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Dec 30 - The Work of Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

As we the best moments of Christmas Day, we quickly realize the Christmas season is closing, the year 2018 is coming to an end, and a new year will soon arrive.  The arrival of a new year serves as a fresh starting point with millions of people.  Many will make one or more new year resolutions.  The top resolutions for Americans 2018 starting with the most popular were: Eat better — 37 percent; Exercise more — 37 percent; Spend less money — 37 percent; Self-care (e.g. getting more sleep) — 24 percent; Read more books —18 percent; Learn a new skill — 15 percent; Get a new job — 14 percent; Make new friends — 13 percent; New hobby — 13 percent; Focus more on appearance — 12 percent; Focus on relationship — 12 percent; Cut down on cigarettes/alcohol — 9 percent; Go on more dates — 7 percent; and Focus less on appearance — 3 percent.  These all seem like good things to do.  But it should not be much of a surprise that all 14 resolutions I mentioned benefit the resolution maker.  The intent is to make for a healthier, wealthier, and happier resolution maker by self-focused activities.  It is not a bad thing to improve oneself but to what end.  If someone successfully kept all these resolutions, then what?  Other than the pursuit of self, what do these resolutions offer?

I did some searching for new year’s resolutions that benefit others.  Most of the suggestions fell into these broad categories.  Say “Thank You,” more often; Offer help to strangers; Donate stuff you don’t need; Volunteer; and then my personal favorite – Be more honest.  I like the qualifying word of being “more” honest.  Adding the word “more” allows for a few lies along the way to avoid the unpleasant messiness that comes with just being honest.  These resolutions do seem a bit more focused on others but seem to have a little in common with one another.

So with this mixture of thoughts swirling about Christmas Day being passed and new years coming, I wondered what insight might be offered to us in the Bible following Christmas Day and the start of something new.  Curiously, the Bible contains very little about Jesus immediately after his birth.  In fact, the Gospels for the most part start with Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry, likely at age 30.  There is 30 years of near silence after Christmas Day in the Bible.  Curious, isn’t it that from birth to age 30 Jesus is virtually unknown?   But just as curiously, what little was said about Jesus after his birth and before his ministry began with his baptism is very powerful.  Today, I would like us to focus on brief passage and see the power that story has to shape our lives today.

I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, starting at verse 41.  As we get to that passage, we need to keep in mind that Luke was not present when the events we are going to read about took place.  Luke never met Jesus.  Luke became interested in the story of Jesus and sought out witnesses to Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  One of the witnesses was likely Mary, Jesus’ mother.  With Mary’s help, Luke wrote about Jesus’ birth.  Luke wrote about Jesus’ start in ministry at age 30.  And Luke wrote about exactly one event between birth and age 30.  To select just one story over that 30 years span would suggest that one story was exceptionally meaningful to the entire story of Jesus.  If so, then there should be some important truth for us in that story.

Luke began the story this way.  “41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.  42 When he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”  Passover was the celebration of God freeing the Hebrew people from Egypt.  God commanded the Hebrew people to celebrate Passover every year and that command continues to be followed until this present time.  We also might find it interesting that Passover occurs in the Jewish month of Nisan [Nis-an], which God said to the Hebrew people “is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Exodus 12:1).  In many ways then Passover was a new year celebration and Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and many other family members and friends made their way from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate as God had instructed.  Centuries later, the Jewish people introduced Rosha Shana as the New Year’s Day for its calendars. 

Luke continued, “43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they [Mary and Joseph] were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he [Jesus] was in their company [think caravan], they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him [Jesus] among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him [Jesus], they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him.”  The celebration of the Passover was complete, the caravan assembled, and started back to Nazareth.  Historians tell us that women and children traveled in one part of the caravan while men traveled in another part.  Jesus being 12 may have fit with either the women and children or with the men perhaps leading to the confusion of his parents about his whereabouts.  Whatever the reason, Mary and Joseph did not realize Jesus was absent for a day.  Once they realized Jesus was not with them, Mary and Joseph spent the next day retracing their steps to Jerusalem.  And then in Jerusalem, they spent a day searching the city for him.  Luke said, “They found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished.”

This is a great scene.  Jesus is seated among the Jewish teachers.  Being seated was the position rabbis took when teaching.  Luke said that Jesus was asking the religious leaders and teachers questions and they were amazed at his answers.  Luke gives the impression Jesus was asking and answering his own questions with such insight that everyone was just mesmerized.

That is the scene Luke painted to come to the defining moment of this passage.  Mary said to Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”  At this point, Mary and Joseph were a tangled ball of emotions.  They had been panicked, worried, and fearful about Jesus’ absence and now at finding him they are astonished, relieved, frustrated, and angry all at the same time.  Mary wanted to know why Jesus put them through such an ordeal.

The words that follow are Jesus’ first recorded words and the only words we have from Jesus for the first 12 years of his life and for the next 18 years.  The twelve-year-old Jesus replied with two questions.  49 “Why were you searching for me?”  Jesus question challenges Mary’s need to be anxious and to search.  Anxiousness comes from fear, uncertainty, potential danger, and great worry.  The opposite of anxiousness is peace.  Jesus’ question suggests that Mary should have been at peace and did not need to search.  She, perhaps more than anyone else, should have had a peace knowing exactly where Jesus would be; namely the Temple.  Her mental anguish of anxiousness was unnecessary, and searching was a waste of energy.  She should have known where Jesus was.

To accentuate his point, Jesus said to Mary and Joseph, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  Other Bible translations put it, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?”

These words, “I had to be about my Father’s business,” become the defining words of Jesus.  Jesus said, “I had to be…”  These words, “I had to be…” mean there was no alternative.  The use of these words, “I had to be…” means the person is driven to do something by the priority of their life.  We might think of it this way.  Each of us could say, “I had to… keep breathing yesterday to be here today.  If I wanted to stay alive to see today, the one thing I had to do was keep breathing.  I could have gone without water, food, sleep, and a myriad of other things.  But if I did not keep breathing yesterday, I would not see today.”  This is the sense of this phrase Jesus was using.  “I had to be…”  He was driven, focused, single-minded, compelled, and even propelled toward something.  What was it?

We see the object of his need in the second half of his statement.  “I had to be…about my Father’s business, or in my Father’s house.”  Perhaps with Passover, the Hebrew new year, and borrowing from our modern traditions about new year’s, Jesus’ single lifetime resolution would be, “I resolve that I must be about my Father’s business.”  If we pause for a moment and think about what we know of Jesus from the moment he began his public ministry, everything he said and did falls back to this statement he said as a 12-year-old.  Every Jesus said and did was done because he must do be about his Father’s business.  Jesus was pointing his earthly parents toward God showing that he had an intimate personal relationship with God by calling him Father.  He had a powerful connection to God that compelled what he said and what he did.

It makes sense then why the only story of Jesus’ early life recalled for us in the Bible is this one.  Because this story tells us that Jesus had to be about his Father’s business.  Jesus did not have mixed feelings about that call upon his life.  Everything he did came back to this single purpose.

Now that we have looked at these few but powerful words from Jesus’ early life what message is there for us?  Do we have peace in what we have to do with our life?  How do we have peace in our hearts like Jesus had?  Sadly, many people struggle with finding that peace.  They live lives that are a tangled ball of emotions.  They are anxiously searching for something and they do not know where to find it or if they will ever find it.  They are left often struggling with the question, “What on earth am I here for?”

  Now here is the good news.  Jesus in doing his Father’s business, said our life can be as clearly defined as his, have meaning, purpose, and peace.  That in following Jesus, we too become children of God and he becomes our Father.  We can have an intimate relationship with God.  Jesus invites us to receive the Holy Spirit so that our lives can be moved like his to be about God’s business; our Father’s business.  We do not need to live a tangled ball of emotions. 

Sometime ago, I met a person who was very naturally upset over the death of a loved one.  After a few months of knowing this person, they confided to me that they thought about taking their own life.  The person said, “I just do not see the point in living anymore.  I lived for this other person [the one who died] but now they are gone.  I lived these last few months because I feared if I took my own life, my pet would be put to sleep because no one would want it.  So I stayed alive for my pet.  But now I just don’t know if that is enough to keep me going.  I have no purpose for being here.”  There were a few moments of silence between us as those words sunk into my mind.  Then I said to this person, “I can see that you are in great pain and are very anxious about your present and your future.  But might I point out that your purposes for living, the person you loved and your pet, would one day die.  Have you thought about a living your life for a purpose that does not die and cannot be taken from you?  Have you thought about living your life for God?”  The person was quiet for a few moments and then said, “I have never thought about doing that.  I am not even sure how to do that.  Could you teach me?”  This person is beginning to come to understand what it means to live a life for God’s purpose.

“God did not create you or me to be a defeated, discouraged, frustrated, wandering soul, seeking in vain for peace of heart and peace of mind.  He has bigger plans for us.  He has a larger world and a greater life for us” (BGEA).

God does not want us to live a life of a tangled ball of emotions or to live our life for ourselves.  God wants us to know that we cannot be separated from Him.  God wants us to live a life with a simple but forceful focus of being like Jesus, following him, not in a casual way but in a very deliberate way.  He wants us to imitate Jesus as though we had to.  God wants us to live our life for the great purpose of being about His business as his child.

At our Christmas Eve service, I quoted a poem entitled The Work of Christmas.  I believe it could well describe our Father’s business.  It could well describe our forever new year’s resolution.  It could well describe a life lived on purpose for God.  It could well describe what we can say to all who will listen to us, “This is what I had to do…” 

 The poem goes like this.  “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal those broken in spirit, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples, to make a little music with the heart…And to radiate the Light of Christ, every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say. Then the work of Christmas begins.

Once the angels, shepherd, wise men, kings and princes were gone, Jesus said he would do all of these things and more because these things are his Father’s business.  Let’s make doing the work of God, our Father, our new year’s resolution and join Jesus by do such things as these as we pursue a life lived for God.  Amen and Amen.

Jan 6 - The Jesus Question

 Matthew 16:5-16                

        Every day we are faced with asking or answering questions.  They are often simple questions.  “How are you?  Did you sleep well?  What would you like to eat?” Questions are essential to acquiring information to make decisions. 

        At other times, we ask questions as a means of conveying our feelings to another person.  In many of those cases, those questions are not questions at all.  “You don’t expect me to pay for that?  How could you?  When will you ever learn?”  We are not looking for an answer to any of these types questions.  We are simply using a question to express an emotion.

        Clearly then, questions are part of our life.  Mothers know this well.  One study showed mothers get asked up to 300 questions per day.

        Questions are also an essential for our faith journey.  We want to know, “What on earth am I here for?  Is there more to life than life?  God, are you there?”  We need questions to sort through the circumstances of life and find meaning. 

        And when it comes to our faith journey, no one can ask questions like God.  The first question we have from God is to Adam.  “Where are you?”  Adam was hiding because he had sinned against God.  God’s question made Adam think about his decision to separate himself from God.  “Who told you that you were naked?”  God’s follow up question to Adam.  It is a question proving Adam’s transformation from a sinless naked person to a sinner.  “What are you doing here?”  God asked his chosen prophet Elijah after Elijah ran and hid from the duties God had given him to do.

        “God questions” should cause us to slowdown, to think, and to get our bearings.  We find in the New Testament that Jesus asked a lot of questions.  I did not do the count myself, but someone counted that Jesus asked 307 questions to those following him and those challenging him.  Jesus asked questions to provoke thought, seek transformation, challenge traditions, and to activate faith.  Jesus wanted his disciples to change their pattern of thinking so that they to see the world, their relationships, and God from a different vantage point. 

        Let me give you an example of a simple question that challenges our thinking and requires us to see things from another vantage point.  Let me ask you this, “What is the purpose for having brakes on a car?”  Tradition and conventional wisdom would cause us to say, “We have brakes on our car to stop our car from moving.”  That seems like a reasonable reply and we are comfortable in moving on to the next question with that answer.  Let me offer you a different response to the question, “Why do we have brakes on a car?”  We have brakes in our car not to stop it but so that our car can go fast.  Doubt me?  I can prove it.  Suppose you have a car in the parking lot and you discover it does not have any brakes.  How fast are you going to drive that car?  You are not going to drive very fast, if at all.  But with our brake system in our vehicle operating correctly, we have little fear driving our cars 65 miles per hour or more.  So are brakes to stop our car from moving or do the brakes allow our cars to go fast?

        This was just a simple illustration of the concept that questions can challenge our view of the world.  Jesus used simple questions to challenge the views held about love, faith, goodness, joy, and God.  Today’s passage from the New Testament has eight questions from Jesus to his disciples.  His questions provoke thought and seek transformation.  Jesus’ questions challenge assumptions and the worldview of the disciples and then his questions activate the faith of the disciples.  Jesus’ questions build upon each other leading to the most important question Jesus had for his disciples.  It is the same question each one of us must answer for ourselves.  Shall we take a look at the Jesus questions?

        Our passage is found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16, starting at verse 5.  Matthew wrote, “When they [Jesus and his disciples] went across the lake [Sea of Galilee], the disciples forgot to take bread.”  The disciples had neglected to bring the basic provision of life; food, namely, bread.  One of the disciples had discovered this oversight and prompted a conversation about the discovery.  You can hear the conversation.  “We do not have any bread.  Thomas, wasn’t it your turn to bring the bread?”  Thomas replied, “No.  I brought the bread the last time.  Andrew, wasn’t it your job?”  Andrew, hearing Thomas’ response, might have said, “What?  Who?  Me?”  And the mindless conversation went on.  We have all been involved or at least a witness a circular argument of questions without answers.

        Jesus, meanwhile, was listening to the unproductive chatter of his disciples and used it as an opportunity to elevate the conversation.  He said in verse 6, “Be careful.  Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Yeast is that ingredient in small quantity added to large amount of flour and water becomes activated transforming the flour into bread dough.  The warning abou the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day, then would be to exercise care in adopting the thinking and traditions of those leaders.  Only a little of Pharisees and Sadducees thinking could change or corrupt the way the disciples were beginning to see the world, their relationships, and God.

         One of the great features of the Bible is the honesty with which people are shown.  Jesus had just sought to elevate the conversation and Matthew gave us their honest reaction in verse 7. “They [the disciples] discussed this [what Jesus said] among themselves and said, ‘It is [He is saying this] because we didn’t bring any bread.’”  It seems like the disciples missed Jesus’ point.

        Recognizing the disciples did not get the point of his statement, Jesus went back with questions requiring a higher level of thinking to try again to elevate the conversation and move it from bread for the disciples stomachs to bread for their spiritual life.  Matthew wrote in verse 8, “Aware of their [his disciples’ continuing focus on bread] discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?’”  Jesus was provoking his disciples into kingdom thinking.  When Jesus first began preaching the word of God, his message was simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come.”  Here, now with his disciples, Jesus was again provoking them to kingdom thinking.  In his question, Jesus was ask, “How is it that you can talk about bread to eat when you could talk about and with the bread of heaven?”

        We might be tempted to ask ourselves, “How is it possible the disciples were consumed talking about bread for dinner and did not understand the significance of Jesus in their presence?”  But I wonder if in asking ourselves that question that we think too highly of ourselves and too little of the disciples.  How much time to we spending in kingdom thinking, thinking about the presence of God in our life, as compared to the time spent thinking and talking about bread, meat, potatoes, pasta, dieting, and calories?  How much time do we spend in church meetings talking about floors, carpets, chairs, paper products, vacuum cleaners, size and shapes of bulletins, as compared to our collective work in the kingdom?  I suspect Jesus could just as easily say to us, “Why are you talking among yourselves about trivial things of life and not the kingdom of God?”

        Matthew offered no reply to Jesus’ question.  Verse 9 continued in rapid succession with more Jesus’ questions.  “Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 [After remembering what you saw] how is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread [for dinner]?”  Jesus was provoking his disciples to remember the miraculous feedings of thousands of people with small loaves of bread.  Jesus challenged his disciples to remember that all those people ate and were satisfied and still there were twelve baskets full of bread remaining.  The miracle of the bread showed most simply the transforming power of God flowing through Jesus.  Small cakes of bread multiplied through Jesus.  Jesus was and is the sign from heaven of God.  Jesus was and is the sign of the presence of the kingdom of God.  The bread to eat was but an instrument or tool used of God to speak about his kingdom.  Jesus had told his disciples, “I am the bread of life.”  The bread that fed the multitudes was a symbol of the overwhelming nature God’s provision for eternal life through Jesus.

        Verse 11 again, “‘How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?’  But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’  Then they [the disciples] understood that he [Jesus] was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Jesus’ questions had broken through ending the discussion of physical bread by provoking kingdom thinking, by seeking transformation, and challenging traditions and traditional thinking.

        Having done all that, Jesus felt the disciples were now prepared for the fundamental question of an active faith.  It is a question that each of us must answer as well.  Verse 13, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’”  The term “Son of Man” was introduced here by Jesus to speak about himself.  In simpler terms, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”  Jesus wanted the disciples to report what people were saying to the disciples about Jesus.  In reply, the disciples shouted out, “Some say [you are] John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  The disciples had heard a lot of different replies about Jesus’ identity.  All in one form or another were prophets.  A prophet is one who receives God’s words and shares them with the people seeking them to change their present behavior in order to have a future with God.  Jesus certainly was doing the work of a prophet.

        Even today, if you ask people who is Jesus, they would say things like, “He was a nice guy who had the power to heal people.”  “Jesus was a greater preacher who could keep his audience’s attention.”  “He was a good guy who taught people to be kind and compassionate to one another.”  These statements are true enough, but do they clearly say who Jesus is?

        Jesus is aware of what people today say about him just as he was aware of who people thought he was then.  While interesting to hear the disciples report, Jesus was most interested in having his disciples speak their hearts and minds as to who he was.  So, in verse 15, we have the ultimate Jesus questions, “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”  Everything about the life of the disciples turned on the answer to this one question.  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus’ questions had provoked thinking, sought to transform his disciples, challenged their understanding of traditions, and now his question, “Who do you say I am?” activated Peter’s faith.  “You are the Son of God.”  How did Peter say those words?  What emotion and emphasis did he use in saying those words?  Did he shout them with fear, “YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD!”  Or did he say them more quietly, humbly, and reverently, “You are the Son of God.”  We do not know how Peter said the words, but we do know he said them, and Peter’s life turned and changed forever.  In that moment. Peter placed his faith, his hope in the present and for the future, in Jesus hands.  He said Jesus was not only a prophet able to speak God’s words, but also as a priest who could intercede for Peter with God.  Peter also saw Jesus as lord of his life, king if you will.  In saying Jesus was the Son of God, Peter saw Jesus was prophet, priest, king, and he would see Jesus as sacrifice. 

        Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”  That is a question you and I must answer for ourselves.  Is Jesus just a teacher, preacher, and healer or is something else.  I believe Jesus is the Son of God.  That means he is the king of kings, the Lord of lords.  In my believing, Jesus has promised to live within me to guide my life.  In living my life with Jesus, I am now made a child of God and though one day I my body will cease to function as it does today and people will say of me, “He died,” because of my faith in Jesus, I will still live in presence of God.  And when my memory and spirit weakens, Jesus reminds of the miracle of the bread.  He uses bread to remind me in the celebration of the Lord’s Table.  It is at the table Jesus places bread, a symbol of his body.  There he places the cup, the symbol of his blood.  It is there I can take the common elements of life, a bit of bread and a sip of juice, and remember that these are but symbols of the beauty found in the kingdom of God.  Jesus refreshes me at his table.  He reminds me of what he has done.  He provokes my thinking about kingdom, he seeks transformation of my life, he challenges my assumptions, and he activates my faith.

        How about you?  How have you answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”  If you have said, “Jesus you are the Son of God,” then come to the table.  If you have not answered Jesus’ question, I encourage you to examine what is it that keeps you talking about bread and not receiving Jesus as savior and lord.  Beware of the yeast of this world.  Just a little bit of the world will corrupt you and leave God to ask, “Where are you?”  If this is where you are at, talk to me or another Christian about what it means to receive Jesus.  We don’t want you to miss the kingdom of God.  Let us pray.

2018 Blue Christmas

We read in the ancient Scriptures these words of wisdom, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear and a time to mend, and a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:1-7, adapted).  The words of Ecclesiastes speak of seasons of opposites: birth and death, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, tearing and mending, silence and speaking.  We are all here today because a season of opposites has come upon us.  We are here because a season to grieve the death of loved ones is present in the same season in which we celebrate the birth of the Son of God, our eternal hope.  It can be a trying season.  We feel the weariness of life because of grief and may even wonder how anyone around us can rejoice.  And yet we know that we cannot complete our grieving unless we can also celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Grief can cover our sense of future, promise, and joy which are in their very nature are essence of why we celebrate a birth and the very source of our healing from grief.

As I thought about this season of opposites, my mind turned to find a way to see it, feel it, sense it, smell it, and taste it.  My thoughts turned to experience the seasons of grief and celebration through the physical season we are in which we call winter.  The winter season is mostly distinguished by the coming of snow.  When the winter snows come the landscape around us is covered in a thick blanket of white.  Pathways that we once walked easily have disappeared.  Under the white snow, shrubs and plantings that were once so distinctive blend together.  Shapes and contours of life that were once so clear and now blend under the weight of the snow into dull curves. 

Grief is very much like a blanket of snow.  Grief covers us, every part of us.  The pathways of life, the things we once did with easy and without thought, are now difficult to see and even hard to walk.  The distinctive shapes of our life’s dreams and plans have been covered over.  We cannot seem them.  It is hard to know where to begin again.  It is hard to know even if our long-held plans will once again emerge from under the snows of grief.

Yet in the season of winter snow, just as in our season of grief, we are compelled to venture forward into it, whether we want to or not.  Friends encourage us to dress for it snows of grief, assuring us if we just spend enough time in it, the grief will pass away.  Hesitantly, reluctantly, we step from the warm and familiar of our past into the grief of our present and doubtful future.  As we do, we quickly discover the snow of grief is much deeper than we thought it would be.  The coldness of grief is much more biting than we imagined.  The wintery wind of grief much more penetrating than we expected.  We begin to believe our friends are mistaken.  For the longer we spend in grief, the more difficult it seems that our experience becomes.

Slowly though we are compelled to move forward into that snow of grief.  We begin searching for the pathways of life we once knew so well.  We find them, we think, but they do not feel the same because someone who walked those paths with us is not there.  Our footing even over familiar terrain does not feel the same.  We look for reassurances that we are doing this right but we can only see the footprints of where we have been.  There are no footprints to follow ahead of us.  As we step forward, it seems we sometimes land on spot that is firm and at other times we place our foot in a hole covered by the wintery snow of grief.

Our grief walk is tiring.  Around us it is very quiet.  The snow has silenced many things and it muffles the voice of the one which wish most to here.  There are, however, two sounds that we have become very aware of.  One is our own breathing.  It seems louder somehow, more labored.  The second sound it that of the never-ending voice in our heads saying to us, “Why?  Why did this happen?  God, are you there?  I should have…I could have…” and the voice repeats beginning again with Why?” 

We are also more aware of others in the distance making their way through the same snow grief.  We think they are having an easier time.  They seem to be able to get further along and are moving faster.  We feel like we are walking and stumbling along they are skiing.  We catch a look or comment from a friend or family member wondering perhaps when after all this time we are not skiing along as well. 

We are tired and almost convinced it would be all right to lay down rather than press on.  And yet, something within us says there is more to do.  Robert Frost put it this way, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.  And miles to go before I sleep.”

This is the experience of grief expressed through the imagery of the winter snows.  Yet amid this scene, there is one very important thing going on that has escaped our immediate attention.  No matter how much it may be snowing or how thick the clouds may be that surround us, the sun still shines just as brightly as it did before the clouds brought the snow.  We may not see the sun, we may not feel the sun, and though it may seem dark, we should not conclude the sun is not there.  The sun remains our constant companion even if feeling distant.  Our experience tells us that the sun is more powerful than the thickest cloud, the coldest wind, or the deepest snow.  The sun always prevails over the darkness.  It is the sun that melts away the snows  and will expose the land to be greened again.  It is the sun that frees the waters of snow-covered frozen lakes.  It is the sun that restores the definition to muted shapes around us.

In a similar manner, grief can overshadow our view of God.  We may not see God’s hand at work in our life when we grieve.  We may not feel God’s presence in our season of grief but would should not therefore conclude God is not here.  To make sure the world knew God was always there, God gave us the opposite season of grief.  He gave us life in Jesus.  For in Jesus, “there is life, and that life is a light for the people of the world.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not defeated it.”  As the sun overtakes the winter snow, so shall God overtake our grief.  He did so by sending His son, Jesus, a baby, into the world that through his coming despair would melt giving way to hope.

And so we come here today, seeking to acknowledge even though this is season of grief, it is also time to celebrate the season of hope.  God sent Jesus to bring hope to the living. God sent Jesus to bring hope to us.

The apostle Paul, a man familiar with grief, 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, the hope of Christmas, 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 Christmas 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 Christmas 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 Christmas is this:  God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  Hope.

The hope of Christmas is this:  You shall one day celebrate Christmas again with our loved ones who have died.

You are here today because God sees you and hears you and he moved you to receive the hope of Jesus in this your season of grief.  Let us pray. 

Dec 23 - The Smell of Christmas

Luke 1:5-17

Matthew 2:7-11

For the last five weeks, together we have been on a journey toward Christmas Day.  We have thus far experienced the sounds, tastes, touch, and sights of the Christmas story through our senses.  Today, we will conclude our journey with the opening and closing passages scenes of the Christmas story.  In doing so, we will employ our sense of smell and perhaps we will gain for ourselves another dimension to the greatest story ever told.  That story is the story of God sending His son to live the perfect sinless life that through Him we would experience God himself.  That His son, Jesus, would give up his sinless life on the cross to cover over our sins.  That in that exchange, our sins become his and Jesus’ perfection becomes ours.  In that exchange, we are then able to be at peace with one another and in God’s presence forever.  The story of Jesus began with the Christmas story and it was marked at the beginning and the end with the sense of smell.

Now our sense of smell is most important to us.  On the most basic level, our sense of smell serves to help us determine what is safe.  When we smell smoke, we know there is the potential for danger.  We use our sense of smell to know what foods are safe for us to eat.  Think of a simple example.  You go to the refrigerator.  You see some leftovers and you wonder, “Are these leftovers still good?”  What do you do?  You peel back the covering on the food and you sniff the food.  Is the odor pleasing and excites your appetite or is there an unpleasant stench causes your stomach to turn?  We depend upon our sense of smell.

Just as important as our sense of smell is to our safety, our experience tells us that our sense of smell is linked closely with our memory and our emotions.  A certain scent can make us feel a certain way.  Perfume makers depend upon our sense of smell to draw out from us certain emotions such as sex appeal, power, vitality, or relaxation.  Our sense of smell can bring us back in time by triggering powerful memories.  We walk into a house and smell a fresh baked apple pie and we think, “I remember when my mother used to make such a pie.”  I encounter this experience of smell connected with memory often when I work with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.  In grief, people can become very emotional when they smell a food item that their deceased love one enjoyed because in the instant of smelling that food they are mentally and emotionally flooded with memories of that person.  Articles of clothing that have the scent of that loved one are cherished items because grieving people can choose to smell the clothing and remember.  So, our sense of smell is important to our sense memory and emotions.

Knowing then how important our sense of smell is to us, let’s explore, how the Christmas story began and ended with smell and let’s experience the story in a new way.

The opening to the Christmas story began in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, beginning at verse 5.  I invite you to turn to that passage.  The story began with an announcement to a man named Zechariah, a humble priest.  Luke wrote, “In the time of Herod king of Judea 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.  Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Lk 1:5-9).  The Christmas story thus began in a most formal place, the Jerusalem Temple, and began with the smell of burning incense.

The incense used in the Temple was a formula designed by God and given to Moses.  The Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin [a fragrant oil or resin], onycha [an ingredient from shellfish of the Red Sea] and galbanum [a gummy substance from shrubs of Persia] —and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred” (Ex. 30:34, 35).

God asked that the Hebrew people burn incense.  It was both a symbol of obedience and symbol of a relationship between the Hebrew people and God.  That obedience and relationship was most profoundly seen in prayer to God.  So the smoke and the aroma of burning incense was often seen as prayer rising to God.

In Hebrew, the word for incense is formed from four Hebrew letters.  The ancient rabbis taught that each of those four letters stood for a different character trait desired of God for each person.  The first letter, Tav, stood for holiness.  The second, Dalet, stood for purity.  The third, Teit, for pity.  And the last, Qof, for hope.  The rabbis saw the equal part combination holiness, purity, pity, and hope as the character with which we must approach God in prayer and the character that God reinforces in us from prayer.  The incense burned by Zechariah created the atmosphere and aroma of prayer.  The aroma, the smell of incense burning, was considered by the Lord to be holy.  The smell remained the same through the centuries connecting Zechariah with all generations back to Aaron, the brother of Moses.  The aroma of incense produced comfort and memory on a relationship with God and with family.

The opening scene to the Christmas story with the aroma on burning incense reminds us that we are in a relationship with God.  And in that relationship, God desires that we would seek holiness, purity, pity, and hope.  As we breath in this scene, it triggers our memory that God is the God of our fathers and mothers, grandparents, and all other ancestors back to the beginning of humanity.  And there is comfort in remembering.

Luke continued with the story in verse 10, “And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.  [We see most directly the connection the aroma of incense and a prayer life.]  Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.  But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.” [The connection of incense and prayer, the relationship between God and humanity is reinforced and so we can breath in this scene a bit more.]  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John…17 And he will go on before the Lord…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 

The aroma and the scent of this announcement in the incensed filled room of the Temple is that Zechariah’s son shall prepare people for the coming of the Lord himself.  We breathe that experience into our lives and we remember.  We breathe that experience into our lives and we can relive the emotions of that moment; the awe and wonder that God would come among the people.

This scene is the beginning of the Christmas story, rich in history of traditions and history of the Hebrew people and the good news of the coming of the Lord.  It was an announcement made in the most formal setting of the Jewish faith, the Temple.

The concluding scene to the Christmas story, is also rich in fragrance but the locale in which it plays out could not be more different from the opening scene to the story.  For that scene, let’s move to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, beginning at verse 7.

We pick up the final scene of the story in the power center of Jerusalem, with a king named Herod.  Magi, or wisemen, from the east have come to the center of power looking for the child born a king.  There is at least some assumption here that the Magi expected to be welcomed into the presence of this child.  Instead, the Magi are met with confusion, fear, and disbelief that a new king has been born.  With secrecy and suspicion and sabotage in mind, Matthew revealed to us the concluding scene of the Christmas story.  In verse 7, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’  After they [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them [the Magi] until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

The final scene of the Christmas story was not like the opening scene in the Temple of God.  The final scene took place in a home.  The final scene was not like the opening scene with a solitary Jewish priest.  The final scene took place among non-Jewish people.  The final scene was not like the opening scene with a group of people surrounding the Temple in prayer.  The final scene was played out with a murderous king in the background seeking to destroy the new born king.

But the final scene of the Christmas story was like the opening scene because they both involved worship of God.  Zechariah was steadfast in worship of God in the Temple and the Magi were overjoyed to worship God in a simple home setting.  The final scene was like the opening scene because those who came to worship did so with frankincense and myrrh.  The desire of those worshipping was to put forth a pleasing aroma to God in recognition of God’s gift.  Jesus was welcomed with the fragrance of worship. 

The final scene reminds us of the beginning.  The God who chose the Hebrew people was the same God who was calling the Gentiles to his son.  There is but one God worthy of worship.  God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son who was now as at home in the Temple as he was in a simple house.

The aroma of worship was and is important to the story of that baby who became our Savior.  We see that continuing in the gospel story itself.  In the gospels, there is a woman who poured a bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus and the fragrance of worship filled the entire house.  Jesus said that she was preparing his body for burial and that wherever the gospel was preached people would speak of what she did in memory of her worship of Jesus.

The apostle Paul encouraged the church at Ephesus and encourages us “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1, 2).  We are to be like God and see that Jesus offered himself in worship to the Father as an offering of incense displaying holiness, purity, pity, and hope. 

Paul encouraged all churches to give “thanks be to God, who always leads us in victory through Christ. God uses us to spread his knowledge everywhere like a sweet-smelling perfume.  Our offering to God is to be the perfume of Christ that goes out to those who are being saved and to those who are being lost.  To those who are being lost, this perfume smells like death, and it brings them death. But to those who are being saved, it has the sweet smell of life, and it brings them life” (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

The Christmas story is fragrant and aromatic.  It is a story of worship among the Jewish people extended to include all the peoples of the world.  The Christmas story extended the aroma of worship from the Temple to our homes.  The aroma of our prayers should be that of seeking holiness, offering pity, seeking purity, and joyously recognizing the hope with have in a God who loves us and sent His son to us.  The aroma of our lives should be an expression of life toward others.  Our life seeking to imitate Jesus should be fragrant and sweet to those who love the Lord and yet with gentleness and respect should remind those who have rejected God that they are choosing to surround themselves with the smell of death.

This week let us enjoy the smells, fragrance, and the aroma of Christmas as God intended and then let us be that sweet fragrance of life to others.  Amen and Amen.

Dec 16 - Seeing Christmas

Matthew 2:1-12

The last few weeks we have been experiencing Christmas through our five senses.  We learned a bit about how to hear God’s Word of Christmas through our sense of hearing.  We tasted the sweet, sour, bitter, and salty experience of Christmas.  Last week we experienced Christmas through our sense of touch and felt the softness, security, and comfort of Jesus within the hardness of the world.  This week I would like us to talk about experiencing Christmas through our sense of sight.

            We know, of course, that our sense of sight begins with our eyes.  Through our eyes we can perceive shapes, distance, movement, color, heat, and depth.  About seven years ago, I went completely blind in my left eye from a detached retina.  Until the doctor repaired the retina and my body healed, using just that eye the entire world was solid mass of dark grey.  There were no shapes, distances, movements, color, heat, or depth.  We, therefore, know our sense of sight is incredibly important to us.

            As we think about our sense of sight and the Christmas story, we need understand there is a difference, a stark difference, between looking and seeing.  You might be thinking to yourself, “Pastor, that seems like there would be little or no distinction between looking and seeing.  What is the difference?”  Let’s begin with looking.  To look at something is to draw attention to something.  If I were to say to you, “Look at that!,” I am simply drawing your attention to something  so that you might observe an object in my field of view.  But if I say to you, “Come and see this,” I am inviting you to go beyond looking.  I am inviting you to go deeper, to seek insight and understanding.  Seeing something is much different than looking.  When we look, we observe only content.  When we see, we observe content, we develop insight into context, and we come away with an understanding of relationships.  When we look at a bird fly by, we observe the bird.  When we find a bird’s nest in a shrub near our home, we might see a baby bird in the nest or an egg or two awaiting to be hatched.  We understand the intricate construction of the nest and the anxiousness parental birds nearby.  We see content, context, and relationships.  Seeing is so much more than looking.

            To experience Christmas then through our sense of sight is more about seeing than looking.  To experience Christmas through sight is a wonderful gift you can receive and share this Christmas.  Let’s take a few minutes and together explore a well know Christmas story with our eyes attuned to what God is unfolding before us to see.  I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, starting at verse 1.

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only two Gospels that describe any elements of Jesus’ birth and infancy.  Today’s account comes well after Jesus birth but, by church tradition, has been folded into the nativity and birth narratives.   So, we will just accept that these events happen perhaps as much as two years after Jesus’ birth and see what God has for us.

Matthew began the today’s account with these words, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” 

What does this part of the story reveal to us?  First, we have king Herod.  Matthew’s readers saw and knew him as Herod as a cunning, manipulative, paranoid, serial killer.  Herod was king because Caesar said he was.  By the time of the Magi’s visit, Herod had killed his brother-in-law, his uncle, his wife’s grandfather, his wife, his wife’s mother, and three of his own sons, all to keep his throne as king of the Jews.

So right away, there is a problem in the story.  These Magi came and asked the people, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  The Magi did not one day saw to one another, “Look at that, there appears to be a new star in the sky!”  The Magi raised their eyes to the heaven and saw a new star.  In their seeing, they observed when it came, where it appeared in the sky, and they thought about the context of the star.  Why did it appear?  What did it mean?  What was the relationship between the star and world events?  The Magi, in seeing, realized a new and special king of the Jews had been born.  So special was this king that the Magi, who were Gentiles, non-Jews, had a burning desire to worship this king.  Worship is act reserved for God alone.  In the Christmas story, the Magi saw the hand of God at work and it filled them with a desire to worship.  So, we learn here the difference between looking and seeing.  In seeing the handiwork of God, there is a desire to worship Him.

Verse 3 tells us, “When King Herod heard this [news] he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”  We can understand this sentence now.  A murderous, evil, mentally disturbed king had just learned someone who he did not know had been born king of the Jews.  Everyone was now a threat to him.  No one was safe and so everyone was on edge.  We are seeing a broader story unfold before us as we see the contrast between the Magi and Herod over this news.  The Magi wanted worship, but Herod was disturbed.

Verse 4 and 5, we find Herod was now seeking bits of information about who this new king might be.  He learned through the religious leaders the Messiah, the one anointed by God, of whom the Magi spoke, would come from Bethlehem.  He now knows where the birth took place.  Then in verse 7, “Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.”  Herod seemed to express no previous awareness of the star.  He had eyes to perceive shapes, distance, movement, color, heat, and depth but Herod was blind when it came to the movement of God.  For him, the movement of God was just a solid wall of dark grey.  All Herod knew was where and now he knew when the birth took place; but he still could not see God at work.

In this first Christmas story, we are experiencing through our sense of sight a stark contrast between those who see, discerning the movement of God in their lives and those who are blind to God. 

 Having set his readers on this visual journey, Matthew accelerates impact of this story on their sense of sight.  Beginning in verse 8, Matthew wrote, “He [Herod] sent them [the Magi] to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ After they [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”  This star, this visible light, was like no other star.  The Magi were able to observe that the star arose, moved, and stopped.  No other people seemed to have seen this star.  Other people may have said to one another, “Look at that!” but only the Magi were inspired to said to one another, “Let us come and see what the star, that light, is doing.  It is leading us to the king.”  The Magi’s destination was not to some general vague understanding of God.  It was extremely specific and focused on finding one child, God’s child. 

Verse 10, “When they [the Magi] saw the star [when they saw the star had stopped over the house of the child], they were overjoyed.”  God’s specific calling card to the Magi, the star, brought them to Jesus, and in finding Him, there was only one emotion, overwhelming joy.  In seeing, in properly experiencing Christmas through our sense of sight, God intended for the Magi and us to have one emotion, overwhelmingly joyful.  That is what we can experience in seeing the Christmas story.

Now with overwhelming joy, the Magi pressed on.  In verse 11, “On coming to the house, they [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”  The Magi had found the new king, the child Jesus.  Upon recognizing Jesus for who he was, they got on their knees, bowed their heads to the ground, and worshipped Jesus.  Worship was why they had come all that way.  Worship is the ultimate sign of respect and reverence.  Worship is the natural response to overwhelming joy in God.  When we see Christmas then we see the content, the context, and the relationship that God is building with us and we experience overwhelming joy and we respond in worship.

How then does seeing the Christmas story help us in our daily life?  By seeing we can experience the Gospel message and Jesus with greater clarity.

For as an adult, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).  Seeing is not looking.  Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).  Our works done in the name of Christ are not a thing for people to look at or for us to call attention to by saying to others, “Look at me; see what I have done!”  Our works of love are a way for people to see the reality of the body of Christ.

One day, near the river Jordan, John the Baptist saw Jesus.  John turned to his disciples and said, “See the Lamb of God!”  When John’s two disciples heard John’s words, they followed Jesus.  “Turning around, Jesus saw them [John’s disciples] following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  Jesus said, “Come and you will see.” (John 1:35-38)  In seeing Jesus, both men said, “We have found the Messiah.”  Those men did not just look at Jesus, they saw him for who he was.  The observed his appearance but most importantly they saw his relationship to God and to themselves.  And in seeing they shared that good news with others.

Jesus’ words were profound, “Come and you will see.”  We too can come to the manger, not to look, but instead see “peace on earth.”  We too can come to Bethlehem and see him who’s birth the angels sing.  We can come and adore on bending knee, Christ our Lord, the newborn king.

We can come to the house where the child lived, not to look, but instead see the glory of God, king and God and Sacrifice.

We can come to the cross where Jesus died, not to look, but instead see our sins taken away, peace established with God, and God’s love for us.

We can come to the tomb where Jesus lay, not to look, but instead see the truth of Jesus, the life and resurrection promised of God, and the overwhelming joy begun at his birth and celebrated again at his rebirth.

This year let’s not just look at Christmas, let’s see Christmas, experiencing it fully, and then share our overwhelming joy in worship and in share with others the good news of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.  Amen and Amen.

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.        

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