Monday, December 20, 2010

Listening to Angels

I have to start this morning by saying that I am not a huge fan of angels.
In my faith life they simply have not played a major role.
I find them a little hokey.
Kind of like those religious bumper stickers you sometimes see, “too blessed to be stressed”, “put the Christ back in Christmas” etc..
So I was struggling with how I was going to talk about angels this morning.
One thing I know for sure is that Angels do play a major role in the Biblical story.
Angels are God’s messengers, in other cases they are sent to protect, and in the case of Jesus after his temptation they are there to tend and comfort him.
So I cannot say that angels are not important for our faith.
They are important enough in the Biblical text.
This morning we see that they played a major role in the birth of Jesus.
If not for the angel then the story would have unfolded very differently.
Joseph is convinced by an angel not to divorce Mary but to take her as his wife.
We don’t think about Joseph that much in this story Mary seems to get most of the attention, but Joseph like Mary has to be open to this extraordinary thing that God is doing too or else it would not have happen.
Joseph has to accept that Mary’s story about being with child and a virgin are true.
If not then Mary will be outcast and possibly stoned to death for committing adultery.
Instead Joseph is open to the Angel’s message and follows God’s plan even though it seems rather crazy and inconceivable to him.
I guess we can be thankful that Joseph did believe in angels and did believe that God was speaking to him.

It is good for all of us to hear that God uses a variety of ways to speak to us, to get our attention so that we will follow God in our lives even when it seems inconceivable and crazy.
This past couple of weeks we sent out eleven people with $100.00 each and told them to use the money to help other people.
I can’t wait for all of you to hear all of these amazing stories of people doing such great work for God.
I have heard a couple of people tell how they used the money.
Every story is different, but one thing that connects them all is that people felt called by the spirit to do the good they did.
People felt God directing them in some way to help certain people.
I know that all of you are going to be moved by all the good that those 11 people did.
What has also been amazing is how much was done with so little.
$1,100 is not a lot of money.
Yet so many people were helped with it.
So much good was done in this world.
I was thinking this week about all the people that our congregation has helped this year.
It really is extraordinary.
The amount of good we did.
I feel blessed when people come to my office often times looking dejected and hopeless and because of all of you and your giving I get to help them.
This year I was able to give people gas for their cars, I was able to help people move into new apartments, I was able to buy some food for people, I was able to help some people out with other needs, all because our congregation is so generous with God’s money.

This doesn’t take into consideration all of the others ways we have helped the clothes we collected, the food we collected, the coats, hats, mittens, health kits, kitchen items, thermal underwear, games, and socks.
Doesn’t make you feel good to hear of all the ways that we have helped others.
Doesn’t make you feel good about being part of this faith community that doesn’t just talk about God but follows God.

I think all of this is possible because we remain open to the ways God is calling us to follow.
Maybe some of you have seen angels in your dreams telling you what to do, and how to help.
Maybe some of you get a sense of what it is God is telling you what to do.
Perhaps some of you received some sort of sign from God.
Whatever the mode of delivery we can all be sure of one thing.
God is speaking to us all the time.
God is always calling us to follow down some extraordinary path.
Just like God was calling Joseph to trust that God had a greater purpose and plan for his life.
We too must trust that what we do is for something greater than we can imagine.

The truth is that all those people whose lives we have touched individually and as a congregation we don’t know what it really meant to them.
We don’t fully know what our acts of God’s love and grace will do for them in their lives.
Something simple like giving a coat might totally change someone’s life.
Who knows what God has in store?

Here is something I absolutely believe about angels.
We can be angels in this world for one another.
We can be messengers of God’s love and grace.
We can be comforters to those in need.
We can protect others when they are at their most vulnerable.
I know that at times there have been people that have showed up at just the right time and delivered exactly what I needed.
I always believe those people to be heavenly sent.

This week on NPR I heard the story of a woman who lived in the Midwest.
During the major snow storm that they experienced she took people into her home who were stranded on the street in front of her house.
She took them in and gave them coffee, some toast, and a warm place to spend the night.
In fact, she even gave up her own bed so her guest would be comfortable.
It seems crazy in these times to let complete strangers into your house.
When she was asked about it she simply said, “It was the right thing to do. The neighborly thing to do.”
She said the thanks that she got from those she took in meant more than anything else.
Indeed she was an angel to those who were stranded.
She was God’s comforter, and helper.
We have angels in our midst all the time, all around us.

This week a great person in my life died.
His name was Ronnie Simeonson.
Ronnie was a member of Triumphant Lutheran Church in Salem New Hampshire.
This was the church my wife and I grew up going to.
Ronnie was a special person.
He was heavenly sent.
Ronnie had multiple disabilities both physical and mental.
He spent his life doing God’s work.
Every Christmas Eve Ronnie would sing “O Holy Night”.
He had perfect pitch; I have never heard that song sung so wonderfully with such feeling and heart.
My wife and I were talking about how blessed we were to know Ronnie in our lives.
He taught us so much about not judging people on the outside, but knowing their heart and their soul.
He was a great soul and to me he was sent from heaven.
I guess he was an angel.
I think we all have special people like this in our lives who teach us about God.
We all have people in our lives who help us to be more compassionate, more open to God.
There are lots of angels in our midst.

You see by the end of this sermon I totally convinced myself not to be so cynical, closed minded, and dismissive of angels.
How about you?
At the very least I hope that in this time of advent, in this time of expectations of God’s wonderful work we will be open to the ways that God is talking to us, calling us, and asking us to follow down unexpected paths of grace and mercy.

May you be visited by angels.
May you be open to God’s messages that are all around us.
Most of all may you follow God down some unexpected crazy paths.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tell What You Have Heard and Seen

As Christians we all share a responsibility to grow the kingdom of God.
There are other religions in the world that rely on national or familiar blood lines to continue growth.
But Christianity from its beginning has been about going out and telling the story of Jesus Christ.
Christianity has always been about spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
It started really with the shepherds that night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.
What they heard and saw was so magnificent so awe inspiring that they left “glorifying and praising God” telling everyone what they had heard and seen.
Today the importance of telling what we know about Jesus is even more important.
No longer can we assume the culture we live in will tell the story for us.
No longer can we assume that the majority of people around us are Christian or know God in a personal way.
We have to tell what we have heard and seen.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
This is the instruction that Jesus gives to John’s disciples who come and ask if Jesus is the Messiah.
And it could be Jesus instruction to us.
Have you ever been asked, “You don’t really believe all that stuff about God do you?”
I have been asked this question on more than one occasion in my life.
And the question that I want us to wrestle with this morning is what we are going to say when asked that question.
What will be your answer?

I think that there are many different ways to answer this question.
For some Christians the answer is to take a very aggressive approach.
To almost brow beat non Christians over the head with a lot of scripture about how they will go to hell.
I have experienced this many times and I have to say it makes me not want to be a Christian when I see it in action.
One time I was riding on the T in Boston with a friend of mine who happened to be Jewish.
This very nice looking young man sat next to her and said, “Do you know Jesus Christ as your savior?”
She then looked at me and said, “Jon help me.”
We switched seats and I started to talk to this young man.
I have to say it ended badly he told me that I was going to hell for not trying to convert my friend.
He got off at the next stop I told him as he left, “Well, I much rather be in hell then in heaven with you.”
At which time the other riders on the train started to clap.
Not my finest hour, but it really made me mad or sad that this is how someone was presenting the Christian life.
Hey get on board or God hates you….
I just can’t get on board with that kind of evangelism.

This kind of evangelism reminds me of the John the Baptist we read from last week’s Gospel.
John came warning people of the wrath to come if they did not repent.
He warned of being burned like the Chaff.
This was John’s expectation of what Jesus would be.

And this morning in our Gospel reading we have John wondering if Jesus is really the Messiah.
He is not acting in a way that John thought he would.
Where was the fire and brimstone, where was the condemning words, where was the militant stance against the Romans.
Instead we have Jesus wasting time with sinners, forgiving sins, preaching about blessings to the poor and outcast.

This leads me to another type of evangelism.
The type of evangelism where showing what we hear and see by what we do and who we are.
It is about living the Gospel instead of talking about it.
It is about helping the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers healed, and the poor.
It is about showing God’s love given in Jesus Christ through who we are as Christians.
It is not about condemning others for who they are but showing love to them.
This seems to be Jesus stance this morning.
Instead of saying, “yeah I am the Messiah look how great I am.” Jesus simply says that he is bringing the kingdom of God by doing what God would do.
And I think as Christians this is our calling.
Who do you think had a more positive impact on my Jewish friend the guy on the train condemning her to hell?
Or me the person who served with her in an inner city school in Dorchester?
Who showed her Christ through simply being himself?

All of us are called to tell what we have heard and seen in Jesus Christ.
And we have all heard and seen some miraculous things in our time as Christians.
We have seen sins forgiven.
We have seen the poor tended to.
We have seen strangers welcomed as friends.
We have heard of how our God takes us from the wilderness and makes ground springs of water flow.
We have heard how our God is one of everlasting joy and gladness.
We have seen the bereaved comforted.
Yes, those of us here can say that our God is good all the time.
We can join with the prophet Isaiah and say that we are strong and not fearful because we know that our God is here.
It is a call to share this with others.

Now there are times when words need to be used.
There are times when we have to say something about what God has done in our lives.
Perhaps us Lutherans have been too quiet about our faith.
There is that old joke: The only part of the Bible that Lutherans take literally is when Jesus ordered those who he healed to, “Go and tell no one.”

That same Jewish friend was having some difficult things happening in her life.
She asked me how my faith helped me in difficult times.
Then I needed to use words.
I had to use words to explain all the wonderful things that God had done for me.
How God had saved my life and given it purpose and direction.
How God was my constant friend and comforted as I faced difficult times.
Then I needed words.

Perhaps the message should be that at different times and different places we will use a variety of ways to express our faith.
At times we will be like Isaiah we will be the one calling for change in our world.
At times we will be like Jesus healing others, bringing hope, expressing joy, and caring for the poor.
At times we will be like shepherds praising and glorifying God for all the miraculous things God is doing in our lives.
Let us stay away from being too much like John the Baptist condemning others, passing judgment, and offering a God of small minded ultimatums.

So go and tell this day what you have heard and seen.
In this advent season when we are filled with the expectations of what God will do share your faith with others so that they may know the goodness of God.
Remember that God has done great things in our lives.
Let us go and tell what we hear and see.
The wilderness is filled with water, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Monday, December 6, 2010

O Little Tiny Backwater Town of Bethlehem

A couple of years ago I read an article by an atheist about why he can’t believe the accounts given in the Bible about Jesus.
In part he wrote, “So I can reason rightly that a god of all humankind would not appear in one tiny backwater of the Earth, in a backward time, revealing himself to a tiny unknown few, and then expect the billions of the rest of us to take their word for it, and not even their word, but the word of some unknown person many times removed.”
It is a good question why does Jesus appear during this time of history and in this place?
This morning I want us to think about why does Jesus appear in Bethlehem?
It is a place of no real significance in the world.
I looked up some of the history of Bethlehem and I have to say it is not pretty.
One war after another happens in Bethlehem.
It only has a population of about 30,000 people, even smaller the Concord, NH.
It was destroyed in 529 AD, then rebuilt only to be conquered by Arabs, then conquered again by the Ottoman Empire.
It was ruled by the British, then Israel, and currently by the Palestinian National Authority.
This is all to say that it is a tiny backwater part of the earth.
It is of no real significance to anyone.
Even in Jesus times it was not the greatest place to be.
Why not be born in Rome the middle of one of the greatest Empire in the history of the world?
Why not be born in Jerusalem the center of religious life the place of the temple?
Why this place?
Why Bethlehem?

What my atheist friend fails to see is that this is exactly the point.
The significance of Bethlehem is that is of no consequence.
It is a place of war, destruction, sin, humanity.
This is precisely why God has chosen such a place to come.
As we are told in Isaiah this morning “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
God’s judgment is different than ours.
God chooses what is foolish, tiny, and backward to the world, and in it reveals the biggest truths.
It does not make sense that God would appear as a baby defenseless and weak.
It does not make sense that God would appear to shepherds dirty and unsophisticated?
And it certainly does not make sense that God’s Son would die on a cross.
But what is common sense to the world is not to God.

Here is the good news that if God can appear in Bethlehem in that backwater tiny town, then he can appear to us.
The God of the universe cares about our lives, our tiny backwater insignificant life.
God cares about our failures, our success, our hurts, our pains, our joys, and our weakness.
More than this God knows them first hand because Jesus experienced all of this with us, among us, as our brother, and friend.
Sure God could have shown up in some other time, place, and way.
God could have made some huge show…maybe throw some lighting down and then tell yell from the heavens… “Hey, I really love and care for all you little people down there.”
But instead God came down into all of the humanness of life, into the tiny dirty backwater places of our lives and transformed them.
In Jesus God gave us hope, love, joy, and peace not so we can escape this world but so we can learn to live more deeply into it.

I was thinking this week of a friend of mine who I lived with after college for a short time.
He and I had this conversation once about faith.
He was really struggling with believing in God.
He said it happened one day in worship when he was at the communion rail.
“I was kneeling there and I just started to think that all of this was really nonsense.”
I remember telling him that faith was about belief in what we can’t see that even though he couldn’t see it now someday he was going to need his faith again.
Not too long after this conversation his mom suffered a major stroke.
That moment changed his faith too, it helped him find again.
It is precisely for moments like that when we need to know that God is with us.
It is moments when everything falls apart that we need to know that there is a merciful, loving, just God, that God has a plan (even if we fully don’t always understand the plan), and that we are going to make it through.
It was interesting to me that he lost his faith in worship at the communion rail when the symbols and God’s message was right there.
But that he found his faith in a difficult time, he found his faith when he least expected too.

This is what Isaiah’s vision is all about.
Israel was in fear of being conquered by the Assyrian armies; Isaiah replaced that fear with a vision of God’s promised future.
Isaiah told the people of Israel that a shoot that would come from King David’s throne.
That shoot would bring righteousness, peace, and faithfulness.
That shoot would replace the fear of armies with the knowledge and understanding of God.
That we would someday see things that we did not think possible like the wolf and lamb living together.
Isaiah like all the prophets had a vision beyond the immediate crisis into what God was preparing.

And maybe that is the most miraculous thing about Jesus.
Is that it was not just a moment.
It was something that God was preparing for long before the night in Bethlehem.
When God anoints David King over a thousand years before Jesus birth God is preparing for a great glorious future.
What Isaiah prophecy 700 years before Jesus birth is pointing us to the night Bethlehem?
When the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem 700 years before it happened God was preparing us for the night in Bethlehem when the angels would declare “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all whom he favors.”
God was preparing his people even then for what God was going to do.

I wonder today what God is preparing us for.
What is God’s preparing us for 700 years from today?
What is God’s preparing in your life?

Here is what Bethlehem teaches us.
That plan is not always obvious.
It is not something that we can always see with our eyes.
We need to see it with something more.
We need our hearts, minds, and ultimately with faith.

This is the ultimate lesson of advent that our lives are preparation for God’s promised future.
Jesus coming was preparing us for this day that we live today.
Jesus was preparing us to see God in those tiny backwater places of life.
To see God in the places where we don’t think God will show up but does.
God is preparing us for God’s promised future.
So be prepared when God shows up in some tiny backwater place that you never thought of or imagined you would find God.