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.