Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas: God Opens the Door Between Heaven and Earth

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Christmas Eve.]

Luke 2:1-20
I want to talk with you tonight about the shepherds. As you no doubt know, the story of Jesus’ birth is only told in two of the four New Testament books called Gospels. Matthew and Luke are the ones that include birth narratives. Matthew doesn’t even mention the shepherds. But in Luke’s telling of the story of the first Christmas, the shepherds play an important part. Why? And what has that got to do with you and me on Christmas Eve, 2009?

The mystery of those questions increases when you learn more about shepherds.

In first-century Judea, where Jesus was born, shepherds didn’t have very positive reputations. In a society that viewed wealth as a sign of God's favor, the shepherds were poor, paid poorly by the owners of the sheep of which they took care.

They were loners accustomed to spending their lives in fields where they made their homes, unafraid of the terrors of the night that might be brought unannounced by bandits or wild animals. Shepherds were tough. And like Moses, who lived and died about 1500 years before Jesus was born, many who became shepherds likely were running from the law.

When I think of the shepherds Luke talks about in the Christmas story, I think of men like the cowboys of the American West. The shepherds might have been the kind of people you wanted at your back when you got into a scrape. But they were so independent and untethered that if you had to spend any time with them, you would want to sleep with one eye open and keep your hand close to a weapon.

It was to these kinds of people—tough, grizzled, impoverished, fearless loners—hated by society and often themselves contemptuous of society, that heaven chose to make the first announcement of the birth the Savior, Messiah, and Lord of the world.

Luke tells us about the shepherds’ role in the events of the first Christmas in just two scenes, both of which appear in our Gospel lesson.

I only want to talk about the first of those scenes. It starts out this way: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord—one single angel--stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

The shepherds were terrified? These guys accustomed to fending off thieves and killers and wild animals in the dead of night were terrified. For us, it would be like imagining John Wayne being terrified. Of what? Of one angel? Maybe.

But here’s where I think their terror came from: “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

To us, that phrase--"the glory of the Lord"--may not mean much. We have so domesticated God, turned God into such a buddy, that we seem to have lost any sense of how supreme, how infinite, how great, how perfect God is.

If the prospect of coming face-to-face with God doesn't terrify us a bit, our understanding of God is impoverished. It is incomplete.

Believe me, there couldn’t possibly enough Xanax, Zoloft, or Prozac in the universe to fend off the anxiety you and I should, if we're in our right minds, feel about coming into the presence of God’s glory!

Although I yearn for the day when I see my Lord face-to-face, I know that I will also blush and shudder and shake at the knees when I do:

God is sinless; I'm not.

God is supremely powerful; I’m weak and mortal.

God loves perfectly; I love imperfectly.

God forgives; more often than I want anybody to know, I keep score.

If it weren't for the Christ Child Who brings forgiveness to all who repent and believe in Him, the very thought of being in the presence of God's glory would leave me in a perpetual state of terror.

What right does a sinner like me, or like those shepherds, or maybe like you, have but to expect the rightful judgment and condemnation of God over our lives?

None. In truth, the Bible teaches that you and I have no rights and we certainly have no right to stand upright in the presence of God!

When those unsavory shepherds were surrounded by the glory of God, they were confronted vividly, powerfully, and unmistakably with the fundamental reality of human life: God is God and we are not.

And in the same moment, the shepherds, in the brilliant light of God’s glory would have also seen the truth about their own sin and their need to be saved.

I hope that on this Christmas Eve, as we light the candles, the glory of God will fill our hearts and minds and wills so we can see that we cannot John Wayne our way into eternity. We can’t be strong enough, good enough, smart enough, tough enough, or accomplished enough to gain peace with God or peace with ourselves. We need a Savior.

Our Gospel lesson tells us that while the shepherds were transfixed in terror, more happened. The “angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’”

Jesus had come, the angel told the shepherds. He was the Savior of the world, the Messiah, meaning God’s Anointed One or, as we say it based on the Greek of the New Testament, the Christ, and the Lord, meaning He is the King of everything.

Yet they would find Him, the angel said, barely clothed on a cold Judean night, lying in an animal’s feeding trough.

In Jesus, God laid aside the privileges of His deity. He left the pleasures of heaven. He submitted to the difficulties of this life. He absorbed within Himself the brutal reality of death and sorrow. And He let go of them all—privilege, pleasure, power, and comfort—in order to grab hold of, to restore, to make new, to enliven something infinitely more important to Him than any of those things. He came to do all of these things for you. He came to die on a cross and rise from a tomb in order to erase the power of sin, death, and futility over your life.

The angel called his message good news, euangelion in the original Greek in which the New Testament was written. Another word that translates euangelion, from the Old English, is Gospel. That night, the angel had good news for the shepherds:

They weren’t alone; God had come to them.

They didn’t need to be utterly ostracized; God was willing to forgive and befriend them.

They need not live in futility or die in despair; God had come to give abundant life to all who would surrender to the Lord in the manger.

They didn’t have to be afraid; the God of infinite perfection, power, and holiness didn’t want to condemn them to a life or an eternity without Him.

Is it any wonder that after the shepherds heard the angel’s message and then watched an army of heavenly beings sing God’s praises that they quickly sped to Bethlehem to find the baby?

And tonight, the angel’s good news is good news for you as well. You too can come to the Savior, Messiah, and Lord Who has come to grasp hold of you. And every time He reaches out to you, whether in His Word, in worship, in the Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine, in the fellowship of believers, in the physical needs of a neighbor, and in the need of our spiritually disconnected friends to know Jesus, you can once more let Jesus grab you and help you, and bring you into the very arms of God.

One of the enduring memories of my childhood happened on a cold winter night when I was about seven or eight.

My Dad and I watched Ohio State basketball together a lot when I was growing up. If the games were being played in the Central Time Zone on a school night, though, I couldn’t watch. I was supposed to go to bed at the same as my sisters, often before the away games even got started.

On this particular night, late in a Big Ten championship run by Buckeyes like Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Don DeVoe, Mel Nowell, and others, I was sent to bed at the usual time.

But about a half-hour later, I saw my Dad open the door of my room and ask quietly, “Mark, are you still awake?” “Yeah,” I said. “Well, come on to the living room. The game is about to start.”

When I got to the front room, I found that my Dad had popped some popcorn and laid out some Coca Cola that he had iced down in the snow on the banister of our front porch.

I sat down beside my father, his arm wrapped tightly around me as we watched the game and listened to Jimmy Crum, the sportscaster from Channel 4 in Columbus, do the play-by-play.

I’m sure that my Mom was in the room with us at the time, but I have no memory of her being there.

And I don’t remember who the Buckeyes were playing or how the game turned out.

But the thing I do remember vividly is sitting on the couch and looking down to notice my father’s hands holding me with strength and love. I lived in the purest pleasure from just being with my Dad, no expectations, no requirements, no worries, no fears. In that moment, I knew that I was loved and that the only way I could be separated from my father’s love was if I walked away from him.

Christmas presents us with the good news that our heavenly Father has opened the door between heaven and earth.

He asks us to be with Him.

And He promises that if we will let Him, He will be not just our God and King, but also our Savior and our Friend.

Let the God we know in Jesus be those things for you, not just at Christmas, but every day. If those things could be true for the shepherds, they can surely be true for you and me.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Amen

Monday, December 21, 2009

To Help You Prepare for Worship on Christmas Eve

Here is Pastor Ed Markquart's helpful discussion of the narrative of Jesus' birth from the Gospel of Luke. Reading it will help you prepare for Christmas Eve worship on Thursday.

Here are verse-by-verse comments I wrote last year.

The Gospel Lesson for Christmas Eve is Luke 2:1-20. Below is the entire text:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
If you are going to be in southeastern Ohio on Christmas Eve, you're invited to worship with us at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, for The Candlelight Service at 11:00PM. Here is a map showing the location.

[UPDATE: I like what Chris Haslam writes about Luke 2:1-20:
Luke is concerned to place Jesus in the time-line of history, as a real human being. We know of Augustus’ attempt to clean up the taxation system: as well as requiring more reasonable practices of tax collectors, he introduced a truly equitable tax: a poll-tax. Every 14 years, a census was held: people were required to present themselves in their ancestral towns, to register for the tax. Records are fragmentary but we do know that a census was held by “Quirinius” (v. 2) of Syria in 6-7 AD. Perhaps Judea was included in a census of 8-7 BC, “the first registration”. From Matthew 2:16, we know that Herod the Great sought to kill Jesus by slaughtering all children aged two or less. Because Herod died in 4 BC, Jesus was born no later than 6 BC. The dates agree. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, the city of David, to “to be registered” (v. 5). Jesus is born in Bethlehem in fulfilment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2-5: a shepherd-king is to be born there.

In v. 7, Jesus is treated like any other newborn of the time: he is wrapped in cloths, but there may be a message in his being born in “a manger”: animals normally fed from it; Jesus is sustenance for the world. In vv. 8-14, we learn the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Those who hear the pronouncement by the angel are “shepherds” (v. 8), lowly people. David too was a shepherd; in Luke, Jesus comes to the poor, the lowly. The message of Christ’s birth is indeed a joyful one – for all.

V. 11 mentions our great claims as to who Jesus is: “Saviour”, “Messiah” and “Lord”. As “Saviour”, he restores us to wholeness, rescues us from sin and alienation from God. In Jesus, God is present with sinners and saves us from destructive self-isolation to union with him, in a nurturing community. As “Messiah”, he inaugurates the era of heavenly peace: the end-time has begun. As “Lord”, he is God come in human form. The kingdom is for all those whom God has chosen (v. 14b). In vv. 15-20 the shepherds visit Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They tell them and many others the good news the angels have told them.]

Does Nathan Myrhvold Have a Workable Plan to Help with Global Warming?

Put aside any questions you may have as to whether global warming exists, is a problem, or is created by human beings. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't a good thing for the planet, whatever your views of global warming.

Nathan Myrhvold is accustomed to thinking differently about problems. The former chief strategist and technology officer at Microsoft has several plans for dealing with global warming. One scheme, which seems plausible as he explains it, would call for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere with the equivalent of high-tech garden hoses at the earth's poles.

Now, being an Apple man, I treat just about anything that comes from a veteran of Microsoft-world with--I'll be honest--derision. I love the "I'm a Mac and I'm a PC" ad campaign by Apple, mostly because, having suffered long with a proliferation of PCs and then gotten first, an Apple desktop, which is still going strong after six years, and then, an eMac that has been fantastic over the two-plus years I've had it, the ads ring true.

But Myrhvold offered some intriguing ideas for dealing with global warming yesterday on CNN's GPS with Fareed Zakaria.

Zakaria's and Myrhvold's reference to a sort of post-Christian environmental Calvinism that insists that cleaning up the planet must hurt is, I think, interesting. Over the long haul, doing anything worthwhile entails costs. But if solutions are workable without hurting people in Third World countries, particularly, the lack of pain is no reason to immediately dismiss an idea.

Great words...

for my fellow recovering Christian megalomaniacs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams Discusses Family History of Abuse

Ireland's Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, in an interview in which he urges his brother to come forward to face charges of sexually abusing his own daughter, reveals the history of sexual and other abuse in his extended family.

If you watch the video which accompanies the linked article, you see the heavy-heartedness in Adams. But you can also sense that he truly feels that dealing with this horror is the right thing for his entire family.

Dealing with the ravages and the multiple impacts of evil isn't easy. But it is cleansing and ultimately, freeing.

Hopefully, other families that have been touched by abuse will emulate the Adams' response in these matters and also seek help, counseling, and justice.