Sunday, December 25, 2016

How Blessed are Messengers

A man sat in a marriage counselor’s office in despair.  His wife was threatening to leave him.  He desperately loved his wife.  He wanted to stay with her; to be with her.  No one else had ever caught his attention, and he had devoted himself to caring for her.  He was flabbergasted when she told him that she felt unloved.  He couldn’t understand it at all.  So, he sought help and advice.

The counselor asked the man what was going on.

The man began, “I don’t know.  She says that she feels unloved.  She says that she feels like I don’t care about her.  But nothing could be farther from the truth.  I love her dearly, desperately.  I only want what is best for her.  I work as hard as I can each and every day to show my love to her.  I make sure and get all my work done so I can get home.  I cook dinner for her almost every day.  I know what kind of food she likes and doesn’t like, and I take great pains to make sure it’s cooked to her taste.  I know what kind of clothes she likes to wear, so I make sure her wardrobe is full of those clothes.  I have purchased several things personally, and she never tells me that they are bad.  She has always marveled at how well I can buy stuff for her.  I also take her on vacations to whatever destination she wants.  Never have I refused her a single request to a place she wants to go.  I have constantly done things for her and given her gifts, so I don’t understand why she feels unloved.  I haven’t a clue why she believes I don’t love her.  Can you help me?”

The counselor scratched his head for a moment and then replied, “When is the last time you told her?”

The man sat in silence and struggled to remember.

It is certainly true that love without action is merely words.  You can tell someone you love them over and over and over again, but if your actions contradict your words, you are a liar.  If there are no actions following the words, they remain empty.

However, words matter.  Messages matter.  Not only do we need to see things in action, we need to hear those words.  We need to hear messages.  We need people to verbalize what is going on deep within their own hearts and souls.  News carries weight.

We all know that news carries weight.  We all know that words that are spoken or read sometimes hit us where we live–even if we are far removed from the events that are taking place, news still impacts our lives.  For instance, on September 11, 2001, four passenger airplanes were hijacked.  Two were flown into the World Trade Center towers.  One was flown into the Pentagon.  One was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  As far as I know, none of us here this morning had any direct contact with those events–if someone here did, please correct me later.  As far as I know none of us here were really, truly impacted by what happened.  We weren’t there.  We were over a thousand miles away.

But the news about those events hit many of us hard.  We grieved for the people who were killed.  We grieved for the families who lost loved ones.  We grieved for our nation as we came under attack.  We were angered by those who attacked us. We wanted vengeance.  We also were inspired by the acts of heroism that we heard about. We took pride in police officers and other first responders who risked and gave their lives to help others.  Reflecting on such stories, we hugged our families a little tighter.  We turned to God in bewilderment, in frustration, in questioning.  We rallied together as a nation.  The event itself may have had little impact on us, but the news of what happened certainly did.

News always elicits a response.  Whether it is emotional or physical, news always causes us to react–sometimes with joy; sometimes with sadness; sometimes with elation; sometimes with anger.  When the news really hits home, we talk about it; we discuss it; we share it.  Those of us with Facebook know this all too well.

Christianity, at its core is about news.  To be precise, Christianity is about THE good news.  We use the technical, theological term: Gospel.  Gospel literally means good news.  The question that often arises is: what is the good news?  What is the gospel?

Well, in order to know the good news, we first have to hear the bad news.  The bad news is that we are separated from God.  The bad news is that we live in a world where that separation shows itself on an all too regular basis.  The technical term for this is that we live in sin.  Now, this term has fallen out of favor with many.  Most folks today prefer to talk about the mistakes we make.  Everyone readily admits that they are not perfect, but no one wants to admit that they are sinful.  No one wants to admit that deep down they are inherently selfish or that they seek their own wishes and desires over everything else.  Truly evil people are rare and to be held in contempt.  Most folks aren’t bad but perhaps misunderstood.  And if we simply manufactured the right conditions or put the right sorts of laws in place or produced the right environment, then everyone would turn out perfectly fine.  Everyone would get along swimmingly and be completely happy and satisfied.

What is truly intriguing about such commentary is that it is not new.  Folks have thought this for thousands of years.  The idea of utopia–or the perfect society with perfect living conditions has been around for a long, long time.  And each and every time it has been attempted, it has failed.  Just like every end time prediction.  They’ve all failed.  Folks have tried to come up with the answer, but one answer has stood the test of time–even though it isn’t popular, and that answer is: there is something deeply wrong and deeply flawed with us.  No matter what kind of society.  No matter what kind of government is established.  No matter what kind of laws are on the books, humans do not do what we know is right.  We do not follow the laws like we should.  We end up seeking our own interests above the interests of others.  Scripture calls this the original sin–seeking our self interest over what God has instructed us to do.  This selfish orientation has left us estranged from God–separated from Him and His goodness.

Now, God is a God of love, and He has given us free will.  He will allow us to go our own way and walk away from Him should we choose.  He will allow us to engage in our destructive behavior and seek our own desires for eternity.  And, left to our own devices, we would.  You may ask: what’s wrong with that?  Here’s what: we will never be satisfied.  We will always be searching.  We will always be hungry.  And imagine your hunger growing and growing in an eternal search for satisfaction and fulfillment.  Imagine never finding what you seek and desperately longing for what you desire with no end.  You would be miserable.  You would be desperate; in pain; in longing.  My friends, you would be in hell.  And that is exactly what the Bible says will happen to us left to our own devices and our own desires.

But God does not desire this for us.  God does not want us to end up in this condition.  God wants us to thrive.  God want’s us to find satisfaction; to find fulfillment; to find joy, peace, and hope.  But He knows we will not find that in any thing but Him. He knows He alone can fulfill our deepest desires and hungers.  And He knows that we must turn to Him; we must trust Him; we must seek Him and make Him our greatest heart’s desire.

But how would God do this?   He could warn us.  He could try and tell us of all the things that we should and shouldn’t do.  He could tell us to love Him above all and love our neighbor as ourselves.  And God did just this thing.  But, our selfishness wouldn’t allow us to accomplish these things.  Our selfishness would not let us see beyond ourselves in loving God and loving our neighbor.
And so God sought to change our hearts–to turn us away from our selfishness.  There is one powerful force that can indeed change a heart.  There is one powerful force that can cause us to step outside of ourselves and seek to please others instead of ourselves.  That force is love.  When we fall in love with someone, we will to anything we can to please that other person; we will live for that other person; we will strive to do what they ask us because we know it brings them joy.  And God had to wonder how to make us fall in love with Him.  How could He demonstrate His love and share His love with us?

Last night, we heard about the birth of the Christ child in the manger.  We heard of angels singing, shepherds running, and Mary pondering these things in her heart.  Today we heard about the light shining in the darkness, the Word becoming flesh and living among us.  We heard of God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus who came to speak of God’s love; who told us that God is the good shepherd who seeks out the one lost sheep out of the 99; God is the woman who tears up her house to find one lost coin; God runs out to meet the son who squandered His wealth and throws a party for that son; God also leaves that party to welcome in the son who has done everything right and is bitter at God’s graciousness.  Jesus told of an extravagant God who loves those who are far away from Him.

And Jesus didn’t simply tell of this love.  The God become man showed that love as He took our sin upon Himself.  He took the just punishment for the wrongs we have done.  He poured out Himself on the cross and died for us when we least deserved it speaking those haunting words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  Dying for a family member is common place.  Dying for a friend is something we might do.  People have even died for strangers.  But dying for an enemy?  Dying for someone who does not believe or follow you?  That is a special kind of love.  That is the love that Jesus shows.  That is the love of God for you and for me.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

God poured out His love for you on the cross, and then three days later, He showed what happens to those who trust in Him; who trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf.  They will be raised to eternal life and glory.  All of their hungers and wants will be satisfied.  Their future is safe and secure in the hands of the one who created and redeemed them.

This my friends, is the Gospel.  This my friends is the good news.  When we were separated from God, He bridged that gap.  He reconciled us unto Him.  He provided for us; saved us; and ensured our future.

This is the news that we are now commissioned to tell.  We are now messengers on God’s behalf to tell the world about what God has done for them.  Not only with our deeds.  Not only with our acts of kindness and generosity, but with our voices.  We are called to share what God has done for the world.  For you.  For me.

And then, so shall come to pass what is written in the book of Isaiah.  It will be spoken about the Church and all who believe, “7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’  8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  9 Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.  10 The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”  Merry Christmas!!  Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Good News Drives Away Fear

You know that feeling, don’t you?  That feeling that you get when a DPS Trooper, Sheriff’s Deputy, or Police car starts following you.  You are sitting in the driver’s seat, and your body tenses up.  You look at all the gauges.  You check your speed.  You wonder about your tags.  You wonder about your lights.  Your heart races, and you wonder if lights will suddenly flash and sirens will wail.  If the trooper follows you for any length of time, your symptoms become worse.  The fear starts rising.  Are you in trouble or not?

Take that little bit of fear that you have felt during those times and multiply it by a thousand, and you might get close to what the shepherds were experiencing on that hillside outside of Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago.  Luke recounts the tale, and we heard it just a few minutes ago, “8 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.”  English sometimes is a poor conveyor of meaning, and this is one case in point.  The ancient Greek literally reads, “and they feared great fear.”  Whenever Greek uses two of the same words in conjunction like that, it is adding tremendous emphasis.  Terrified might not quite cut what the shepherds were experiencing at that moment.  Perhaps a better word might be–panic.  The shepherds panicked!!

Have you ever wondered why?  Why would the shepherds panic when they saw an angel of the Lord?  I mean we don’t seem to have too much of a problem with angels.  We talk about them showing up from time to time.  We put them on the tops of our Christmas trees.  We dress up kids as angels during our Christmas programs.  We consider them blessings; signs of hope; signs of peace and joy.  We seemingly have no fear of angels.  But these shepherds did.  They panicked when they saw one.  They were absolutely terrified.  Shaking.  Trembling.  Cowering with deep fear.  Have you ever wondered why?

Consider the idea that these shepherds believed that the Day of the Lord was now upon them.  Consider the idea that they believed that the Lord was now coming to judge the world and set up His kingdom.  Now, if you have been raised as a Christian, you might wonder why this is such a bad thing.  Aren’t we hoping for that day?  Aren’t we longing for the day when the Lord will come to make everything right?  Why would this be such a bad thing for those shepherds?  Well, to be blunt, you are looking at this day post-Jesus.  The ancient Jews had a very different understanding of the day of the Lord.  It wasn’t going to be all that bright and shiny.

Consider these important biblical texts regarding the day of the Lord.  These would have been the scriptures read to those shepherds who were on that hillside watching this angel appear to them.

Consider Isaiah 13 verses 6-9, “6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! 7 Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will fail, 8 and they will be dismayed.  Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor.  They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame.  9 See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.”  Does that sound like a day to look forward to?

Consider Amos chapter 5 verses 18-20, “18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.  20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

One last passage.  Consider Zephaniah chapter 1 verses 14-17, “14 The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there.  15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.  17 I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.

Now, after hearing those passages, and if you had been taught this from the beginning of your religious life, and if you suddenly seen a heavenly angel towering above revealing the power of God, how do you think you would feel?  Don’t you think you might be a little concerned that all that once was told you was coming true?  Don’t you think you would be terrified, panicked, overwhelmed and ready to crawl into a hole?  The shepherds were.  They were terrified.  They panicked.

But their panic was transformed with some unexpected words that flowed from the lips of the angel, “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 Savior, 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.”  What the angel spoke was good news.  If there is nothing else that you remember from this sermon tonight, please remember these next words: Good news drives away fear.

Good news drives away fear.

The shepherds were expecting the promised day of the Lord–a day that was foretold to be horrible as God’s wrath was poured down and God exacted vengeance upon sin.  The shepherds expected to be blasted with holy fire, but instead were met with the news that God was acting in quite a different way.  Instead of unleashing wrath, God was unleashing salvation.  For the Jews believed that the Messiah would usher in God’s kingdom of peace, joy, and prosperity.  The Messiah would be the one who was to set things to rights.  The Messiah would be the one who would turn the world upside down and bring freedom from all that oppresses!  Oh, this news was not to be feared in the least.  This news was not to cause panic.  This news was full of hope.  This news was full of promise.  This news was full of joy.

Certifying that this was indeed the case, a whole host of angels filled the skies and broke into song.  They proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest and peace among those whom He favors!!”  This was not a wrathful day at all.  It was a day to be celebrated.

It is no wonder that the shepherds’ fears were transformed into hope and joy.  It is no wonder they arose and spoke amongst each other and said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that the angels have made known to us.”  Good news drove away their fear, and they responded with reckless abandon to seek out total strangers and witness God’s action in the world.  Truly good news has that effect on people.

Think about how transformative good news is.  Think about the cancer patient who is declared cancer free.  What is the reaction?  Think about the person who has suffered the loss of a job who is told, “We’d like to offer you a better job.”  Think about the couple who has struggled with infertility who discovers they are pregnant.  Think about the family who is struggling to make ends meet who receives an unexpected financial windfall.  Think about the military family who received word that their deployed loved one will be home for Christmas.  Good news transforms folks and brings true joy.

But in most cases, such joy is short lived.  Either by the fact that something else comes along that changes circumstances or the fact that what is good news to one person is the exact opposite for another person.  For instance, in some of the above examples–the family who was struggling to make ends meet receives and unexpected financial windfall, but in two months, the windfall has run out, and they are back to square one.  The military family whose loved one came home for Christmas finds out their loved one will be deployed for Easter.  Circumstances change.

This past election cycle saw roughly half of the country pleased and excited about the outcome–it was good news.  However, for the other half of the country, fear, angst, and anger was the response–it was not good news.  A factory that decides to uproot and move to another location is certainly bad news for the current employees of that factory, but it is good news to the jobless who will benefit from the factory’s move.  Hearing that Tom Savage is going to be the Texans’ quarterback is good news for all Texan fans, but it is certainly not good news for Brock Osweiller.  Do you see how that works?  Do you see how oftentimes good news is short lived or how good news is not necessarily good news for everyone?  Can you see how because of this fear easily gains a foothold and even sometimes becomes the driving force in our lives?

And so we must ask: Is there good news that indeed is good news for everyone; that is long lasting; that brings joy and peace and assurance no matter if circumstances change?  Is there such news that can bring transformation to our entire lives?  Is there such news that will drive away fear and give us a sure and certain hope?

What if I told you, there was?  What if I told you that the news of this night–the birth of the Messiah who is Christ the Lord–leads us straight toward that Good News of Great Joy that never ends?  No, it’s not simply a baby in a manger that encapsulates that good news, but it is the fact that that baby will grow and lead us all to a cross and an empty tomb.

For it is on the cross that the God of this universe dies for each and every one of us.  It is on the cross that the God of the universe makes sure that we are right with Him.  It is on the cross where all of the things that separate us from God–our sin, our selfishness, our desire to call our own shots, our failure to love one another, our failure to be compassionate, our failure to live the lives that deep down we know we are supposed to live–all of these things are forgiven and paid for by God Himself.  Jesus, the God in flesh, takes all of these things and much more upon Himself so that you are free of any guilt of your failures.  Nothing in the past can haunt you.  You can walk free.  This is good news.

And it is in the empty tomb that we find assurance that all that is bad will be transformed.  All that is evil will become good.  All pain will be taken away.  All hate will turn to love.  All darkness will turn to light.  All despair will turn to hope.  All death will spring to life.  Whatever it is that you are facing, even should it bring death to your body, will be transformed by the God who holds the future in His hands.  The resurrection is proof of God’s transformative power over the future.  And if you trust that your future is in God’s hands–if you trust the promises of God, what do you have to fear?  The answer is nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

The cross.  The resurrection.  God’s reconciling action.  God’s promise of hope.  This is good news for all.  This is news which has no down side.  This is news of a life-changing scale.  Countless Christians from the time of the resurrection have had their lives changed because they trusted in these promises.  From the shepherds on that hillside to the martyrs who died singing in flames to ordinary people like you and me.  This good news has taken away fear and brought hope to billions.  This good news that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who trust in Him should not perish but have eternal life; for God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.

May we trust in this promise.  May we trust in this good news.  May we have our fears removed so that we may experience peace, hope, love and joy. Merry Christmas!!  Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why Don't We Sing?

I absolutely love how scholar and world renown theologian N.T. Wright begins his commentary on the Magnificat–or the Song of Mary that we have presented to us this morning.  Please hear Wright’s words in this extended quote:

What would make you celebrate wildly, without inhibition?
Perhaps it would be the news that someone close to you who’d been very sick was getting better and would soon be home.
Perhaps it would be the news that your country had escaped from tyranny and oppression, and could look forward to a new time of freedom and prosperity.
Perhaps it would be seeing that the floods which had threatened your home were going down again.
Perhaps it would be the message that all your money worries, or business worries, had been sorted out and you could relax.
Perhaps it would be the telephone call to say that you had been appointed to the job you’d always longed for.
Whatever it might be, you’d do things you normally wouldn’t.
You might dance around and round with a friend.
You might shout and throw your hat in the air (I once did that without thinking, before I stopped to reflect what a cliche it was.)
You might telephone everybody you could think of and invite them to a party.
You might sing a song.  You might even make one up as you went along–probably out of snatches of poems and songs you already knew, or perhaps by adding your own new words to a great old hymn.
And if you lived in any kind of culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground.
Now, read Mary’s song like that. (Luke for Everyone pp. 13-14)

Read Mary’s song like that.

I wonder if we can.

I wonder if we can experience that kind of joy anymore.

It seems like daily we are bombarded with news that threatens our well being.  There used to be a famous tag regarding news stories that said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Well, they’ve actually come up with all sorts of other stories meant to scare the bejeezus out of you these days.  We just came through a presidential election–that once again was called the most important in our lifetime–that once again had both sides convinced that if the other person was elected, we were sending our nation right down the toilet and into the sewer.  Forgive me if I don’t give such talk credence anymore.  I’ve heard such rhetoric in the last four or five presidential elections.  I’m tired of it, and I don’t believe it.  Armageddon hasn’t happened in the least.  I’m pretty sure it won’t happen now.  But you’d never believe it given the rhetoric.  And you’d better not try and convince a die hard about your skepticism.  They will work diligently to convince you that you should be scared to death.

And the thing about it is, such scare tactics work!  They tap into something deep down in our psyches–deep down in the recesses of our subconsciousness.  Some behaviorists have concluded that evolution has essentially programed us to focus on the negative.  I mean, when our ancestors were surviving out on the Savannah’s of Africa, they had to be acutely aware of their surroundings.  Every sound had to be categorized and noted.  Was that rustle in the grass simply the wind, or was it a predator stalking you?  Was that bubbling in the river just some air escaping, or was it an alligator about to spring?  Were the clouds in the sky a harbinger of severe weather?  When you are in survival mode, as we were for the longest time, your brain develops so that you are always looking for threats.  Are you safe?  Are you secure?  Is your well being in danger?  These are the questions that dominated our species for thousands of years.  And it was rare that we got the opportunity to relax and enjoy time without threat.

What did this do to us?  Well, it instilled deep within us an instinctual focus on that which threatens us.  It instilled deep within us a heightened sense of attention and focus on the negative.  Negative things grasp and hold our attention better than the positive things, and interestingly enough, even when the positive things happen to us, we tend to get suspicious and wonder when the shoe is going to drop.  Our joy is usually very short lived, and there is always someone ready to be a “Debbie Downer” and rain on your parade.  There is always someone ready to point to those who are grieving and say to you, “How can you celebrate when these people are hurting.”  True joy is hard to find.

Except in children.  Oh, our children exhibit such uninhibited joy.  Our children are more than willing to laugh and celebrate and clown around.  Our children are willing to sing and dance without worrying about what other people think.  Our children are willing to shout with joy and gladness, and what do we adults tend to do when our kids do this?  What is our usual response?  Yep.  We tell them to grow up.  Get serious.  Act like an adult.  We have had our joy tempered, and so we almost feel obligated to do the same.

Can you imagine if Elizabeth and Mary had tried to restrain their joy?  Can you imagine what they would have done and how differently the scene before us this morning would have played out?  It most likely would not have been included in the Bible, that’s for certain.  For Mary’s song bursts forth from her lips because she is filled with unrestrained joy.  Let’s take a look at what is happening.

Luke tells us that Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, like Mary is pregnant, and when Mary arrives, she greets her cousin.  Luke emphasizes this a couple of times for a reason.  First off, we need to understand that in that culture, it was appropriate and expected for a younger woman to respect her elders.  It was also appropriate and expected to honor an older woman who was pregnant given that pregnancy was considered a blessing from God.  Mary is following proper protocol for the Jewish society in which she lived.  Elizabeth, because of her status as an older, pregnant woman, deserves to be honored by Mary’s greeting.  Mary knows this and follows the custom, but Elizabeth does not follow suit.  In fact, Elizabeth’s reaction is totally unexpected and totally against the cultural norms.  Why?

Listen again to what Luke records, “41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’”

When Mary greeted Elizabeth, something marvelous happened within her.  The child that she was carrying lept in her womb!! The child in Elizabeth’s womb recognized that God was up to something mighty because of the child in Mary’s womb.  Elizabeth felt this and then felt the power of the Holy Spirit fall upon her, and she proclaimed a greeting to Mary!!!  This was unheard of!!  Older women certainly did not talk to teenagers this way!!!  Older women certainly didn’t offer this kind of respect to young women who, by all external appearances were sinning because they were pregnant outside of wedlock.  Anyone in that culture would have been shocked by Elizabeth’s actions!!  This shouldn’t be happening!!  But proper protocol’s were not in control of this situation.  The joy instilled by the Holy Spirit was.

Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”  Listen carefully to Elizabeth’s words here.  She announces that the child that Mary is carrying is her Lord.  The child in Mary’s womb is her ruler.  Even before he is born, Elizabeth is testifying to his greatness!

For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  There it is again.  Joy.  Unadulterated joy.  From an infant in the womb to the infant’s mother.  And all focused back on the promise given by the Lord.  The Lord’s promise is coming true.  The Lord is acting in the world.  Focusing on the Lord and His work brings joy.  Remember that.  It will be a recurring theme.

Mary hears Elizabeth’s words.  And Mary spontaneously breaks into song.  She sings.  Filled with joy, she lifts her voice to the skies and proclaims the majesty of the Lord.  I would dearly love to go through this marvelous song verse by verse, statement by statement, but that would require far more time than is available.  It is a marvelous piece pointing to all the things that God has done.  And I want to emphasize that point.  Mary is singing about all the things that God has done.  If you read through this song in English and in Greek you will see that the vast majority of the verbs are all in the past tense.  They are not focused on the present.  They are not focused on the future.  They are recounting the things God has done to fulfill His promises to the world and then to the people of Israel.  What God is doing now in Mary has caused her to look back and see all that God has done; how faithful God was; and how what God is doing now is right in line with what God has always done.  God is faithful.  God’s promises are secure.  Focusing on what God has done; focusing on God’s work brings joy!  Pure and unadulterated joy!

I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy in your life?  I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy in the world around?  I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy even within our churches these days?

When you walk around the grocery store; when you go to a game; when you drive down the street, how many people do you see smiling, laughing, singing for no apparent reason–and I’m not talking about singing with the radio–even though I seem to observe fewer people even doing that!  I’m talking about singing when there’s no music being played.  Singing for the pure joy of singing?  How often do you see such things?

I have personally noticed a decline in the singing of many churches.  Even when I was at Christian City Fellowship attending Thanksgiving worship, I only heard strong singing from the congregation during one particular song.  The band and worship singers were very, very strong. The two lead singers were professionally trained, but as far as a great many voices being raised in song?  No.  Not really.  Why is this?  Why don’t people sing out anymore?

I have a hypothesis that singing is often tied to joy.  When your heart is full of joy, it can’t stay deep down within.  It has to spring forth.  It has to come out.  You want to let it out because if you don’t you will feel like you will burst.

But we have little joy.  We are haunted by the past.  Overwhelmed by the present, and fearful of the future.  We think about all the things that have effected us.  We think about all the things that we have to do.  We think about all the things that could possibly happen to us and effect us negatively.  Our joy vanishes because we fail to remember what God has done.  We fail to remember who God is.  We fail to remember His promises in our lives.

Thinking about who God is and what He has done leads to joy.  Period.  Have we forgotten?  Have we forgotten that God is the one who brings the dead to life and calls into existence things that were not?  Have we forgotten the love of the God who was willing to pour Himself out for the world?  Have we forgotten that God has reached down into the depths of our world to become like us; to take our sin upon Himself; to die for us to pay the penalty of our sins; to rise again to new life showing us what our future holds?

Have we forgotten that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life, for God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved by Him?  Have you forgotten that God so loved you that He came to die for you so that you may find yourself deeply loved by Him?

Remember.  Yes, remember.  Let your thoughts turn to God and what He has done.  Let your heart turn to God and be filled with His Holy Spirit.  Let your focus change from that which consumes you and worries you and frightens you, and see the cross in your mind’s eye.  See the empty tomb and the future you have with the God who loves you.  See yourself resting in God’s arms and knowing His mighty power.  Feel His presence.  Feel His Spirit.  Feel your heart filling with pure, unadulterated joy.  And don’t be afraid to sing.  Sing to the world and tell of all that God has done.  Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Bearing the Shame

Something shifted in our society during my lifetime.  I don’t know exactly how it happened.  I don’t know when the shift started, but I know it was as if a switch suddenly was thrown and many things that were once not considered acceptable became acceptable.  Things that were once taboo were now mainstream.  This shift has left many scratching their heads in bewilderment.

I remember my senior year in high school.  I lived in a small community surrounded by farms and ranches.  The only time it looked like it had snowed was during cotton harvesting season when the sides of the road were littered with errant strands of cotton that had escaped their modules while being transported to the gin; or those that had escaped the metal fingers on the cotton strippers.  Wide open spaces dominated along with the boredom that accompanies a rural, agricultural society.  The fact that kids snuck out and away from parents to engage in underage drinking was nothing new.  Neither was it new that kids would have romantic rendezvous.  These things have always been taking place as far as I can tell.  But, having four, five, or even six high school girls under the age of 18 walking around school pregnant–now that was unheard of.

And they literally had no shame.

None what-so-ever.

They wore their pregnancy as a badge of sorts, and if anyone raised any sort of moral objection, they were met with fierce attack.  “You can’t judge me!” they would scream.  Teen pregnancy had somehow become acceptable.

Perhaps the changes that began in the 1960's finally began reach a tipping point around this time.  For I remember the “Jerry Springer Show.”  How many of you are actually going to admit that you remember that show as well?  Remember how Jerry captivated his audiences by bringing in the most outrageous things that he could?  Remember how there would be questions during the show that said something like, “Did your uncle sleep with your girlfriend and your sister at the same time?  We want to have you on our show.”  Suddenly, aberrations like this went mainstream.  The non-acceptable was made acceptable because of the lure of money and 15 minutes on national television.  And when people actually showed up on this show–and had their fights, they were defiant as all get out.  They had a “you can’t judge me attitude.”  They had absolutely no shame.  None.  Nada.  And millions of people saw this.  They saw such behavior rewarded.  And it hasn’t stopped.

Even the porn industry isn’t shoved underground into seedy theaters and specialized places.  If you have access to a computer and the internet, this stuff is literally a few clicks away.  Even Playboy magazine has stopped having nude women in it.  Why?  There is no need for such a magazine.  People flaunt their naked bodies on the internet with reckless abandon.  And you know what is scary?  Do you know what is even worse?  So do teens under the age of 18.  Of course, they don’t post such photos on the internet because of legalities, but millions of kids with cell phones are snapping naked pictures of themselves and sending them to friends without any shame at all.  They don’t care.  And, for the most part, society turns a blind eye.  Society shouts from the roof tops, “Express yourself, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.  You have nothing to be ashamed of!!!”

Contrast this with what is happening in our lessons from this evening.  Each of these lessons, as different as they are, set forth a very real reality for both Mary and Joseph.  Both of these lessons, when seen in their societal context shout loudly and clearly that sometimes, when you follow the will of God, you will face shame and ridicule.

Luke shows us that following in the footsteps of God’s plan is no guarantee for the removal of shame.  In fact, in the case of Mary and Joseph, the acceptance of God’s will for their lives means a lifetime of shame heaped upon them by the rest of society.  How so? Let’s look at these two texts before us.  Don’t worry, I am not going to go through them with a great deal of detail because that would take far too long, but I am going to look at them to point out the common thread running through them.

First, please take note of the Lucan text where the angel Gabriel visits Mary.  Gabriel approaches Mary and says, “Greetings favored one!”  Technically, the word favored one should be translated a little differently.  It should be translated “graced” one.  This is why Roman Catholics say in the Rosary, “Hail Mary, full of grace!”  This mirrors exactly what Gabriel says to Mary here, and it is important.  The word carries the connotation of having received a special favor from a benefactor.  In this instance, that benefactor is God, the Lord, as Gabriel says.

Mary is in awe of these words. She is a peasant girl, probably in her teens.  She carries no special significance.  She has no special standing in the community.  She is not well known.  Yet, the angel says she has found special favor with the Lord.  Is it any wonder she is much perplexed and tries to think this through?  How in the world has she found favor with the Most High God?

Gabriel then lays it all out: ‘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.’  This is a highly significant statement and it deserves much explanation; however, we do not have time for a thorough break down tonight.  Let the words stand as they are said, plainly.

Mary responds again with a question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”  Unlike her cousin Zechariah, this is not a question of doubt.  Zechariah said, “How will I know...?  Mary asked, “How can this be...?” the nature of the question is very different.  Mary is not doubting.  She wants to understand.

Gabriel continues, “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.

Now, before we get to Mary’s final words, let me talk about the implications here.  Let me remind you that Mary was betrothed.  She was promised to be married, but she was not married yet.  If indeed she were to become pregnant, everyone around would think some very unholy thoughts about her.  Contrary to some who say that in this time people didn’t have all the understanding of how babies are conceived; folks knew exactly how it happened.  They didn’t understand about X and Y chromosomes, but they knew that sexual intercourse produced babies.  And they knew if you got pregnant outside of wedlock, you were engaging in something you weren’t supposed to be doing.  Unlike what happened during my final years of high school, shame was not only given, but it was felt: deeply and hurtfully.  The angel Gabriel has announced something great and wonderful, but it came with a cost: deep and utter shame.

And Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.”  She accepts this burden of shame.

Similarly, Joseph accepts the burden as well.  Whereas Luke tells us the story through Mary’s eyes.  Matthew tells us the story through Joseph’s eyes.  Joseph is also visited by an angel in his dreams.  But before that dream, Joseph knew that his betrothed had become pregnant.  He didn’t know the child was of the Holy Spirit because of what he had intended to do.  Joseph, being a righteous man, but also a compassionate man, was going to dismiss Mary and save her from shame.  He could have had her stoned–God’s Law afforded him that right.  But he didn’t want to have her killed.  He would send her away privately, and very few would be any the wiser.

However, the angel appeared to Joseph and rendered his plans worthless.    ‘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.’

Again, this saying deserves much consideration, but again, because of time this morning, we will allow it to stand as plain as possible.  Therefore, let us also consider the consequences for Joseph if he were to follow this advice: Joseph too would have been put to shame.  For he would be marrying a woman who was unclean; unfaithful; a sinner.  Folks would whisper behind his back, “Does he know what kind of woman he is marrying?  Doesn’t he understand that she is sinful?  Doesn’t he know that God frowns upon such things?”  The gossip would fly through the village, and people would have long, long memories.  Shame would be a daily part of Joseph’s life.

And he accepts it.  He accepts the will of God even though it will cost him dearly.

Mary and Joseph will pay the price for doing God’s will.  They will be looked down upon. They will be whispered about.  They will lose honor and status in their community.  They will be shamed.  Society will reject them, and this is but a foretaste of what will happen to their Son.

For in Jesus we will see utter shame and rejection at its worst.  In Jesus, we will see a man–a man who is also God–rejected by the crowds.  He will be accused of blasphemy.  He will be accused of being a false Messiah.  He will be beaten, mocked, spat upon, and hung naked on a cross.  The public shame and rejection by man is intended to discredit Him and prove Him a phony–a liar.  But even this is small potatoes compared to the ultimate rejection Jesus faces on the cross.

For you see, not only is Jesus rejected by man, He is also rejected by God.  You may scratch your head in wonder at that statement, but let me assure you, it is true.  Because Jesus became the punishment for all sin.  Jesus became the sacrifice of atonement to pay for all sin ever committed.  Jesus bore the weight of that sin upon Himself even though He did not have to.  He lived the perfect life and did not deserve what He received.  So why did He receive it?  Why did He have to die?  Why did He cry out in forsakenness from the cross?

He did it because He could not bear the thought of losing us.  He did it because He couldn’t bear the thought of His creation spending eternity apart from its creator.  He did it to change our hearts away from our selfish; self-centered living and capture them with the love of God who is willing to die for us.  He did it because He loves us.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  Jesus endured shame and rejection to bring you close to God.

And isn’t it funny that in our culture today; if you stand up for the values of the sanctity of marriage, for sexual relations to be saved for marriage, for loving people who are vastly different than yourself, for daring to proclaim the exclusivity of Jesus, for daring to believe in Absolute Truth and that this Truth has been revealed in Jesus, then you are the one who is shamed?  It is small wonder though.  Just as following God’s will brought Mary shame, and Joseph shame, and Jesus ultimate shame; we should not be surprised if we are shamed as well.  May we have the courage to be shamed.  Amen.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Where is the Evidence?: Romans 4:18-25

One day, an elderly lady went into the grocery store to purchase some dog food.  She went to the counter to pay, and the cashier said to her, every so sweetly, “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I can’t sell you that dog food unless you can show me evidence that you have a dog.”

The lady asked why.

“I hate to inconvenience you, ma’am,” she replied, “But we have discovered that a lot of older people are purchasing the dog food to eat.  That’s not healthy or sanitary.  So to prevent this, we’ve instituted a policy that we will not sell dog food without evidence of a dog.”

The old woman took out her cell phone and showed the cashier a picture of her and her dog.

The next week, the senior citizen returned to purchase some cat food.  The exact same conversation took place, and the cashier was satisfied when the old lady once again produced evidence in the form of a picture of her and her cat on her cell phone.

The next week, the elderly lady returned to the grocery store this time holding a plastic container with a hole in the top.  She walked straight up to the cashier and held up the container.

The cashier asked, “What is this?”

The old grey hair simply said, “Just put your finger in here, dear.”

The cashier did as she said, and then withdrew her finger covered in something smelly and brown.

“Eww!” screamed the cashier.  “What in the world is this?!!”

The old lady retorted, “That’s my poop.  Is that enough evidence for me to buy toilet paper?”

You will probably not remember another word of this sermon after that one, but I’m going to try anyway.

Christians have often been accused of believing in God without evidence or of believing in God despite evidence to the contrary.  The argument generally goes, “You have faith.  Faith means believing without evidence.  Therefore, you might as well believe in the flying spaghetti monster, or Thor, or the Tooth Fairy, or whatever imaginary thing you choose.  You have no basis for your belief.”

That’s not exactly an easy argument to defend if faith means believing without evidence.  However, faith without evidence is not the biblical definition of faith.  In fact, the biblical definition of faith is quite different.  A good definition of biblical faith is trust.  Most dictionaries define trust as, “a firm belief in the character, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  It is this definition that is better suited when we talk about our faith in God.  It’s not believing in God without any form of evidence, but it is a belief in God’s character; God’s strength; and God’s truth.  Faith assumes that we have already encountered God in some fashion, and we trust in what He has revealed to us.  The question that we must answer from skeptics is, “How do you know you have encountered God?”  That’s a bit more difficult to answer, but perhaps we have good guidance before us this morning as we finish up Romans chapter four.

Paul has gone through great pains to show up to this point that Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith was not justified, or made right with God, by following the Law or by being circumcised.  Rather, Abraham was justified, or made right with God, by putting his trust in God’s promises.  God had promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations–that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seas.  But there were several problems that had arisen.  Would they shatter Abraham’s faith?  Paul takes us through the process as we begin at the end of verse 17:

–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’   While most translations tie the end of verse 17 to the preceding verses, I prefer attaching it to the beginning of verse 18 to read as a series of clauses leading up to Abraham’s actions.  I think it would be better read in this fashion, “In the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.”  The Greek here definitely allows for this sentence construction, and I think it works better in this fashion to set the stage for what Paul is trying to convey to his audience.

Paul is laying out two important attributes of the God that Abraham trusted.  Now, as we read through the Old Testament, we know that Abraham had an encounter with God.  We do not have the exact details of that encounter.  We don’t know what kind of appearance God made.  We don’t know what Abraham experienced.  We do know that it was enough to change Abraham’s entire life.  He went from someone who worshiped many gods–to one who worshiped only one God.  He left his family fortune and inheritance and headed to a land he had never seen.  Whatever happened in that encounter between God and Abraham had so thoroughly convinced and changed him, that it must have been a marvel to see.

And Abraham had become convinced from his encounter with God that God could give life to the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist.  1. God could give life to the dead and 2. Call into existence the things that do not exist.  Think about these two attributes of God for a moment.  If you had encountered a being of this kind of power; if you had met this being face to face and come to realize His awesomeness; and if this being had made you a promise, what would that do to you?  How would that affect you?  Would you trust that He could do as He said?  This comes into play next as Abraham “hopes against hope” that he would become the father of many nations.  Paul explains this in the next few verses.

19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  For now we see the problem.  All the evidence appears to show that God’s promise will not happen.  Abraham was nearing a hundred years old.  Paul says Abraham considered himself as good as dead.  Sarah, his wife, was barren, and she was well past the age of child bearing.  This would have given most anyone pause in trusting the promise that had been handed down to him.  This would have given most people reason to laugh and disregard what had been spoken.  The promise that was made surely would not happen because of advanced age.  Most would have wavered or moved on.

But not Abraham.  The God who could bring the dead to life and call into existence the things that could not exist could certainly bring Abraham’s body to life.  God could certainly bring Sarah’s womb to life.  Abraham held onto that promise. He held onto that trust.  He believed that God would do as God said He would despite all the appearances to the contrary.  When to all appearances, Abraham should have given up and put His trust elsewhere, Abraham doubled down and continued to put his trust in God.  Despite what he was seeing in his body and Sarah’s body, Abraham gave glory to God; he worshiped God; he honored God; he thought about God and the encounter he had with God.  These things strengthened him in his resolve to hold onto the promise.  And Paul reminds us one more time, “Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

And we do know that God followed through on His promise to Abraham.  We know that Sarah conceived and bore a son.  We know that God was faithful even when all looked lost.  This is important to remember as we consider Paul’s final words of chapter four.

23Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.  Paul wraps the entire argument up into his final point.  Genesis 15:6 was not just written for Abraham’s sake.  It was not written just about Abraham.  It was written for our sakes as well.  The biblical history has been written to bring us to our own faith; our own belief; our own trust.  For our righteousness is reckoned when we trust in Him who–brought the dead to life; trust in Him who called into existence the things that didn’t exist; trust in Him who raised Jesus from the dead.

And now, Paul reiterates the Gospel–the reason we put our trust in God; in Jesus–because Jesus was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Jesus secured our justification and our redemption not by any work of our own, but by His work.  Jesus made us right with God through His actions and not our own.  And now we trust His work instead of our own.  We hold onto this promise despite the evidence we may see to the contrary.  We mirror the faith of Abraham and have it reckoned to us as righteousness not because we believe without evidence but because we have had an encounter with God, and we hold onto His promises with an eternal hope.

What does this mean practically?  Let me share an illustration and then a personal story.  First the illustration: My kids used to be terrified when they first went out to my ranch in Rocksprings.  Of course, being where Hill Country meets Brush Country, everything bites, stings, or pokes.  This was not very inviting for my children.  Whenever we walked or climbed the hill on my property, they would become extremely frightened.  It was my job to reassure them.  Over and over again, I would tell them, you will be okay.  Everything is going to be fine.  You will not get hurt.  Even if you get pricked, we will take care of it.  Follow in my footsteps, and everything will be okay.  The kids had to learn from me.  They had to trust me.  They had to get enough confidence in me that all would be well.  Despite the evidence that they saw around them–all the prickly, sticky things, they had to learn that I would not lead them astray.  Now, my kids are all over the place because they have learned to navigate with confidence.  They have learned to trust.

The life of faith is similar with God.  We learn to trust Him and walk in His footsteps and listen to His voice.  We believe we have encountered Him already and that His guidance is secure.  As I said earlier, the question we have to answer from skeptics is, “How do you know you’ve really heard God?”  First off, we must answer that we have a history of God speaking not only to us, but to others.  Paul delves back into scriptures to show God’s consistency–how God spoke to Abraham and justified Abraham by faith.  God will remain consistent, and we can rely on the revelation contained in scripture to guide us.  Therefore, if we “hear” a voice say, “Go kill that person because they are different from you,” we can readily say, “Don’t think that’s God at all.  God’s word in Jesus doesn’t tell us to do that!!”  Consistency.  The second way we know it was God that spoke is when the words come true.  That’s the hard one.

I have heard God speak to me unambiguously twice in my life.  The first was when I was called to be a pastor.  The second time was shortly after we moved here to Cat Spring.  I remember taking a shower late one evening getting ready for bed.  I heard clearly the words, “You will have a child before the end of the year.”  Dawna and I had been in the adoption process for nearly two years.  We had had our hopes dashed a couple of times.  The administrator of the adoption agency told us time and again that birth-mothers would see the picture of me as a pastor and close our book.  We contemplated taking that picture out to increase our chances.  We weren’t sure what to do.  “You will have a child before the end of the year.”  I still remember the day we got the call from the agency.  “A birth mother has picked you.”  We got the news in December–before the end of the year, we had a child.  Now, Kiera was delivered in January, but she was ours before the end of the year.  God’s voice.  I’ve learned to trust it despite other appearances.

I know I cannot convince anyone that I heard that voice.  I know I don’t have an audio recording or anything like that.  I know I can’t produce any evidence that this happened.  You’ve got to trust my witness to you.  You’ve got to trust me.  And that can be a complicated thing because I’m human.  I’m sinful.  I can easily hurt you or say something that you don’t agree with.

And so we must realize something about our God–that He calls us into a new existence; He gives us a new status.  God justifies sinners like me.  Like you.  God makes us right with Him through His Son because He loves us.  And He sends us out to tell others what He has done–to tell others to put their trust in Him–to tell others to listen for His voice because His promises are certain; Will do as He said He will do.  And the final evidence for this is the cross.  The final evidence for this is the knowledge that God took on flesh to die for us despite our weakness; despite our flaws; despite our sin.  He loved us; He loved the world enough to die for it.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.

When it looks like all hope is lost.  When it looks like the world around is falling apart.  When it looks like good cannot win.  The person of faith looks at the cross; looks at the God who died for the world; remembers He was raised, and then like Abraham, hopes against hope.  We remember who God is, and we put our trust in Him.  Amen.