sobs.”
Martha begins trying to comfort the boy.  “There, there little one.  It’s Christmas.  You mustn’t cry.  Oh, your hands are so cold!  Come over by the fire.  Now, blow your nose, take a deep breath, and tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’m lost,” was all the boy could get out before he broke into sobbing again.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” consoles Martha.  “Maybe we can help you.  What is your name?”
“What is your last name?”
“Is your mom the widow Schultz?” Conrad asks.  Tommy shook his head in affirmation.  “Why, she lives way on the other side of town.  What are you doing over here, Tommy?”
“Mom sent me to the baker to get some old bread.  He sells his old bread cheaper at night.  But the Bakery was closed and I went to look for another one, but all the shops were closed and I got lost in the snow and I don’t know how to get home.”  He starts to cry again, and Martha takes him in her arms and holds him.
“Now, now, Tommy, don’t cry.  We know where your mother lives and we’ll get you home all right.  You just have some milk and cookies while I get some things together.”
Tommy sees the manger scene, gets up and crosses the room to have a closer look.  “Do you know the story of Christmas, Tommy?” Conrad asks.
“Not much,” he replies.
Conrad begins to act out the story using the little figures he had carved.  “And everyone who believes that God came to visit His people in this special way, celebrates this day,” Conrad finishes as Martha returns with her hat, scarf, and coat on, carrying some packages.
“If you are finished with your cookies, Tommy, I’m ready to start out with you for your house.”
“Martha, you mustn’t go out in the cold.  I’ll go,” protests Conrad.
“No,” says Martha.  “I won’t be long; it really isn’t far to the Schultz’s house if you go in a straight line instead of down side streets looking for bakeries.  Besides, you should stay to greet our Guest.”
“But I got to look for a bakery,” the boy says.  “I don’t have any bread to take home.”  Tears are forming in the boys eyes again.
“Yes you do.  I have here a loaf still warm from the oven and a Christmas Stolen and a bag of Christmas cookies.  We had better go—I imagine your mother is already worried that you are so late.”  Turning to Conrad, she says, “Give my greetings to our Guest if He can’t stay until I get back.  Everything is warming in the oven.”  And out the door, they were gone.

Conrad walks circles in the room.  He stops occasionally in front of the fire to poke at the coals and add a log.  Several times he stops at the window and waits for a sign.  Again he circles the room, stops at the manger scene, and just looks at it for a long time.  Finally, he kneels there and prays.
“Dear Lord, we waited for you to come as you promised.  I still wait.  Did you come and see that we were busy—that we had other company and decided to pass by—and come at another time?  Maybe we should have spent the evening in prayer.  Would that have been a better way to prepare for your coming?  I still trust my dream.  I still trust your promise to come.  Will you not come soon?  Amen.”

And then there is the sensation of Presence and the soft voice, just as it had been in the dream.  “Three times I visited you this evening, Conrad.  I came as the beggar with the frozen feet.  I came as the overburdened woman.  And, I came as the lost child.  Each time you and Martha greeted me, and took me in, treating me with love and honor.  I was nearer than you ever knew, and I am next to your heart right now.”
Slowly and steadily, Conrad lets himself into his chair at the table.  Haltingly he reaches out toward the empty chair beside him, places his hand upon it, and begins to weep.

Christmas Eve Service

Christmas Eve Service

(Snuff out all the Advent candles except the Christ Candle)

The Nativity—the story of the birth of Jesus—is not a kids story.  It's an adult story painted in the colors of powerful emotion on the canvas of complex moral decisions.  All this was lived out by people who never expected they would have to face such pathos.  We lose all that by dressing up kids to play the parts in cutesy pageants.  Maybe we do that on purpose so we don't have to feel, full force, the anguish that formed the back drop and scenery of this drama.

Each candle we light on the Advent Wreath we assign with positive attributes such as love, peace, hope, or joy.  But if we pay attention to the story, we have to work hard to squeeze those positive features out of what's happening.  We look back through thousands of years and we see how everything turned out all right.  There is this unbelievably happy ending.  But how quickly we gloss over, race through, or just plain refuse to see the heart-wrenching drama of the birth of the Savior.  Love, joy, peace, hope is only part of the story.  At the heart of this epic there is disgrace, inhospitality, rabble, and deceit.  These are the other names by which the four candles of Advent go by.

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emman′u-el” (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

(Light the first candle.)

In one short paragraph, we are introduced to Joseph.  In two lines he is described as being betrothed.  But because of that engagement he faces probably the toughest moral decision of his life.  The woman he is betrothed to has become pregnant, not by him.  Before he has "consummated" their marriage, Mary, apparently has had sex with another man.

We don't know much about Joseph.  We don't know what he looks like, where he comes from, what his work was, or what he was like as a kid.  We know nothing.  Only that he has found himself in the most disgracing of situations.

Joseph is described as "…being a just man…"  Joseph had a sense of right and wrong.  Joseph new the difference between justice and injustice—and what he was facing was definitely injustice.  He knew what his rights were.  He could have Mary stoned.  Why?  Because Mary had brought the full power of humiliation and social embarrassment down upon Joseph.  She had brought shame on his family.  On her family.  Such powerful disgrace must be met with the equal power of justice in the community.

From Joseph’s side of things, Mary’s disgrace doesn’t just effect Mary alone.  And because the circles of this circumstance were far reaching into the community, the social customs of dealing with it were equally far reaching—death by stoning.

Joseph didn’t buy any stories from Mary about having the baby by the Holy Spirit.  The only thing that we do know, as you read between the few lines of this part of the story is that he loved Mary very much.  He was a just man, but he was also just a man.  And one has to wonder why, when he had the full weight of the justice system behind him, poised and ready to flatten Mary—one has to wonder why he didn’t do it.  Why was he planning a softer, more tender and caring release of Mary, even before his angelic visit in a dream?

I think I know why.

Joseph was disgraced, but he loved Mary.  His love overruled his sense of justice.  His love smoothed over the roughest edges of his disgrace.  His thoughts were of her, not of his rights.

That’s why this candle goes by two names:  disgrace and love.

Hymn:  “Mary Did You Know?”
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you..

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM!

Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.  And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

(Light the second candle.)

It is hard to imagine that no one would have a place for a young couple like Mary and Joseph.  I think it’s even worse than it appears.  Our sense of the time lapsed between Joseph and Mary’s arrival and the birth of Jesus seems like only a matter of hours.  We have been conditioned, again, by watching so many pageants where the couple comes trudging into Bethlehem, going from place to place, and, on the night of arrival, having their baby.

If we hurry over the words in the scripture story, again we miss something very important.  Luke writes, “...and while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.”  What does that sound like to you?  To me it sounds like they had been in Bethlehem for some time—at least a week or so before the birth took place.

Could it be that out of Joseph’s lingering sense of disgrace, he kept himself and Mary out of town, camping in the valley below Bethlehem?  Or back off the road that lay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem?  Could it be that they were a poor young couple who had no financial means for lodging and didn’t come into Bethlehem to look for a place to stay until it was time for the birth?

Or, could it be that all of Joseph’s kinfolk, of which he would have had many in Bethlehem, knew the story of Mary’s odd pregnancy.  They also refused to believe any story of a miraculous conception.  And so, because of their sense of family shame, refused to let Mary and Joseph stay in any of their homes?

Because Joseph had refused to carry out the sentence of death that justice demanded, and instead allied himself with Mary, he may have thus allied himself to her disgrace, and therefore caused himself to also be spurned.  When the time for the birth came, and Joseph went frantically from place to place, relative to relative, he was only greeted with inhospitality and shunning.  Family pride and saving family face was deemed more important than basic human needs that accompany child birth.

Think about it.  Joseph was related to the family not only of Bethlehem, but in all Israel—the family line of King David.  He would have had relatives through that small village.  In fact, maybe the whole village.  It wasn’t just a lone innkeeper, then who was closing doors to Joseph and Mary.  It was, in all likelihood, the entirety of his own family.

On one basic level, it shouldn’t matter what family you’re related to, as long as you are related.  Isn’t there a basic family code of hospitality that a place be found?  There just seems to be something deep with in, maybe born into us, that you don’t turn family away.  The fact that it happened is bad enough; but to turn a woman in labor away seems inhumane.

All Mary and Joseph have is each other.  With the rejecting inhospitality at their heals, they duck into a stable to have their baby.

Hymn:  “Away In A Manger”
Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head
The stars in the sky
Look down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side
'Til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me, I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to Heaven
To live with Thee there.

Luke 2:8-20
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.  And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

(Light the third Advent candle.)

Usually, in Middle Eastern Culture, when a baby was born, a group of minstrels would come to the home and herald the birth.  It was a beautiful way that a community noticed and celebrated the coming of a new life into the world.

Mary and Joseph must have laid there in that stall, exhausted, but wondering either out loud or silently, “Will anybody notice this birth?  Will anyone come and celebrate this new life?  Would Mary and Joseph hear the music of the flute and the lyre, and the singing?  Based on their experience that brought them to the stable, they had no reason to expect to hear anything more than their own tired breathing and the nuzzling sounds of their newborn son.

But then a head peaks in.  The young face is dirty.  Mary and Joseph see him.  Joseph gets up to have a look.  The head pulls back behind the edge of the cave.  Joseph turns the corner only to run into not one, but about a dozen shepherd boys.  He could tell they were shepherds by the way they smelled, and by the poor way they were dressed.
“We’ve come to see your baby,” one of the older boys says, finally.
“We were sent,” ventured another.
Thinking the townspeople were finally warming up, Joseph invites them in.

“Who is it?” Mary asks.
“Ah, it’s only sheep keepers,” Joseph replies.
“Why would they want to see our baby?” she asks.
“They said someone from town sent them,” Joseph replies.
“No we didn’t, mister,” one of the younger shepherds says.
“No one in this town sends us anywhere except away,” an older one adds.
“Well, then,” Joseph asks, “who did?”
“Uh, well, it was kinda bright.  We couldn’t see real good.  But we think it was...uh...”
“Angels!” the young one blurts out, impatiently.  “We seen angels!  A whole sky load of ‘em fluttering around in the air singing!”
“Right,” Joseph exhales, in a tone that says he wasn’t born yesterday.  The reason Joseph was having a hard time with it was not because he didn’t believe in angels.  He did.  He’d seen one himself, in a dream.  What he had a hard time believing was why angels would have anything to do with the likes of sheep keepers.

An older shepherd, who had heard Joseph’s tone many times before, seemed to read Joseph’s mind.  He takes a look up and down at Joseph and Mary and says, “Yeah, well you two ain’t no prizes neither.”  Then he turns to the other shepherds and says, “C’mon boys; let’s get back to the sheep.”
“No!  Wait,” Mary calls out.  “Please come in.  Tell us more about what you saw.”
“I don’t know, Mary,” Joseph says.  “Look at them.  They smell like they look.”
“It can’t be any worse than what it smells like in here,” Mary replies.
“Wait here,” Joseph instructs the young rabble.  Going over to where Mary and Jesus lay, Joseph whispers, “But how can we trust them?  By the time they’re ready to leave, I’ll guarantee you our donkey will be gone along with everything else we own.”
“Oh, Joseph; give them a chance.  They’re the only friends we have right now in this town.”  Then looking toward the cave entrance, Mary beckons them in.  The youngest comes running and falls to his knees, babbling out the story of the angels.  The others slowly follow, while Joseph edges over toward the donkey and their possessions to keep guard.

So it was a rabble of irreligious shepherd toughs who came to herald the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby.  No choir boys by a long shot.  No relatives.  No family.  No friends.  Only a rabble—rag tag shepherd boys—who ended up being a minstrel choir of off-key voices singing praises to God for what they had been allowed to see.

The third candle we have lit is for them.

Hymn:  “Angels We Have Heard On High”
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o'er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing,
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.

Matthew 2:1-12
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”  When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

(Light the fourth candle of Advent)

There is, in my mind, no more of a fork-tongued, underhanded, deceitful statement, uttered in all the world than that of King Herod to the wisemen:

Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.
Who could have guessed what destructive evil fertilized that statement.  Had Herod pulled the wool over the eyes of the wisemen?  Evidently.  They had to be warned in a dream to steer clear of Herod and go home by a different road.  They must have been planning on going back and reporting as Herod requested, thinking he really wanted to pay homage to the child.

When Herod finally realized that the wisemen were not coming back, his evil fury came to full force.  Like a cloud of death, he had his army descend upon and kill the children of Bethlehem—and not just the infants.  In order to be as thorough as possible, uncovering his deceit for full view, he ordered all children two years old and younger to be destroyed.  What a demented, psychotic plan, cloaked in the reverential words, “ that I too may go and worship the child.”

When I visited Bethlehem, and went inside the Church of the Nativity, I went down into two caves.  One was the cave stable of the place where Jesus was born.  It was, in my mind, desecrated by too much finery and icons—a lie of sorts to the humility and loneliness of the actual birth of Jesus.

The other was a rustic place.  A crude, but beautiful stone altar table stood on an elevated part of the cave.  There was an eternal candle burning above it, the flame kept alive by some faithful believers.  There was a deep recessed part of the cave that went way back, off of and below the altar place.  It was roped off.  The spirit of that place overwhelmed me.  It was clear to me it was a holy place, but its holiness was created by a sense of deep sadness.

The group I was with went on ahead of me, and I was left standing there.  Another group was coming in behind me and I heard the guide say they were entering the cave of the Shrine of the Innocents.  In this cave were buried the bodies of the children whom Herod had killed when he sought to eliminate the Christ child.

Two caves so close to each other—one of birth, one of death.  I was overwhelmed in the cave of the Innocents.  I found a darkened corner there, off beside and out of sight of the altar.  I huddled up and prayed for a long time.  It was like feeling the weight of all the loss of those families, caused by one man’s deceit and jealousy.  So much loss.  So much grief.

Hymn:  “What Child Is This?”
What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Hope.  Not exactly.  But what kind of world did we expect the Savior to be born into?  Any day, any year in which the Christ child would have been born, it would have been the same.  I don't want that to sound negative or fatalistic.  It only points out why it is that the Savior came at all.  It was because we don't live in a perfect world and we don't live perfect lives.

We aren't good and kind.  Instead there are many times we disgrace ourselves and those around us.

We aren't welcoming, gracious people.  Instead we let petty issues and situations have a way into our family relationships, dividing parents from children, brothers from sisters.  Hospitality is tossed aside.

We don't take people as they are.  Instead, we make value judgments about others because of the way they dress, act, or by their occupation.  We look down our noses at others, sometimes with an air of religious smugness, and totally miss out on hearing their stories of angel visitations, or close our ears to the off-key praises they sing to the same God.

We are not always honest and upright; not always speaking the truth.  There are times we speak out of both sides of our mouths, chattering half-truths and double-talk.  None of our motives are pure.  We are not beyond deceit.

That's why the Christ candle symbolically stands in the middle of the others.  By its presence, we have no choice but to recognize Christ's presence in and over our lives.  The other candles, these attributes of disgrace, inhospitality, rabble, and deceit, are out-shined and transformed by the center Christ candle.  Once in the presence of Christ there is something new and different in your life and the way you choose to live.  That newness grows in you.  It transforms you as it grows.  That is what the Incarnation of Christ—God in the flesh—in the world and in your personal life is all about.

Christ comes and puts himself deep in the midst of all our corrupted living—puts himself right smack dab in the middle of it all.  But by so doing, He doesn't become a corrupted part of it.  Instead, he slowly but surely makes us into part of Him and what He is about.  And we are never the same.  Disgrace becomes peace.  Inhospitality becomes love.  The rabble is transformed into joy.  And deceit is changed into hope.

Thanks be to God that that transformation happens only through, and because of His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, born this humble night.

Christmas Communion
Come, one and all; Come to the table, where the brokenness of the Savior, where the poured out blood of the Savior's sacrifice, can change you, can heal you, can make you whole and holy.