Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Advent Conspiracy- Love All

Dec. 24th         The Advent Conspiracy- Love All
Scripture: Luke 2: 1-16

Today we’re wrapping up our Advent sermon series entitle “The Advent Conspiracy.” And I hope you’ve found it to be a worthwhile way to spend your time leading up to Christmas. Along the way we’ve been asking an important question: Can Christmas still change the world? And if we believe the answer is yes, which I think we do, then somehow we are called to celebrate in meaningful ways that reflect the hope of that first Christmas that changed everything. We’ve suggested three ways we can do that: Worship fully, spend less, and give more. Today we add one more game-changer: Love All.

The first pastors to lead their churches through the Advent Conspiracy once shared a powerful moment with a tribal chief in an African village. I wanted to share their story with you:“We stopped at a village that, like many others, welcomed us with beautiful smiles and open arms. We were led through tall grasses, away from the village, to what they referred to as their “well.” If it was a well, it was not like any well we’d ever seen. It sat next to a swamp that leached untold disease into the water from which families drew their water every day. This stagnant, gray-green pool infested with insects was all these people had. Even as we talked with the village elders, women would casually brush away the film that clung to the top as they filled their pots…Surely God was leading us…

We knew that in several weeks our churches would be taking Christmas offerings…and in a couple of months this village would not have to rely on that well ever again. For us, this was good news and we wanted to share it with the chief and his elders. When this message of hope was delivered—with great passion from a translator from the area who was as excited as we were—the weathered face of this honorable elder remained impassive. He simply stared at us. Even our translator was puzzled by this lack of emotion. When he asked the chief if he understood what this would mean for his people, the answer was unforgettable: ‘Others have made promises in the name of Jesus, but they were never kept.’ Here was a man whose hope had dried up and blown away because others had made promises in the name of Jesus that they’d never bothered to keep.[1]

For this tribal chief, Christmas, and all that it means, had yet to change his world. He had heard the stories of faith, about God so loving the world that He gave His only Son…but that love never materialized beyond words. Hope, peace, joy and love were concepts he had heard and maybe even yearned for…but he experienced them only as empty promises. I wonder how many people have given up on life being different because of too many empty promises?

In one of his most striking teaching moments, Jesus reminds us that theology is not something we talk about; it’s something we do, and never does that apply more than to our understand of love. Love is meant to be communicated in a tangible way, and it’s meant to be communicated to ALL the world. In Matthew 25, a teaching typically given the title The Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. The problem, however, is that we need to be able to define who the “least of these” are in our lives. I saw a Facebook meme the other day that really put this into perspective. It was a portrayal of the story of the Good Samaritan, who was leaning over the man who had been left for dead on the road, bandaging his wounds and caring for his physical needs. And just above that picture was another man, walking away in his white robe and shouting out “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Immediately, I began to think about Jesus’ question: Which of these was the neighbor? Or in other words, Which of these best represented love? The point Jesus makes is that a Samaritan can find a way to love a Jew, and vice versa, if we’re intentional about it. You see, if we reserve our best efforts to love those who look like us and act like us, we’ll probably miss out on a miracle. We’ll probably miss out on an opportunity to bless the Savior who often co-mingles with broken, the bruised and the forgotten. That sounds good and all, until we see that Jesus is serious, because that’s exactly how he chose to make his grand entrance to the world. He chose to root himself among the “least of these” in a little town called Bethlehem.

God could’ve chosen a different place. He could’ve set up this birth narrative in Jerusalem or Rome or Egypt. But none of those places would’ve sufficed. They were places full of political power and might, where the religious mingled with the “haves” and all too often neglected the “have nots.” They are exactly the type of places you would think God would make his grand entrance, where the real big decisions are made. Instead, God had his finger on a place called Bethlehem. Bethlehem was simply a dot on the map, too little to be among the larger clans, said the old prophet Micah. In the grand scheme of things, Bethlehem is sort of forgotten territory, an out of the way place, the sort of place where one would not go to find breaking news. But Bethlehem did have a history. It was the home of a former shepherd boy who was once anointed to be the next great king of Israel. The funny thing is that the old priest doing the anointing, a man named Samuel, almost overlooked the boy. Young David didn’t look the part, but that didn’t matter to God. God was doing something in him, and God cut through all the labels and all cultural definitions and said, “It’s him. I want this guy to lead my people.” Even Samuel had trouble believing, so God told him, “Do not look at his appearance or the height of his stature…For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

That’s the history of Bethlehem. It’s a place where God looks beyond the cultural norms and sees what nobody else sees. It’s the place where the heart of the matter takes on a role far more prominent than what the eye can see. And it’s where he’ll change the world through the birth of the Messiah. Bethlehem becomes the place where God invites us to participate in a new narrative of divine love for all and challenges us to blur the lines between who is “in” and who is “out.”

In Bethlehem, we see God creating a new story through ways that hadn’t been done before. We see a young pregnant couple that would be fodder for our dinner table gossip. I mean, when’s the last time you heard of a couple getting pregnant outside of marriage? My guess is that your first thought wasn’t about God’s initiative or activity or role in their story, but about the shame, the humility, the sin. But yet God tells Joseph that the Holy Spirit is conceiving something new. This baby has to be different. This birth has to be unlike all other births. Or else we’ll only get the same old ending. Bethlehem invites us to start with love and work our way from there.

In Bethlehem we see a group of shepherds startled by the glorious songs of the angels. If we could hang out with the shepherds today, we wouldn’t hang out too long. We’d ask them how long it’s been since they showered. We’d wonder why they smell so bad or don’t go out and get a real job. We’d question whether or not they would ever make it in the “real world” because they worked a meaningless job. I mean, they’re grandest is making sure these lowly sheep have enough food to eat. And yet they are the first to hear the good news of salvation. These nobodies. These ones who have been cast –aside from society. These forgotten ones. These lowly shepherds. And it happened when love came down in a little place called Bethlehem.

It was love that first changed the world, a love that often shows up in unexpected places through unexpected ways. If we’re not paying attention, we can miss out on the mystery of Bethlehem because we don’t think anything significant could happen there. In the same way, we can miss out on the significance of Christmas because we don’t scratch the surface enough to find Jesus. Christmas is primarily about love, God’s no-nonsense love for a world that made it’s home where love was most needed. And if that’s what Christmas is all about, then we need to love well and love all.

A few years ago, somebody created a Christmas version of the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians. I thought I’d share that with you as we wrap up today: If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strings of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator; If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook; If I work in the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing; If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata, but do not focus on those I love the most, I have missed the point…In other words, Love stops the cooking to hug a child; Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the spouse. Love is kind, though harried and tired; Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens. Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are to be in the way; Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can’t. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust; But the gift of love will endure.

I can’t think of any better conspiracy than one of love, a love that focuses on those who mean the most to us, and a love that stretches to the least of these. That’s how Christmas changes the world. As you prepare to celebrate this year, which narrative will you follow this Christmas? Will you follow the cultural narrative that suggests consumption is the best way to celebrate? Or the narrative that suggests Christmas is about God’s love for the overlooked, the forgotten, the lost and the lonely, a love so deep that He laid down his life for all? Amen.

[1] Advent Conspiracy. Pp 81-83

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Advent Conspiracy- Give More

Dec. 16/17     The Advent Conspiracy: Give More
Matthew 1: 18-25

We’ve been spending our weeks leading up to Christmas in a series called The Advent Conspiracy, where we’ve been asking the question, “Can Christmas still change the world? And our answer is “Yes!” You see, if we trade in our consumption for compassion and learn some new habits, I believe we can experience Christmas like never before. So far in this series we’ve explored how we can worship fully and spend less. Today, we learn how we can give more.

Have you ever tried to explain the meaning of Christmas to a child? It’s a tall task. Our kids have to be awfully confused in today’s culture, what with all the Ho, Ho, Ho’s and snowmen. And even if we want to shield our little ones from wrong impressions, we’re facing an uphill battle. When Reagan was born, Joanna and I made the decision that we weren’t going to focus on Santa. Santa just wasn’t going to be a frequent conversation piece in our house. Not that we had anything against the idea, we just weren’t going to allow Santa to become a focus. But we simply couldn’t compete with the rest of our family and friends and school parties. I finally threw up my hands after hearing another well-meaning adult ask, “And what is Santa going to bring you this year?” In the end, we simply had to conclude that we better be awfully good at telling our kids the true story of Christmas.

You know, one way we can celebrate Christmas differently is to tell the actual story. You might think it’s a story that’s well known, but I think most of us would be surprised at how little today’s culture knows about Jesus. I have a feeling that our kids probably know more about the North Pole than Bethlehem. But there is good news! The story of Jesus sounds a whole lot more believable than the other stories that fill up our movies and songs. So one of the ways we can give more this Christmas is to become good at telling others about the birth of the Savior.

The story begins on a dark note, in a nation filled with a history of ups and downs. Israel has been enslaved by other countries and robbed of their dignity and independence for a good portion of their existence. First it was Egypt, then Babylon, now it is Rome. And the Jewish people are waiting…waiting for God to move, waiting for hope to break through, waiting for new life to enter their troubled world. And little do they know that everything they’re waiting for is beginning to take shape in a little known couple from Nazareth.

Joseph and Mary go down in history as one of the most important couples in the world, but their story began in relative obscurity. They were an average couple, pledged to be married, which was a little more serious than an engagement. They had not consummated their relationship with sexual activity, and so you can imagine the shock when Joseph hears the news that Mary is pregnant. In that single moment, he could’ve ruined her life. This was grounds for some pretty severe punishment and a strong smear campaign, but instead, Joseph takes a different approach: he’ll divorce her quietly. And so we begin to see that the Christmas story begins in the messiness of a plan for divorce. There’s something real and gritty about this story that sounds a lot like the world we know. This sounds like a story that could easily happen today.

As the story continues, Joseph’s life is interrupted again, this time by an angel that gives him a new perspective. This baby is not the result of unfaithfulness; this is not the adulterous affair of a man who can’t keep his hands off a vulnerable woman; no, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the baby conceived in Mary is the one all of Israel has been waiting for. The angel says that baby shall be called Jesus, and he will save the people from their sins. And although he probably didn’t realize the full reality of this announcement, Joseph understands that something out-of-the-ordinary is happening here. This baby will be God-in-the-flesh. This baby will be God’s grandest revelation of love and presence in a dark and lonely world.

Now, in the past, God spoke to creation in many ways, but his loudest proclamation was this moment, the gift of his son. This baby is God with us. The Gospel of John puts it this way: The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Not some distant God, not a God who exists only in stories on paper, not a God of history, but God with us. That’s a phenomenal thought that deserves our serious attention. Cheryl Lawrie, a disciple from Australia, has thought long and hard about the ramifications of such good news. She put her reflections in a poem. I’d like to read it for you: We are tempted to think that this is out of character for you, a momentary fragility showing your tender side; that once the Christmas carols are finished and the decorations are put away, you’ll get back to power and might. But in your completeness—this one chance we get to see flesh and bone put onto the theory – this is you; fragile, impossibly vulnerable, and at the mercy of human response. (Poem taken from The Advent Conspiracy Sermon Notes).

 Come to think of it, that’s a pretty startling revelation. God doesn’t come to us in power and might and with thunder and lightning; he comes to us in the vulnerable form of a baby who is completely at the mercy of frail and broken human beings, an innocent child held in the arms of a young woman and her husband. That’s the Christmas story. That’s the gritty, no-nonsense story that should have us on our knees in worship. Not a gift under a tree; not a toy shop at the North Pole, not a magic hat that causes snowmen to come alive; but the wonder-invoking truth that God, in the flesh, has come to be with us. And in this story, God answers one of the questions that lingers deeply within each us- Are you with me, God?

Are you with me when I get the news I don’t want to get? Are you with me when my hopes have been dashed? Are you with me when things seem to fall off the rails? Are you with me when I can’t sleep at night? Are you with me when my loved one is no longer here? Are you with me when I can’t seem to get ahead? God, are you with me? And somewhere, testimonies of a young, scared couple named Mary and Joseph whisper into our souls, “Yes, God is with you.”

It’s hard to explain the transformation that takes places when you realize that God has fully given himself to you, and he’s held nothing back. There’s something simple, yet powerful when you experience the fullness of someone’s presence in your life. Mary’s fear was eclipsed by joyful song and meditation. Joseph’s thoughts of divorce quickly evaporated into a deep commitment to God’s plans. Peter, James and John left their boats to follow. Paul traded in his hatred for love. You can’t buy that type of transformation with money, nor do you find it wrapped neatly under a tree; that type of change happens only when you are fully present with others.

I struggled emotionally during my first few months of of college. I was at homesick. There was no place on earth like my home. And so every weekend, my dad would drive to Slippery Rock and pick me up. It wasn’t because I had important work to do or big plans; it was mostly because I wanted to be with my family. Those years were some of the most meaningful years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything because they satisfied a deep longing in my soul. And the only thing it cost was gas.

And so when it comes to Christmas, we learn from God that one of the best gifts we can give is our presence. To be with someone, in the midst of their joys and sorrows, is a gift that blesses, transforms, renews, strengthens and comforts. It’s a gift that says, “I see you. You are not alone. And you don’t have to carry this burden by yourself.” Bishop Joe Pennel writes of a time when he experienced this gift from a parishioner. Listen to his story, “At the age of two, our youngest daughter had surgery. The surgery was not classified as serious, but it was formidable for her mother and me. While she was in surgery, I looked across the hospital room and saw Travis, a member of a former congregation… He had driven 125 miles to see us. When our eyes met, he said, ‘I just came to be with you.’ The tone of his voice brought comfort to us although he did not talk much. He showed his love for us by simply being present…His physical presence brought a comforting presence that embodied love for us.”[1]

That’s what it means to give more. A physical presence that brings an inward comforting presence that would not otherwise be known. That’s the gift of Christmas -- embodied love. So let me ask you something? If you can bring warmth, joy and comfort to others simply by being present with them, then why not do it? Maybe this Christmas, it’s time to stop thinking about calling up that person for a visit and just do it. Maybe this Christmas, it’s time to put down the phones, the ipads and the technology and pay attention. Maybe this Christmas, it’s time to slow down and give more of you. Money can’t buy the difference you want to make. No tangible item can impact your loved one the way you want it to. Only your presence can do that. And I think Jesus will tell you it’s good for the soul. So this Christmas, however you choose to do it, worship fully, spend less and give more—of you! Amen.

[1] The Gift of Presence- p. 24

Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent Conspiracy - Spend Less

Dec. 9/10       The Advent Conspiracy- Spend Less
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12

            We’re ready to kick off week 2 of our Advent sermon series entitled The Advent Conspiracy, and if you weren’t able to join us last week, or if you simply need a reminder, last week challenged us to worship fully. If we do anything different this Christmas, we should worship fully…because Christmas isn’t about us; it’s about Jesus. Christmas begins and ends with Jesus. And if we forget to worship fully (or neglect to worship at all), we can be sure that our Christmas celebrations won’t be nearly as meaningful as they are meant to be. Because the closer you are drawn to this Savior, the more you’ll begin to see your life change in ways you did not think were possible.

            Change begins to take place the moment Mary is told she’s having a baby. Babies do that, you know. When babies are born, or even when parents receive the news that a baby is on the way, there’s a disturbance in the force. I was in the final year of seminary when Joanna woke me up and said, “I have some news for you…” And those simple words changed our lives forever. In the few seconds that Joanna took to show me the positive pregnancy test, something shifted in our beings. Immediately, our priorities and even the way we defined our lives took on new meaning. There was at once a mix of joy and fear, excitement and trepidation, wonder and mystery. Grocery lists would now include formula and diapers and all sorts of other products that would change our spending habits. Everything, including our budget, was about to change. And so it was with the birth of this baby born in Bethlehem.

            I guess you never realize just how much change takes place when new life enters the world, but it’s more than we recognize. Mary and Joseph had their worlds turned upside down by Jesus, but they weren’t the only ones…Magi from other countries heard about this little guy, so much so that they hopped on their camels to look for him. The other person who caught wind of this baby’s birth was King Herod, and he immediately called the local pharmacy to order a second supply of Prozac. You wouldn’t think a baby would pose a threat to this mighty king, but this is no ordinary king.

Herod was a king who had it all and yet in reality, he had nothing. Placed in his position by the Roman Emperor Ceasar, Ceasar once said about Herod, “I would rather be his pig than his son.” He stopped at nothing to get what he wanted because he lived in a constant state of anxiety and fear. The man feared that he would never have enough…or worse, he feared he would some end up losing what he DID have. With this news that a messiah is to be born, Herod can sense of shifting of the tides and fears that life is about to change. And so to combat this anxiety, Herod found ways to keep influential people by his side. He rubbed elbows with the religious leaders of the day; he made sure the community’s movers and shakers were on his side; and he even tried to buddy up with the Magi from the East. Herod learns from the Magi’s visit that Jesus’ birth is to take place somewhere near Bethlehem, and so he invites the Magi to locate the child and then report back to him so that he, too, may go and worship. But that’s just his excuse. Herod has no interest in worship. He has no interest in this child, except to use this child to get what he wants. And what he wants is MORE!

That sounds pretty twisted doesn’t it? Using the birth of baby for selfish gain? Exploiting someone else’s happiness to keep on filling pockets that are already oversized and overstuffed? Yet that’s exactly what Christmas has become for so many. The one night meant to set people free, the pinnacle of hope for a dark world, has become an obsession for more, and more and more. King Herod went on a killing spree, resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 baby boys, simply because he wanted more and didn’t want to lose out. And while that’s not our story, our own desire for more cannot be ignored. According to a study done last year, the average American consumer tacks on a fresh $1,000 of debt during Christmas due to undisciplined spending habits. [1]Those are the types of sprees we go on (and sometimes people DO get trampled in the process. I’ve been in the malls on Black Friday!) because we don’t want to lose out, nor do we want our loved ones to lose out, on the latest edition, toy or device. But what if God had something else in mind with the birth of His Son?

Later in his life, Jesus cautioned his disciples about this unhealthy need for more. He talked about storing up treasures in heaven, the stuff that that is eternal and abundant, instead of storing up treasures on earth, which will only rot, decay and someday end up in somebody else’s hands. And then he ended with something interesting. He says, “Wherever your treasure is, that’s where you’ll find your heart.” I think what Jesus is saying is that our souls are influenced by our pursuits and habits. If we pursue the wrong things, or even the right things with the wrong intentions, something happens to the core of who we are. And if we continue to pursue all the wrong things, we’ll discover an insatiable appetite that is never fully satisfied. We’ll always be on the hunt for the next big thing, or the next model or the next toy…and we’ll end up just as empty inside as when we started. That doesn’t sound like Christmas at all!  So what’s the solution? How do we celebrate Christmas in a way that fills our hearts with joy and meaning?  Those are the questions that plagued the Cherry family from Austin Texas just a few years ago.

The Cherrys were growing weary with their Christmas spending. It was out of control, and they were feeling almost queasy about their habits. So they made a decision: they would slash their spending budget. And at first, they were nervous. They had all the questions we would have. What will the kids think of this? Will they think we love them less? Will we still be able to provide a memorable Christmas? But the true beauty of Christmas changed them. Listen to their testimony: “When we first talked with the boys about changing or Christmas budget, they were a little disappointed. But looking back, I don’t remember seeing any of that on Christmas Day. David and I are so grateful for the Advent Conspiracy. We knew things didn’t feel right, that there was something askew with our Christmases—but we couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was wrong. I remember thinking something must be missing…Now I know that more for us actually means a whole lot less.”

Maybe you’ve felt that way, too. Maybe there’s something about your Christmas traditions that don’t feel quite right. Something about King Herod’s comment about worship didn’t feel right to the Magi, so they hurried off to find the one born in Bethlehem, and then they returned home by another route. Might I suggest that maybe this year we should take another route so that Christmas may change us once more? Might I suggest that the way to experience MORE this Christmas is to actually spend less?

Spending less is obviously good for our budgets. And less debt and financial stress is good for our overall health. I can’t imagine any of us would be upset about saving money during Christmas. So simply slashing our spending budgets might be a really healthy discipline that could very well change our hearts. But spending less doesn’t mean spending nothing. It’s more than that. Spending less means spending wisely; it means spending in a way to glorifies God and truly lifts up the name of Christ during this hope-filled time of year. So here are three ways that you can spend less by spending wisely:

First, spend thoughtfully. And by that, I mean this: Put some serious thought into truly understanding the people you buy for. Do your gifts truly represent their needs, passions and personalities? Or are they just gifts? And what story do the gifts tell? Do they speak to the depth to which you know your loved one? What a difference it would make if you had a personal meaning behind every gift you gave. Much has been made of the symbolism of the Magi’s gift to Christ, but one thing is for certain: these were not gifts that would be sold as the community yard sale next year. These were gifts fit for a king. So if you want to spend less this year, spend thoughtfully.

Secondly, spend responsibly. And by that I mean to spend in ways that reflect your core values as a disciple of Jesus. This one will require some homework on our part, and maybe even a little bit of research because it asks us to consider the ways we love our global neighbors. For instance: Do you know where your gifts come from? And I’ll let you in on something: Your gifts don’t just appear at a department store or on a website like Amazon. Some of the toys you’ve bought were packaged by children the same age as the little ones you wish to surprise on Christmas Day…and they weren’t allowed a drink of water while they worked. Some of the jewelry we wear is adorned with diamonds that came out of the blood diamond fields of Africa. Even some of the clothes we wear were fashioned in sweatshops as a form of modern day slave labor. If Christmas truly is about God so loving the world, how can our Christmas spending should reflect that love? There are all sorts of fair trade companies and small-town businesses in our world that can help us confidently proclaim, “No human rights were violated by the making and buying of this gift.” That’s a bold way to celebrate the One who came to save us all!

Third, spend sacrificially. And by that, I mean to give more of your self, which costs a lot more than money and shopping trips. We’ll talk more about this next week, but one of the best ways to spend less is to give more of you. And when we think about it, isn’t that what makes Christmas Christmas? It’s people that make all the difference in the world, not a gadget. The greatest gift ever given was a person, Jesus Christ, and his presence with us brings peace, joy, hope and love. That’s what the Magi found that day. Not an object, but a person they would forever influence their lives. Ultimately, the Magi returned home by another route because God had disrupted their lives at the sight of this baby. Maybe it’s time for this Savior to disrupt our lives once more and to help us celebrate Christmas with new meaning. Amen.