Monday, January 7, 2019

Unafraid: An Age of High Anxiety

An Age of High Anxiety
Matthew 2: 1-12

The last night of 2018 happened the way it usually does for our family. We ordered some pizza, played a few games, then watched the ball drop in Times Square before heading to bed. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary occurred, and when midnight arrived, I was glad to get some sleep. But it didn’t last long. Some time in the middle of the night, I woke up to a fierce wind. I could hear it banging against the house, and before I knew it, my heart was racing faster and I began to sweat. Then I started to have all sorts of thoughts. Should I go move the car? What happens if a tree falls down? What happens is we lose our power? By the time morning rolled around, I was exhausted from all the tossing and turning. And of course, none of those fears had been realized. The trees were still standing. The car was fine. The power was on. And I was left to figure out why I had been so afraid. Fear is a paralyzing problem for many of us. It keeps us up at night, messes with our minds and tempts us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. But it is possible to live with courage despite the things that keep us up at night. Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called “Unafraid,” where we’ll look at some of our biggest fears and explore how faith can help us overcome those fears with courage and hope. Would you read with me…

The 1930’s was a frightening time for our country. In between world wars, and fresh off the devastating stock market crash of 1929, America was looking for a new direction. In 1932, voters made their way to the polls and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as their next President, hoping his new leadership would usher in a time of rebirth and prosperity. During his inauguration speech, President Roosevelt alluded to the country’s ongoing struggles and challenges, refusing to make light of our nation’s realities. And then he dropped this line that would rally Americans then and now: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. 

That line has become a part of American history, and has a nice ring to it, but unfortunately, it’s just not true. You and I both know there are very good reasons, and some not so good reasons, to be afraid today. I grow tense when reports surface about nuclear warheads in North Korea, or when the siren goes off down the street or my girls wake up sick and I can’t do a thing about it. In those cases, fear can serve as a healthy response. But sometimes our fears seem overwhelming and start to impact our lives in unhealthy ways. King Herod is a great example of what happens when fear gets the best of us. When he heard from the Eastern Magi that a new king was born, Herod lost all sense of perspective. He felt he was losing control of his future, so he started to act in secret and set his heart on crushing the problem before the problem crushed him. And seeing only what he stood in line to lose, he ordered the annihilation of every boy two years and younger. Talk about a fear-based decision. But that’s the strange power of fear when we open the door and let it in. Anxiety and worry begin to seep in and it changes us. Our bodies suffer, our attitudes suffer, our ability to reason suffers, our relationships suffer. And oftentimes the common link is worry. 

Anxiety is one of America’s largest health crises today! Despite having better opportunities, more education and more wealth than any generation before us, we are also some of the most frightened, worried and stressed-out people in all of history! Author Daniel Gardner puts it this way: “We are the healthiest, wealthiest and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid.” And the scary thing is that it’s often viewed as normal. We’ve normalized our fears. We’ve learned to manage our fears and medicate our worries and work ourselves in a way that ignores what’s really going on inside…but nobody would honestly say that’s a good life. We’ve become so accustomed to living with fear that we’re not sure there is another way. And even to suggest there’s another way seems silly. But that’s exactly what God wants us to know! God wants us to know that it’s possible to live with courage and hope. 

Listen to these words God speaks to Joshua, who had the unenviable position of following Moses and leading God’s people into the Promised Land: Have I not commanded you, be strong and courageous? Do not be terrified or discouraged, for I will be with you wherever you go. I learned that verse at church camp through a song, and every year when Reagan begins a new grade, I sing that song to her. And it lifts both of our spirits. If you scan the Bible long enough, you’ll discover that God loves to remind us to not be afraid. One of the most commonly repeated sayings throughout is “Do not be afraid.” In fact, it’s one of the more popular sayings of Jesus. He says it more than love your neighbor. And love the Lord your God. And even more than “do unto others as they would do unto you.” And beyond that, some folks like to remind us that there are roughly 365 variations of this command, one for every day of the year! God does’t want us to be controlled by our fears. Like the wise men who followed in faith despite every reason to be afraid, God wants us to approach our lives with courage. But how do we that? How we do live with courage in spite of our fears? 

One of the first steps we have to take if we want to live with courage is to face our fears. The questions isn’t if we’re going to face frightening times, but what we’re going to do when we encounter them. Now, this means we probably have to untangle a common misconception that followers of Jesus should not expect fearful situations. That’s just not true.  Everyone faces storms in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re King Herod or the Magi, it doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a devoted disciple of Jesus. Everyone faces storms. And if we pretend the storms don’t exist or try to ignore the storms, we’ll never overcome them. This is why we have counselors, therapists and doctors. They help us face our fears and find a new way forward. I see this in the way the Magi responded to the birth of Jesus. There was so much to frighten them, but in faith, they faced their fears of the unknown, entered the storm of Herod’s backyard and found Christ. What a gift! Now compare that to Herod’s reaction of secrecy and rage. Quite the difference, isn’t there? As author Max Lucado writes in his book Fearless, “It’s not the absence of storms that sets us apart; It’s whom we discover in the storm- an unstirred Christ.” 

I’m encouraged when I read Scripture to see that Jesus isn’t nearly as afraid as we are. It seems that some of his best work is done in the darkest times, and that gives me hope. Because when we encounter frightening times in life, we need to know that we’re not alone. A month after our youngest daughter was born, she ended up in this hospital, with an unknown illness. It turned out to be the flu, but we didn’t know that for the better part of a day. And let me tell you, that was one of the scariest moments of my life. We had prayed hard for that little baby, and to see her suffering at a month old was almost more than I could bear. But we were not alone. Every step of the way we were joined by a pediatrician who patiently explained every test and and tube and possibility. And it was helpful. I don’t think we could’ve navigated those days by ourselves, and Carmyn’s doctor wouldn’t have let us. In Isaiah, God tells his people, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God does not abandon us to our fears, nor does He tells they won’t come. But when those times arrive, God’s promise is that He will be with us. Before the storms come, God is already there. In the midst of the storm, God will be there. And when it’s all said and done, God will not have moved. That’s His promise to us, and we can take that to the bank. 

If we need any more proof, we only have to look at the events of Holy Week, when Jesus faced his own fears. Make no mistake- this took all the courage in the world. And Jesus wasn’t exempt from trials and tribulations just because he is the Son of God. As he stepped foot in Jerusalem, Jesus understood what was ahead. Enemies would hurl insults. Friends would leave him. Disciples would betray him. He would be beaten, spat upon and his naked body left to die on a cross for all the world to see. And then his body would be tossed into a grave. Talk about some frightening events. But Jesus understood something that we need to remember: God was in control. When we face our fears, it can feel like a perceived loss of control. This is why King Herod acted the way he did. He felt as if everything was slipping away! But the truth is that Herod was never in control. And as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we’re also not in control. That role belongs to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end- and it always will. So Jesus, knowing full well that God, and not his circumstances, was in control, faced his fears by getting down on his knees and surrendering everything to God in prayer. And that might be the most important lesson for today. 

We can’t control our circumstances, but we can choose to surrender them to the One who can. Our greatest tool against fear isn’t to try harder, work longer hours or drink them away- it’s prayer. Cast all your burdens on Jesus, because he cares. Through the discipline of prayer, we reconnect with the God of the Universe, the One tells the storms to be silent, the One who provides a new way home for the Magi, and the One who keeps the newborn Christ out of Herod’s grasp. But even more important is this: When we prayer, we put ourselves at the feet of One who cares about and- more than we’ll ever know, and loves us with a love that is stronger than anything this world could ever throw our direction. That’s why we can approach our fears with courage, because fear melts in the presence of God’s divine love. 1 John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear. Big ones and little ones. And nothing can take that away. 

I can tell you that I’m not expert at handling fear. If my New Year’s Eve panic attack tells you anything, it’s that I can be as scared as the next person. But prayer gives me a confidence in One who cannot be shaken. Nobody has taught me this more than our friends at Connect Church Recovery. Day by day these courageous people face their fears past, present and future, and most of the time they do it through prayer. And when they don’t have the words to pray, they use a prayer, called The Serenity Prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It goes like this: 

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; 
enjoying one moment at a time; 
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; 
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will; 
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next. 

That’s how we approach our lives with courage instead of fear. Amen. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

It's A Wonderful Life- Embrace It

It’s a Wonderful Life: Embrace It Luke 2: 41-52
Dec. 30, 2019 

Today we’re concluding our Advent sermon series on It’s a Wonderful Life. And I hope you’ve found this Christmas classic a fun way to spend your weekends gearing up for Christmas Day. I’ve enjoyed retelling this story and gleaning spiritual truths from George Bailey and company. Sometimes we just need a fresh perspective, like George, to help us see our lives differently. And once we get that new perspective, once we see what God is up to with us, our next challenge is to embrace it. I invite you to read with me…

Now that the calendar is about ready to turn, we’re at the annual juncture when people begin to ponder the big questions of life. I guess the end of one year and the beginning of a new one is natural time for reflection, to think back to what was and look forward to what could be. Pretty soon, you’ll begin to see it everywhere. People will start to jot down goals, make some changes, develop some new habits and hopefully experience something their heart is yearning for. And usually at the center of all those changes is an attempt to find some type of meaning and purpose. 

Purpose is a really, really good word, and I’m all for purpose. We’ve been created with this inward longing to live purpose-filled lives, but I think purpose has become an overused buzzword in our culture. It’s almost become like an idol that we’ll do anything to find. Usually when people say they’re looking for purpose, what they mean is that they want to spend their days doing something meaningful, effective and lasting because they want their lives to count for something. Take George Bailey for example. He didn’t want to miss out any of life’s adventures. He had plans to travel the globe, explore exciting places, build big buildings. He even offered to lasso the moon for Mary. And we all have our own ideas and yearning and dreams to live a life the counts. I’m just not sure our usual ways of looking for purpose are helpful. As writer K.B. Hoyle reminds, “If George Bailey’s story was told in 2018, he would leave Bedford Falls to chase his dreams, he would self-actualize with a sidekick angel who helps him find the power within himself, and most likely he would defeat the evil Mr. Potter and kick him right out of town.” But that’s not the way George Bailey’s story plays out, nor is it the way our lives will play out if we desire to build them around Biblical teachings. 

One of the challenges we have with faith today is that we want the Bible to fit our lives instead of the other way around. I think we get into all sorts of trouble when go that route. The Bible is meant to shape our lives and draw us into an ever-growing relationship with Jesus, but more often than not we’re guilty of trying to fit the Bible into what we already we believe, as if we hope the Bible will somehow conform to us. And that’s bound to sound a disappointing note on our quest for purpose. Because no matter how hard we read the Bible, there just isn’t a step by step set of directions for how to discover purpose. There’s no “Purpose 101” class that teaches us how to find what we’re looking for. And the reason for this is simple: Purpose usually isn’t something we have to go looking for. It typically finds us. 

Take a quick look at some of the more notable names in Scripture and you’ll see what I mean. Very rarely does someone go looking for purpose and actually find it. Instead, God seems to tap the shoulder of these unsuspecting men and women and says, “Guess what? I have a plan for you.” Moses was watching sheep when God called. David was a young boy out in the fields. Mary was preparing to spend her life as Joseph’s wife. And purpose found them out. Right where they were. God moved into their neighborhood, into their obscure, out of the way lives and delivered meaning and purpose to them. Even Jesus has a story like this.

We don’t know much about Jesus early childhood, but chances are it was a pretty straightforward life. There’s no story about running away from his Bethlehem roots to “find himself,” no attempt to take a long journey to discover something new and profound, no getting into exorbitant amounts of debt to find the next “feeling.” Instead, Jesus’ calling comes in the midst of the ordinary and routine framework of his parents’ home and teaching. Every year they went to the temple. Presumably, Joseph and Mary taught Jesus about the importance of worship- things like offering sacrifices, praying and living out a covenant with God. And it stuck. We call this a “sticky faith.” Something about Joseph and Mary’s commitment to God “stuck” to Jesus. He caught the faith bug. And when they were ready to leave the temple that day, Jesus wasn’t. He stayed behind and lingered.

Jesus’ first order of business was to sit and listen to others. I appreciate this so much. Even as a 12 year old, Jesus understood that it’s best to glean from others - wiser and older- before jumping headlong into something new and bold. That’s good advice. We have a lot to learn from those who have already been down the road we’re walking. And before making any decisions, we should do as the young Jesus did. He listen to their stories, their experiences, their mistakes, successes and failures. And he listens to their faith. Somewhere along the line he would’ve heard how they began to make sense of the lives in light of God. He would’ve heard the old stories of prophets yearning for a Savior, and Israel longing for hope, and creation groaning for redemption…and how God had a plan to make all of this happen. 

And so naturally, his second order of business was to ask questions. I’ve often wondered what Jesus would’ve asked. Maybe how they knew God was real? Or why they trusted God’s promises? Or how they saw God’s plan unfolding? Whatever he asked, little by little, the pieces started to come together. Jesus began to understand that he was part of God’s plan, that he would be the answer to all of creation’s deepest yearnings. And then he goes home. That might be the most surprising development of this story. All of this excitement, all of this purpose-driven discovery, and Jesus goes home! Doesn’t that sound a bit strange? With so much good to do in the world, a world that needs him, why on earth would Jesus go home after embracing God’s wonderful call on his life? 

To understand the answer to that question, we have to first understand the type of life Jesus willingly embraced. It’s a different type of life we’re used to, but we need to acknowledge it if we want to be like him. As Easter reminds us, the baby born in Bethlehem was born for a very specific purpose: He was born to die. And that history-changing death would bring life to all who seek him. And on Good Friday, some twenty years after that famed temple visit, Jesus, as a young man, would breathe his last and proclaim, “It is finished.” That’s the future Jesus embraced as a 12 year old boy, a future marked by a cross that would demand his unrelenting love. And it would change the world. It would be one of the most powerful days this world has ever witness. But Jesus embraced more than a cross that day in the temple. He embraced a certain way of life, a life that daily takes up a proverbial cross and dies to self so that others can live. And the first place we’re called to live out that self-denying life is home sweet home. 

Dying to self isn’t our usual pathway to purpose, but the more we learn about Jesus, the more we see that this his way. I think it’s safe to say that Jesus didn’t embrace the YOLO way of life. Do you know what that is? It’s the “you only live once” philosophy, so you better do as much as you can before your time is up. But that’s a misunderstanding of eternal life and God’s goodness. YOLO suggests that if you truly want to experience God’s best you better lasso the moon. But Scripture suggests if you really want to experience God’s best, you need to give your life away! And although it’s never stated in the movie, that’s how George Bailey lived his life.

“Wonderful” might not be the term George Bailey would use to describe his life. There was a lot he would’ve changed if he could. He had plenty of problems and unrealized dreams. But after a closer look, George Bailey’s life was more than wonderful- it was life-giving. A lot of people found purpose because of George. A lot of people found the strength to keep going and not give up because of the way he lived is life. You see, every opportunity George had to bless others, he did it. Sometimes he did it begrudgingly, but he always did it. His dreams of moving on to bigger and better things? He gave it up to save his father’s Building and Loan. His hard-earned honeymoon money? He gave it away to help his frantic community. His own attempt to take his life? Even that was thwarted when he dove into the river to save a drowning old man. Countless people were rescued from their own dark places because of George Bailey’s selfless acts of love. As Hoyle states in her article, “It’s a role George didn’t ask for, a role he never wanted, and a role he could have walked away from at any time if he’d ever chosen to be “true to himself”, but he doesn’t. George Bailey gives everything he has for his community…and it seems to demand his very life.”

God’s purposes for us seem at times to demand our very lives. But that’s not a bad thing. On the surface, it seems like a silly way to live. I mean, seriously, who wants to give up their dreams and plans for others? Especially if we lay down our lives for those who might never repay the good we’ve done? Or turn on us? Or hurt us? Or ignore us? But then again, this is exactly what Jesus weighed on his way to the cross. Were we worth laying down his life? We already know the answer to that. It was and is a resounding yes. Jesus embraced his calling, because he embraced us. Once we give our lives to Jesus and embrace his purposes for our lives, we, too, will take up our crosses and find the surprising truth: there is certainly dying involved, but there’s also a whole lot of living. And with that “dying to self” imitation of Christ, there’s a whole lot of darkness in the world that is driven away. The question is whether or note will take up those crosses wherever we are and to whomever God brings along our paths.

I was looking for a great way to end this sermon, but I couldn’t find a better ending than the one Hoyle gives in her article. And so I share it with you: “Are we willing to be the George Baileys for our own communities?…Are we willing to stand at the bridge and give in tangible ways to our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies? To give whether they deserve it or not, and whether or not it benefits us? To set aside our ambitions and our dreams, to sometimes defer our own hope for the sake of the hope of others? Jesus kept no hope back for himself when he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane and gave himself over to be the hope of the world. It’s a We cannot pretend our lives touch no one. Intentionally or unintentionally, do we stand at the bridge? It’s not silly, it’s not cheap, and no angels will get wings when we choose the virtuous path—nor will anyone build statues to remember us by—but God can use one person at the bridge to turn back encroaching darkness.” And that’s what makes a life well-lived one that’s truly wonderful. Dying to self so that others can live. That’s the way of Christ. Let’s embrace it. Amen. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

How is Christmas Supposed to Feel?

I'm fresh off a funeral and hospital visit that both stung a little more than usual. I'm not exactly sure why. Because I've spent enough time around end-of-life scenarios and difficult moments, I'm not typically shaken by them. But the raw realities of this weekend have done something different in me. Maybe it's due to the timing of these events. We're at the precipice of Christmas Day, which our annual Advent preparation reminds us is a longing for hope, peace, joy and love. And if I can be honest with you, longing is probably a good word for me.

I read lots of articles and posts about the "feelings" that should accompany Christmas. And I can't begin to count the number of times I've listened to others confide in me that "it just doesn't feel like Christmas this year." I guess I've never quite understood what Christmas is supposed to "feel" like. This isn't the first year I've "felt" the way I do, but every Christmas is different. I've had blissfully wonderful Christmas seasons, "Bah humbug" Christmas seasons, and Christmas seasons that are somewhere in between. I've experienced Christmases as a young boy, eagerly straining my ears to hear hopeful sounds on the rooftop. Those were fun times! I've also experienced one particularly painful Christmas when I looked around the room and processed an empty chair. That one didn't feel good at all. But it was still Christmas.

When I read the Christmas story, I see a lot of feelings I don't expect to see. Luke says the shepherds were terrified. How's that for a Christmas feeling? I don't ever recall longing for a terrified approach to Christmas. Or what about Mary? She was perplexed. Or Joseph? He must've felt like a champion when he was told, "There's no room for you." The Magi got their audience with the Christ child, then had to find another way home. And Herod? Well, his Christmas "feeling" was anger. Intense anger. Because Jesus messes with our lives, challenges our status quo and threatens to make everything different. So, again, I'm not quite sure how Christmas is supposed to feel. But I do know what Christmas proclaims.

Christmas proclaims the surprising and profound love of God. Out of love, God chose to send the world a Savior. Which is truly absurd when you think about it. Have you seen the world lately? Much of it is hard to love. Just turn on the evening news or read the headlines of your favorite media platform and you'll see. Hatred. Injustice. Evil. Racism. Abuse. It's rampant; it's everywhere. Just like it's always been. And yet, for God so loved the world.

I'm part of that world God loves. And so are you. My life is far from perfect, and I'm guessing your life has some missing pieces as well. But you and I are not unloved. And we are not alone. This Savior goes by another name- Emmanuel. Or Immanuel, if you prefer. Into the realities of this world enters one who is "God with us," which is a stunning development that changes everything. Now we have a friend to enter the darkness with us. Whether it's suffering or fear, hopelessness or despair, failure or even death, there is One who goes with us, stays with us, perseveres with us and offers to us a grace that is sufficient. And I need that. Every day.

If you were to write a book detailing my Christmas celebrations, each chapter would tell a different story. I've tried to manufacture certain Christmas "feelings," but that doesn't work for me. I've tried to reawaken old family traditions, but they're just not the same. I've tried to buy the perfect gift, but the ecstasy of the moment wears off after a day or two. I've tried to stay home, I've tried to travel, I've tried to do nothing and do everything...and every year there's a different feeling. That's because Christmas isn't a "feeling." It's a proclamation of love. And regardless of how I feel, or how my life changes, or what I'm experience professionally or personally, Christmas itself never changes. It's still the old, old story that never grows old: For God so loved the world. Praying you know the surprising and profound love of God this Christmas, no matter how you feel. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2018

It's a Wonderful Life- Believe It

It’s a Wonderful Life- Believe It
Luke 1: 46-55

            I don’t know if this is true of your family, but we’re not big fans of pain in my house. We don’t care for blood and gore and wounds and sickness, and the number of band aids in our closet is proof! It’s actually quite astonishing how many band aids we go through in a given year. It’s so apparent that even Santa knows, because some Pittsburgh Pirate band aids showed up in my stocking last year! It seems that every cut and scrape, whether real or not, is usually met with a look of sheer panic and a mad dash to the medicine cabinet. And we slap one of those suckers on and hope that it will all soon be over. But sometimes, in our haste, we forget that pain isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it can actually signal good news.

You wouldn’t think a bloody lip would be a sign of hope, but for George Bailey, it was a light shining in the darkness. As he stood on the bridge just outside of Bedford Falls, the only thought that crossed his mind was his desire to live again. He had been down to the lowest of lows. The Building and Loan was about ready to close their doors, and George was convinced he was on his way to jail. What would happen to his family? What would become of his marriage? What about all the people who had placed their trust in him? The fear of that moment was too much to bear, and he felt so alone, with nowhere to turn. It was similar to what the old saints called the dark night of the soul, a spiritual desert that felt like hopelessness and abandonment. And when Bert the cop pulled up, George thought his life, for all intents and purposes, was over. But then he noticed his bloody lip and something in his heart came alive! It was a sign of life. He wasn’t done!  He had been given another chance to believe that he was part of something much bigger than himself. And he had been given another chance to believe that his life, no matter how complicated, really did matter!

One of the things I most love about the Christmas story is that everyone in the story matters. Everyone has a role to play, and every role contributes something significant to the narrative God is authoring by sending his Son into the world. I think that’s by design, by the way. There are certainly moments when God raises up unique individuals for singular purposes, but all in all, God typically works through a community of people to accomplish his will. And that’s true of the Christmas story. There is no Christmas without John the Baptist, whom we looked at last week and who reminds us to keep on turning toward the Kingdom even when it doesn’t seem like anything is working out. And there’s no Christmas without the angels, the shepherds, the magi, even all of creation. Each plays a vital role in the birthing of this eternity-changing, eternity-shaping God so loved the world story. And the same is certainly true of a young girl named Mary.

Some of the best Biblical scholars suggest that Mary was no older than a young teenager when she first appears on the scene. Doesn’t that make you raise an eyebrow or two?  A teenager fulfills one of the more prominent roles in the Christmas story. Now, I don’t about you, but when I was a young teenager, the things of God were not usually the first thoughts to cross my mind. I was concerned with things like homework and baseball and avoiding my chores. If I could get out of bed and make it to 8:00 church, that was a win! But all joking aside, do you want to know the real reason I didn’t think much about God? I wasn’t sure God could or would use teenagers. Maybe it’s because I only ever saw adults (most of them happened to be men, by the way) preaching, and teaching and sitting on boards and councils- you know, the places where the real ministry action happens. And I guess I started down a path that suggested you had to be a certain age with certain life experiences to be play a part in what God is doing. But Mary has since changed my perspective. 

There are lots of theories as to why God chose Mary to be the theotokos, a Greek word meaning the “God-carrier” or vessel of the Savior of the world. Some have suggested that it was Mary’s innocent nature that attracted God’s attention, or maybe it was the way she lived out a fervent devotion to God. Others have suggested it was her sexual purity- she had never been intimate with another human being. And some have even thought that Mary’s life had a certain quality of holiness that just wasn’t typical for the average person. But there’s a part of me that wonders if God chose Mary for a different sort of reason. Now, I know I could get in trouble for saying this in some circles, but what if God’s reason for choosing Mary was less about Mary and more about God. In no way am I trying to downplay Mary’s attributes and character. I’m sure she was a wonderful, God-fearing human being. But what if Mary’s role in the story says more about God? What if God, in choosing Mary, is showing the world that all things are possible with Him? Because let’s face it. The last person we expect to carry the Son of God into this world is an unwed teenage girl. That’s not how we would’ve written the story, and we come to find out that even Mary was perplexed.

Whatever God’s reason, it’s clear that God has a plan…but Mary has some questions and concerns. When the angel announces to her God’s plans, Mary doesn’t just jump in and say, “Here I am, I’ll do whatever you want!” Instead, she asks, how can this be? Out of perplexity, Mary responds to God’s plan by entering into a conversation with God’s messenger.  I think that’s a wonderful gift God offers to Mary, because it signals that Mary has a choice in this. And God is willing to entertain Mary’s fears, concerns, and questions. I appreciate how one pastor describes this moment: “…Not only has God chosen Mary, God gives Mary the space and time to choose as well.” [1]

God has chosen us to play a part in His story, but it’s not one-sided. God always gives us the opportunity to choose Him, as well. In those moments between God’s invitation to Mary and Mary’s eventual “yes,” there was a pause. I don’t know how long the pause lasted, but it was at least long enough for Mary to mull everything over. I can’t even begin to imagine what went through Mary’s mind when God’s plan was revealed, but I know what usually happens in my mind. I begin to think of all the ways my life will change and the various apple carts that could be upset. I think of the people who will “get it” and jump on board, but also those who might walk away. I think of the dreams that could be crushed…or discovered; the opportunities that could be lost…or gained; I think of the work it will take and the blessings it could offer; but mostly, I think of this: how is it that I’m the right person for the job? And the answer is always the same: the Holy Spirit will do this. That’s what makes the impossible things of the world possible for God. God’s Spirit will do in and through us what we can’t do on our own! And that was enough for Mary to sign on the dotted line!

George had signed on the dotted line years ago. He tried so hard to get out of Bedford Falls, but Bedford Falls was exactly where he needed to be. There was a moment, however, when George Bailey paused to consider whether his life made any difference or not. And that pause painted a sad truth: the sight of Bedford Falls without George Bailey was rather quite ugly. Mr. Gower was a homeless drunk. Harry drowned in the pond. Ernie’s marriage failed. Martini and his family never make it out of Potter’s slums. Without George around, there just wasn’t much belief that things could be different. Clarence the Angel put it this way: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” What a difference one person can make.

Just like George’s life shaped many in ways he never knew, Mary’s life has the same effect on our faith. Because in spite of all her fears, worries and trepidations, she believes that God can do this. It might be crazy for a teenager to carry the Son of God in the world, but Mary chooses to believe. And this belief doesn’t stop there. It carries over into a beautiful song where Mary invites us to believe what is sometimes hard for us to see: to believe that God sees us, even in our difficult conditions; to believe that God will do great things for us; to believe that God offers us mercy and strength; to believe that God will correct the wrongs of the world, putting the abusers and powerful in their place, and lifting up the lowly, the forgotten, and the sad; to believe that God will fill us, help us and finally, God will remember us. No matter who we are, where we are and what we’ve done, God will remember us.

You might not feel as if you’re a big part of God’s story, but God does. This Christmas, I invite you to believe again in the wonderful news that God is sharing in His Son Jesus. But I’ll invite you to take one further step: I’ll invite you this Christmas to believe again that you also are a part of this story. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is offering to use you as a vessel of his holy work- tearing down strongholds, caring for the forgotten, blessing the nobodies of the world, healing the sick, filling the hungry with good things and so much more. And all this is possible because of God. May we find the same faith this Christmas that Mary found, a faith that chooses to believe that God can do anything. Amen.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

It's A Wonderful Life- Hope In It

It’s a Wonderful Life: Hope In It
Matthew 3: 1-12

You have one of those conversations when the right person at the right time spoke that changed the way you looked at the world? I had one a few years ago. Before I grew in my understanding of social dynamics, I was a little judgmental in my attitude towards people who lived differently that I did. In my small hometown, I didn’t notice many differences between this family or that family-probably because I wasn’t looking. But when I did start to notice, I had lots of questions. If you’re in debt, why would you spend more money? If you need to eat, why don’t you sell something of value? And the biggie- If you’re trying to make ends meet, why are you spending all your money on worthless items like cigarettes? Now, I’m not proud of those thoughts, but they reflected something about my upbringing that wasn’t true of everybody…I had what I needed to live a good life. And because of that, I had hope. Lots of it.  And that was the difference. I didn’t know this until conversation with the head of a local social service non-profit a few years ago. I brought these questions to her attention- concerns, really- and she gracefully looked me in the eye and gave me an answer I’ll never forget: They have no hope, Brett. They have no thought of a future, because they’re not convinced they have one.

One of the more dangerous things that can happen to a person or society is to experience hope slipping away. When we start to lose our hope, we start to lose our hearts. And when we lose our hearts, we begin to lose the very essence of what it means to be human. Numerous studies reveal that hopelessness leads to serious problems- physical, emotional and relational, and if we get to a point where we feel that hope is a pipe dream, we’re bound to throw in the towel and give up. And in those moments, those moments when we can’t see a way forward, we need a fresh voice to call us back, a fresh perspective to help us see our lives and circumstances in a different light.

George Bailey was that fresh voice for the Board of the Building and Loan. Following the passing of his father, Peter, who was the life and soul of the company, the Board was left in a quandary. They all knew Peter was the engine that made the company run, and so long as Peter was in charge, the Building and Loan had a captain to steer through the ups and downs. With Peter at the helm, the Building and Loan stayed afloat and became a source of encouragement for the average Bedford Falls resident. But now he was gone, and mean old Mr. Potter was capitalizing on the Board’s fear. Where’s all this good will going to get us, Mr. Potter asked. It’s just going to create a bunch of discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class…And all because a lot of starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas. I’m guessing the Board never thought of it that way, but Mr. Potter now had their full attention. Maybe he was right. Maybe they would be better off just selling the company and cutting their losses. Maybe they were foolish, because instead of just making money, they were trying to do something hopeful for their community. Maybe it was all a waste of time. And sensing the temperature in the room changing, George Bailey stands up and utters the words that begin to turn the story around: Now hold on just a minute.

We don’t see those words in any of our texts for today, but it’s clear that God’s people needed something to turn their story around. Their lives weren’t awful, but they weren’t full of hope, either. They were stuck under Roman rule, which made it hard to accept their identity as God’s people. And the longer they waited for God to fulfill his salvation plans, the more susceptible they became to giving up and giving in. I think Zacchaeus is a great example. I don’t know if Zaccheaus was a victim of hopelessness or not, but he certainly abided by the “If you can’t beat them, join them” theory. And he hired himself out to the Romans as a tax collector and began to charge more than what the average citizen had been asked to pay. That’s a good way to lose your identity. That’s a good way to forget who you are. And it’s to that people, a people in danger of giving up, that God sends a fresh voice named John the Baptist.

Of all the Advent characters we sing about and talk about, John the Baptist is probably the least desirable. You know why? Because he’s the type of guy who loves us so much that he’ll tell us off from time to time. We need those people. We don’t always like them, but we need them. John the Baptist is an important voice. Like a doctor who tells us news we need, but don’t necessarily want to hear, John speaks truth in a way that cuts to the heart, but he does it for one reason: he wants to remind us that we are people of a different story. And there are times we get off course and forget out what and who we’re all about.

John the Baptist’s first word for us is repent, which all in all is a good word, but probably needs some redemption. It really is a word for a hope-filled people, but I’m not sure that’s the image that comes to mind when we hear it. I have a feeling that the word repent evokes some negative emotions in us, kind of like the feeling you get when you’re caught doing something you know you shouldn’t have been doing or when the doctor looks at you and says, “You really need to lose some weight.” When it’s abused, the word repent is a “bad dog” word, a word that points out all the bad things and weighs us down with guilt and shame. But that’s not the heart of this word. At its heart, repent invites us to walk in a different way, to turn from an unhealthy reality to a new one. It’s a word that speaks a fresh invitation to leave the tired, worn out ways behind, the ways that slowly decay our spiritual vitality, and instead embrace a new direction in life. And that direction, says John the Baptist, is the Kingdom of Heaven. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.

I’m sure most of the people who heard John’s invitation were a bit perplexed because it certainly didn’t look like the Kingdom of Heaven was near. And I think we would say the same thing today. Where is God when all these bad things happen? How can God’s Kingdom be real when tragedies strike? Why should I follow God when my life feels so lousy? That’s what happens when we forget that our faith is built on hope. We grow desensitized to the story that’s defined us and more importantly, we grow desensitized to the One who is writing the story – the Lord of all Creation. In a sense, that’s what was happening to the Board of the Building and Loan. They were struggling to remember their story because of unfortunate circumstances. Without Peter Bailey around, they quickly forgot the why behind the business, and it had very little to do with making money. But George’s prophetic voice called them to repent, to “hold on just a minute” and remember the truth instead of believing Potter’s lies.

There are lies all around our world that seek to drain the hope out of our souls and create a chasm between us and the deep love of Jesus Christ. And if we’re not careful, we’ll start to believe those lies. But there’s nothing a lie fears worse than the truth. Paul Joseph Goebbels, was the Reich Minister of Propaganda under Adolph Hitler and was known for touting the “big lie” about the Jewish race. In explaining his tactics, Goebbels said this: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the…consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Despite every reason to quit believing, God’s people have always been a people of hope. And that’s because as crazy as it sounds, John the Baptist was telling the truth- the Kingdom of heaven IS near. And not long after John’s proclamation, the long awaited Savior of the Universe appeared on the scene and saved the day. But more than that, he offered with his life to save the world and set us free from the lies of evil, sin and shame. When God’s people were stuck in chains in Egypt, they held on to that future hope. When they wandered for 40 years in the desert wilderness, it was that hope that kept them moving. When Daniel was thrown into the den of lions, he, too, held on to that future hope that would one day take the form of a baby born to a virgin in Bethlehem. And now it’s our turn. This is our story, and we must hope in it. We hope in it by turning and returning to this story over and over and over again. We turn to it in the face of sickness. We turn to it in spite of darkness. We turn to it when we our love fails. We turn to it when tragedy strikes. We turn to it when our questions go unanswered and our prayers seem to fall flat. We turn to it because we need it.

At the end of his speech, his “truth-telling” to old Mr. Potter, George Bailey had one more thing to say to the Board. He couldn’t make a decision for them. They would have to do that on their own. But he could remind them of their vital work. “There’s just one more thing,” says George, “this town needs this measly one-horse institution, if only to have someplace where people can come without crawling to Potter.” This world, brothers and sisters, needs our story, as crazy as it sounds, of a God who so loved the world. Without this story, we’ll continually crawl to the lies that only leave us empty and wanting more. In Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. So let’s turn to it. And let us return with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength to one born in Bethlehem.  Let’s place our hope in Him. Amen.