Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent - Making Room for Christ: "Song For People Who Can't Sing"

It's almost here.  Christmas that is.

It feels like we've been waiting for a while, doesn't it?

Some of us have been waiting in expectation--the kind of expectation that we used to feel when we were small.  For whatever reason, this year seems different, this year feels--special.

Some of us have been waiting in deep grief.  It's the first year without the loved ones we lost last year.  Or maybe it's the tenth.  This season brings none of the expectations and excitement that it used to.  We might feel snatches of joy, and perhaps a smile or two.  But our grief is always there, like a familiar unwelcome burden that aches our shoulders to carry, but we can't set it down.

Some of us have been waiting with dread.  Nothing has worked out like we planned.  Families are at odds, perhaps and we're dreading that dinner or that get together.  Maybe we plodded through everything we experienced so far checking things off of our list--just getting through everything with an air of weariness that permeates everything we do or say.

Some of us have been waiting with joy.  We can't wait for that gift to be given--the one that we know is perfect.  We are so excited about the whole family being here to dress up in read and green and come to church for candlelight.  We already have the Christmas music cued up, the firelogs ready to be lit and everything is sitting on go for unprecedented Christmas awesomeness...

However we are waiting... the wait is almost over.

At it's very essence, Advent is a about a moment.  It's about the moment when God announces God's divine intention to act decisively--to change everything, to redeem, restore and renew...

That, brothers and sisters, is a moment worth waiting for.  But each of waits for that moment, much like we wait for Christmas, in our own way.  Some of us feel expectant--that the world will be better, that things are going to be brighter...

Others of us are filled with deep grief--resigned to the fact that despite the encouraging words we hear from preachers or optimists... things are not getting better.  They are getting worse.

I think that there seems to be a general sense of pessimism in our culture, don't you think?  I think people would like to believe that there is hope.  But they feel like those who choose to see the world as a hope-filled place aren't really living in reality.

The reality we choose to embrace is always the one that feels the most real.

The good news for us is that God's idea of reality is far different.

In Luke 1:47-55 there is a song that is sung by the young girl, Mary after she accepts the invitation of God to bear the Son of God into the world.  Her song is  about a world that doesn't seem to really exist. But yet she sings the song as if it does--she sings the song as if the world is as it should be even though all indications are to the contrary.

Mary's song, also called the Magnificat goes like this:
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48 for he has been mindful    of the humble state of his servant.From now on all generations will call me blessed,49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—    holy is his name.50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,    from generation to generation.51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones    but has lifted up the humble.53 He has filled the hungry with good things    but has sent the rich away empty.54 He has helped his servant Israel,    remembering to be merciful55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,    just as he promised our ancestors.”
This song is one of four like it that are placed in the mouths of women throughout the Bible:  Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Moses; Debroah, the judge; Hannah, the mother of Samuel and Mary.

Each of these songs is sung during critical times in Israel's history--times of oppression and liberation.  Miriam sings her song during the Exodus, Deborah during a time of battle, Hannah during a time of oppression by the Philistines and Mary during Roman occupation.

This is not a coincidence.  Each of these women is either a mother or mother-figure to a great, liberating, leader in Israel's history--culminating with Jesus himself, who came to liberate all of humankind.

One of the key words in this song comes in verse 48--the word tapeinosin which literally means humiliation, but in this instance means oppression, exploitation and misery.

Mary is responding to the great news that she just heard, the invitation that she just accepted.  Through her God is going to give birth to redemption.  The world is about to be turned upside down.  Her response is an awareness that God is acting, that things are already happening.  She speaks as if the redemption is already underway.  Scholars call this way of speaking, "prophetic perfect" tense.  In other words, the world is not as it should be, but she is speaking as if it is.  It's happened and is happening, and has yet to happen.  But there is certainty in all of it.

This is Mary's reality--the reality of both/and.  She is both a virgin and a mother.  She is lowly and exalted.  Redemption is both now and not yet.

The song she sings is a song of revolution--or of a turning around.  The poem is full of reversals.  The pride are laid low, the rich are turned away, the status quo is no longer the status quo.

Mary's song affirms her willingness to say yes to God, as we mentioned last week.  But it's more than that.  Because saying yes to God means saying no to the things that seek to diminish God's redemption in the world.

And Lord knows there are plenty of things to say no to...

Listen, the Lord's work, kingdom work, the hopeful expectation of a new world that is coming, but is already here is all about the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth--of a day when there will be no more sin, no more death--when God will wipe away all tears.  These are the things that do not belong in God's kingdom, these are the things that you say no to when you say yes to God...

Separation from others because of anger, resentment, differences and the like...

But this isn't just about doing good, trying to make all those things go away.  People have been trying to fix the world for a very long time, and the world just doesn't seem to want to be fixed, because it's full of people, and people suck. 

The only thing that will fix this world---is Jesus, God in the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But that doesn't mean that we get to sit on our hands and wait for Jesus to do his thing.  Not by a long shot. 

This isn't about doing good---what it's about is teaching people to sing.  

And we learn how to do this from Mary herself.  She sings a song for people who can't sing.  People who are waiting for things to change, for the world to get better.  People who are full of excitement, anticipation, grief, dread and joy.  

We wait.  And we can either wait in anxiety while we wait---we can wait in silence---rage---or fear... 

Or we can sing.  We can sing about a better world--even though the world is not yet what it will be.  We can sing about reversals of fortunes--where the lowly are lifted up and the proud and arrogant are brought down.  We can sing about a world that is free from all of the things that thwart the fully realized redemption of the world.  

I found this video the other day, and after I watched it, I cried like a baby.  

What would it look like if we lived this way?  What would it look like if we said yes to God and no to the things that aren't of God?  What would it look like if we sang like heaven had come to down to earth. 

Because it has.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I Give To My Church

Every Sunday I stand in front of roughly 450 people plus a bunch of people watching church online and I ask for money.

I don't come right out and say, "Give us your money," but I imagine if you were looking for that sort of thing, you would probably find it.  You would have to look hard because I spend less than two minutes of a 60-70 minute service talking about money.

I shouldn't be hesitant about this, honestly.  It's a shame that I feel like I can only briefly mention the fact that without the generosity of our church members and friends our church wouldn't be able to share the Gospel with our community in amazing ways each and every week.

Jesus spent more time talking about money than he did talking about heaven or hell.  So there's that.

Even so... I am not going to beg, bribe or berate people into giving money to my church.  But I do feel like this needs to be said:  Why would anyone be upset about being asked to give in order to support something they believe in?  They wouldn't.  They aren't.  When people strongly believe in something--they throw their resources at it.

So, along those lines--let me share something from my heart about why I believe in our church, and why my wife Merideth and I give money to our church each and every month.

Our church sign has the tagline "church done differently."  We put that tagline on our bulletins, too.  It's on our website.  It's on our church letterhead.  The fact is, it's true.  We do church differently.

Our church isn't close-minded.  We believe that you don't have to turn off your brain in order to be a Christian.  We believe that Faith isn't incompatible with Science.  We don't shout down those who disagree with us.

Our church is open-handed and generous.  We believe that we don't exist for the sake of existing.  We exist for the sake of the world--to know Jesus and show Jesus.

Our church doors are open to anyone.  It doesn't matter who you are, what you've done, what's been done to you... We value diversity.  You are welcome just as you are--there are no perfect people here.

Our church values the gifts of women in leadership.  God calls whom God calls. We have beautiful, powerful, capable and awesome men and women in our church--and we need all of them to bring their gifts.

Our church believes in grace.  We are not asking anyone to adopt a set of beliefs, rules, regulations... All we ask is that our friends and members join us in stumbling after Jesus.

Here's the thing.  I don't want people to give so our church can get bigger.  I don't want people to give so that we can do more things. This is not about what I want from anyone.  It's what I want for them.

I want our members and friends to give so that the unbelievable Good News that God is for us, and Jesus is with us can reach more people.

I want our members and friends to give so that people who have been wounded by churches who told them they weren't good enough to follow Jesus will have a place to call home.

I want our members and friends to give so that we can show the world we are Christians by who we are--rather than by who we aren't.

I want our members and friends to give because this kind of church is the kind of church that I longed for my entire life, and I just know that there are people out there longing for it, too.  We need to tell them.

I want our members and friends to give because when they do, when they participate in the unbelievable kingdom work that is going on in our church--they will be blown away.

In this season, as we all think about what God might be leading us to commit to giving to our church in the coming year, I am not going to beg, bribe or berate, but I am going to shout---sing---proclaim---exhort---extol---and bear witness.

Because at our church, we do things differently.

And that's worth giving to...  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent - Making Room For Christ: "I Am The Lord's Servant"

Today we're going to continue the sermon series that we started a couple of weeks ago--a sermon series entitled, "Making Room for Christ."  The basic premise behind this sermon series is more of an exhortation than a premise: "Don't become so consumed with the coming of Christmas, that you miss the coming of the Christ."  In other words,  even for those of us who think we know better--it's far too easy to lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas in a culture that seems hell-bent on ensuring we do. 

I'm going to begin today by reading the passage of Scripture we'll be studying--Luke 1:26-38:
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. 
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end. 
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Let me just start by saying this about God's intrusive invitations.  Saying yes to them is risky. Heck, saying yes to anything has risks, but when it comes to the way God rolls---the risk factor tends to shoot way up.

I was watching football the other day (surprise!) and a beer commercial came on for Bud Lite beer.  The premise of the ad campaign that Bud Lite is running right now is "Up For Whatever."  The idea is that if you drink Bud Lite, you are probably the kind of person that is up for "whatever." You will say yes to whatever happens.  You will be adventurous.  You will play ping pong with Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example--that really happened in one of the ads.  Or you will play electronic football with legendary football coach Jimmy Johnson.

Because if you are the kind of person who is cool enough to drink Bud Lite, you must be awesome.

I love the theology of this beer commercial.  You are shocked that a beer commercial is imbued with theology?  You shouldn't be.  Pretty much everything is.  And by theology, I mean the "God talk" of the beer commercial, so...

Here's what I love about it.  It's about saying yes.  It's about giving permission.  It's about living your life in such a way that you aren't a spectator, you are a participant.  This is the kind of life that Jesus encouraged his followers to lead.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way Christians lost that part of the story.

Here's what Christians aren't known for.  We are not known for our flexibility, our willingness to change, our openness, our desire to live expansive, open-ended lives where we truly are up for whatever.

Most of us Christians fear change, are intractable in our beliefs, are narrow rather than open and choose to live in small Christian ghettos where we are surrounded by other Christians who think like us, act like us, believe like us and say no like us.  Most people know we are Christians not by our love, but by the causes we say we support, the things we protest or the things we absolutely, positively cannot stand...

We're not really known for saying yes.

But Mary, the mother of Jesus--she was...

Mary was 15 years old, she was impoverished, marginalized, powerless and put between a rock and another rock and then a hard place.  The angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that she was going to become pregnant and bear a son.  He went on to say a lot of other things, too, but I imagine that Mary kind of stopped listening after he said the words "pregnant," and "bear a son."  She was fifteen.  She was engaged to be married, which meant that she had not yet consummated her relationship with her future husband, Joseph, which meant that she was still a virgin.

To a young, fifteen year old impoverished, marginalized, powerless girl about to be married--showing up to the altar pregnant was not an option.  Because she was promised to Joseph it was the same (almost) as being married. Which meant that in the strict sense of the law Joseph could have her tried for adultery, and she could very well be executed.

So there was that.

When Mary asks the angel "How can this be?" you now get a real sense of the weight of that question, don't you?

The angel replied, "The Holy Spirit of God will come upon you.  The same Holy Spirit that came upon your aged cousin Elizabeth who was too old to have children.  She was too old, you are too young.  It doesn't matter."   In one of the other versions of the story, the angel says to Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God."  

And then Mary says, "I am the Lord's servant."

There is a persistent legend in the traditions of the Church that Mary wasn't the first young woman that God sent a messenger to that night.  She was, however, the first to say yes.  This is only a legend, mind you, but it speaks deeply into how the Church and even wider culture has come to view this young woman--who said yes to God's intrusive invitation.

Anti-feminists praise Mary for her submission.  Feminists praise her for her courage.  Orthodox Christians call her theotokos the God-bearer, Catholics call her the Queen of Heaven, Protestants praise her acclamation of the will of God.

God has a thing, it seems, for nobodies who risk saying yes.  The Bible is full of them.  Abraham was a random guy living his life in a place called Ur, and God called him to leave everything and everyone he ever knew to go into the wilderness... and he said yes.  Jacob was muddy, bruised, limping, running from his past and God called him to return to it... and he said yes. Moses was a murdering, stuttering, excuse-making fool and God called him to lead a nation.. and he said yes. David was a shepherd boy tending flocks and minding his own business and God called him to fight a giant... and he said yes.
Isaiah couldn't speak, Jeremiah was too young... but they said yes.

God has a thing for nobodies who risk saying yes.

When God calls you to a prophetic destiny, your world shakes.  It turns upside down.  You know that everything is going to be different... if you say yes.

Mary's cousin Elizabeth knew all about this.  She and her husband Zechariah conceived a son when they were old and things weren't--well--working anymore.  That son would become John the Baptist.

If God can use Elizabeth and Mary to give birth to his plans for redemption into the world--our excuses don't really work, do they?

We can't say we're too young... too old... to poor... to powerless... too used up... too busy.... to---you fill in the blank.  Our arguments are invalid.

You see, Jesus' victory--the victory of God in Christ over sin, death and the evil in the world--that victory was hidden in the appearance of weakness, in the appearance of defeat.  This was God's intention all along.  It's always God's intention.  He uses weakness, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to confound the strong, to mess up their paradigm, their understanding of how things should work.

Mary humbled herself... and then she was confident in her actions.

She knew it didn't make any sense to say yes, but then again it made perfect sense.  There was no reason in the world why she should have agreed to God's crazy plan, but she did anyway, trusting that God was actually going to do what God said he would do.  That he if he called her to it, God would see her through it.  Because nothing--is impossible with God.

During this season of Advent we've been encouraged to have our eyes open to where God's kingdom is breaking into this world through Jesus all around us.  We've been exhorted to confess, to repent, to let go of the things that are keeping us from being open, ready for the arrival of the Christ-child.

But it really does come down to this.  When he arrives... When Jesus arrives as one of those intrusive invitations from God.  Are we willing to say yes?

Here's the thing--and I want you to hear this clearly:  This story of Mary and her willingness to be God's vessel teaches us something profound and awesome.  God is not just with us, God is within us.   Hear that again.  God is not just with us, God is within us.  If the Gospel must make it's way into our world--we have to have holy imaginations.  We have to be willing to see ourselves as the servants of the Lord--his vessel through which Christ is once again born into this world.

But saying yes to this intrusive invitation to accept Jesus and his path for our lives is risky...

Just a few weeks before my wife and I were married we came face to face with a moment like this.  We had been apart for a long time and had only just found each other.  I had broken her heart years before and then mine had been shattered shortly after that when we tried to reconcile and it fell apart.  We were wounded.  We were young, poor, clueless and carrying more baggage than two twenty-three year old kids had a right to...

It was New Year's Eve and I will never forget the moment when we committed our lives to this adventure we've been having for the past twenty three years. Merideth said to me, "I don't know if I can do this."  I can't really remember exactly what I said, but I seem to remember that it was something like, "I know. But I don't see how we can't."

I have always felt like that was a holy moment for us.  A moment when God sort of paused the universe and gave us a chance to embrace his plans for our lives.  We could have refused.  We could have said no.  It would have been far less risky than saying yes at that point.

But we didn't.  And now here we are.

When God called that day, even though we didn't quite understand all of it, we said yes.

There is a prayer that our brothers and sisters in the Catholic tradition often pray at the close of day.  It's called the Angelus, and it goes something like this:
The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.  And she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.  Behold the handmaid of the Lord.  Be it done unto me according to your Word.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  
Putting aside the differences in our theology, what can this prayer from our Catholic brothers and sisters teach us?

To begin with, it forces whoever prays it to answer a very important question.  How did I respond to God's call today?  Mary said yes.  It's my turn.  When the Christ-child comes will I be ready for his birth?  Will I do my part to bring his presence into the world?

Saying yes is risky.  But it's riskier by far to say no.

Christmas is coming.  We are almost there.  But we can't be so consumed by the coming of Christmas, that we miss the coming of the Christ.

It's time to say yes.  To let the words come from your heart and to your lips--"I am the Lord's servant..."  Say yes to him today.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Making Room For Christ - Advent Week Two: "Straight Paths"

I recently read about a new trend that is starting to gain some traction in our culture--it's not a huge, widespread movement by any means, but it's still out there, still happening.

It's called sologamy or same-self marriage.

Nadine Schweigert, a thirty-six-year-old-woman from Fargo, North Dakota, who was interviewed by Anderson Cooper after marrying herself in front of some forty of her closest friends. “I, Nadine,” she said to herself, “promise to enjoy inhabiting my own life and to relish a lifelong love affair with my beautiful self."

Then, in the words of the immortal James Brown, she jumped back and kissed herself.

I'm not sure why anyone gathered here today would be surprised by this kind of thing, to be honest.  It's the logical extension of a culture that is immersed in the self.  No one in our culture wants anyone to take credit for whatever success they might enjoy.

Seriously, when have you ever heard a brand new CEO of a huge corporation say something like, "I know we had a pretty big turnaround since I arrived,  but I have to say that a lot of that credit goes to my predecessor who laid the groundwork for this turnaround only they got fired before it could really start working."

It would be refreshing to hear this, but don't hold your breath.

Or what about a newly elected politician who constantly gave props and praise to the person who previous held their office.  Heck no!  Politicians act like nothing ever got done, no problems ever got solved until they arrived.

The same could be said for a lot of different kinds of leaders.  Even pastors.  It's easy--in this me-centered culture--to begin to think too highly of ourselves, to practice sologamy in our attitude even if we don't practice it in action.

Honestly, I could never be married to me, so there's that...

And all of this stuff creates the perfect storm of Christmas humbuggery this time of year.  Humbug is a word that is most often associated with Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' classic tale, A Christmas Carol.  But it's actually a real word.  It means lies, tricker, something that is false.

So we live in a culture that is often falsely constructed around a distorted sense of self where people love to win, take credit, feel the rush of success and otherwise appear to be awesome.  And then we carry this fantastic mix of ickiness into Christmas.  Christmas--at least in our culture--truly is a humbug.

And we have become so consumed with the coming of Christmas during this season---that we miss the coming of the Christ.  We miss the aspect of this season that is decidedly not a humbug--that God so loved the world he sent his Son... who humbled himself, who became one of us in order to save all of us... Jesus, who embodied the grace, mercy and love but also the humility that is required to truly experience the fullness of God's kingdom.

There is no sologamy in heaven, in other words.

The Gospel reading for today comes from Mark 1:1-8 and it goes a little something like this:
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:“I will send my messenger ahead of you,    who will prepare your way”—3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord,    make straight paths for him.’”4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Imagine that you are a Galilean in 70 AD.  Things are bad where you live but not as bad as in Jerusalem which is a two day trip south.   Jerusalem, which is now under siege by the Romans, is about to fall.  You hear stories of thousands of people being crucified outside the city.  You hear how zealots are stirring up people to fight to the death and how others are begging to come to terms with the Romans.

People are divided, the world has gone mad.  Nero, the cruel, despotic emperor of Rome, who wanted to be worshipped like a god is dead.  Or is he?  There are rumors that he really didn't die and is just waiting to return to wreak havoc on his enemies.  Four leaders in Rome were acclaimed as emperor and then promptly assasinated.  Vespasian, the general who is now about to destroy Jerusalem has just been crowned.  The price of oil is skyrocketing--olive oil that is, the economy is crashing, families are fractured.

And yet there is one small sect of Jews who refuses to take sides with anyone.  The rabbis call them heretics.  The zealots dismiss them as being the disciples of a weak leader who preached peace instead of conflict and was promptly killed for his preaching.

Then one day someone from that small sect of Jews hands you a scroll.  You read the first line:  "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..."

The words are familiar because these are the same words that were essentially used to describe the birth of Caesar Augustus.  The good news--euangelion--of Augustus birth also used these words, "divi filius" the son of god.

Only this scroll isn't about Caesar.  It's about Jesus.  And Jesus didn't come to bring an armed revolution that would get tens of thousands of people killed.  He came to embody a better world, and he gave his life to show the great lengths to which God will go in order to give us that better world.

This passage of Scripture is permeated with the contrast between the humility of Jesus and his herald, as opposed to Caesar and his...

Mark's gospel begins immediately with the entrance of John the Baptist.  The Baptist could have been a star.  He had all the makings of a mega church pastor.  He had a huge Q rating, that rating that is used to measure just how popular someone is with everyone in society.  In John's context he was like Brad Pitt, or Joel Osteen---not sure how I came to juxtapose those two.  In other words lots of people knew who he was.  They heard about his strange clothing, about his ultra, ultra orthodox diet of locusts and wild honey.  I mean the dude was out in the desert and still maintained the strict Jewish dietary laws.

He was a freak, though.  He didn't want fame.  He didn't want fortune.  His only purpose was to point to the coming Messiah.  Thank God he was a freak.  If he had not been a freak we would be celebrating Advent as a season of expectation for the next big thing--which would make it a fairly short season.

There are lots of prepares, but only one Savior.  John knew that all too well.  I forget this sometimes.  We all do.

John's message was simple. Confess. Repent.  Be Baptized.  Confession and Repentance were acts of humility.  The baptism that John offered was a sign and a symbol of that humility.  If you were ready to let go of all of your pride, your desire to hang on to the things of this world, to loosen your grip on your sins and frailty, then John would be standing in the Jordan river, beckoning you to come get dunked.

John's message was simple, but it's not that simple to do what John demands. John's message was as fresh and relevant in his day as it was to the Galilean reading this scroll in 70 AD, as it is to us gathered here on this Second Sunday of Advent.  Confess.  Repent.

But the theory is much easier to embrace at times than the practice.

Repentance and Confession entail facing the truth about ourselves and what it will take to change the direction of our lives.  And facing the truth about ourselves is one of the most difficult things we can do.  It's one of the most powerful things we can do, mind you, but difficult to the point of painful.

Have you ever watched those vocal talent shows that are so popular on TV?  The Voice? American Idol?  These shows are watched by millions of people from around the world.  And every time the show ends, a new star is crowned.  And on each of these shows, the winner gets a chance to sing their signature song to the crowd.  And all the while underneath the surface of this tearful, inspirational moment is the reality that this so-called winner is merely a placeholder for the next winner---in the next season.

Don't believe me?  Name the last twelve winners of American Idol.  Name the last five winners of the voice.

If the winner of these shows was being honest with themselves, they would stop the show and say something like, "Listen, I might have the stage this moment, but next year there will be someone else.  If I am lucky I might make a few dollars out of this.  I might appear on a TV show or two.  Heck, I might even one day make it on to an episode of celebrity Survivor.  But make no mistake.  Tomorrow the search for the next American Idol begins.  Good night!!"

I don't like to admit the truth about myself any more than the next person.

None of us do.  It's painful to admit the truth about who we really are.

It's painful, but it's powerful.

Because moving forward requires a retrospective look back.  If you want to experience change, transformation and wholeness, you have to be honest about the fact that you are often comfortable, complacent and absolutely content just... the way... you are.

Listen to me.  God loves you just as you are.  But he loves you far too much to let you stay that way.

In this world of sologamy and the endless pursuit of adulation... In this culture where success and power define self-worth... In this society where Christmas is nothing more than a celebration of humbuggery...

Are you ready for the coming of the Christ-child?

What do you need to admit and let go?  What is the truth about who you are that you are afraid to own and be set free from?  The new world that John the Baptist predicted is constantly breaking through all around us.  Jesus is everywhere.  When he shows up in your life, in your space---will you be ready to let go of the things that have been keeping you from truly embracing the life that he offers you?

Is it your anger?  Have you let it take over your heart and turned you into the kind of person that you can't stand to be around, much less anyone else?

Is it your grief?  Have you become so focused on what you've lost in life that you can't see what you have?

Is it your greed? Have you lived for so long giving God your leftovers that you think the leftovers are good enough?

What will you let go so you can confess, repent and remember your baptism during this season of expectation.

Don't be so consumed with the coming of Christmas, beloved, that you miss the coming of the Christ.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Making Room for Christ - Advent Week One: "Time Keeps On Ticking"

We have this Christmas decoration at my house that counts down the days until Christmas.  My little kids love this thing.  They look at it every day in anticipation of the the coming of Christmas.  You can almost feel the excitement that emanates off of them as the Day approaches.

I remember feeling that intense feeling of anticipation when I was a kid.  I think it happens more when you're a kid, honestly.  It's not that I am not excited about the coming of Christmas now--I am.  In fact the stretch between the end of October and New Year's Day is easily my favorite time of the year.  

But you know how it is... when you get older you start associating this time of year with the sorts of things that leave you decidedly less than excited.  You think about how busy you are going to be... with family obligations, church obligations, work stuff, parties, dinners...  Then there is the shopping, the crazy busy stores... the credit card bills that are going to land on you in January...  

It's enough to steal your excitement isn't it?  

I know that lots of Christians get their underwear bunched this time of year because of the so-called "war" on Christmas.  You won't have to look too hard to find something to tick you off if you want to be.  

Several years ago, there was a huge uproar over the fact that Target had instructed its employees to say "Happy Holidays" instead of  "Merry Christmas." Then Wal-Mart responded by instructing it's employees to say "Merry Christmas."  Christians everywhere were declaring their loyalty to Wal-Mart and proclaiming boycotts of Target. 

No one stopped to think about where the battleground in this war on Christmas was taking place... In the marketplace.  People were arguing about the true meaning of Christmas while they were participating in the very thing that undermines the true meaning of Christmas.  

Meanwhile, the signs of the coming of the Christ are all around us.  But we are either too busy, too stressed, too over-extended or too self-righteous to see them. 

We've become so consumed with the coming of Christmas that we miss the coming of the Christ.  

The Gospel reading on this first Sunday of Advent is from Mark 13:24-37.  This is one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus...  Let's read it together: 

24 “But in those days, following that distress,“‘the sun will be darkened,    and the moon will not give its light;25 the stars will fall from the sky,    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” 
Jesus ends this cryptic, apocalyptic teaching with an exhortation for his followers to keep awake, to stay alert, to be on guard...  This might sound kind of foreign to us, honestly.

Keeping awake isn't a problem for us.  Like I said, we are busy.  I bet that if I asked you to pull out your calendar for the month of December---some of you would probably begin to weep in despair.  I get it.  I'm with you.  I kind of feel that way when I look at the church calendar--which in our family gets kind of merged into our home calendar.  The church is busy.  It's that time of year.

Everybody's busy.

Our busy-ness points us toward Christmas.
It seldom points us toward the coming Christ.

Are we surprised by the fact that we are out of tune with this message from Jesus?

Especially when so many of us Christian-types think we are so engaged in the battle over the meaning of Christmas?

When I lived in Chicago I loved to take the train to work or to school.  Once you've driven in Chicago traffic you learn to love the train.  I remember how after a few years of living in the city, I could always tell when the train was coming, sometimes long before it got there.

If you knew how to interpret the signs--the trembling of the platform, a warm gust of air from the tunnel, an imperceptible change in the light--you knew the train was about to arrive.  Tourists from Iowa were oblivious.  They would stare at us Chicagoans as we stood up and moved toward the tracks--wondering what we were doing.

I think that for far too many of us, we've lost our sense of childlike wonder and anticipation--we've lost our sense of wakefulness to the coming of Christ.  The signs of a new world are all around us, but we're too busy, too caught up in the things of this old world to truly see them.

Mark chapter 13:24-37 has often been called "The Little Apocalypse" because it packs into just a few verses what books like Daniel and Revelation take several chapters to unfold.  Jesus' words are unsettling--end of the world, natural disasters, cosmic destruction kind of unsettling.  He grabs our attention right from the beginning.

The great film director Cecil B. DeMille once said about engaging filmmaking that you should "start with an earthquake and then build to a climax."  Jesus does just that, doesn't he?

These sayings were meant to be sensational and attention-grabbing, but they weren't meant to be cryptic.  Jesus was speaking about the current situation that surrounded his disciples, and the Jewish people:  Roman oppression, threats of war, violence, revolution... this was their reality.

He was using imagery from the stories of old, however, and drawing upon Jewish beliefs about the Day of the Lord from the prophetic tradition.  And what we learn from Jesus' words is that every age is uncertain.  The prophets who first spoke these words lived in uncertain times... anyone who hears these words can relate.  Every age is full of conflict.  Satan is always at work in this world, wreaking havoc, trying to keep us blind and busy.

Jesus says that things will get worse before they get better.  And just when you think that everything is about to fall apart---God will intervene.  This is the way of the world--a world where Satan is at work, and frail human beings continue to listen to his whispered promises that they will be like gods.  Jesus use of familiar imagery from Hebrew prophecy told his hearers that God's actions in the past provide a framework for dealing with the present.

The powers-that-be in this world want to lull us to sleep or keep us running in circles.  Evil needs Good to become complacent, distracted or lazy in order for it to run rampant.  If you are busy and tired---you can't really see.  This is what Jesus was trying to tell his followers.

Listen, despite what you may have been taught about passages of Scripture like this--this isn't about predicting the future.  It's about being wakeful.  The world might always be uncertain, but God is always up to something incredible.

Jesus tells his disciples, "The signs are all around you... it's like, it's like when you see the leaves of the fig tree start to come out and you know that Spring is on the way."  If you are paying attention, you will know that something is about to happen.  It's the pregnant moment--the moment when you realize that everything is about to change, that a waiting world is shaking off winter and is about to bloom.

Waiting for Christmas---it's predictable.  You'll be reminded of it constantly between now and the day itself.  There will be a countdown of how many shopping days are left.  You will start scratching events, and tasks off of your calendar...

But waiting for Christ requires a different kind of waiting.  If you are anticipating a new world, free from the strife and conflict of this one...  If you long for peace and hope and joy and love... You need to be awake.  You need to be less busy.  You need to have your eyes open.  You can't predict this kind of change, but you can feel it.

Don't get lost in the details.  Lots of preachers and teachers want to drown you in details and predictions and in their own way blind you to the coming of Christ.

Just be ready. Be awake.  Be alert.

I am speaking to you from my heart today.  Maybe I am feeling this a bit more because I just turned 46, which for some of you seems really, really old and for others seems like nothing at all.  But I want to tell you how precious life is.  It's precious and unpredictable and beautiful.

The seasons of life are short.  Are you letting them slip away only to realize that you spent them shopping... scheduling... consuming... worrying... rushing from one thing to the next...

Are you really awake?  Can you see the tenderness of the fig tree?  The world is pregnant with possibilities of a new world, of the coming kingdom of God.

Last year I felt like I had lost my ability to see.  I had become too busy.  I was consumed with tasks.  I was putting one foot in front of the other.  The world seemed like it was going crazy.  I didn't feel like I was making much of a difference.  I know that this might be hard to hear from your pastor, but you need to hear this from your pastor.

I was in Laguna Beach California for a workshop on preaching and creative communication.  The whole first day of the workshop I felt like a fraud.  I felt like I was running on fumes.  The weight of all of my busyness and blindness hit me like a ton of bricks. That evening during our dinner break I walked on the beach---praying, begging, crying to God asking him to show me something, anything.  "I just want to see you!"  I actually shouted out loud.

As I sat on the boardwalk near the beach a father and his two sons ran by me toward the ocean.  As they passed, one of the boys lost his baseball hat which landed at my feet.  They all stopped.  I picked up the hat and went to hand it to the little boy and I saw that he was bald--obviously from undergoing some kind of chemotherapy.  Their smiles faded for a moment, and I saw the father standing there with the other son--they looked tired.  I saw the mother out of the corner of my eye pushing a stroller with a little girl in it.

"Thank you," the boy mumbled as I handed him his hat.  Then he turned and started to walk back to the beach.  His dad put his arm around his shoulder.  The little boy started to put his hat back on, then he looked back at me, and I saw a gleam in his eye as he let his arm fall to his side and the hat with it. He and his brother began to run in the sand toward the water.

And just like that I saw.  I saw that family's struggle.  The weeks and months of tears, hospitals, fear, dread and all of the rest of it.  I saw the weariness of the parents, the sadness, the distraction.  But I also saw something else.  I saw that for one day---the disease that had run their lives wasn't going to win.  They were pushing back against the uncertainty and choosing something different.  When that little boy didn't put on his hat--when he chose to feel the sun, and not the shame---I saw God.  

Listen, the signs are all around you.  Don't get so busy during this season of Advent that you miss the evidence of God's kingdom breaking through into this world.

Live differently.  Worship God fully this Advent--make church a priority, have devotions at home, show your children and grandchildren what's important.  Spend less this Advent--don't give the retailers the best of your gifts, save those for the things that matter.  Give More--find ways to give of your time, your talent and yes, your treasure.  Love all---open your eyes, be ready for moments when you can embody the kingdom of God and participate in His invasion of our world.

And beloved don't be so consumed with the coming of Christmas that you miss the coming of the Christ.