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[scriptural references are reprinted in full at the end of this post]

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Day falling on a Sunday feels a little strange.  It only happens once every six or seven years, so we only experience this around 10 times in a lifetime.  And if you’re here in church on Christmas Day more than likely it’s because you were busy last night.  You may have been traveling; you may have been working (in which case I want to say “thank you” for your service to others on Christmas Eve); you may have had house guests; you may have been volunteering here at the church and didn’t get to sit down during the Christmas Eve service. Or maybe you’re just here on Sunday morning looking for a quiet moment with God now that the holiday rush is over.

Christmas Day Sunday is, in one way or another, out of the ordinary. Last night the Christmas Eve service featured candlelight and choir songs, and extended families, and friends we hadn’t seen in a long time, and the sanctuary was warm and welcoming. The feeling was holy and mysterious as we celebrated the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us.

This morning the mood is different.  Christmas morning feels almost like any other winter morning. Outside the sky is gray and the air is cold. Inside, the lights are on, the congregation is smaller than last night, the choir is sleeping in (except for the band – thank you for being here!).  It could be disappointing – except that people who are here today are here for different reasons. We’re not here because of holiday tradition or because we’re trying to recapture the feeling of Christmases past. We’re here because we really want to start Christmas Day with the family of God, and with our newborn Savior.

Christmas Day Sunday is a ‘faith thing’.  In the eyes of the secular culture around us Christmas is over now. The radio isn’t playing carols any more. The Christmas specials have come and gone, and the stores are reminding us it’s time to start shopping for Valentine’s Day. In the eyes of the world, Christmas is done and we’re on to the next thing.  But in the eyes of faith, and in the eyes of God, the adventure of Christmas is just beginning.

This day – this ordinary day that feels almost like any other day – is exactly where Jesus chooses to meet us.  Imagine what it was like in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the morning after Jesus was born. Imagine the Holy Family, the morning after the angels sang, and the morning after the shepherds visited. The sun came up, just like any other day. The people of the world keep on doing whatever it is they do every day, most of them unaware that the course of history changed last night.

In a few days the wise men will visit Jesus and his family.  They will refuse to tell King Herod where Jesus is, and Herod will commit one of the most infamous massacres in history, and Jesus and his family will become refugees in Egypt. For them, daily life will go on, ordinary day after ordinary day. That starry night when the angels sang will begin to recede into the distance of memory.

But for the next thirty years the song of the angels will linger in the minds of the shepherds who heard it. And the story will be told among the hill people of Judea. When John the Baptist starts his ministry, they will recognize echoes of angel-song in John’s words. And while kings and religious leaders carry on unaware that the King of Kings has arrived on the earth, the shepherds and the common people are watching for the words of the angels to come true. They will watch until Jesus finally starts his public ministry.

It is in the ordinary everyday that God’s plan unfolds.

And it is in the ordinary everyday that “The Song of Jesus” can be heard.  This Advent season we’ve been looking at the different songs associated with Christmas: the angels’ song, Zechariah’s song, and so forth.  Today I’d like to talk about Jesus’ song.  When Jesus was a baby in the manger, he had a cry rather than a song – which I think is part of his song – but if one could put into words the song Jesus sings throughout his life and ministry, throughout history, it would be “I love you… I love you… I love you.”

From the beginning of history to the end, from Genesis to Revelation, Jesus sings to us a song of love with his life.

From the very beginning of history… The apostle John says:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2 He was in the beginning with God.  3 All things came into being through him… […]  10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  11 He came to… his own, and his own people did not accept him.  12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God….”

From the very beginning, Jesus was rejected by the people he helped to create. But Jesus still comes to us in love, giving power to become children of God to any who will receive him.

As we continue through the Biblical story, in the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes:

“Thus says the LORD, he who created you… he who formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God…your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:1-3, edited)

Here in the middle of the story God’s people still rebel against God and ignore the invitation. And the world carries on like nothing has happened.

And a little further along the story, the prophet Zephaniah gives us a vision of God’s love. He writes:

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; […] he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing…” (Zephaniah 3:14-18, edited)

Even in the Old Testament, this is Jesus’ song. God will take away our shame. God will turn away all enemies.  And Jesus will sing… over us!

 

And all these words – from the beginning, from Isaiah, from Zephaniah – come together and become physical reality on Christmas Day.

And at the very end of the story, at the end of history, in the book of Revelation, the apostle John writes:

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes…” Revelation 21:3-4 (edited)

 Jesus says:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Revelation 22:13-16)

And the apostle John adds:

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:17, 20)

From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, the song Jesus sings is a love song.  God loves you. Jesus loves you. The Spirit calls you and says “Come”.

The Advent season is the season in which we live our lives: the now and the not yet. God is with us, but Jesus’ kingdom is still coming; and the world is still doing business as usual, unaware of what’s happening in Bethlehem.

Today, Christmas Day, is not just the end of Advent. It is the beginning of the completion of God’s plan.  And above all it is Jesus’ love song to us. And so we sing love songs in reply – and for right this moment, using words written by Ray Charles:

“He is born, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord, King of Kings
Prince of Peace, for all the universe
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

AMEN.

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“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.  On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” – Zephaniah 3:14-18

~~~

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” – John 1:1-13

Preached at Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/25/16

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“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying,  “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25

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There’s a thing in classical music called ‘songs without words’.  Composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn – who were wonderful songwriters – now and then wanted to write for violin or piano instead of voice. And sometimes they would write something that could have been sung because it was very sing-able, but it was played instead, and they called this ‘songs without words’.

This Advent we’ve been talking about the “Songs of Christmas” – Mary’s Song, Zechariah’s Song, Isaiah’s Song – and this week, we have Joseph’s Song.  The thing is, in all of scripture nobody ever wrote down anything Joseph said.  So Joseph’s song today is going to be like a ‘song without words’.

If songs without words are unusual, it’s even more unusual back in Bible times to have an important story – like the coming of the Messiah – where men do not have leading roles.  Both ancient Israel and the Roman Empire, with few exceptions, were very male-dominated societies.  But when we look at the key players in the story of Jesus’ birth, we see right away that God is “lifting up the humble and putting down the mighty” (as Mary said in her song, the Magnificat, which we heard a few weeks ago).

The people who have had something to say in Jesus’ story so far include an unmarried peasant girl (Mary), and a childless elderly couple (Zechariah and Elizabeth).  Soon to come will be an elderly man named Simeon and a poor widow named Anna.

Conspicuous by their absence are the rich, the powerful, and men in the prime of their lives.  The cast of characters in Jesus’ story tells us this story is going to turn human priorities upside down. And that’s no accident.

So Joseph is the first career-aged male we meet in Jesus’ story, and none of his words are recorded: not in Matthew, and not in any of the other gospels. I would love to have heard what Joseph had to say. He seems to have been a wise and kind man. But his silence speaks very clearly, and very powerfully.

Joseph was a man whose actions told everyone around him what he thought and what he believed.  Unlike many people who say one thing and do another, or who claim to believe in one thing but then act a different way – Joseph’s life is consistent with what he believes in. He is a man of faith, and he lives his faith.  Joseph reminds me of the words of St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”  For those of us, like myself, who have often wondered how to go about preaching without words – because actions truly are a more powerful witness – Joseph is a wonderful role model.

Where it comes to getting to know Joseph the man, we really don’t have that much information about him.  We know that he was a member of the tribe of Judah: Matthew’s genealogy at the beginning of the gospel tells us that. We also know he was descended from King David and King Solomon.  Of course, for Joseph that was 1000 years in the past, and that and a buck would get him a cup of coffee.  Nonetheless Joseph had royal blood in him. And that’s why, when the Romans call for a census, Joseph and Mary travel from Galilee to Bethlehem: because Bethlehem is the City of David, Joseph’s ancestor.

These details are important because the Old Testament prophets, when they talk about the Messiah, give us clues to watch for.  The prophets said the Messiah would be called “the lion of the tribe of Judah”. He would be called the “Son of David”.  The Messiah would be from “Galilee of the Gentiles”… but at the same time the prophet Micah said “[from] you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth [the] one who is to rule in Israel….” (Micah 5:2)

In Joseph all of these prophecies come together in one place in one time, in God’s timing, as God planned.

There’s just one problem from Joseph’s point of view: Mary is pregnant with a baby that’s not his!  Joseph is betrothed to Mary, which in those days was more than engaged but less than married. Mary turned up one day pregnant and claiming God was the father.

Joseph was no fool. He knew the facts of life, and he wasn’t buying Mary’s story.  As we watch Joseph’s song playing out, the first thing we see is how a man of God responds to personal crisis.  Matthew says Joseph was ‘a righteous man’ who did not want to publicly disgrace Mary.  Joseph would have been within his rights to accuse her publicly and to see her stoned to death. Joseph chose not to exercise his rights. He chose to let Mary go quietly without making a scene.  It was going to be hard enough for Mary and her family, who would be shamed by the arrival of a fatherless baby. He chose to have mercy and not to add to the family’s difficulties.

In Joseph we see that a righteous man is a man of compassion: a man who chooses to do no harm, when he has the choice, who chooses not to take revenge.

And having made this choice, Matthew says Joseph was still mulling over the situation, as if he was still not quite at peace with it.  There was something not quite right but he couldn’t put a finger on it.  As he slept an angel from God came to Joseph in a dream and said “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife – the Holy Spirit is the father of this baby. She’s going to have a boy, and you will name him Jesus (which means ‘God saves’) because he will save his people from their sins. This is in fulfillment of the prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (‘God with us’).”

And Joseph woke up, and immediately did what the angel said, and married Mary.

In these events we hear three more melodies in Joseph’s song: the melody of thoughtfulness and reflection, the melody of trusting God, and the melody of doing God’s will.  Joseph was not someone who made decisions in a hurry. He thought about things. He mulled them over. He looked at things from more than one point of view.  And he had good instincts.

And when he heard God’s word, Joseph understood.  He trusted God, even though he knew he was now being called to share in Mary’s predicament. Now there would be two of them saying “God is the Father of this baby” while everybody else said ‘yeah right’.  Joseph believed the angel’s word, and trusted God. And he lost no time doing what God said to do.  He married Mary, took on the role of stepfather, and when the baby came, Joseph named him “Jesus” – which was his job as head of the household (as well as being what the angel told him to do).

Matthew tells us one other thing about Joseph, and that was he waited until after Jesus was born to consummate the marriage.  The prophecy was that a virgin was to give birth to a son – and Joseph did his part to assure the prophecy came true.  He was a man of self-control.  He didn’t complain, he didn’t talk about his ‘rights’ as a husband, he was not driven by his passions. He was willing and able to do everything in the proper time.

By the way, Matthew says Mary was “a virgin until she gave birth” – which implies after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary had a normal everyday marriage. And the Bible talks about Jesus having younger brothers.

And that’s all our reading for today tells us about Joseph. Later on in Matthew’s gospel Joseph talks with the angel a couple more times: once when Joseph and his family have to flee to Egypt because Herod wants to kill Jesus, and a second time when Herod dies to let them know it’s safe to go back to Israel.

The only other time the Bible mentions Joseph is Luke chapter 2, when Jesus is twelve years old and he stays behind in the temple after the Passover. You recall the story: his family was on the way back to Galilee when they realized Jesus was missing, and it took them almost a week to find him. You can imagine how torn apart Mary and Joseph were! (You can also almost hear God saying “I gave you ONE job…”)  When they finally find Jesus in the temple, Mary says “why have you done this to us? We’ve been agonizing over you!”  The word she uses here is a word used to describe the fear of never seeing a loved one’s face again.  Joseph and Mary were people of great love.

And that’s all we have about Joseph.  Later on in Jesus’ life, whenever Mary is mentioned – at weddings, at events – Joseph is not there.  Most Bible scholars believe Joseph died before Jesus’ public ministry began.

But for a man who speaks no words, Joseph has said much.

  1. He has demonstrated that a righteous man is a man of compassion and mercy
  2. He has shown himself to be thoughtful, someone who weighs his actions and decisions
  3. He is a man who, when he hears God’s word, trusts it
  4. And when he hears God’s word he acts immediately to do God’s will.
  5. He is a man of self-control
  6. He is a man of great love

I can imagine how good it was for our Lord Jesus to have an earthly father like Joseph – someone to show him by his actions what it means to live God’s way as a human being here on earth.

In addition to all these things, Joseph teaches us the power of silence, of really listening.  Of thinking about what’s best for others in a given situation.  Joseph teaches us the power of doing God’s will God’s way. And he gives Mary and Jesus a loving home and family life. In just creating a normal, everyday home life for his family Joseph changes the course of history.

God’s response to a man of Joseph’s character and Joseph’s faith is honor.

  • God honors Joseph by trusting him with Jesus. Can you imagine trusting your child to someone else’s care? God trusted Joseph.
  • God honors Joseph for his mercy. Joseph does not demand what’s rightfully his – he chooses mercy, and mercy wins. And God honors this.
  • God honors Joseph’s willingness to follow God’s instructions by leading Joseph into wise decisions for his family. With God’s guidance, Joseph and his family live in safety and in peace no matter where life takes them.

God honors Joseph.  And that’s Joseph’s song: a song without words.  A song expressed in actions that speak so beautifully of the faith and love in Joseph’s heart.

As a takeaway for this today, I’d like to suggest this: In the week between now and Christmas, let’s look for opportunities to follow in Joseph’s footsteps, and to share the good news of Jesus – using our actions rather than words to show what we believe. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/18/16

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“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2-7

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I received a Christmas card in the mail this week from a school in Africa where some of my colleagues have worked.  It included a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII – one of the few clergy who had the courage to take a stand against Hitler, and he paid for it with his life. He wrote a good deal before he died, and one of the things he wrote was a poem called The Turning Around of All Things.  The card quoted it in part:

We are talking about the birth of a child,
not the revolutionary act of a strong man,
not the breathtaking discovery of a sage,
not the pious act of a saint.
It really passes all understanding: The birth of a child
is to bring the great turning around of all things,
is to bring salvation and redemption to the whole human race.
What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists,
founders of religions and moral teachers vainly strive for,
now comes about through a newborn child.

This is what our reading from Isaiah is all about.  Isaiah 9 is a big-picture view of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the form of a child – “to us a child is born” – and what that will mean in our world and our lives. In just seven verses God addresses every level of human life: our selves, our relationships, the work world, and relationships between nations. All the things Jesus preached in the Gospels, all things promised by the prophets of old, all summed up in just seven verses.

To try to get a handle on something this big, I’d like to take a look at four aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy:

  1. The Personal – what do Isaiah’s words say to us?
  2. Our relationships, particularly where it comes to career or work
  3. International relationships
  4. What does it mean when we say “God’s Kingdom has entered our world”

So starting out on the personal level.  Isaiah says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Of course Isaiah is saying this metaphorically – he is talking about spiritual darkness. But if you’ve ever had the experience of being physically in total darkness, the parallel is a good one.  I remember one time teaching a class in the old Isaly’s building out in Oakland.  It’s part of Magee Women’s Hospital now, and it’s mostly offices, but they have classroom on the 2nd floor that used to be, at one time, the freezer that warehoused Isaly’s ice cream. So you can imagine there are no windows in this room, and the walls are very thick and insulated. Sitting in there you feel like you’re in a cave. (I was sorely tempted to bring in a can of paint and paint a window on the wall so it wouldn’t feel so closed in.)

Anyway one day I was teaching there and all of a sudden we heard a loud bang and everything went totally dark. We didn’t know it at the time but a transformer down the street had blown and all power went out in the building. And the emergency lights were way down the other end of the hall. My class and I couldn’t see a thing. (This was before everybody had flashlight apps on their cell phones.) Fortunately I knew the layout of the room and was able to guide the class out by following the sound of my voice, otherwise someone could have gotten hurt tripping over something or running into someone.

Metaphorically speaking this is how we follow Jesus. Our world is dark, spiritually, and we need to be led by the voice of the one who knows the lay of the land.  It’s no mistake the Bible says “faith comes by hearing” – not by sight. In a dark world we follow Jesus by his voice.  Jesus said “My sheep know my voice… and they follow me.”

Speaking of darkness in the world, a few years ago psychologist M. Scott Peck began his best-selling book The Road Less Travelled with these words:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth… because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult […] then life is no longer difficult…”

With all respect to Dr. Peck, I disagree.  I mean, I agree that life is difficult.  I disagree that once we know life is difficult, it’s no longer difficult.  Knowing life is difficult may help us shift our expectations a little, so we’re not so disappointed, but that’s about it. Life is difficult from beginning to end. Being born is difficult. Growing up is difficult. Being a teenager is difficult. Having a teenager is difficult. Finding a life partner is difficult. Launching a career is difficult. Dealing with illness is difficult. Getting old is difficult. Facing death is difficult. There is nothing easy about life. And knowing that doesn’t help (much).

So on the personal level Isaiah tells us we are all walking around in a dark world.

But God doesn’t leave us there. Isaiah tells us “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”.  For those who live in a land of deep darkness, the light has shined on us.

Have you ever had the experience of walking from darkness into bright sunlight?  It takes you aback for a moment. It’s too much. When people meet Jesus for the first time we tend to have a similar reaction. Jesus is too good. His light is too bright. It takes time to adjust. But as we do – which is part of the process of sanctification – the world never looks the same again. We experience great joy. “Like people rejoice at the harvest” Isaiah says.  Most of us don’t live on farms any more, but back in the day when people had to grow their own food and so much depended on the crops doing well, bringing in the harvest was a time of great celebration. We still celebrate Thanksgiving, remembering those times.

Isaiah says there will be joy “as people exult when dividing plunder”.  Generally speaking we don’t go around plundering any more… but anyone who’s ever gone to an after-Christmas sale, and found something they’ve been wanting for years – at 80% off – knows the feeling. “Look what I found! It used to be $100 and I got it for only $20!”  That’s the joy of the plunder!

So light and joy – these make up the personal, individual aspect of Isaiah’s message.

The second aspect of Isaiah’s message deals with relationships, particularly the kinds of relationships we have during the work week. While there are exceptions, much of what we do during the week – especially for those of us who work – goes to increase the power and wealth of people who don’t necessarily honor God and who don’t necessarily treat their workers with dignity. Here in Pittsburgh, where labor unions started, I don’t need to go into detail on that. But even unions can’t guarantee proper treatment of workers 100% of the time, or control how management uses its power or spends its money.  Isaiah says: “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

The ‘day of Midian’ refers to an Old Testament story of the Midianites, who came up and attacked ancient Israel, and God appointed Gideon to face that army. Remember the story – Gideon started out with a huge army, and God said “too many men” so Gideon cut the army down to 10,000. And God said “still too many” and cut the army down to a mere 300.  God then told the 300 men to take trumpets, and torches inside clay pots, and surround the Midianite army at night.  And at a signal, they were to blow the trumpets and break the pots and  wave the torches.  And they did what God said to do – and the Midianites thought they were being attacked and turned tail and ran!

God won the battle for Israel without a single sword-stroke. And when the time comes God will break the yoke of oppression and win our battle for us as well.

This doesn’t mean Christians should stop having jobs in secular society. Just the opposite – our challenge is to do our best to bring God’s values, like fairness and honesty and equality and mutual benefit, into the work world. But until the Lord comes again, the economy will never be 100% fair.  We will always have the poor with us, as Jesus said. There will always be issues.  And so Isaiah addresses this and says God has broken the rod of the oppressor.  God will one day set up a society with an economy marked by fairness and justice.

From this second aspect Isaiah then moves into the third aspect: relationships between nations. Throughout human history, relationships between different countries have been violent and bloody.  Much as we love peace, you’d never know it by looking at how nations treat each other. But there will come a time when (in the words of the old spiritual) we ‘ain’t gonna study war no more’. Isaiah says, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Why?

Because “to us a child is born; to us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  His authority will grow, and there will be endless peace in God’s kingdom, upheld by justice and righteousness.

Just as an aside, we hear a lot of talk about “justice and peace”, and I want to point out in Isaiah – as in many passages in the Bible – “righteousness” goes along with justice and peace.  It’s not a duality, it’s a triumvirate.  There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice, but there can be neither justice nor peace without righteousness.  As long as sin exists in this world, justice and peace will be only ideals, not realities.  But the kingdom that is coming is a kingdom of peace, upheld (as Isaiah says) with justice and righteousness.  This righteousness is a gift given by Jesus to all who trust Him.

The kingdom of the Messiah will last forever. And as we sing in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah!”

So, so far we’ve seen three aspects of Isaiah’s message: personal, corporate, and international.  The fourth aspect is what all this means to us today.

Isaiah’s words are, for us, the ‘big picture’ of the Good News which Jesus speaks to all people: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news.”  Let us open our hearts to receive this message with joy, and in the words of one theologian, “let us not be content with scanty measures of joy”. Celebrate, like at harvest-time, like at the plunder. Praise God and thank God for the great promises that are ours and the great victory that is ours in Jesus Christ, in the birth of a child. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/11/16

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Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:67-79

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Well here we are in Advent again!  Doesn’t it seem like the years go by faster every year?  It seems like only yesterday I was doing Christmas shopping – for last Christmas!

It can be a challenge to keep Christmas feeling fresh and new every year. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to make Advent special, because Advent has a focus on the future – it builds anticipation.

With this in mind, we’re doing an Advent series called The Songs of Christmas.  I’m glad we’re doing this because the songs of Christmas focus our minds and our hearts, like nothing else, on who and what we are waiting for during this Advent season.

Today’s song is the Song of Zechariah, found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.  Feel free to grab a Bible and follow along with me.

Before I begin, just a little bit of background on Zechariah himself.  Luke tells us Zechariah was a Levite, which gives us information about both his tribe and his career.  Zechariah was descended from the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi, which means he was of the tribe of Levi.  And the law of Moses tells us in Deut 18:5:

“…the LORD… has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, he and his sons for all time.” 

 So Zechariah was born into the priestly tribe of Levi.

Luke also tells us that Zechariah was descended from “the priestly order of Abijah”.  II Chronicles 6:28 tells us Abijah was one of the grandsons of Levi, and he was assigned to “minister with song before the tabernacle.”  In other words, Zechariah’s family were essentially church musicians.

Back in ancient Israel, anyone who worked in the temple – preaching, teaching, making music, even doing maintenance – had to be trained in ministry. So in addition to whatever work they normally did, Chronicles tells us they also “had as their appointed duty in their service to enter the house of the LORD according to the procedure established for them by their ancestor Aaron…” (1 Chronicles 24:19) who was the high priest.  So they did priestly work on top of whatever else they did.

So what we see happening in the first chapter of Luke is exactly that: Zechariah has been called up out of the choir (so to speak) and into his priestly duties.

As a side note, Luke also tells us Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was “a descendant of Aaron” – which was the order of high priests. So Elizabeth’s priestly pedigree is actually higher than Zechariah’s. By ancestry, she is qualified to be a prophet. And Elizabeth actually becomes a prophet later on in Luke chapter 1.  Since her song is not included in our Songs of Christmas series I’d like to share it now. Elizabeth sang this song when she was pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) came to visit her. Luke writes:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)

And I would add this: Even today, blessed are those who believe there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken by the Lord.

But we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in the story-line.  So backing up a few verses, Luke says in chapter 1 verse 6 both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

That’s no small feat. But Luke makes this point because of what he says in the next verse:  Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless.  In those days having no children was considered a sign of God’s disapproval, or of sin in a person’s life. So Luke makes it clear their childlessness is not through any fault of their own. Zechariah and Elizabeth have been doing everything right.  This doesn’t mean they’re perfect – just that they had kept the law of Moses to the best of their ability.

So in Luke 1:8 Zechariah is serving in the temple, because this was his time of ‘appointed duty in service’ in the house of the Lord.  Luke says “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” (Luke 1:9)

Considering the number of Levites living in Israel at that time, this duty might have come around only once or twice in a lifetime.  And the lot just happened to land on Zechariah that year? This is no coincidence! This is God’s hand reaching into human history.

So Zechariah is supposed to do two things: (1) enter the sanctuary, that is, the holy of holies, where only priests were allowed to go; and (2) offer incense, which represents the prayers of the people. In those days priests were go-betweens between the people and God.  The people would give prayers to priests to take to God, and God would give messages to the priests to give to the people. And the holy of holies was hidden behind a heavy curtain. The people could never see, with their own eyes, what was going on back there.

But this system of worship would soon come to an end. When Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom – and people, from that point on, had direct access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Priests were no longer needed because people could pray directly to God and hear directly from God.

Back to our story, Zechariah goes into the holy of holies and offers the incense and the prayers. And while he’s there the angel Gabriel appears, and says, “you’re going to have a son, and you will name him John.”  And Gabriel says: “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…[he will] make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17, edited)

Now Zechariah thought about this, and thought about how old he was, and how old Elizabeth was, and he doubted Gabriel’s word.  He said, “How can that even be possible?” So Gabriel gave him a sign: Zechariah would be unable to speak until the prophecy came true. When the baby is born, Zechariah writes on a tablet “His name is John” – and he is able to speak again.

After almost a year of being unable to say anything, Zechariah’s first words are:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior…”

Zechariah’s song is all about praising God.

I was reminded of this passage yesterday when some of us went to the Messiah Sing-Along at Calvary United Methodist on the North Side. At the end of the concert over 500 people stood and sang the famous words of the Hallelujah Chorus:

“The kingdom of this world
Is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ
And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

And the whole congregation broke into cheers like at a Steelers game!

 

(Here’s the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hallelujah Chorus)

When God opens a mouth, praise is what comes out. And so Zechariah praises God.  First he praises God for the Old Testament prophecies that are coming true. He says, God has ‘remembered his covenant’.

It’s interesting that Zechariah’s name, in Hebrew, means “God remembers”. And this remembering is not just ‘bringing the past to mind’ but thinking about, paying attention to, and caring for, God’s people. Zechariah says:

  • God has looked favorably on his people
    • As spoken through God’s holy prophets of old
  • God has remembered his holy covenant
    • Which he swore to our ancestor Abraham

All the promises made to Abraham nearly 2000 years before, and all the promises made to King David and King Solomon nearly 1000 years before, and all the promises made to Nebuchadnezzar and to Daniel and to all the prophets – everything focuses in on this one point in history.  So Zechariah praises God.

Secondly Zechariah praises God for the blessings that come to the human race through Jesus. He lists six blessings in particular:

  1. We will be rescued from our enemies
  2. We will be able to serve God without fear
  3. We will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness
  4. Jesus will be a light to those walking in darkness and in the shadow of death
  5. Jesus will bring the dawn of God’s mercy to God’s people
  6. John the Baptist will prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming

Let’s take a brief look at each one of these.

First, we will be rescued from the hands of our enemies. Some of us may say, “but I don’t have any enemies. I try to live at peace with everybody.” And that may be true as far as it goes. But not everyone in the world loves Jesus, and some people may choose to make themselves our enemies because we bear Jesus’ name.  And even if we escape that, we still have enemies: illness, injury, the suffering of loved ones, death. Jesus has overcome all of these, and rescues us even in the middle of our troubles and trials.

Secondly, we will be able to serve God without fear. Zechariah’s words here contain an echo of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. When Moses went to Pharaoh he didn’t just say ‘let my people go’.  He said (as God told him to say), ‘let my people go into the wilderness to worship and serve the Lord’.  This set up a contest of wills – a contest of loyalties – between Pharaoh and God.  And the same contest of wills between worldly powers and God still goes on today. Zechariah praises God that with the coming of the Messiah, God’s people will be set free to serve God without fear.

Third, along with that, Zechariah says we will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness. As one theologian put it, “heaven would not be heaven to an unholy soul.”  In the power of Christ we are set free from spiritual enemies and therefore we are set free to serve God in holiness and righteousness.

Fourth, Zechariah says Jesus will be a light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  It’s not hard to see how much our world is in darkness.  Think of all the things we’ve experienced as a nation in this past year alone.  All of the divisions, all of the hurt.  Our world longs for peace… but it wants a peace that doesn’t involve giving up sin.  And like the old saying goes, ‘no justice, no peace’ – or maybe more accurately, ‘no god-likeness, no peace’. Jesus comes to break through this darkness.

Fifth, Zechariah says Jesus comes to bring God’s mercy for God’s people: salvation through the forgiveness of sins. This Saviour will be a very personal savior. Yes, Jesus comes to save the world; yes, he comes to save the people; but where the rubber meets the road, Jesus saves one person at a time. Jesus touches and shows mercy on one life at a time. Jesus forgives us, one past at a time… and heals us one heart at a time.

And lastly, Zechariah says that his son, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for Jesus by preaching this salvation through the forgiveness of sins.

So for those of us listening in on Zechariah’s song, what does this mean for all of us?

First and foremost – we are invited to join in the rejoicing!  Sing! Celebrate! Not with material things like the world does, but with spiritual joy in the coming of the light of the world.

Secondly, take this song of Zechariah into the coming week with us. Maybe put it up on the refrigerator. Or try praying the words this week. Use Zechariah’s words as a part of our joy.

Third, as a wise man once said, “Don’t be satisfied with captivity when Jesus is proclaiming ‘liberty to the captives’.” In other words, if there’s anything that holds us captive – a bad habit, an addiction, a relationship – anything that keeps us from being who God created us to be – bring it to the foot of the cross, and be free. Jesus proclaims liberty to the captives, and that’s a promise good for every one of us.

Fourth, if there’s anyone who feels like they’re wandering around in a world of darkness these days: Jesus is the light of the world – keep eyes on him.

And finally: following in the footsteps of Zechariah, let’s bless God with our whole hearts, and with our lives, demonstrating in our lives the mercy of God which is ours in Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, thank you for this song of your relative Zechariah.  Thank you for the truth of his words, and for the joy of his words.  Thank you for your light which lightens our darkness. Help us to enter into this season of Advent with a fresh faith and joy, remembering all you have done for us, and above all remembering your love for us that never quits and never dies. We look forward to your coming, Lord. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/4/16

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Giving Thanks

[Scripture readings for the day may be found at the end of this post.] There’s a commercial on TV these days – have you seen this one? – where there’s a bank robbery going on, and somebody rushes up to a guy in a security guard outfit and says “DO SOMETHING!!” and the guy says “oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m just a security monitor.  I can only tell you if the bank is being robbed. The bank is being robbed.”

The ad is for identity theft insurance.  Identity theft – or ‘hacking someone’s accounts’ so to speak – is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. It involves stealing a person’s personal information and then impersonating you and buying things using your name and your good credit.

The point of the ad is there are lots of free services that will monitor your bank accounts, but they can’t do anything to protect you from hackers or fix the problems they cause.  So this company basically offers identity insurance, something that can help you replace the money and get back to the way life should be.

In a way, when we look at the Old Testament and the system of laws God gave to ancient Israel, what we’re seeing is like the monitor in that ad.  The ancient laws can tell us when something’s gone wrong, but they can’t fix the problem or set things right.  The ancient laws point to the fact that people aren’t perfect, but the human race needs something more than that to get back on the right track.

So God sent prophets and priests to teach the people about God’s ways. But that didn’t work either, because the priests themselves didn’t always keep the law.  The Old Testament is full of stories – like the sons of the prophet Samuel – who took advantage of God’s people, sometimes stealing the offerings, sometimes demanding “favors” from the worshippers.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in our first reading for today.  Israel in the time of Jeremiah was led by priests (and kings as well) who were corrupt, who stole from the people, victimizing particularly the poor and the widows – and as a result they did not lead the people to God.  If anything they pushed people away from God.  And because of the corruption in the nation’s leadership, during Jeremiah’s lifetime the kingdom in Jerusalem fell to foreign invaders and the people were deported.

So in the opening lines of Jeremiah 23 we hear God speaking, and God is royally ticked off.  He says: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! You have scattered my flock, you have driven them away, you have not attended to them.  Therefore I will attend to you!!” There are very few things that make God more angry than people who drive God’s people away from God. (That’s why Jesus saved his sharpest criticisms for the Pharisees.)

God then says the harm these false shepherds have caused will be set right by God.  God says: “I will gather” – where you have scattered the sheep, I will gather them. “I will bring them back” – where you have driven them away, I will bring them back.  Where you have failed to attend to them, I will make them fruitful and multiply them… “and they shall not fear any longer, nor shall any be missing.”

So all of this, that I’ve said so far, is the set-up for our theme for today: as we “count our blessings” entering into Thanksgiving week, the greatest blessing of all is God’s solution to a world and a human race that has been ‘hacked’. God’s solution also addresses the problem of false shepherds, which will come in the form of the Good Shepherd.

So both of our passages for today talk about Jesus – even though neither passage mentions his name.

Starting with Jeremiah, God unfolds the plan that will undo all the harm caused by the false shepherds, and set things back the way they were meant to be.  God says: “I will raise up for David a righteous branch… and he will be called the Lord our Righteousness.”

There are two parts to this promise.  The first is “I will raise up for David a righteous branch”.  David of course was the great king of Israel under whose reign the nation of Israel was finally settled and at peace in the Promised Land.  Jesus is often referred to as “the Son of David” because David was one of his ancestors, but more than that, David was “a man after God’s own heart” and so is Jesus.

The “righteous branch” refers to Jesus being related to David, but it means more than that.  The prophet Isaiah talks about this branch in a prophecy that we often hear around Christmas-time.  Isaiah writes: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Is 11:1)

Jesse was David’s father.  And the ‘stump of Jesse’ refers to the fact that the line of kings descended from David appeared to be dead, like a tree stump is dead.  The kingdom had fallen, and the people were captive in Babylon.  But God had promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Sam 7:16)

In Jeremiah’s time it looked like God’s word had failed. But no… “there will be a shoot from that stump” – there will come a descendant of Jesse and David, who will be a man after God’s own heart like David was.

The second part of the promise in this verse is the phrase “the Lord is our righteousness”.  This sounds like Jeremiah is describing the man of God who is to come – ‘he will be righteous’ – and that’s true.  But ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ is also a name.  In the Hebrew it is ‘Yahweh-tsedek’: Yahweh (the Lord), tsedek (our Righteousness).

The reason I point this out is there is one other place in the Old Testament where someone has a similar name, and it’s in Genesis 14.  This is a really obscure story but hang in there with me.  In Genesis 14, Abraham has just returned home from rescuing his nephew who had been taken captive.  There was a battle, and Abraham won and brought his nephew and his family home.  And on his way back home he is met by a mysterious priest-king, who seems to come out of nowhere, and is never heard from again. His name is Melchizedek.  And he blesses Abraham, and brings out bread and wine (sound familiar?), and Abraham offers him a tenth of the spoils, a tithe. The name Melchizedek – the first half of his name means ‘king’ and the second half means ‘righteousness’.

So in Jeremiah we have ‘Yahweh-tsedek’, “the Lord is our Righteousness”, and in Genesis we have Melchi-tsedek, the “King of Righteousness”. And Genesis tells us Melchizedek was the King of Salem – or in Hebrew, shalom – in other words, the Prince of Peace.

So this verse in Jeremiah connects the dots between Genesis, Psalms, Jeremiah, and the book of Hebrews: the Old Testament to Psalms to Prophets to New Testament.  Watch this!

In Genesis 14 we meet Melchizedek, King of Righteousness. In Psalm 110:4 David writes about the coming Messiah: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” In Jeremiah 23:6 we meet a descendant of David named “the Lord our Righteousness” or Yahweh-zedek.  And finally in Hebrews the author writes, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

So this coming Messiah, Jesus, is our great high priest. But more than that, he is a priest (1) forever, and (2) he is not like human priests and ministers who are flawed.  Jesus is a priest of a whole different order, the order of Melchizedek, which is Righteousness, the King of Righteousness, coming straight from heaven.

All of this is tied together by this one verse in Jeremiah!

So what can we expect from this King of Righteousness and this Prince of Peace?

Jeremiah and Paul both answer that question. In order to sort of organize the thoughts I’d like to approach it in three parts: (1) what Jesus has done, (2) who Jesus is, and (3) what Jesus will do.

Starting with what Jesus will do:  Jeremiah says Jesus will reign.  In other words, Jesus is King.  The ‘Kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism for heaven. The Kingdom of God is forever. Jesus is on the throne now and always will be. We say this in the creed every week: “seated at the right hand of God…”.

Just as a side note: we Americans are not really used to kings.  We kind of admire the Queen of England, from a distance.  It takes a little getting used to, this idea of having a king.  God’s kingdom is not a democracy. We don’t vote on who gets to be God this year.  But thank God, Jesus loves us, and loves us perfectly.  Jeremiah also says the Messiah will “deal wisely” and “execute justice and bring righteousness”.

Secondly we move to Paul and his letter to the Colossians, where Paul talks about who Jesus is.  Paul says Jesus is the head of the body, which is the church.  He is the firstborn from the dead.  Jesus has the fullness of God dwelling in him, and he reconciles all things to God.  In other words, Jesus is the ‘hacker-buster’.  When the Old Testament law wasn’t enough to fix what’s wrong in the world (or in our souls), Jesus was the one who was able and willing to set things right.

Paul then talks about what Jesus has done for us. Because of Jesus we are now able to share in the inheritance: that is, we are able to be citizens of God’s kingdom, children of the King, as we were meant to be.  He has rescued us from darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of light.

Because God created all things through Jesus and sustains all things through Jesus, Jesus knows how the whole creation works. He was there and helped to make it. The apostle John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And His ultimate ‘anti-hack’ was the cross.  Paul says Jesus “made peace with God through the blood of the cross.”  And so we are free.  The cross is not a monitor – it is our insurance policy, written in Jesus’ blood.

This is what was promised in the words of Jeremiah, and fulfilled in the words of Paul.

So how do we bring this to where we are today?

Paul leaves us with three things:

  • Paul says be strong in his power, that is the power of Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. Remember Kingdom living is done in Jesus’ power, not in our own. We don’t psych ourselves up for it… we just follow Jesus and rest in His power.
  • Paul says be prepared to endure with patience and with joy. This verse reminds me of the words of Scottish theologian William Barclay who said, “Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” Because we rest in Jesus’ strength, we are happy and we can live without fear. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble – it just means somebody bigger than us will be going through the troubles with us.
  • Paul says: “give thanks!” Give thanks to God for all God has done, throughout history, from Genesis until now… preparing salvation for us from Abraham to David to Jeremiah to Jesus right down to today. Give thanks for God’s kingdom and for our place in it.  Give thanks to God who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light… and rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus thank you. Thank you for the holiday coming up this week when we will have time to spend with family and friends. Thank you that we can count on your love and your strength throughout our lives. Thank you that you knew how to set things right and were willing to pay the price for us.  Be with us now as we prepare to celebrate again Your birth into our world… which has made all the difference.  Help us to place our worries at the foot of your cross so that we can give thanks with our whole hearts, because we can never thank you enough. Amen.

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Jeremiah 23:1-6  Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Colossians 1:11-20  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/20/16

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Urgent Message from Kenya

Dear readers,

I just heard from classmate and friend Qampicha Wario, who was recently named Bishop of Marsabit, Kenya.  Before becoming Bishop, Qampicha founded and directed the building of a school named Tumaini in Northern Kenya that welcomes both Christian and Muslim students and provides an opportunity for education for children of families who could not otherwise afford it — both boys and girls.

Northern Kenya

Northern Kenya

Qampicha’s diocese is currently experiencing extreme drought and famine conditions.  He recently wrote to his friends in the States:

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Friends, Marsabit Diocese is situated in the vast arid and semi arid region of northern Kenya. This area normally receives two season between March and June (normally long rain) and between September and November (Short rain).  This year we received very little rain and no rain in some areas. There was no harvest from the farm. The short rain has failed and the area is hard hit with drought. The livestock are dying for lack of pasture and people are starving for lack of food. Over eighty percent of people in Northern Kenya depend on livestock for their livelihood. Now that the livestock are dying people’s livelihood is cut and a climate of despair hangs over the villages. Most people have no money to buy food, there are no market for emaciated and dying animals. For some communities, water sources at some boreholes are far away and people walk long distances and wait for hours to fetch water. The prices of food has gone up and out of reach for the already vulnerable communities who have no reliable source of income.

As I write the drought situation in northern Kenya has been declared a disaster. 

The church is expected to intervene and alleviate human suffering. But we are financially incapacitated to help.

Please pray with us for God’s provision and intervention….

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To read the full text of Qampicha’s letter click here.  Please pray for the people of Kenya, both young and old, and for the survival of their animals. And if you are able to help financially please do so – there is a link at the bottom of Qampicha’s letter.

Thank you! ❤

 

That Day is Coming

[scripture readings for today are at the end of this post]

The lectionary that gives us our scriptures every Sunday was created about 50 years ago, and it’s based on a lectionary used by the early church, which in turn is based on a lectionary used in ancient Israel before the birth of Christ.

I say all this in order to say: there is no way the creators of our lectionary could have known that our gospel reading for today – which talks about the end of human history as we know it – would fall on the Sunday after Election Day in America in the year 2016!

That said, I’m not going to comment on the election. I don’t ever want anyone to be turned off to Jesus because of my personal political beliefs. I would willingly give up my right to vote if it meant someone finding eternal life in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But that said, I do have one comment on the events of this past week:  Post-election, there are people who seem to think it’s now OK to harass and threaten people different from themselves: people of different races or religions, people from different countries, or even just people who voted differently than they did.  As Christians we are called by God to welcome the stranger, and to show compassion and hospitality to those in trouble. In the days ahead let’s be watching for opportunities to be peacemakers in our neighborhoods and in our places of work.

One small way to do this is something the British people did after the Brexit vote. (And you remember I was in England when the Brexit vote was taken – I’m going through this a second time now!) When British people realized the refugees and foreigners and minorities among them were feeling afraid, they put on safety pins as a way of showing solidarity. The pin basically means “you are ‘safe’ with me. If somebody gives you trouble, I will stand with you.” The pins are starting to catch on here in the States now so I brought a bunch with me today. I don’t expect everybody to take one – not everyone is physically or emotionally prepared to step into difficult situations – but if you feel you would like one, they’re on the back table, take one on your way out after church.

So having said all of that, let’s look at our scriptures for today.  We have three passages: one from Luke and two from Isaiah.  In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus talking about the final chapter of earth history. And in our passages from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about God’s kingdom that will follow the end of history, and the joy that will be ours when we see God’s salvation.

These three passages taken together create a panorama of history: past, present, and future.  In a big-picture sense they give us comfort, knowing that we are never without hope because we are never without God.

But in the short term we can expect trouble.

Let’s start with our passage from Luke.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and it’s only a few days before the crucifixion.  As Jesus is speaking, someone in the crowd remarks how beautiful the Temple is: hand-carved stonework, votive offerings… great beauty.

And Jesus says, basically: “See all this around you? The day will come when not one stone will be left on another, everything will be thrown down.”

If Jesus was here today, He could tell us the same thing.  The day will come when the houses we live in won’t be there any more. The day will come when the places we work and the places we worship will either be repurposed or torn down. The day will come when even our country will cease to exist. That’s the lesson of history. Nothing lasts forever.

The people hearing Jesus believed this message.  They did not ask “will this really happen?” they asked, “when will this happen? What’s the sign to watch for?”

The answer Jesus gives is a little confusing at first glance because it deals with both the immediate future and the long-term future (which includes us).

Jesus starts out with answers relevant to everybody, no matter when in history we live.  Jesus says “there will be others who claim to be me, who will say the end is near. Don’t listen to them. Don’t follow them. Don’t be led astray.”

Jesus says “there will be wars… and troubles… these things have to happen. Don’t be afraid, and don’t let it surprise you when they do happen.”  In Matthew’s account of the story Jesus adds the words “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  It’s as if the earth is pregnant and is about to give birth to the new earth.  In fact this same picture is given in the book of Revelation – of a woman in birth pangs. So don’t be afraid. What we see happening is what’s supposed to happen.

Jesus continues saying, “Nation will rise against nation.” The Greek here is ethne, it’s the word we get ethnic from. In other words, people groups will rise up against people groups (does this sound familiar?) and kingdoms against kingdoms. And there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences… and horrors, and signs from heaven.”

Up to this point Jesus has been describing the end of the age, and though we see at least some of it coming true already, be careful not to be misled. People in my parents’ generation thought Hitler was a sign the end was coming.  Not yet… the troubles we see right now are just a foretaste of the end.

Then Jesus switches focus and comes back to what the disciples will face. He says: “Before all this, people will lay hands on you and persecute you and hand you over to prison and lead you away to stand before kings and governors for the sake of my name.”

These prophecies begin to come true in the book of Acts, and they continued to come true for the next few hundred years, until the Roman emperor became a Christ-follower in the 4th century.

Persecution didn’t end completely though; it still happens today in some parts of the world. So Jesus’ next words are for anyone who is ever arrested or persecuted for his name’s sake. He says: “see this as an opportunity to witness.”  And the Greek word for witness is martyr. This doesn’t necessarily mean dying for the faith, but it does mean laying down one’s own interests and putting God’s interests first.  Jesus is basically saying that in bearing witness we will find our freedom. Even if we’re in chains, our freedom is found in bearing witness to Christ.  And that is as true today as it was back then.

Then Jesus says something surprising: “Therefore fix it in your heart – plan ahead and be ready – NOT to think beforehand how to answer.” We are not to defend the faith or bear witness with words planned out in advance. Jesus says, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom that no one will be able to oppose or contradict.”

Have you ever noticed how when Jesus got into arguments with the Pharisees and Sadducees, how he left them completely speechless? They walked away with nothing more to say. Jesus promises to give us the same wisdom when we are called to witness for our faith.

Jesus then continues to warn his disciples: “You will be handed over by family members… some will be put to death… you will be hated because of my name, but not a hair of your head will perish.”

And then comes the promise: “By your steadfast endurance you will gain your souls.” All we have to do is stand and endure.  Not attack, not defend, just take our stand.

So summing up this passage: Jesus warns about the destruction of Jerusalem – which happened in the year 70AD – and looks ahead to a time when everything we see will likewise be torn down. And Jesus promises if we endure – if we hang on tight to him – we will live. And that’s where our gospel lesson ends for today.

But it’s not where the story ends.  There is a Kingdom coming.  The prophet Isaiah – even though he lived 500 years or more before Jesus – takes us to God’s new beginning.

In Isaiah chapter 65 God speaks the words “Behold I create a new heavens and new earth; the former earth will not be remembered or even brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create…”

God’s Kingdom will be a joy forever.  And when the Bible talks about “joy” it’s not talking about mere happiness, as in, I’m happy the sun is shining or I’m happy to have mocha in my coffee. Joy is something deep, rich, satisfying, with a touch of awe – like watching a sunset over the ocean or holding a child for the very first time.

Joy like that, all the time, is more than we mere mortals can handle – which is why we need to put on immortality.  In our new life we will have the capacity to live in joy.  Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “I will rejoice in my people.”  God rejoices over us! The prophet Zephaniah says: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17) Can you imagine God singing? Over us? Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “No more will there be an infant that lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… they shall not build and another inhabit… they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. […] Before they call I will answer… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.  Someday that day will come.

Isaiah tells us that we will respond by saying: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid.” The word ‘salvation’ in Hebrew, is pronounced yeshua – the name given to Jesus.  We will say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known the things he has done… he has acted majestically – let the whole earth know!”  Someday that day will come.

But it’s not here yet.

There are some people who will call this kind of faith “pie in the sky when you die”. And they say “I’d rather have steak on a plate while I wait.”  But God’s kingdom is not just for the future. It’s not just for when we’re resurrected.  God’s kingdom begins at the beginning – when God said “let there be light” – and it stretches all the way to the end (of which there will not be an end). We just happen to be included in that eternity, in our little piece of history. For us, eternal life begins now and carries forward into eternity.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

From where we stand in history right now, the last days have not come yet.  This world is still standing, and God’s kingdom only breaks through into what we perceive as unexpectedly.  Right now it looks like the forces of darkness are winning. But there will come a day when everything will be thrown down and God’s kingdom will come in all its glory.

God will have mercy on God’s people, both now and in the days to come. We just need to be sure that we are with God, that we are preparing ourselves for eternity in God’s kingdom.  So I wanted to share with you a few things Scripture tells us about God’s kingdom and what life in the kingdom is like:

  • Jesus said: “the kingdom of God is near; change course, believe the good news.”
  • Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. […] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
  • Jesus said: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”
  • The apostle Paul said: “the kingdom of God is… righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
  • King David wrote: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. […] The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
  • The apostle John wrote in the book of Revelation: “I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Paul and Jesus also both warn us that nothing unholy can enter the Kingdom of God. We need to confess the things we’ve done wrong, and receive God’s salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.  We need to be growing in God’s likeness, and we need to live our lives in a way that bears witness to God’s truth… no matter the cost.

If anyone here has not yet made the decision to follow Jesus and to live forever in God’s kingdom, don’t wait. Do it today.

For the rest of us, preparing for life in the Kingdom is mostly inner work, spiritual work – both individually and as a church. This world is passing away and a new heavens and new earth are coming. We need to live in such a way that when people see how we live and how we love each other, they will catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

And if we’re not sure where to begin, the apostle Paul said: “in the end only three things will last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”  There’s no better place to start.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we live in fearful times. We hear angry voices around us and we see violence all around us.  Calm us Lord, with your presence.  Give us a confidence in your love that can’t be shaken. Forgive us, when we fall into sin. Give us courage and wisdom and compassion as we live and work with others who are also feeling afraid and angry. Fill us with your Spirit so we can be beacons of your love and your truth in the world. Guide us in the days ahead, O Lord. And help us to keep our eyes on the prize – eternity with you, that begins now and lasts forever. Thank you Lord for your great promises and your great salvation. May all the glory be yours. AMEN.

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Isaiah 65:17-25  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:1-6   You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Luke 21:5-19   When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;  for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/13/16

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