Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Fourth Gift

Matthew 2:1-12

So today is, depending on how you count it, the twelfth day of Christmas.  A day my true love, I believe, should have given to me twelve drummers drumming.  As it is, over these past twelve days, she hasn’t given me anything, least of which a partridge in a pear tree.  And to be fair, I haven’t given her anything either.

That’s a weird song, can we agree on that?  Especially if you think too much about it—which of course I do.  I got a little obsessed this week and started scouring the internet to try to make some sense of that silly song.  The most reasonable thing I found was [quote], “The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown.”  Well, case closed.

I’m not entirely sure that there ever was a strong tradition of gift-giving during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany.  Given the already over-commercialization of Christmas (starting sometime in October), I’m not sure there even should be such a tradition.  But then again, there can be something spiritual about a gift-giving season, right?  We begin on Christmas morning, remembering first the gift we’ve been given: Jesus, God-with-us; born in humility; born to restore our relationship with God and to save us from ourselves.  So it sort-of makes sense that we, following in that example, give gifts to those we care about.  Maybe not for twelve days, but there is something about gratitude in the practice.  And then on the twelfth day, we remember the gifts of the Magi—the gold, and the frankincense, and the myrrh—thus we draw to a close this gift-giving season.  But maybe we shouldn’t.  

Bear with me now, but do the gifts of God ever stop?  Does God ever stop surprising us with epiphany after epiphany, as it were?  Is there ever a morning in which God’s mercies are not renewed?  Would it not figure that we might be called to give as God gives?  Perhaps this gift-giving season is not meant to just end; maybe it is merely a reminder that we’re just getting started.

I remember realizing once, I believe during a shower, that the word “epiphany” had several different meanings.  Capitalized, it refers to today, January sixth, twelve days after Christmas: the day we remember the so-called Wise Men (or Magi), visiting the young Jesus.  Similarly, it can mean the manifestation of a divine being… like the young Jesus.  And it can also mean the sudden, a-ha, realization of a thing; that little lightbulb that turns on above your head.  

In other words: I once had an epiphany about the word “epiphany.”  Not the deepest of my shower thoughts, but there is something deeper there: that these little revelations in our lives don't often come to us where and when we might not otherwise expect.  I would expect these kinds of surprising truths to come to me while I'm doing something deeply spiritual: like having a holy conversation with someone, or reading the Bible, or being caught up in prayer, or even participating in worship, but no; they usually come to me in places like the shower.  

Now, in a religious sense, the word epiphany is taken from a Greek word that means “appearing or showing forth.”  So the day of Epiphany commemorates the power and presence of God being made known, in this case through these Magi and their star.  But I think that when we talk about the other kind of epiphany, of some truth dawning on us out of nowhere, there is also that notion that God is somehow making God's self known to us even through the revelations of our own out-of-nowhere thoughts.  

Which is exciting for me because there is a lot I don’t know about God; I’ve come to find the joy in that.  There is joy there because the Infinite God of the Universe, it turns out, is not hiding from us.  God wants to be known, God wants to be in an ever-deepening relationship with us; and because this God is, as I’ve said, the Infinite God of the Universe, there is always more to know.  And if nothing else, what I’ve learned of this Infinite God is: God loves surprises.  

The truth is, by our own sinfulness, our relationship with God has been broken; and God says, “Surprise! I will fix it.”  The distance between us and God is so great, we cannot ever find God on our own; and God says, “Surprise! I’ll come to you.”  Surprise! The Infinite God of the Universe dwells among you, born in humility.  And God’s not done with the surprises.  

Honestly, these so-called Wise Men (and, by the way, we don’t know that they were all men) might be my favorite surprise of this whole story.  They were absolutely the wrong people for this job: the text doesn’t say where exactly from the East they were from, but they were not locals.  They were not Hebrews and they were not even followers of the same religion.  They don't know about the promised Messiah or the prophecies about him like the one the priests looked up from Micah.  These were astrologers; they were shaman; they were New Agers before it was new. And these are the people who show up looking to pay their respects to the newborn king.  It's like some hippie from Durango showing up to wish you a merry Christmas, but you didn't realize that it was December 25th.  

Matthew tells us that Herod was “frightened and all Jerusalem with him,” and of course they were!  Those who should know don't know that their king has been born; yet a bunch of hippies do!  “Hey man, we were watching your king's star move into your constellation, man.  Congratulations, man! So dude, where's the baby?”

We imagine that there were three of them, and tradition has even named them, but Matthew is not so specific; only that there were three gifts.  Tradition has also read meaning into those gifts, but again, Matthew is not so specific.  In my opinion, there’s a bigger, more-obvious headline here: surprise, God has done it again!  It’s not the first nor the last time God will pull this kind of prank on us.  God is constantly asking the wrong people to proclaim Good News while right people are left looking silly, bewildered, and out of touch with God's plan.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, think of it this way: who does God ask to proclaim the Messiah's birth?  Shepherds and hippies.  How does God win victory over sin and death for us?  Through the humble sacrifice of Jesus, that we celebrate here at this Table.  Who does God send to proclaim hit rising from the tomb?  Women.   Who does God call to be his very body in this world and proclaim the message of salvation?  Us.  

Why do you suppose God keeps doing this?  Why does God keep asking the least obvious, the least respectable, and the least influential to speak the most important message ever given?  Well, I'm not God so I can't say for sure, but I have theories.  Maybe, God calls the least likely people because these are the kinds of people God cares the most about.  Maybe these are the people who need to hear this news the most.  

Maybe God calls these kinds of people as some kind of lesson to us.  Perhaps it's the same reason that God was shown forth into this world as a poor and helpless baby.  Maybe these unusual outsiders are called by God because our notions of importance, and power, wealth are not actually things that God values; and we need that reminder.  

And maybe there's even some other, simpler lesson here.  Maybe God calls and uses the unusual and unexpected of the world... because those are the sorts of people who go when they're called.  Maybe God lined up the stars just so, that a bunch of astrologers would notice and go to Jerusalem to sing Happy Birthday, because those God told about it in the first place didn't want to upset their own importance.  

God chooses these Wise Men, these Magi, because they have a lesson to teach us.  Matthew tells us they brought three gifts, but there is a fourth gift that means more to us: they gave the gift of obedience.  Like us, they are unlikely pilgrims, but they went.  They heard the call and gave the gift that we ought to give: they left the comfort of their homes and culture and they sought after the True Jesus.  

As we enter this new day and this New Year, let us follow their example; let us seek the Savior/King, who has come into this world to bring us back to God.  As we do, may those near us see the surprising love of God in us and come to seek him too.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What Child Is This?

Luke 2:45-51
First Sunday after Christmas

I understand that between one and two thousand people a day are reported missing in the United States.  That seems like a lot of people until you think of all the ways a person can go missing.  Sure, some are taken by people with ill intent, but more likely not: people get displaced by natural disasters; children are abducted by a distraught parent; a person with dementia wanders off; a teenager, tired of chaos and abuse at home, run away to what they believe is a better life.  Most are found, I might add; it’s rare that someone goes missing and isn’t eventually found.  My point is simply that people go missing for a number of reasons.  

But today’s missing person seems unique.  One spring day, many years ago, Joseph perhaps turned to Mary and said, "Hey, have you seen Jesus?" That set in motion a days-long frantic search—ending as they usually do with the lost being found.  This missing person story ends happily enough with a teachable moment, but not the one you might expect.  

Luke tells us that Jesus was twelve when this happened.  I’m pretty sure that “twelve” meant something different in Jesus’ day, but I can also imagine that there were some parallels too: twelve was and is a pivotal time of life.  Not quite a child and not quite an adult.  Parents, teachers, neighbors all asking the same kinds of questions: who do you want to be?  Do you want to follow in your dad’s carpentry business or maybe venture out into something else?  Will you take up your mother’s faith, treasuring and pondering the promises of God in your heart; or maybe become an ascetic zealot like your cousin John?  

You might expect a story like this might end with such a twelve-year-old learning a lesson about clear communication and not wandering off; but that’s not where this story goes.  No, this lesson is for the twelve-year-old’s parents.  Jesus goes missing and the apparent lesson is: “You should have known were I’d be; I’m going to be in my Father’s house.”  The lesson seems to be for the adults, to know Jesus well enough to find him doing his Father’s work.  All this, once again, left his mother to “treasure these things in her heart”; which frankly, isn’t a bad idea for the rest of us.  

Some kids know early on, what they want to do with their lives.  People like Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers.  In his end-of-life autobiography, he wrote about his early fascination with computers, saying that, when “I was 13 years old, I already knew what I wanted to do.”  And he did it, and for better or worse, his vision for his own future changed the world.  

But that kind of clarity is rare.  Think back to what you were like when you were that age; did you know what you wanted to do with your life?  Did your outlook on life and opinions of yourself even remotely resemble who you are now?  I’ve met people like that: years ago, when I went to my twenty-year high school reunion, I made it my quest to learn peoples’ befores and afters.  I asked people to describe who they remember being and asked them if they were now the people they expected they’d be.  There was only one guy: he said, “I knew what I wanted to be when I graduated, I knew the steps it would take to get there, and now I’m doing what I thought I’d be doing.”  He was the only one.  For the rest of us, however pivotal those early years were in shaping who we were to become, those kids aren’t the end-product, as it were.  But like I said some kids know early on and Jesus seems to have been one of those kids.  

After the festival, the text tells us, his parents headed for home; they headed down that well-worn road to the Jordan valley.  And because they were traveling with a larger group of friends and family from the same region, they never noticed that Jesus had stayed behind.

Years later, Jesus would tell a story that started, "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves."  He told it that way because he was familiar with that road; another good reason to travel in a larger convoy and perhaps another good reason why his parents got as panicked as they did.  

That day this road was crowded with perhaps thousands of pilgrims heading home after the holidays. They were on their way to the Jordan Valley, or Galilee, or even further perhaps. Friends and family, traveling, talking, singing, eating, laughing.

And then they noticed: "Where is Jesus?"  All of a sudden, the happiness of the journey became the worry of a dangerous road and a frantic search for a young son.  “Where is Jesus?  Was he with us when we left Jerusalem?  You thought he was with me, I thought he was with you.  Maybe he’s still in Jerusalem.  Maybe he wandered off on purpose.”  

When I was very young, maybe five or six, my parents threw a party; but it wasn’t the kind of party a five or six-year-old would find interesting.  It was all adults and there were no games or presents to open and I got bored.  I remember thinking, “I’m going to go for a walk,” and I did.  The adults were all wrapped up in their boring talking, so no one noticed the little kid walk out the front door and down the street.  I don’t remember how I knew it, but I knew not to cross any streets, so eventually I made it all the way around the block and back to my house.  

I remember the strained happiness on my mom’s face when I told her about my adventure: “Oh, all the way around the block, you say?  Heh, heh, good for you.  Maybe next time tell mommy before you go for a walk, okay?”  

Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus’ intentions were for staying in Jerusalem, but he clearly wasn’t just wandering off.  His place was in the Temple.  Even at twelve, he knew his life had purpose and that purpose began in the house of God.  Of course it did: the presence of God is where our curiosities and spiritual stirrings find calling.  Surprisingly, it is in the presence of God, as we are deepening our relationship with our Maker and Savior, that our other relationships start to make sense.  As we deepen our relationship with God, we first discover who we are in the light of God’s love: what are our truest values; how is God calling us to change; how is God calling us to live out who we are and who God is calling us to be?  From there, all our other relationships seem to fall in line.  But it begins in the Temple, as it were; it begins by seeking the presence of God to shape us into the children of God we are made and meant to be.  

In a couple of days, we will begin a brand-spanking New Year.  Even more than learning to write a “nine” instead of an “eight,” there is hopefulness in a new year.  Sure, it is an arbitrary day that marks the passage of time, but it’s useful.  It’s useful because it reminds us that we can start over.  For some, it’s a new attempt at healthier behaviors; for others, it’s a renewed resolve live out the values of care and compassion that God has put on our hearts; for yet others, it is simply a grateful reminder that, “The old life has gone, behold, a new life has begun.”  

However you enter this New Year, I invite you to follow our Savior’s lead: to be found, should anyone be looking for you, in the presence of God.  Call it a “resolution” if you need to, but seek the presence of God, here in this place and in your daily walk.  Be found in your Father’s House in whatever way you understand it, but be found in your Father’s House.  Whether we are twelve or one hundred and twelve, or anywhere in between, we are children of God.  And our God wants to be in relationship with us, to renew us in our calling, and to shape us into the people we are meant to be.  As we enter this new day and New Year, may we be found in our Father’s presence, seeking to be the children of God we are called to be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Room

Luke 2:7
Christmas Eve Homily

I think the Innkeeper gets a bad rap.  In every Christmas pageant I have ever seen, he’s always grumpy, right?  

“My wife is about to give birth to the Christ Child.”  

“There’s no room, go away!”  

“Please sir, have you no room at all.”  

“Well, there’s the barn; I guess she could have the kid in there.”  

Am I right?  But the fact is, the only mention of an Inn at all, in all of the Gospels, is right here in Luke 2:7.  In the pageant the Gospels portray, not only does the Innkeeper not have a speaking part, the Innkeeper doesn’t even come on stage.  We don’t know he was grumpy; maybe he was apologetic; maybe he wasn’t even a “he”; we don’t know.  

There are some things we do know: we know that decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  We also know that, because of that decree, everyone had to return to their places of origin; in Joseph’s case, that was Bethlehem, the city of King David, because Joseph was a descendant of David.  We also know that, other than being famous for being that city David came from, Bethlehem was not really famous for anything else.  

Bethlehem was what we call “a Podunk town.”  It was not a major crossroads for anywhere.  It was rural, to say the least; a lot of sheep.  A lot like Bayfield, actually.  

We assume the worst of the Innkeeper, like he lost their reservation or something.  But Bethlehem was lucky to have an inn at all; Bayfield doesn’t have an inn.  If the Messiah was to be born here, his parents better at least have a camper.  

And besides, when we look at the bigger picture, we see that humility has been God’s plan in this birth all along: born to nobody parents under questionable circumstances; born in a nowhere, Podunk town; what do you expect, he’s going to be born in the Messiah Suite at the Bethlehem Four Seasons?  In a weird way, the Innkeeper was doing the Will of God.  The Innkeeper kept God’s humble-theme alive.  This story would not be the same if anyone of any importance paid Jesus any kind of respect.  

Of course, good luck keeping angels quiet.  But who did they go to?  Who did they bring this good news of great joy?  Shepherds.  Even the people who were called on to celebrate this event were humble.  Humility was the plan; of course he was going to be lain in a manger.  It turns out, the Innkeeper was God’s hand in all this; grumpy or not.  Other than that, there is a lot about him we don’t know; maybe we should give him some space.  

There is, of course, in our world today a very practical lesson for us in this: because there is also a lot we don’t know about the people around us every day.  We don’t always really know each other’s stories; maybe we can learn to give one another a little room; and in so doing, maybe carry God’s humility plan out a little farther.  

Who knows, maybe God’s got a plan for that girl who got pregnant before she was married.  Maybe the guy she’s with, who isn’t the father, is just doing what God told him to do.  Maybe their refugee child is going to save you in ways you didn’t know you needed saving.  And maybe the grumpy innkeeper is doing the will of God and he doesn’t even know it.  We don’t know, we can never know.  All we can do, in the name of our Savior, is give one another a little room.

Prepare Him Room, Part 4

Micah 5:2-5a 
Fourth Sunday of Advent 

Our Scripture lesson on this, the final Sunday of Advent, comes from the prophet Micah.  The office of prophet is complicated, both in Scripture, and in the church today.  It raises questions for us: what does a prophet do?  Is it just about predicting the future?  Is there even such a thing as prophets these days?  What would a prophet look like today?  

From what I can tell, understanding the job of a prophet is probably easier than we make it: it’s just to notice.  Notice what God is saying and then tell that story.  Usually that story is simple: God loves you, turn toward that love; God loved you so much that God came into this world, to give his life for us; God loves you still, so much that God is still showing up in surprising ways.  Does that sound familiar?  We prophecy every week when we share God Sightings.  

I’d add that the office of prophet is a little deeper than that.  Biblically, those called to prophetic ministries are called to notice the specific ways that God is speaking.  I don’t think I’m that kind of prophet, but what do I know: most prophets we read about in the Bible don’t know they are or even want to be.  But I do notice things and sometimes those things are oddly specific.  Or maybe it’s the practice of preaching to connect a thing and a truth call it an object lesson.  Maybe it’s just God showing off: It’s sometimes like God is saying, “Hey, did you see that?  Did you see what I just did there.”  Lately I’ve been seeing that a lot.  I was telling a friend of mine the other day, “Sometimes God moves in my life in ways that are so obvious that is can’t be described as faith anymore.”  

A good example is that dance we just witnessed.  [Our dance team just performed an interpretive dance on Annie Lennox’ version of “Good Christian Men Rejoice.]  On the one hand, it’s a lovely version of a very old song with a wonderful Christmas message, embodied by a creative team of dancers.  On the other hand, what those dancers did is a perfect metaphor for exactly what I’m talking about today.  What I’m talking about is incarnation: the embodiment of the power and will of God.  And then they took a song and literally embodied it.  We didn’t plan that.  I didn’t notice that until a few days ago.  That is just God showing off; that is God putting something on Sonja’s heart that was exactly the same thing God put on my heart.  You don’t have to be the most gifted prophet to notice something cool like that.  

I know a little girl named Micah.  I pretty sure her parents did not read the book of Micah first; at least not all of it.  If they did, that is a bold move, naming your kid after this prophet.  The book sort-of turns out okay, but Micah is not a light book.  For example, our reading picks up at verse two: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”  As it is almost Christmas so we know where this is going, right?  It’s easy to interpret a prophecy when you’ve seen it’s fulfillment.  But listen to verse one: “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.”  

The actual context of our reading today is in the crisis of judgment.  Micah warns, as other prophets before him, that God will not tolerate disobedience any more.  Something must be done.  God had enough of their lazy worship, their love of things over people, their rulers who would not do justice, and a whole lot more.  So here they are: under siege; a rod is at their ruler’s cheek.  

I’ve always had this little voice pop into my head when I read from prophets like Micah: because our nation does a lot of those same things too; heck, I do some of these things.  We do nearly all of the things that made God so angry that the country was invaded and sent into exile.  Nearly all of the things that the prophets condemned, we do as a culture.  Now, the United States doesn’t have the same covenant relationship with God that Israel did; which might be why we’re still getting away with it.  I don’t really think God has capture and exile in mind for us, but I do think God notices.  I do think, even beyond anger, God wants our nation to live better for its own sake.  It does make me wonder: how do we bring a prophetic voice—a voice that brings more than just judgement, but life—to a nation that doesn’t even know it’s supposed to listen?  We’ll get back to that.   

Although Micah proclaims a judgment, he also brings in these little glimpses of hope along the way.  There is judgement, because they deserve judgement.  At some point, we all have.  But there is never only judgement with God.  The God who enters our existence as a baby always also brings hope.  And that is where our reading comes in today.  

Micah is, of course, not the only prophet to look to Bethlehem for the coming Messiah.  He’s just the prophet we happen to be reading today.  When Israel is finally restored, they all knew that their rightful king would come from Bethlehem.  They all knew this because a) God said so; but they also knew it because b) that was where King David was from.  Bethlehem was where rightful kings came from.  

So who is this king?  He is the “one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth.”  Wink, wink.  I’ll see you all tomorrow night, right?  Here he comes!  He’s coming to Bethlehem.  He’s coming that we “shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” 

This great King comes to us, through Bethlehem, not just to judge, but to bring security and peace.  And perhaps most importantly for us, especially in this season, is that he comes to us.  Somehow Micah was able to see past his current calamity and on to Jesus, the True King; the one to be born in Bethlehem; the one who would feed his flock.  

Here, I believe, is where we find our prophetic voice.  We wonder: how do we speak with the Voice of God to a world that doesn’t even know it’s supposed to listen?  We do what God did: we go to them.  We incarnate, we embody the power and will of God as we enter this world.  We embody the love of God in humility; you know, baby-like.  We embody the surprising love of God and we surprise the world with it just like God surprised us.  

This season, I’ve invited you to join me in a spiritual practice that I think will change the world.  I’ve invited you to deepen a relationship, one a week, with someone else in this church.  At some point (after Christmas), I want to invite those who have taken up this invitation to join me in sharing that experience.  I imagine that those who have engaged in this simple, but life-giving experience will tell me they’ve been surprised to find the Spirit of God in those conversations.  I imagine that they will tell me they have grown closer to their Savior, even as they’ve grown closer to one another.  I make this bold, prophetic prediction because I know that’s what happens; I’ve experienced it myself.  

Now, I still want to have that conversation because that’s only phase one.  The power of God you experienced in your own deepening relationships is what we will then bring into the world.  We’re going to bring that same practice, intentionally and openly, to folks who don’t know they ought to be listening for the Voice of God; and perhaps hear that voice coming from us.  

I have a silly example.  I spend most Tuesday mornings down the street at the Tuning Fork.  For some reason, I get a lot of work done there.  But because I’m there every Tuesday, I’ve gotten to know the owners and the staff in deeper ways; and more importantly, they’ve gotten to know me too.  They know what I do; they know I’m a professional Christian; but they also know me and sometimes I find opportunities to chip away at their preconceptions of what Christians are like because of that.  Like this past Tuesday.  

Since we’re getting to know each other better as a congregation: you may not know that I am an old-school punk rocker from back in the day.  Don’t worry, I like our worship music too; I’m not announcing anything.  But sometimes, in my private life, I like to get back to my roots.  You can (perhaps only) imagine my joy when I found out that there is such a thing as punk Christmas music and it was an entire genre.  

I was sharing my joy with Tim, the owner, and he said, “Gimme your phone.  Let’s plug it in my sound system.”  And so, if you were having coffee at the Tuning Fork on Tuesday morning you would have heard (at respectable sound-levels) classic, Christian Christmas punk music.  I would add that Tim didn’t have any Christmas music playing when I got there.  I don’t think you can possibly understand the joy that came over me when I heard a band called Bad Religion, singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” over the speakers.  First, there was just something so earnest in the way they were singing, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel!”  But also, that people seemed to be having fun with it and asking Tim what the music was about.  I kept hearing him from the other room telling people, “Yeah, he’s the pastor from down the street.”  

I told you it was a silly example, but I don’t know that Tim would just let anybody play Christian music on his speaker system.  That took relationship.  That took time.  And on Tuesday, I got to make Christians look normal for a minute.  And I praise God for the opportunity.  

As we prepare for the coming of our Savior, born into this world to show love in surprising ways, let us embody that same surprising love as we are born into it as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Prepare Him Room, Part Three

Philippians 4:1-9
Third Sunday of Advent 

As a kind of creative writing project, I’ve been writing out little short stories of my life story.  It’s mostly for fun, but it’s kind of therapeutic too.  At one point, I decided I wanted to write about the story that lead to my story: the story about how my parents met and fell in love.  They’ve talked a little about it over the years, but I realized I didn’t know much about it.  So a couple of weeks ago I asked them to write that story out for me, separately, so I would have their two perspectives to work with as I wrote out their story.  

Pretty clever idea, right?  I am, individually, the offspring of these two people; so I would help create a story that is based on what these two people contribute.  Only, their stories are nothing alike!  They met at school so there is a touchpoint about them noticing each other at a basketball game; but that’s about it.  Granted, that was fifty-something years ago, but certainly someone has asked them this question before, right?  I would expect, since people have asked Sherry and me how we met multiple times over the past twenty-three years, that we’d be telling the same story by know; but now I’m not so sure.  

I think I know my wife well enough to know that she would be annoyed if I gave her homework like that, but it’s an interesting question.  Do we, even with the people who presumably know us the best, tell the same-shared stories?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s not just my parents.  Maybe our life together is harder than it looks; more complicated that we even expect.  Maybe it’s a miracle, a literal miracle, that we can live together in the first place.  Maybe it is, by the literal grace of God, that we are held together in relationships, in families, in churches, and communities.  Maybe it also takes a lot of work and a mindset that remembers why we do all that work.  

So traditionally—and I’m not certain where the tradition came from—but traditionally, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink and not purple.  You can see that tradition played out in our banner for today.  And yes, the candle we lit today was, in fact purple and not pink.  And if you were here with us last Sunday, you’ll recall I’m having enough problems with candles; we’re lucky to have candles at all.  

The reason it’s supposed to be pink, from what I’ve been told, is that the Third Sunday is supposed to be “lighter” than the rest.  I’m not saying I understand the reasoning there, I’m just saying that’s what I’ve been told.  

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus into the world: we prepare to celebrate his coming in the first place, a baby born in humility; and we prepare for his promised coming again, this time in glory.  It’s a time of reflection, of renewed spiritual practices, and repentance; but it doesn’t seem—to me at least—to be a terribly heavy season.  Our other season of preparation is Lent; that one is understandably heavier.  Preparing for Jesus to go to the Cross is a lot weightier to me than preparing for him to come into this world, either the first time or the next.  

All this to say: I don’t really get why we might need to “lighten up,” so to speak.  We were already having fun, right?  I think this has been a particularly fun Advent.  We’ve decorated the place like we usually do.  We’ve had Christmas parties.  I let you sing Christmas songs even before it’s Christmas (believe it or not, there are pastors out there who wait until after Christmas to sing Christmas songs; I have no idea how they keep from being tarred and feathered).  

But probably my favorite part of this Advent so far: I’ve gotten to know many of you better through our practice of intentionally getting to know each other.  God showed us how to do it, so following God’s example of coming into our world and building relationship with us, we build relationships with each other.  And I am loving every minute of it.  This is decidedly not a gloomy season for me; nor do I think it ever should be.  This is a season of joy that celebrates a joy that is never out of season.  

Our Scripture reading, in a way, reflects that joy, doesn’t it?  Rejoice in the Lord, always!  That bears repeating: rejoice!  Paul reminds us today that it’s okay to be happy.  We forget that as Christians sometimes.  When I hear pastors saying things like, “God wants you to be happy,” I get very suspicious; I get suspicious because they’re usually selling something; but it is true.  God does want you to be happy; and not just happy, joy-filled.  

There’s a difference, you know.  Happiness is determined by circumstance.  For example, there does seem to be a reason for the Philippians not to be happy.  It seems, from what Paul says here, that there is a fight going on: Euodia and Syntyche (or however those names are pronounced) are not in agreement.  Why else would Paul urge them to be of the same mind in the Lord unless they weren’t?  These are coworkers with Paul in the Kingdom of God; these are fellow strugglers in the mission to proclaim Christ; these are siblings of faith in the Philippians’ own faith community.  Do you think that might have drained some of the happiness out of the room?  Of course it did; but you can’t kill joy because circumstances are not where joy comes from; joy only always comes from God.  That’s why Paul says that in “everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And guess what: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  What a wonderful promise!  

I have recently discovered that I don’t have to be sad if I don’t want to be.  I mean recently.  People, I am fifty-one years old; this information would have been super handy decades ago.  Why didn’t anyone tell me this?  Just kidding, I wouldn’t have listened.  

I’ve recently started into a practice—and it’s related to the deepening relationship practice that I’ve invited you into.  I’ve started doing this thing where I list in my mind a group of people who I know love me.  People who will answer my call when I need them to.  People who, when I say pray for me, will pray for me; and not just say it, they will be on their knees.  People who will call on me when their time comes too; and it’s not just an unspoken understanding, it is a covenant we’ve made.  Lately, if I start to feel down about something, I will imagine them gathered around me and their love for me pouring out on me like water.  I think of it as a kind of prayer.  What I’m doing is just remembering the love God has for me and the people God has put in my life to show it.  What I receive from that exercise is not happiness.  Whatever it was that made me sad didn’t just go away.  What I receive is joy; joy in the knowledge that we have the love and peace from God even when things aren’t happy.  
It’s there in the end of how Paul concludes our reading today.  He says, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”  

It almost sounds trite until you think about every that’s going on in Paul’s life as he writes this.  Paul was writing this from prison for the Gospel he proclaimed.  Paul was living in a world that was very different from ours.  Don’t start with me about a war on Christmas; it’s demeaning to the followers of Jesus who face real persecution.  We need to be in prayer for our siblings in Christ in some other parts of the world, but you’re doing fine.  No one is imprisoning you for celebrating the birth of Jesus.  You’re doing fine.  Paul was in prison.  The church in Philippi was being literally persecuted.  Apparently, there were people in their church that were fighting with each other.  There were probably any number of unfortunate events playing out like they always do: I’m sure their church roof needed work too; I’m sure they froze pipes too; I’m sure they had problems with their QuickBooks too.  What Paul calls them to, what Paul reminds us to do, is not to pretend those awful things don’t exist; but to focus on the reality beyond those things.  

Paul calls us to first place our eyes on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable; things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Think about these things because that is where God shows us joy.  In other words, start with joy; remember the joy that comes from God alone, a joy that cannot be quenched by the problems that surround us; a joy that we can then take with us as we seek to serve our Savior throughout our lives.  

As we seek to grow together in our relationship with our Risen Savior, let us remember that abiding joy—a joy born into this world to save us from ourselves.  A joy that comes from God alone.

Prepare Him Room, Part Two

Luke 3:1-11
Second Sunday of Advent 

First of all, heartfelt apologies to Judy for the start of that Scripture lesson.  My advice to any liturgist is: “Just go with it.  They don’t know how to pronounce those names either.”  

Frankly, I came pretty close, for the sake of my friend Judy, to leaving out the first verse entirely.  But then I thought: there’s a reason why Luke put it in there; a reason that matters.  It matters because this is history.  This event is date-stamped by the reigns of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias (whoever that is).  We need to know that, at the moment in history when Annas and Caiaphas were priests in the Temple, John was out in the wilderness.  

The names themselves are hard to pronounce and don’t mean much to us; what matters is that it makes this is a true story.  There is no “once upon a time” here.  You might make allegory of other parts of the Bible, but not our reading today.  This is no parable.  This is no fable.  This happened.  It happened for a reason.  And it’s a reason we need to remember at this point in our history as well.  

Advent is, of course, about preparation.  There is an irony for me this year: in that I wasn’t exactly prepared for Advent this year.  If you think about it, what is the most iconic symbol of the Advent season?  Even more symbolic than the symbols of Christmas like trees and carols, the central symbol of Advent is candles, right?  The choir even sang a song about Advent candles last Sunday.  Hopefully, as we sang that song, you didn’t notice the sad state of our candles last week.  Because it wasn’t until the day before—last Saturday when we were decorating—that I realized we had no fresh, unused Advent candles.  So while you were decorating, I was calling around frantically to every store in the vicinity that I thought might have them; and got nothing. I got a lot of: “Wow, we’re getting a lot of calls for Advent candles today, but no, we don’t carry those.”  On the one hand, it’s a little comforting to know that I’m not the only one who was unprepared for this season of preparation; I am now prepared for at least next Advent too [show big box of purple candles]; thank you Amazon.  But on the other hand, they do call it a season of preparation, not a season of being prepared; a bit like how they call it fishing and not catching, right?  

That’s really the point: you don’t need to be prepared for the coming of our Savior; you need be preparing for the coming of our Savor; there’s a difference.  Being prepared is a destination and this season—and perhaps our entire life of faith—is more about the journey.  

So we prepare.  The Baptist’s central message is, of course, to prepare; prepare the way of the Lord!  God's choice of John, the locust-eating wilderness-dweller, to proclaim that message is important in itself.  Luke draws us to notice that this profoundly important Word comes neither to the Emperor nor to the governors, and not even to the high priests.  It comes through simple John, son of Zechariah, who Luke introduces in the first chapter.  John the Baptist is to us a great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus, but compared with the political and religious leaders of his day, John was a nobody—and yet, God chose him to be the messenger.  And notice where God sent this message: into the wilderness; not Rome, not Jerusalem; the wilderness.  That often scary and confusing place where God sometimes speaks—perhaps because when we’re scared and confused, that’s when we’ll listen.  God's choice of who and where perhaps indicates what God then expects from us. 

So what, according to the Baptist, does God expect of us?  Well, the short answer is, repentance. The short answer is that we are expected to turn back to God.  It means hearing the brash voice of John and the brasher voice of the Spirit and knowing in our hearts that they are right.  It means we turn from notions of power, prestige, and even place and seek the God who meets and seeks after us where we are.  And yes, it can get uncomfortable; as well as it should be.  It’s hard to get one’s head around the fact that the guy who calls us a “brood of vipers” is trying to help; but John is trying to help.  Repentance is ultimately good for us; it is good because it returns us to the God who loves us beyond measure.  

Our theme this Advent season is relationships.  I’ve invited you to join me in a spiritual practice.  I don’t do that very often.  Maybe after ten and a half years as your pastor I’m getting sassy.  Maybe I think I’ve built up enough credit between us that I can be trusted to try something new.  Maybe I might even know what I’m talking about.  I’ve invited you to build relationships between you and other folks from this church.  I don’t much care how or when, just that you intentionally get to know one person here per week better than you did before.  Full disclosure: I’m having a blast.  This is my happy-place.  Building and deepening relationships is what I’m made for.  This is one of those things that I can’t believe I get paid to do.  If this isn’t exactly your skillset, don’t quit; I promise it will grow on you.  

But in a way, that’s a bit beside the point for today, isn’t it?  There is a relationship we are called to build and deepen today, but it isn’t exactly with a person near you.  This relationship, at least at first, is with the fierce and terrifying God of Israel.  Luke quotes the Prophet Isaiah today.  John is the voice crying out in the wilderness.  Get ready, people!  Here comes God!  There is infrastructure work to be done when God is on the way, right?  Fill up every valley, lower every mountain and hill; straighten where it’s crooked, smooth where it’s rough; God is coming!  

Note the imagery here: God is coming, but our response is not fear of judgment.  We want and welcome the coming of our God; our roadwork is to make it easier for God to get here.  Repentance is a good thing; repentance is to welcome and receive our God with joy.  

I’ve been crying a lot lately.  The work that God has done on my spirit lately has rubbed me raw.  If we meet together to deepen our relationship, I will probably cry; don’t be afraid.  As far as I know, it’s not contagious.  And even if it is, it is wonderful.  My tears are all about the transformational and redemptive work of God in my life.  My tears are about joy.  

There is joy in our repentance.  The opening of the chapter from Isaiah that Luke quotes goes like this: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  God longs for us.  God is merciful to us.  God’s discipline is not final.  The last word is relationship.  

Do you get it yet?  What God wants for you is renewed relationship.  It’s what Jesus came into this world to finish.  John calls us to prepare.  And sure, his words are brash.  But sometimes the words of passionate love are not carefully chosen; so get with it brood of vipers; God loves you; let’s find out what God wants of us.  

It’s a good question.  Even with the knowledge that the end is love, it’s still good question: the people ask of John, “What should we do?”  If the axe is at our root, if family ties don’t mean a thing, what should we do?  The answer, at this point, shouldn’t surprise us: love.  Love like God loves.  Care for those God cares for.  If you have, say, an extra coat, give that coat to someone who doesn’t even have one.  If you’ve got, say, more food you need, give that extra food to someone who doesn’t have enough.  Love.  Love those God loves.  Love as God loves.  As you deepen your relationship with your Savior, don’t be surprised to find yourself deepening relationships with those he loves.  Care for those that God cares for.  Simple.  

As we continue to prepare for the coming of our Lord, let us seek to know him more.  In our repentance, let us joyfully turn our hearts and lives to our coming King; and as we do, may we learn to love as he loves.  

Prepare Him Room, Part One

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
First Sunday of Advent

The upside of having a job that partly involves storytelling is that, if something bad happens in your life, at least it can be put to good use as an illustration.  For any who haven’t heard the story: I got into a car accident on Thursday in which no one was hurt (which is why it can already be used as an illustration).  I was at an intersection in Durango behind a rather large pickup, which I couldn’t really see past.  We were starting through the intersection when the pickup abruptly stopped; and my van did not.  I was barely moving, but the pickup’s trailer hitch was just high enough to completely miss my bumper and smash into my radiator.  

I suppose the most urgent lesson from that story is one of those “drive as I say, not as I do” kinds of lessons for my oldest son.  And just so you know, he picked up on that lesson right away.  But that wasn’t the only lesson I picked up on; there was another illustration that came about after the accident.  An illustration that relates rather well to our Scripture text today.  A lesson I really enjoyed hearing again.  

I live in a small town and in a weird way, that makes me kind of a celebrity; if you’re a pastor in a small town, people know you.  If you’re not okay with strangers knowing your business, don’t be a pastor in a small town.  It started while I was waiting for the tow truck by the side of the road.  I got a text from one of my kid’s friends asking if I was okay; she saw me by the side of the road on her way home.  That was just the start.  For the next few days I got texts, phone calls, Facebook messages, emails, and people just walking up to me around town.  Friends, family, church members, and neighbors all checking in to see if I was okay.  My therapist even checked in when she heard about it; which was sweet, but in any other town would be way outside her job description.  

It was kind of an expensive way to go about it, but it was a sweet reminder that I am loved.  People care about me.  I’m not going to, but I did have the thought: “I should get into car accidents more often.”  

It is obviously good to remember that you are loved; that you matter to the people around you; that they care about your wellbeing.  But as Paul reminds us today, it is good to love as well.  

As some of you might know, Sherry and Zane are in Grand Junction this morning; they are soon to be on their way home.  Zane is working to be a foreign exchange student next year and this was an important weekend-long meeting to make that happen.  I’m super proud of him taking the initiative and showing a lot of maturity in all this; but that’s beside the point.  The point is: my wife and son have been gone all weekend.  I miss them.  It’s not terrible, but I miss them in the way you might miss people you care about.  I miss their jokes.  I miss their help around the house.  There are experiences that we’ve had that they aren’t around to share; I miss them.  

I miss them, but it doesn’t seem I miss them anywhere nearly as badly as Paul misses the church in Thessalonica.  He thanks God for them; he prays earnestly, night and day, for them and that he might see their lovely faces and soon.  He prays that their love for one another will abound like his love abounds for them.  Now I kind of feel bad.  Sure, Sherry and Zane are just gone a couple of days, but I wish I felt for them what Paul feels for the Thessalonians.  I wish they felt that way for me too!

To be fair, Paul had more reason to miss them like he does.  In acts we read how Paul’s first visit did not go well.  Paul and his companions began to proclaim the Gospel and—although some were receptive—there were others who were decidedly not so open.  A riot, in fact, broke out and Paul had to leave town quickly.  By the time this letter was written, Paul had still not been able to make it back to check on the young church.  The best he was able to do was send his protégé, Timothy to check on them.  The good news was, they were doing great!  In spite of their persecutions, in spite of Paul’s absence, their faith was growing and they were strong.  

This letter is, in part, Paul’s joyful response to Timothy’s good report.  But I think it’s also a glimpse into how I think things ought to be.  We are entirely more reserved about our devotion to each other than we ought to be.  Can you imagine getting even an email from someone in the church saying, “May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct my way to you.  You know, maybe we could get coffee.”  Seriously, how would you react?  Would you put out a restraining order or would you embrace the love that ought to exist between us.  Paul is not a maniac, he’s demonstrating a life of faith like it ought to exist.  

Last Sunday I invited you into a spiritual practice.  If you missed it, you’re still invited.  The invitation was this: in the weeks leading to Christmas, I invite you to intentionally get to know one different person a week from this church in a deeper way.  Just by show of hands, who took up the invitation this week?  [Maybe spend some time sharing stories.]  I took up the invitation during our potluck last Sunday.  There were a lot of desserts last Sunday.  That’s what happens when you let me organize a potluck.  It will be willy-nilly and unorganized.  If that sort of thing bothers you, feel free to not let me organize a potluck.  From where I was sitting, no one seemed really bothered by it.  In fact, I got to know some people so deeply that I had to stop and pray with them at one point because I recognized the holiness of the moment.  

I am beginning to realize that moments like that are what the church is meant to be.  Relationships are the very center of God’s plan for us.  We will be talking about this throughout Advent; we’ll be talking about it because Jesus coming into this world is all about God wanting to be in an eternal relationship with you.  

It was suggested to me last Sunday that, in addition to getting to know another person a week, we get to know Jesus too.  And on the one hand, that is a brilliant suggestion.  Do that.  Read a Gospel.  Seek His Spirit through your spiritual disciplines.  Come to my Sunday morning class; we’ll make room for you.  Yes, develop a relationship with the Risen Jesus and don’t stop.  

But on the other hand, that is a different practice.  They can go together—you can get to know someone else as you both strive to get to know Jesus; it happens all the time; it’ll happen in Sunday school—but it’s a different practice.  Frankly, I think we much more readily seek to know Jesus than we do each other; and Jesus wants us to know each other.  It is a practice we need to learn; it’s how the church is meant to work; it’s how the Gospel is spread.  The profound Truth that we remember here at this Table is centrally about the relationships we have with one another and with Jesus.  He didn’t share this with them during a worship service; this happened in the context of a meal; suppertime, gathered with his friends.  I was reminded just last night, as I gathered with some of you at Joyce’s, there is a holiness in a meal together.  

The center of Jesus’ ministry, as he gave his body for our salvation, was the relationships he built on his way to the Cross.  He built these relationships first with those closest to him.  I invite you once more to build and deepen the relationships with those closest to you.  Get to know someone from this church a little bit more.  It can be during our fellowship time or you can pick a time during the week; but make it intentional.  I guarantee you, it will never be a waste of your time.  

Let us strive together to have the same kind of devotion and care that we hear from Paul today; because that love will change the world.