Monday, January 31, 2011

Changes . . .

The Sermon on the Mount is one of those teachings of Jesus which seems to transcend our religion and work its way into the social fabric around us. People of all walks of life seem to know much of it. Far too often, it seems to become a reason for people to have left the Church or have abandoned their faith. Why? Much of the blame, of course, lies with us pastors and preachers. If I had a dollar for every time a man told me he could not stand the teaching because it makes men become “girlie-men” or “wimps,” our budget would no doubt be balanced. And, in their defense, it does seem to do that by worldly standards. We are told by Jesus to be humble—I am sure we will see that kind of behavior on display during Super Bowl scores, we are told to be meek—ya, that always helps us get ahead when climbing corporate ladders, we are told to be merciful—like everyone else is always merciful to us when we ask for help or a day off or something else, and we are told to rejoice when we are persecuted for His name’s sake—You want us to rejoice that we are being teased? Are You nuts? It is no wonder that the Sermon does not resonate with men who like those new Irish Spring commercials about a man's man.

And to be fair, the sermon sometimes aggravates women, though they seem not to be nearly as vocal about it as the “manly” men. Again, I think the fault lies with the preachers and teachers. Far too often, we are taught that the Sermon is a “to do” list. The Sermon is put before us like a list that ought to be stuck to our refrigerators at home. Was I humble today? Was I meek today? Did I hunger and thirst for righteousness, or was I sort of nibbling? We see the list and begin to think of ourselves as failures. Between running the kids to school and practices and putting in 55 hours at the office this week, who has time to work on these behaviors? In between the laundry and meals, how can I be expected to work on a pure heart? Has He seen my to-do list, and now He wants to add these many more?

The truth is, brothers and sisters, the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be a check list or a to-do list. It is not even meant to eviscerate so-called “manly” men. It is meant, however, to teach us a great deal about discipleship. First and foremost brothers and sisters, how are these transformations carried out in our lives? When we decide to follow Jesus, when we make that commitment to become His disciple, how is the change enacted within us? Put another way, do we circumcise our own hearts? Do we got to a hospital and ask them to cut the fat or hardness out? And do we head to the spiritual work-out room? Do we walk meek-masters instead of stairmasters? Do we find ourselves focusing of a spiritual set of muscle groups in our bodies the way we might when we are strengthening our bodies physically? No. God, acting through the Holy Spirit, begins that process, in some of our cases, that looonnnnngggggg process of sanctification, in our lives. Put still another way, He changes us.

God is the one who makes us worthy to stand before Him, as our Prayer Book reminds us. We don’t do it ourselves. We can’t go to some spiritual weight room and exercise our various muscle groups in an effort to train ourselves. We don’t build ourselves up, at least not in the way that many of us would like to build ourselves up. Our big contribution to this process is a contrite heart. We repent, we pray for forgiveness, and we ask to serve Him. That’s really about it. True, we are called to pray without ceasing. True, we are called to gather together often and worship Him. True, we are called to meet Him daily in the Scriptures, which He revealed to us. But it’s not like any physical activity that the manly men train for. The change which occurs in us is wrought by God.

Of course, the fact that the change is wrought by Him acting upon us does not mean that we cannot identify the changes in our lives. And, part of the function of this sermon is to demonstrate to the believer whether He or she is truly following Christ. Think back to when you first made the decision. Comparing then to now, are you more poor in spirit? Do you find yourself mourning a bit more? Does the more you learn about God make you want to know Him more and more? Do you find yourself trying to make peace rather than start fights? Do you not find yourself living a life more like the life described by our Lord in this sermon? Thinking back to who you were before you accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, do you think you could have ever imagined, let alone foreseen, this transformation in you? What if your answers to those questions are “no”? What if you find yourself more full of pride, more of a war-maker, more indifferent to the death and suffering around you? Did you really accept Him as Lord and Savior? Do you truly love Him? Or do you just want others to think you do and hope that, at the end, church attendance will count like a “get out of hell free” card in a board game?

The Sermon, brothers and sisters, allows us to evaluate both ourselves and those around us. Who do you know that is humble? Who do you know that thirsts for a closer relationship with God? Who do you know that is merciful? Chances are, they are people whom He has placed in our lives to teach us even more about Him. Take the time to get to know them. Take the time to begin to get their story. You might be surprised that they do not see the very qualities in their own lives which you so admires and reminds them of the very real presence of His Holy Spirit in their lives working and shaping them to receive their reward. And chances are, there is something in you which inspires them, and might remind you that He is ever present in your life too!



Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What would it take?

What would it take for you to walk away from everything and follow Jesus?—It is a question which is often provoked by this week’s reading from Matthew. These guys gave up everything to follow Jesus. And when I say everything, they gave up even more than you and I think. James and John left their father, Zebedee, behind to follow this itinerant rabbi named Jesus. Peter and Andrew, by some accounts, seem to have forsaken their responsibilities to their families. Can you imagine the scandal? James and John blew off their dad! Who will care for him and his wife as they get too old to work? Andrew and Peter ran off and left their families! How will they eat? Who will pay for food? And us, looking back on it, are still shocked. And probably, if most of us tell the truth to ourselves, we thank God He only calls the bishops, priests and deacons and not us in this day and age!

Our Psalm this week reminds us of the attitude which ought to inspire the result we see in the Apostles today. Though we cut out a few verses, the meaning of the Psalm is pretty clear. Yes, there are enemies round about us. Yes, there are forces out to destroy us. They may not be real armies like those that faced David (though given our military situation even that may not be true in places like Afghanistan or North Korea), but we do have enemies. There are people out there trying to do us real harm.

Sometimes, our enemies are those things part imaginary, part real. Many of us worry about how we are going to make the next mortgage payment, find the next job, pay our children’s education, or even buy the next prescribed medicine. We worry that we are too poor, not employable, not resourceful enough, and so our fears, in a way, become our demons. We become like comic strip characters who fear the monsters under our beds, we become like movie characters who fear monsters in the closet, and we become a people who have forgotten our baptismal birthright and our baptismal heritage.

Just as our psalmist states, we are God’s people. And His presence in our lives has a lasting and “real” impact on our lives. When we remember His promises and the wonders He has done, we begin to remind ourselves of our worth in His eyes. Though none of us could have lived with Him or been loved by Him prior to His Son’s sacrifice, He thought us worth that cost to bring us back into relationship with Him, a relationship like that of the good Father and the good son or good daughter.

And so we can face our “demons” with His light. When the world tells us that “it will never work” or “you do not have enough resources,” we remind ourselves that in Him all things are possible and that everything He purposes will come to fruition. Not even death can block His plans or His will for each one of us. When we birth our own demons and listen to our fears, it is His work on the cross and before the authorities of the world that reminds us just how much He loved us. And when we doubt His power to provide, to care, to do whatever we need (and not just wants), it is the empty tomb which reminds us of His power, His power that He is offering to all who would come to Him.

Brothers and sisters, some of the fears and demons in your life are real, and no doubt some of the fears and demons in your life are imaginary. But the Gospel teaches us that His love and His power is every bit as real as some of those forces and powers out to get us. Like our psalmist, you and I should long for His presence. We should desire to always be “hanging out” with God because He is our Father, He loves us dearly, and He will never fail us. You and I might fail our kids because we are human parents. The church might fail in its mission or witness because it is made up of and run by human beings. Institutions will see people slip through the cracks because they conceived of by and staffed by human beings. We each gathered here may have know any number of others to have failed us. In this world, the enemies sometimes seemingly get the upper hand. Death is ever present among us. Bactstabbers seem never to have to pay the price for their behavior. But the Lord God Almighty stands with His hands outstretched offering to adopt us and everyone we meet into His family and into His saving embrace.

Given all that, given His love for you and His power to redeem all things for you, why would you ever hope that He does not call you like He did Andrew, Peter, James and John? In fact, if you believe that His words are true and that He really does love you, how could you or I ever respond in any way different from the way in which they responded? In fact, if our confidence is in Him, how could our attitude be any different than that of the psalmist. Who would not want to be with Him? Who would not want to be under His protection? Who would not want His deliverance from their enemies? How can we not be on the edge of our seats looking expectantly for His deliverance and for His return?

Does He still call? We know that He does. The real difference is our answers, and the answers of those around us, to His call. Too often we say, “ok, just let me . . . “ rather than the simple “Yes, Lord.” We, far too often, forget that our efforts, our hiding from our demons under our beds, becomes a testimony to those lives around us. We forget that we are called to follow where He has led and to let His light shine in our darkness and to trust Him to act for our welfare that others might be drawn to Him. We forget that it is in our weakness He is the strongest, that it is in our powerlessness where His grace bursts forth the brightest. The question this day, for each of us, is how do we respond to His call? Will we follow unreservedly? Or will we place conditions upon ourselves, and thereby hide that wonderful light He so desperately wants to light in the lives of each one of us? Those fishermen that said yes unreservedly helped the faith to spread to the ends of the world. What will be your response this day and every day as we go forward? If He can spread His Gospel all over the world using them, what can’t He do using you?



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

His arrow in His quiver . . .

How can a good God allow such violence? How can you claim God is good and that you belong to Him when so many of you are sick or injured? If you really are His child, why doesn’t he heal you to prove that He exists and loves you? How can you (or they) be loved by Him, when you have no money, are unemployed, or (fill in the blank)?—We have, over the course of the last few days, heard many of these questions and others like them. I know I have heard questions like these, and I have heard people asking some of you over the course of the past few days.

The shootings in Arizona have certainly weighed on the minds of many people in America. We have this incredible need to know the reason “why” such acts are committed. As rational beings, we believe in cause and effect, and we seem always to want to shoehorn events into causes and effects. What could have caused a man to act like this? Harsh language—let’s blame that, never mind that many of us are cussed at or given the finger as we go about life, and most of us will never respond as did he.

In our neighborhood, of course, we are dealing with the death of a battered woman. The crime itself was bad enough (he ran her over with his car repeatedly), but to think that it happened despite the authorities being alerted to the danger unnerves many of those around us. Why was he released from jail? Why did she seem to find batterers? How did they seem to be able to find her?

Those in orbit of our church have noticed our deteriorating health in spite of our discussions about adoption, empowerment, and glorification. “You guys went forever with nobody sick, and now all of you are breaking down or getting sick. Heck, some of you are getting diseases that the doctors can’t figure out. And you want us to believe that God loves you and us?” And they are correct. I went almost a year-and-a-half without a hospital visit. Now, I am lucky to make it a week. To outsiders, we might look crazy for thinking we are loved by God, at least their expectation of such affection.

And, my favorite conversations centered around Community Meal this week. It was our first visit since the Christmas dinner. Larry, Charlie and I were peppered with questions. “You really think God cares about us?” “Why would you waste that much money on people like us?” But my favorite conversation was with horseradish man. I call him that because that is what we forgot last month. I asked everyone last month if there was anything we could have done to make the meal perfect. Most everyone grunted and shook their heads no, but one man had an idea. This is the guy whose buddy punched him in the arm really hard to show him he was not dead or dreaming, just to remind you of whom I am speaking. Anyway, he answered me with horseradish sauce. We had totally spaced the horseradish sauce with the prime rib. After a brief apology, we moved on. Apparently, he caught flack from everyone. He felt the need to corner me and apologize to me on Wednesday. I reminded him that I had asked and he had answered. He did not act or sound remotely ungrateful. “Well, why I have you cornered, can I ask one more question? Do you believe what you prayed, and do you think people like me get to come?” It sounded like two questions to my ears, but I asked him to explain.

Truthfully, I had forgotten what I prayed. But he remembered that I had beseeched God to make the meal an appetizer worthy of the wedding feast to which He calls all of humanity. It sounded good and like something I would say, and I told him that. I told him to sit and we could continue this conversation over his meal. While he ate, we spoke of God being a way better cook than all of us who labored to make them a wonderful Christmas meal. He is, after all, the Creator of all things, seen and unseen. If anyone knows the right spices and right amounts to use at such a meal, it would be Him. And we spoke of wedding feasts, their history and imagery in the Bible. And once that was finished, we were able to get to the real darkness in his life.

For years now, he has been unable to get a decent job. For the past few months, he has bounced from shelter to shelter and friend to friend. It is hard being older and unemployed, but not old enough to retire. It is hard to feel loved, especially by God, when you know what you have lost and see so many with it, and unaware of those going without in their midst. His friends used to try and help, but there was only so much that they could do. Is it true? How can I know? Are you sure it applies even to me? My divine appointment that night was to remind him that His love is true, that all it takes is faith, and that the cross and empty tomb stand as stark reminders both of His love and His power to accomplish all His promises.

Our conversation ended with a thank you both for me and the entire parish. As he teared up and hugged me again, he told me that we had given him the single best gift he had ever received in his life. He wanted to thank all of us for giving him hope in the form of a meal at a time when it seems most acute to him that the world and God have forgotten him. When I asked him if he was just forgetting the good times, he replied that it was the lost good times which caused him to treasure all the more the meal we had prepared and to cling to the hope that God had promised him in the future.

Brothers and sisters, those are just the highlights of my week. What are yours? Where were you used by God to help others understand the true worth of grace and the unparalleled value of His promises? Who was the family member or friend that dogged you for coming to church or for supporting church more than he or she thought you should? Who was the co-worker who asked you why your and your Christian friends still get sick, still lose jobs, maybe act like hypocrites when we claim to be adopted by God? Who in your life snorted when you said you would pray for them or their concerns? I bet it happened, if you will only think about it. Isaiah reminds us of that it will and it does.

In one sense, the passage is about Isaiah and his recognition of the ministry to which God had called him. Think of poor Isaiah. He ministered almost 2800 years ago. It was his calling to tellJudah not to depend upon Assyria but to depend upon God. He got the unenviable job of proclaiming to God’s people that they were not keeping the covenant. Better still, he got to tell them that God would keep the covenant by kicking them out of the land. And, just when things would look to be hopeless and utterly destroyed, He would destroy it once more for good measure. Then, and only then, when things looked totally devoid of hope, God would act. A shoot would sprout from the stumps. Hope would arise from destruction. And God had called Isaiah to this ministry even before he was born.

In another sense, Isaiah is prophesying the arrival of God’s messiah. Just as God had promised to Sarah and Abraham, God had declared to His Anointed that through Him the world would be reached. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” As Paul will explain, drawing upon the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah and upon the prophet Isaiah, Jesus will represent the ultimate fulfillment of His promises. The world will be forced to acknowledge Him. Some will reject Him; some will despise and abhor Him; others will fall down in worship of Him. But the whole world will be taught God’s salvation through Him.

In one last sense, however, this passage of Isaiah from today is fulfilled in your life. Before you were born, He called you! He has made you like a sharp sword in His hand and an arrow in His quiver. If you will let Him, He will use you to glorify Himself and draw others into His saving embrace. It is you He has placed in situations full of darkness, and it is within you that the light of His Son burns. That light is within each one of us, who knows what it means to have been forgiven and to have been redeemed and to know the need for hope. It is not something that wells up of its own accord or our efforts but rather is the result of that gift of grace, the result of that peace which passes all human understanding, and drives us to share with others in the joy of His salvation! And it is this gift of grace which impels us to give food and hope to the hungry and hopeless, to give comfort and strength to sick and needy, and to proclaim freedom and release to those enslaved and those who would enslave others. Brothers and sisters, this is the prophesy of your life in Christ! It is too light a thing that you should hang out only here with His people your brothers and sisters. Rather, He has called you as His ambassador to proclaim His Gospel wherever you go and to whomever you meet. And He has promised you and me that kings and princes and powers shall prostrate themselves because of His faithfulness and because He has chosen each one of us! And so, brothers and sisters, He has sent you into a world armed with the certainty of your faith and wizened by the comfort He has brought you in difficult situations to be His mouthpiece of truth and to be His hands in loving service. And because it is Him whom you serve and Him whom you love, your labors will never be in vain, your strength will not be wasted. Even should you die in Him, still will your receive your reward. What else is the empty tomb but a promise of that?



Thursday, January 13, 2011

Surprising fulfillment . . .

Surprising fulfillment has been much on my mind this week. I should say that surprising fulfillment has been much on my mind this season. I suppose it is only natural given that our Gospel readings have shifted to Matthew. As we have discussed a bit here in church and way more extensively in our Thursday evening Bible Study, Matthew is very much concerned about Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant and plan of salvation history. True, the fulfillment is not what the people of Israel were expecting, but, as Matthew and the other Gospel writers will note, God’s plan is even better than what Israel expects. What do I mean by that?

Consider one image of the messiah: the conquering hero. Some thought the messiah would ride into town in front of an army and cast off whoever happened to be ruling at the time. At this time in history it is the Romans, but at other times the villains would be the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Egyptians. It certainly makes sense. The messiah would be David’s greater son. And if David has slain his ten thousands, it stands to reason that his great son would be an even better general. And yet Matthew tells us that Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized at the Jordan. There is no army; there are no trumpets; there is no fanfare. Jesus is a nondescript man from a backward part of a backward province, at least by standards of His day. And yet consider what God will work through this seemingly simple man, the one whom we read God will call “His Beloved.”

Consider as well another image of the messiah: the prophet. Some expected the messiah to come like a prophet of old. He might be Elijah returned. He might be like Moses, only greater. He would accomplish great things in the name of God because God’s Spirit would rest upon him as it did upon the prophets of old. Yet, think of the image. Though Jesus had every right to turn to both John and the crowd and call them to repentance, He enters the water in great humility as one of them. John recognizes Jesus for who He is as evidenced by his question of Jesus. Jesus knows who He is as evidenced by His acknowledgement of the truth of John’s statement and His answer. “Let it be so for now.” The One who had every right to stand in judgment of us and to condemn us chose, rather, to align Himself with us totally and completely. He does not stand apart; He does not stand on the bank pointing fingers; He stands in the midst of the very ones who need Him. He is not a god in the out there, but rather the God who is with us, the God who dwells among us. And all of this is done that we might be adopted into His family and given great power by the Holy Spirit to accomplish amazing things in His name and to His glory.

In recognition of both this adoption and receipt of power, we gather to day for another fulfillment. In many ways, it might be a surprising fulfillment. Three or four thousand years ago, the Lord God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah. Many centuries ago, Joseph, God promised Abraham and Sarah that through them and their offspring, salvation would come to the whole world. About two thousand years ago, as we celebrated this past Thursday, Jesus was manifested to the Gentiles as the fulfillment of that promise. This day we gather as a community of faith to see that promise fulfilled in your life, Joseph. That you come today to the waters of baptism is a fulfillment of that promise made to Abraham and Sarah. This day, in seeking the sacrament of baptism, you not only die to self but enter the waters knowing that God will raise you to new life in His Son and empower you for ministry in His Name through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This day, we celebrate an amazing fulfillment in the life of one who lives among us. And just as Abraham and Sarah celebrate with us that, once again, God's promise has been fulfilled in your action and profession this day, you are to remember that this day had its roots in the lives of and promise made to them. It is a covenant which stretches beyond time and borders.

Now, I know it is important to you to have a sign. As many of you gathered do not know, Tanya will often come to me trying to get Joe in trouble or teased, and Joe gives as well as he gets. But Tanya, his beloved bride, told me that he Joe would need a sign to believe that God really showed up today, that His promises were true, that the Holy Spirit really validated his adoption. You see, I had reminded Joe that His problems would not go away with his adoption into God’s family (in fact, I told him they might increase because God works through suffering to reach people). Tanya was worried that some dark day in the future, He might forget God’s promises this day. He might forget that this day marks the beginning of His walk with God as one with him rather than an enemy. And so, out of love and out of knowing her husband, she told me I had to pray for a visible sign.

Truth be told, Joe, I prayed and prayed for a sign. I can appreciate the need for a sign. Sometimes I tell God that He will need to part the waters or burn another bush for me to believe and to accept that some things are His will. But Joe, I am so thrilled that He answered your need in so obvious a manner. You see, I prayed and prayed for that sign, and you got it! How else can you explain how the Seahags beat the defending Super Bowl champions yesterday in the NFL playoffs? See? In the days, weeks, months and years to come, when you wonder whether the adoption took, you can look back on yesterday and say to yourself “If He can accomplish that, He can accomplish anything in my life?” Everybody here is now laughing at your sign, but just remember what you thought about their place in the playoffs. Not only did they not belong, but they never should have hosted a game. And now they have won and dethroned the champions. That’s how He works in our lives, too, though. He takes the impossible and makes it possible. He takes the improbable and makes it likely. He takes the sinner and makes him His own. He takes the powerless, and gifts them with amazing gifts that His kingdom might grow. He takes losers, and He makes them into winners, winners who set out to share His victory over death and sin with the world!

Brothers and sisters, this day we all gather around the fount. Each of us will be asked to reaffirm our vows. And each one of us here present will remind ourselves that we, too, are loved by Him, that we are sealed by Him, and that we are marked as His own for ever. As surprising as it may sound in our ears, our acceptance of His love and sacrifice on the cross fulfills the promises that He made to our forebears. And all heaven and the church on earth laughs and rejoices with us. Thanks be to God for surprises and that He fulfills things as He wills and not as we expect nor deserve!



Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why . . . ?

Although I know I should not, I always worry when most of our weekly events and studies are cancelled. Mostly I worry because it so impacts my sermon preparation. Given the realities of parish ministry at St. Alban’s, I usually do not have the time to do what I think of as “normal” sermon prep work. Instead, I depend a great deal upon God’s grace and upon you to discern where we as a community need to be focusing on God’s word for that week in our lives, both collectively and individually. Now, I must confess I was excited to shut the office down for a few days and catch up on some missed days off. That meant I could do some reading and “real” sermon prep. Of course, I still needed to make the orders of worship and the Bulletin for last week, so that meant sneaking into the office. And that sneaking provided a struggle that needed to be addressed in our community that even the blind could see it and the deaf could hear it.
Our Gospel lesson for today includes a couple verses in the middle which should have been read at a parish feast on Tuesday. You know the verses as the ones that speak to the deaths of the Holy Innocents. Herod is incensed that the Magi have tricked him and returned home by another route, rather than informing him as to the identity of the new born king. So he plots and schemes. His solution to the threat posed by this baby is reprehensible: he orders that all male children under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem are to be killed. Rather than celebrate that the king has come, the messiah, Herod plots to keep himself in power.
Matthew, of course, ties this event back to the exile in Isaiah 31. Some 7 or 8 centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah prophesized that Israel would be carried off into slavery. Great would be the mourning of Israel. In fact, Rebecca is pictured lamenting over the fact that her children are no more, that they have been carried out of the Promised Land and into slavery. Rebecca’s mourning, is understandable, as would be the mourning of the mothers and fathers of killed babies and toddlers in Bethlehem. What words of comfort could we offer to a mother whose offspring were carried off into slavery? What words of comfort could we offer a mother or a father whose child had been killed on the orders of the rulers?
Seemingly, the reading is out of place. We just gathered 8 days ago to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just 8 days ago we were singing Joy to the World and Silent Night and listening to that wonderful anthem performed by the choir. Just 8 days ago we heard the story of the birth of Jesus, and we reminded ourselves of the real reason for the season. And then, boom, in barely more than a week, we get this horrific story. Truthfully, for those of us who pay close attention to the assigned readings, we get two terrible stories within 4 days of our celebration of Jesus’ birth. On the 26th of December, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. And the Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on the 28th. What in the world is He thinking? We go from the peace on earth good will toward man of Christmas to the killing of Stephen to the massacre of a community’s babies and toddlers. What kind of Good News is this?
It was a question asked by several people both in our community and around our community. Heck, it is a question that is often asked by me! Some members of AA cornered me and wanted answers. A recovering alcoholic friend had been hit by a drunk driver and nearly killed over the Christmas weekend. What kind of God allows stuff like that to happen over Christmas? Here was a person who had finally sought help for her addiction, received that help, and seemingly had conquered her addiction. And just like that, her life was nearly snuffed out by someone driving drunk. Where’s the justice?
It was a question asked by several parishioners. After an extensive period of pretty good health—I needed to make very few hospital visits there for a while—we have gotten more than our share of disease, and many of us have learned of the diseases during this so-called season of joy. Cancer has reared its head in more than one family. Other serious diseases have been discovered in other families. In fact, in a couple families, doctors are not yet even sure what the diseases are. And we have not even touched on the seriousness of Lilyan’s condition. And all this was happening over the Christmas season. Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace?
In the coming weeks, we may notice co-workers and friends who are depressed. The world around us has convinced many that the only way to show someone how much you love them is to spend yourself into debt. As a consequence, how many of us or how many of those whom we know spent way more than they had? How many of us and how many of them will begin receiving bills during the month of January that seem entirely too big to ever pay off? And all the while we were elbowing our way to get that “special” gift just to “prove” to our loved ones how much they meant to us. You call this love?
Brothers and sisters, Christmas without Easter is meaningless. We celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation precisely because He knew the cost. Before He ever condescended to become one of us, Jesus knew that His life’s work would lead Him along the path to cavalry and to His death on a cross. And, still, He came. He came knowing that the world would ignore His coming. He came knowing that many in the world would reject Him. He came knowing that the very ones He was trying to save would be the ones who would shout all the louder, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And, yet, He set His face and came anyway.
He came because He knew we needed mercy when we thought we needed justice. He came because He knew the burdens and loads of the world and that we could never experience His Peace without His sacrifice. He came because we were so deluded by our own desires and the cacophony of the world that we had forgotten what it meant to love someone and, better still, to be loved by someone.
Why would we want mercy instead of justice? I asked those friends how many times did they think their injured friend had gotten behind the wheel of a car drunk. Whoa! Lots. How many people had she injured or killed all those times she drove drunk? None. How would she have felt had she hurt or killed someone? She would have likely taken her life in despair. None of us want justice—that’s what she just experienced. What we want is the mercy He showed us and her by protecting others from her when she could not because of her addiction. You know, Father, you might be right. She did not really conquer her addiction until she got active in a church. Maybe you are right, maybe we don’t want justice, at least the justice we deserve. I know. We all want, we all need grace, whether we know it or not. That’s why He came—That is the meaning of this season.
What of the disease and death that surround us? Jesus’ life and death and life after death speak to those as well. We gather once a month as a community and ask God to manifest His power over disease and death and cure many of us of any number of diseases, aches, pains, and even impending death. But we gather with the empty tomb always in view! We gather knowing that He came down from heaven to die not just for us but for everyone else whom we encounter in our daily life and work. And just as He used His Son’s suffering and death to redeem us, he can use our (his adopted sons and daughters) own suffering and death to point others to Him. And we can face the pain of diseases, we can face the hurt of death, certain that the One who redeemed Jesus’ death has promised to redeem our suffering and to raise us from death! That is the source of our hope, His promise. And that promise is the true source of our peace and our joy.
Brothers and sisters, the story of the incarnation is surrounded in Scripture by all kinds of life’s vicissitudes. We serve a God who knew all too well the cares and concerns of the world and how easily we are misled. But rather than condemn us to the world of evil and darkness, as was His right and as we deserved, He came down, He walked among us, He reminded us of His love, and then, so we would know how much He truly loved us, He laid down His life that we might be able to become His children and live with Him for all eternity. That, brothers and sisters, is love. And that, brothers and sisters, is why we celebrate His Incarnation with such joy, with such thankfulness, and with such awe! And armed with that knowledge, we are sent back into the world to proclaim His salvation in the very midst of terrible darknesses to the ends of the earth!