12/25/2016 Christmas Sermon: “Nativity in the Real World”

Luke 2:8-18.  In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

Sometimes I wonder how that Christmas story would have looked if it had happened today.  If it happened here, there probably would have been medical people involved, prenatal care for Mary, and so on.  But in most of the world, the story might have played out exactly the way it did 2,000 years ago.

How many of you put out a Nativity set at Christmas time?  That can be one of those things that becomes like an heirloom; it gets passed along through the family and has a story behind it.  When I was growing up, every year, our family put the nativity set on a certain table in the same corner of the living room.  It was ceramic; my mother made the figures from molds and fired them in the kiln in the basement.  I think my brother has it now.

A few years ago, Kathy and I bought a Nativity set when we were in Israel, in Bethlehem.  It’s very simple.  There’s the usual Mary and Joseph, an animal or two, and baby Jesus in a manger.  They’re all gathered in a 3-sided stable with a star over it and everything is carved out of olive wood.  We bought it in a gift shop down the street from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is on a hilltop like most ancient villages, and down below you can see the fields where the sheep still graze.  Shepherds still watch them, and it’s not for show.  Not a great job, not highly paid, not much respect, but this is how they make a living.

Shepherd and flock near Bethlehem, Palestine. CN – 2011

Down in that valley, this was the place where the angels came to the shepherds.  Not those chubby kids with wings – in scripture, the only purpose of angels is to be messengers for God.  That’s what “angel” means.  They bring news, and God’s messenger bringing you news can be scary.  I’d love to see an angel, but I suspect it’s a little too frightening.  In scripture, most people see angels are not happy about seeing them.  To calm everybody down, the first thing the angel has to say is…

Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David (Bethlehem) a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2:10-12)  And the angel points at the hilltop.

The village where Jesus was born doesn’t look much like it did 2,000 years ago, but some things haven’t changed much. This is a place of trouble.  When Jesus was born, Israel was occupied by the Roman army at the time and besides having no place to stay, Mary and Joseph must have walked past an armed Roman sentry (or two) who was watching for trouble.  A few years ago, armed Palestinian protesters were holed up in the Church of the Nativity for several days – maybe you remember that.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine. CN – 2011

Whenever the tour buses pull into Bethlehem, a crowd of peddlers crowd around the door, and you have to walk through them to get anywhere.  They sell necklaces and postcards for a dollar or two and they’re really obnoxious about it.  The tour guides tell you not to buy anything from them because if you do, they won’t leave you alone.

On this day, the group got off the bus, walked past the peddlers, and on into the Church of the Nativity.  But it was dark inside and I needed the flash for my camera (typical tourist).  I went back out to the bus to get it, but the bus wasn’t there; it had gone around to the exit on the other side of the building to pick us up.  I walked around the plaza in front of the church looking for it, but it wasn’t there.

Something wasn’t right.  The peddlers were gone too.  I should have attracted a peddler or two, but they had disappeared.  People were standing in doorways, but nobody was out on the street.  A few seconds later, I heard a siren, and two jeeps with flashing lights and soldiers turned the corner.  They stopped, grabbed their rifles, jumped out, and ran down the street.  It was quiet.

While this was going on I was walking slowly back into the church.  Nobody else in the group saw anything like this during the trip and I had a feeling that maybe I just saw something that I wasn’t supposed to see.

Portion of the Israeli wall in Bethlehem. CN – 2011

I read a story the other day about a mother who gave her children a Nativity set and came back a while later to find that the stable was filled with GI Joe men and surrounded by tanks.  That was supposed to be funny, and it is, but it’s really not far from the truth.  On my last visit, I picked up another Nativity set.  This one has a wall in front of the stable.

Some days the news and world I live in can beat me down. I’m losing hope, I don’t know where to turn.  Maybe you need good news, and there is good news.  God may not choose to change your world, but God can change you.  And then God gives each of us – and all of us – opportunities to bring some good news to someone else.  To… “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners,” as Isaiah says.

In Jesus, God reaches out to me, and you.  That’s what the Nativity means.  That’s what the candles mean.  That’s what the lights on the tree mean.  Christmas is God’s extending a hand to the human race and saying, “I know all about it.  I know it’s a mess.  I can give you hope.  You can find the peace you’re looking for in me.”   The peace – and joy – the world needs begins in each one of our hearts and it’s a gift from God.  It comes through faith and I hope it’s the first present we all open this year.

Prayer

O God, the best present anybody ever received is you.  We need your love, your patience.  We need your presence in our lives.  Life is so chaotic and unpredictable, and we need you.

Our world is so dangerous, and we have so much to learn about ourselves.  Why do we do the things we do?  Help us live as you call us to live.  Help us break the cycle of violence in ourselves and to give up the selfish attitudes that are the roots of the sin in our lives and in our world.  We come to you with faith in the one you sent to save us, who gave himself up for us.

12/24/2016 Christmas Eve Sermon: “Opening the Gift”

This evening, you’ve heard the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke. Then much of the New Testament and even the Old Testament teach us what it means that God sent a Messiah for us: that God sent Jesus to make our lives complete.  Our hope is in Jesus.  Paul writes to his friend Titus and says…

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. 14He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

I was at Longenecker’s Hardware  (Manheim, PA)a few weeks ago and happened to be standing near some teenagers who had been looking around the store.  I heard one say, “You know what?  Over on that shelf, there are these cakes of soap with rope stuck in them. You can wear it around your neck.  Soap on a Rope!”  Then they cracked up.

And I remembered giving Soap on a Rope to my father when I was their age.  I’m sure he was very grateful.

When you think about it, gift-giving has really changed over the last few years. I think what happened is that we all have so much stuff, the people who want to sell us more stuff have had to adapt.  I don’t know exactly what to get you, but I know where you probably like to shop, so I’ll give you a gift card!  A gift basket is a nice option too.

In the movie “Christmas Vacation,” Clark Griswold is hoping for a huge bonus from his work.  On Christmas Eve, he’s holding an envelope that holds the gift he’s been waiting for, hoping for.  The bonus that’s in this envelope is exactly what they need.  With his family gathered around, he opens the envelope and finds…  a membership in the Jelly-of-the-month Club.  Clark was hoping for something more.

When our kids are old enough to know what’s going on, when they remember what happens at Christmas, they begin to hope.  Maybe there’s a gift that they’ve been wanting “forever.”  And we parents do the best we can to give them gifts.  But what do you expect your kids to give to you?  Parents, what do you hope for?  I think most of us are just happy to be able to give to them.  And especially at Christmas, we’re happy just to be with them.  Not all parents do this well, and maybe you need to come to a place where you can forgive your parents, but that idea should give us just a little glimpse of how the Lord is with us.  We have hopes, there are things we want.  God is giving the gift we need, and God’s deepest desire is to simply be with us.

God has a huge gift for people who are hoping, people who are longing for something more.  In Jesus, God gives God.  In order to make the most out of this gift, it has to put to use.

When a gift was given in the Roman world, in the time of Jesus, there was always an expectation of a return gift.  A thank-you note was not enough. You needed to respond with a gift of your own. And what do you give to the God who owns everything?  You give yourself, but giving yourself means a bit more than just saying “Lord, I’m yours.”

Christ living inside you brings the kind of hope you’ve been hoping for. Then we need to live out the gift.  We don’t keep it for ourselves; this gift gets re-gifted by the way we live!  This is how we keep the hope alive.  Our world needs hope, don’t you agree?

As Paul says to Titus, the gift of Christ prepares us for the work of being “a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (v. 14). In other words, this gift of grace not only makes us cleaner than any “Soap-on-a-Rope” ever could; it also fires us up (the root Greek word for “zealous” is “zestos” – meaning heat) and sends us out to make a difference in our world, beginning with our own families, who need forgiveness, tolerance, encouragement, healing, and support.  In Jesus, God is with us to make that happen.  Joy to the….. World!

Do you need hope?  Let God give you God.  At Christmas, God gives hopeless people hope.  Trust that God will be faithful to give you the gift you need.

Prayer

O God, we see the decorations and we hear the sounds of Christmas; we sing your songs, and they describe such awesome feelings.  We sing about being “…joyful and triumphant…” and we want to be joyful – and triumphant.  We sing about preparing him room – and that’s what we do now.  We put our busyness and distractions aside – ourselves aside – so that Jesus can be our Lord.

O God, help us take these words and feelings and make them more than clichés.  Help us not to trivialize the fact that in Jesus, you became a child, Lord; you gave yourself to us.  You gave us hope.  Now we give ourselves to you, deepen our faith in Christ, and help us show our love for you by the way we live with our families and our neighbors, and with the world you have created.  Our hope is in you.

12/18/2016 Sermon: “The Perfect Gift”

I love Christmas, and I’ll bet you do too.  There’s the Christmas music and the gift giving.  Our memories contribute much to the anticipation and the feeling.  We’ve all got unique memories of Christmas.

And there’s this backdrop of the Christmas story.  We all have a mental image of the Christmas story – a kind of warm Christmas card image implanted in our minds.  For most of us, our earliest memories include some form of this story, and some image.  It’s a soft image with a kind of primitive maternity ward feeling.  The stable, the new parents, the shepherds, maybe a few animals, all in the soft glow of candles or oil lamps.  Maybe the glow is coming from the manger.  Or maybe there’s a spotlight coming from the star overhead.  Ahhh.  This is how Matthew tells it…

Matthew 1:18-25.  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Let’s do a little bible study!

Building with cave underneath, near Bethlehem, Palestine. CN – 2011

Was anybody here born at home?  Do you know anybody who was?  My parents were both born at home (my mother is almost 99 now).  I know that it’s possible to have a birth at home, but most women don’t.  What if there’s a complication?  We’ve mentioned over the last few weeks that Jesus was born a cave that was being used as a stable.  Here’s a house just outside of Bethlehem… with a cave underneath (above).  The Church of the Nativity  is built over this same kind of cave.  In that part of the world, caves are common.  They occur naturally and they can be carved – the rock is somewhat soft.

Have you ever been in a cave?  Can you lock into the feeling of that kind of space?  Try to imagine the smells.  Animals are sheltered there.  Something like a barn, right?  How about the sounds?  Animal sounds?  Probably goats and sheep.  Even in that time, most children were not born in a place like this.

So, the son of God was born in the most primitive way. Life was hard and these were not rich people.  Most of the world is still very poor, so if you think about it, So when you think about it, this is a perfect gift, for all people everywhere.  This is a savior for everyone.

You probably know that there are two birth stories about Jesus in the Bible and they aren’t the same.  Luke tells about shepherds and there being no room in the inn.  Matthew has the story with the three wise men.  Matthew also tells the story of Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt with Jesus.

In Luke, an angel comes to Mary with a message from God. Mary is the one who knows what’s happening.  In Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph in dreams and he has to tell Mary what’s going on.  Joseph plays a huge part.

The way Matthew tells it, it took some miracles for Jesus to survive.   Good is in a life-and-death struggle with evil.  There’s R-rated violence, evil kings, helpless peasants.  Mary is very likely a teenager. Normal for that time, but still vulnerable.  They are in town not for some Jewish festival, but because the Romans made them come.

Put yourself in the shoes of Joseph for a moment.  He’s not just a nice guy; he’s a faithful person who trusts God; he is committed to doing the right thing, committed to playing by the rules and living by the Laws of God.

What’s the Jewish law?  What’s the punishment for adultery?  In cases like these? Capital punishment. It’s black and white: You are to stone the woman to death, and “purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:23-27).

So, Joseph wrestles with all this. Nobody else knows and nobody (but God) can help him.  Joseph’s battle is inside his head and heart, which is where most of our battles take place.  He’s angry.  And after working through his anger, because he loves Mary, Joseph decides to show mercy to Mary and give her a quiet divorce.  Then he’s done.  He can move on.

Remember this the next time you have a chance to crush someone who has hurt you. Joseph decides to let go of his anger and turn away from revenge.  He lets his faith take control.  It may take him a while to feel this way, it takes time, but he decides that showing compassion is what he needs to do.

But he struggles; he really suffers over what to do.  And God doesn’t do anything right away.  Then the angel comes in a dream; God speaks through the angel to tell him:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (vv. 20-21).

The name Jesus (or Joshua) means savior. It means the “One who saves”.  The name Emmanuel means “God is with us.”  Did you get that?  Where is God?  God is with us!  The gift of God’s presence is the ultimate, perfect gift that heals the wounds and fills the deepest needs of our hearts.  He is the higher power we all need on our side – and in our lives.  He is the peace we all need.  He is the one who can say to a raging storm, “Peace, be still.”  And it happens.  The presence of Christ is stronger than the most powerful evil.  He saves us from what?  Our sins – the things that separate us from God and keep us from being the people we want to be.

After our toys are broken, or we’re bored and we’re hurt, or we can sense the emptiness, maybe then we can see the need we’ve always had.  This is the gift we’ve always wanted – sometimes without even knowing it consciously. God is with us.  And that’s what we needed most: God with us.  What could be more perfect?

When things seem most hopeless, or maybe just empty, God sends the hero in the form of the most unlikely kind of person:  a baby.  The God of the universe becomes a human being, and in that baby, God is giving the world, giving you and me, another chance at life.

Some families have a tradition of opening one Christmas present early, usually on Christmas Eve.  Well, this is one present that you’re allowed to open early.

This might be the best gift you’ve ever received.  It’s knowing for yourself, deep within, that in your struggle with evil, you are not alone; Jesus came to save you– and God is with us all!  We have a hero, and he is real.

Prayer

Father God, when you sent that baby, you changed everything: proud people are made humble, the powerful become weak, the weak become strong, the rich learn that they are really poor, the poor learn that God is their friend. Our relationship with you opens our eyes to who you are, and who we are, and the world as you see it: a world full of people whom you love who need you.

You gave us the perfect gift, God.  Help us to give you our hearts and our lives.  Thank you for being with us in our struggles, in our personal battles with evil.  Live in us and through us in a way that makes every day Christmas, and it’s clear to those who know us that you are our Savior and God is truly with us.  Amen.

12/11/2016 Sermon: “Welcome Home!”

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Road sign to Bethlehem, Palestine. CN – 2011.

We’re two weeks into Advent, halfway to Christmas.  If this is a journey, then we’re on our way to… Bethlehem.  You can probably picture Mary and Joseph.  What’s in that picture?  The couple.  She’s very pregnant.  They are walking, or, at least Joseph is walking.  We like to put Mary on a donkey, even though the story never describes that.  We usually see them walking alone, but it’s more likely that they traveled with a group of people.  It’s about a 90 mile walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem, on rough paths through a lot of lonely places.

So much traveling in the Bible!  The scriptures for this season are about taking a long trip and the prophet Isaiah is our tour guide.  With the Hebrew people 700 years before the birth of Jesus, we’ve been in exile and God is taking us home.  We are free!  So it’s okay to be happy; it’s okay to have “joy and gladness” (v. 10).  We’re not getting tired; the smiles come a little easier and the feet start to have a little more spring in them.  In the church calendar, this is Advent’s Rejoice Sunday; it’s pink candle day!

You need to think about the things that make you rejoice.  I don’t mean the things that make you feel good, or even the things that make you happy.  I’m talking about things that make you rejoice.  The things that really make you rejoice have to do with some kind of victory over a major obstacle, or some kind of new beginning, or both.  The stuff that has no price.  Latch on to a vision of that joy. That’s what “Rejoice Sunday” is all about.  People are coming home to God.  You are coming home to God.

Listen for the words and phrases that speak to you….

Isaiah 35:1-10.  The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool,  and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

What did you hear?  For me it’s so interesting that Isaiah knows what lions are.  When you imagine Bible places, you don’t think of lions, or the wolves, leopards, or bears from Isaiah 11 (last week).

But the main message is about joy – to people who don’t see much reason for rejoicing.  But Isaiah is bringing huge encouragement from God:

…the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.  Isaiah 35:1-2

the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35:10

Clapping Hands - lens flareI don’t know about you, but I’d like everlasting joy on my head!  I’d like sorrow and sighing to flee away.

I realize that this is not an easy thing for some of us.  You really can’t just rejoice on command, and for someone in the room, just the idea of rejoicing seems really hard right now.  You might still be walking through the valley of some illness.  Or this Christmas, someone who should be with the family, to make it complete, is not there.  So, any kind of holiday means pain.

God knows this.  That passage from Isaiah was written for people in pain.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.  He will come and save you.’ Isaiah 35:3-4

What are the people supposed to do?  Talk to each other.  Encourage each other.   You who find it impossible to rejoice right now, have hope, walk in the direction of the joy God has for you, and your rejoicing will come.

Walking the Abrahamic Trail between Nazareth and Jerusalem. CN - 2011.
Walking the Abrahamic Trail between Nazareth and Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

And as God is walking along with us, look at what God is doing: making flowers bloom, making blind people see and deaf people hear.  Sounds like Jesus.  And this is one of the prophecies about the Messiah.  This is not an anonymous God walking with us.  The God with us is Jesus.  He is God in flesh.

Christmas is such a beautiful time to find faith.  When you see a Nativity, and when you hear the readings this Christmas, think of Jesus as God’s embrace for you.  Take a step toward him and say yes.  It’s a simple prayer – I believe in you Jesus.  I’m yours.

100 years ago, Christmas was fairly boring compared to today.  One of the things we’ve lost in the shuffle is the simplicity of the story, and the simplicity of the faith that gets us where we need to go.  Traveling with God doesn’t have to be a complicated thing.  As you come home for Christmas, travel light.

Maybe you heard on the news that some airlines will soon be charging a fee for carry-on bags.  For me, that’s okay.  To really enjoy any journey, you need to step out of the house traveling light anyway.  Leave as much stuff as you can and travel light.  Let go of the baggage.

Done with your shopping yet?  As you finish up the things you need to do, give some thought to what our families need to be happy.  It isn’t much.  God would love to lead us down a simple path, and remind us of the simple things that make life worth living.  The place is so easy to get to, and with the right guide, you really can’t miss it.  It’s a stable.  A simple place where animals live.  God wants to meet us there.

Maybe you could tell from last week’s photos of the grotto (cave) in Bethlehem, it’s a tight space.  There’s not much room in this stable.  Before you come into the stable, you have to leave the unnecessary things outside.

Let go of the things you know you can’t fix.  You’ve tried and it’s not working.  Let it go.  Give these things to God.

Let go of your failures and mistakes.  You’ve been carrying that burden too long.  Let yourself off the hook.  If you’ve confessed these things to God, God already forgot about them.

There is no room in the stable for anything other than who and what we really are:  very human, very real, very fragile, very vulnerable human beings who desperately need the gift of Christ which God so much wants to give us.  There’s the story of wise men bringing gifts and a song about a drummer boy.  But it’s God who is giving us the gift, right?  So simple to say, and it’s a such a simple truth.  God sent Jesus to save us, and we need saving!

It’s easy to get depressed these days.  It’s easy to miss the new life and possibilities for growth all around us.  God is at work and we have many reasons to for joy.  God has blessed us.

The world has got a lot of rushing around to do this week.  When things get hectic, remember that the only trip we really need to make is a simple one.  Find a way to stop the rush. Think for a while on your own reasons for joy, share them with your family, and come home to Christ.

Prayer

O God, help us understand how much we need you.  Help us see that you are walking right alongside us, just waiting to give directions.  We don’t ever have to be lost again.  As we stand in front of the manger, help us feel your love and your peace flowing into our hearts.  Loosen us up, make us glad, help us laugh, light up our faces with deep-down joy.  Let that be living proof that Christ has come into our world and lives among us.  Amen.

12/4/2016 Sermon – “The Peaceable Kingdom”

We’ve talked lately about how unstable life feels for many people right now.  Maybe we’ve got some election hangover, or there might be other challenging things going on for you.   Some hard things always seem to happen around the holidays.  Doesn’t that always seem to be the case?  You couldn’t be in a better place and there could not be a better time to lock into what Christmas means.

War was just around the corner when God gave Isaiah a vision of peace.  This vision was about the coming of a Messiah, and this Messiah is a kind of superhero, but not like any superhero you’re used to.  Name some superheroes – and what are their powers?  Well, this superhero is different.  When you hear what Isaiah says, lock into a phrase or a verse that means something to you…

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse [Jesse is the father of King David, so that means the Messiah is descended from David], and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

21
Lion – South Africa. CN – 2008.
sheep-cropped
Sheep – Palestine. CN – 2011.

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

 What words found their place in your mind?  This Messiah seems to be all about peace.  Our superheroes use their powers to defeat enemies with violence, right?  Not this one.  The Messiah brings the power of peace.  Jesus brings the power of peace and doesn’t keep it for himself – he gives it away!  Isaiah paints a picture of peace so powerful that even animals get along.

You know, our first dog – a golden retriever – despised cats.  The nicest dog ever, especially around people, especially around kids.  But somewhere in him was a hair trigger for cats, and he took on a vicious personality if he saw a cat in the yard or outside a window.  And the cats would walk by the house just to taunt him.  You know how cats are!

vicky-pumpkinBut our current dog (Pumpkin the Corgi) doesn’t seem to mind cats.  When Jamie’s cat is in the house, she just thinks that other animal is interesting.  They pretty much ignore each other.  They seem to have an “understanding,” but definitely do not have a cuddly relationship.  Sometimes the cat will walk over to the dog, who might be sleeping, and give her a swat across the snout.  Just because.  And the dog backs off – “I don’t want any trouble!”  Have any of you had a dog and cat living together at your house?  I know it’s pretty common. Most of the time they figure it out.  Some scientists are studying inter-species relationships…

If you do a search for “unlikely friends,” you’ll find a lot of videos and photos.  I know that animals are much friendlier if they don’t feel threatened, or if they aren’t hungry, or if they think the other animal wouldn’t make for a good meal!  And I’d guess that if these animals are raised together, they might get along.  It’s even easier to find photos and video clips of animals attacking each other, because this is what they do to survive. Some animals are food for other animals.  God made them this way.

Oxpecker & impala - South Africa. CN - 2012
Oxpecker & impala – South Africa. CN – 2012

This is the only photo of “unlikely friends” that I’ve ever captured.  An oxpecker bird sits on the head of an impala.  The impala doesn’t seem to mind because it’s distracted.  If it’s not paying attention, it will become a meal for the leopard about 40 yards away!

Leopard - South Africa. CN - 2012.
Leopard – South Africa. CN – 2012.

How about people?  Most of our natural enemies seem to be other people.  God created us for peace, and we learn to do war.  I remember when our oldest son – I think he was about three – saw violence on TV for the first time.  He was shocked, and demanded we change the channel or turn off the television.

None of us starts out with a heart for conflict.  We learn it.  We shouldn’t be unlikely friends!  Among people, and God loves people (yes, God has huge love for you and me), peace is a big deal.  And I believe that as we learn conflict and disregard for others, God weeps.  But if we are at war, especially if it’s war within ourselves, God can bring a peace transplant.

When Jesus was born, do you remember what the angels said? Let’s be angels for a moment! Say it together…

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (Luke 2:14)

And for people who believe in Jesus, this is not just the absence of fear or conflict…

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.           (Philippians 4:6-7)

Do you remember the animals in Isaiah’s list?  Wolf, lamb, leopard, goat (kid), etc….

For Isaiah, when the Messiah comes, he comes with “the fear of the Lord,” (being in awe of God) and brings peace, so much peace that even animals who are natural enemies are getting along.  The world floating in a big sea of peace.

…for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

"The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks, 1830-32.
“The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks, 1830-32.

The animals in Isaiah’s list are a picture of what can happen when people believe.  People are supposed to be smarter than animals, right?  But we seem to love a fight.  It isn’t just history; turn on the news at 6, or whenever you can watch it.  Why do we see so much violence?  Against our better spirit, we learn to love it, like an addiction.

But the Messiah comes to bring an intervention, to break that addiction, which we all know we hate.  The people at war no longer fight – why?  Because the Messiah is their king.   When the Messiah comes, when the Messiah is their king, they will all have the same ruler.  When Jesus is the Lord of a bunch of people, what does that look like?

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35

That’s what happens when the king is in control.  Isaiah is talking about a king who will change the basic nature of things.  How does that work?  Having a king means giving up control. We have to decide: Do we want a king/messiah – a LORD – who changes the basic nature of things, even us?

For the leopard to lie down with the baby goat, both have to be changed.  It takes two.  It is easy to say, “Hey there, leopard, you have to change your ways and quit eating all those baby goats.” But the baby goat also has to start trusting it’s natural enemy.

It’s not natural, and Isaiah knows it.  It takes a supernatural force – somebody with a kind of superpower.  When Christmas time comes, it’s Isaiah who calls the Messiah the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace” (9:6).  And at Easter, it’s Isaiah who says, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (53:5)

The Messiah comes as a child called the “Prince of Peace” and is rejected as an adult we call the “Man of Sorrows.”  They are the same person.

So this isn’t the kind of king who conquers us.  This king gives us a choice, and if we make the choice to belong to this king, we can be different; we can have that amazing peace, the peace that passes understanding.

Jesus the Messiah changes our nature when we have faith.  The Messiah brings enemies together; the Messiah can bring people together, especially the people who are in conflict – if the Messiah is the king of both of them.

This is part when I could make a list of our own natural enemies – the things and people that attack us, the things and the people in our lives that give us trouble, but I will let you do that.  But in order for things to change in a more permanent way, the Messiah has to be the God and king of both sides.  Now, God may not change others, or change the world around us, but God can change us.  This Christmas, let the Messiah come to you.  If you tell someone about the difference Christ has made in your life, that might be the best gift they’ve ever received.

Prayer

O God, sometimes the world seems like such a dark place.  We see pain and hurt in our relationships, in our living with our memories.  We know there is pain and hurt across our country, in the darkness and corners of the world.  But your light comes and shines in the darkest night.  You bring reconciliation and forgiveness.

Make us strong enough to stand on our faith in the Prince of Peace. Make us sensitive enough to see signs of new life and help it grow. Make us crazy enough to jump with joy when friendships happen. Make us bold enough to love you openly and sing carols to the whole world. Let your light shine in us and through us. Amen