Tuesday, December 23, 2014


On Thursday my wife and I were sitting in our living room enjoying a moment to talk at the end of a busy day.
I looked up on the mantel over our fire place and noticed that something was different this year.
The manager scene that we put up every year looked better for some reason.
It looked different because unlike in years past, we didn’t surround it with lights, greens, or family photos.
It was on the mantel all by itself.
This made it easier to see, and made it stick out as the center piece of the room when you looked at from our couch.
We didn’t overshadow it with other things.

The Angel, in this morning’s Gospel from Luke, tells Mary that she will be “Overshadowed” by the power from the Most high.
One of the things I love about the Biblical story is the way that just one word can stick out.
And for me this year this word stuck out.
Probably because my kids and I were having a discussion about how Jesus was born.
Who was Jesus father?
And in Luke’s telling of the story this is the explanation from the angel about what is going to happen.
But what does it mean to be overshadowed by the Most High?

I was thinking about all the things in our lives that can/do overshadow Christmas.
Like our mantel that had so many things on it that our manger scene was overshadowed.
What are the things that keep us from seeing clearly into the manger, what stops us from seeing God with us this season?
The over commercialization of the season, the feeling that we have to do it the “right way”, the pressure to make sure that our families are happy.
And for some the overshadowing can come in real painful ways, the loss of a loved one at this time of year, the inability to travel to be with our families.
And then there are things that simply make it impossible to believe that God’s kingdom has no end.
We know of the news that tells us that the world is falling apart.
We live in a world where children are killed in school by religious extremists to prove a point in the middle of an internal struggle.
We live in a world where police officers are killed in while on patrol.
We live in a world of bravado that seeks to use violence as the way to solve problems.
We live in a world where justice is hard to find, and where there is no justice there is no peace.
We live in a world where on Christmas Eve there will be families sleeping in a car.
Lots of things are threatening to overshadow Christmas this year.
The overshadowing seeks to make the darkness find a permanent home in our lives this season.

Things were probably not that different for Mary.
Her world was about to change dramatically.
It was about to be upset and turned around.
How would she explain to those around her this pregnancy?
She knew that in her world it could mean death.
Maybe Joseph would think that she was lying and have her stoned to death for having an affair.
At best he would be compassionate and simply ask for their engagement to be off.
Mary was in danger, that fear could have overshadowed her.
Not only that, but Mary doesn’t seem to know what is happening to her.
She was perplexed by the Angels words.
So Mary is at first fearful and doubtful.
She was in jeopardy of being overshadowed by those two things, but the angel promises that it will be God who will overshadow her and take away doubt and fear.

I am wondering if we will be overshadowed this Christmas.
Will we be overshadowed by greed, fear, injustice, sadness?
These are all very real things in our lives.
Or will we be overshadowed by the power of the Most High.
Will we stand in awe of what God is doing, will do.
Will we risk the faith to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

What would have happened if Mary had not accepted God’s proposal?
This would have been a very different story.
God would have taken another path, and done something different.
But in faith Mary accepts what the angle says.

If you have heard me preach before you will know I am not big on our personal choices.
I just don’t believe that much of what happens to us we can choose.
Most of what happens in our lives is out of our control, and we too often operate with the illusion of control.
But here is this exception.
We don’t choose faith, but we do accept it.
We do accept God and God’s plan for our lives.
It overshadows the fear that we feel, the uncertainty we have, and the other things that seem to overshadow our lives.

And in this final week of advent we light a candle for peace.
We seek a peace that seems so elusive, so out of our abilities to obtain it.
But if we are willing to allow God to overshadow us, through everything else we can see peace in our lives.
What Mary does is surrender to the idea that she is not in control.
And in faith we can too.
Here am I.
I don’t fully understand.
I am worried about what this will mean.
I don’t know what will happen next.
But Lord I stand in faith.
I stand here putting my life into your hands.
That is what Christmas brings us, an unbelievable story.
It is a story about a broken world, hurting, afraid, doubtful, and full of violence.
And into the middle of that we are met with something unexplainable that overshadows everything else.
And we stand in awe and wonder.
We find in that story faith in something too marvelous for us to explain.
We find God who was willing to give up heavenly majesty walk among us, to dwell with us.
We find a God willing to be born a vulnerable baby.

Only in faith can we embrace such a story.
But what I think we find is when we are able to accept this story in faith than we are overshadowed by its beauty, wonder, and might.
We are overshadowed to know that we don’t have a God that doesn’t understand what it is to be week and mild, like us.
We have a God that is weak and mild for us.
We don’t have a God that we have to guess about what it means.
We have a God that came down and showed us what true love, hope, joy, and peace look like.
We have a God who risks becoming a human out of love for all humanity.

And that is what stands out.
That is what overshadows us this Christmas season.
It overshadows all the decorations, sadness, brokenness, and injustice that we experience and know.
May that be what your Christmas is about.
Clearing away the greens and lights to see God come down to overshadow us, and the Holy Spirit comes upon us.
So we might say with Mary that we to don’t understand the plan and we too are doubtful, but here we are, we stand in faith.
May God overshadow you this Christmas so that you know the hope, love, joy, and peace that comes with believing.

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.