Sunday, December 14, 2008

Just Another Ordinary Day

Matthew 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Many of us have heard the Christmas story multiple times. We hear it again and again, and may even tune out when listening to it because we figure we know all about it. But maybe, just maybe, there are things in this story that we have overlooked because of our familiarity with it.
We see that Joseph and Mary were not married, but that she was pregnant. It has long been held by the majority of Christianity that this was a miraculous event by God. Yet, what about conception isn't miraculous? That a human being starts out microscopically small and grows and develops inside its mother is pretty miraculous, in my thinking. From before the mother even knows its presence to feeling the first movement to birth, is all a miracle. And getting pregnant is not always easy—anyone who has suffered infertility knows that. So having the right conditions present and the particular DNA used to create a unique human being is, in my mind, nothing short of a miracle from God.

People in Jesus' time and before believed God was involved in conception too. Look at what Eve says when she gives birth for the first time—"I have produced a man with the help of the Lord" (Genesis 4:1). When Sarah is told that she is going to have a son, she laughs, because she knows how old she and Abraham both are. God's response is to say "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for the Lord." And Hannah, who was barren for many years, poured out her soul to God, vowing to dedicate her son to Him if He should so bless her with one (1 Samuel 1:11-15). And Mary's own cousin, Elizabeth, also getting old, conceived a child and believed that it is "what the Lord has done for [her]" (Luke 1:25).

So it really is not a big surprise that the child inside of Mary is from God, is it?

But, you might say, that's too ordinary. It takes away the specialness of it. But does it really? By understanding that God is involved in the "ordinary" things of life, it opens us up to His presence and His love. If we can learn to see God's hand in the ordinary things, it is difficult to ignore His presence, guidance, direction, love. It helps us to focus on Him with more frequency. To thank Him when the rain helps crops grow, to talk to Him when we're feeling a little sad, or a little lonely, or to ask for His protection each time we drive in our cars.

Another ordinary part of this passage is Jesus' name.

Nope; you're wrong on that one, you might say. Jesus is most definitely not an ordinary name. I have never heard of anyone other than Jesus named Jesus. But that is us hearing his name in English, as translated from it written as the Greek Iesus, as translated from his actual Hebrew name, Yehoshua, which, if we translated directly from Hebrew to English would be Joshua. As the angel tells Joseph, the baby will be named this because he will save his people from their sins. And that's what the name in Hebrew means—God is salvation.

Now, names can be very important. How many books are there out there of baby names, and how many parents have a difficult time picking out just the right name for their child? The meaning of names is a theme we see in different parts of the Bible, too. In 1 Samuel 25:25, we see Abigail, who would later become David's wife, tell David not to take Nabal seriously "for as his name is, so is he." Nabal means fool, and Nabal acted foolish. And in the book of Ruth, we have two men die whose names mean "sickness" and "vanishing" and a woman whose name means "sweetness" changes her name to mean "bitter" when she feels that God has dealt bitterly with her.

When we understand that Jesus means Joshua, it draws our attention to another Joshua. We meet this other Joshua in the book of Exodus, where he defeats Amalek in battle. Later, in the book of Numbers, he is one of the two spies sent to scout out the land the Israelites are coming into, and finally, after Moses' death, he is the one to lead the people into the promised land after they have been saved from slavery in Egypt.

This Joshua leads people from slavery, from wandering in the desert and being uncertain of the future, into their own land. As his name suggests, God saves them from that way of life and gives them a new way of life.
And the angel tells Joseph that this baby will also be named God is salvation, because he will save his people from their sins. Too often, we think this means that Jesus will save us from going to hell. But look carefully at the text. It says he will save people from their sins. It doesn't say he will provide an easy out for people; it doesn't say that he will magically make everything all right. Joseph may not have really understood what the angel meant either.
The writer of the gospel says that this "took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us.'" (Matthew 1:22-23).
The prophet to which the author is referring is the prophet Isaiah, and you can find what the author of Matthew's gospel is quoting in chapter 7. In this section, Isaiah is talking to King Ahaz. Ahaz is a king in a long, long line of kings. Most of these kings were evil and did what they wanted and not what God wanted, and Ahaz was no exception. We are told that "He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel" (2 Kings 16:2-3). In this section of Isaiah, God is telling Ahaz to ask him for a sign, and Ahaz declines. He claims he doesn't want to test God, but what it looks like is that he just doesn't want to hear what God has to say to him. So God tells him that "the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:9). To Ahaz, this was a sign that was going to be fairly imminent, and especially within his lifetime. After all, how could it be a sign to him if he wouldn't see it?
It is thought that this sign that Ahaz received was the birth of his son, Hezekiah. Hezekiah was not like his father or the other kings. We are told that He did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done. 4 He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. 5 He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. 6 For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses (2 Kings 18:3-6). Though Hezekiah was not named Immanuel, He certainly brought God back to the people, so that God could be with them.
And Jesus was not named Emmanuel either. But what we have here in these verses is the author of this gospel showing us that God will be present with us in Jesus. The baby named after the leader Joshua is also likened to the king who brought God back to the people. You could say that Hezekiah also saved people from their sins. He put a stop to idol worship and brought back following the commandments of the Lord.
It is these things that we are to think of when we read this Christmas passage. Sure, we can use a big theological word like incarnation, but unless we really explore the passage itself, that word gives little meaning to our understanding of what is happening here.
So again, what do we have here? We have an ordinary-named baby born in an ordinary way, to ordinary people. And yet, God's presence abounds. In Jesus, he will show people a new way of living, a way of living that gets rid of sin, a way of living that brings God into all aspects of our lives. We have a man who will give up everything to bring God to the world. A man like Hezekiah who will not walk in the ways of anyone but God. A man like Joshua who will lead people into the promised land of God's way of life. A man who can save people from living a selfish and sinful life and help them turn to living a new way; God's way.
So what do we do with this knowledge? Do we continue living like the kings of Israel, disregarding God? Do we continue wandering in our own deserts of uncertainty? Or do we put all of that behind us, and walk in the way Jesus shows us, the way that he has given us in order to save us from our sins? I think we know the answer to those questions. And as Christmas approaches, let us continually be aware of God's presence and saving power in all aspects of our ordinary lives, every ordinary day.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

But that's not the way I do it!

Mark 9:38-40 38 John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

We take sides a lot. We’re on the side of a certain team. A particular political party. The guilt or innocence of someone we see in the news. And we even do it in our churches. What kind of music we have. Whether or not we have responsive readings. What method of baptism and what age to baptize. What actually happens at communion and who can take it. What it means to be a Christian. Sometimes when we come across someone doing something differently than we’ve always done it we get uncomfortable and perhaps even angry, and think that the other person—or church—must be wrong.

In this section of scripture, Jesus’ disciple John felt much the same way. He explains to Jesus that they’d seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Now, at this time, it was thought that demons caused many kinds of illnesses, both physical and mental. What we understand today as epilepsy, for example, was then thought to be caused by demons.
John’s problem was not that he didn’t want the people healed of their demons. His problem was that those casting out the demons were doing it in Jesus’ name, but were not following Jesus in the same way as John.

Let’s think about that again. They weren’t following Jesus in the same way that John was. Does that sound familiar at all today? We have churches who think the other is not following Jesus correctly if they do baptisms differently, or speak too much about being “born again” or don’t speak enough about it. We think a congregation that uses drums and guitars in their music only wants to be entertained or a congregation that will only sing hymns is out of touch. “It’s not worship,” both sides lament.

I once attended a church that sometimes took communion by passing the plates in the pews, and sometimes by walking forward. I had a friend who would leave church prior to communion if it was the walk-forward way, because, she said, “that’s not the right way to do it.”
I also attended a church for a time where my two baptisms as an infant wouldn’t count, so I’d have to be rebaptized in their church. Both of my baptisms were done in Jesus’ name, but didn’t count because I hadn’t chosen them.

Some churches are maligned because of what they believe about communion. What does it mean that the bread and wine are Jesus’ body and blood? Should wine or grape juice be used?
All of these churches believe in Jesus. All of these churches do things in his name. They just do them differently. John was pretty upset about people not doing things the way he thought they should be done, and we feel that way today. But what does Jesus tell him? That whoever isn’t against them is for them. Jesus doesn’t get too upset about it. I can just picture him shrugging his shoulders, saying to John, “so what? What is it to you if they are doing good things in my name? Why would that possibly be a problem?” Maybe he wants John to concentrate more on what John is doing in Jesus’ name.

And so shouldn’t we do the same? If the people we disagree with are not against Jesus, then they are for him; he says so himself. Sometimes, when someone does something different or believes something different, it can feel threatening to us. It can give us doubts or make us feel that maybe we are wrong, and it’s easier to condemn the other person than it is to face our insecurities. Maybe that’s something John felt too. William Barclay, a noted theologian, tells us that “It is necessary to remember that truth is always bigger than any man's grasp of it [and that] Intolerance is a sign both of arrogance and ignorance, for it is a sign that a man believes that there is no truth beyond the truth he sees.” (p.226).

So what are we to do when we notice other Christians acting differently from us? Maybe, instead of crying out that they aren’t “real” Christians, we sit down with them and ask them why they do something. And then we can also share our understanding. That way, we can have dialogue and understanding, if not agreement, and continue to both do acts in Jesus name, working together for him and not against him.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

You Want Me To Love Who?

Matthew 5:43-48 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Last week, Pastor [Name] introduced the theme for the year: Think Globally; Live Locally and spoke about God's love not just for people as individuals, but for the world as a whole. This past Monday, she then spoke about the call to be a neighbor—to be actively engaged in deeds of mercy, and deeds of love, and said we are to help set people free, as Moses did when God called him to return to Egypt to set the Israelites free.

It was difficult for Moses. He didn't want to do it. And yet, these were his own people. He had difficulty saving the people that he loved.

Fast forward in time. In the gospel of Matthew, we have Jesus ascending a mountain, reminding people of when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive God's teachings for His people. We have Jesus telling them “you have heard that it was said...”, reminding them of the teachings that had been instilled in them for many years.

Maybe, as the crowd listened to Jesus and heard him say “You shall love your neighbor”, they thought “yeah, yeah, we've heard that before” (It's in Leviticus 19, in case you were wondering). But then he says “But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. What? Maybe a murmur was heard through the crowd, people saying “did he just say what I think he said?” or “I must have heard that wrong; I've probably been sitting in the sun too long.”

They didn't hear him wrong. He was telling them to love their enemies. He's not talking about the kind of love that we can't help feeling, like when we fall in love with someone or the love we have for a child. Jesus is talking about agape love. This kind of love is deliberate. It's the kind of love that we must be determined to show to people—to people who maybe we don't like. And to people who maybe don't like us.

Who might these people be? When Jesus was talking on that mountain, the “enemies” that first came to mind were probably the Romans. The people who controlled them. The people who they didn't mix with. The people they couldn't wait to have God come and vindicate them from.

But Jesus says that they are to love these people.

Who are your enemies? Who are the people who have hurt you? Is it the guy who broke up with you for someone else? Is it the professor that you feel is out to get you? Is it the student who you just know wants to cause trouble for the sake of causing trouble? Is it the coworker or boss you dread seeing every day? Or the football coach who is always yelling at you? Maybe it's the politicians with whom we disagree. There are many people out there who have hurt us or who anger us, but our call as Christians is not to get revenge on them. It is not to make them hurt the way they have hurt us. It is not to belittle them in any way. Our call as Christians is to love them. And not only are we called to deliberately love them, we are called to go even further. We are called to pray for them. Ok, you might say. I can maybe say that I can love that person, or at least try to love that person. But now I have to pray for him or her too? You bet.

A funny thing happens when we pray for people. We start to care more about them. Prayer can have the effect of actually helping us learn to love our enemies. It helps us move from the idea of loving them to the practice of loving them.

Why would Jesus give this command to love our enemies? He tells us, in verse 48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Plucked out of context, this verse might make us think that we have to do everything in our lives perfectly. But reading it in the context of this section, we can see that it is about how God loves perfectly; he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and the rain fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous. He shows no partiality. It is this kind of love that we humans are to practice in order to live up to the manner in which we were created—in God's image.

But what can we do to love people? How do we go about practicing this difficult kind of love? One of the most popular chapters in the Bible tells us how. Because it is mostly heard at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 usually makes us think of the romantic kind of love, but these verses also describe the agape love that Jesus talks about. Here, Paul tells us that:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.

These are all things that we do, not things that we feel. We may not feel patient, but we can practice patience. We may feel like being rude or resentful, but we have to practice the opposite. And, Paul tells us, love never ends. Never. This is the kind of agape love that Jesus is talking about when he tells us to love our enemies. This is the kind of love that God practices, and the kind of love that we must practice. Is it hard? Without a doubt. It takes deliberate thinking about how to put it into practice, and who we need to love in this way. And as we do this, our thoughts will move away from being centered on ourselves and our lives to focusing more on the people around us and their lives.

Maybe one day we learn that the person we deemed as our enemy has something difficult going on in his or her life, and suddenly, the praying we've done starts to make some more sense. Maybe, our prayers have helped to set our enemy free from the Egypt in which he or she is living.

So who are your enemies? Who do you need to start praying for? Pick someone. Now, take 30 seconds—right now—and pray for that person. Maybe 30 seconds is all it takes each day to start practicing this deliberate kind of love.

Earlier, we sang “They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. Let's now sing that same song again, only now really thinking about agape love and how we can really put the words of this song into practice, loving both our neighbors and our enemies, and helping everyone achieve freedom from Egypt.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What is the most exciting thing about Easter?

That's the question that was asked during the children's sermon on Sunday. Predictably, the answer was "the Easter bunny". I wasn't too surprised. After all, many people who show up to church on Easter only show up one other time in the year too--Christmas. Their children probably have very little perspective on Jesus and his resurrection. But it wouldn't surprise me if the regular church-going children said the same thing. The Easter bunny and all that candy is what they see on tv and in stores and what they talk about with their friends. Some people asked if the Easter bunny came to our house and I said no (my son is only 7 1/2 months old). But what I really wanted to say was "what does the Easter bunny have to do with Jesus?" Maybe next year I'll have the nerve to respond that way. I don't want him to not know what the holiday is really about, and so maybe the Easter bunny won't ever visit us.

I'm sure I'll be looked at as mean or weird or stifling my child's imagination.

But aren't we as Christians called to be different from the surrounding culture? How can we be a light if we aren't shining any more brightly than everyone else? How do we show that the resurrection matters if we make mention of it at church for an hour but spend much more time getting kids excited to see what the Easter bunny will bring and bringing them to egg hunts and talking a lot more about that than about Jesus?

Should we really be so concerned about our kids not having fun at Easter because the Easter bunny didn't come or should we be concerned about our children being members of the Kingdom of God?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Christians are wrong about Heaven? You bet.

Excellent interview with N.T. Wright by Time magazine.,8599,1710844,00.html

An excerpt:

It therefore comes as a something of a shock that Wright doesn't believe in heaven — at least, not in the way that millions of Christians understand the term. In his new book, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne), Wright quotes a children's book by California first lady Maria Shriver called What's Heaven, which describes it as "a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk... If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go [there]... When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you heaven to be with him." That, says Wright is a good example of "what not to say." The Biblical truth, he continues, "is very, very different."