Monday, December 15, 2014

Chasing Joy

Merry Christmas!
I was thinking this week about this Christmas greeting.
I don’t always use it.
If I know the person in question is not a Christian I usually use, “Happy holidays”.
I do believe in being sensitive to others traditions around this time of year.
But I was thinking about what I mean when I do use this greeting.
What am I really trying to say to the person whom I am addressing?
We first have to admit that this is not only a Christian greeting.
It is a cultural greeting too.
There is no mention of it in the Bible.
It doesn’t come into popular use until 1894 when Charles Dickens used it in his popular story “A Christmas Carol”.
So in terms of history it is relatively new.
But still is there something to this that when we as Christians say “Merry Christmas” we mean something more than merely we hope you have a good season?

There is a supposed battle going on where we are lamenting that this phrase is not used more often.
We want the clerk at Target to say it to us.
But I would say that before we casually go around saying Merry Christmas it is good for us to think about what we are really trying to offer the world.
Do we really want this to be a popular cultural phrase, or do we want it to have the weight of our Christian faith.
Do we really want the Target person to wish us a Merry Christmas, because they might not fully get or understand the weight of that greeting?
The meaning behind wishing someone a Merry Christmas goes to the heart of what we are all expecting to happen on Christmas.
We are expecting on Christmas to receive joy only God can give.
It is not the joy that can be found in a store.
It is not the kind of joy that can be found at our family celebration.
It is not the kind of joy that we often think of when we think of Christmas.
We have done a disservice to this phrase by suggesting that it has to be said by everyone.
Instead it should be used very carefully, because by using it we mean something rather radical.
We mean that we hope that people experience joy that goes deeper than what we find wrapped in box.
We find joy beyond what the world has to give.

I can tell you this.
I always am happy on Christmas.
I love giving presents, I love getting presents.
But every present I have ever gotten, no matter how good it is never has brought me true joy.
And here is why because they all go away after a while.
Everything that is given is temporary.
Yes, we are happy with it for a while, but then it gets old.
I was thinking about all the video games that I have been given over the years.

I remember the Christmas our family got ColecoVision.

It was awesome.

We got donkey Kong.
And I loved playing it.
But after a while it became old, and I wanted the next thing.
I remember when we got Nintendo.
My younger sister wanted this so bad.
She would leave hints for my parents.
One day when my dad was taking a nap, she left on him the advertisement from the flyer announcing a sale on Nintendo.
We got it that Christmas.
It was awesome.
We played, and played.
Until it got old, and then it sat there and eventually thrown out.
When Vicki and I were dating I really wanted Nintendo 64.
She got it for me!
I knew right then I had to marry her.
Anyway, my roommate and I played that forever.
Then it got old.
My point is that with things it is never enough.
We think that having this thing will make us happy, and it does for a time, but ultimately we tire of it and then we want the newer better version.
When we wish someone a Merry Christmas we are not talking about that kind of happiness.
It is not merely about being satisfied for short time.
Or even just one day.

You see we chase Christmas joy in things, presents, family, friends, parties, caroling.
And real Christmas joy comes from something totally different.
It comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ.
It comes in the one present that never becomes old, and we want to exchange it for the next model.
As the psalmist once said, "You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11)
Real Christmas joy comes from knowing God and being in God’s presence.

Perhaps our reading from the Gospel of John can help us with this.
John the Baptist in the Gospel of John is different than the John the Baptist of the other three Gospels.
In John’s Gospel John the Baptist is the first witness to Jesus Christ as the messiah.
John is the one who points to Jesus and says, “This is the one you are waiting for.”
And perhaps that is what we need.
We need John the Baptist to come and point us again to Jesus, and remind us that this is the one who takes away the sins of the world.
This is the one who will bring you true joy.

When we say, “Merry Christmas” we are not merely offering a familiar cultural greeting for this season, but we are pointing to the Christ and saying this is truly what gives us joy.
Think about the gift that Jesus gives.
It is totally free.
A free gift with no strings attached.
It comes whether we are naughty or nice.
It comes even if we are not happy and in the right spirit.
That is radical.
It is radical to suggest that something is free in a world where everything costs something, and that we get things even when we don’t deserve it.
Compare that to the other popular attributes of Christmas.
To get a new toy one has to be good.
To get a present for someone else we have to spend money.
To get invited to a party one has to know the right people.
Christ invites us without any conditions, because this is not about us.
It is not about what we have done, but about God.
John the Baptists kept on insisting that even though he was popular this was not about him, but about the one he pointed to.

We all are chasing that Christmas joy and the message of God is that joy is coming to us.
True joy that comes from knowing our sins are forgiven, true joy that comes from being able to be freed from the pressure of being perfect, and true joy that comes with knowing God.
It is the joy that John the Baptist point to, the one the Isaiah prophesied about when he told the people of Israel, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
These promises of God made Isaiah rejoice in the lord, it made his whole being exult in God.
At Christmas we celebrate that God has made those promises come true in Jesus Christ.
We celebrate in joy because God has given us good news through the Lamb of God that takes away our sins.

True joy is coming this Christmas.
John the Baptist points to it.
When we say Merry Christmas let us also point to that true joy that God offers the world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The True Christmas Story

So something happened in our house after worship last week.
I had finished up talking to a couple about their upcoming wedding, and I worked with the youth group on decorating the church.
I went home, and our house was being turned upside down.
The Christmas decorations were out.
I noticed when I walked in that there was a tense feeling in the air.
Then the kids started asking for things.
I could tell that my wife was annoyed.
And after thinking about it I realized what had changed was that Christmas was getting closer.
I know from talking to a couple people this week that this did not only happen in our house, but that others experienced the shock that Christmas was only a couple of short weeks away.
And that we were not really prepared for it.
As of last Sunday we had not decorated our house, bought any presents, cooked any food.
As my wife reminded me on Friday, “our open house is only 16 days away!”
It happens every year doesn’t it.
Christmas is suddenly here, and we are not ready.
It produces in us anxiety.
I felt it on Sunday.

I have tried for many years now to preach during this time some sermon that would help to alleviate this anxiety.
To give us some solace in the idea that we don’t have to worry so much about getting Christmas perfect.
I have given the sermon reminding people to, “keep the Christ in Christmas.”
But I have come to the conclusion that this is not helpful.
I realize that there are simply things that have to be done.
We don’t have to put up decorations, but in reality we are going to decorate our houses.
We don’t have to buy presents, but in reality we are going to buy presents.
We don’t have to bake cookies, but we are going to.
We don’t have to have people at our house, but we are going to anyway.
Well, probably because even though we experience some anxiety about it, and it stresses us out, we ultimately do get pleasure from these things.
We do like them.
And we want to do them.
So what are we going to do?

Today’s Gospel is the start of the Gospel of Mark.
You will remember that in the Gospel of Mark there is no Christmas story.
There are no angels.
No shepherds.
No baby in a manger.
No magical stars rising in the sky.
No visits from wise men from the east.
No travels to Bethlehem.
Mark’s Gospel starts without warning in the middle of the story.
It starts with a declaration, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
It comes not in a slow drip, but out of nowhere.
It comes when people are in the middle of anxiety, of stress.
It comes not with a silent night, but a voice that cries in the wilderness, a voice that tells us to “prepare”.
We of course are used to the other Christmas stories from Luke and Matthew.
We are used to the ones that we have seen countless times in wonderful children’s plays.
It is a cherished story.
And those stories when read carefully have their own pitfalls and dangers.
But over the years we have sanitized them enough, to make them delightful little tales about a perfect holy night.

And perhaps that is what we have done with ourselves too.
We have sanitized our expectations of ourselves, and our own Christmas preparation.
We have seen too many holiday movies where things work out perfect; the wife is a model of ease and charm, the man steady and sure, the children angelic and thankful.
We have seen too many scenes were Christmas is just the right blend of family happiness, and seasonal joy.
But what if Mark is right?
What if it comes upon us all of sudden?
When we are least expecting it.
What the Gospel of Mark does is give us a jolt.
It moves us away from the world as it was and toward world as it will be.
It singles to the reader, to the believer, to you and me, that something new and extraordinary is about to happen.
That the world that once was marked with bad news is going to experience some good news.

That love is about to rush onto the scene.
And we might be in the middle of other things, we might be cooking, cleaning, shopping.
We might be anxious and stressed out, but that cannot stop what is about to happen.
Christmas is not only going to happen, it is actually happening right now.
And what Christmas is about is that God came to dwell with us.
God came to be with us.
Love came to live in our hearts and homes.
God came to dwell in the middle of whatever messed up thing you got going on right now.
God cries out to us to be prepared, to repent, to turn around, to look and see.
But that crying out is not about us getting it right, but merely confessing that we get it wrong.
Our crying out is to confess that we are anxious and stressed out.
And that we don’t like it, but we can’t stop it, because we are going to do it anyway.
And perhaps all we really need is some good news a mist the chaos.
We need for the old to give way to the new thing that God is doing.

And let us just admit to each other that is where we are in this advent time.
We are at the intersection of not being prepared, and preparing.
We are at the place where we are at the end of our rope, and hoping for a hand up.
Things are not all in their place, the stockings are not yet hung by the fire with care, but there is that voice crying out inside us that we are ready for things to change.
We are ready for this good news, the good news that comes when we are not ready.
It comes while we are in a pile of Christmas decorations, not sure if it will all get done in time.
It comes not because we are ready for it, but because God has loved us enough to send us Good News in flesh and blood.
God has sent his Son into our very busy, hectic, imperfect lives, and in the middle of everything offered us good news.
And the good news is that we don’t have to do anything.
We don’t have to cook, clean, buy presents.
But we also can do all those things and you know what God will still show up.
Christmas still happens.
Because we can never forget that what Jesus brings into our lives is good news.
It is the news that says that the hot mess that our lives are now are made redeemable in the love of God given in Jesus Christ.
And this is my biggest complaint about the whole “keep Christ in Christmas” slogan/campaign.
Is that it makes Christmas about us, about what we have done, about the ways that we have kept Christmas.
Instead of what Christmas is really about, it is all about what God does!
God is the actor here!
We can’t mess this up!
God comes down at Christmas!
God gives us God’s love at Christmas!
God gives us a savior at Christmas!
And nothing we can do messes that up!
Even if we are stressed out, even if we are anxious, even if our kids drive us crazy, if we are sad, if we are angry, if we are unprepared.
God comes anyway!

I hope that message is comforting to you this morning and in this advent season.
It is to me, because, this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hope is Electric! Boogie woogie, woogie! But You Know Its there!

How many of you have ever done the electric slide at a wedding?
I have done this dance many times.
It is one of the easier dances in the world to do, and that is why I can participate.
My wife and I were watching our wedding video, as we do every year, and there is a point in the video when we are at the reception hall where everyone is out on the dance floor doing the electric slide.
We are happy smiling and laughing.
What struck me about watching people do the electric slide in our wedding video is that many of the people that are dancing are now dead.
They have gone on to be with the saints in heaven.
But I imagine that this is what heaven is like.
This is why Jesus often refers to the kingdom of God as a wedding banquet.
It is people dancing for joy, happy to be with one another.
It is a dance that everyone can do.
The thing is that many of the people in the video are still here.
We are still dancing on this earth, still trying to get the steps right.
And this dichotomy is what advent is about.
It is about the future time when we will all be one dancing with joy in each other’s company, and in the company of God.
It is also about those of us still on this pilgrimage who are still trying to do what is right, still trying to be good stewards of this earth and each other.
Those of us hear this morning are living at that intersection of now, we know the good news of the Gospel given in Jesus Christ, and not yet having a perfect world.
We are living in a world that is fallen, that is imperfect and sinful.
And we wait for that time when all things will be set right.
We wait with hope.
We wait because Jesus has promised us a happy ending.
When we lived through all the suffering, when we lived through the dark night of the soul, when we have been through trials and tribulations, we will see then in perfect love and joy what now we hope for.

And it is not a hope built on positive thinking.
But a hope built on the promise of God given to us through Jesus Christ.
I would suggest this morning that it is not a passive hope either.
It is an active hope.
Because while we wait and watch we are also active in trying to make the world as God wants it to be.
Notice in our Gospel reading this morning that the master goes away, and he gives his slaves work to do until he returns.
The master does not say, “I am leaving, do nothing until I get back.”
In the meantime there are fields to tend, wheat to harvest, work to be done.

It seems at times in this world that all things are lost.
That not only are things not getting better, but they are getting worse.
It seems that no matter what we do, that the problems we face cannot be solved.
I know that I sometimes fall into that pit of despair.
But I would like to suggest that there is something to us continually trying that in the act of working for justice and peace, we are showing our hope in God’s kingdom come.
Because we are asked by God to not merely sit back and observe the chaos of the world and think that is ok because someday God will make it all Ok.
But rather that our call is to join God in the work, because someday God will make it all ok.

This week we all saw on the news what happened in Ferguson, Missouri.
I am sure that all of us have opinions about what happened.
On the day after the grand jury’s decision not to indict policeman Darren Wilson I was filled with many thoughts and emotions.
I was sad, frustrated, confused, and lost.
It seems that no matter how much advancement we have in race relations in our country there is always anger and resentment that burns underneath the surface.
And that is also seen in the way that people reacted to the protests, and rioting.
But this morning I want us to look on what happened not in terms of who was right and who was wrong.
But in terms of how we understand the world we live in as Christians.
I want us to look at what happened in Ferguson In terms of how Christians view the world in this advent time.
We are people who live in a fallen world.
We are a people who do not live in the final happily ever after.
We are a people who live in hope.

Perhaps the best reaction was written by Benjamin Watson who plays football for the New Orleans Saints.

He wrote a letter that is making it around the internet.

My mom told me to read it because she too thought it was powerful.

I will not read the entire letter, but I encourage you to Google it and read it for yourself.

In the letter Benjamin Watson describes how he feels angry, frustrated, fearful, embarrassed, sad, sympathetic, offended, confused.

At the end of the letter this is what says.

“I'M HOPELESS, because I've lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen.
I'm not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.
I'M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents.
I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors.
And it's a beautiful thing.
I'M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem.
SIN is the reason we rebel against authority.
SIN is the reason we abuse our authority.
SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own.
SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn.
BUT I'M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind.
One that's capable of looking past the outward and seeing what's truly important in every human being.
The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure.
It's the Gospel.
So, finally, I'M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope."
That is what ultimately gives us hope too.

As we live in a world that is broken and unjust we wait and watch for the day for God to truly transform us, to make our world not just better, but perfect.
We wait for the day when the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory.
And part of watching means being able to see the world through this lends.
It means seeing past the present moment, without forgetting to act in the present moment.
In the working of the Holy Spirit our hymn of the day will be the African American spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning.”
It is a spiritual written by a people who have experienced extreme injustice, but who hope that one morning God will tear open the heavens and we will see God’s right hand fully.

In the meantime we act in ways that the grace of God gives us the ability to act, because in this advent time we do know Jesus.
We know that he has given us way to see our sin, and the sin of the world, and to know the sweet music of the Gospel.
And that is to see in all things the hope that the world will turn to God and God will make all things new.
And it is our hope that sustains us in this in between time.
It is our hope that makes us see the world differently and act differently in our world.

Someday we will all do the electric slide together, black, white, red, orange, or whatever.
In the meantime we enter the dance because God has put us in charge of caring for each other.
In the meantime we cry out with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
In the meantime we sing songs of hope that someday we will see God’s right hand.
In the meantime we live in hope that all barriers will be broken down.
In the meantime we can see each other as we are fallen people in need of God’s grace and mercy.
In the meantime until the heavens open, until the stars fall, and the moon turns black, and the mountains shake, until that wonderful day let us love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with God.