Friday, December 25, 2009


Luke 2: 1-20, page 724
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Advent is the name many Christians give to the time leading up to Christmas. This time of Advent is known as a time of waiting – waiting for the arrival of our savior.
Children also know the days leading up to Christmas morning as a time of waiting – and they are the perfect illustration for true Advent waiting as they wait impatiently for the day that marks the most important birthday of the year.
Adults, however, are not always great illustrations for true Advent waiting as our attitude is not, “I can’t wait until it gets here!” but “Is it really here already?”
Children are filled with the possibility that tomorrow is vitally important – they are all itching to get out of here, will have trouble falling asleep, and are sure to wake up before the crack of dawn.
Whereas many adults will be wishing for another hour of sleep, and maybe just one more day to prepare.
It’s as though we have lost the ability to recognize what is so special about this season, having mostly lost the capability to imagine a tomorrow filled with joy beyond your imagination, a new day when all your dreams will come true.
For those adults then, Luke begins his Christmas story with the words, “In those days,” as though the author of our gospel were a wizened grandfather disappointed at how soft his grandchildren had become – “Well back in my day we didn’t have nice school buses with heat, in fact we didn’t even have shoes, and we had to walk 15 miles to go to school… in the snow… uphill… both ways.
“Back in my day” those stories begin – and like our scripture lesson for this evening – those words serve not to glamorize the past, but to instill a grim reality.
“In those days,” Luke begins this Christmas story, and tells us that “in those days” Caesar Augustus ruled the world – so powerful in fact was he that simply by issuing a decree – just leaving his mark on a piece of parchment, his citizens, as though they were but pieces on a chess board, moved at his command and returned to his or her hometown to register for the census.
Luke makes it clear that “In those days,” all was not well.
In fact, the insinuation is that one day was just the same as the next, the sun rose, the sun set, no day was too different from the day before or the day after as everyday Caesar ruled, and those who thought anything would ever change were considered foolish.
Even the faithful either resigned themselves to compromising with Roman rule or went out to the hills building monastic communities while waiting for the end of the world.
Like today, the idea that the world would end made more sense to many people than that anything would ever change or get better.
“In those days,” taxes were high, war was commonplace, the poor suffered, power was abused, and there were even some who were pregnant and homeless on Christmas Eve as there was no room at the Inn, but that baby was coming.
To describe the birth, Luke’s gospel doesn’t give a whole lot, but what Luke seems to spend more time telling us about is that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. There an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
This angel told them, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.”
Now as residents of a non-shepherding society, we may need even more detail than our story offers to get the full picture.
I’ve only met one shepherd in my whole life, but Biblically speaking shepherds are fairly commonplace. We know that King David was once a shepherd, and being the youngest was the one often left to mind the sheep himself out in the fields.
We may assume, therefore, that these shepherds the angel addresses in the middle of the night are not the patriarchs and the matriarchs of the shepherding clan, but the lowest on the totem pole – too young to command any seniority and weasel out of the midnight watch. Out in the fields on Christmas Eve so many years ago were not the parents, but their children, still full of the belief that their time had not come and gone, but that each new day could bring something completely new – that these dark days of Caesar might still come to an end, and low and behold the angle comes to them telling them that this day has come.
“Today – Today – in the town of David a savior has been born to you.”
Today the angel said – today.
And while the world didn’t change all at once, it all started right then, when a band of children still full of possibility and hope were convinced that today was very different than yesterday, and that tomorrow would be better than those the past – for in the middle of a night, a night like any other, but also so unlike any other – the world changed as those shepherds went to Bethlehem armed only with the audacious belief that God’s will still governed the world.
This is the Good News.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Luke 3: 7-18 page 726
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “The one with two tunics should share with the one who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
Now I’ve learned a few things about being a minister over the past few years – but John the Baptist has obviously not learned those same things.
I learned that it’s important to greet people warmly when they come to church – after all, they’ve woken up early, they’ve gotten dressed and here it is their day off – so I like to begin each service by saying, “Good morning, and welcome to Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church.”
John, however, takes a different approach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
I’ve learned that it’s important to respect tradition and heritage – and that, should you feel so led as to try and change something – then a wise minister will do so without insulting the folks who hold that tradition dear, knowing that those who built up your church deserve respect for their hard work. John however spits in the face of tradition and heritage saying: “You think it means something that you were born into the blood-line of Abraham? I tell you it doesn’t matter at all who you are, what your father does, or what your grandfather did, for I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham.”
I’ve also learned to speak about sin in broad, sweeping, generalizations, to avoid making anyone feel too uncomfortable – but John tells the crowd exactly what they need to do to repent – if you have two tunics than give one away, if you have more food than you need then share with someone who’s hungry.
John is a uniquely radical person – just the kind of person needed to prepare the way for a uniquely radical savior poised to turn the world on its head.
But he also stands in the familiar - as this concept that he was preaching about – the idea that someone is on the way and that we need to be prepared for his coming judgment is nothing new.
The Jews had been waiting; indeed they are still waiting, for this messiah who is to come to restore the nation of Israel to greatness. This Messiah is to judge the unjust, punish the powerful, and restore the weak to their rightful place in glory.
What’s so strange about John though is that he’s not talking about someone who will be attacking the Romans but the pious, the religious authorities who expected to be rewarded when this messiah finally showed up.
The Roman soldiers were also poised to hear John’s message – the idea that a divine being would come to surprise and judge his people, rewarding the kind and punishing the wicked was a common theme of their mythology, so to prepare for God’s arrival must have made sense, to always be ready, to always extend the hand of hospitality, not knowing when they might entertain the divine in disguise.
But what must have made John sound strange to their Roman ears was the means of preparation– they’re not supposed to set the table for wayfaring gods in disguise, but treat those in their charge with respect, “don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
Even to our ears the idea that someone is coming due to surprise us with his delivery on Christmas Eve is nothing new. That this coming one would come to judge the naughty and reward the nice – that he’s got a list and he’s checking it twice – is a common idea.
But that to prepare for his coming, we shouldn’t make a list of all that we want, but should instead make a list of all that we have, then give away what we don’t need, is a profoundly countercultural message – especially now at Christmas.
Our Christmas celebrations will be marked with more presents, more food, and more lights – as though more than enough ensured that this Christmas would be better than the one before.
Interestingly though, I’m not sure that’s the way it works.
I was old enough to remember the Christmas that my parents felt like they could splurge on a camcorder, as they bought it, not when I was 7 and had red curly hair like my sister, always ready to improvise a tap-dance; not when I was 3 and full of smiles and cute mispronunciations of common words like my brother; but when I was 12, gangly and without self-confidence, worried about my voice that hadn’t changed, unwilling to smile no matter what the occasion.
So on Christmas day, Santa had made his delivery, the room is full of smiles and laughter until the camera pans to me, morose, and looking over my loot accounting for what I had received in relation to what I had hoped to receive but didn’t get.
The camera, for good reason, doesn’t stay long on me before it goes to my sister, then my brother, sitting there in a pile of wrapping paper, completely disregarding his actual gifts, happy and amazed at his luck to have so much colorful paper all around.
I look at my seven month old daughter Lily now, her eyes wide open in amazement at the world around her, and I wonder what it is that happens, not only to surly 12 year old boys, but all of us. Why it is that we all stop being satisfied with a pile of wrapping paper and start taking notice of what we didn’t get.
What I want this Christmas isn’t more of anything. What I want is to regain the lost skill of being satisfied with enough.
Now I’m no John the Baptist, but I tell you this – God is coming – and while you’ve heard this story enough times for it to be familiar, hear it again trusting that this year there’s something new.
That there is something new in the claim that who you are, where and when you were born, doesn’t really matter, as the birth of Christ makes us all Children of Abraham, heirs to the promise of salvation.
That how nice or naughty you’ve been doesn’t make a difference, as the God of all grace and mercy is coming, and in God all sins are forgiven, all lives made ready for new life.
That the size of your house, the food on your table, the clothes in your closet don’t matter all that much when you consider that this child to be born was born in a stable to two wayfaring travelers with nowhere to sleep.
This Christmas, may you take a look at all that you have, and be thankful, knowing and believing that in Christ Jesus we have all been given enough – enough to give thanks, enough to share, enough.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

That John the Baptist

Luke 3: 1-6, page 726
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
And all human kind will see God’s salvation.’
When I think of dangerous professions I think of fishing for king crab in Alaska, washing the windows on skyscrapers, or taming lions, not necessarily preaching – but off the top of my head I can think of several preachers who’s lives were threatened because they choose to speak an uncomfortable truth.
In the 16th Century Martin Luther spoke out against the Church who, in an effort to standardize liturgy world-wide was leading worship in Latin whether the congregation could understand it or not. By simply translating the Bible into German – making the implicit suggestion that God might speak in the language of the people - he threatened the authority that the Church possessed, and was forced to flee from those in power who sought to silence him.
400 years later, a man by the same name, Martin Luther King Jr., spoke inconvenient words of equality to a segregated society. Those invested or convenienced by this segregation were threatened, unable to imagine or dream of a world where people got along regardless of skin color; and on April 4th, 1968 his voice was silenced with his death.
The prophet from today’s scripture lesson met the same fate, his head served on a platter.
But why?
What was it about John, what was it about his preaching, that so threatened those in power?
From our passage today all we have to draw from are the words: “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance seems a common enough theme for a sermon – and baptism – I assume my brother-in-law didn’t risk his life to baptize our daughter Lily last week. But put repentance, baptism, and the forgiveness of sins together and what we have is a threat to a religious system made possible by Herod’s temple, presided over by the high priests Annas and Caiaphas – a system that we may assume made money for the church and the state through financial transactions that ensured the forgiveness of sins.
For years women and men had traveled to the temple, traded their currency for temple coinage which they then exchanged for the clean animals to be sacrificed by the temple priests.
John the Baptist on the other hand was out in the desert by the river – offering the same product – forgiveness - but telling folks all you have to do to be forgiven is step in the water – wash that old life off your body – and come out clean.
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” some people said.
“How can it be so simple?” they asked.
“Don’t I have to do something?”
After all, doing something, paying something seems natural.
“You can’t afford no ring, you can’t afford no ring, I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring,” the country song goes.
“Show me the money,” says the catch phrase.
And if you’re having trouble picturing the crowds at the temple, the money changers changing money, the products in short supply, and the crowds of people trying to buy something – forgiveness, love, happiness – then you haven’t been to Wal-Mart this Holiday season.
Clark Howard or Dave Ramsey can tell you how to avoid the debt that so many will willingly throw themselves into – but to understand what it is that people are trying to buy this Christmas we need only watch advertising in the same way John the Baptist watched the temple from the desert.
Yahoo dot com told me the other day that they could find me exactly what I want.
The side of the Macy’s building during the Thanksgiving parade stands the word “Believe.”
And then we have the “Open Happiness” with a Coke campaign.
What is it that people are looking for is clear to me – people are looking for what people have always been looking for – exactly what I want – to believe in something – to find happiness – and where it is that we all seem to think that we’ll find these things is equally clear, as our credit card statements speak volumes.
But I am here to tell you today, that while might give you what you want – it can never give you what you need.
That belief defined by Macy’s is not worth believing in.
And no matter how many Coke’s you open you will not find happiness at the bottom of a single bottle.
You see – there are some things that money can’t buy.
The Israelites couldn’t buy forgiveness then, just as we can’t buy it now.
Of course it costs something – it costs your old life – it costs turning from sin – it costs admitting that you’ve done wrong – it costs repentance.
But if you know what it’s like to touch the waters of forgiveness, you know that there is nothing so great as knowing that the love and acceptance of God is not contingent on your capacity to buy it, earn it, or deserve it.
Repent and believe – for the only thing that comes in between us and the Lord are those mountains we, ourselves have built up, of debt, worry, and more than we need - those valleys dug deep with sorrow, disappointment, and depression that no product any where can fill – but the day is coming, says the Lord, when crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways smooth, and all of humankind will know the free gift of God’s salvation!
Haven’t you worked enough hours to know that you can’t earn it?
Haven’t you looked in enough stores to know that you can’t buy it?
And haven’t you been going down that road long enough to know that it’s leading you in the wrong direction?
Repent and believe the good news – All of human kind will see God’s salvation – repent and believe – and know that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.