Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Every one of them words rang true..."

"...And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul..."

I thought of those words from the Bob Dylan song, Tangled Up in Blue, when I read Psalm 62, for my morning devotions. This psalm, with its reminder of the fleeting nature of life on earth and its determined reliance on the only true, eternal foundation for life, God, seems like the perfect message for us in this time of financial crisis and anxiety, an antidote that both chastens and comforts us for our reliance on anything but God.

Here it is...

Psalm 62
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assail a person,
will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence.
They take pleasure in falsehood;
they bless with their mouths,
but inwardly they curse.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.

Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work.

Pray for Zimbabwe

It's getting worse.

I'm praying that as a first step, Robert Mugabe and his supporters will cede power peacefully. Please pray with me.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Living in the Already/Not Yet (A Look at the Bible Lessons for This Coming Sunday)

These notes are mostly provided to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, to get ready for Sunday worship. But because the Bible lessons we use will also be read at most churches in the world this coming Sunday, I hope that they'll help others as well.

First Sunday of Christmas
December 28, 2008

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 61:1-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, You wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In Your mercy, let us share the divine life if the One Who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

General Comments:
"Adoration and telling are the focus of today's reading about Simeon and Anna, who are overwhelmed with joy at the sight of the Christ child," one resource notes of the Bible lessons. That's true. But the Gospel lesson from Luke, along with the other lessons for the day, also point us to the faithfulness of God in fulfilling promises and the need for us to be faithful in waiting for their fulfillment, trusting in God's timing. More on that as we look at each passage.

Another common theme of the Bible lessons for this Sunday is that salvation and righteousness are gifts from God. We can't attain them by fulfilling religious laws, though there's nothing inherently wrong with religious rites. They can be ways of expressing gratitude to God. God gives us life with Him freely. We simply grasp it with faith or live and die enslaved to the law of sin.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
1. Most contemporary scholars say that these words were given by God to the person we call Deutero-Isaiah (or even Trito-Isaiah), a prophet who lived about two-hundred years after the original prophet Isaiah, but whose way of thinking about faith was marked by similar notions.

If, as thought, this passage was written after the Babylonian exile of God's people, the perspective would be of someone whose fondest prayers of return to the promised land have been fulfilled, yet without the kind of restoration of joyful faith and allegiance to God among all the people. Isaiah lives with an already/not yet perspective. Of God's faithfulness, he's certain. But God's dominion over His people's hearts is not yet complete.

2. The passage begins with a resolution to glorify God for salvation and righteousness. We would do well to make similar resolutions as we prepare to enter the new year.

3. Also in v. 10, the clothing Isaiah says he will wear--provided by God, will be comparable to the clothing worn by brides or grooms on their wedding days. Two points:
a. Salvation and righteousness are gifts from God. We cannot resolve to obey God's laws and achiever salvation or righteousness. They're gifts from God. The only resolution we can make--and then with no hope of fulfilling it without God's help--is honor God for giving.
b. God intends to have an intimate relationship with us, like the relationships of wives and husbands.
4. Isaiah switches metaphors in v. 11. Here, God is a farmer who has planted righteousness--in the people of Israel--and God will cause it to sprout. As it grows, the whole world will see it.

5. My inelegant paraphrase of 62:1a is: "For the sake of God's people, I won't shut up." Instead, Isaiah says, "I will keep talking about how God vindicates faith in Him, in spite of adversities and seeming irrelevance, waiting for the day when God's vindication and power will be as bright and obvious as blazing sun at dawn or a roarng torch fire!"

Isaiah has seen signs of God's faithfulness: the Babylonian exile has ended. But to a people beaten and uncertain in their faith, it's not yet obvious the extent of God's power and grace. They will see, Isaiah is certain.

Psalm 148
1. The last five psalms are The Hallelujah Chorus* of the book of Psalms, the Old Testament's worship song book. Each of these five psalms, Psalms 146 to 150, begin and end with "Hallelujah!," a Hebrew phrase that means, "Praise the LORD!"

As several commentators point out, the Psalms seem to move climactically toward these final five songs. The earlier psalms contain laments and pleas, among other things, with praises becoming more and more prevalent through the songbook until you come to these psalms, which are all about praising God.

2. Also pointed out by many commentators is the fact that vv.1-6 call for the heavens, including inanimate objects, to praise God, while vv.7-12, call for the earth, including men and women, old and young, to praise God.

The Biblical emphasis on radical theocentrism and utter dependence on God are both seen in this psalm's call: "praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted."

3. About the phrase "you waters above the heavens" in v.4, an explanation is in order. The ancient Hebrews thought they lived on a flat planet. They pictured the Earth as a gigantic dome, carved out of primeval chaos (see Genesis 1) by God. The sky above and the earth beneath held back the waters that would otherwise swamp the planet.

Galatians 4:4-7
1. Throughout this letter to the first-century church at Galatia, the apostle Paul draws a distinction between two ways of life:
a. The life of slavery to the law, a performance-based life in which, whether in the eyes of God or others, we are enslaved to the judgment of others.
b. The life of freedom through God's grace given in Jesus Christ.
In Galatians, Paul refutes the so-called Judaizers, who claim that one must obey Jewish ritual law in order for one to receive forgiveness and eternal life through Christ.

As Paul points out in Romans 4:1-3, even Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, received life and the promises of God not on the basis of his ability to act righteously, but as a gift from God in which all he needed to do was trust in God. Jesus and His family were, as our Gospel lesson from Luke, emphasizes, scrupulous in keeping the law of God. There's no indication though that they did so in order to achieve righteousness or salvation, but only to live in gratitude for these gifts from God.

2. In v.4, Paul says that God acted at precisely the moment of God's choosing, the moment right from God's vantage point, to enter the world in the person of Jesus. This is an example of what the New Testament Greek calls the kairos, God's time. This contrasts with the chronos, the chronological time under which we live and which we seek to bend to our control. God doesn't operate on our timetable, a fact which has tried the patience (and grown the faith) of millions of believers over time. The Biblical writers wouldn't be the first to ask God, "How long, O Lord...?" But in waiting for the kairos, we also learn complete dependence on God.

3. Also in v. 4, Paul shows that Jesus was born "of a woman" as a human being under the laws that constrain and convict human beings. Later, this same Jesus, Who had never sinned, would also bear our sins, our conviction for sin, in order to liberate us from the consequences of sin: death and separation from God.

4. God's Spirit comes to us (v.6), making it possible for us to call out to God as Abba!, Father, a relationship not possible for slaves, but given as a gift of grace through Christ. That's why Christ was born into our world! That's why v. 7 tells us that the Galatian Christians--and all the baptized, that we are now children of God, fully restored, heirs of righteousness and eternity. (A little Psalm 148 seems in order here!)

Luke 2:22-40 (Verse-by-Verse Comments)
22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),
their purification: The reference is to both Mary and Jesus. Forty days after the birth of a son, a woman was to be purified at the temple, eighty days after the birth of a daughter.

A son eight days old was to be circumcised and given his name, also at the temple. Jesus, of course, required no purification, but as He emphasized when He was baptized, Jesus sealed His connection to the human race by fulfilling all righteousness.

as it is written in the law of the Lord: The Old Testament passage is Exodus 13:2, 12. First born males were especially consecrated to God.

every firstborn: Of course, in ancient times, it was firstborn males who were dedicated. But this birth order stuff is significant, even today. When I was a senior in seminary, we were required to take a class called Senior Integrative, ostensibly designed to help us integrate the diverse strands of our four-year seminary experience--classwork in the areas of systematic theology, Bible, ministry and practical experiences like hospital chaplaincies and a year-long internship with a congregation--into something like a cohesive theology for living and doing ministry. A professor asked us one day, "How many of you are the oldest children in your family?" Something like 80% of those present raised their hands. "It's never less than this," the professor said, remembering his three decades of teaching at the seminary.

Here is a fascinating report from CNN on the impact of birth order on careers.

24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons: This was the sacrifice offered by the poor.

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
looking forward to the consolation of Israel: Like the writer of our lesson from Isaiah, Simeon expected God to act to console His imprisoned people.

the Holy Spirit rested on him: The Holy Spirit wasn't a new invention at Pentecost when He brought the Church into being. The Spirit always rested on those who put their trust in the God of the Bible.

Luke puts a heavy emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to those who believe. You see it in both the Gospel and the second volume of history, the book of Acts.

The Galatians text says that it's by the power of the Holy Spirit that we confess faith in Christ.

26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah: There's no indication here that Simeon had sought this promise from God. It's perfectly possible that he may have regarded the promise as a burden: each day that it wasn't granted was a day when this old believer was kept from eternity with God.

My own view, based on reading Scripture and on personal experience, is that people who seek specific assurances from God or particular spiritual gifts are usually disappointed. Their requests (my requests) too often are selfishly-driven, even if only for the sake of pride and a sense of being spiritually together.

Paul's letters to the Corinthians upbraided the members of that first-century church for that kind of pride and for seeking specific gifts from God. As Paul says there, God parcels out gifts as God sees fit...especially when we don't want them.

Guided by the Spirit: Simeon lived in such constant communication with the Spirit that he knew when he saw the child of this impoverished couple that Jesus was the long-awaited consolation of Israel.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace: At Saint Matthew, we sing Simeon's words every Sunday. It should be pointed out though, that Simeon's words are more accurately translated than they are in the Nunc Dimittis we sing. Simeon speaks in the present tense: He doesn't ask God to dismiss him in peace; he says that he is being dismissed in peace. Having seen the consolation he'd been promised, Simeon could now die.

Simeon saw this in an ordinary baby! By the guidance of God's Spirit, it remains possible for us to see how God is working in ordinary people and circumstances.

all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles: The promised Savior isn't just for the Jews, but all people! Simeon understood this.

33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Even knowing what had been revealed to Mary, according to Luke, and to Joseph, according to Matthew, Simeon's words had to have stunned them.

34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
the inner thoughts of many will be revealed: How we react to Jesus is the only measure of our eternal destinies.

36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
There was also a prophet, Anna: Anna is the other portion of a matched set in the temple on the day of Jesus' circumcision. She too, affirms Jesus' identity as the Savior. If Simeon underscores Luke's emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Anna underscores his obsession with prayer. She was a woman of prayer.

One other thing: To this point in the Gospel, the angels (including Gabriel), the embryonic John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna have all given witness to the identity of Jesus. In ancient Jewish thought, only three witnesses were considered necessary to affirm the truth of testimony. Early in his gospel, Luke gives the testimony of more than enough witnesses that Jesus is the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh.

began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem: Anna does as the shepherds did before her. She told everyone about the Child.

39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
Compare and contrast with a similar verse regarding John the Baptizer, Luke 1:80.

Mary and Joseph did nothing to "force the hand of God." They had the promises. Now it was time to wait. When God gives us orders, sometimes the orders are to march and sometimes they're to stand down. Much of the Christian life is spent in waiting, which isn't passivity but obedience, while God moves toward the kairos moment.

*Here are the lyrics of The Hallelujah Chorus.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Most Recent Update on David Wayne

His daughter provides information here on David's surgery, which happened yesterday. Please continue to keep David in your prayers.

Room for Christ?

[This sermon was shared during the 11:00pm Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship service at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Luke 2:1-20
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

That is the stark way that Luke the evangelist chooses to tell us about the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world, God-in-the-flesh.

The simplicity of Luke’s description contrasts sharply with that other Christmas, the Christmas celebrated by the wider world, the loud Christmas that blares, “Buy this,” “Borrow that,” and “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”

That Christmas has launched thousands of different product lines, generating millions for entrepreneurs, songwriters, and retailers. It’s rife with glitzy extravaganzas, dazzling displays, movies with awesome special effects, and loud parties.

And you know what? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that other Christmas. In the phrase from the old song, “in the bleak midwinter,” a time of grey skies and cold temperatures, the lights and the color of that other Christmas are probably something we can all use, especially in a time of economic distress and difficulty. So, I’m not knocking it.

But, really that other Christmas—the Christmas of absorbing electronic games and of kisses that “begin…at Kay’s”—that Christmas is only you and I howling at the moon. No matter how many times we sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, no matter how much we buy, give, or get, no matter how much we laugh or egg nog we knock back, that other Christmas is just a season on the calendar, a diversion along the way.

I don't mean to be indelicate on Christmas Eve, but that other Christmas cannot change the fact that we are sinners alienated from God, in need of a Savior.

It cannot show us that that Savior has come with, as another of our Christmas songs puts it, “healing in His wings.”

The other Christmas has little to do with Jesus, the miracle child who would go to cross and tomb to share our deaths so that when He rose, all who follow Him, can look forward to sharing His resurrection.

Luke says that Jesus had to be delivered in a stall, probably a cave like the one in which He would be buried on a Good Friday less than thirty years later. The reason was simple: There was no room for Mary, Joseph, or Jesus in the inn.

No room.

But how much room do we give to Jesus even when we aren’t feeling overwhelmed by that other Christmas?

Do we give room to Jesus when He tries to confront us for the sins that would separate us from Him?

How about when He tries to assure us of the forgiveness we feel we don’t deserve?

Do we give Him room when He tries to guide us in the ways of justice and compassion for our neighbors, of sacrificial giving, of marriages and purity according to God’s plan?

Do we give Him room enough to let Him speak to us in times of prayer, as we listen to Scripture, when we worship God together, or when we receive Holy Communion?

Many Christians I know spend lots of time and energy lamenting how others seem bent on “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” Often though, these same people are little more than Sunday morning Christians, people who will not give Christ room or time in their lives.

But in this year of financial crisis and recession, I harbor a hope that we’ve been re-acquainted with the fact that the only thing of enduring value in this life or the next is the Savior Whose birth we celebrate tonight.

Jesus and the life that He gives to all who turn from sin and turn to Him eternally outlasts all the money, the houses, the mortgages, and the comforts this world might momentarily provide. Those who throw in their lots with Jesus outlast the seemingly important stuff of this world as well.

Life that never ends, true happiness, and the power and blessings of God in us and for us are among the gifts that Jesus brings.

And this Jesus who is marginalized, sentimentalized, and often forgotten by the other Christmas, is emphatic in saying that only He can offer these things. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” He tells us. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this year in which bad news seems to come to us every day, we have good news this Christmas. It’s put well in a favorite Christmas hymn: “where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” Other good words for meek might be wise, insightful, realistic. The meek soul is the one who realistically understands that we need Christ.

May we always be meek enough to recognize our need of Christ and to let Him in. When we make room for Jesus Christ, He enters into the places and circumstances that we surrender, that we pray for, for which we ask His help.

If we let Christ into our lives, Christmas—the real Christmas—will happen in our lives not only on December 25--which after all is just a date the early Christians chose because it already was a Roman holiday--but all through the year.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Simple, Life-Changing Message of Christmas

[This sermon was shared during the 7:00pm Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship service at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier tonight.]

Luke 2:1-20
Tonight, I have to make a confession to all of you.

I’ve been a pastor now for twenty-four years and I face the same dilemma every Christmas Eve: What should I say?

I know that may come as a shock to many of you. After all, it seems, I have the gift of gab. But presenting the message of this night isn’t really about the gift of gab.

Yet it’s a message that you’ve heard many times, a message that may seem worn from overuse and maybe overshadowed by other Christmas messages.

Each and every Christmas, our society's celebrations of this holiday season become more and more elaborate, the lights and decorations brighter and bigger, the gifts more complicated.

Every year, it seems, there’s a new Christmas movie that dazzles us with its special effects.

In a media-jaded society, how can a simple preacher stand up before a group of people on Christmas Eve and tell the story of the first Christmas in a way that gets their attention...that helps them remember the true meaning of this holy night...that encourages them to embrace Jesus as their Savior...that incites gratitude, wonder, and awe for the gift of the Bethlehem baby?

I confess that I’m incapable of being as interesting or as exciting as the gifts and lights and colors that surround us.

But maybe that’s the point. When I look at the TV commercials hawking the latest gadgets, video games, cars, colognes, and perfumes this time of year, I see a common theme. “Buy this,” the advertisers tell us, “and you’ll be popular, appreciated, superior, desired, needed, in control, on top of the world.” This year's Best Buy campaign probably summarized the advertisers' pitch most succinctly and baldly: "You. Happy." Over and over again, in countless ways, we’re told that for three simple payments of $39.95 per month, plus shipping and handling, we’ll be certifiable masters of the universe, gods over our own little kingdoms.

Christmas—I mean the real, true Christmas—comes to us with an altogether different message. On the first Christmas, we’re told, the God of all creation came into the world.

He came not as a gift you buy, but as a gift you receive.

He came not as an imposing giant or media superstar, but as a little baby, needing to be fed and burped and changed like any other child.

He came not promising to make us little gods, but to stake His claim to be our one and only God.

All of these elements of the Christmas story make it more than a little counter-cultural, a bit scandalous, and offensive to us...and hard to preach.

The advertisers know well that we all like things that we can see, touch, hear, and smell. Christmas calls us to accept things on faith.

The advertisers know too, that we want our egos inflated to godlike proportions. Christmas calls us to trash our egos and do as the shepherds did on the first Christmas: to humbly worship and accept that this baby is God Almighty in the flesh.

Tonight, I can’t compete with the glitz of the world and I won’t try to do so. All I can do is give you the testimony of a satisfied customer of Jesus-given grace. Once upon a time, as most of you no doubt know by now, I refused to receive Jesus as my God. My life was okay. But I was driven in a way that reflected my belief that I had to be my own god and make my own way. After I received Jesus as my God, I still wrestled with my insecurities and I still sinned—I still do these things. But Jesus gives me the grace to accept His acceptance of me and to accept His forgiveness of me and to move on with my life, confident that the God Who made the universe—the God Who came to us at Christmas—will never stop loving me, providing for me, listening to me, helping me. God will do the same for you!

On an episode of the old All in the Family TV show, Edith and Archie attend Edith’s high school class reunion. Edith encountered an old classmate named Buck who, in the years since their graduation had become exceedingly obese. Edith and Buck talked with one another for a long time, remembering their old times together. Edith didn’t seem to notice how much weight Buck had put on at all. Later, Edith and Archie spoke and she said, “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person?” Archie got a disgusted look on his face and said, “You’re a pip, Edith, you know that? You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp.” A puzzled look crossed Edith’s face and she said, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad?”

What do you see when you look at Christmas? I have learned that when I look at Christmas as it’s presented to us by God on the pages of the Bible, it doesn’t induce panic about getting the right gift or fear that I don’t measure up to the Joneses, but comfort, hope, fulfillment, joy, peace.

Yet we must choose. We must decide whether we will see Christmas God’s way or the world’s way.

And so tonight, I just remind you of the simple truth of Christmas. When God observed how lost and hopeless we had become because of sin and death, He rolled up His sleeves and went to work doing the most amazing thing ever. The God Who made everything—the God Who made you and me—became one of us, entering our lives as a baby so that as the one pure, sinless representative of the human race, He could sacrifice Himself on the cross and give us all new life when He rose from the dead.

The Christmas message is as simple, as profound, and as true as that. This Christmas, welcome Jesus to your celebrating and no matter what pains or difficulties you face and in fact, no matter what successes you may enjoy (because success can sometimes be harder to handle than failure or adversity), He will give you reason to celebrate.

Christ has come. Christ will come again. Thank God we belong to Christ. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Christmas Blessings

May the God Who has come to us in Jesus Christ bless you with a wonderful Christmas!

"We have betrayed our legacy."

So says Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu of the failure of his country, South Africa, to push for Robert Mugabe to step down from power in Zimbabwe. Read about his comments here.

South Africa's government can, if it chooses, play a key role in catalyzing a peaceful transition of power in the wake of last year's sham election in Zimbabwe.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This and That

Things you might enjoy from around the web...

The Rebirth of Wonder from Ben Witherington.
At the movies in Saudi Arabia.
Happy Mark Roberts' blog. Mark writes great stuff!
A great church leader passes. I met Marshall once. We were on an elevator in Kansas City back in 1993. He was gracious and kind.
What hath Muntadar al-Zaidi wrought? Business for a Turkish shoe manufacturer, that's what.
Thomas Fleming, historian and a man with an interesting past, explains why he's not worried that Barack Obama cut his political eyeteeth in Chicago politics.
Craig Williams presents a poem on the nativity by C.S. Lewis.
Chris Duckworth (AKA: The Lutheran Zephyr) was ordained this past Saturday. God's blessings!

Added: Gretchen Rubin has twelve good tips for making and keeping New Year's resolutions. While we have to recognize the role that sin plays in preventing us from keeping our good resolves, I think that they can be good things.

I wrote a comment at Gretchen's blog, indicating that I would add one more tip: Prayer! Even those who don't believe that there's Someone listening at the other end of our prayers will benefit from articulating and repeating their resolutions.

An additional comment I should have made there is to point to the observation made by the late Norwegian Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby. Those who dare to pray, making themselves available for belief in God, even though skeptical, often will find God creating faith in them despite their skepticism. So, if you're a skeptic who decides to add prayer to your arsenal for keeping your New Year's resolutions, watch out!

An Update on Blogging Friend David Wayne

Pastor David Wayne, whose blog is called Jollyblogger, will undergo surgery tomorrow at 11am (EST). Chemotherapy will follow. Here is an update from David. Please continue to pray for him.

Getting Ready for Tomorrow's Christmas Eve Worship: Luke 2:1-20

A short while ago, I finished preparing a second Christmas Eve sermon. I decided to do a different one for each the two services we'll have tomorrow evening. One is, honestly, a reworking of a sermon I did at my former parish several years ago. (I've decided that it isn't plagiarism to steal one's own sermons.) The other is a new one, freshly inspired by my interaction with the Gospel lesson appointed for the evening, Luke 2:1-20. I'll be posting them here tomorrow evening, hopefully.

Since I'll shortly be working on my sermon for this coming Sunday, I'm forgoing detailed comments. But here are a few quick thoughts.

General Comments:
Christmas is one of the two great festivals of the Church Year, the other being Easter. Christmas celebrates Jesus' birth, important because it testifies to the love that God has for us. For God to become one of us, His creation is a stunning thing, equivalent in some ways to our voluntarily becoming amoebas or single cells.

A more apt analogy might be found in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Breakfast of Champions. Back in my twenties, I read virtually all of Vonnegut's novels published up to that point and so before reading Breakfast of Champions, became familiar with his character, Kilgore Trout. Trout was a writer of pornography in Vonnegut's earlier work. But in Breakfast of Champions, he becomes the beneficiary of a miraculous intervention and transformation. Trout has an automobile accident from which he's able to walk away. But while doing so, he meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger is Vonnegut himself, "your creator" is how the Vonnegut on the page describes himself to the dazed Kilgore Trout.

What Vonnegut fantasized in fiction, God has accomplished in fact. The Creator, our creator, has entered our lives. But this is where the Vonnegut analogy breaks down, because God has done more than appear among us. He's become one of us.

That, of course, is more than a neat trick. There's a purpose to God's incarnation. I talked about that here. The baby has come to die and rise for us and give those who repent and believe in Him everlasting life with God.

It's become fashionable for some not only to disparage Christianity, but also to cast doubts on whether Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. The documentation for Jesus' existence is more extensive and closer in time to the years of His life than is the case for some of the most celebrated persons of ancient history. Former journalist (and former atheist) and pastor Lee Strobel presents an impressive array of evidence for Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in two of his books, The Case for Faith and The Case for Christianity. There, he examines the faith claims of Christianity with experts in many different fields. C.S. Lewis, in his extraordinary Mere Christianity, speaks convincingly of the intellectual plausibility of what Christians say about Jesus. In the end though, one can only believe if one is willing to believe and expose ourselves to the means God uses to create, sustain, and grow faith. On this latter point, see here.

Verse-by-Verse Comments
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
(a) Luke emphasizes the futility of human control here. The Romans who ordered the census no doubt thought that they were in charge, not realizing that it was God's will to get Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where the long-anticipated Messiah was to be born.

(b) While there had been some censuses ordered by God in Old Testament times, counts were generally disparaged by God. See here. The reason for this is that censuses were seen as means by which illegitimate power exercised muscle over dominated people and as a means of measuring human strength, as opposed to relying on God.

(c) It's characteristic of Luke to put things in an historical context.

3All went to their own towns to be registered.
(a) The disruptions of normal life would have been enormous, something not uncommon in the highly bureaucratized Roman world. Thomas Merton points out that the purposes of this particular census were probably to determine who could be taxed and to find the military-eligible males needed for the Roman army.

4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
(a) This verse too, emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Joseph, who wouldn't have had a reason to leave Nazareth, goes exactly where God wants the Savior to be born.

(b) Bethlehem, a name that means house of bread, was the hometown of Israel's greatest (and second) king, David. The story of his ancestry is told in the wonderful Old Testament book of Ruth.

5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
(a) Although Mary and Joseph had not consummated their union and the formal wedding ceremony hadn't taken place, they were considered married. During the engagement period after the marriage arrangement had been made, the groom and his party might show up at any time for the wedding ceremony. Joseph and Mary wouldn't consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born.

6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
(a) This is a God-incident, no coincidence, but the result of God's planned and promised intervention.

7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
(a) Martin Luther called this "a sight for tears." The Savior of the world makes His appearance in our world in the same way you and I first did. But there were no doctors or nurses. The mother gave birth without the help of a midwife, something that makes Jesus' birth in itself amazing, not to mention his subsequent survival. The only one to attend to Mary or the Child was the man chosen by God to act as Jesus' earthly father, Joseph.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
(a) Shepherds, as most people know, were on the lowest rungs of first-century Judean society. But shepherds had also played an important role in the history of God's people. Moses, Jacob, and David, among others, were shepherds. In ancient Near Eastern documents, kings often portrayed themselves as shepherds of God's people. But Luke clearly wants to convey something about the good news that Jesus brings. In Mary's song, the Magnificat, which appears in Luke 1, she speaks of how in Christ, God was bringing down the arrogant and lifting up the lowly.

This past Sunday, in the Children's Sermon, two of our young people allowed themselves to illustrate this aspect of Mary's song, which was the psalm for our worship. One of them said in a sad voice, "I'm as low as a snake's belly." (To which the congregation said, "Awwww.") The other said, "I am all that!" (To which the congregation said, "Booo.") Then, I asked the kids for whom the baby Jesus was born, the arrogant or the lowly? The answer, of course, is both. This Savior lifts up those laid low by life and as an equally gracious act of love, brings down those so ful of themselves they think they don't need God or others. He does this because some have sunk so low that the only way they can see Christ and His grace is to be lifted up. Others can only see the same thing by being brought down.

In going to the shepherds, heaven was signaling the upside-down nature of Jesus' kingdom.

(b) Underscoring the shepherds' lowly status is the statement that they lived "in the fields."

9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
(a) The shepherds were understandably terrified. But, as happens with most angelic encounters, there was no reason for fear.

12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
(a) The sign is hardly one a person would associate with a king.

(b) The manger--I think of the French word for eat--in the original Greek, phantne, was a stone feeding trough. That's a bit of foreshadowing: The Savior would die on Good Friday and be placed in a stone cave for burial.

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
(a) Heaven had to have a party!

(b) Who is favored by heaven? All who turn from sin and turn to the God we see in Jesus. Jesus told a story about a son who, after regretting the misuse of all the gifts his father had given to him, decided to ask his father for the status of house slave. But before the son could get the words of repentance out of his mouth, it seemed, the father was throwing a party, willing, it seems to keep giving to the son. (See Luke 15:11-32) Heaven always favors and throws a party for those who turn to the God we see in Christ.

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
(a) The shepherds had to check things out.

(b) Note the green-colored text. I'll address that below.

16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
(a) Suddenly, watching sheep is of secondary importance. Most of the time, day to day, the thing that pleases God is for us to do our duty. But we have to be open to God's interruptions. (What if another shepherd, Moses, hadn't stopped to check out that burning bush? Would God have sent someone else to facilitate the liberation of His people from Egypt?) The shepherds lost no time in setting out to find the baby.

17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
(a) The shepherds made known what heaven had made known to them. We Christians have a similar task. We're to make known what has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

(b) Note the blue-colored text. More on that below.

18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
(a) Everyone was amazed, Luther once noted, but for how long? The birth of Jesus was no more than a momentary buzz, underscoring how easily we forget the blessings of God and become the victim of anesthetizing routine. We derive too much security from our routines, letting them block our view of God. We also use them, like the Roman governors who had ordered the census, to fool ourselves into thinking that we have control over our lives.

19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
(a) Mary thought silently, deeply. No doubt they confirmed what the angel Gabriel told her at the annunciation. But she no doubt also wondered what lay ahead.

20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(a) God had fulfilled what had been revealed to the shepherds through the emissaries of heaven, the angels. God always fulfills His Word.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Please Pray

Back in October of 2005, I attended the first gathering of Christian bloggers known as GodBlogCon. I got to know many good folks there. Among them was Pastor David Wayne, whose blog is called Jolly Blogger.

David has announced that he has just been diagnosed with cancer. You can read the details here.

I am keeping David in my prayers. His family and his congregation will also be in my prayers.

I urge you to keep David in your prayers as well.

David really is a jolly person, a man with a ready smile and an obvious love of people, clearly born of his relationship with Jesus Christ. May God bring him complete healing.

[David can be seen in the photograph below, snapped by another one of the GodBlogCon1 participants, Alex Jordan. He's the fellow on the far right at the table in the foreground. You'll have to click on the photograph to see it in full.]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Movies

Since 2004, I've been posting my favorite Christmas movies. But there are revisions this year. Here's my 2008 list:

1. It's a Wonderful Life (of course!)
2. Bishop's Wife
3. Going My Way
4. The Bells of Saint Mary's
5. White Christmas
6. The Muppet Christmas Carol
7. A Charlie Brown Christmas (not released theatrically, but whatever)
8. Miracle on 34th. Street (the original)