Sunday, December 25, 2016

Have Yourself a Messy Little Christmas -

On my parent’s coffee table every Christmas sat a nativity scene. There was a wooden stable with a kind of Bavarian peaked roof. There was a cross-legged wooden manger with clean hay in it. 
Baby Jesus lay dressed in swaddling clothes of white and gold. Mary sat behind the manger in white and blue, with a beautiful, porcelain face. Joseph stood beside her, looking down on them. There was an angel on the roof, a female one (ever notice how angels look like Barbie dolls with wings?)  The shepherds were smooth shaven, in earth-toned robes, always carrying a sheep on their back.  The Wise Men stood there in fancy dress. There were sheep, cows and camels peacefully resting nearby. Everyone, even the animals, looked adoringly at the Child. It was a domestic scene, the perfect family.

I was grown before I realized that it was wrong in almost every aspect. The stable wasn’t a stable. It was a cave underneath the inn. The manger wasn’t wood. It was probably stone. Animals don’t stay still in their stalls. They snort, snuffle, and generally get in the way. Instead of friendly beasts, think fleas and lice. The shepherds were probably Arabs, not Jewish, and they definitely were not clean. The wise men didn’t even arrive until two years later. 

The Nativity may have been a miracle, but for Mary and Joseph it was a mess. They had no help. If something went wrong with the delivery, was there even a midwife there to help? Joseph was a carpenter, not a doctor, so how was he supposed to help deliver a baby?

Mary didn’t look fresh and clean. After all, she just had a baby! Childbirth is a messy business. I’ve seen a lot of women after they had just given birth, and not one of them looked as fresh as Mary. She had just been through fourteen to twenty-four hours of hard labor and pain. As far as that carol that says, “The Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”—have you ever seen a baby that never cried? The Bible never suggests that Jesus didn’t cry.

There is one thing that the Christmas scene gets right—the most important thing. The Son of God was born and changed the world forever. 

We’ve sanitized that scene in our minds, and in doing so we’ve made it into something that it wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t born into a perfect world or a perfect family. Jesus was born into a world like ours—where people get lost and run out of money, where travel arrangements get messed up, where there is noise and desecration, and strangers drop by unexpectedly and become a burden on us. He was born into a world where people get sick and die, and we can’t always know which will happen. He was born into a world where people can be cruel. Herod, callous and unfeeling like that innkeeper, or late, like the Wise Men, or cold and tired like Joseph and Mary. He was born to experience all these things—poverty, homelessness, bigotry, and the shame, not because we deserve it, but because we are born into this world.

This is a messy world. For a time, His parents were refugees in Egypt. The king tried to kill them. When they finally returned home, they tried to reestablish their lives after two years absence. Joseph seemed to have died early, so Mary knew the frustrations of raising kids by herself. Jesus and his brothers did not get along.  Later in life, they tried to have Him committed as a lunatic. Jesus knew how hard it was to work as a tradesman. He knew the frustration of taking on a big job for a rich man, and have him make up an excuse to not pay. He knew about paying taxes. The Roman tax code changed about every other day, and you were expected to keep current on it or be cheated by the tax man.  He knew what it was like to work all day on a piece of furniture, only to have it break on you.

Whenever he preached, he was misunderstood. Wherever he went, people wanted to argue with Him. Some thought that he had a demon. Jesus had a successful ministry, but it melted away by the time he was crucified. As his followers increased his critics decreased, until the world killed Him. 

None of this would have happened in a perfect world. In a perfect world, the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished, children never grow up hungry, and parents never fight. This isn’t our world. 

Jesus was crucified, because perfect God met Imperfect humanity, and people just couldn’t stand it. 
But even so, Jesus loved this imperfect world. He loved even the people who crucified Him. He loved the cheaters, the liars, the crooks, the proud, the vain and the pompous. He loved the gossips and drunkards and prostitutes. He loved the kings and beggars. He loved them, not because of their sin, but in spite of their sins. John 3: 16 says,

“For God so loved the world that he gave His son.”

 Jesus chose to live in this messy world, so that he could bring this messy world something better.
The cross was messier than the manger. The cross was a place of shame, of injustice, of blood and pain. It was the worst death the world could give Him. But He loved us, even from the cross. 
If you could ask Jesus if He would do it again, I believe he would answer “yes”.  To see people change was worth it. To follow the will of his father was worth it.

What about you? None of you will have a perfect Christmas. You may not get everything you want. You’ll fight with relatives. You’ll be rushed and hurried. You may even get sick. You have to pay the bills. But in the midst of all this imperfection, the perfect still exists. The perfect is the love of God. Christmas is not perfect, but it reminds us of the one pure and perfect thing that ever came into this messy world.  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jesus, the Light of the World - John 1: 1-14

If any of the Gospel writers could write about Christmas, it was John. John became the protector of Mary, and spent many days with her. Yet John leaves out the story of Christ’s birth. He was more interested in why Jesus came than when or how. In a sense, though, John wrote more eloquently of Christmas by calling Him the Word of God, and Light of the world. Light is a powerful metaphor for Jesus.

Today, we assume that there will always be light with our electric light bulbs. But in John’s day, light only came from three sources—sun, moon and fire. It’s obviously firelight, not moonlight that John had in mind. “The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness could not extinguish it.” He compares Jesus to firelight shining in the darkness of sin.

What does Jesus share with firelight? 

1.  Light banishes darkness just by showing up.The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot overcome it” Darkness cannot overcome the light, because darkness is the absence of light. The minute light shows up, darkness is gone. 

Imagine being in a cave, deep under the earth.  The darkness is so complete that you can see nothing. You cannot move because of it. But even with the smallest light your eyes can adjust to it. You can begin to move around even by the light of a tiny LED bulb or a single candle. 

Once we see Jesus even dimly, we  move from darkness to light. One candle can light a whole room. We don’t have to be scholars to have knowledge of God. All we have to do is come to Jesus, and see His light. He will reveal all things to us. 

3.  Light warms us. In John’s day, there was no light without warmth. Jesus did not do something we just see, but something we feel as well. He is like sunshine on our faces. 

The story of Christmas is a story of warm emotions. Shepherds were terrified, then rejoiced. Mary and Joseph were happy to have a baby. The Wise Men rejoiced to find Him. Hannah in the temple and old Simeon rejoiced to see the baby in the temple. It’s supposed to be heart-warming. Light warms our hearts.

Sometimes we can’t feel the warmth of our faith. That’s true of fire as well. We can see fire farther away than we can feel it. But as we draw closer to Him, we can eventually feel the warmth.  Not feeling Jesus doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with us, any more than not feeling a fireplace means that there is no fire. But as we draw close to Him, He warms our hearts and gives us joy.

There is a difference between drawing close to the church and drawing close to Christ. Many people don’t feel the warmth of Christ, because they are drawing close to His reflection, not His person. We see Jesus in the church and in others. They can reflect the light of Christ, but the warmth of Christ, the Source of our joy comes from meeting Him. Don’t just seek Christ’s reflection. Seek His Person. His presence can comfort us in our coldest and saddest moments.

3. Light pulls us together.  In ancient homes, the hearth or campfire was the center of every group. As people surrounded the light, they drew closer to each other. In the celebration of Christmas, we are drawn together. Christmas is a model of the peace that is to come as we gather around the throne of Heaven.

Tonight we celebrate the Lord’s Feast. We call it by many names—Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Mass. But the name we prefer in our tradition is the word communion. Communion means literally “brought together.”  When we are united with Christ we are united to each other. We take the bread together to symbolize that unity. 

Charles Colson, in his biography Born Again wrote about his life after going to prison as a Watergate conspirator. He was one of Nixon’s Republican aides who once said that he would be willing to run over his own grandmother to get Nixon reelected. He found Christ while in prison. After his release, he lived in a half-way house with several other notorious prisoners, who had also become Christians. They included a liberal democratic senator, a leader of the Black Panther Party, and a former Grand Dragon of the KKK. There could not have been a more diverse group, unless you count Christ’s disciples, who included fishermen and slaves,  tax collectors and tethey were brought together in Christ. When Jesus came into the world, He became the common ground for all the world to meet.

This is important in our country today, where there is so much division. Christ brings us together when politics, race, and culture divide us. Satan uses political and cultural divisions to divide the world. The light of Christ unites us around the same fire.

4.  Fire is contagious. How could the birth of one baby in Bethlehem warm the entire world? One by one, people who were touched by Christ’s light glow themselves.  

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Word literally became flesh by being born as Jesus. The word literally becomes flesh also every day through being born again in the lives of believers by the Holy Spirit. When people get close to Jesus  they catch fire. To everyone who believes on his name,  has the power to become like Him. We glow with the same fire He had.

The shepherds came to the manger terrified, but left carrying the joyful light. The Wise Men came mystified but went away bearing witness. It was not an intentional thing, but a byproduct of the fire of Christ burning in them.

Tonight, we enjoy the light of Christ.  Tomorrow, we will carry the light of Christ. We are the Light-bearers, taking his Joy and peace to all people. Let us bear that light into every area of our lives into all places where darkness still reigns, so that the promise of the Scripture may be fulfilled.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Pool of Bethesda - John 5: 1-15

 “Bethesda” may be translated either as “house of grace” or “house of disgrace.”  Based on what was going on there, the second meaning seems a better fit.

Scholars have identified Bethesda as related to a kind of Greek temple called an asclepion. These were dedicated to the god Asclepius, who was the god of medicine and snakes. Each one had a pool where people bathed with other sick people, and then waited for a sign for some sign of healing.

 Sometimes, the priests gave them drugs, to make them dream and have visions. Other times, they lay beside the pool and allowed snakes to crawl over them. If a snake touched them, they would be healed. Another device they used was to have priests operate air pumps that made the water bubble. When the water bubbled, the first one in the water was healed. It was all fake and trickery, but the sick people were desperate, and paid to get in.  These temples were in every major city, and made a fortune. In Jerusalem it was forbidden to worship Asclepius, so  they claimed instead that an angel was troubling the water. They just left the pagan god out of it, and substituted an angel.

This was not only immoral, it was also very dangerous. Imagine sharing an unsanitary pool with hundreds of sick people!  Imagine the awful spectacle of hordes of sick people fighting to be the first in the pool! What a horrific sight it must have been!

That day when Jesus came to the pool, why didn’t He shut it down? Remember that day when Jesus made a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple—why didn’t He do that here? Instead of stopping it, Jesus chose to ignore it.  Instead, he spoke to a lame man on the edge of the crowd. Or better yet, why didn’t Jesus use His divine power and heal them all? He didn’t interfere, but instead went and talked quietly to one man on the edge of the crowd.   

There are a couple of reasons He didn’t. First, it wasn’t the right time. Jesus’ time was limited. He had to proclaim the Kingdom of God and be crucified on the Passover in Jerusalem. It was a strategic use of time and effort, not just a passionate response. There was so much evil in the Roman world—slavery, child abandonment, ritualized murder and death, disease, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and so forth—that if He took on them all, he would have done nothing else. Second, Jesus allowed people to keep their idols. He invited people to turn from their idols, but He didn’t break them. Instead, Jesus wanted to break the power of idols in the hearts of people by inviting them to follow Him. If you break a person’s idol without giving them anything else, then they will just get another idol. If he took away the pool of Bethesda, someone would just build another one. So instead of breaking idols, Jesus invited them to turn to Him.

There are two view of how Christians should relate to the society around us. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are a matter more of emphasis. One view is that Christ came to reform society. Christianity is a political movement more than a religious movement. Jesus came to set up the Kingdom of God on earth by overcoming wrongs.  The other view is that Christ came to reform individuals. When individuals are changed, then society is changed. We can’t take down the idols in society, but we can help individuals turn from them and see Jesus. This story supports this latter view.  Jesus didn’t take down the idol of the pool, but he took one man from it, who would then testify to others about the true source of life. 

The crowd around the pool were not just sick people--they were deluded. They really believed this place would heal them. Jesus doesn’t mess with our delusions. He just offers us the truth. As long as those people looked to the pool, instead of God, they would never be really healed.

We don’t have such a pool, but we have other delusions. Our delusions promise us health, wealth, and happiness, but give us nothing. Stand outside a convenience store on the day of a big jackpot and you will see the poor, greedy and desperate people line up for tickets, hoping for a lucky number. Turn on game shows where people audition for their one shot at stardom. Watch open tryouts for the major-league baseball and football, where they only take one in ten thousand. It’s insanity to think that anything which depends on luck or chance will ever make our existence worthwhile.

God doesn’t give us a chance for happiness. He gives us happiness, guaranteed. If the only way we can find happiness is through a chance of circumstance, then we don’t understand the plan of God for our lives. God offers us help by offering us Himself in the form of Jesus. When we find Jesus in our lives, whether we have good fortune or bad, we have a source of happiness that will sustain us.  There are times in life when we should and must take chances. But happiness is not a chance. God’s grace is not a chance. It is a reality for anyone who will look away from the crowd and look to Jesus. 

This is another example of how Jesus looks away from the crowd to minister to one individual.   People mattered to Him one by one.  Anyone who comes to Jesus, anyone who meets Jesus can and will be changed. But in order to experience the grace of God we must follow Jesus. 

In our story, the man is changed. We can see the process of this change in the three statements that Jesus makes to this man.

First, came a question, “Do you want to be healed?”  Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it?  If he didn’t want to be healed, why was he hanging around the pool?

It’s not a silly question at all. This man had settled down into a sick routine of life. His life was not prosperous, but at least it ws familiar. The man was being fed either through begging, relatives, or living off the public dole. He had companions. He didn’t have to work. Charity and public assistance becomes a habit after a while, and there’s nothing harder for any of us to accept than change. After a while, charity becomes addictive. 

Healing brings changes and some of those changes can be painful.  But when God gives us an opportunity to be whole, then we must be willing to receive it. That always means embracing a new lifestyle  and a new attitude.  

Alcoholics, drug addicts, and other addictions often will say they want to be rid of their addiction. But when change is offered to them, they usually choose to avoid the pain and stay with their sickness. They chose to stay as they are, rather than face a new life. 

A man came to Jesus one day an and said “Master, what must I do to receive eternal life.”  Jesus told him to keep the commandments. Then he listed some of them—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery, and so on. Beside each one, the man put a little mental check mark—done that, done that, done that. All these things he was already in the habit of doing.

Then Jesus threw him a curve ball—“Give all you have to feed the poor, and come and follow me.”  Wait a minute! The man thought.  I didn’t plan on this!  Jesus always does this to us. The biggest thing Jesus asks for each of us, if we want to be well, is to surrender our habits to Him. Break out of comfortable shells and look at life in a different way.  Being healed is always going to cost us. We must be willing to choose change over comfort and routine and break free by looking at Him. 

The second thing He said was, “Take up you bed and walk.” Walking is leaving somewhere and going to somewhere. First he left his couch. Sickness, depression, and laziness puts us on the couch. We must leave the comfort and safety of our old routines. Second, he left the crowd. People have told me that they would rather go to hell than heaven, because all their friends are there. Don’t continue in delusion, because that is where your friends are, but trust God to give you some new companions when you start your new life. Third, we must break our lifestyle of dependency. You can’t stay an invalid, being helped by others, but you must be willing to stand on your own. God will help you do this, but you must be willing to stand alone.  

Walking is going to somewhere. After Jesus left this man He headed for the house of God. 
If we do not come to God, then we will fall back under delusion. It was only there, at that time that Jesus was revealed to this man as the Son of God.

Come to church. You can meet God anywhere, but God has set aside a place for us to meet him in the company of others. That place is in the fellowship and worship of a church.

The third thing Jesus said was, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”  
Why does He say this? Is Jesus suggesting that his illness came from some sin that he committed?  Not at all. It’s not the cause of his lameness that is the problem, but his continuing delusion of thinking this pool will save him. His “sin” was looking in the wrong direction. He was looking for an angel disturbing the pool to be his savior, not God Himself. This is idolatry.

The tendency to idolatry is never far from any of us. None of us are immune to it, or to going back into idolatry at any time. That is why we need to not only look to Jesus, but to keep looking at Him. That is the difference between justification and sanctification. Justification is to be forgiven for our sins. Sanctification is the process of being cleansed from our sins. If we accept God’s forgiveness, then we will have eternal life. But to live holy lives, we must follow Him. Christians sin even after we have been saved. That doesn’t make us unsaved, but it still makes us a mess. We must not go back to the idols that used to dominate our lives.

Jesus offer us healing—not a chance for healing, but a guaranteed healing on the Cross. But first we must ask ourselves if we are willing to receive it. Then having received it, are we willing to set aside our idols daily, and follow Him. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy, but it is the only guaranteed way of salvation, given to us by God Himself, so we can be truly whole.