Sunday, January 14, 2018

“Nowhere But Up!”

A sermon based upon Jonah 1: 17-2:10, NIV
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 14th, 2018,   Winter Bible Study 2018, Sermon 2 of 4

When my wife traveled to Europe, I purchased an app so I could watch her plane in the sky. It’s amazing to catch a view of all those planes from radars stationed all over the world.
When you fly, or even when you plane watch on a PC, you get a completely different view of the world. Somehow it all seems small and connected.  As the Bete Midler song says, “From a Distance, there is harmony!...From a Distance, there is more than enough…”

In our second message from Jonah, we also get a unique view and perspective; not from high in the sky, but from the deep, from the bottom ‘of the deep blue sea.’ But this is no tourist destination. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, has been thrown overboard, and has been swallowed by a big, hungry fish.

“IN MY DISTRESS I CALLED….”
Interestingly, Jonah does not have to be here. He has volunteered for this trip.  It seems that he would rather be anywhere except in the will of God.  Jonah instructed the sailors to throw him overboard (1:12) to save their ship. But Jonah is no hero like Leonardo Di Caprio character on the in Titanic, sacrificing his life for others.  Jonah would rather be dead than obey his God who loves the whole world.

From our point of view, Jonah is foolish. If Jonah had gone to Nineveh, he might still be alive, even if his life had been at risk.  But here he is, following his own wishes, stubbornly going it alone.   In short, Jonah ‘does it his way’, remember Sinatra and Elvis’ theme song: “I Did it My Way!”   Jonah, did, so now, here he is, at the bottom---rock bottom.

So how does it look at the bottom, Jonah? Is it more peaceful, more satisfying, more fulfilling, and more meaningful?  It doesn’t sound so, when Jonah says: “The deep surrounded me” (2:6).   As I write, news reports are saying that US has greatest drug problem in the world. We have so much wealth, freedom, rights; but we are also the most addicted country in the world. We are a country were money, power and sex means abuse and corruption. Our own freedom leads to living hallow lives that end in desperation and despair.

As churches empty and faith wanes, we are sinking faster than a rock. But at least we are still free!  Would we also, as a people, rather be anywhere, on our own, rather than be in the will of God, or doing the work of God?   But what is that? Let’s read on.

 SALVATION COMES FROM THE LORD…. (v. 9)
There is one thing you should start to see more clearly, from the bottom. It’s something you can’t always clearly see while living your life ‘on top’.  What Jonah begins to see first, is that he is definitely not where he should be.

Most of us know this to be true.  Even at the bottom atheists instinctively pray. Why is that? Why is it that even the most self-secure and most self- assured people, also pray in a time of crisis?  Why was it, right after 911 that the churches were filling up?  Why is it that Universities have prayer vigils and act like church communities when tragedies strike?   What is it that finally drives us all to our knees? What is it that we can see at the bottom that can’t normally see?   What Jonah sees, is what we all will one day see. if there is any salvation at all, as one translation says,   ‘salvation belongs to our God!’ (NET, v. 9).

Jonah sees, what the atheistic French existentialist Philosopher Jean Paul Sarte also saw, when he examined life without God and rightly entitled his fatal diagnosis of that examination: No Exit. There is no way up or out without faith in God who is our only true hope.  This too is now Jonah dilemma.   His decision and the result reflects our own, when we also don’t want God, or to go God’s way, and we let the world choose for us.  Then, the world throws us into the waves so we, without making a real choice, eventually sink in the deep.

But as Jonah realizes he is sunk, something unexpected happens. Might it also happen to us?  That is my hope.   As Jonah is being swallowed up by the forces of life into death, he finally gains the insight he did not have before.  At the very bottom of life, in the dark and in the deep below, he starts to look up and revisits his need to pray to the God whom he now realizes is his only hope.   It is there all alone, on rock bottom, all swallowed up that Jonah prays. He sees his hope, and claims it.  He cries out his only last hope, as it is realized: “Yet you brought up my life...” Jonah prays.  You God are my only way out.

Here, reading Jonah’s prayer, we should also see that this is not a simple children’s story, nor is it a straight forward story about a runaway preacher, but this is the human story, a faith story, an allegory, of what is true about every human life. We will all one day find ourselves where we never dreamed or imagined we would be.  Like that worker in the Las Vegas hospital, who expressed its own feelings, as the mass of wounded came in, after being shot by a shooter from a hotel window:   “Is this real!”  (http://www.11alive.com/article/news/nation-now/is-this-real-seven-hours-of-chaos-bravery-at-las-vegas-hospital-after-mass-shooting/465-8e2953ae-2127-447f-9a51-42cec4cabf27).

When I, as a teen, I was critically injured in an auto crash, but still very alert. As the pain increased, my first thought was ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ It was like a bad dream. Like most, I’d never thought the worst.  I never thought this would happen to me.  However, this was the reality that came to me, and if you are conscious enough to realize and reflect, the worst could, and in some way, will come to you to, and to anyone or eventually everyone.   The worst happens to someone every day.  As our Christian faith affirms, this is a fallen world.  It is a world, still in process, going somewhere, and it has not yet arrived at it’s final destination.

While some might realize such a threatening reality to all of us, and turn to ‘howl at the moon’, or ‘curse God and die’,  as Job was tempted to do, the only right and most reasonable conclusion is the one Jonah made that was expressed near the end of this prayer: “Salvation belongs to our God!”    Why does Jonah take this route, rather than to merely ‘die’ his in isolation and ‘quiet desperation?   Why does Jonah choose to reach and make a leap of faith into the dark, and trust God?  

It is certainly an option to refuse to come to faith, to choose faith, to risk faith, or to return to simple, childlike faith.  Why does Jonah choose to turn to God for his ‘salvation’ or ‘deliverance’ as some translations have it?    What we see here, is that in Jonah’s plight, he also realizes that his situation is not innocent, and what is now happening to him was also not necessary in this moment.   In other words, Jonah, does not have to be here.  He is like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable, he could have done otherwise.  He could have chosen differently.  Because he has chosen foolishly to go his own way---a way which now puts him at rock bottom, he understands that he had the capacity to have done better.   The ‘salvation’ he now sees in in God, is a salvation that was a ‘salvation’ from God, but needed to also be ‘chosen’ and ‘lived’ and ‘obeyed’ by him, as he chose God.  

God gave Jonah the capacity, the mind, the will to choose and to decide.  God fitted him, and chose him, and gave his gifts and expected Jonah to us them.   So, why did he choose to do otherwise?  Well, why do any of us ‘choose’ to stupid, life threatening things?   Why do we have gifts we never use, do things that shorten our lives, or fail to ‘trust and obey’?   Have you ever ended up in a place you have foolishly chosen, then realized you choose wrong?  Haven’t we all made a wrong turns, gone down the wrong roads, made a poor choices?  This is the stuff of life---the stuff, that we learn and grown from. 

But just as we can learn from most everything we do, there are, in our lives, lines we dare not cross, mistakes we can’t learn from, and there are dead ends, or points of no return.   Temporal Life, that is human life, and is physical life; does have it limits.   Remember those guys in fly suits, who were using their “Go Pros” to film themselves flying off mountains, defying the laws of nature or physics, and daring the rocks not to ‘come up and hit them’?  You know the story: the physics won.  While most of us would not dare tempt natural law this way, but what about the fool tempts God, the fool who only lives for the ‘god’ he wants, or the fool who thinks that his or her life is their own life to live any way they want?  What will he/she crash into that proves them wrong? How will it look when we get what we want, but we end up not wanting what we got?

In the 60’s and 70’s, the sexual revolution exploded in American culture.  Lines that were once considered sacred where crossed and many felt ‘set free’.  While a new spirit of ‘openness’ was released into our culture, few of that world were thinking about why rules and taboos about ‘sex’ had been imposed by Victorian cultures?   Few thought about the consequences of these actions.  Now, today, as we see New Reporters, Sport Stars, Politicians, Business Leaders, and even Presidents weakened and often destroyed by scandals, can we see why some of these ‘taboos’ and ‘conservatisms’ were in place?   In another realm, the sexual revolution launched an a new spirit of ‘freedom’ or as the French say, “Laize Faire” into the culture, and now, in recent days, we read and heard reports of School Teachers, who teach and educate our children, being overworked, under-supported, and over-stressed.  It all boils down, not to ‘bad kids’, but to the breakdown of a culture, where there are no rules, no disciples, and no moral lines, with moral authority of leaders to have the power to do what is right and say what is wrong.   We are a culture who got what we wanted, and now, are beginning to question, do we really want what we got?   (http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/10/26/559914440/teachers-report-stressed-anxious-students-in-the-age-of-trump).

“…GOD’S LOVE FOR THEM  (v. 8).
The story of Jonah, like his prayer, has Jonah admitting his own foolish choice and his consequential despair, but the story does not end there.   The profound statement of desperation turned to hope comes when Job “remembered’ the Lord.   Instead of ending in judgment and Hopelessness, this story turns toward hope, as Jonah casts himself upon God’s steadfast, faithful, redeeming love.   This was the place, Jonah did not want to go before, but now he has no other choice than to place himself at the mercy of God’s faithful love.   This is what his prayer means when he says,       “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you,
LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple (v.7)” Then Jonah, continues by quoting something that sounds like what he learned as a child: “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love” (v. 8).  Powerful, but how is it true?

Do you realize what you lose when you go after unnecessary things, when you leave God out of your life, when you put something else ‘first’ in your heart, in your family, or in your way of deciding how or what you live?  When misplace  the ‘love of God’ that is ‘for you’, and your personal relationship with this God who loves, who wants to guide you, help you, save you, that you have traded all that loving power and spirit, for an impersonal, stupid, life-zapping ‘idol’ who can’t hear, see, or care about you?  You may ‘care’ and give your soul to the idol you have bowed down to, but that ‘idol’ cares nothing about you.  Why would we do such a thing?  Why did Jonah idolize his own choice over his obedience to God?  Jonah did, for what he thought was ‘good’ for him, or what he wanted for himself, or what he didn’t want to see in others.  Jonah choose ‘other’ than God’s will, and what Jonah choose to be his ‘concern’, or his ‘ultimate concern’ (Tillich) became the god of his life.  But this was no true God, but was still a god, that now, would, in the end, result in him being cast ‘overboard’ without love, and without life.

Sometimes, as a pastor, I still am amazed at what can have in life, and what great potential we have as human beings, as a church, and as the people of God, and what we say we want, but I’m am also constantly disheartened, by what we also choose not to have, and not to become, as we continually choose life without putting God and his ‘life’ first in our lives.  What do we think we can really have, or really become?   I’ve mentioned before, a book I read recently about how 80 year old, Baptist evangelist and professor, Tony Campolo, has a son named Bart, who has now cast away his faith in God, and became a humanist minister for the University of Southern California.  In a brutally honest book,   Bart Campolo, the son, writes about ‘Why I Left the Christian Faith’ while the Father writes about ‘Why I Stayed’ in the Christian Faith.  

One chapter that grabbed my attention, was as the Father, spoke about speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, several years ago, before all those scandals began there.  Tony Campolo, being a University Sociology Professor, who has faith in Jesus, tried to reason with many of those students about why, they needed “Jesus”.   His argument was amazing, as he shared with them how Jesus was the perfect example of who we all need to be as human beings; caring, empathetic, understanding, merciful, and faithful.   If you ask anyone what a human being should be, Jesus fits the bill, in any psychology book, any sociology book, any book of literature of philosophy.   In Jesus, Campolo explained, Jesus took on flesh to show us how to be human beings. 

After putting the message of Jesus in words most of those students could understand, some wanted to know more, so Tony went to talk more with them in a smaller group.  He reaffirmed you can’t be or keep being a humanist, or a fully actualized human being; that is, you can’t reach your full potential as a human being, unless you somehow grapple with Jesus’ life, example, his promise of what and who we can be, is itself, as gift from God---that is, from a loving God---who came to us, lived with us, cared with us, and died for us,  and was raised from the dead---all to mercifully model, share, and enable us to live the kind of human life that was lived by Jesus Christ.  But do you know, even after all of this, after admitting that this was something they needed after acknowledging that Jesus was someone they needed, most of them said this was something they just could not accept for their lives.

While those students, have long graduated, and gone on to live their lives, I wonder what they now think of needed Jesus after all the sex and hazing scandals, abuse and even deaths, that have occurred among students adrift in the world, at a university that can teach and believe almost anything, except Jesus.  Can they now see, as Jonah saw: “Those who cling to worthless idols, turn away from God’s love for them.”

We also, like Jonah, and like those students in Pennsylvania, have no other real, true, choice in life, than to choose the love that has chosen us.  Do you realize this too?  It is not easy for those who have freedom to realize that even freedom has limits or that the spirit of love calls us to have only one true love.   In recent days evangelicals argue about whether or not there is a hell, or others wonder how God could allow so much suffering in the world. It’s hard for minds who haven’t been humbled to realize that life has limits.   In the question about hell, or suffering, which both are similar questions that point to the true restriction of human freedom, for the sake of life, not death.  Those who are most free find it most difficult to accept that we really have no choice, except to choose life, and to choose love. How can remain and realize you are free, unless to choose the love that cause you to be and do right?

For me, the only reasonable answer about hell, suffering, pain, and death too, is that we humans live to learn that the only true choice we have is to love. As CS Lewis observed, the door to hell is Only locked from within, in our hearts and in our choice to chose or reject or only choice—which is Love.  This is why when the NT speaks of Jesus unjust suffering and death, Jesus is understood to be in three day in the earth as Jonah was in belly of the big fish. Jesus chose to accept his suffering for others and for love, because he trusted that love would deliver him, and the God who is love did.

This is the same love we must choose—our only real choice, in life, freedom, faith, suffering, or death is to discover, at the bottom of the deepest, darkest, most depressing place, we find the God who is still faithful in love. Amen

Sunday, January 7, 2018

“Run, Jonah, Run!”

A sermon based upon Jonah 1: 1-16, NIV 
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 7th, 2018

Today’s sermon title has a familiar ring: “Run, Jonah, Run!” intentionally sounds like that memorable line the popular movie about Forest Gump, “Run, Forest, Run!”.
Forest Gump was a fictional character; a somewhat mentally challenged young man, who was taught by his mother that ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna to get.’  Life was stacked against him, especially after his mother died.  He had to learn to survive in the world on his own, which was quite a challenge for someone like him.  But the love and wisdom of Forest’s mother, played by Sally Fields, lived on inside of Forest’s head and heart, so that he not only survived, but he thrived, as he kept ‘running’ his way through life.  No matter what happened, good or bad, sickness, war, social protest, economic meltdown, or unexpected tragedies, Forest didn’t stop running.  He never gave up.  He overcame all kinds of obstacles, which would have reasonably stopped most people.  But Forest was not ‘normal’ and this worked to his advantaged, as long as he followed his ‘heart’.

Critics and Movie experts will say that Forest Gump is a wonderful picture of the American ‘can do’ spirit, portrayed by this fictional American living through the major events of the 20th century.  The movie won the “Best Picture” Oscar, perhaps because it underscores America’s ‘goodness and innocence’ in in spite of our shortcomings.  While some critics saw the movie as naïve and overly simplistic, most saw it as a classic, giving moviegoers a classic overview of who we are, and where we have been, as a country.  However, you view it, the point is clear, “Life is worth living, so don’t stop. Run, Forest, Run!”  Now, “that’s all I’ve got to say about that”.

As we start this New Year together, there are many things that America still has going for her; just as there are also many things appearing as obstacles in our way.  Life is this way, not just now, but always.  So, we’ve got to keep moving.  We’ve got to keep trying.  We’ve got to keep running, working, and doing the things that make life work.  We’ve got to be careful, not just to ‘take life as it comes’, but we’ve also got ‘run’ in the right directions and to be responsible in good we have to do.

This is what brings us to one of the most beloved stories of the Bible, the Book of Jonah.  Jonah, in many ways, is a book that tells us ‘a whale of a tale’ about a prophet who also was running.   But instead of running toward his responsibilities, Jonah was running away from them.   So, today, as we begin to study Jonah’s story, these first weeks of this new year, let’s begin by consider ‘why’ Jonah is running in the wrong direction.  A better title for this message: “Stop, Jonah!  Face up to your responsibility!

JONAH SET OUT TO FLEE. (3)  Reason’s to Leave?
As this story begins, God has told Jonah to ‘go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me’ (2).   This is the prophet’s job, to take the risk to ‘step on some toes’, right?   But Jonah does not want to.   He runs away from the presence of God and heads in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish.  Take note: Jonah is not just getting on a boat to merely escape his job, but Jonah is trying to ‘get away from the presence of the LORD’ (3).

This is a peculiar predicament, isn’t it?  Everyone knows you can run from God, but you really can’t hide.  God knows.  God sees.  God goes wherever we go.  The Jews taught this.  Christians still teach this.   Common sense also tells us: You just can’t run from God.  You can’t turn from your responsibility, and live.  But we still try, don’t we?

What is it that causes Jonah to want to run from the God he can’t outrun?  Well, what made me try to run from my mama, or you from yours?  What made Adam and Eve, try to hide in the garden?   What would that be?   In this story, we see that Jonah is not simply running from God, but he is trying to escape his own responsibility as a prophet, to preach and tell the truth.  Nineveh, these people who are not Jews, also need to hear the truth, but this prophet does not want to go there.  He does not want to get involved.  He wants to keep living his own kind of life.  He wants to keep ‘doing his own thing.’  Besides, who wants to go to Nineveh, anyway?  Jonah is a Jew.  His God is also the God of the Jews.  Who cares about what happens to the people in Nineveh?

There are so many ‘truths’ that immediately pop up in this story, it’s hard to know which one to address first.   First, you’ve got a job or career problem---a job Jonah doesn’t want to do, especially when it gets difficult.  You’ve also got an ethical, or moral problem---should you tell someone else their sin, or should you stick to your own?  Then, you’ve also got the religious problem.  Perhaps Jonah feels he needs to keep his religion to himself, since it is gets really personal, so maybe it should stay that way.  Then, finally, there’s also the political problem—Jonah is stepping across cultural, political and ethnical boundaries, to try to universalize a moral truth, that some say should relative.  “Jonah, you stay with your God, we already have a god, thank you very much!”  Whoever’s should say that Ninevah is ‘wicked’ ought to be Ninevah and her own prophets, doesn’t Jerusalem have enough ‘sins’ of her own.   “Keep, it all to yourself, Jonah!”  Wow!  Can’t you just see all these ‘hot button’, living, issues that we are still dealing with,  all wrapped up in Jonah’s ‘no’ to God.

While we aren’t ‘prophets’, I wonder what might make our own reluctance answer God’s call in our own lives.  Certainly, these days, a lot of people seem to be saying more ‘noes’ to God’s presence, call, and command in their lives, than are saying ‘yes’.   Do you feel like that?  Why is there all this reluctance to answer God’s call, right now? 
In our own American religious landscape, we are going the way of Europe has already gone, but faster, in that there are more people who claim to be of ‘no’ religious persuasion at all.   Many have come to believe that ‘faith’ is not necessary to be a ‘good person’ and that they can do just as much for the world without needing to invite the ‘presence of God’ into their lives.  

A good example, is Bart Campolo, son of an evangelical minister, Tony Campolo.  Bart Camplolo, who now serves as Humanist Chaplain at USC, that he can do all the things he used to do as a Christian ministry, better without inviting God into the conversation.  He says God complicates things.   He says God makes people feel guilty.  He says that it is much better to get people to do good things in the world because they want to do good things, than give them the burden of having talk about or believe in God.  People want to do good, so let them just do it, and he has found it better to leave God out of the whole picture.  “I didn’t walk away from God…I don’t disrespect religious people…no I’ve learned from then, but “I just don’t need God to do the good that needs to be done.”

This may be the viewpoint of more and more millennials, and many others too, as we watch the continual decline in church membership and Christian faith in the United States.  But what do we also see happening as people appear to be ‘running away’ from God’s presence, at least in a public way?   Do we see the dark social, political and ethical clouds rising on the horizon?   Do we also see the loss of kindness, and our inability to have civil social discourse?  Do we see that even our whole American dream might be too difficult to maintain, without inviting and engaging the mystery of God into our personal and public lives?

What I see too often, as a pastor, is people who grew up Christian, who were baptized and know that their baptism comes with certain calls to discipleship and responsibility, trying to have their ‘cake’ and to ‘eat it too’.  We want the world that our parents had, but who wants to stay, face, and own up to the responsibilities?  For without responsibility, taking full responsibility for the communities, the families, the faith, and the nation we love, we won’t keep what we’ve had, nor have the chance to build on what we’ve been given.

Whatever impulse caused Jonah shirk his responsibility, it is the same choice we all have, with each and every responsibility or gift we’ve been given.  The question of most every life is simply this:  Are we going to face up and accept the responsibility or vocation that is ours, or will we turn or run away to ‘let somebody else do’ it?    

A MIGHTY STORM CAME… (4)  God’s stormy love.
But again, no sooner does Jonah run, than the storm clouds came up.  This story reflects a spiritual reality that none of us can escape.  When we skirt our callings, our gifts, and our responsibility, there are consequences.  However you want to look at what is happening to the world around us; as we hear constantly of not only increasingly world threats, but also of constant local threats and fears of crime and mass murders, we can clearly see that the ‘storm clouds’ of consequences are on the rise in the western world that seems to have, at least publically, turned its face away from God’s living, abiding, and loving presence.

Who’s the first to get ‘hurt’ when the storms come?  Who do people blame when things fall apart?   Well, just look in this story, and see how the crew of the ship, when the winds began to blow, put 2 and 2 together and decided that the reluctance and unfaithfulness of this religious passenger name Jonah was to blame.  In this story, it was wasn’t just the of anybody that brought the storm that ‘rocked the boat’.  No, what brought the storm to threatened the lives on that ship was the sin of unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, or avoidance, of the God of God by one of God’s own.

What does it take for evil to flourish?”  Edmund Burke once asked.  All it takes is that ‘good people do nothing’.  In other words, all it takes is for people who know better, to put their ‘head in the sands’ like an Ostrich, or to ‘turn away and pretend they didn’t see it happen or hear the screams’.   Yesterday, I stumbled across the website of a schoolmate of mine, who appears to have become very philosophical, perhaps even Buddhist, and sometimes a little off center in his mind, but don’t underestimate what even a troubled mind can see and say.   He posted on his Facebook page something that sounded a lot like Jesus might have said, and it haunted me, as a I reflected upon it.   It went something like:
You wanna know what God looks like? 
       He looks like the person you just discriminated against,
the hungry person you just ignored, the people you just bombed,
          the homeless man you shook your head at,
the old man you left in the nursing home,
          the child you just hollered at, the lonely person you abandoned,
the dog you just ran over, the river you just filled with oil,
                     or the heart you just condemned….”

My classmate can be a little emotional and opinionated at times, but he can also speak prophetically at times.  What I often hear in his words are many of the very problems our world faces, exactly because we don’t see God’s presence in the simple, normal, everyday moments of our lives.  When we omit God, even in ‘the least of these’, the storm clouds will rise, and the strong winds will come.  How far do we have to run away from the truth we all need to face, until we finally realize, as the saying goes, ‘that you can run, but you can’t hide’?  Jonah ran, but he couldn’t really hide.  The ‘truth’ came out, and it was the truth that even his own shipmates had heard coming from his own lips.  Folks, you can’t overlook the fact that this text says that it was truth from Jonah’s own ‘unfaithful lips’ that gave him away (1:10). 



WHAT SHALL WE DO… (11).  The right question of salvation
I, like you, like all of us, have tried to run away from what I know I should do.   But now, in this story, Jonah learns.  Jonah learns that God will not let us go, at least, not without trying to get us back on track.  This story is not the story of a God who comes to take revenge.  Yes, the storm comes.  Jonah is singled out.  He is thrown overboard into the waves.  He comes to realize he must take responsibility because God knows where he is.  But God comes to take Jonah back alive, just like God hunts us down to give us back the life we know we should live.

Next week, we will get to this, and learn how Jonah gets caught by God’s love and God’s will, but today, as I conclude, I want us to return to the question on the hearts of these sailors, whose ship was about to sink in the stormy purposes of God.  These sailors are the ones who put 2 plus 2 together.  They are the ones who figure out how Jonah is not supposed to running away from his calling.  They realize, with Jonah’s help, that this unsettling storm points to the most important ‘unsettled’ issue of all.  So, following Jonah’s request, they throw him overboard, but at first, the waves get even wilder.  So, then, they start to cry to the Lord, Israel’s God, whom they didn’t know from from Adam’s housecat.  But now, most unexpectedly to Jonah, and to us, these pagans, now turn to the LORD, for help.

Now, don’t try to read too much into all the detail.  Let the story as a whole do its work.  This is not a story about how we settle our all our problems, especially not by putting all the blame someone.  When you are on a wind-tossed ship you need to keep your eyes on the big picture.   That’s what I told my wife once, when we were on a ship crossing the English channel if 50 knot winds.  As the winds tossed us and our car around, she was getting sea sick, so I told her to keep her eyes on the horizon, and not the watch the waves.   This is what the story of Jonah is also asking us to do.  Don’t get caught every detail, but keep your eye on the big picture. 

Again, this is not a story about ‘who’s to blame’, but it’s a story about calling us to look straight into God’s heart.  It’s easy to look at our problems from the wrong point of view.  We can get caught up in blame, shame, guilt, and miss what we need to see, know, and understand.   Here, for the sailors, getting to the main issue was a matter of life and death, and they couldn’t mess around.  If we want to face our own responsibilities in life, we can’t get bogged down in feelings, but must face the hard questions, do what can be most difficult, and come to terms with what matters most so we can ‘save the ship’.

What will bring ‘salvation’ to our own storm tossed ship?  Do don’t need to appease God by throwing the unfaithful overboard (which by the way didn’t work), but we certainly do need to address our own ‘unfaithfulness’ as part of the problem that allows so many moral and ethical storms around us.  But, if you look deeper, you will see that what these sailors are doing is much more than throwing unfaithful Jonah overboard or merely feeling sorry for themselves. They are looking for a true way to face the problem, not because of what God must do to stop it, but to discover what they must do.  The point is that these sailors are not like Jonah.  They know they can’t escape the waves, the storm, and the threat, unless they acknowledge the presence, will, and purposes of God.  So, they face the problem head on, and at Jonah’s request, cast him overboard, straight into the ways and waves of God’s will.

What these sailors did not realize, at least at first, was that God is there, already there, right there, in the midst of the storm and the waves.  By casting Jonah into the stormy waves, the storm still wasn’t calmed, not until they themselves put their own lives in God’s hands.   This is where the repentance begins, not by casting blame, but by our coming to God.   Will we do that?   Can we face the waves and confront the real problems by putting ourselves into God’s hands?   Again, we don’t have to throw people overboard, nor condemn, even ourselves, but we do have to face the true problems and the real issues.  If we want God’s help in the storm, we must do our part present ourselves directly to God and his compassion for us? 

One of the all-time classic novels and movies, as you well know, is Gone with the Wind. You may not know, however, that the original story had more than just a kernel of truth in it. There was a Rhett Butler, but his real name was Rhett Turnipseed. Scarlet O'Hara was Emelyn Louise Hannon.
In fact, Rhett did walk out on her and joined the Confederate Army. When the war was over, Rhett Turnipseed became a drifter and gambler. He ended up in Nashville, where his life was turned around on Easter morning in 1871 when he attended a Methodist revival meeting and became a committed Christian.
Soon after, Rhett Turnipseed enrolled at Vanderbilt University and became a Methodist preacher. He was worried about a young woman in his flock who had run away and was working in a house of prostitution in St. Louis.
This godly pastor rode off to look for her and found her, but incredibly the madam of this house was his former love, Emelyn Louise Hannon—or Scarlet. She refused to let Rhett see the young woman, so Rhett challenged her to a game of cards. If he won the young girl would be free, if Scarlet won she would remain and Rhett won.
Well, the story had a happy ending. The young girl married well and became the matriarch of a leading family in the state. Emelyn was so impressed with the change in Rhett's life, she also became a Christian and joined the Methodist church. Eventually, she opened an orphanage for Cherokee children. She died in 1903, and her grave is marked to this day.
It just goes to show you that truth is really stranger than fiction. The book of Jonah fits into that category. When a man catches a fish, that's not big news, but when a fish catches a man, that is big news.  Acknowledging God’s presence, which we can’t escape, is the way the threats to our own ship of life, can be answered, so that we can have the salvation God desires for us all.  Amen.  

Sunday, December 24, 2017

“He Came Preaching Peace”

A sermon based upon Ephesians 2:13-22, NIV 
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4rd Sunday of Advent, December 24th, Christmas Eve, 2017  

Christmas is almost here; and almost over too for those who can’t wait to get back to normal, to get back on your diet, or to move along into the coming new year. 

So, now that we are almost there, and we are near the climax of this year’s Christmas celebration, what will remain, what joys will last beyond the fun we’ve had; beyond the presents we give to others, or we have had given to us?  And what is the most important ‘gift’ we still need to keep, not just for Christmas, but for the days, weeks, and months still ahead. 

I can’t think of any greater ‘gift’ we need this Christmas, than the hope for ‘peace’.  As we all know, this has been a noisy year for national and world politics.   News reports say that planes carrying Nuclear Weapons have been moved to the front of our airstrips, for the first time since the Cold War.   This comes with the increasing threats coming from North Korea, not only as this rogue nation has tested and armed its own nuclear arsenal, but as our own government has expressed its determination to act and retaliate with ‘complete destruction’ if any ‘threat’ is carried out.  In a world constantly threatened by ‘wars and rumors of war’, with ‘division’, extremism, and radical, religious, but also human evil, is there any gift more valuable this year than‘peace’?

YOU WHO ONCE WERE FAR OFF… (13)
Our text today, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is not normally considered to be a Christmas text, but it does point us to the heart of what it means to have peace.  It tells us that Jesus himself, came into this world to preach ‘peace’ (2:17).   These words echo the words of the angels, who when announcing Christ’s birth greeted lowly Shepherds with greetings for peace:  “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace…good will toward men’ (KJV, Luk. 2:14).”  You know the words.  They are some of the greatest words of Christmas, and they are words for ‘peace’.

What Paul helps us to clarify, is that this hope for peace is not just about any peace.   During the day Jesus lived, there was a peace across the world known as the “Pax Romina” or the “Roman Peace”, but this was a peace that was man made, humanly manipulated,  forced and often a cold, cruel way to peace.   In contrast, the ‘peace’ that Jesus came to preach is a peace that is not immediately visible, coming from deep within.   It is a peace of the human heart that has peace with God, because God has first made peace with us.  This is what Paul means when he says, “You who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (13).   It is God, who in Jesus Christ ‘was reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor. 5:19), who ‘made peace’ by his blood (Rom. 5:1).  “Even while we were still sinners,”  Paul says,  “Christ died for us”(Rom. 5:8).

The peace that God offers to us, ‘through’ the death of his only Son, is the peace that comes from knowing that God has made the first move, the first offer, and the great sacrifice, to ensure that ‘peace’ can come into your life.   For you see, when Paul speaks about being ‘far off’, he is not talking about only being separated from other people, but he is first talking about being separated from God.   Paul is primarily talking to Gentiles, to those who have known little of God’s plan and God’s purpose for peace.  But now,  through Jesus Christ, and through his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead, this plan and purpose is now being sent into the world that is ‘far off’ from everything God has been about.  Paul says to these Gentiles, ‘Remember….you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world’ (12).  Now, that’s far away.  How far away is it?

I saw a Christian Film recently about Human Trafficking in the United States, entitled “Priceless”.  The story is about how a young Christian Mexican girl and her younger sisters, had been falsely told that if they got into a semi-trailor they would have a new start in America.  They were secretly hauled across the border and taken to a hotel, where they would be introduced to a new life, given shelter, food, in exchange for a terrible kind of human slavery, which targets young girls and gives them a life that can destroy them body and soul. 

But in this story, inspired by true events, the man who drove the semi, was unaware of his cargo, until he was nearly run off the road, and heard the screams in back.  He opened the door, and then later opened his heart, to help the young woman and her sister escape, and later became her husband and together they set on a mission to stop human trafficking.   What is most moving about this story, is how not only were the Traffickers exposed, but also the Truck Driver’s own depressed, and wayward heart, was brought home to the faith he needed to get through his own personal ‘separation’ and ‘distance’ from God.   He found ‘peace’ by giving hope, help, and ‘peace’ to another, and the great peace he found for his life was there, to be discovered, in overcoming his distance from God within his own heart.

There are, of course, many ways to describe the ‘distance’ that can grow within us, which separates the person we are with the person we are meant to be.   Who we are meant to be is a people who remain close with God with a persistent hope, but too often, through the struggles and situations of life, we can become ‘far away’ from where we are meant to be.  But no matter where, or how far away we are, Paul says,  God has made the move to bring us back; back home, back to our true heart, and back in right relations with others, by first putting us in right relations with God.  
Isn’t this reconciling move by God at the core of what Christmas is about?   Christmas not just about sitting by a nice warm fire with family and friends, but Christmas is also about getting the warmth into us, so that even ‘strangers’, ‘guests’ and maybe even enemies, can become friends again.   This is something I saw recently in Ken Burns great Documentary on the Vietnam War.  Burns not only used America GI’s to comment on the war, but he also interviewed the enemy, the VIETCONG.  They were now talking freely about the horrors of the war, helping us see it from both sides.  Some of them were commenting how much surprise they had when they saw American military men caring for, even risking their lives, for their fallen in battle.   American soldiers shared how they could never find full closer of the war, until they visited those places again, or  until they shook hands, shared stories, and cried tears, with those who had been their enemies.  There was no closure, until they sat down in ‘peace’ and became friends.

HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE.. (17)
Whatever, however you try to understand what Christmas means you must also accompany it with what Easter means, what Good Friday means, and what all of Christianity means.  Christmas can never stand alone, on its own.   Christmas is a day that not only celebrates the birth of a child, or points us toward the death and resurrection of our Lord, but it also points us to the “peace” God aims to bring to human hearts all year long.  

What I love about this text from Paul, is that he says that Jesus not only came to preach peace to ‘those who far away’, but he also came to preach peace ‘to those who were near’.  God’s peace is never a one side, one person, all for once, event.   God’s peace is a peace that is offered to all the parties, or it is not offered at any at all.  God’s peace is offered to both those who need to draw closer to God; those who are far away, but it is also those offered to those who are already near, so close even that they may not even see their own need for making peace.   What this means is that there is no inward peace, without it also being a shared, outward peace; and there is no true outward peace, without it also being a peace that moves outwardly deep from within, desiring to create community, unity, hope and reconciliation between separated, differentiated, segregated, and marginalized people.  

The peace that Jesus came preaching, was preached to the outcast, the crippled, the brokenhearted, and the despised, who were also being invited to join in God’s family.  In spite of differences or divisions of who we are, where we are, or where we have been in the human family, Jesus aims, through his death, not only to bring people peace with God, but he aims to bring people into peaceful community with each other.   Until we all admit our need for the kind of commonly shared ‘peace’ which ‘seeks and saves those who are relationally and spiritually ‘lost’, then we won’t have a peace that remains for long.   Jesus, as a preacher of peace, came to not only put his spirit of peace within us, but he also came to inspire us to move toward others---especially toward those who are in a different, difficult, or distant place.

In short, the peace that Jesus preached is a ‘reconciling’ peace.  Can’t you see this is the greatest story ever told, the story of the reconciliation between the Prodigal Son and the Waiting Father?  The main emphasis of this story is not the Son who left or came home, but on the Father who waited and welcomed his wayward Son with peace.   This is what made the story conclude the way it did, with the Father throwing a party for his once ‘lost Son’, a son who was lost, but is now returned and is home at last.  It was the ‘peace’ that was already in the heart of the Father, causing him to gladly receive and accept the Son who rebelled and ran away.  This peace within the father gave us this story, and it is the peace of father, a peace that loves and waits on us, that not only enables us to return to God, so that we to may turn toward each other with peace.

Is there any greater Christmas story than a story that includes the reconciliation of people who were once far away, but are now brought back, not only to God, but also to each other?   Life certainly has a way of pulling us apart.  But the joy returns, and becomes even greater, when we find to do the work of peace and come back together again. Years ago, in one of our churches, we put on a play at Christmastime entitled ‘Two Tickets To Christmas’.   It was a story about a family, who had somehow drifted apart, but were again brought back together again at Christmas, through unexpected events.  I looked to find that “Christian musical” on the internet, but was unable.  Perhaps it is a sign of our times that when Christian presence is in decline, that Christian peace, among families, in communities, and also in civil discourse is harder to find.

So, what is it that can bring people together, when life, circumstances, and even cultures can so easily keep us apart?   Is there any message of Christmas that can bring people together?  These days, it seems that religion is more divisive than cohesive.  Even a well-known Christian theologian has said: “There will be no world peace until there is peace between religions (Hans Küng).  So, how can we find a religious, Christian, Christmas message that compels us toward each other, toward our common human needs and hopes, rather than repels us away from each other?  How can people who celebrate faith, and perhaps see reality very differently, sit down with those of other faiths, or who have no faith at all, or have a very secular faith, come together around themes that are inclusive, rather than exclusive of each other? 

FOR HE IS OUR PEACE… (14)
Bringing people together, who differ within the depths of their heart, is almost impossible on regular terms.  This is exactly what  Paul understood, when he wrote in our text; For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law…creating a new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility’ (14-16).  What Paul means here is that peace is not something we can make happen, between us and others, but peace is something Jesus has already accomplished  ‘through the cross’…, that is through his own suffering, sacrifice and death, Paul said, that in that day, in a fundamental way, Jesus had ‘put to death their hostility’.  Jesus had accomplished a new way to peace.

A wonderful way of seeing how Christ’s presence in our hearts can break down ‘hostilities’ between people is to see how Jesus himself, in his life and ministry made a way for peace with those who differed from him.  This story occurs in three of the gospels, beginning with Mark, where the disciples notice someone, who is not one of them, using the ‘name’ and ‘reputation’ of Jesus to cast out demons.  The disciples reported to Jesus, ‘We tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t stop!’  Hearing their report, Jesus responded, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward (Mark 9:39-41).  

Jesus’ approach toward those who not only differ from him, but who also ‘use’ his name to do good, reveals an incredible inner strength and inner peace, as well.  When Jesus gave his guiding principle, ‘Whoever is not against us, is for us’, we see a Jesus, who, out of the peaceful heart, is able to prioritize what really matters,  Of course, people have differences and have differing approaches of doing good, practicing faith, or seeing God.  It is normal to have differing viewpoints, different experiences, because we live in different cultures.  But within these differences we have from each other, the most important concern is what is the intention of the heart.  Do we intend good for others, or do we intend harm?  Jesus saw this person who was not ‘with him’ as being ‘for him’ because he had the same intention of doing good within his heart.

Christmas, when it is rightly celebrated, takes us straight to the heart what God intends for humanity, and how God’s intentions should be received and reflected in us.  Christmas, the coming of Christ, is about God’s intentions ‘for us’.  ‘If God is for us, then who can be against us,” Paul wrote.’  Since God is indeed for us, no one can really be against us, at not in a way that separates us from God’s love.  Having peace, a peace that Christ gives, we can draw closer’ without fear, to those who are ‘far off’ from us, and we can make peace, becoming not just peace ‘havers’, but we can also become peacemakers, in this world that needs Christ, and needs true Christians, and people who know the true meaning of Christmas, as much as ever, so we can all find the way to peace.  

Since Christ himself has accomplished the way of ‘reconciliation’, what we must do, if we want to have and make peace, is to make his way, our way.  We too have to die to self.  We too have to ‘put to death’ the ‘hostility’.  We too, have to offer reconciliation by ‘setting aside’ the ‘law of the flesh’ of what’s right, whether it is righteous or not, and grasp the higher, deeper laws of the heart, or spirit, we call grace.  Only by offering ourselves, can we ‘make peace’ and invite God’s grace into the strife of this world. 

By making Jesus the ‘chief corner stone’ in our own lives, we experience the ‘peace’ that invites us to make peace with those who differ from us.  For, if we want peace, especially among religions, or peace among our differing opinions and politics, we must not force our belief or faith on another, but we must share our own experience with others.  And the experience that always makes for peace is the experience of God’s grace.  Christmas isn’t Christmas, can’t really be Christmas, until we uncover, discover, or recover, the experience of God’s grace.  Grace is where the whole story of God’s peace begins: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (2:8). 

This grace, God’s grace toward us, is the ‘gift’ we must continue to unwrap, if we want to come together in peace with each otherAs I conclude this message, let me ask you, as we make our final approach toward Christmas 2017, what new experience of God’s grace gives you a renewed sense of peace?  What ‘gift’ of grace has God given you to bring peace in the midst of a warring world? 

An interesting ‘grace’ gift this last year, was a newly discovered handwritten note from the brilliant scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, which sold for 1.3 million dollars.  Einstein was a secular Jew, who had only leftover traces of God in his life.  But even with ‘leftovers’ he expressed a jewel of ‘grace’ for some troubled soul, which can be understood by anyone.   The hand-written note, left on a piece of stationary in the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo, reads in German: Stilles bescheidenes Leben gibt mehr Glück als erfolgreiches Streben, verbunden mit beständiger Unruhe.”  Translated it says: “a quiet and humble life brings more joy than a pursuit of success which comes with constant unrest.”  I don’t think Einstein had a lazy life in mind, but I do think he aimed of finding inner peace, not matter your situation or position in life. 

Here again, just one more gift of God’s grace in this noisy, striving, warring world, which you and can now stop and celebrate, as we celebrate the peace with God, which Jesus established.   For he was born to bring us all ‘peace’.    Merry Christmas! 


Sunday, December 17, 2017

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

A sermon based upon Isaiah 9:2-7; Matthew 1:23, 
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3rd  Sunday of Advent, December 17th,   

In October 1843, the writer Charles Dickens was broke and distressed. Despite early successes, his last three books had failed.  Rejected by his publishers, he set out to write and self-publish a book he hoped would keep his family afloat. The story Dickens created is the well-beloved Christmas Story known as “A Christmas Carol.” 

This Christmas, a film called ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ celebrates Dickens masterpiece of prose and his struggle to write and publish it.   While we can still enjoy and appreciate this wonderful classic, we all know that Christmas wasn’t invented by him.  How we celebrate Christmas today has been greatly influenced by him, perhaps even mostly shaped by him, just as our Christmas celebrations have also been shaped by Clement Clarke Moore and his poem, ‘A Visit From St. Nick’, but Christmas, as we know it, wasn’t invented by either Dickens or Moore. 

So how was Christmas invented?  Historically, Christmas Day was first established during the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, around 300 AD.  At that time birthdays were not celebrated as much as “death days” of loved ones, but as the Church became free from persecution and part of mainstream society, it began to celebrate Christmas nine months after it celebrated the ‘Immaculate Conception’ of Jesus on March 25th.  This worked out quite well, because Christians was a fitting alternative to the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice which were filled with reveling and too much drinking for Christians.  Christmas Day, provided the occasion for more humane and reverent celebrations of hope, faith and if course, love.

Today, there is a tendency to return to a more primitive approach and to celebrate Christmas on more secular terms.  In the Broadcasting media we have even seen the attempt to skip term ‘Christmas’ altogether, by using the term “Happy Holidays”.  Even Christians can forget the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas, who once focused on the birth of Jesus Christ.  Christians can sing, celebrate, exchange gifts, but still omit celebrating the core focus of their faith amidst their Christmas party schedules.  “What does it really matter, whether I think about Jesus, religion, church or faith?” we might reason.  What difference does Christmas really make?  Is there really a ‘true meaning’ to Christmas?  I’ll make my on meaning, thank you very much!

THE PEOPLE WHO WALK IN DARKNESS
So, the question for us today is this: Who needs Christmas?  Our text answers: “The people in darkness do.”  While on vacation I saw a news report about a teenager who started a non-profit business to remake clothes for the homeless.  He said: ‘These aren’t second rate people and they deserve much more than second rate clothes’.  He was bringing light into the darkness of this world.  He was bringing ‘light’, he was bringing ‘hope’, and he was bringing ‘Christmas’.   When you are in the darkness, you’ll always need a little light.

During the time when churches were being persecuted in the European Eastern Block, once dominated by atheistic communism,  one Pastor stood up to preach at Christmas and he used today’s text: ‘The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.  On those in deep darkness the light has shined.’  When he preached those words communism had taken over his community.  The church building had been blown up by war and the Christians were not allowed to rebuild.  They were worshipping in small ‘mobile units’ or ‘trailors’.  Their land had become a dark place where there was no public place to turn on the true ‘lights of Christmas’.  But the pastor knew that the faithful had been in a place like this before.   He also knew that somehow they would come into the light again.  “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light….On those…has the light shined’.

When you living in darkness, which Isaiah called ‘deep darkness’ you will need hope for the true light.  Go up to Linville Caverns and walk deep inside those cavern walls, were the light never shines, and experience what I experienced as a child for the first time.   I thought I had been in the dark before.   I had walked in the woods.  I had moved from the city lights to the country nights.  I had spent the night in the woods in a tent and had put out the campfire and turned off the flash light.   But when the tour guide at Linville Caverns turned off the light, the darkness was so strong, it made be light headed, dizzy, disoriented, and even afraid.   Then, he turned the light back on.   He pointed to the fish down in the cavern stream and said, these fish have never seen the light and their eyes do not respond to light.  They are completely blind.   This is what it means live in the darkness.   If you stay in the darkness too long, you will eventually go blind and you will never be able to see again.   That was the first time I encountered what pure darkness means.   It not only means you don’t see, it also means you can’t.   When you live in pure darkness you are unable to see, even when the light shines. This is why the church must continue to bear witness to the light.

Most of us, thank God, have yet to live in a world that is void of physical or moral light.  We are still capable, for the most part, in understanding some difference between what it means to be in a time of moral darkness, and what it means to live in the light.  Our faith has been through dark times, our country has been in dark times too, but it seems that we have always been able to come back into the light.   Not long ago, I watched a movie about the Civil War; one of the darkest times in our American history.  It told the incredible story of how the Southern Army in Virginia needed fresh recruits, so they enlisted young military students from VMI.   These young recruits were to provide backup, but instead, when they saw the battle was being lost, they bravely walked through the mud, out of their shoes, and marched straight into battle.   Many of them courageously lost their lives, and still today, they are remembered at ceremonial roll calls at VMI.  The movie was named, “The Field of Lost Shoes” after the shoes that were found of those brave, young boys, who never came back to wear them again.

Those were ‘dark times’ in our history, which we never want to repeat, so when I heard young people in a new cast, sitting around in a room, expressing their fears that the extremes in social discourse, or in American politics makes them fear another ‘Civil War’ in America, I see that increasing fear that great darkness might return.   There is so much darkness still growing around us, that it can cause any of us to turn to thoughts of ‘doom and gloom’.   Whether it be the fears of an atomic war with North Korea, fears of increasing Islamic radicalism, fears of the European Union falling apart, or even fears of new cold war with Russia, or of new Chinese economic conquest, these fears bring renewed anxiety that the American, or even Christian future, may not be a bright as we once believed it to be.

Perhaps your own experience of ‘great darkness’ has nothing to do with the movements taking place on the world stage, but maybe the ‘darkness’ is closer to your own heart.  Maybe your own struggle with darkness is more personal, like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job,  the loss of physical ability, or moral failure, which has meant the loss of your own dream.  Grief, however it comes, can seem very dark, especially at Christmas time, when we are talking about the shining of a great light.  Sometimes, because a ‘great light’ or ‘great hope’ has comes, we are caught in the shadow of our own difficult situation, and we are wandering through the dark.  Is that where you are this Christmas?   Are you one of those ‘people’ who finds themselves living, as the people in Isaiah’s time, who ‘curse their kings and their gods’ (Is. 8:21) or who ‘see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and are thrown ‘into thick darkness…. (Isa. 8:22)?   It can be easy to feel this way.   At some time, this could be any of us.   We can all live through a time when the darkness is so ‘thick’ it weighs heavy on our souls or in our hearts.

FOR A CHILD HAS BEEN BORN
But it is exactly upon this kind of people, --- ‘people who walked in darkness’ who see ‘a great light’ (Isa. 9: 2).   It was upon these very people who ‘lived a land of great darkness—“ that the ‘light shined’ (9:2).  It was upon these people who were bearing the ‘yoke’ of darkness as a ‘burden’ upon their own shoulders---those who had experienced the terrors of war, with ‘the boots of trampling warriors’ or the ‘garments rolled in blood’, who suddenly found their own ‘joy’ increased. But how?  How did this hope and renewed sense of ‘joy’ come?   How did this terrible darkness come to end?

People who have lost hope have a hard time overcoming darkness.   Once the darkness comes upon you, or gets within you, it’s very hard to get it out.  During the Vietnam Series of films on PBS, I watched and listened as one Marine told how after the Vietnam War, after all that terrible combat experience, when he came home, and ever since, even as a man, he had to sleep with a night light.   When he told his kids they didn’t need to sleep with their night lite on anymore, they complained: “Dad, why are you still sleep with a nightlight on.”  He had to try to explain to his kids why he, as their father, still had to have his nightlight on.   It was that hard to get the darkness out.  

One thing for sure, great hope for a new world does not come by our own human doing.  It may indeed seem to be too late for some of us to have any new hope for a new world, a new life, or a new joy, especially when we too have been hardened, broken down, or defeated by the darkness around us.   It may feel as if it’s too late for us, but Isaiah says that even upon this kind of people---people who are still living in darkness, when their seems to be little hope for their own lives—it is upon them that hope came.  

Hope came upon them, just like hope comes upon people when a baby comes.  Have you ever been in a nursing home, and been with some of those folks for whom there is seems to be little hope left, and then someone brings in a baby into their room?   When the baby or the young child enters the room, even the hardest, most pain ridden soul lights up.   When the baby comes things change.  It’s like this for new parents, when the baby comes everything changes.   The reason you live changes.  The reason you work changes.  How you see the world changes.  The baby changes everything.

It was this kind of change toward hope---hope in a young child, that Isaiah spoke of when he said, “For unto us a child has been born, …a son has been given to us.”   When the baby comes, light and hope comes.  But what we also need to know is that this child Isaiah saw, was no ordinary child.    Isaiah says that this child is different because  ‘authority rests upon his shoulders….”   He is not just a child who will remain a child, but this is a child who will rule the nations in a way that he can be astoundingly named  “Wonderful Counselor,  Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace….”   These are not ordinary words about just any kind of ordinary child, nor just about any kind of worldly Prince, Counselor or King.   These are words about a child who grows in ‘grows in authority’ so that there will be no doubt about who he is.  When this child comes to rule, Isaiah says,  ‘there shall be endless peace for David’s throne’.   This child will grow to establish and uphold God’s rule with ‘justice and righteousness’ ‘forevermore’.   His rule establishes hope, peace, ‘justice and righteousness’ in a way that you don’t just have a new day, but in a way that there is a ‘whole new world’.   And this new world comes just as humbly and hopeful as it does for a family who experiences the birth of new life in their own little child.  Isn’t it amazing how such a simple, humble, even humiliating birth, could change the course of everything else that happens?  We all know what the birth of a Stalin or Hitler negatively meant for the world.  Imagine what it could mean when a good ruler was born.   This is the kind of positive, but humble and relentless hope that keeps coming to the world every time a child is born.  

This is a beautiful image of hope---hope not just for a family, not just for Israel, but this is a hope for the coming transformation of the whole world.   But you may ask how has, how does, or how can the birth of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah still be the hope of the whole world---a world that grows more complicated than ever before, where promises of hope, future, or transformation are quickly extinguished by the negativities of our own ‘gloom and doom’?   Has the birth of Jesus really changed anything?   Has it really even changed us—our world, or at least how we see the world?  What is it about the life, teachings, or deeds of Jesus that has caused the world to see or do anything differently?   Are we a people who have been left in the dark too long, or are we truly a people ‘who have seen a great light’?   Has the baby really changed anything in us, or in our world, which brings us the light of hope and the promise of peace for our own tomorrow?    Did Jesus ‘invent’ or ‘bring’ anything of substance into our world that brings a difference to the darkness that still comes in life and in death?

WITH JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
This child Isaiah saw is not only called a Wonderful Counselor, or Prince of Peace, he is also unexpectedly called “Everlasting Father” or “Almighty God”.  The point here is not to point to who this child was, but to point to who this child is, and what he did, and still does, to bring to us a hope that is no ordinary hope, that shines no ordinary light. This means that you can’t expect to measure hope or see light in the birth of this child in the same way you measure hope in the birth of our own children.

Isaiah expressed exactly this when he said that this ‘child’ would ‘establish’ David’s kingdom with ‘justice and righteousness’ from ‘this time onward and forevermore’ (v.7).  Here, we come to some of the strongest promises in all of Scripture; “The Zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”   What this means is that the light of ‘justice and righteousness’ which comes through this child, will not be established in any way that had ever been known before, or will ever be known again.   This light will also never fail, like other lights shining through other human kingdoms.   The light of hope in of this child’s rule and in this child’s kingdom is different, because he is a very different kind of child, and a very different kind of king.  

This child is different, not because he actually ‘rules’ in this world, but he is different because he actually has never has yet ruled in this world.   Whatever we can say or don’t say about Christ and his kingdom, or whatever we might say about who really invented Christmas, or who or what Christmas really means,  the ‘light’ in Christ’s ‘kingdom’ is a light that was rejected by the world.  But as John’s gospel says John to our amazement, is that the world that rejects Jesus is unable to extinguish or overcome Christ’s light.  The world can’t overcome the light because, as Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world”, Jesus said this to Pilate, as Pilate prepared to crucify him. Jesus also said: “You will see me and the kingdom coming in glory…..”  Thus, Jesus light shines into the world, but is not from this world.  Like the sun, it shine and can’t be denied, though we are still free to try to hide from its light.  This light shines on earth but it is a light that remains in the heavens… is still in the future… and is is coming only in God’s way and on God’s time.  The light of God’s kingdom comes near, but still hasn’t fully come as we still are free to refuse its light.   God’s light shines brightly in the world, to reveal how things should be, could be, may be, but it remains beyond this world, so it can’t ever be fully extinguished.

God’s light in Jesus Christ can’t be extinguished because this is a light shining straight  from God’s heart into the human heart to reveal the truth of what it means to live as humans on the earth.  God’s light in Christ is an eternal, spiritual, light shining as a kingdom where God’s comes demanding to rightfully rule on the throne within our hearts.  It is only in here, in human hearts, that the kingdom can be believed and be established, and it is only here, within our hearts, that light will fully shine, as we will allow it to shine.  “This little Light of Mine” is where the Kingdom must begin.   It is God’s light that shines directly into our hearts to become our own light.  This is how this child comes and commands his rule.  The great, mysterious light of Christmas, is that the very ‘Everlasting Father’ and ‘Almighty’ God comes to us, again and again, revealed as the the same, helpless, needy, dependent baby who comes into our family and captures our hearts as the truth who commands his humble, righteous and just rule.  Until this eternal child captures all our hearts, the Christ can’t fully come.   But he can rule in and through and in us. But one day,  our hope is, that when the government of this child has grown and gained full authority in us,  this kingdom will come without end.  He will rule forever, because we allow the light to shine in us, one heart at a time.  The great mystery is that this child continues to be born, his kingdom will continue to come, shining on human hearts, as long as there one willing heart until God comes to finally make take his throne and make his home, eternally, with us.  

This final rule, however, does not merely wait on us, it waits in us.  This is what we see in the conclusion of Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol.’  You remember the moment when Ebenezer Scrooge finally sees the light.  He had been visited by three ghosts of Christmas; Christmas past, present, and Christmas future.   But it’s the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that finally gets to him, or in him.  This Ghost points Scrooge’s to his own darkness, forcing him to face the reality he doesn’t want to face: his coming death and meaningless life.  It is then, as he sees his name on his own tombstone, right in front of him, that he can no longer deny the person he needs to be and the person others need him to be.  Listen again, to how Scrooge responds as he sees, in his dream his own body on his death bed: “Am I that man who lay upon the bed? No, Spirit! Oh no, no! Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Good Spirit, your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year…. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.  The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.  Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!

The rest of the story, you know.   Scrooge saw a light in the darkness, and he turned toward that light.   What about you?   Can you still see His light shining bright, even in the darkness that surrounds us?   Can you sing, with the spiritual, the best Christmas son of all: “I saw the light, I saw the light, no more darkness, no more night.  Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.  Praise the Lord, I saw the light?”   Can you say with the prophet: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined?”  Will you allow ‘his authority’ to ‘grow’ and glow through you?  You can; you must!  “For” this “child has been born for us!   He is the one who is forever ‘Christmas’!  Amen.