Monday, December 23, 2013

An Unbelievable Story!

The thing about the Christmas story is that it is really unbelievable.
In our world talk of angels appearing to give advice is met with skeptical ears at best.
Talk of virgin births is really not something that many people can see as possible.
All of these things are really unbelievable.
And perhaps that is the point.
If the story was believable there would be no reason to have faith.
Faith is the belief in things not seen; it is belief in the unbelievable.
We can explain away the more sensational parts of the Christmas story.
The angel was just a figment of Joseph’s imagination.
The word virgin is just a miss reading of the Hebrew word for young woman.
But I like to keep in the parts of the story that seem impossible.
Because the really unbelievable part of the story is really not these things.
It is really that God would come down and put on our skin.
That God would want anything to do with us or the world.
That is the part that really takes faith.

And without it we are all just King Ahaz.
In our reading from Isaiah King Ahaz is taken to task by the prophet because he really doesn’t believe that God is with Israel during this time crisis.
Ahaz doesn’t believe that God will fulfill God’s promise to remain faithful.
This is why he doesn’t ask for a sign.
Because it doesn’t matter what sign God gives Ahaz will ignore it and believe instead on his schemes.
Ahaz believes that he has the answer to the military problems facing Jerusalem.
He believes that if he makes certain packs with other countries he will have enough to face the enemy.
And Isaiah is telling him that God will do what God has promised not to let Jerusalem fall.
God will send a sign anyway.
And the sign will be a child.
And that too is a problem for Ahaz.
Because a child can’t fight off an army, a child can’t pay the bills.
Easier to scheme and come up with an answer on his own then simply have faith in God.

And that is something we all face in our lives.
We want to have the answers, know the answers.
We want the facts and we believe that we can solve the problems, because after all we are really smart, self-reliant people.
It is so hard for us to do nothing.
So hard for us to rely on God and have faith.

This week in Concord we had the annual memorial service for people who have died because they were homeless.
We gathered in front of the state capital, and prayed, remembered loved ones lost, lit candles, sang songs of faith that God is in the midst of it all, and cried.
We cried for what has been needlessly lost.
29 people died because they were homeless this year in NH.
Some of them right here in Concord.
If you ask me that is 29 people too many.
In a land of plenty some die for not having the basics like a warm place to sleep.
But this is not a sermon about the injustice of the homelessness.
This is a sermon about things that we can’t believe because our eyes tell us different.
And what is true is that all those who have died had God with them.
All those who sleep tonight on a make shift cot, or out in a tent, have God with them.
Not because we think it is nice, or because we wish it so, but because God has told us this to be true.
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and said, that even in times of great turmoil, of war, of poverty, I am with you.
God then spoke plainly through Jesus to say in all things I am with you.
It is hard to believe sometimes.
But that is why we have faith.

In this advent season this is what we cling to.
That God has not abandoned us.
God has not left us with nothing but our own schemes and crafty wills.
Instead God was pleased to dwell among and with us.

Our need to act and do something to fix it, to make it all go away, to make it feel better, usually leads us to despair.
Because we can’t fix everything, we can’t make some things better.
It is why perhaps we desire a sign.
We want to know in no uncertain terms that we are not left alone.
We want and desire the certainty of knowing what God is up to.
Some people will say that God has a plan.
That might be true, but at times it seems like a really bad plan.
How can letting people freeze to death be part of God’s plan?
How can letting people die scared and alone be a good plan?
You know what I could use these days, a visit from an angel.
I could use some idea of what God wants from us.
Perhaps an angel could come and say to me, Pastor Jon, “I want you to walk to this place, and do this thing.”
It would be nice.
Even with the sign would we believe it?

And yet we do have a sign, we do have an idea.
God has spoken to us through his Son Jesus Christ.
God has said that there is something great and special about living this life.
God has said that he is here.
And God has said that he is not just here in the good times.
He is here most assuredly in the bad times.
Can we believe it?
Do we dare believe it?

There is so much more going on in the Christmas story then merely the birth of a child.
In fact, so much more that Joseph can’t see it or can’t comprehend it.
He wants to do the right thing.
He will simply get rid of Mary.
He won’t publically shame her.
Can you blame him?
And yet here comes the angel to speak and tell of something beyond his imagination, beyond his comprehension, just as it is beyond our imagination and comprehension.
No way would God be with us here in this mess.
In this world filled with so much that is just wrong and out of place.

Yesterday, I had to run some errands to get ready for Christmas.
That was not the smartest thing I ever did.
It was crazy out there, so many people running around trying to get things done.
None of them really seemed to me like they were preparing for God to do this amazing, wonderful, incomprehensible thing.
Instead we were preparing for something much smaller.
We were getting ready for presents to be opened, meals to be shared, drinks to be made.
And people didn’t seem particularly happy about any of it.
It was hard to be while you bumped into people trying to get to the last can of crushed pineapple.
It was just a sea of humanity.
While I was out in it this thought occurred to me why would God want to be part of this?

That too me is the greatest mystery of this season.
And the only way to explain it is through a wonderfully mysteries and incomprehensible story.
The only way to explain it is through fai1th.
To believe that there is more out there than any of us can imagine.

God has given us a sign.
It is a sign of wonder and grace.
A sign foretold by prophets, announced by angels, conceived in an unimaginable way, and shared with us today.
That sign is Jesus who tells us and shows us that God is with us, always.
Do we dare believe it?

Monday, December 16, 2013


We have all had those moments.
We have those moments when we have to get things done and we have a plan to get it done.
We have a tight schedule and only a few hours/minutes to get something done.
And then we get interrupted.
A friend calls who really needs to talk.
A family member stops by for “a minute”.
The kids’ school calls because they are sick.
We are derailed.
Sometimes these interruptions stop of from “accomplishing our goals.”
Interruptions seem to be a nuisance to us getting things done especially during this season.
We have so many things to get done.
We have presents to buy, meals to cook, homes to clean, parties to throw, cards to write, and trees to put up.
I know that I get focused some days realizing that I only have so many hours in a day and so much time to get things done.
But just perhaps what this season is about is not getting things done, but it is about the interruption.

Today’s text from Isaiah is really an interruption.
It is out of place with what is happening before.
Some scholars have suggested that the 35th chapter of Isaiah doesn’t belong here.
Because it is surrounded by the prophetic words of what sin brings to bear on our lives destruction, chaos, and death.
But then there is this interruption.
In which the Isaiah speaks of a different day.
He speaks of a day without violence, a day with joy and singing, a day when the eyes of the blind shall be opened.
It seems out of place.
Indeed the good news of God often does.

And that is what we miss without those interruptions in our lives.
We miss a real chance to connect, to speak words of Christmas joy to someone else.
We miss the opportunity to really invest ourselves in the life of someone in need of an interruption.
Because that is the thing about interruptions sometimes we need them badly.
When everything in life is going wrong, when we can’t catch a break, we need an interruption of good news.
When our lives are in ruin then we need an interruption.
We need God to speak good news into our broken lives.
We need to hear about the day when the desert will rejoice and blossom.
Because that is how we feel sometimes.
We feel like everything has dried up and everything is lost.

The shepherds who first heard about Jesus’ birth had their lives interrupted.
They were in the field going about their normal lives.
Think about they were simply doing their jobs.
What they did every night.
I would assume that when they left their houses that morning for work it was simply a day like any day.0
Another day to wake up go to work and tend to the sheep.
Maybe they had things they had to get done.
A list of things the boss wanted them to accomplish before the next day.
You know something like; make sure all the sheep move from this spot to this spot.
Or this sheep is not quite right make sure they get enough sleep.
If you ever had a job you know what I am talking about there is always a list of things that need to get done.
And then well that work is interrupted by this glorious good news of great joy.
And the shepherds do an amazing thing.
They forget about the list of things that have to get done.
They forget about the sheep they are supposed to be watching.
They leave and go and see the baby.
I can’t imagine that their boss was too happy with that decision.
But not only was their lives interrupted, but they wanted and needed it to be interrupted.
And they left Mary and Joseph and then went out and interrupted other lives with this good news.
You know that whole story of Jesus’ birth is filled with dread and gloom up until the shepherds enter the scene.
It is about an empirical power making people take long journeys to be taxed.
It is about a poor family sleeping in a barn because there is no room for them.
And into the middle of all that is this interruption that this birth is more than what it appears.

It is in the interruption time that God comes and offers us good news.
And that is what I am hoping for all of you this season is that your routine, and your lists, and getting things done get interrupted.
We are interrupted with good news of great joy.
What is so amazing about this time of year is how unhappy people are.
Just the other day someone was saying to me how stressed I must be because it is so busy this time of year.
I love this time of year.
I love everything about it.
I love the presents, the parties, the carols, the trees, and the spirit that surrounds us when we gather.
This is supposed to be a joyful time.
It is supposed to lift our spirits.
But the lifting comes not from any of those things.
It is not because of the presents, the tree, the carols, the parties.
Those things are supposed to point us to what brings real joy Jesus Christ.
Our lives are filled with complexity and difficult choices.
But into all of that God has interrupted and brought a word of good news of great joy.
It is not dependent how my life is going right now.
It depends on the one who brings blossoming flowers to grow in the dessert.
It depends on the one who sent the message to shepherds simply doing their job by tending their flock at night.
It depends on the one who comes in a manager as a baby born to peasant parents.
All of those things are interruptions to life as we think we know it.

There are times when I will be in my office working on something and someone will come to see me about something going on in their life.
They will say, “Pastor I hate to interrupt you.”
What I always tell them is that I consider the interruption the most important part of my job.
People who need good news are never an interruption.
They are the work of that we are called to, because it is in the very nature of God to interrupt us.
It was God who interrupted Abraham and called him to a different place.
It was God who interrupted pharaoh’s plans to enslave his people.
It was God who interrupted Israel’s time of political upheaval with the promise of a better day.
And it was God who interrupted the entire world with the birth of our savior Jesus.

I hope for you in this advent time many interruptions.
I hope that you have in those interruptions time to speak good news to people in the dessert.
I hope that God interrupts your life with words of good news of great joy for all people.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Rooted in Christmas!

In his last days my grandfather didn’t know who I was.
He didn’t know who his daughters were, or his wife.
But pretty much at any moment you could walk into his room and start singing, “Jesus love me” and he would start singing along.
Something that deeply imbedded in his mind, in his person, kicked in and even though he lost touch with most of the world he knew that song.
It is these types of roots that really sustain us.
And we all have roots.
We have places that we come from, people that influenced us, and made us who we are today.
This morning the prophet Isaiah tells us that out of the stump of Jesse God is going to bring renewal to God’s people.

Funny thing about stumps is that when a tree gets to that point we think of it as dead.
But really as long as the roots are still in the ground it is still alive.
In fact, lots of trees when they get down to their stumps will be able to regenerate because of the roots.
In order to really remove a tree you have to take out the roots.
That is not so easy.
Getting rid of the roots is almost impossible.

It is no wonder that this is the image that the prophet uses to describe God’s on going action.
Even when it appears that all is lost that nothing remains God is not done yet.
Even if we cut everything off the tree, the roots remain.

This is why it is so important for us to plant good roots.
This is why it is important to give our children love, discipline, and forgiveness.
It is why it is important to sing “Jesus loves me this I know with them.”
It is those roots that will always be with them, just as God is always with us.

“Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”
This is one of the simplest lines of any song and yet one of the most profound.
It is not just a song for Sunday school and children it is a song for us too.
What happens when we forget this?
What happens when we forget that Jesus loves us no matter what?
I wonder if Isaiah’s audience had forgotten that God loved and cared about them.
In Isaiah’s time, just like ours, the rulers had forgotten to care for the widow’s and the poor.
They had forgotten that it was their job to protect the least among them just as God does.
Isaiah was reminding them of their roots.
Just as God once gave his people a land, a country, a home, a king so too will God once more establish all these things.

This is why Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem, because of the roots of God.
The writers of the Gospels want to make sure that they plant Jesus firmly within the history of God’s saving activity.
It is not just about having some predictions that were written in the prophets come true.
But it was about roots.
One of the questions that follows Jesus is who is he?
“Who is this that even demons obey him?”
“Is he not the son of a carpenter?”
Jesus is more than this because he was rooted in the teachings of Torah, and the prophets.
Jesus was a person who was rooted in the history of his people.
Jesus did not so much tell people something new, what he did was remind them of what God continually would say, “You are my people and I love you.”
To root Jesus in this history the Gospel writers have him born in Bethlehem because it was the city of David.
Jesse was David’s dad, and it would be from here that Jesus would come.
Both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke have genealogies at the beginning of their Gospels.
They are not exactly the same, but their intention is, it is to root Jesus in the history of God’s people.
It is to plant Jesus firmly in God’s plan of salvation.

What God desires is for us to have roots that come from God.
God desires to know God at our core and fundamental level.
To be able to recall the basic love that God gives to us through Jesus Christ.
A good question to ask in advent is?
What are our roots?
Where are we planted?

Here is why I think it is critical.
Because what is going to happen when the tree is cut down?
What happens when the tree gets too old and falls down or collapses?
What happens when we lose everything in our lives?
Where are we going to go?
What will we do?
For my grandfather the roots were so deep that even when everything had failed him.
Even when he was in a nursing home with very little to his name, he had that song still in his soul.
“Jesus loves me this I know….”
He still knew that Jesus loved him.
He knew that he was week but Jesus was strong for him when he needed it.

Here is the amazing thing even when we are dead, the roots still remain.
God is still there and brings life from the stump.
God shoots a seed from what appears to be dead.
Roots are important.
They matter a great deal, because they make everything else possible.
They make the tree blossom and thrive.
The deeper the roots the harder it is to tear it up.

I was thinking about what are some things that I might not loose.
How about the Lord’s Prayer?
I have been with people while they were dying, and I have said the Lord’s Prayer and seen people’s mouths moving with the words.
What about the 23 psalm?
This is another well known piece of scripture that we can recite.
Perhaps that is something that never leaves us.
I was once praying with a family in a waiting room as they waited for a loved one who had been in a car crash.
After I was done praying all 15 members of this family in unison started to recite the 23 psalm from memory.
It was powerful.
It was rooted into this family that even in this time God was right there with them.
And they went back to those roots for their strength.

What if we don’t have those roots?
It is never too late to start planting.
We have the opportunity to lay those foundations today.
God is always waiting and eager to have us discover the love and grace he has in store for us.

This advent is a great time to become reacquainted with our roots.
Advent is a time to not only waiting, but to remember what Jesus means for us.
Lots of people have bumper stickers and buttons that say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
I hope those stickers and battens are about more than merely spending less money, having the clerk at Target say Merry Christmas instead of happy holidays, or having a Christmas tree in the town square.
It is about reconnecting to the source, to the roots of who we are and what we are about as God’s people.
Are we about Good News for all people?
Are we about love?
Are we about grace?
Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.
The root of all things is this simple song.

This Christmas may we be rooted in that love.
May we share it with the world.
May we revel in God’s redemptive act, of sending Jesus Christ into our lives and into the world.