12/20/2015 Sermon – Do You See What I See? #3: “God of the Impossible”

star warsThe big news of last weekend was the opening of the new Star Wars movie: “The Force Awakens.  Have you seen it?  Have you seen all the Star Wars movies?  Any of them?

[Some of the younger people in the congregation have never seen a Star Wars movie!]

Even if you haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies, you’ve probably heard of “The Force.”  The Force is a power defined by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The Force has a light side and a dark side, and can be used for good or for evil.  In the first movie, someone says, “The Force be with you.”  I used to think that the Force was a metaphor for God, but the Force has a dark side.  And I’m not sure how the Force wakes up for this movie.  Let’s watch for how the Force “awakens.”  So, the Force isn’t exactly like the God of the Bible.

The Force is a little exclusive, too.  Luke Skywalker says, “The Force is strong in my family; my father has it. I have it. My sister has it.”  But it seems not everybody has it or can get it.

And if you have the Force, you have to focus on the light side of the force and use it for good instead of evil.  Both sides of the Force are in you, and you have a choice. The evil of the dark side isn’t what attacks you from the outside; it’s evil within, whenever you give into hatred or fear.  Luke’s constant, almost-overwhelming temptation is to give in to the dark side when things seem hopeless.

Deep stuff, right?

Well, long ago, the God of the Universe took on human form and lived on this planet.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus had everybody asking, “Do you see what I see?”  Who could believe this?  And it’s not fiction!  We have a God who does impossible things in real life.

Let’s read the story:

Luke 1:26-38.  In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’*29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’*35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God.36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.37For nothing will be impossible with God.’38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

"The Annunciation" by Henry Tanner - 1898.
“The Annunciation” by Henry Tanner – 1898.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”  A little piece of scripture you should hang on to!

The angel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:26-28).  The angel’s trying to be encouraging.  Mary’s response is to be troubled or “perplexed.”   But do you really think that’s how she felt, having this conversation with a messenger from God who tells her this kind of news?  A young woman, about to be pregnant with the Son of God?  I think she was a little beyond perplexed. Anxious might be a word that works a little better here.

There have been some who think that when Luke was writing his gospel, he actually had the chance to talk to Mary.  He has details about the birth of Jesus that none of the other writers seem to know.  And we have heard it so many times.  I wonder if you can make it more than just words on a page.  Picture Mary and Luke having a conversation about what happened.  Maybe you can see the expressions on Mary’s face as she relives the moment, as she goes from goes from extreme anxiety to extreme joy.  From the very beginning, “God with us” in Jesus, brings problems and joy.  Light and dark sides.

God is giving Mary an offer –  the chance to be the mother of God. She has a choice to take the joy – as we all do.  But for Mary, this choice brings with it the knowledge that she will soon be visibly pregnant.  And when that happens, there goes her reputation.  In that culture, according to the law, she could be executed for becoming pregnant by anyone but Joseph, or punished in some other humiliating way.  The joy is on the other side of very real stress and anxiety.  Participating in God’s real joy sometimes requires the willingness to go through the real stress.  She had to trust.  She had to walk through the anxiety to reach the promise.

She had a choice to embrace the light side or the dark side, as we all do.

Mary had more than one reason to say “no” to the angel.  But when the angel says, “…nothing will be impossible with God,” she believes it.  She has faith that God will do the impossible thing.  She knows that the key to overcoming her own stress is saying yes to God.  In order to accomplish the beautiful thing that God is giving the world through the gift of Jesus, she faces the trouble head on and says yes.  Because, with God, there is always future. Embracing the dark side only means flame-out, and nowhere to go.  She locks into the light, embraces the hope God has for her.

She says, “Here am I, the servant  of the Lord.” Maybe today, you need to say the same thing.  In order to move down the path God has given you, to get through the stress, the anxiety, to embrace the promise of joy, that’s what you need to say to God.

Practice saying it.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

[*] The next few days are going to be ones of celebration. They are also going to be filled with stress. People may be coming to visit, possibly with “issues.”  What a great time to say, every morning,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

How about when you are traveling to visit relatives, and the kids are in the back seat arguing with each other about who has the most room? What a great time to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

Very late Christmas Eve, when the presents aren’t all wrapped, and the “some assembly required” gift comes in a box filled with 200 pieces. What a great time to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

Back at work, when your boss or your employees are cutting corners, and you are feeling pressure to behave unethically, or maybe your work situation has a way of pushing you over the edge, what a great time to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

Back at school, when others make fun of you because you aren’t dressed in the perfect style, or someone pushes you to do something you don’t believe in, what a great time to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

Out in the community, when people show disregard for the homeless, or distrust (maybe hatred) toward people of different beliefs, or suspicion toward anyone who is different, what a great time to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

As the church faces the challenges changing times, renewing its commitment to be disciples of Christ, and bring Jesus to this community, everyone has to be willing to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord”.

You can say it out of habit. You can say it for comfort. You can say it as a way to come into a relationship with God. You can say it as a prayer to help you do the things that you know God wants you to do. Any time can be a great time to say,

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord”.

When we say these words, we are making a commitment to being open to the promises of God.  We allow God to live in us.  We say yes to the joy God wants us all to have.  We allow God to do things that you might think are impossible right now. Mary she gave herself over to the God that does the impossible.

In the middle of our stressful lives, God wants us to have joy.  God wants us to know that we are favored – like Mary, that God loves us, and that God will not fail us.  Greetings, favored ones.  God says that to you! God sends Jesus so that we are not alone; God is with us in the very center of the worst pains and problems of life.  You have a choice.  The joy of God is an offer you can refuse.  But why would you?

Prayer

God, send your Spirit to clear the path for us, clear the way to joy.  Remove those things in our lives that stand between us and you, the things that keep us from having joy.  Give us the gift of self-control, but most of all, help us enjoy you, help us enjoy the fellowship of your people, and give us the joy that comes from a filling, eternal relationship with you.  In the name of your son Jesus, whose birth we celebrate.  Amen.

*adapted from www.homileticsonline.com, “Refusing Joy” (December 22, 2002)

12/13/2015 Sermon – Do You See What I See? #2: “The Greatest Gift”

Carved nativity familyThis month, we are thinking about the most amazing thing that ever happened: God came to live among people.  The God of the Universe took on human form and lived on this planet.  From the very beginning, people were witnessing what was happening and asking each other, “Do you see what I see?”  Who could believe this?  A baby born in a stable.  We believe that this baby is the human expression of God.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us…”  (John 1:14)

And the question I’d like to think about for just a few minutes is, “Why?”  Why did God bother to do this?  What is he doing here?

I think we’d probably agree that there’s a lot of nice stuff that goes on at Christmas; we’ve bought into it and it distracts us.  But I’d like to suggest is that during these intense holiday celebrations, even when we can remember that He is the Reason for the Season, we lock into the moment of Jesus’ birth, stay there, and never ask, “What is he doing here?”

The Apostle Paul had one of the best ways of answering that question when he said:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)

Why is he here?  To bring reconciliation between you and God, between me and God.  And then to everyone who believes, he gives a ministry of reconciliation.  A healing of relationships.

Let’s allow that word “reconciliation” to sink in for a moment. That present with the nice wrapping and ribbon has a brand new unopened container of reconciliation inside.  It heals relationships.  Is it possible that you might need some of it for your relationship with God?  Somebody at school, at work, or in your house?  Maybe attitudes toward people you don’t know?  Reconciliation would be an amazing present for someone in your life.  Let’s see what Jesus has to say about forgiveness and reconciliation:

Luke 7:36-50. 36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Christmas window decorations 3I believe that is one of the most emotionally powerful stories in scripture.  Were you able to sense the tension in the room?  Not everything is perfect at this party.

You know, Jesus had probably met her somewhere else; maybe when he was teaching a crowd, maybe when he was walking through town on the way to Simon’s house.  She needs a name; let’s call her Angela.  She followed him in, and from the moment she set foot in the Pharisee’s house, she knows this not her kind of place.  There’s a banquet going on:  great food, good music.  This can look like a Christmas party if it helps your imagination.  Can you hear the party noises and smell the food?  All the right people.  Around the table, they lean back on couches instead of chairs.  In that time, people who reclined on couches when they ate had class, so when she starts wiping the ointment on Jesus’ feet, she’s standing a little behind him, behind his couch, trying not to be noticed.  She is not invited; she’s a crasher.

It’s really awkward; she doesn’t belong with these people, so there’s tension.  Somebody’s thinking, “How did she get in here?  Who is watching the door?  What are my friends going to think?”  It’s not very hard to figure out the mind of a Pharisee in a small town.  What is she doing?

Simon’s done everything he can to get where he is.  He’s geared his whole life toward earning respect from God and everyone around him.  He works hard at being respectable.  He’s got position and the right kind of memberships.  Country club, maybe Rotary or Lion’s Club.  He wears the little pin on his lapel.  So, understandably, it’s very awkward for him – now he’s not even sure just what kind of person Jesus is.  Word on the street is that he’s a prophet, very popular these days, somebody it wouldn’t hurt to invite to dinner.  Good move to have him at the party, until now.

Prophets are supposed to have a kind of supernatural OnStar that goes into alarm mode whenever they get around serious sinners like prostitutes.  When she touches Jesus, he should be hearing buzzers and bells go off in his head.  Because he doesn’t, Simon thinks Jesus must not be the “man of God” everybody says he is.  So the punch line of the story is that Jesus can read the Simon the Pharisee’s mind – he is a prophet.  And Simon’s not saying anything.  Not to read into the story, but how does he know she’s a prostitute and why is he not saying anything?  He needs forgiveness as much as she does.

Truth be told, we want to be like Simon – we want to be right, we want the good reputation, the nice house and the great party – but sometimes we feel like the prostitute.  We need to be forgiven.  We need to hear the voice of Jesus saying your name,” _______, I forgive you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  Can you imagine what Angela felt when Jesus said those words to her?  We feel the burden fly away, and once the burden is gone, we don’t want it back.  This is called new life.  You get it by allowing Christ to heal you and forgive you.  You get it by letting him be God in your life.  Angela became a new person that day.  Hopefully, Simon got something out of the conversation.

Everyone here has that thing they carry, that mistake, that habit, that attitude, that secret… that thing they carry like a burden.  Maybe other people know, maybe they don’t.  And we all carry that load.  God so wants to lift it from you, to take it away and make it disappear.  Just talk to him and say, Jesus, you are my Lord; I worship you.  I’m putting down the burden and I’m yours.

Did you hear God’s voice just now?  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Go help Jesus lift the load from someone else.  That’s our ministry. I’d like to also suggest to you this morning that our ministry of reconciliation should include people we don’t know, even people of other religions.  Maybe you know the stories of Jesus reaching out to the outcasts, the hated ones.

Let this video, a story that might be familiar to you, be our closing thought today.

Prayer

O God, you have been kind to us so often, and we find ourselves taking your kindness and love for granted.  When we drift away, you wait for us to come home.  So God, give us faith that teaches us you are the foundation on which we stand, and although things around us seem to be changing all the time, nothing changes with you.

Give us new opportunities to live for you.  We give you our “impossible situations.”  Give us a fresh vision of what it means to be your body the church, and a fresh vision of the head of the church, your son Jesus.  Deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love and forgive.  Amen.

12/6/2015 Sermon – Do You See What I See? #1: “Like a Child”

Carved nativity family

Do You See What I See?

This month, we get to think about the most amazing thing that ever happened: God came to live among people.  The God of the Universe took on human form and lived on this planet.  At the end of his time in a human body, he rose from the dead.  We are here every week because we say we believe this.  This month, I’d like to stop for a moment each week and reflect on the amazing, astonishing thing that God did in Jesus.

From the very beginning, people were witnessing what was happening and asking each other, “Do you see what I see?”  Who could believe this?

In a simpler time, a couple from out of town comes to Bethlehem.  A lot of other people are there.  It’s possible they had a place to stay with relatives. The story from Luke says there was no room in the inn, but the word could also be “guestroom.”  In any case, it was crowded in the main part of the house when the newborn Jesus was laid in a feed trough in the place where the animals were kept.  At the moment Jesus was born, nobody knew that this was anything – or anybody – special, until shepherds come knocking at the door (there might not have been a door!).  God’s angels had told some obscure people living out in the fields with their animals who this was and exactly where to find him.  God comes with this child, in this child, and the poorest of the poor were the first to know who Jesus was.  And most of the world had no idea anything special had happened.

These memories stayed mostly in the mind of his mother and were eventually written down for us.  We’ve managed to make the birth of Christ a complicated celebration with lots of moving parts.  But the story was pretty simple.  God comes as a child, in Jesus.  The poorest people knew about it first.  Grown up, he died on a cross, but came back to life.  New life starts in every person who believes in him.  And people were asking, “Do you see what I see?”  Who could believe this?

Jesus knew that children were his best followers, and that brings us to the scripture for this morning:

Mark 10:13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

This Christmas, let’s do the best we can to see past the shopping, the extra traditions, all the things we’ve added on.  We’ve dressed it up a lot.  But those who have the faith of a child still get Jesus best.

There are all sorts of stories for Christmas; this story is based on a very old legend* and does a good job of expressing what it means for us to be watching for Christ….20151208_171808

In a city somewhere in Pennsylvania, a small child wandered through the streets on Christmas Eve, watching all the busy people rushing back and forth, arms filled with presents.  Everyone seemed happy.  Everyone seemed to have a destination.  Everyone except this little child.

As he walked, the bitter cold nipped at his cheeks and bit at his bare fingers.  This was no night to be out alone.  He must find a place to stay.

He turned down an avenue of large homes, the kind imprisoned by iron fences.  Mustering his courage, he walked to the door of a very attractive house.  He looked through the curtains at a brightly decorate Christmas tree.  Inside the house, the children were playing hide and seek, pausing every now and then to shake presents that had their names on them.

The child stood on tiptoe and pushed the button that rang the bell.  Soon, a tall boy opened the door and looked down at him.  He said, “I’m sorry, our father isn’t home and he wouldn’t like to have anyone interrupt our Christmas Eve.”  The door closed slowly, almost apologetically.

The little child moved on to try another home.  This time a large unhappy woman raised her voice: “Get off our property; I mean now!”

The wind seemed as angry as that woman as the child walked down the empty sidewalk.  He decided to try a street where the houses were smaller, hoping the people were more friendly.  On this street he was greeted by a woman who was afraid he would bring germs into the house and a father who said there wasn’t enough, even for his own children.  But mostly, he was greeted by silence.  People simply looked at him, shook their heads, and sadly closed the door.

“There must be a place in this great city for me,” he thought, as he stumbled through the dark streets.

Now he began to pass smaller houses with much fewer decorations and lights.

At the end of the street, he stopped at a small cottage with no curtains.  It was easy to see into this tiny house.  On a table sat a small tree with no lights.  Near the fireplace, a mother read to her two small children.  Her daughter sat on her lap, while her son snuggled close to her feet.

Suddenly, interrupting the reading, the little girl cried out, “Mommy, someone is at the door!”

The boy said, “It’s just the trees.”

Before the mother could continue, there was another noise, and they all rushed to the door to see what was making this sound.  And there in the doorway, stood a little child shaking in the cold.

The mother picked him up, pressed him tightly to her, and carried him into the living room.  She called to her son: “Quickly, warm some milk,” as she rubbed the child’s chilled fingers in her hands.  Pushing his tangled hair back, she kissed his forehead gently and whispered, “We are so happy that you’ve come to share Christmas with us!”

For nearly an hour, the four stood around the fire until feeling began to return to the frozen body of this little stranger.  When their guest seemed to be warmed, the little girl said, “Finish the story, Mommy.”  And so the mother gathered the little girl on her lap and opened the book.

Suddenly, a powerful light began to flood the room.  The family turned to see the small child transformed before their eyes.  The light from his face was so bright, they were forced to turn away.  Then, the light left the room, and as the family rushed to the door, they watched him ascend until all that was visible was a star over their home that bathed the entire area in light.

They were stunned.  The boy was the first to break the silence.  “Mommy, was that the Christ Child?”

All she could say was, “Yes.”

It is said that each Christmas, God sends his Son wandering through the streets of some city, or town, or village in our land, looking for a place to be warmed.  Wherever he is taken in, God sends a star to shine over that place.  This Christmas, remember those in need to find the face of Christ.

[*adapted from William R. White, Speaking in Stories (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1982), pp. 54-57.]

Prayer

Oh God, this Christmas, help us love you with a simpler kind of love.  We know how unsatisfied we are, how empty life is without you, especially at this time of year.  The new car got old fast.  We cleaned the old Christmas presents out of the closet to make room for this year’s Christmas presents.  We are so distracted, and at the same time, so frightened by our world.  Help us remember together one more time that you are the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.

Break us out of our selfish habits.  Help us give ourselves to you.  Find ways to remind us that you own us, not our things.  Give us the eyes of your Spirit, so that we can see a hurting world that needs to know you.  Give us opportunities to make a true difference.  Amen.