Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Every year on Christmas Eve my Grandfather would put us in his big Cadillac and on the way to church we would search the winter sky for Santa Claus.
What was amazing is that every year we would see Santa Claus led by Rudolph traversing the night sky on his way to deliver presents which would always be waiting for us when we got home from Church.
I am wondering if tonight when we search the winter sky what will see?
Or maybe even more what will we hear?
As we leave here tonight will the echoes of the Hallelujah chorus be in our ears, will we hear the angel song singing sweetly in the sky?
Will we hear the mountains echo the joyous strains?
Can we imagine just over the tress the sounds of angel’s sweetly singing songs of good news, joy, and peace to all people?
Can we hear the song of the angels on this Christmas?

There have been attempts to domesticate this wonderful Christmas story we hear from Luke.
Sometimes we want to make it more realistic and more acceptable to our modern ears.
But I believe that even we that live now in the 21st century need things in our lives that don’t make sense.
We need to believe in things just beyond the realistic expectations of human beings.
We need to recapture the mystery and wonder of this night.
Angels singing in the sky might sound improbable, but I would love to have some things that are improbable.

That song that we hear from the night sky, that song of good news, joy, and peace is exactly what we need.
That Hallelujah chorus that rings in our ears speaks to our deep need for God to be with us.
It speaks of our need to be transported away into the realms of glory that tell us of Good news, joy, and peace.
“For we are bringing you good news of great joy.”

It seems that our lives are filled with bad news, hard times, and violence.
It is nice to believe that just beyond our sight, only in the place of mystery and wonder there lays a new reality.
This is what Christmas is about mystery and wonder.
It brings me back to searching for Santa in the night sky, and to that feeling I had when we finally saw him.
It brings me back to that feeling of the joy and wonder of it all.
Perhaps the only word I can think of to describe that feeling is Hallelujah.
That is really the only appropriate word for the wonder and joy of Christmas.
“To you is born this day in the city of David a savior.”
We need a savior!
We need a savior who brings good news.
Most days when I come into the office I read the news.
I have to tell you and can be depressing.
We hear bad news of bad politics, bad economies, and bad people.
The other day on the homepage of MSNBC there was a story of a man in New York who got on an elevator, and set a woman on fire and then watched as she burned to death.
My immediate thought was what are we to do?
How can we hear the song of the Angel’s through such bad news?
In faith we turn to something greater, more mysterious, and wonderful than we can think is possible.
We need look towards the heavens to hear that song of sweet Good News.
We need to hear the angels sing to us that chorus that rings louder than all the bad news.
Louder than all the sensational headlines.

We need joy!
We get stuck in our lives sometimes.
We get stuck in the mundane getting up and going about our business.
A few weeks ago I got to spend a night out with some friends.
It was such great medicine.
I didn’t realize how much I needed to laugh and have good time.
Joy brings release.
We need the angel’s song that reminds us that all is not lost.
There is something greater in store for us.
The joy of knowing God helps us not merely tolerate life, but helps us to triumph in it.

We need peace!
We need to be able to rest and to calm our minds and bodies to feel secure and safe.
This is no small thing.
We are in so many conflicts with ourselves, our family, and our friends.
This is not even to mention our prejudices and our separation from that which is different from us.
Peace is more than merely an absence of conflict it is the restoration of balance that gives our lives wholeness.

Tonight God has come to earth.
Tonight earth has ascended to the heavens.
The song of the angels is filled with mystery and wonder because they sing it to our humanity.
Hallelujah is the reminder that God is going to dwell in a baby sleeping in a manger.
God is here in the flesh, and we have experienced on earth good news, joy, and peace.
Can you hear the song of the angels just over the trees?
Can you hear the song of the angels drown out the bad news, the sorrow, and the conflict?
Tonight I wish you all the wonder and mystery of the angel song that sings from the skies and comes down to us this nigh, so that we might know our savior and have good news, joy, and peace.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Crazy Plan

It is a crazy plan.
God is going to use a fourteen year old girl to bear His Son who will save the world.
Salvation is going to come to the world through a poor girl of no consequence in a poor back water town in Nazareth.
It just doesn’t make sense.
So we can understand Mary’s confusion when the angel shows up and tells her that she is favored.
“She was perplexed by the angel’s words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Who is she that God would favor her?
Who is she that God has chosen her for this task?

We talk a lot about God’s plan, but what we forget is that often times God’s plans don’t make much sense to us.
This is one of those plans.
We get lost in this story on some of the more sensational points.
Was Mary a Virgin?
I had a friend in college who was estranged from the Church who insisted that the word virgin simply meant young woman.
I often thought she got lost in this point, but forgot to look at the more scandalous parts of the story.
Sure according to the story Mary is a virgin but that is not the most sensational part.
The fact that God would come to dwell among us, that God favors us, is really crazy.
Look at us human beings, there is not all that much to find favor with.
We hurt one another, we are greedy, and we are focused on the wrong things.
And yet, God sees it important to dwell with us.
In our lowliest of moments God is dwelling with us.
That is something extraordinary and mind blowing.

We think that an angel showing up to deliver this news is mind blowing.
But most people believe in angels to some degree.
Most people have a statue of an angel somewhere in there house.
We love angels so much that they are in movies all the time.
An angel is not the crazy part of the story.
God dwelling in the heart of human life is the craziest part of the story.

Virgin births, Angels delivering messages, these are not the real crazy parts of the story.
They are details added for effect or for theological reasons.
The real scandal here is that God, the Most High, the ruler and maker of all things, has favored this girl of no significance.
That God is going to dwell in the skin of human beings.

The Christmas story is about God showing up just outside our expectations.

God is always working in ways that we just don’t understand.
Consider King David from our first reading this morning.
By all accounts he is making a reasonable assumption.
He lives in style in his house of cedar.
The Ark, and in David’s mind this means God, is living in a tent.
Shouldn’t God live in something grander?
But God refuses to be domesticated.
God doesn’t need or want some fancy house.
God asks David, “did I ever ask for a house?”

It reminds me of all those Christmas gifts we get that we didn’t really ask for but get anyway.
The feety pajamas sent to us by some distant relatives, the sweeter given by a neighbor, a Chia pet, a personalized belt buckle that flashes your name in neon.
I once saw Bill Cosby in concert and he told this story about his birthday.
He had hoped that he would get a new car.
He spent months dropping hints that he wanted this new car.
On the day of his birthday his wife woke him up all excited.
She brought him down to the garage and sat him in a chair.
She told him to wait there.
He waited in anticipation of his new car.
A few minutes later his wife backed their old car into the garage and in the back of the car was a new cedar dresser.
Bill Cosby sat there thinking to himself, “Did I ever say I wanted a new dresser?”

This is God’s attitude toward David this morning, because God does not want to be boxed in.
God wants his home to be in every human heart.
What is it that we are going to give God this Christmas?
God does not want or need anything fancy.
God does not want a new home, or car, or dresser.
God wants you.
God wants all of you.
God wants to dwell in your heart, live among you where you are.
Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that we are God’s favored ones.
God brings you this morning Good news.
God remembers today the promise of mercy made through the generations.

We can certainly see how God is working in our congregation to show blessings to others and us.
In this advent season we have heard lots about what our congregation is doing.
How we are spreading the good news through our worship and music.
How we are touching the lives of the youth.
How we are proclaiming the good news to the next generation through our Sunday school.
How we are reaching out to the hungry.
All those are great things, but they are not our work.
They flow through the Holy Spirit into us and out into the world.
The Holy Spirit has come upon us and that is why we do these things.
We don’t do them to curry favor with God.

This morning as you fill out your commitment cards, I want to warn you that giving your money to this Church gets you nothing.
It does not curry you favor with God.
Rather giving is an expression of the gifts that God has given.
God in his mercy has favored us.
And God has called us blessed.
Go has favored us not because we are special, not because we give money to the church, but because God wants to live in our hearts.
God has called us blessed.

This week the Patriots will play the Denver Broncos.
For those who don’t know Tim Tebow is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos he is a sincere young man who plays football really well and has a deep faith in Jesus Christ.
According to his pastor, Wayne Henson, "God favors Tim for all his hard work.”
But Tim Tebow is not favored by God anymore or any less than anyone else.
Our Gospel this morning and Mary’s magnificent remind us that God dwells and lives not in those who are rich and famous.
Not by those who are powerful.
God finds favor with those who are of little or no consequence to the world.
God finds favor with those who don’t work hard.
And winning football games, elections, or being a pastor is no sign of God’s favor.
God is always working outside the box, just beyond our expectations.

If you are feeling lowly, unimportant, and forgotten remember today that God is favoring you.
God is looking for you.
And when God shows up I am willing to bet that your reaction will be one of puzzlement.
What kind of greeting can this be?
What kind of plan is this?

Because when our lives are tied to God’s we find that our lives too are out of the box.
God is always interrupting our lives with surprises and new revelations.
How can this be?
Is often our response to what God is up to in our lives?

Advent is coming to a close.
I hope in this advent season you have been surprised by the ways that God has shown up in your life.
I hope that you are willing to give to God all of our life, your heart, your time, talent, and treasure.
Not because you are paying a bill but because God has granted you favor, and given you the greatest gift that of his Son Jesus Christ who brings Good News to all people.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Not So Perfect Christmas.

What is our picture of Christmas?
For many of us it looks like this ?

Or this?

Or perhaps this?

For most of us Christmas look like family gathered around a perfectly decorated house, kids happily opening presents, and smiling families gathered around a big table filled with food.
In many ways this ideal of Christmas is what we all strive for.
It is why we work so hard in the days leading up to Christmas to make sure that we have bought the perfect gift, cooked the perfect meal, and decorated appropriately.
This often leads us to feel really stressed.
In fact we often don’t feel the wonder and beauty of Christmas because we are too busy making the perfect Christmas.
We are trying to live up to the ideal in our head.
But often times Christmas brings with it not so good times.
Sometimes we are so stressed about making everything perfect that we end up not simply enjoying being together, or sharing gifts.

I know that I have many great memories of Christmas.
However, I have some not good memories too.
This week we put up the tree in our house.
We had a wonderful time.
But Vicki and I were talking about how when we were kids we didn’t remember that time as being really great.
For example, my parents would fight as they put up the tree.
Because of this, we have a rule in our house that you are not allowed to fight as you put up the tree.
The cost of perfection is sometimes that it stresses us out to the point where we no longer enjoy the moment we are living in.

I know that other people are going to be struggling this year.
They might be in a nursing home for the first time and feel depressed that they can’t have the ideal Christmas.
Some families are experiencing great financial stress at this time of year and can’t provide the ideal Christmas we all have in our head.
I know that other people are mourning the death of a loved one and feeling not so merry, but sad that the person will not be here to fill out that ideal picture.
One of my friends wrote on her Facebook page, “Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to catch a break!!”
Sometimes life just feels that way, and it can feel even worse at Christmas because life is not measuring up to our perfect picture.
Because perfection is so hard we end up feeling likes failures when we don’t get there.

I say this because our witness to the world is not about the perfect Christmas.
Being a person of faith does not guarantee that your Christmas will be perfect like this picture.
As Christians we are not promising anyone the joys of spending holidays with friends and family, or the blessing of gathering around the table to eat at great feast.
Our witness is about the light.
It is the same witness that John the Baptist has for us in our Gospel lesson this morning.
The light comes into the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
We are not the light, our families are not the light, the perfect Christmas is not the light.
No we testify to the light that is more secure than all these things.
We testify to the true light that shines in our darkest days.

Our proclamation is about the one who comes to take away the sting of death, the one who comes to take away the sins of the world.
The John the Baptists from this morning’s Gospel is much different than the one we met last week.
In Mark’s Gospel John is a prophet in the tradition of Elijah, John comes to tell us to repent.
In John’s Gospel John is the one who testifies, who proclaims that Jesus is coming, that the light is shining.
John prepares the highway by proclaiming the thing that we all need.
And what we need is Jesus to come into our imperfect life.
We don’t need perfection, because it only brings stress.
Perfection is never a good thing.
Instead we should embrace our darkness; because it is there that Christ will shine the brightest.
Our proclamation to the world is this truth that into the darkness Christ comes to shine light.
And that we all have darkness.

Our proclamation is an important one.
Because it helps us overcome the picture of perfect.
It allows us to live in our imperfection.
This is why our Sunday school is such an important part of our ministry here at Concordia.
We get to proclaim to the next generation the truth of Christ coming.
I know that the teachers take this task very seriously.
They see it as part of our responsibility to keep the promises we made at the baptism of our children.
The Congregation promises to proclaim Christ as they grow in their faith.
As one person wrote on our giving tree, “(Teaching Sunday School) Gives me the opportunity to touch the lives of children and let them know that God loves them. And hopefully prepare them to lead others to Christ.”
Proclamation begins here among and with us.
We must proclaim to each other that Christ comes in our darkness.

John came proclaiming Christ not to strangers but his own people.
John came proclaiming the light in the darkest of hours for the people of Israel.
Just like Isaiah before him.
John was telling an expecting people that God had not forgotten the promises God made long ago.
It is important for us as a community to proclaim that same truth to one another.

Visiting people who are sick reminds them that you care and have not forgotten them.
Being with people when they have lost someone they love gives them human contact when they need it the most.
Walking with someone as they struggle to overcome problems they face gives hope.
We can be the light to others.
We can be the light that God sends to proclaim light in the dark times.
But just like just like John we also must proclaim that we are not the one who people are looking for.
We are not prophets.
We are not Elijah.
We are not the messiah.
We are imperfect people simply proclaiming that in Jesus others will find what they are searching for in their lives.

This message hit home with me this week.
I was in the middle of preparing my sermon this week.
In the middle of writing it I got a call from my sister that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer.
It was a wakeup call from God that I don’t only preach these things to you, but I live them with you too.
I need this advent season to be about more than the picture of perfection.
It is not perfect;
It is lousy in so many ways.
I need it to be about Jesus Christ and the light he spreads into my life.
I need it to be about how Jesus comes and heals an imperfect world, saves us from death and sickness, and sheds light even on the darkest of times.

I hope that this year your Christmas is not perfect, but rather it is filled with the light that only comes from Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Spiritual But Not Religious

The fastest growing religion in the United States is unaffiliated.
People who are calling themselves “Spiritual but not religious” are leaving behind churches.
It got me thinking about how people are flocking away from Churches.
What is it that they are leaving and what is it that they are looking for?
Because today’s Gospel reading tells us that people were flocking into the wilderness to hear John.
I was thinking this week about those flocking to the wilderness.
I was thinking about those going out to hear John speak, and baptize.
They went to hear John because something they had a deep need to be saved.
They went because they were anticipating something great was going to happen.
John was preparing them for something even more.
I am wondering what is it that we are anticipating this advent season?
What do all the people out there need who say they are “spiritual but not religious”?
What are the people looking for who show up here at worship on Christmas eve but who don’t usually come?
What is it that they come to hear?

One thing they don’t want to hear is that they need forgiveness for their sins.
One of the criticism is about the Church is that people don’t want to come here to “feel bad about themselves”.
John’s message for our time is a radical one.
It is a message that demands of us serious preparation.
It demands preparation so that we are able to hear the good news.
Mark’s Gospel begins in this very simple way.
There are no birth stories, no genealogies, no angels, no wise men, or shepherds, just a message of preparation.

Because John knows that the good news is hard to hear without repentance.
If you don’t think there is anything wrong with you, if you don’t think that you sin, then how can you hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
The coming of the messiah means nothing if you think all is well.

I remember meeting with a family before a funeral.
It was in their home.
The grand daughter was telling me that she did not really think that religion was that important.
She was saying that she was “spiritual but not religious”.
She then told me this, “I am a good person. I try to do the right thing.”
Sin is not about being a good person or a bad person.
It is about something deeper in us that make us always seek out our self interest over the interest of our neighbors.
It is what makes us believe that we don’t need God because we can all improve ourselves.
Repentance is not about saying “I can improve. I can get better.”
Repentance is admitting that we can’t improve and we can’t get better and we need God to save us.
Without repentance it will be hard to hear the good news.

I too will tell you that I am spiritual and not religious.
There are many things I really dislike about religion.
I dislike that we use at as a way to divide ourselves from one another.
I dislike that we use at as a way to deny progress and science.
I dislike that we use at as a way to make ourselves feel superior over other people.
“My people are going to heaven, and your people are going to burn in the fires of hell.”
I dislike that religion often is the defender of the status quo, instead of a defender of the left out and lost.
So there is a lot to dislike.
But there is also a lot to like.
What I believe is that I can’t be spiritual with being religious.
I need some way to express my spiritual nature.
I need some where to go and pray.
I need some where to go and read the Holy Scripture, and be challenged in my beliefs.
I need a place to sing the praises of my God.
Without religion how would I do that?
I want to know what people who say they are spiritual but not religious are doing to be spiritual.

That is why I love Sunday’s, because on Sundays I get to come here and be spiritual.
To me this space that we occupy every Sunday together is like a wilderness.
It is a place I flee to.
Like the people in our Gospel this morning I come here to have a place to repent.
I come here to prepare myself for life, and to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.
And it is the wilderness because when I come to worship I get to leave everything else behind.
I can leave my busy life behind, I can leave the problems of the world behind, I can leave all my sin behind.
In this space I can recharge myself as I hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
It is like every week is a new beginning for me.
I can understand why the crowds flock to the wilderness to hear John.
They want bad1ly to have a new beginning of their lives.
They want to know the God of good news.

I know that many of you feel the same way.
On our giving tree people wrote about how worshipping here brings them closer to God.
As one person wrote, “Choir and music in the church brings me closer to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. It is a reinforcing of the message of the Word through praise and song.”
In other words, it is here together in worship that we are met by the Holy Spirit.
It is here that we experience together spiritual worship.
Those who look at worship and see only boring hymns and outdated rituals don’t see it properly.
So much more is going on in our worship life together.
We are confessing our sins, emptying ourselves of pretention, seeking the mercy of God, deeply intersecting our stories with the story of God, and renewing ourselves to the mission of spreading the good news to others.
We are not just talking about being spiritual we are practicing our spirituality.

What John the Baptist calls the people of Jerusalem and Judea to this morning is something more than merely a ritualized bath, but he is calling them to spiritually prepare themselves for the good news.
And every Sunday we come together to prepare ourselves to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

In this advent season preparing for us means that we confess our sins, sing praises to God, enrich our lives with the Word, and hear anew the promise of God’s good news coming to each of us.
We travel into the wilderness to do it.
We travel away from the hustle and bustle of buying presents, hanging decorations, and cooking food into the wilderness where God always meets God’s people.
We do it not because those other things are bad, but because we need it, we yearn for it.

For the people of Jesus’ day they were so eager to hear the good news that they came to the wilderness.
I think we too have that same hunger.
I believe that all those “spiritual but not religious” people in the world are deeply starved for the good news.
They too yearn to be loved.
They too yearn to hear God say words of comfort and joy.
Perhaps that is why in our culture Christmas is so wildly celebrated.
That even though people may or may not be prepared for Christ to come at Christmas they still yearn for it in their souls.
Buying presents is a great way to show your love for others, bringing light into our houses during the darkest time of the year is a great way to remember hope, hearing songs is great way to bring joy to others.
All these traditions of Christmas are not what Christmas is about, but perhaps they are signs of what we truly yearn for and really want in our lives love, peace, comfort, and joy.

Those of us who have come to worship this morning have traveled into the wilderness so that we are prepared for the good news.
We are preparing for the true spiritual beginning that comes to us from our God who comes to comfort us.
Let us leave knowing that we are prepared to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.