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Dec 9 - Touching Christmas

 Luke 2:1-12

For the last two weeks, we have been exploring Christmas through our five senses.  We talked about experiencing Christmas through our sense of hearing.  We then talked about experiencing Christmas through our sense of taste as the story of Mary and Joseph moved from a sweet story, to sour, to bitter and then salty.  Today, I thought it would be a good time to experience Christmas through the sense of touch.

            Now the sense of touch is exceptionally important to us.  The sense of touch let’s us experience cold, hot, smooth, rough, pressure, tickle, itch, pain, vibrations, and many more sensations.  We need our sense of touch to carry on with basic functions of life such as walking.  If we cannot feel the ground or floor beneath our feet, it is very difficult to navigate.  We need our sense of touch to avoid painful experiences such as exceptional heat or cold. 

But more importantly than experiences of texture and temperature, our sense of touch allows us to communicate emotionally.  Holding hands, kissing, or a hug are all forms of physical touch that communicate powerful messages.  A handshake offered can express friendship and our emotional state responds to that sense of touch.  When something significant happens that is shared between people, there is a natural and almost unconscious need to engage in hugging to share the emotions of that moment whether be joy or sorrow.  And yet, there can be time when the physical touch can cause us to be emotionally drain.  Think for a moment if you are walking along and someone comes from behind you and unexpectedly hugs you around your shoulders.  You turn and see that it is the person whom you do not like.  That hug is probably not going to make you feel all that good.  So the context of the physical touch matters.  A kiss can work the same way.  A kiss shared between two people who are glad to be in one another’s presence is an encouraging act of love and kindness.  Think for a moment about another situation.  This one is from the Bible.  The Gospel of Luke says, “While he [Jesus] was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’”  The kiss from Judas to Jesus contained no love for Jesus; it contained only bitterness.

Our sense of touch then is wonderfully complex and serves to not just inform us of texture and temperature, but our sense of touch also fuels our emotions.  How then might our sense of touch inform us of the Christmas story?  Perhaps we can experience the emotions of the story as we experience the physical touch of the Christmas story.  I would invite you to turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, starting at verse 1.

Luke began with these words, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.”  To Luke’s readers, these are powerful and emotional words.  Caesar had spoken and thus whatever he said was law.  Scribes wrote down those words.  Messengers were dispatched to every part of the Roman world; there shall be a census.  There was at that time, no person on earth more important than Caesar.  Caesar Augustus was thought to be the son of Roman gods and all must obey him.

Caesar’s call for a census was not simply an accounting of how many people were in the empire, it was a means of collecting taxes from the empire for use as Caesar deemed necessary.  Payment plans and late payments of taxes were not an option.  Compliance with the census and payment of the taxes must be done to avoid punishment.  Caesar’s announcement meant that each person was in debt to Caesar and that debt must be paid now.  Hearing that announcement would have cause people to get sense goosebumps on their skin and the hair on the back of their necks to standup.  These bodily sensations would cause a sense of dread to come over the hearers.  So, today’s Christmas story begins with Caesar touching the life of every citizen of the Roman world causing near universal fear, anxiousness, anger, and alarm.

Verse 3 tells us that there was a procedure and process to the census in Israel.  Luke wrote, “And everyone went to their own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he [Joseph] belonged to the house and line of David.”  Joseph, obedient to the call of Caesar, prepared for the census and complied with the instructions.  Joseph prepared to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Many of Luke’s readers would have understood the significance of this travel.  They would have understood the sensations that travel caused to the body.  Nazareth to Bethlehem is a journey of about 100 miles.  This was nearly an 8 to 10-day walk.  Our Christmas pageants and Christmas movies usually depict Joseph walking alongside a donkey upon which Mary sat.  The couple usually walks alone on the journey.  It is more likely Mary and Joseph both walked on foot the entire 100 miles.  Walking 100 miles is not easy.  On average an American will walk about 5,000 steps each day.  Mary and Joseph would have walked 20,000 steps per day for 10 days straight to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The ground underfoot would have been a combination of dirt and rock.  The coverings on their feet would not have been thickly cushioned by Adidas and Nike.  The sandals would have been hard and thin.  Because of Caesar’s decree, Mary and Joseph would have experienced blisters and pain and discomfort upon their feet, ankles, knees, and backs.  Caesar’s order would have tired them physically.  Their skin would have been hurt from the sun and wind.  This part of the Christmas story involves sensations of touch leading to pain.  Pain caused by the will of one man.  Christmas is difficult human story.

Verse 5, Luke wrote, “He [Joseph] went there [Bethlehem] to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”  Not only was the walk difficult on the feet, skin, and scalp but for Mary it was more uncomfortable in her advanced state of pregnancy

The beginning of the Christmas story in proper context strikes our sense of touch deeply with soreness, pain, swelling, anxiousness, anger, and alarm.  All the physical sensations thus far in the Christmas story come from the world.  Caesar ordered the census.  He was the source and cause for the pain of walking and the emotional sensations upon the bodies.  The world demands and cares little about the physical demands upon the people.  The demands of the world upon people has not changed.  Throughout history, world leaders who considered themselves godlike have forced people to march great distances, work without ceasing, to feel pain, and discomfort to suit their own desires.  This is the feel and the touch of the Christmas story as it opens before us.

But in the Christmas story, there comes a transition.  It begins first Luke’s words, “While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”  Mary gave birth to her first child, a boy.  Childbirth is a difficult and painful process but a richly rewarding one.  The Bible says, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”  Second, Luke wrote in verse 7, “She [Mary] wrapped him [Jesus] in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”  Something marvelous and tender has happened.  Mary has taken strips of cloth and carefully wrapped the baby Jesus’ arms, legs, and torso so that Jesus will feel warmth and security.  Mary has wrapped Jesus carefully to protect him because she must lay him in a rough and hard manger, a feeding trough for animals.  The sensations of touch in the story have shifted.  Luke is not writing about things on the world stage with people ordering others to make hard and demanding journeys.  Luke has shifted the story to a very personal story of birth with sensations of warmth, security, love, and protection.  Amid the hardness of the world, there comes the softness of love.  Amid the harness of the world, enters the love of God in Jesus Christ, the true son of God.

With this transition in the feel of the Christmas story, Luke leaves his readers and shifted attention to another location and another group of people.  Luke wrote in verse 8, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  We are no longer in near the manger we are in the fields surrounding Bethlehem.  It is now night and the coolness of the day has begun to settle in on the men watching the sheep.  It is quiet except perhaps for some low conversations among the men.  When suddenly, the field lights up as “An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them [the shepherds], and they [the shepherds] were terrified.”  Caesar may have issued a degree but God is now speaking with the light of his glory and messenger of an angel.  God has something very important to say to these shepherds.  But the goosebumps on the shepherds and the quaking and shivering of their bodies brings warnings to the minds of the shepherds.  What is going on?

God, in power and glory, has entered their life.  Could this be the end of their days?  In haste, the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”  This is no census announcement from an earthly king, this is a statement from God that says, “I have sent my Messiah, your Lord, just as I promised.  Do not fear any earthly king or emperor.  I, the God of all creation, have sent you a savior.  Go and see him.”

Think for a moment what has happened to these shepherds.  The sensations coming into the them have not changed.  There is the glory of the Lord around them and the presence of an angel causing their bodies to tingle.  But the context has changed from believing an announcement of great dread is about to fall on them to an announcement of great joy.  In a simple way, it would be like we spoke before someone comes up from behind you and unexpected puts their arm around your shoulder.  At first you think it is the person you like the least and your body recoils.  You look again though and now you realize it really is your best friend.  The sensation to your body is the same but your emotional response is completely different when you realize it is a hug from your best friend.  God, the best friend of man, has come unexpectedly to the shepherds to hug them with good news and now the sensations from the shepherds’ bodies are telling them to feel the joy of the Lord.  The Christmas is felt not as tingly sense on the body that is to be received as one of joy.

In this heightened state of excitement, the angel wants the shepherds to know not just where to find the Messiah but to know what it will feel like when they do.  The angel said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find [the Messiah as] a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  The angel has linked the sign of the Messiah to the care given by his mother who has wrapped in soft clothing.  The Messiah the shepherds are to find is soft and approachable even though he lies in the hardness of the manager.  The Messiah, their Lord, our Lord, stands in stark contrast to the hardness and uncaring nature of the world.

In the Christmas story our bodies can sense that hardness of life coming from the world.  The Christmas story brings to us the sensation of pain brought by power.  The Christmas story let us feel the discomfort of living in the world.  But the Christmas story changes everything.  For in Jesus, we feel the wrapping of his arms around us, like strips of linen against his body in the manger.  Jesus wraps us that we can feel safe and secure even as we live through the hardest moments of our life.  That is the sensation of the Messiah’s birth.

Russian author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once imprisoned in a Russian workcamp.  In prison, he was assigned to hard labor.  He was exhausted.  His hands were blistered from the work.  He was in pain.  Everything he touched was hard and cold.  One day he felt like giving up.  He felt his life could not make a difference.  He sat down on a bench knowing that when he was spotted by a guard he would be ordered back to work.  If he failed to respond to the order to return to work, the guard would simply beat him to death. As he sat waiting, head down, he felt a presence.   Slowly he lifted his eyes. Next to him sat an old man with a wrinkled, utterly expressionless face. Hunched over, the old man drew in the sand at Solzhenitsyn’s feet the sign of the cross.  As Solzhenitsyn stared at the rough outline his entire perspective shifted.  He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented by that simple cross - and through its power anything was possible.  Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel and went back to work.  Everything around him was just as hard, but knowing Jesus was born and died for him, allowed him to feel the comfort of his savior’s arms around him.  Solzhenitsyn was later released from prison and authored many books that inspired millions toward freedom, safety, and faith in Christ.

This year feel Christmas.  Feel it through whatever circumstances you are experiencing in life.  Feel the softness of Jesus.  Feel his arms enfold you and that he may give you peace.  Amen and Amen.

Dec 2 - Tasting Christmas

Matthew 1:18-25     

We are approaching Christmas Day and we have been exploring how we can experience Christmas through our five senses.  We have the sense of hearing, taste, seeing, touch, and smell.  Last week, we talked about experiencing Christmas through the sense of hearing.  We saw that God chose for us to hear his voice so clearly that he came in human form in the person of Jesus to talk to us just as clearly as I am speaking to you now.  This week we will talk about experiencing Christmas through the sense of taste.

            Now, we might ask, “How does one taste?”  For humans, the sense of taste is found in the taste buds taste buds on our tongue. The tongue detects tastes basically only four distinct flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  There are of course many combinations of those flavors but ultimately we only distinguish among four specific flavors.

            So how does one experience Christmas through our sense of taste?  Usually, we do that by eating Christmas cookies, cakes, and candy.  But senses of taste (sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) can be experienced in and through our lives as well.  Experiences which are sweet are pleasant and easy to accept.  Experiences that are sour have an acidic taste and involve those moments of disappointment, resentment, and anger.  Experiences that are bitter are sharp, pungent and involve unjust behaviors against us.  Experiences that are salty are rich with flavor and stay with us.  We all have tasted things on our tongues that are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  We all have tasted things through our lives that are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  How might experiencing these taste sensations through the Christmas story help us to hear the story afresh?

            Today, I would like us to experience the Christmas story through our sense of taste as we explore the announcement of Jesus’ birth through the experience of his earthly father, Joseph.  I invite you to turn to your Bibles to the Gospel of Matthew.  Now the Gospel of Matthew is one of four accounts of the good news of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  Of those four gospels, Matthew’s is only one of two that describe the circumstances leading to Jesus’ birth.

            As we turn to Chapter 1, verse 18, of Matthew’s gospel message, our Christmas story experience began with the taste of sweet.  Matthew wrote: “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.”  Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married.  Marriage was the first institution ordained by God.  Before there any other human activity or organization there was marriage.  The first couple modeled the joy that is found in husband and wife.  In Genesis Chapter 2, the Bible says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.  Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:24, 25).  The first husband and wife union was joyful.  In today’s story, Mary and Joseph were engaged to be husband and wife.  At the time of Jesus, being engaged was a formal arrangement.  It was a time of preparing to celebrate.  It was a time of sweetness.

We all understand the sweetness of a new relationship with someone with whom we hope for a future.  We certainly can experience that sweetness when we find that special person who could become our spouse.  But we can also experience that sweetness when we make a new friend.  There is joy in seeing that person and talking with them.  There is a pleasant and satisfying flavor experienced when a relationship between two people, husband/wife or friend to friend, comes together.  When we taste something sweet, we want more of it.  I invite you to taste sweetness by eating the milk chocolate kiss in your snack bag.  Experiencing the Christmas story today began with Joseph and Mary tasting the sweetness of life which leaves us with a desire for that experience to continue. 

            As we savor the sweet taste in our mouths, we return to Matthew’s account of the Christmas story.  Verse 18, continues, “but before they [Joseph and Mary] came together [had sexual relations], she [Mary] was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”  From Joseph’s perspective the sweetness of the Christmas story had changed radically to a new flavor.  The story had turned sour.  I invite you to taste sourness by eating the lemon drop in your snack bag.

            The sour candy seems to have overcome the sweetness we experienced.  So strong is the sour taste that the sweet taste is a memory.  This was Joseph’s experience.  His new life with Mary, the promise of the future, had soured.  She was pregnant and not by Joseph.  Mary said the baby’s father was not another man.  Mary said the baby was conceived supernaturally through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph did not believe Mary.  All seemed lost.

            We understand Joseph’s feelings.  We understand how infidelity can change couple’s relationship.  We understand how betrayal of trust between two friends shakes their friendship to its foundation.  The psalmist wrote, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide.  But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers” (Psalm 55:12-14).

            The Word of God shares with us that the taste of Christmas is sweet and it is sour.  There is sweetness in togetherness and there sourness is hurt.  Joseph and Mary experienced sweet and sour and so have we.

            Matthew continued and wrote in verse 19, “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”  Joseph concluded the sweetness of the story was gone replaced by sourness.  Joseph did not believe Mary and did not want to disgrace her before others by denouncing her publicly, but he thought he could not continue with his relationship with Mary.  He wanted the sourness to end and so he settled on a path based only on his own understanding.  We know this because Matthew wrote Joseph “had in his mind to divorce her.”  Joseph never talked to God.  The Bible told Joseph, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5, 6),  Joseph did not ask God into the decision and so Joseph chose divorce.  The Christmas story that was once sweet, that had become sour, had now involved divorce which is bitter.  I invite you to taste bitterness of unsweetened chocolate.

            The taste of bitter is very unpleasant.  This the taste of divorce, the end of a relationship, the end of a friendship.  Bitterness replaces the sour but it does not restore the sweetness.  Bitter is the flavor we taste when we choose not to invite the Lord God into our decisions.  In the Christmas story, Joseph and Mary tasted sweetness, sourness, and now bitterness.  Absent God, this story would end on a bitter note.

            Matthew continued and wrote, “But after he [Joseph] had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”  God had now entered the Christmas story with a messenger to Joseph.  The angel said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins…24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Mt. 1:22, 24)

            God entered the story and Joseph listened.  God did not want the Mary and Joseph’s story to end in bitterness of divorce nor does God intend for our relationships to end that way.  God entered the scene and Joseph listened.  Joseph and Mary had experienced sweet, sour, and bitter.  Now, with God, they would taste of saltiness.

            God commanded offerings made to him be seasoned with salt as a sign of the covenant between the Him and the Hebrew people (Lev. 2:13; Num 18:19).  Salt transforms whatever it touches.  Once salt is added to something, you cannot remove the salt from it.  Once you let God into your life you are forever changed.  Salt preserves that which is perishable.  Once you accept Jesus as Savior you may die but you will never perish.

            Is your life marked by the saltiness of a relationship with God through Jesus or is there bitterness in your life?  Do you focus on the negative in life?  Are you holding a grudge?  These behaviors are choices we make.  When we engage in the negative and hold grudges two things are true.  We have not involved God in our choice and we will become bitter.  Are you willing to see things change but unwilling to see yourself change?  Do you withhold gratitude toward others?  These behaviors are choices we make and they show God is not involved in our choice and we will become bitter.  God does not intend for us to be bitter.  Bitterness is a sign of unforgiveness.  God sent his Son Jesus as God’s instrument of salvation.  God sent Jesus as a sign of forgiveness.  God does not send bitterness into our life.

            Your snack bag is empty.  There is nothing there for you to taste that is salty.  I have saved that final taste for the celebration of the Lord’s Table.  The Lord’s Table, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that the Christmas story is one of sweetness, sourness, bitterness, ending in saltiness.  It is the saltiness of Joseph listening to God and taking Mary as his wife.  It is the saltiness of sweat Mary shed in childbirth for her son Jesus.  It is the saltiness of the tears Joseph and Mary shed as their held their baby.  It is the saltiness that Jesus would require of everyone who followed him saying, “You are the salt of the earth.”  It is the saltiness of the sweat Jesus shed in the garden before his arrest and trial.  If is the saltiness of tears Jesus shed on the cross for you and for me. 

Saltiness is the final taste of Christmas because in the saltiness we remember Jesus.  We remember that he has forgiveness us and that we are to forgive others.  It is in the saltiness that we remember Jesus’ forgiveness does not just make our slate clean of sin but opens the doors of heaven to us that we can be with him before the throne of God.  The saltiness reminds us that until that day before God’s throne, He is still with us now.

Let us come to the Lord’s Table, take of the salty bread and cup, that we would be reminded of God’s abiding presence in your life, the goodness of God, and final taste of the Christmas story.  Let us pray.        

Nov 25 - Hearing Christmas

Luke 1:5-22

            We are now entering the time of year in which we begin to anticipate the coming of Christmas Day.  What exactly Christmas Day means to us depends upon the information we gather about Christmas through our senses and then what interpretation we make of that information.  Now we know that we gather information through our five senses.  The five human senses are the sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. These five human senses relaying information to the human brain.  Within the brain the information is processed, stored, and then interpreted.  That interpretation comes about through our minds.  I am drawing a distinction between the brain and our mind because the brain is organ in the body, a very important organ, that receives and sends signals for our bodies to function.  The mind on the other hand is not an organism in the body.  The mind is how we decide thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and imagination.  The mind interprets the experiences received from our senses and received by the brain.  Allow me to give you a very simplistic example.  Two people step outside.  Each feel drops of water falling on their skin because it is raining.  One person, a farmer, feels the rain, is happy believing this will be a good day for the crops.  The other person, a golfer, feels the rain, is sadden by it, believing this will be a bad day on the links.  Both individuals processed the same sensation of rain.  Their brains receive the same information.  But their minds interpreted the experience of rain completely differently.

            I thought it might be useful for us to experience the coming of Christmas Day through our five senses and how we interpret Christmas through them.  I would like to begin with our sense of hearing.  Of course, we know that the sense of hearing comes through our ears.  Sound is detected by the ear and transmitted to the brain.  Once processed in the brain, our minds determine how we interpret the sound. 

There are many sounds that come into our life.  The most common sound is the sound of a voice.  Studies vary as to how many words we hear and speak per day.  One study suggests that on average an American woman will speak 20,000 words per day.  An American man will speak as few as 7,000 words per day.  A reason for the difference may be that husbands most often say to their wives, “What did you say?”  Regardless of the studies, voice is the most common sound our ears detect, our brain processes and stores, and then, most importantly, our minds must interpret.

It was voice that first revealed the coming of Christmas; the day in which Jesus, God’s own son, would be born into this world.  Let’s take a peak into what happened when Christmas was experienced through the sense of sound by listening to a voice so that we might hear what God intends for us.  I invite you to turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, for that account.

Our Bibles contain four books called Gospels entitled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which describe the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The word Gospel comes from a Greek word that means “good news.”  So, the gospel is the good news found in Jesus.

As we unfold the pages of the gospel according to Luke, we keep in mind that Luke was not present when these events he described took place.  Instead, Luke interviewed people who were there and collected their stories.  And Luke began the gospel of Jesus with today’s story that compared the powerful and the unrighteous with the meek and the good.  Luke began in verse 5 with these words, “In the time of Herod king of Judea.”  In Luke’s day, no other words were needed for people to know who Luke was talking about.  Herod was well known.  People then knew Herod was a king of many wives and yet he murdered his first wife out of suspicion that she wanted others to be king.  People knew Herod fathered many children but was suspicious that two of his sons wanted his kingdom, so he killed them.  People knew Herod servant of Rome emperors and honored them, not God.  He was wealthy.  He was ruthless.  He was self-absorbed.

Luke compared Herod to some unknown people, named Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Luke said, “There was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.  But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.”  So Luke’s readers and we learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth were meek.  They did their best to be servants of God.  They stayed together all their adult lives as husband and wife yearning for a child, but they never had one.

Even though Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth could not be more different from Herod they all shared one thing in common.  They were listening to the voice of their god.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were moved by the majestic power of God, the eternal Creator.  Herod was moved by the worldly gods of power, wealth, and privilege.  The Gospel message that Luke is sharing is clear.  We all have a god in our life.  There are no exceptions.  That god can be another person.  That god can be money, fame, or popularity.  That god can be power, influence, or privilege.  That God can be the God of Creation.  You can only follow one.  Herod followed his god and Zechariah and Elizabeth followed theirs.  Now pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Which God am I following?” 

Luke was showing us that Zechariah and Elizabeth followed God, the eternal Creator.  In that following, Luke revealed to us in verse 9 that “Zechariah was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.  11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him [Zechariah], standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him [the angel], he was startled and was gripped with fear.”  Zechariah was alone in the Temple of God and he expected no one else.  Zechariah was doing what was expected of him and expected little from the experience.  This is a good point to again pause and ask, “Are we different from Zechariah?  Do we do what we feel is expected of us, such as going to church on Sunday, and yet expect little from the experience?  Do we do what is expected of us and serve someone in the community and expect little from that experience?”  When we expect little, little is what we receive.  If we open our lives up to God though and expect him to reveal himself, then we will be in awe of what God is doing right now. 

Zechariah did not expect much and so he was startled and fearful of the angel’s appearance.  Then things really got overwhelming for Zechariah because the angel began to speak.  And with the angel’s voice the sense of hearing entered the Christmas story.  An angel, a messenger of God, was standing before Zechariah, to let Zechariah know that his God was on the move.  Many years ago, there was a Wall Street company called E. F. Hutton.  They had a slogan for their commercials, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”  When God speaks directly or through an angel, people listen.  Verse 13, the angel said “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”  The angel shared a truth we all need to hear.  Our voice is heard by God.  Zechariah’s voice in prayer to God was that he would be blessed with a child.  We need to use our voices in prayer.

Almost 33 years ago, Becky and I went through premarital counseling.  At the end of one of the sessions, the pastor asked that we all hold hands and pray.  As we held hands, he said, “George, please lead us in prayer.”  I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and so prayed but silently.  After a minute of silence, the pastor said, “George, I think we are ready.  You can start anytime.”  I thought to myself, “Start?  I am already done.”  So, I stumbled through that prayer using my voice.  Please do not misunderstand.  I am not saying a silent prayer is not effective.  What I am saying is whenever you can give voice to your prayer, do so.  Let your voice rise to the Lord and fall upon your ears.  Zechariah’s prayer that he raised to God was heard and now he would have a son but not just a child, but a voice through which God would speak to the people.

Luke was revealing something to us here about God.  God uses his voice.  In opening page of the Bible, it says, “God spoke, “Let there be light, and there was light.”  And so began God using his voice to bring creation into being out of nothing.  This was majestic speaking on God’s part but hard for us to hear and bring into our own life.  Luke shared that God was now speaking through the voice of an angel with a message for Zechariah.  This is a bit more personal but still a difficult voice to receive.  But listen to what was coming.

In verses 14 through 17, the voice Zechariah’s son, a living human being, would possess the ability to bring change to people’s minds.  The voice of Zechariah’s son would bring joy and delight to Zechariah.  Many would rejoice because of his voice.  (16) His voice would bring back many to their Lord their God.  (17) His voice would have the spirit and power of God.  So powerful would his voice be that parents and children would come before the Lord for wisdom.  (17) The voice of Zechariah’s son would have a have a greater purpose—"to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  The voice of Zechariah’s son was to make ready the people to hear and listen to the personal voice of the Lord himself.  Zechariah’s son would tell people, God was coming and he would use his voice not in sweeping power of Creation but in conversation with his people.  God was coming in a way we could all relate because he was coming in human form.

The coming of Zechariah’s son was a wonderful answer to prayer but it was not nearly as wonderful as the good news his son’s voice would give to all; the Lord was coming to speak to all the people.  God’s voice would be heard in a most personal way in the coming of his Son, Jesus.

Hearing is the first of our five senses of the Christmas season.  God the Creator sent his son to live the human experience and speak to those who would listen of experiencing a Godly life.  Seven times in the Gospels Jesus would conclude his message by saying, “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Mt. 11:5, 13:9, 13:43; Mk. 4:9, 4:23; Lk. 8:8, 14:35).  Even God, the Father, emphasized Jesus’ words.  One day with a voice from the clouds like that used to create the world, God thunderous voice was heard, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him” (Mk. 9:7). 

We know that not everyone listened to Jesus.  They had ears to hear but they interpreted what they heard through a mind that was still hostile to God, the creator.  The Bible says that those who continually turn that deaf ear to God will stop hearing God speak to them.  The Bible says, God will leave them “and allow them to have their own worthless thinking. And so they do what they should not do. 29 They are filled with every kind of sin, evil, greed, and hatred. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, lying, and thinking the worst things about each other. They gossip 30 and say evil things about each other. They hate God. They are rude, proud, and brag about themselves. They invent ways of doing evil. They don’t obey their parents, 31 they are foolish, they don’t keep their promises, and they show no kindness or mercy to others.32 They know God’s law says that anyone who lives like that should die. But they not only continue to do these things themselves, but they also encourage others who do them” (Romans 1:28-32-ERV).  A life separated from God on earth, living for worldly pleasures and power, is a terrible life and it is a life that only gets worse in death.  It is not the way God wants us to live.  The Bible says to us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The coming of Christmas and the retelling of the true Christmas story is good news because this season and that story allows for our minds to be transformed and renewed.  This season and the Christmas story allows us to replace the hostility we have toward God and toward one another with the hope of a new experience with God and one spent in love.  We need listen to the story of Christmas but to interpret that story with mind that can determine what is acceptable and perfect before God.  This week, let’s use of sense of hearing to listen to our prayers to God, to listen to our words to one another.  Is there joy and delight in what we hear?  Is there rejoicing in what we hear coming from us?  Do our words help others come back to the Lord or do we push them away?  Do our words have the power and spirit of God the creator or some other god?  Is there wisdom or wisecracks in our words?  Are we using our words in prayer and to one another to be ready for the coming of the Lord?

“Whoever has ears, let them hear.”  Amen.

Nov 18 - Being Oddly Thankful

Psalm 1:1-3

Colossians 1:1-13

 

            This Thursday our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  A couple hundred million people will feast all day long on turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, cranberry sauce, and a variety of pies.  In many locations, a prayer will be offered before the feasting begins, in many other places, no prayer will be offered.  Millions of people will travel the day before and the days after Thanksgiving to be with their families.  Then when the meal is finished, millions of people will venture out at night in search of those retail stores offering extra special Black Friday sales.  If we step back for a moment, we see something unfold before us.  We see that nearly the entire country is committed and conforms to near simultaneous and common celebration.  And because it is such a common practice, most people do not want to miss out celebrating Thanksgiving in some way so that they are like everyone else.

            If you could ask that couple of hundred million people, “Who started this Thanksgiving Day celebration?” The most common answered you would likely hear is that Thanksgiving started with a group called the “Pilgrims.”  Now here is the surprising part about the Pilgrims.  When they wanted to be thankful to God, they did not feast on great tables of food.  Instead, they fasted; they would not eat.  When it came to the option of doing whatever the rest of the world was doing, the Pilgrims did the other. The Pilgrims were concerned their children were becoming too much like the world, so they left Europe to come to the lands of the Americas to be free of the world’s influences.  The Pilgrims were concerned that organized churches of the day demanded that they believe not only in the Bible but also in other teachings of the church.  The Pilgrims believed that should follow only the Bible.   When it came time to celebrate thanks before God, the Pilgrims issued the word to their people to attend a meeting from 9:00 in the morning until noon “to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”  [I am not sure how you would feel about a three hour sermon.] 

The Pilgrims had definite beliefs and were willing to stand by their beliefs even if the price was high.  As a group, they were unwilling to see their beliefs erode and so they set sail for a new land.  The Pilgrims were thankful when they landed in Plymouth in 1620.  But the 102 Pilgrims who were thankful they landed in late 1620, only 55 were alive just a few months later.  Illness had taken nearly half of the people in just a few mouths.  And yet, the Pilgrims were oddly thankful.  They had beliefs that mattered and lived by those beliefs even when the cost was high.  The Pilgrims were odd and did not conform to the world.  A great Christian scholar once wrote, “A person with a definite belief always appears bizarre [odd], because he [or she] does not change with the world.”  Everyone believes in something and that something drives their decision and choices.  What you believe in may be very common and what you believe in may make you thankful or it may not.

But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you need to know this; you are odd.  You are odd because you have definite beliefs that are in many ways very different from the world.  Nobody wants to be different.  We want people to like us, and one of the safest ways to do that is to blend in, to be like everyone else. But following Christ has never been about just “blending in.” Following Him means to be like Him, to respond to life and relate to people the way He did. Inevitably, there are times when doing that makes you different.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you need to know this as well; you are odd also because you can be thankful in all circumstances.  You might be saying, “Wait, Pastor.  Right now, life is tough.  Someone I loved is no longer in my life.  Perhaps they died, or they left you to live elsewhere.  Maybe you are without a job and you do not know how you are going to make it through the month.”  We could go on with the list.  I think you get the point.  Some care is needed here.  As Christians we are not thankful for difficult circumstances, but we can be thankful even in the middle of difficult circumstances.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, then you are very much a Pilgrim and you can be oddly thankful because God is with you in all circumstances of life; good and not so good.

We see this odd thankfulness unfold in our New Testament reading today.  That reading was from a letter that we call Colossians.  Why do we call the letter Colossians?  Simply because it was written to people in the city of Colossae making those people known as Colossians.  The letter is written by a man named Paul.  Paul, and Paul’s companion, Timothy, were familiar with the people called the Colossians.  Through Paul’s ministry, people in Colossae repented; they turned to a new different direction in their life.  They turned from doing things their own way to doing this Jesus’ way because they came believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through Jesus they are free from their sins.  Now Paul was happy to be a Christian even though being known as a Christian, having those definite beliefs, led to Paul being beaten with iron rods, whipped, and having large stones hurled at him.  Paul was a pilgrim and so he was odd thankful.  Paul wanted his friends, the Colossians, to know why he was thankful.

I invite you to turn in your Bible and join me as we read and talk a bit about some of what Paul wrote.  I will be reading from the New International Readers Version of the Bible today.

Paul opened his letter in the style of ancient writings by introducing himself.  He said, “I, Paul, am writing this letter. I am an apostle of Christ Jesus just as God planned. Our brother Timothy joins me in writing.  We are sending this letter to you, our brothers and sisters in Colossae. You belong to Christ. You are holy and faithful.  May God our Father give you grace and peace.”  Paul was connecting with the people in Colossae just as we connected with each other earlier in the service as we greeted one another.  To Paul, his friends in Colossae were new family members, brothers and sisters, and they all equally belonged to God.  Paul was saying, “I acknowledge your dignity and the beauty God sees in you because you were made in the image of God.”  No matter what was going on in their life, for Paul these people were family and God gave each of them dignity.  The world did not see these people in that way and sadly, many of you know the world does not offer dignity to you.  In fact, the world does not believe much in protecting the dignity of another person.  Studies show that even the word “dignity” is being used less and less each year.  That is the world.  Well, allow me to echo Paul’s oddly thankful beliefs.  I am glad and thankful to call each of you brother or sister and I want you to know that no matter what your circumstances may be at this moment, whether good, fair, or not so good, you have dignity as God’s child and you are worthy of respect, compassion, and comfort.  And is my hope that you genuinely sense those feelings here because we are not like the world.  We seek to be like Jesus.

Paul continued with his letter, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.  We thank him [we thank God] because we have heard about your faith in Christ Jesus.  We have also heard that you love all God’s people.”  Paul, along with Timothy, are oddly thankful because news had reach them about their friends.  News that their friends were placing trust in Jesus and not in false beliefs.  They were placing trust in Jesus and not in wild pleasures.  They were placing trust in Jesus and not in hatred, revenge, or anger.  And how did Paul know for sure these people were people of faith in Jesus Christ?  Paul told us.  He said news had reached Paul that his friends in Colossae were “loving toward all of God’s people.”  The people of Colossae held strong beliefs that were different from the world around them.  So different, so odd were their beliefs, that they loved other people.  Paul was thankful that he could see that his friends were willing to love people in the name of Jesus, through the power of Jesus, and in faithful obedience to Jesus.  We can be odd and love other people in our circumstances.  We can love others despite our circumstances.  We can love others as an expression of our thankfulness to God for loving us.  That is what Paul saw his friends doing.

Paul continued to encourage his brothers and sisters.  He said, “Your faith [in Jesus] and love [for others] are based on the hope you have.  What you hope for is stored up for you in heaven.”  Heaven is the place of God.  Heaven is where there are only circumstances of joy and peace.  There are no struggles with sin, illness, or anger in heaven.  Paul wrote to his friends, “You have already heard about it. You were told about it when the true message was given to you.”  Paul wanted his friends to hold onto the promises of the future.

Now someone who received Paul’s letter or someone reading it now might say, “Heaven sounds great but what do I do until I get there?”  Paul wrote in the middle of verse 9, “We keep asking God to fill you with the knowledge of what he wants.”  God wants something very specific for your life.  God has a plan for your life.  He wants something for you and something from you.  He wants that for you and from you now; not in heaven.  Paul was praying his friends would be listening for God.  You see we are odd.  We believe that God will speak to us.  I know I am thankful that God does speak to us and that on a several occasions I was listening to Him.  I am sure there were other moments when He spoke, and I was listening to someone else or more likely talking.

Paul continued, “We pray he will give you the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives. 10 Then you will be able to lead a life that is worthy of the Lord. We pray that you will please him in every way. So we want you to bear fruit in every good thing you do. We pray that you will grow to know God better. 11 We want you to be very strong, in keeping with his glorious power. We want you to be patient. We pray that you will never give up.”  In this life, we need wisdom and understanding in all circumstances.  I think every person here has said many times, “Lord, what am I supposed to do now?”  Paul said God will lead you to do the next right thing that it worthy of him.  God will give you the strength to do it and the patience to see it through until it is time to take the next right step.  Just don’t give up.  This is how we can be thankful in all circumstances.  Because God is there to give us wisdom in our circumstances.  He is there to lead us out of difficult circumstances.  He is there to slow us down so that we can enjoy the good circumstances of life  He is there to help us never give up.  This all sounds so very odd to the world.

Our friends, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, needed great wisdom in their difficult circumstances.  They needed patience and they needed the strength not to give up.  The Pilgrim’s leader, William Bradford, wrote, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of God have all praise."  Everything we do should reflect the very best of the light of the Gospel and regardless of the immediate circumstances we may find ourselves in, we should give all the praise and thanksgiving to God.

            As we approach Thanksgiving this year, look at life, all of life with a Christian view of being oddly thankful.  Think about all that you have been blessed with and see God through it all.  Be willing to ask for his wisdom, guidance, and patience in your circumstances knowing God will answer you through the Bible and through his church.  Don’t give up.  Love other people with light of hope that burns within you.  Do not hid that light.  When Thanksgiving Day comes, certainly approach the day grateful for whatever meal you may have and with whomever you share it with, but think deeper.  Give thanks to God for your salvation, for the blessing of being in his church, for the blessing of grace, and the blessing of peace.  Pray for family and friends, even difficult ones.  Pray that God will continue to move to be oddly thankful and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.  Amen.

Nov 4 - Hope in the Healing

Psalm 147:1-7

John 5:2-15

            We have been talking for a couple of weeks about hope.  Hope is essential to our life for without hope life seems to lack purpose and meaning.  Hope has only one source, that is God.  God always instills hope and never takes it away.  Yet, despite God’s grace in giving us hope, we still can feel hope leave us.  Sin we commit, or sin others commit against us, depletes hope within us.  We learned that forgiveness restores hope lost through sin.  Forgiveness of offenses between us is possible because God forgave us.  We then are empowered to forgive each other and restore hope.

Other difficulties in life deplete hope.  Medical issues and illnesses deplete our hope.  Bickering and endless conspiracy theories between our political parties depletes hope.  Harsh words between racial groups deplete hope.  And the violence inflicted upon people of faith, as was the case a couple of weeks ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh depletes hope.  How is hope restored when lost through such diseases of our bodies, our minds, our spirits?  How is hope restored when lost through diseases of anger and jealousy and mistrust of our neighbors, and our countrymen?  In a word, we must be healed to have hope again.  In being healed, then we are empowered to extend healing to others.  What is the source of such healing?  It is God who brings such healing because God is the source of hope.

Psalm 147, our Old Testament reading today, describes the workings of God.  The psalmist wrote, “Praise the Lord.  How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!”  Why is that so?  The psalmist explained: “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel.  He heals the brokenhearted and [he] binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and [he] calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.  The Lord sustains the humble but [he] casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with grateful praise; make music to our God on the harp.”

            The psalmist laid out that God is mighty in power and deed and he uses that power to build, gather, heal, bind, determine, call, understand, and sustains those who come to him.  God’s actions bring together that which is broken.  God wanted people to see his power to bring healing in a personal and lasting manner so he sent his son, Jesus, to bring hope and healing to the people.  Jesus healed people of illnesses as a sign of his identity as God’s Son.  Jesus healed people of their brokenness as a sign of God’s power to save.  Jesus did not heal all people of all brokenness because not everyone asked him to do so.  That is a funny thing about Jesus’ authority and God’s power to heal.  As powerful as God is, God will not build, gather, heal, and bind the brokenness of our life against our will.

            We see this limitation on healing played out in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth.  Jesus preached and taught the people with whom he grew up.  “And they took offense at him.  Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.’  He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.”  This little story shows us that Jesus did not just enter a town and suddenly everyone was healed.  Healing occurred through personal interactions between Jesus and those who had the faith to believe He could heal.  Because there were few willing to be healed, few were healed.

            This theme of faith-based healing was prominent in our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of John.  Let’s see how faith played out with Jesus.  “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.”  John was painting a picture of a great many people distressed by severe physical limitations all collected by a pool of water, a public bath if you will.

            If you are using a King James Version of the Bible you will see why these people lay near this pool.  In verse 4, it would say, “4For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”  If you are using a more contemporary translation of the Bible you will see that there is no verse 4.  Your Bible goes from verse 3 to verse 5.  The reason is many contemporary scholars believe verse 4 was not part of John’s original writings but was added by scribes years later.

            Either translation in use, we have the scene of a great many people distressed by severe physical limitations all collected around a pool of water waiting it would seem for a moment of turmoil within the waters as a signal that the first one entering those waters would be healed.   Illness, injuries, and insults to the body had diminished the hope of these people.  Now it would seem all that could be done was wait by the water.

John acquainted us with one of those waiting in verse 5, “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time.”  .”  Into this man’s life, a figure entered in the person of Jesus.  “He [Jesus] asked him [the man], ‘Do you want to get well?’”  In other translations, Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made whole?”

            Jesus took the initiative and contacted this man who was paralyzed for some 38 years.  But in that contact Jesus asked what at first might seem like an odd question, “Do you want to get well?”  We could envision the paralytic man responding sarcastically, “No, I lie around here for the view!”  But Jesus question was a serious moment from self-reflection by the man.  “Do you want to be made whole?”  This question needs to be asked because sadly there are hurting people who do not want to be made well.  Their pain is real, but their discomforting circumstances have been come their identity and their pain has become their excuse for the way they live.  They do not want to change the way they live and therefore, do not want to be made well.

            Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made whole?” was intended to have the man confess his fears, his faith, and his hopes.   The man gave Jesus his answer in verse 7.  “Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’”  The man does not directly answer Jesus’ question and instead offers the reason why he has not been healed.  It would seem when the waters are stirred, this mass of humanity, blind, ill, lame, and paralyzed lurch forward in chaos trying to be the first in the pool and thus healed.   This man could not get into the pool faster than anyone else because he has no one to lift him over the others. The man painted a macabre scene of twisted bodies all trying to push their way into the water in the belief that at certain moments the water was curative.  There is not any evidence the story about the healing waters of the pool was true.   It may well be simply folklore.  But for this man, that had become his only hope.

            In this scene, Jesus wanted the man and us to understand the power of wholeness is found in God, not in some water in a pool.  Jesus wanted the man to see that hope is found in being made whole.  Verse 8, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’ At once the man was cured [he was made well]; he picked up his mat and walked.”  Jesus had performed a miracle.  The miracle was a concrete example of the presence of God’s power in Jesus.  This healing miracle was visible expression of compassion and love.  It was a display of hope in the present and in the future with God.  John does not record the man’s response.  For 38 years, the man could not move off the mat by himself.  We can well imagine a sense of relief, awe, and joy in the healing.  We can also well imagine the true sense of hope the man now had in the future because of man named Jesus.

            What then does this passage tell us about hope and healing?  There are three points to consider.

First, when Jesus came to earth there were an abundance of people with illnesses, disease, and pain.  Jesus took the initiative and offered healing to those who expressed faith.  Jesus did not suspend or eliminate all illness, disease, or brokenness.  He offered healing as a concrete way of showing God’s love and compassion for people.  So, healing must be rooted in the love, power, and presence of God. Jesus offered healing to move people toward hope.  Jesus offered healing to make people whole.  Jesus did not offer healing so that people would live forever upon this earth.  Everyone Jesus healed, even those he raised from the dead, all eventually died.  Therefore, the wholeness offered by Jesus must be something that lasting longer than our physical life itself.  Wholeness is restoration of the soul that transcends the pain of illness and life.  God sent Jesus to meet us where we are and to offer us eternal life.  This brings us to our second point; we will not heal alone.

Jesus approached the man on the mat, an invalid of 38 years, who was laying by the pool, waiting for the water to stir and looking for someone to put him in it.  The man understood that healing and hope cannot be achieved alone.  The man knew that just laying on a mat would not heal him.  The 38 years he spent laying on a mat proved that point.  The man knew he could not get into the healing waters without someone to lift him.  Hope and healing require community.  When Jesus entered the man’s life God was present and the aloneness ended.  Jesus was not going to lift the man into the pool and heal the man in the way he had imagined.  Jesus was going to make the man whole by bringing God into the act and ending the aloneness.  This leads to our third point; do we want the healing Jesus offers?

            God took the initiative to offer hope and healing.  Jesus entered the aloneness of people in pain.  But there was an important question that needed answering.  “Do you want to be made whole?”  Where there is no faith, there is no healing.  But Jesus’ offer of wholeness was not about physical health, it was about wholeness of our spirits.  Jesus offered a new way of life with hope from God in our circumstances and the capacity to share that hope with all other people in our lives.  Do you want to be made whole?

            Hope, healing, and wholeness are rooted in God.  God sent Jesus to break into the aloneness of pain.  Jesus asked us to join him being made well.  These three steps apply to you and me today just as much as it applied to the man lying beside the pool.

            Jesus gave those who accepted his offer of hope and wholeness an enduring symbol of remembering his purpose and his call upon their lives.  We call it the Lord’s Supper and we have it laid out before us.  Jesus gave his friends this meal of remembrance and hope with the bread and cup.  Jesus reminded those of faith that he came from God and broke into the aloneness of all pain.  The bread and cup reminded Jesus’ friends they were well in God’s eyes.  Jesus reminded his friends to take the initiative and share the hope of God with all they meet.  This meal is not finished until we reach out to the poor, strangers, lonely, weak and hurting world around us with the same love and healing power that is at work within us.

            This day, we too can be friends of Jesus and remember and share that our God builds, gathers, heals, and binds the brokenness of our life.  Let us pray.

Oct 28 - Hope Found in Forgiveness

Leviticus 16:20-22

John 8:1-11

Several years ago, I started working with another church at the Troy Area United Ministries to serve dinner.  The only thing the workers there knew about me before I arrived was that I was a Baptist minister.  When I arrived, some people were very scared of me and concerned about what I might think of them.  As I got to know the crew, they shared that they believed Baptist ministers were angry men, speaking about hellfire and brimstone saying things like, “You are all sinners.  Unless you repent of your sins, you are damned to hell.”  We were able to share a good laugh over the anxiousness caused by having a Baptist minister working on the crew.  But we also talked about the fact that it is true we are all sinners.  I recently saw a list someone complied of all the sins identified in the Bible.  The list identified 667 different behaviors that are sinful.  I do not know if the list is correct.  It really does not matter.  It is impossible to deny that sin is part of our lives; it is part of living.  And so, “Yes you are all sinners and I am right there with you.”

The eternal consequence of sin is hell, an unchangeable hopeless place.  The earthly consequence of sin similarly involves the loss of hope, but unlike hell where hopelessness is unchangeable, on earth hope can be restored.  Last week, we began speaking about hope.  We recall that people are created for hope.  Throughout our life we move from hope to hope.  Hope is what excites us and hope is what motivates us.  However, in our living day-to-day our sense of hope, our movement from hope to hope, gets disrupted and dims when we sin and when we are on the receiving end of sin.  From the list of 667 sins we would find that our hope dims because of adultery, anger, assault, bitterness, deception, falsely accusing, holding a grudge, selfishness, threatening, etc.  I think you get the point. 

Last week, I spoke with someone last week, we will call her Rose who lost hope.  Rose lives alone.  Rose’s close friend of many years became angry at her for reasons which are not clear.  Since that then, this close friend has stopped talking to Rose, will not return her phone calls, stopped checking in to see if she was all right.  Because of this mistreatment, because of this sinful behavior, Rose lost hope and then began believing that everything else in her life was falling apart.  Sinful behavior had diminished and nearly extinguished Rose’s sense of hope.  Life becomes unbearable without hope.

Hope is central and essential to our lives.  God created us to move from hope to hope and therefore only God can provide a means of restoring hope in our lives.  And God’s means through which hope is restored in the face of sin is called forgiveness.  Forgiveness allows there to be another chance.  Forgiveness holds out the possibility, the promise, and the reality that individuals, marriages, families, neighbors, friends, churches, and whole communities can be renewed, can mend what we have broken, can find what appeared to be completely lost, can build a bridge to that which seems permanently severed, can re-member and restored.  Forgiveness brings the comforting fire of hope back to flame and allows us once again to move from hope to hope.

Forgiveness leading the restoration of hope is God’s plan.  Forgiveness was central to God’s development of his special relationship with the Hebrew people.  We recall from our Old Testament reading today that Aaron, the chief priest of the Hebrew people, was to lead to the atonement of sin among the Hebrew people.  He was to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.”  This was the means of forgiving sin between the people and God.  This is called Yom Kippur and is still celebrated in the Jewish community today.  Yom Kippur is coupled with Teshuva, a time to repentance and forgiveness between and among the people.  It is the time to stop the sinful behavior, confess the nature of those behaviors, express regret, commit to stop the behaviors in the future, and to seek forgiveness.  God’s plan was for the restoration of hope by having his people turn away from hurtful, harmful, sinful behaviors and to seek forgiveness for the past.  Our bulletin today carries an image with the words, “Forgiving the past creates hope for the future.”

When the time was right, God advanced his plan of forgiveness and hope from the Hebrew people alone to all people.  He did not extend the practice of laying the sins of the people on a scapegoat and sending the goat into the wilderness.  God’s plan was much more personal and much more complete.  God sent his son, Jesus, into the world.  Jesus came to reveal the character of the invisible God to all the people and lead the people to understand the nature and extent of God’s forgiveness.  Jesus also came to take the penalty of all our sins upon himself, freeing us to live new lives restored in hope.  Our New Testament reading today gave us a wonderful insight into the power of forgiveness and its relationship to hope.

The story began this way.  “At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts.”  Jesus was in the place of prayer and worship of God.  The sanctuary of the Lord is the first place we should want to go when hope is dimmed and the last place we want conflict.  That was true then and remains true today.  It was to the temple that Jesus went to be with the people and there John wrote, “he [Jesus] sat down to teach them.”  This is a wonderful scene.

Suddenly, noise and harsh words intrude that sacred space.  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery.”  The women had sinned.  She had engaged in adultery by having sexual relations with a man who was not here spouse.  Adultery is listed in the top 10 of the 667 sins in the Bible.  Adultery represents a violation of God’s design for marriage that a husband and wife are to cleave together; there is not to be three or more people in a marriage.  On a human level, adultery was and is a serious breach of trust.  This woman’s sin, no doubt committed in private, was now on public display.  Now that her sin was publicly exposed she could see her relationship with God, her husband, her family, neighbors, and friends was ruined. 

John wrote, “They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’”  This woman was in a desperate situation and now found herself threatened with death.  This woman’s fate, her life, was in the hands of Jesus.  Things must have seemed quite hopeless for her.  A person without hope is already crushed and, in many ways, is experiencing death.

John’s next two words are most important, “But Jesus.”  These words, “But Jesus,” signals to the reader that but for Jesus, the situation was completely hopeless.  “But Jesus,” was a signal that something unexpected, something not of human thought and human origin was about to take place.  “But Jesus,” was sign that hope was still present.

“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.”  We do not know what Jesus wrote.  Whatever Jesus wrote did not break the fixation the crowd of religious people had in demanding an answer from Jesus as to the fate of this woman.  The crowd, really a mob, was only interested in trying to use the situation to steal the hope other people were placing in Jesus.

“7 When they kept on questioning him [Jesus], he straightened up and said to them [the religious leaders], ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”  “But Jesus,” reminded the mob that we are all sinners and are all subject to the weight and consequence of sin.  Sounds like that scary Baptist minister coming out of Jesus, “You are all sinners.  Unless you repent of your sins, you are damned to hell.”  “But Jesus,” made the point to the mob that on another day, another moment in time, they could be standing alone, accused and hopeless because of their sin.

John wrote that upon hearing Jesus’ words the mob began to break up and people “began to go away one at a time [with] the older ones first.”  It was unfortunate the mob left because they did not see firsthand the rest of the story.  There was another “But Jesus,” moment in which Jesus showed how hope can be restored.

John wrote, the mob “began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”  “But for Jesus,” the woman was alone.  Physical death did not seem likely, however, the woman remained hopeless before God, her husband, her family, and her neighbors.  Her very private sin was still very public.

John wrote, “10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they?  [Where is the mob?] Has no one condemned you?”  Jesus’ questions are, of course, not seeking information.  They never are.  Questions from Jesus are always confession seeking.  They seek the person receiving the question to speak aloud what is going on in their life, in their heart, and in their thoughts.  Jesus questions get people to engage in open conversation with him.  They are designed to help us speak in an authentic manner and this is important when we pray.  What does it mean to be authentic in prayer?  We need to be real with God.  We need to think about God as being as close to us as the woman was to Jesus.  We need to honest about our feelings and our failings.  We need to approach God just as we are and to seek direction on honoring him with our lives.  In this scene, Jesus wants to woman to talk to him authentically about her circumstances.  To reflect on the most important moment of her life.  “Is there no longer anyone here to condemn you?”  11 “‘No one, sir,’ she said.”

I can imagine the seconds of silence now ticked away between this woman and Jesus.  Each second feeling longer and weightier than the last.  Finally, Jesus broke the silence, “Then neither do I condemn you.”  Jesus had forgiven the woman of her sin, restoring her before God, and renewing hope.

Jesus instructed the woman on how to live again with hope.  Jesus said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  This was the hope the woman needed.  I can well imagine the woman who entered the temple with tears of terror and regret now leaving the temple with tears of joy and relief fueled by hope.  Hope is the confident expectation of a future filled with promise and meaning because it is secured by God.  The forgiveness the woman received gave her the courage to face life ahead knowing she was accepted by God.  God’s forgiveness gives hope.

God’s forgiveness of us empowers us to forgive others and restore hope.  Forgiveness must be at the heart of our relationships with one another because it is at the heart of our relationship with God.  When I perform a wedding ceremony I issue a pastoral charge to the couple upon them from Scripture just before they share their vows.  I share with them these words, “Come now and ‘…clothe yourselves with compassion, with kindness, with humility, with gentleness and with patience. Bear with each other and forgive any grievances that may arise. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3).  We love and we forgive because we hope. We hope because God has forgiven us.

Forgiveness does not make the past disappear.  Forgiveness allows the past to be the past.  Forgiveness allows the future to be lived with hope.  Because Jesus died for you, because he forgave your sins, you will not go to hell.  Because Jesus forgave you, you have the power to forgive one another.  You and I have the power of hope.  Let us then use it and forgive and the Lord has forgiven us.  Let us pray.

Oct 14 - God: Can You See Me & Hear Me

Psalm 139: 1-12

Colossians 1:15-23

I want to set the stage for our time together with a true story.  The story comes from Europe around the year 1200.  The story involves an experiment ordered by the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II.  It seems that the Emperor wanted to know the original language of mankind.  He thought that God gave humanity a language at birth.  And that the language God gave humanity must be either Hebrew, Greek, or Latin?  He just was not sure which language it was.  So, Emperor Fredrick had several newborn babies imprisoned immediately after their birth.  He assigned women to feed the children, clean them, and bathe them.  However, the emperor order that the women not make any sounds or gestures of any kind in the presence of the babies.  The emperor believed that by doing so, the babies would grow and speak the language that God instilled in each baby by birth and not the language they heard from their care takers.  Does anyone know what language the babies came to speak?  It was not Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or any other language at all because every baby died.  They did not die due to lack of food or bodily care.  They died because they had no hope.  Their caretakers were forbidden any words, expressions, or gestures all of which communicate to an infant hope.  The experiment did show that we are not just one more animal inhabiting the earth whose only interest is food, water, and reproduction.  We are unique in all of creation because we are made in the image of God.  And hope is part of the original language God shared with humanity and without hope there is no life. 

People are created for hope.  And because we are created for hope and created to share hope, I would like us to explore several dimensions of biblical hope during the next few weeks.  The existence of hope gives meaning to our lives and so we need to see how God is ultimate the source of all hope.  Knowing and then speaking God’s language of hope is essential for our lives, for our lives as Christians, and for the life of this church.

People are created for hope.  Throughout our entire life we move from one hope to another hope.  I want you to let that sink in for a moment.  We move from hope to hope.  We are constantly acting and responding to expressions of hope.  Hope is what excites us and motivates us.  Let me give you just a couple of examples .  Anyone ever purchase a lottery ticket?  Did you purchase it as a donation so the state had enough money to give away as a prize to someone else?  Of course not!  You purchased it with the hope that you would win.  You mix the ingredients to bake a cake.  You put it in the oven and hope it comes out just right so everyone can enjoy it.  Maybe today on your way to church you were thinking about the people who might be at church.  In that moment, you might have said in your own words, “I hope ‘so and so’ is there because I enjoy their company.”  Or perhaps in the alternative you said, “I hope ‘so and so’ is NOT there today!”  I think you get the idea.  If we examine our lives, we will find that we move from hope to hope.

Now circumstances can come into our life that diminish hope.  When hope grows dim we may feel sad, angry, jealous, depressed, resentful, defeated, or bitter.  If hope is extinguished we not only live each endless day in hopelessness, but we live each day thinking about living each day in hopelessness.  When we are convinced there we no longer can move from hope to hope because there is only darkness then we become very much like Emperor Fredrick’s babies and are at grave risk of death.

Today I want to talk about the greatest risk to our sense of hope.  The greatest risk to hope is expressed in a single word, invisibility.  What do I mean by invisibility?  By invisibility, I do not mean that we become like the scientist in the movie who created a secret formula to make himself invisible to others.  By invisibility, I mean we have the sense that others have chosen to make us invisible; as though we do not matter or even exist.  This sense of invisibility, this sense of walking through life alone, extinguishes hope.  Perhaps you have experienced such a sense where you did not seem to matter to anyone.  Maybe you are feeling a bit invisible in your relationships with your spouse, your children, or with your parents.  Perhaps you are feeling as though it does not matter what you say at home or work or school, no one cares what you think.  You have been made invisible by others.  The things you love, like, and care about simply do not matter to anyone else.  It is frightening to be made invisible by others because in that invisibility we sense no hope.  To live in this way is not the way God intended us to live.  But here is something important to know.  Even when others make us feel invisible, we are not.

Our Old Testament reading today from Psalm 139, a beautiful passage of Scripture, instructs us that we matter and are never invisible to God.  Let me read part of that passage for you.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.  11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

            No matter what, we are not invisible to God.  Now, when I was growing up as a child, this thought of God always watching me, was driven home by the church.  But the idea conveyed to me was that God was there always seeing me with a book writing down every mistake and misstep I made so that he could punish me.  That was the image of God I received.  Even the religious cartoons I watched, “Davey and Goliath,” reinforced this image as Davey’s dog, Goliath, would often say, “God’s not going to like that, Davey!”  But the psalm is not talking about God as some ultimate policeman hovering over us.  The psalm is talking about God as the ultimate companion walking with us in life.  Even in the darkest moments, God can find us.  Even in the moments when we seek to run from him we discover God is already waiting for us to arrive at the very place to which we ran.  Why is God with us?  God is there because he created us as people of hope and God is with us to move us from hope to hope.  This movement from hope to hope is the essence of the flow found in Psalm 23. 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.

            The flow of the psalm is from hope to hope.

            These psalms are such wonderful words.  And yet throughout the generations there still developed within humanity a sense of darkness and misunderstanding about God and his presence with us.  After all who had seen this God moving them from hope to hope?  How could people know this God of hope in the same manner they knew themselves if they could not see him?  God understood our need to move from hope to hope and so God acted.  In sweeping, beautiful poetic terms, God’s actions are unfolded for us in the book we call the Gospel of John.

John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:1-5, 14, 18)

God knowing our need to move from hope to hope understood the spiritual darkness that surrounded his people and so he sent his light into that darkness.  He sent Jesus, his son, the personification of hope.

It is that same Jesus that Paul wrote about to the church at Colossae.  In our New Testament reading from Colossians, Paul began with these words, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.”  We must pause for just a moment to take in what Paul said.  Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.”  Now in one dimension, Paul’s statement does not make any sense.  Critics today might saw. “How can something that is invisible have an image at all?”  Of course, the answer to such a critique is that as the image of God, Jesus is an exact, visible, representation of God character not his appearance.  Paul said in verse 19, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus].”  In Jesus, the attributes, the character traits of God become fully visible. 

John would later write to his friends, “That which was from the beginning, [Jesus] which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”  Paul and John are making it clear that invisible God became visible in the flesh in the person of Jesus and everything about Jesus displayed God’s character.  Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Now what does Paul say about this person Jesus, “[He] is the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”  Jesus is first among all things and he is the creator of all things, including the creator of you and me.  We are part of the creation fashioned by and through Jesus.  This means through Jesus we not only see an image of God, but we also know that God sees and hear us.  Jesus makes God known and visible to us and us known and visible to God.  We are not invisible and cannot be made invisible to God.  And because God is able to see us always he is able to move us from hopelessness to hope and then from hope to hope.

In verse 23, Paul states clearly the source of God’s hope.  He wrote, “Do not be moved from the hope held out in the Gospel.”  The hope of the Gospel is this:  God sent Jesus to let each of us know that God sees us, hears us, and that God wants us to see and hear him.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel is this:  Jesus lived the human life like we are living, complete with moments of great joy and tears, times of companionship and aloneness, so Jesus knows our highs and lows.  Yet Jesus in living did what we are not able to do, he did not sin.  Because of his living as we did and his sinless nature he is uniquely able to speak to God for us and about God to us.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel is this:  Jesus died for you and for me and in doing so can give us his sinless image before God.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel is this:  Jesus arose from the dead into a new life.  Because he did, we can live a new life in him now and eternally.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel is this:  Jesus established his church [his gathering of people] here on earth to be his visible image for all future generations.  Jesus empowered the church with the Holy Spirit to give life and hope to each member of his church and to cause his church to be a continuous beacon of hope into an otherwise dark world.  Hope.

The hope of the Gospel is this:  God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, you, me, the Church.  That is the hope of which Paul speaks.

People are created for hope and the original language of humanity is hope.  God moves us from hope to hope.  You are here today because God sees you and hears you and he moved you to receive the hope of the Gospel.  You are here today because God desires that you see and hear others as he sees and hears others and that in your seeing and hearing you would share hope with them.  This week let us open lives to be moved by the hope of Jesus and to share that hope with someone else as we walk from hope to hope.  Let us pray. 

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