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Monday, December 28, 2009

Oh Grow Up!

Sermon based on Luke 2: 41-52
Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday after Christmas, Year C
December 27th, 2009

Can you remember when you were 12 years old?

I became 12 years of age in May of 1969.   That was the year of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, the year of Woodstock, and it was year Richard Nixon was elected President.   The average price of gas was 35 cents per gallon; the average income was under 8,500 dollars; the average new house was 15,550 dollars and the average new car cost around 3,200 dollars.    (While I do remember some of this, like the moon landing and the price of gas, I found the statistics at a website).  For our family, it was also the year we got our first color TV and I was in the 7th Grade at Harmony School.   Thinking about all this now makes me realize that I am truly 52 years old.  Life has changed a lot since then.

In today’s Scripture, when Jesus was twelve, he matured in a very dramatic way.   You know the story.  The Scripture tells us how Jesus’ family made a Pilgrimage to the temple.   It must have been quite a trip for Jesus’ family who lived about 125 miles away and had to travel on foot.   Though not a vacation, it was as close what any family of that time would call a “family vacation”.   But what makes this “road trip” so special and memorable is that something dramatic and dangerous happened on that trip.  That’s how we remember things too isn’t it?   Most of life passes by, in and out of our memory, but there are some unique events that linger and we never forget.  

And who forget the time you nearly your child.   I know that Teresa and I will never forget the day in Germany we thought we’d lost our daughter.  She wasn’t 12, but she was 4.   The last moment we saw her, she was playing just outside our apartment on a warm spring day.   The next moment she was gone.  We called.   We checked the neighbors.  We worried.   We called the police.   Finally, some 5 hours later, she showed up at our door.  She had gone into another apartment close by to play with her friend “Maxie”.   I was relieved to find her, but I was also upset.   I made Ahnabeth go with me to the police station to make a report and made her apologize because I had to get their help.

When I first had the story of the “lost” Jesus taught to me, it was suppose to be a story to illustrate how brilliant and even divine Jesus was even in his very young, child-like, human body.  Perhaps that is still part of the story, yet I think the text itself tells us that something else is going on.   The final verse may give us the best commentary when after giving the story it adds that “….Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”    While this may be true, we can certainly add that at this moment, he wasn’t in good favor with his mother.

What is happening to Jesus in this story is a very human thing that happens to each of us, but it doesn’t happen to every child in the same way.   Jesus is growing up.   While the story may have some interesting things to say about how Jesus uniquely grew up, it also speaks to some very interesting ways we all grow up.    And this brings us to our question for today, this Sunday after Christmas: What does it mean to “grow up” and mature?   And also, can we learn anything from this story for our own lives so that we too might grow spiritually in the coming year?  

For one thing, people grow up best in the “hidden”, “no-where”, “out-of-the-way places” and in the most “simple” places in our lives.
What do we know about Jesus’ formative years?  Practically nothing.  Most of the events that made Jesus, Jesus, are hidden from us, and perhaps rightly so.   Jesus grow up out of public eye in such normal, common and ordinary ways that most of what happened to him and made him who he became, probably would not even have been noticed.   This “hiddenness” of childhood can be a good thing too, can’t it?

Isn’t this where a child can build his or her best foundation to be a person---in those simple, ordinary and out of the way experiences?   Humans grow best not through the strange, unique, exceptional, or special, but we are made who we are by the small things like family, love, work and daily care.

All of us knows the tragedy of “child stars”.   Because they are selected, they are caught up in a “strange” world of privilege which normally ends up robbing them of their “normal” childhood which each of them needs so desperately.    Michael Jackson said this happened to him.   The Olsen Twins said it happened to them.   It probably happened to Tiger Woods and it can happen to almost any child who is treated in such a way that they lose their sense of reality and responsibility.

And where do our children get this sense of reality and responsibility?   Have you ever been at school and I parent comes in irate because the teacher says their child misbehaved and needed to be punished.   The parent goes to the teacher, complains to the principal or either doesn’t care at all.  Either extreme is dangerous.  It is dangerous because a child has to learn to feel, experience and know life through their own successes, failures, flaws and talents.  

I remember how our daughter learned about fire.   She used to have the sweetest phrase…… She would put her hand up close to the fire, then back off and say, “It buRNNNNNNS!  Do you know why she said that?  One day I watched her curiously put her finger up close to a candle.  Though I didn’t want her to get badly hurt, I warned her, but did not prevent her.  Sure enough, she cautiously tried it and you know what happened next.   It BurNNNNNNNS!  

What a simple, ordinary, but necessary experience for a child.  To learn about the pains, hurts, dangers and realities of life in a home where there was love, forgiveness, and responsibility.  It’s the kind of atmosphere that allows a child to learn and to grow.

But still, some people don’t grow up well.   Some children are either underprotected or overprotected.  Some children are over disciplined and others are under disciplined.  Where is the instruction manual?  Where do we draw the line in ways that helps the child grow, is “wisdom” and “stature”, and “in favor with God and people?

If Jesus had anything going for him, it was that his family lived the life of simple people.   Greatest is normally formed not out of what we have in life, but greatness is normally formed out of what we learn to dream.

Secondly, you don’t have to be a perfect family to be a happy, or holy family.  

Several years ago I had an associate pastor whose mother was Jewish.   When we had time to talk Scripture, Pastor David, with his Jewish background had some interesting insights on Scripture, which of course, for the most part is Jewish.

One passage David had great insight upon was this text in Luke 2, when Mary goes searching and frantically finds Jesus in the temple.   He said he heard his own mother’s frustration and fear in Mary’s emotional words as she says, “Son, why have you done this to us?  Behold, your Father and I have been looking everywhere for you thinking you were dead?”   There’s power, emotion, and all kinds of signs of an imperfect home these words.   First of all, why is Mary doing all the talking and not Joseph?  Secondly, what was Jesus thinking?  Even if he is about his other “Father’s business” shouldn’t he have asked permission first?   Lastly, Jesus is bright and different and this can cause the greatest conflict of all.   Later on, Mary and the rest of the family deem Jesus crazy.   We can only imagine that they also had other conflict with him and his calling, just as the brothers had with Joseph, called the dreamer.   What made Jesus different also made for tension, drama and, as the text says, sorrow and dread.  

Whereas Jesus is our sinless savior, this does not have to mean he was a perfect child coming from a perfect home.   We know, right from this text that Jesus was a good child, but he wasn’t always the kind of child a family wanted or needed.   We also know that Jesus grew up in a home that had its challenges.   For one thing, the father seems completely passive in this moment and nothing else is said about Joseph, as if he was sickly or died.

Whatever we can say about Jesus growing up to be Jesus, he didn’t have a perfect home life.  We can clearly read conflict in his home which continued throughout his ministry.   But there is good news here, isn’t there?  Greatest does not grow in perfect homes, but it most often grows in homes where there are honest struggles, challenges, difficulties and at times, even failure.  The challenges and conflicts of a home can make a child strong, as long as there is real love and true faith in the mix  (Don't misunderstand this to mean that conflict alone makes for growth, it doesn't).  Faith and love help us swim through the problems rather than sink in them when even as we struggle, grow, develop and learn we keep the faith and live in love.

There is one more truth we need to see in this story.   We see that children grow up best in “hidden places” and that they don’t’ have to have “perfect places” but finally, there also needs to be in their lives a “God place.”  

Children don’t automatically grow up to love God, especially in this world. Without the help of their parents and family traditions and responsibilities, children get lost very easily.   Jesus got lost, but the good news is that it was a “good kind” of getting lost.   What it shows us in the normal propensity of a child to wonder, experiment, seek adventure, ask questions.   But that Jesus was in the temple had as much to do with his earthly family who nurtured him as it did with his heavenly father who was calling him into his “business”.

Does your child have a place for God in their hearts and lives, because you’ve made that place and space possible?   How do we do this? It’s not that difficult.  We can best give our children a God space in their lives, when they see the God space in our own lives.   Children learn what should be important to them by observing what is important to us.  

The pastor of the National Cathedral, John Chane, shared a heart warming story in his Christmas sermon about his seeing "a young father who walked stiffly down the sidewalk tightly holding the hand of his young son who was no more than five years old. The father who seemed to be in his mid thirties was on his way for coffee at the local coffee shop. The father looked very distant, removed and weary, his eyes fixed away from the delight of his young son.  Seeing them would make you wonder if Christmas would come to them this year, or if sadness and disappointment would be their visitors instead of joy, wonderment, and the hope of better things to come in the new year. On first glance looking at father and son their relationship appeared pretty fragile!

And then the little boy stopped walking and seemed to balk. His father, quite annoyed, looked angrily down at him and said, “Come on, Timmy. You’re holding me up.” And he grabbed the boy’s hand harder and literally began to drag Timmy along the sidewalk. Unfazed by his fathers anger and detachment, the little boy, with a radiating smile on his face, said, “Daddy, do you know why I’m holding your hand?” And his father gruffly said, “No, Timmy, I don’t!” And the little boy replied buoyantly, “I’m holding your hand because I love you!” And at that moment the boy’s father stopped dead in his tracks, looked down at his son, and then picked him up in his arms, hugged him tenderly kissed him on the cheek and said, “And I really love you, too.”
Timmy with his small arms wrapped tightly around his father’s neck snuggled him and then kissed him on the cheek. And at that moment Christmas came in spite of anything and everything. And it would come because of the unfailing love between a father and his son; a love that could not be broken by hardship, disappointment, and the distressing news of the day about the economy, unemployment, lost nest eggs, war, a planet in danger of dying, and the volatility of the Middle East. 
This is how God's presence works in our world.  When his love enters and guides our lives everything looks different.  Will you have a God space?  A “God space” grows within us as we commit to give ourselves to the greater purposes of our lives?   It’s amazing how little we grow spiritually when we are only concerned with ourselves?  It’s just as amazing to realize how much we grow spiritually when we open our hearts toward the “Father’s business” of loving others.       Amen.  

Christmas is Something We Do

Thoughts on Psalm 96
Prepared on Christmas Eve, 2009
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

As we prepare our hearts for tonight and for everything Christmas.  What is it really?

What is Christmas 2009 years later?

What is Christmas to those of us who weren’t there but are here?

What is Christmas to those of us who still face a world that is dark, deadly, difficult and often appears devoid of the very saving power declared by God to be in Jesus?

What is Christmas, really?  Tonight’s reading takes us to the heart of Christmas for us more than for them.  It is especially a word to those of us who might be wondering what comes next.

What I like about Psalm 96 at Christmas because it’s full of verbs; imperative verbs.   Do you see them? This is a psalm of action, placing the responsibility of Christmas square upon the shoulders of the worshippers not just the preacher.  Can you visualize it?  Look at all these verbs.  Sing.  Declare.  Give.  Bring. Worship. Say. Let.   Can you see the great truth Christmas unfolding in these very verbs?

Sing.   That we all can visualize.  You can’t have Christmas without music.   The first way we keep Christmas going is to sing. 

We sing because we in Jesus we have a “new song.”  You can’t sing Christmas by just having a good voice, but you sing Christmas because, in Christ, your life has become a song.    Your life has a song and becomes a song, says the Psalmist because your life “shows” evidence of God’s salvation “day to day.”

Here is something else interesting about the music of Christmas.  The music, the season, and everything about it really loses its meaning unless it is something you sing and live every day.   You don’t just show up at church and sing Christmas.  But you show up already singing and here at church you keep on singing because it is in Jesus all the singing begins.

Declare.  What we sing, the psalmist says is not just a song, but a declaration.   This is his next verb: “Declare” his glory among the heathen.   Christmas is revealed when we declare our faith and how different the song sounds in our lives as opposed to how it sounds among those who don’t really believe what they are singing. 

Many will sing Christmas tonight, but not everyone is declaring when they sing.   This brings me to ask you are you declaring?   When I used to travel from the US to Europe and then back again, every time I went through customs I had to “declare” the items and was either taking to Europe or bringing back from Europe.   The Government wanted to know what I had to declare.  

On this night, we come not just to sing, but to declare.  To declare what real difference there is in our lives that makes Christmas what it really is: the birth of our savior.   So let me ask you tonight: What do you have to declare?  What difference has Jesus made or does Jesus make?   It’s not an automatic answer is it?  

We know that tonight we can look into the lives of a lot of people who sing, but have nothing to declare.  We also know that tonight we can look into the world and see that “declaring” that God has made a difference in our world through the birth of Jesus, is also not always visible.   In other words, Jesus came to save his people “from their sins” Matthew’s gospel says, but many of his people still need saving.   The world needs saving too, and from many different sins, struggles, troubles and fears. 

While some might think that since the world still needs saving, Jesus’ coming didn’t make any real difference, I beg to differ.  In fact, what Jesus did was not finish the job, but start it.  One of the most important things we all have to declare tonight,  is the simple knowledge that might be the hardest to come by:  The knowledge to know that we still need God’s help.   The greatest human problem is not the problem itself.  We humans are great at solving problems.  Our greatest human problem is to realize that we even have a problem.          

What we can all declare tonight, on this very night is that Jesus message, “For God so loved the world, that he gave…. “ has not yet stopped all the hate, violence and war in the world, but it does put every single ounce of hate on notice.   Jesus has shown us what the problem really is and he has also shown us, beyond a shadow of doubt what the solution is: Love God, Love your neighbor.  Here hangs all the Law and all the Prophets!  He told us.  The saving solution has been made manifest and this solution must be declared new and personal by every person, each generation and in every time in history. 
All the hope of Christmas is not released into our world until it is declared in our own hearts.   Just as the commandment depends on law and the prophets, the salvation which comes out of everything God has done depends on what we declare, today and each and every day of our lives.   What will you declare this evening?  Our joy of our singing depends upon our declaration.

The next word is more demanding, but also more declaring:  Give.   When we “give” we declare not just with our lips, but with our lives that we mean what we sing.  

 Our text tonight says “give unto the Lord the glory due to his name.”  Think about the kind of giving the psalmist is suggesting.   By his admonition to “give glory to God” he suggests that God’s glory is not always acknowledged in our world.    The world seeks its own glory.  People want to be lifted up in their own glory.   You can go through school and become knowledgeable and very successful in our world and remaining neutral about God.   This is what is so amazing about our culture and freedom here in America.   You don’t have to believe God, Christ, salvation, or Christmas.   You can be a perfectly good citizen just by being patriotic, law-abiding, and by giving your time volunteering to some good cause.  This would pass as being a “good” person in most everyone’s book and you might even seem nicer if you don’t even mention “God” and especially if you don’t pray in Jesus’ name.   You can live life for the sake of life itself and that will be perfectly fine---except for one small detail. 

This one very small detail, and this very small detail laying in the manger is what Christmas is about.   Christmas is Jesus because Jesus is about God and God deserves glory only if he gives us true hope.  For you see, Christmas is not just about getting enough hope or light to get through this world, nor even about getting to the next one.  No, Christmas is about having any real, lasting, enduring, and hopeful “glory” in anything we do and anything we experience.  What glory, what wonder, what hope, or what beauty is there in anything that is like a flower that fades, grass that withers, or a vapor than dissolves, or dust that simply blows away.
I have on my desk a recent magazine from National Geographic.   There is a lot of interesting and wonderful material in that magazine about life, the world, about culture and about the universe.  The most recent issue tells of the current astronomical search for other worlds.  Astronomers have wonderful new tools at their disposal and hope that somehow they will find, somewhere out there another planet similar to ours, where there is life or at least the capability of it.

Who knows what they might find, but there is one thing for sure: It’s a mighty big universe out there.  What Science knows is this.  If they don’t find  “out there”, at some time or other humanity will run out of hope.  Of course, what they don’t tell you, is that this hope of finding another world “out there” is only a hope for future generations.   If all there is “out there” is another world that perishes like this one, I don’t know what that will mean for everyone who lived and died before they are able to discover that world.  Does it mean everyone else dies without hope?  

Whatever the glory of God means, it means that every hope we have---every real hope, is not “out there” somewhere, but is right here, in this manager.   It is the message that what is “out there” has come “right here” to bring glory to everything that is, which in turn brings true glory to everything God must be, if we are to have any real hope.    

 The manger is not about finding a nice place to live on this earth, but it is about the eternal hope of God breaking into our world in the smallest, most unexpected, and unlikely place.    The manger displays the glory of God because at this place God blesses every place.  In this small detail, we get to see the big picture.  God has come near.   God has shown us his face.  God’s face and his glory can be found anywhere and everywhere in this world because the eternal God has given us, and every person before and after, the promise that life is glorious.  And because the most humble life is the most glorious life, God is due all glory.

How do we respond to such glory? Bring.  Christmas today is an offering.  Offering ourselves and offering our best gifts to God.  We know Christmas is about giving, but too often the giving is only to and for ourselves.   That is why the world stays dark.  The light comes only when we give God glory and we start glorifying God with the best and with all we have.   If you want to increase your Christmas, increase your giving and bring yourselves to God.

Of course all this singing, declaring, and offering is what makes up the next verb:  Worship.  When we give our best selves we worship “in beauty and holiness”.  Our worship is what God wants.  It’s not money he wants, but it’s holiness.   It’s living our best, highest, purest, most precious response to the wonderful, glorious life he gives.  

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”, says the Psalmist.  Then the says, “fear before him.”  What does fear mean in worship?  

Fear can mean all kinds of things.  But at Christmas we know fear as what the Shepherd felt when the angels first appeared with good news.   What where the Shepherds afraid of?  Surely the Shepherds weren’t so afraid of dying, because they were tough men always living on the edge of life.   Also, the Shepherd weren’t afraid of God in the way Herod was afraid of God because they were best friends living closer to God than most.   What I think the Shepherds were most afraid of is that God’s angels, his messengers would appear with nothing to tell them.    

This is the still the greatest fear and it is the fear we should bring to God---the fear that we work all our lives, have this mind to understand the greatest mysteries and finally, one day, have nothing to tell…nothing to show..nothing that we’ve lived for and nothing to die toward.   Bring your fear to God.  He created us to have this kind of fear.  He gave us this fear so we be drawn to him.   It is this glorious fear that nothing matters which we bring to him in worship and discover that everything matters----it all matters in him.

Because in him we discover that everything matters, we have something to “Say”   This is the final verb, and the final result of “doing” Christmas.  What do we say?   “Say that the Lord reigns: He established this world.  He brings righteousness through his judgment.

When we are holy people and we worship with our lives made holy in God, we still have something to say in this world.    On the news I was reminded just how “lost” our culture can become, when a reality show depicts the stereotyped lives of Italian youth living at the beach, partying their lives away living for nothing but self indulgence.   One Italian America said it is the worse kind of TV possible: TV that depicts human beings at their lowest.

 Yes, dear people, even in this world where 22% of America say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” let’s not be fooled.   It should not be shocking to us that people want to leave Christ out of Christmas.   If this is where they are, let’s not hinder them.  Do you know why?  Because if God is God and if he did establish this world and only his justice works, then it won’t be long until people will start looking for someone who has something better, something else to say.   Christmas will soon cease to be Christmas without the message of Christ.  When they realize this, we will indeed have a lot say.

 Finally, when we sing, declare, give, bring and worship, and say what needs to be said, the rest will take care of itself.  The final verb is: “let”.  Let heaven do the rest.  Christmas will come.  It’s here.  He is here.   He is righteousness and truth and all we have to do now is stay with him.   The joy only comes in him.  We don’t save the world.  We don’t make the world.  We don’t manufacture the joy and the hope we need.   We “let.”   Let the heavens rejoice…let the earth be glad…let the sea roar…let the field be joyful, let the woods rejoice.   We can “let” because Christmas is not just true, but it is the greatest truth, or nothing is true.   Because he is true, we “let” God do his work, just like we now go home and after all our preparations, we get up and rejoice, because Christmas still does its work in our world and in our hearts.  SING… DECLARE…. GIVE….WORSHIP… SAY… LET    Christmas is something you do, we still do, we will always do, and then we leave the rest to God.   Amen.

It’s Time to Sing!

Sermon based on Luke 1: 39-55
4th Sunday of Advent, December 20th, 2009  (Snowed Out)
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor

It doesn’t bother me that sinners come to church.  What bothers me most is people coming to church and not singing.  

I know this might sound a little harsh to those of you who are tone deaf or can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I’m really not talking about your singing, musical ability or lack of it.   You sing fine.  Even if you’d rather listen to rest of us, that’s O.K. too.  The music I’m talking about doesn’t have to be sung with your voice, but it has to be sung with your life.

This kind of “soul” music is what today’s Bible text is about.   It’s about Mary’s song.  Who knows if Mary had a great singing voice?  She could have sounded like the late George Burns, (God rest his soul) or Conway Twitty and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit.  Even if Mary had the worse voice on planet earth, she still had the sweetest song ever sung---even sweeter than the angels at Bethlehem.  

Why was Mary’s song so sweet? 

It was the song of the “willing” heart.  “Be it unto me according to thy word”  (v. 38).  The sweetest music is made by those who “want” to, not always by those who “can” or “can’t”.

I’ve aspired to be a great singer, but I’m just an O.K. singer.  That’s why I’d rather sing in group rather than solo.  It would be nice to have a great solo voice, but that wasn’t given to me.  Heaven knows, I’ve worked hard to make it so, but my voice can only do what I’ve been given.  Interestingly, this inability to sing greatly has made me love music more, not less.   Because I want to sing, I like music.

It is our “want to” do the good, loving, caring things that makes life sweet.   The one thing we know about Mary is that she was “wanted to” be used of God.  This is part of what made Mary’s song sweet.  She wanted God to use her in her life.  Because she wanted to be used of God, God did use her.  She was the first person to carry Jesus within her life.   Her desire to be used of God teaches us also what is essential about Christian discipleship: humility, readiness and willingness to serve and be used of God.  This is what counts more than any talent, skill or other capacity we have.

What we also know is that Mary willingness was not automatic.  She had to grow in it.  It had to grow in her.   Literally.  Everything that happened to Mary is a beautiful symbolic image of what it means to follow and serve God today.   Mary was the first learner and first disciple.  She is the first to learn from Jesus, even though he was only a baby in her womb.  

We know that a child learns much from its mother, but what does a mother learn from her baby?  Do you think a new mother learns anything about life by carrying a child?   We may not know exactly what Mary experienced, but we can know that a new baby changes everything.    Bringing new life into the world is one of the greatest learning experiences of all human life----more than any book or teacher could ever teach us.  Even though my wife and I could not have children, when we adopted our daughter, it changed us.   While most of you parents remember what it was like when you brought the baby home for the first time, I remember when we brought our 15 month toddler home for a home visit.   The social worker told us we could take our prospective child home for a few hours and then bring her back to the office.   Knowing I only had a couple of hours, the first thing we did was jump in the car and drive from Shelby to Statesville to show my parents.  After a hour or so I knew I needed to be headed back, but instead I called the social worker to ask if we could keep the child over night.  They said it would be fine.   The next day when we took the child back, I cried.   I did not want to give her back.  Already, everything in me changed---my priorities, my dreams, my outlook, and my desires.  That child had already changed everything, while teaching me all kinds of new lessons for life.  That’s what a child does.

Bringing a child into your life clarifies most everything it means to live with a purpose.   By accepting God’s call in her life to have and raise this child, Mary teaches all of us how to “sing” a greater tune with our lives.  When we are willing to serve God and when we live beyond ourselves, our lives sing.

Mary’s song was also a song of the “worshipping” heart.  My soul doth magnify the Lord  (v. 46). 

What does Mary mean by this: her soul magnifies God?   How is it that by focusing on God that her life begins to sing a greater tune?  

All the great music of Christmas points us to the mystery and message what is most important.   Right at the center of Christmas songs are two great themes: One theme is about God coming to us in the flesh.   The other is about our coming to God in our flesh as we give ourselves to God in a way that God lives through us this world.    We call this the mystery of incarnation: God becoming flesh so that we become children of God in our flesh.  This a deepest mystery at the center of our faith that is never fully understood in the Bible or in any theology books.  In fact, most of our human attempts to explain the incarnation, fail.   We are never called to explain the incarnation, nor even grasp all the meaning of it, but we are called by God to live and practice the incarnation as we allow Jesus to be born in us today.  

 How Mary sees her life as a “soul-magnifying- the- Lord” is what it means for every believer to live on this earth.   When we live our lives glorifying and magnifying the Lord we join in the music of heaven, not just in rituals or ceremonies, but by living so that others see God’s love magnified and made visible in us.   But living for God is not just to live as a witness for God, but as a witness to life itself.   We don’t live our best human lives when we live to magnify or glorify ourselves.   Look what happened to Tiger Woods.   He is the number one news topic these days and not for any good reason.   It is tragic what can happen to a human when they think that they are at the center of their own universe.   People who live for themselves often get stuck on themselves, think they can do no wrong and before long, they think they can do whatever they wish and it’s not long until they lose all their marbles.    You can decide to live your life by your own tune, playing your own music, but unfortunately it isn’t long until life goes off key.    This is what happen to Tiger Woods and it could happen to any of us.  

If we want to have music, song, and any lasting value in our lives, we must live at the highest place---living to magnify the God.   God draws us to live beyond ourselves----not to steal our lives from us, but to give us our lives back to us, so that we don’t lose them.   Humans realize their greatest potential when they make God’s love visible, and make God’s grace and truth knowable in the everyday deeds of our own lives.   A life lived for God everyday is the heart of the truest and purest worship and it is the here that you find you’re the music of your life too.  

Finally, Mary’s song was also the song of the “blessed” heart.  “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”  (v. 48).  

 When Mary speaks of being “blessed” she’s not only taking about what God does for her, but what God is doing in her is something  God is doing for the whole world.   Her “blessedness” arises not out of a sense of selfish pride but a sense of selfless humility and of service for the world’s hurting and helpless.   Mary sings her life song for the whole world when she says, “My Spirit rejoices…for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…For he that is mighty hath done to me great things….he has scattered the proud….he hath put down the mighty….he has filled the hungry and he has sent away the rich empty.”  

Mary’s song is not simply a “sweet”, tender blessing of love and grace for the world, but it is also a revolution—a revolution of love and grace which challenges all of us, especially those of us who have power and position in life.  If you know the pain of feeling powerless or the feeling of being poor in this world, then Mary’s song is full of promise and hope.   If we have power and the potential to make a difference in our world, but we are not living to make that difference, and are still only living for ourselves---then watch out!  Mary’s song has a hidden, revolutionary message.   It could spell judgment instead of promise.

When I lived in the former Soviet Sector of Europe, I saw the curse of communism first hand.   It was a terrible curse to see how a government stole from the rich and attempted to give equally to the poor.  While, it might seem that overall goal of communism was good, forcing the redistribution of wealth, the great flaw within communism was to overlook human sin and to think this “Robinhood” style of “forced sharing” could be done in a way that was free from corruption or greed.   Ultimately, communism failed.   What it tried to do right, even if it was “right”, it did wrongly with flawed perceptions.  Though communism did “scattered the proud” and it did send “away the rich empty” as Mary’s song expressed, but it left out one major part of the possible and potential hope of blessing.   It overlooked the part of Mary’s song which sings:  HE THAT IS MIGHTY HAS DONE TO ME GREAT THINGS HE HAS SCATTERED the proud…. HE HAS SENT AWAY THE RICH EMPTY….   There is a lot of difference in a government playing God and a government bowing itself “under” or “before” God.   When you leave God out of the equation, whether your equation is communism or capitalism, you are asking for a curse of a world without God rather than the hope of blessing which can only come through God.   What Mary’s song reminds us, in the strongest melody possible, is that only God brings the blessing.   Only when we humble ourselves before God will the deepest, lasting, enduring and eternal blessings come to us.   Perhaps the greatest blessing of all is the hope of righteousness, but this is a blessing only God can give to the world when the world gives itself to God.

 What happens when the world fails to sing Mary’s song; when we live our lives out of tune with God’s melody of justice, fairness and righteousness?   What happens when we don’t live as willing servants of God’s word, or when we only live to magnify our own selves, or when we “rejoice” only in what we do or accomplish?   We know that when Mary sang God’s song, it was Christmas.   When we sing God’s song by giving our lives to him, by magnifying him with our soul and by making his righteousness, our righteousness, then it can also be Christmas---all over again.  But when we refuse to live according to Mary’s tune?    What happens then?   God help us to have to even look into the reality of that kind of world---a world without faith, hope and humility before God.

 Isn’t the result of a world without God ultimately made clear by Mary herself?   When the powerful and most blessed fail to sing God’s song, and when people only play their own music in their policy making and in their own profit taking, then their lives become a curse, rather than a blessing.    Think about it this way:  people can live in the poorest place on earth and be very content because they share and care for each other.  People who live in the richest place in the world can still feel very empty because they don’t share or care for each other.   This is the very real difference God righteousness or the lack of it makes in our world.

Mary’s song paved the way for Christmas because what she sings is not her song, but it’s God’s.  Her music is about living her in God.   It is the music of the soul which says: When we bless God, God blesses us with that very blessing we express.    The very blessing we need most today in our world and at our time, is in the very blessing we can give.  The song we need to hear is in the song we are willing to sing.   The very music we all need to keep our lives in tune is the very song we must sing from our own lips and with our own lives.  Only when God’s song becomes our song, does Christmas come, does the spirit of Christmas  abide or reside in this world.   Only when our lives bless him, do we find the peace, the harmony and the spirit of life, which the world needs.    A life sung to the tune God gives, is what puts the ”merry” into Christmas.   Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Road to Christmas

Luke 3: 7-18
Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
December 13, 2009        
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Several years ago, when I started exploring the preaching history of the church, I discovered something very interesting about the way the church has preached its way toward Christmas.  Two of these four Sunday’s is normally spent considering the preaching of John the Baptist which places the appropriate emphasis upon “preparation”.   The major point of this tradition: You can’t get to Jesus without first going through John.

And John is not an easy guy to go through.  He is a big, robust, opposing figure in the Bible.  We might call him the “Michael Oher” of the New Testament, although I think “Michael” is a pushover compared to John.   But the truth is this: just like you can’t get to the quarterback unless you go through 325 pound right tackle Michael Oher, you can’t get to Jesus without having to deal with the preaching of John.

Today I want us to think of John’s preaching as the “road to Christmas”.   All of us know the importance of having good roads so that we can travel to our destination.   We take them for granted until they become damaged or impassable, but the truth is we all rely upon roads to take us where we need to go each and every day: to see family,  to go to town, to go to the doctor or to come to church today.   Roads make life possible.

True faith is also made possible by living on the ‘right’ way.   In fact, early Christianity was called, “The Way”.    This concept of living the ‘way’ comes from John’s own preaching based upon Isaiah’s great prophecy (Isaiah 62) to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4).   In the Bible, the oldest understanding of a road or highway comes from the times when Kings built highways through the land of Israel for commerce and waging war (Numbers 20:11) and then later Isaiah uses this image as a metaphor for God’s powerful and hoped for saving work in the world.   This highway of God is a way of holiness which through a great partnership between God and his people, a spiritual highway of faith and hope is built through the desert of life (Isaiah 35:8) so God’s glory can be revealed  (Isaiah 40: 3).    The point John is clear:  by preparing the road in the desert of our lives, a “free-way” is made for God’s saving work.

During 5 years of my childhood, an interstate was being built near my home.   However, at first I did not see this as a good thing.  Not only was the interstate going to cut down some of my favorite hiking and camping places, it was going to take out my uncle’s house in Union Grove.    Needless to say, a few of us did not like the government making a new highway right through our territory.   Some of my friends and I could not understand “why”?   Why did they have to cut down our trees, go through our woods, and break up our serenity?   As adults we know the answer is one word: progress.   But it’s not just progress, it’s also survival.  A society filled with people needs more roads and must have good roads.   Any of us who have commuted to work or to doctor’s appointments in nearby cities takes for granted the roads we have.  

I recall when we first arrived in East Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the one thing missing was good roads.  Hilter had invented the interstate system but these roads had not been replaced or updated in 50 years.   I’ll never forget one trip we took from Berlin to Dresden, a trip of 100 miles took us about 4 hours.  It was pot hole after pot hole, wave after wave and bump after bump; and this was the best road: the interstate.  The secondary roads would have taken much longer.  Every time you thought you were coming to a smooth place you fell back into a continual, unending route of ruts.  A few times, especially once when the Interstate became a “dirt road”, we wondered whether we would reach our destination at all.   

When we consider the highway of God, there is first, this major issue of “why?”   Of course we all know why sinful people need to “make a way” for God.  We humans are pretty good at destroying or letting our roads decay, aren’t we?    But there is a greater question here: Why do we need to “prepare” the way for God, when the great problem is that we need God to make the road for us?  

When you study the great prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, you find that the “roads” God’s people do or don’t build are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Jeremiah stated the terrible spiritual reality right after Isaiah’s hope of God’s new highway had become a spiritual and political disaster.   Not only had God’s people not built the “road” for God, but they choose to keep traveling their own roads.   Listen to Jeremiah 18: 15ff:  5 But my people have forgotten me, they burn offerings to a delusion; they have stumbled1 in their ways, in the ancient roads, and have gone into bypaths, not the highway,  16 making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever. All who pass by it are horrified and shake their heads. Jeremiah 18:15-16. 

Such a tragic reality caused the prophet Isaiah to quickly change his hope from “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 61) to “tear open the heavens and come down” (Isa. 64:1) because, as the prophet continues, “we have all become unclean…all our righteousness is like dirty rags…” and he concludes, “all our places…are ruins”, so “after all this, will you restrain yourself…will you remain silent?” (64: 11-12).   And this is exactly how the Old Testament ends…with this terrible, terrible silence, that is, until this voice of John shows up crying in the wilderness in the opening pages of the New Testament.  John looks beyond the spiritual ruins and desolation and cries out once more; “prepare the way of the Lord!”   John even brings up the renewed possibility that there is something we can and must do to make God’s way possible in the world.  His metaphor includes the ancient image of highway construction in verse 5, as “every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill brought low; and the crooked made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.”   When this is done he says, then “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  (Luke 3:5).

I don’t think any of us here today would question the need for finding hope in our own dirty, desert-crusted, barren and spiritually thirsty world?  It would be a very nice picture, indeed, if we would or could heed John’s pressing cry and build a road so God could travel back into our lives and bring his renewal and blessings into our world.  

For a year and a half now, our country has been wondering, and we still wonder: when is this financial wilderness going to end, just like we are also wondering, when is this time of war in the middle east going to end?  Is there a way we can travel into a brand new world of prosperity and hope?   Just over a week ago, President Obama promised that the war in Afghanistan will have limits and states we will begin see the war wind down in 2011.  But not long after his statement, his own staff states the reality that it will take longer than this.  Family after family who have soldiers on foreign soil wonder, when will this war end.  Some politicians are wondering can this war be won at all?  At the same time, all of us wonder, is there any road back to the prosperity we once had in this nation?  Is there any way to hasten the return from the edge of the cliff we are teetering on? 

I can imagine such political and practical questions of John’s own day, brought people out to hear John preach.  I don’t think John was that great a preacher to draw the crowds he did (though he was a strange one) as much as I think the people were ready and waiting for a voice to speak out about their situation.  They had had enough of the failure, corruption and wilderness politics of their day.  Their vote for John was not so much a vote for God, as it was probably a vote against Herod and against Rome and against their world.    They came gladly to hear John because they were sick and tired of being sick and tired.   They were tired of living in a political wilderness.   They were tired of having their lives overshadowed by the tall mountains of power than unjustly enslaved and mistreated them.  They wanted God to do something, not so much because they wanted God, but they wanted to get out of the mess they were in.

I believe that the people came to John wanting God to do something.  They came to John feeling like many of us feel these days: hopeless, helpless and stuck in a world that won’t easily come back together again.   I find it quite interesting that the first word John has is not and answer about what God can do, nor is John rushing to tell them what they can do.  But first John says: Repent.   Don’t do something, but first, just stand there!

We all need to pause this Christmas and evaluate not just where we are, but who we are.  Placing blame or giving overly simplistic answers doesn't automatically bring any kind of progress.  The first step John says is to: “Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.” (3:8).

That’s easier said than done, isn’t it?   It so much easier to keep blaming and complaining than it is to take time to look into our own hearts.  And of course, countries do this.  People do this.  We’ve all done this, haven’t we?  We’ve all rushed to judgment before we seriously consider the issues from ever angle.  This is one thing that troubles me about Cable News and the way the media works today.  So much of the news feeds the blame, anger, and pointing fingers rather seriously asking us to look into our own hearts first.   

Did you know that this very shallow and selfish attitude is what got Socrates killed in ancient Rome?  In Athens everybody came to the debates with their own minds made up and had no room for negotiation.  The teacher and philosopher Socrates developed a way of debate that made people stop, think and look at their own ignorance first.   Nobody liked to admit they might have it wrong.  It doesn’t sell.  And that’s what worries me about our world.  We are so good at placing blame, getting angry and expressing our own opinions.   We are so good at having our ideas and opinions about what should be done, but who is ready to stop and just stand there and look into our own hearts first?

But this is what John says must come first.  Before the way can be made, before God can come down to us, and before a new world can come about in our lives; we have to first look into our own hearts.  We have to stop our blaming and complaining and we have to look into our hearts in a spirit of humble repentance.  “Bring fruits worthy of repentance”.  By “fruits” he’s not yet saying what we need do to build a new highway for God, as much as he declares where we need to begin.

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about getting our hearts right.   I can just imagine that first time John preached this message at the edge of the Jordan River and everyone, after hearing his word “repent”, were all looking at each other, wondering who was going to go first.   We in the church know better than most how easy it can be to know and use the language of Zion and not to mean anything by it.   “How was the sermon today?” the working Father asked his son.  “Oh, it was the same as last Sunday?”  “What do you mean?”  The son answered, “Well, last Sunday the preacher preached and everybody needed to get saved.  By this Sunday everybody must have got lost all over again, because he said they still needed to get saved.”    The little boy has a point, doesn’t he?  There’s no way to build a road unless something really changes.   And God’s message can’t save us unless it also changes us.  Repentance comes before salvation, because true salvation is about change; real change.  But it is about change in our hearts first before anything in our world can be changed.  But how do we change?  What does repentance look like in our world today?  

Charles Summers, a Presbyterian pastor in Richmond, Virginia, helped his city congregation visualize repentance by imagining John the Baptist as a modern day street preacher.  Listen to his words:
“He first appeared at the corner of Trade and Tryon, uptown, right under that statue of the gold miner.  There were secretaries, bankers, and people waiting to catch the bus---all hurrying in different directions.
            Then the shout went out: Repent, for the end is near.  The Kingdom of God is close at hand.  Repent and prepare the way of the Lord!”
            For a moment they all stopped dead in their tracks.  It was like a video suddenly put on pause.  Heads turned, and eyes went wide with surprise when they spotted the character.  He was dressed in a long white robe, with a leather belt.  And he had sandals on his feet.  His hair hung in long dreadlocks down to his shoulders, and his dark skin gleamed in the morning sun.  The man’s eyes scanned the crowd like searchlights.  The megaphone in his hand was like a foghorn, blasting through their clouded minds.  The fellow looked like a cross between the angel Gabriel and a reggae rock star.
            And what does he say: “Repent, I say, while you still have the time.  For God’s kingdom is very near.  And God’s chainsaw is already fired up and lying close to the tree, ready to clean out dead wood.  Word up, you children of snakes, you viper’s brood, filled with the poison of the age, crawling up in the slime of Babylon!  Word up, you business tigers, holding tightly to your cash all the while you are ready to prey on the weak and helpless.  Word up!  Turn around while there is still time.”         
Each of us could conjure up our own images of “street preachers” or what John’s preaching must have been like.   But what I still wonder, where they prepared for what was saying?   John did not say, “Down with the government!  Down with Rome or Herod!  He didn’t even say, “The end has come!”, but he said, if you want a new world it begins in you, first: Repent!

This is also how the road to Christmas begins. First we must Stop! Look! and Listen!  Stop and consider what you are doing.  Look into your own heart and then listen to God’s voice within you.  If you want to change the world, first ‘stand there’ and consider what you need to do within yourself first, before you do anything and even before you think or express your opinion.  This is where true Christmas begins.  It begins within our own hearts.

John Denver used to have a tear-jerker country song, “Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas!  I don’t want to hear my mama cry.”  I don’t know why John Denver used chose to put that song on his Christmas Album unless he had an alcoholic Father himself.   What I do know is that John Denver's song sounds a lot more like John's version of what needs to happen before we get to “Away in the Manger….no crying he makes.”  If Christmas is true, really true, it must begin in our own hearts first.  It’s not about what happens or doesn’t happen in the world around us, but Christmas begins with who we are or who we aren’t.  The true spirit of Christmas is much less about what we get or don’t have, but it begins when we confront who we are, right now.

This is greatest challenge of Christmas, isn’t it?  It is the hardest thing to do this time of year.  It’s almost as if we have all our parties and events scheduled just so we don’t have time to stop and ask ourselves: how could Christmas come more fully if I changed in my own heart?   The one thing John says we must begin with is often the last thing we have time for on our Christmas list.

Oswald Chambers, the great preacher of another generation, was once complimented on his sermon and then he said to the person giving the compliment: “Yes, thank you, but what did it do?” (From “Luke”, William Barclay’s “Daily Bible Study”, p. 35).   This very question comes from these three groups who listened to John preach and the effectiveness of John’s preaching is proved when they each ask the million dollar question: “What shall we do?”   (3: 10, 12, 14)).  

Most interesting perhaps, is how John does not answer.  He does not say “go to church more”, “get religion” , “come down to the altar”, or “take the preacher by the hand.”   John is not looking for religious form, but real substance.   We can also notice that John does not tell people to go to great extremes or showy, dramatic conversions by asking them to “sell everything” and “become missionaries in Africa”.  Certainly there is a great need for people to make sacrifices and to minister to the needs of the world, but going to the extremes or pushing the boundaries of normalcy is not how repentance is explained.  For John repentance is both a practical and normal experience of life.   It is as if he is saying that turning toward God and building a highway for him in our lives is something any of us can do.

What is also interesting is that the answers given may have been “new” roads for them, but are not “new” to God’s people.  Each answer looks directly back to the very heart of the Covenant and shows how “change” comes into our hearts in very particular and specific ways.  John’s road to God leaves the lofty spiritual language of the great prophets and gets down to the “Nity gritty” of life.

We can summarize John’s three recommendations with three words that are easy to remember:  SHARE! DARE! and CARE!

The first word of John is SHARE:  How do you do to make a road for God? How do you repent: Share “He that has two coats give to him who has none…he that has no meat do the same….”

The most practical word for traveling to Christmas is the first: Share!   Renewal comes to our hearts when we think less about ourselves and respond to the needs of others around us.  This is always how God comes and how Christmas comes into our lives.

Recently Arla Cutts sent out a touching email video based on a ministry of giving un-needed, warm coats to people in need.  The video catches your attention in a most personal way because as you watch the video of a person giving away an “unused” coat to someone in need the box is open and a name tag inside the coat is show with a name on it.  The name is yours.

What can you do to bring God and Christmas spirit into your life: Share!   John uses the need to share a coat or food.  But sharing can come in many packages.  The most meaningful moments in our lives are when we share ourselves with others.  We all know this, but how will your “name” get on some event this Christmas season, when you share with another who is in need?

The second word, straight from John’s recommendation is: Dare!  It is a very daring thing John suggests to the next group, isn’t it?   He tells those “tax collectors” to “exact no more than is required.”  The second movement of a truly repentant heart is not what you can do, but what you might stop doing!  
We all like Charles Dickens, Christmas Carol, because it attacks both the Scrooge among us and the Scrooge within us.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, something the very thing that prevents God and good cheer is what is going on in us and what needs we must get a handle on or stop.   That is perhaps the most daring deed.  Try to stop something: a bad habit, a bad work, a bad attitude, whatever it is: “stop” something and you can make Christmas real and God comes near.

But it is hard to “stop” if it means cutting off the hand that might be feeding you, isn’t it?  Last week on the news they brought back the tragic but inspirational story of Aron Ralston, the mountain climber who after five days of being trapped by a boulder, amputated his arm to save his life.   More recently, another man in S.C. was trapped by a “corn picker” that set the field on fire and had to do the same thing with his pocket knife.  Interestingly, both men feel their lives have been blessed by what they lost. 

Sounds crazy, or doesn’t it?  To think that you gain your life by what you can lose?   Jesus himself said it’s true: 3 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,1 to the unquenchable fire.2  Mark 9:43. 

It might, at first sound very strange to think about Christmas by what we need to lose or give rather than what we might get or have.   But “strange” is what John the Baptist is known for and we all know, God too works in some very “strange” ways.  

The final word based on John’s answer is CARE.  His final recommendation to the question of “what can we do?” is heard clearest in the King James own version of Luke 3: 14: “And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do?  And he said unto them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.”    Do you see the full irony of John’s words?  Here John is “demanded” by Roman soldiers to answer: What shall we do?  His answer is as hilarious as it is revealing.  John tells these soldiers who are trained to kill rather than be killed, to “do violence to no man….”  How does a soldier do this?

I think it would be interesting to be a military chaplain in Afghanistan earlier this morning and to be reading this Advent text just before some troops deployed.  How would our own soliders respond?  Maybe they'd hear the word like a word from God: “Who does this guy think he is—the Messiah?”

My guess is that right now, if this Scripture is being read today somewhere by a chaplain in the war zone, they would all know that the war they are fighting can’t really be won only with war tactics.  Wars only end, really end, when people start to care---to care about each other, and even by learning to love their enemy.   This is still the craziest notion on the battle field or in our own lives, but it is still the greatest gospel truth and the only thing that works and saves: you only win at life--when you care.

In the 2008 movie, Chaos Theory, a man’s life falls apart.  Ironically, this becomes interesting because it is this man’s job as a professional writer and speaker to help other people working in the business world to get and keep their lives together.   In the movie, without warning; this guy’s wife thinks he’s committed adultery, but he hasn’t.  The hospital calls his wife and tells her, he’s the Father of someone else’s baby, but he isn’t.  Then, worst of all he discovers, in trying to prove his innocence, that the doctor says he is incapable of having a child, but he has a child---a five-year old daughter.  Then, if you think this is bad, he then discovers that his best friend is the father, even though neither his wife nor his friend knew it, until now.  And now that the truth is out, everything is suddenly chaos. 

What should he do in this situation?  How does his little index cards he often uses to organize his life, help him map his way out of his own chaos?   He lists three priorities: 1. Kill his best friend, Johnny.  2.  Kill his wife, Susan and 3. Then, kill himself.    Let me help you better understand this move by saying it is a comedy, but there is not just humor but also a great truth in it.  And the greatest truth comes out right near the end in the way he finally finds his bearings and starts to rebuild and reorganize his life: It comes together not when he gets all his theories together or his index cards prioritized, but when he realizes that to his little girl only knows him as her father—and she needs him.  Only when stops figuring everything out and starts caring, is able to starting forgiving and reclaiming his life  (Chaos Theory, Wide Pictures, Released 2008).  

Share with those in need…  Dare to stop the things that get in the way…  and really stop and care about those who should be most important to you.  This is John’s road map to God and to Christmas…. And it is still our road map as well.   The question today for us, is not: What should we do to get ready for Christmas, but will we do it?  Will we share with those in need?  Will we dare to “cut out” something, in order to have more of life?  And finally, will we “care” in this world that is already filled too with too much anger, violence and incivility?  Getting ready for Christmas or finding our way back to God might not be any more complicated than this either.  Amen.

© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.