Sunday, December 19, 2010

“How’s Our Faith?”

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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A Message from the Pastor
He was tired. He was very tired. He hadn’t slept for two days. And now he was lying on his bed of straw in the corner of his one and one-half room house, tossing and turning. It was dark. There was one window in the house, but there was no candle lighted. After all, he couldn’t read so he tried to sleep as soon as it was dark.

He had found out a couple of days ago that the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. And he knew it wasn’t him. He also knew that if he had found out, other people in the community would have, also. He was a pious man and respected his culture. Yet, he was also a kind man. While he didn’t know Mary well since the arranged marriage, he liked her and didn’t want harm done to her. He knew if he married her, he would be shunned by the community, possibly his whole life. It was shameful for a man to marry a woman who was pregnant by another man. In this culture of honor or shame, it would be more than he could tolerate. Yet, if he obeyed the laws of his religion and brought her to court, she could be stoned to death as an adulteress. He didn’t like either option.

As he lay there, he finally came to the conclusion that he would send her off to a distant relative in the Northern part of the nation. While her life would not be very good, if would be better than if she stayed here. She probably would be held in servant hood for the rest of her life, and the child inside her might end up the same way. This seemed to be the best alternative. Reaching that conclusion, he began to sleep, albeit fitfully.

While he was sleeping, he had a dream. A man came to him whom he identified as an angel. The angel told Joseph not to be afraid, but to take Mary as his wife, for the baby who was within her was the one the nation had been waiting for. He was the Messiah. And Joseph was told, that because he was from the lineage of David, he was to name the child Jesus. For Joseph knew that if he named the child, the child would officially be adopted by Joseph and adopted into the lineage of David. He was to name the child Jesus for that name meant “to save us from our sins.” He was the one identified as “Emmanuel,” by the prophesies, God with us. This is the one all the people of God were waiting for. Then Joseph went back into sleep again. When he awoke, he took Mary for his wife and had no sexual relations with her until she delivered the child. Joseph named the boy Jesus.

Okay men what would you do? What would you do if you found out your finance was pregnant, and it wasn’t you? What would you do, then, if you had a dream and were told, by what seemed to be an angel, that what was happening was holy and you were to marry your finance? Would you have the faith of Joseph? Remember what faith means: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

And just in case the women may be a little smug right now, do you remember what happened to Mary? She was visited by the angel Gabriel. She was told that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mary had to know that for the rest of her life she would be an outcast and labeled an adulteress and the child she bore would be shunned in shame because he was illegitimate. Would you do what Mary did when she visited her relative Mary? Would you praise and thank God for choosing her?

Just think about these two people, Mary and Joseph. Just think about how faithful and pious they were. Just think about how Jesus was surrounded by two parents who had such a faith in God that they were willing to literally risk all to follow what God wished them to do. Do we ever stop to think about what all this means? It’s not only the faithfulness of Jesus’, parents but the reality that Jesus came to save us from our sins and that God came to us in the form of Jesus to be with us.

Here we are with similar circumstances. We are led by the culture and our religion. We hear the songs, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” We are told to shop until we drop. We are to spend, spend, spend. And our religion tells us that, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” and, “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas,” whatever those sayings mean.

While we do all the cultural things and are influenced by the sayings from our religion, do we really think about what Christmas is all about? Do we take in the significance that this child came to make us one with God and that God loved us so much that God became one of us?

Furthermore, we need to think about “he came to save US.” We need to consider the words, “God with US.” What about Jesus? After all, Jesus lost his life for the sake of the gospel. He picked up the cross. He died to self as he came from God and became one of us. He asks us to do the same.

Can we really sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

“What Are We Looking For”

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A Message from the Pastor
December 12 and it’s the Third Sunday in Advent. Fifteen days have expired of this Advent season. There are twelve days remaining. We’re right in the middle of the season. So far we’ve heard hopeful comments from the prophet Isaiah. We heard comments from Paul, and today from James. Our first gospel reading had us listening to the words of Jesus as he spoke of the last days. Last week and today we heard about John the Baptist.

Where’s the baby Jesus? Where’s the Christ child? That’s who we’re waiting for. That’s what all this Advent season is about, isn’t it? We are preparing for the coming of Jesus, aren’t we?

Well, with these readings in Advent, what are we waiting for? What are we looking for?

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading? John the Baptist was in the river Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance. Remember what he said about Jesus? “There is one coming more powerful than I. He has his winnowing fork in his hand. He is clearing the threshing floor. His wheat he will store in the granary. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Wow! That sounds like fire and brimstone. Now, John is not so sure. He’s sent his disciples from where he is in prison, asking Jesus, “Are you the one we are waiting for? Or should we look for another?” Jesus says to him, “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What is John waiting for? What is John looking for.

Let’s recall the story of Jesus up until the reading for today from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is baptized by John. He is tempted in the desert and then he begins his ministry. We read about all the powerful things that he does. The blind do see. The lame do walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf do hear. The dead are raised. Good news is brought to the poor. I’m sure John heard about that. He probably also heard about some of the things Jesus said. Perhaps that is what confused him.

In most of my years, as I read and heard scripture, I could remember all the miracles of Jesus. I could also remember how he challenged the authorities. (I could hear myself say, “Go get ‘em Jesus!”) Yes, and with that memory of what I read and heard, I would pray for healing of people I knew and loved. I would pray for those who were having difficult relationships. I would pray for those who lost jobs. I would be asking for the same kind of miracles.

I wonder if John heard about Jesus, which happened early in Jesus’ ministry, when he went up the mountain and talked to the people. I wonder if John heard what he said. What I didn’t hear, or I used selective hearing, is what Jesus was saying, either to the people directly or through his parables. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” That sure doesn’t sound like fire and brimstone to me. But that’s not all. Jesus also said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who curse you.” And, if that isn’t enough, he also said that if you lust for someone, it is the same as committing adultery. Also, he told the people that if you have anger in your heart, you are a murderer. Is that who we are waiting for? Is that who we are looking for?

When I began to think about the whole story of Jesus, his comments shouldn’t have surprised me. He was born to a fourteen year girl. He was born out of wedlock. He had to be an outcast in his community. Then he was born in a feeding trough in a shelter for animals. Let’s be realistic; there would have been a lot of manure, mixed with the straw. Vermin would be there, mice, rats, and the like, along with mosquitoes and flies. Then he and his family had to flee for their lives to Egypt. Is that our Messiah? Is that who we are waiting for? Is that who we are looking for?

Yes, during his ministry he challenged the authorities. Those who followed him loved it, but when he was arrested, they all left him. He was brutally beaten and whipped, and with a bloody crown of thorns on his head, he was hanged naked from a cross. Again, is that our Messiah? Is that who we are looking for? Is that who we are waiting for.

We want someone with power. We want someone with influence. We want someone who can rescue us from political, social, and economic tyranny.

Well, there is one thing we can consider. There is one thing that means all the difference. God loves us so much that God was willing to send his son to us. He was willing to have Jesus become a human. He was willing to have the Son of God become one of us. Jesus knew about being rejected. He knew about being abandoned. He knew about suffering. He knew about broken relationships. He knew about the need for healing. He knew it all because he was fully human besides being fully divine.

As we continue our preparation for the coming of Jesus to the manger, we are also aware of Jesus who will come into the manger of our hearts.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Hope, Repentance, Fire"

Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
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.
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;
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.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
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.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
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.
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.

Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
"Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name";
and again he says,
"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";
and again,
"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him";
and again Isaiah says,
"The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope."

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

A Message from the Pastor
You brood of vipers, who told you that you could flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. The axe is lying at the root of the tree. Those trees that do not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. One more powerful than I is coming. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Merry Christmas everyone! Aren’t those just wonderful comments? It makes you wonder about the season of Advent, doesn’t it? Well, there is significance about what John the Baptist had to say. He was talking about the kingdom of heaven drawing near and that it is a time for repentance. It is one of the three thoughts we will discuss today as we prepare for the coming of Christ: hope, repentance, and fire.

When I read the first lesson, I began to think about an experience I had soon after Frankie and I moved to Jonesborough. We had a red bud tree on our property. I was growing close to a rather large white pine tree, the latter beginning to crowd it out. The redbud was not in good shape. A couple years afterward we had to cut down another white pine because it was infested with beetles. I suggested to the one with the chainsaw to cut down the redbud also. After all, I believed we would have to do so sooner or later. The next year, as I was mowing the yard, I saw a small shoot coming out of the stump of the redbud tree. I was tempted to ride right over it. However, something told me not to. I watched that shoot grow a little each year. Finally, a year or so later, it began to bloom. Tiny red flowers appeared that spring that represented the hope that comes with the spring of every year. The next year, the other white pine was diseased and we had to cut it down. That year the redbud had grown some more. This past spring, with the absence of the white pine, the redbud began to shape itself into a beautiful young tree and bloomed beautifully. Now every year I will think of the Isaiah text and remember not only the hope of spring time but the hope that the shoot of the Jesse tree represents, the coming of Jesus.

When we read the whole Isaiah text we wonder if what Isaiah said could really occur. Personally, it’s easy for me to be cynical. However, when we believe that anything is possible with God, then it brings hope into our hearts, that possibly the kingdom of heaven will continue to draw near.

Paul also talked about hope. His comments related to the situation with the church in Rome. It represented both Jewish and Gentile Christians. There were differences over perspectives on how one acted as Christians. Yet, in the hope that comes from Jesus, we have the hope that our relationship with one another will be in love, with understanding and acceptance of one another.

When we speak of repentance, many times we understand that word to mean our need to be remorseful about how we act and think. In our remorsefulness, we say, “Oh God, I can change. Oh God, be patient with me. I know I can do better.” However, the Greek word for repentance means that we change our way of thinking, we change our perspective of life, and we change our value system. We recognize that the first personal singular is not the subject. God is. What we do say is, Oh God, no matter how hard I try, I can’t. God, you can. God, empower me with the Spirit so that I will be willing to let you. After all, life is about God, not about us.

In the gospel reading for today, there are three references to fire. John says that the tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire. John also said that Jesus would come and provide a baptism of the Spirit and fire. At the end of the reading, John says that Jesus will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Fire can purify. Fire can make clean.

There is a story I heard, which is supposed to be true, of a team of engineers that went to a South American country to attempt to extract minerals or other materials for their company. They were constantly thwarted by epidemics of malaria. Finally, they thought the only solution was to burn the land to its roots in order to rid it of the lethal mosquitoes. They did so. A couple of years later they returned. They found the land had a ground cover that they had never seen before. The ground cover produced an exquisite blue flower. They cut specimens and took them back with them and showed them to the people at the Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C. The botanists confirmed what they thought. They had never seen that species before. It appeared to be something entirely new. The fire had purified the ground and created something new and beautiful.

So it is with us that began with our baptism. It is the fire of purification from the Spirit that enters us. As the Spirit opens us to the presence of God, through Jesus, the purification process continues each day as we remember our baptism. We are created new and beautiful, made in the image of God to serve God’s desire to have the kingdom of heaven come near.
As we continue our Advent journey, we have the opportunity to embrace our relationship with God through repentance, which is strengthened by the purification of the Spirit’s fire, and produces the joy of hope as we await the coming of Jesus.