Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas: The Punchline God Wants You to Get

[This message was prepared for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Service of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Luke 2:1-7
In the first parish I served as a pastor was a couple who had been married many years and were deeply devoted to each other. Several years before I arrived, the woman, Laura, had been struck with Alzheimer’s Disease. By the time I became Laura’s and Vern’s pastor, she was confined to a bed in a nursing home, incapable of recognizing anyone or carrying on a conversation, not even Vern. But every day, Vern would visit and spend hours with Laura. He fed her with a baster, read the Bible and the newspaper to her, told her all the latest family news, and prayed with her. Often, when I visited Laura to pray aloud for her, I would find Vern there by her bedside. And often, when we spoke in private, Vern would tell me all about Laura, his love for her, and their life together. “She was always the first to send a note of encouragement to people who had bad things happen in their lives,” he told me. “And always called them to congratulate them or just be happy with them when good things happened. And she loved going to church, especially at Advent, just before Christmas, because she loved remembering that one day, Jesus was coming back again.”  I remember commenting to Vern how rare it was for someone to love Advent. They might love Christmas or Easter, but few people loved Advent. But Laura did.

Some five years after Vern first told me of Laura’s love for Advent, she died. It was just a few days before Christmas, in the waning days of Advent. We’re never ready for the loss of loved ones, even when we know that their deaths are inevitable. I was with Vern when Laura passed. Tears filled his eyes and his throat was choked with emotion. But he turned to me with a smile on his face and chuckle in his voice when he said, “It was her Advent, pastor. Laura is with Jesus now.” In the midst of tragedy, because of Jesus Christ, Vern knew he (and Laura) had something to smile about! They were in on God’s punchline!

One way to read the events of the first Christmas that we celebrate tonight is to see them as one wonderful punchline that God wants all the world to get.

In our Gospel lesson from Luke, we’re told that the emperor in Rome decided that everyone under the domain of the Roman Empire needed to be counted in a census. Judea, composed of God’s people, the Jews, had been conquered by Rome decades earlier. So, the people of Judea, including the couple God had chosen to act as foster parents to Jesus, had to submit to the census. In ancient times, a census, especially when those being counted were a conquered people, was designed to find who could be conscripted into the military and forced labor and to let the extortionist tax collectors know where they could find all their victims. A census was a way for corrupt dictators to flex their power.

That’s what Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, thought he was doing in ordering this particular census. He surely had no knowledge of the words of God spoken through the prophet Micah 740 years earlier: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are one the littlest clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One Who is to rule Israel, Whose origin is from old, from ancient days…” The Messiah, the Anointed King, the Christ, repeatedly promised by God through the prophets, was to be born in Bethlehem, a tiny town about five miles from Jerusalem.

The promises of a Messiah had been forgotten or dismissed as myth by many Jews by the time the Roman emperor issued orders for a census. But not by God! God never forgets His promises!

Now, the Jews had a custom: Whenever they had a census, they were counted not in the places where they resided, but in their ancestral homes. So, though Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, they went to be counted—registered—in the ancestral home of both their families, Bethlehem, about sixty miles away.

The trip, in first-century Judea, would have been routine. People from all over the country ordinarily traveled to nearby Jerusalem several times a year for the great festivals of their faith, like Passover.

But there’s nothing routine about a woman nine months pregnant making such a trip over such hard terrain!

And yet, as Mary and Joseph left Nazareth and headed for Bethlehem, they may have smiled. An emperor in faraway Rome who would never know their names thought that he was exercising power, moving millions of people around like so many checkers on a game board. He had no idea that, unwittingly, by his orders, he was placing Mary exactly where God wanted her to be to fulfill the ancient promise of a Savior.

Luke tells what happened next simply: “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger…”

When, some time after Jesus’ birth, shepherds arrived with the story of how an angel had told them that the Messiah had been born, Mary and Joseph may have smiled again, knowing that, whatever the obstacles, however much heartache or time may pass between the delivery of God’s promises and their fulfillment, and no matter how people may fool themselves with ideas that they’re in control or that their sins don’t matter or that they don’t need God’s help, there are really only two ways that the affairs of the world can go (you've heard me say it before): Either God gets His way or God gets His way!

Be still. God is in control!

The truth that God is in ultimate control of the universe is sometimes hard for us to believe or to see.

It may be hard for you to see it tonight.

You may be facing financial hard times and wonder what use God is in dealing with them.

You may be dealing with health issues, grieving the loss of a loved one, experiencing discord in your family, or battling an addiction and feel that God is far away or even useless.

You may look at the world, with its injustices, natural disasters, and selfishness and even think that God is out of the picture, that we’re all on our own. But don’t you believe any of those lies!

On the first Christmas, God let a simple couple from Nazareth in on the most wonderful joke of all. No matter how far sin seems to have spun the world out of God’s hands, no matter what tragedies may befall us, no matter how arrogantly those who think they have power may act, God is still in charge.

God can put a baby into the womb of a virgin.

God can let emperors think they’re in control while working His good and gracious will through their orders.

And, in Jesus Christ, you can know that God still cares about you.

God still holds those who believe in Him in the palm of His hands.

And God can sustain you through the tough times of this life when nothing makes sense by giving You the certainty that His grace and mercy for You will always prevail!

We can rest assured in God, or as the New Testament book of James calls Him, “the Father of lights, with Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

The God we know in Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

And this is the God Who tells us that He so loved the world—that He so loved you—that “He gave His only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish [may not go to hell, the place of no life] but may have eternal life.”

God is still in control. This fact was underscored again when, hree decades after the first Christmas. Pilate, an emissary from the Roman Emperor, in Judea, the preachers and teachers of Judea, and people gathered in Jerusalem from the far corners of the known world, all agreed that Jesus, the One Whose birth the angels sang at Christmas, had to die. In nailing Jesus to a cross, they tried to declare their independence from God. They sought to assert human control over life and death, the present and the future. On that Good Friday when Jesus was executed, those who had believed in Him were sure that the promises of God had only been a dream. They thought that they could never be happy again, that life was, in the words of an English writer, “nasty, brutish, and short.” And then Jesus’ dead body was placed in a tomb.

But on Easter, God once more showed that He was in control. Jesus rose from the dead to claim forgiveness and new life for all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Him.

Tonight, you may feel alone. To you, the Jesus Who was born on Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose from the dead, says, “Remember, I am with you always.”

You may feel that your sins are too great for God to forgive. God’s Word says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One Who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” In Jesus, we see that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We see that though we are, “are stained red with sin, [God] will wash [us] as clean as snow.”

Tonight, you may feel that the pain of grief or relational discord you feel is unbearable. But God’s Word says that when we suffer, emptied of arrogance or self-sufficiency, Christ’s power is perfected in us. God replaces our weakness with His strength and we can face anything.

And tonight, you may think that your eternal future is bleak and that death is the end of things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” And God’s Word promises that in eternity, God “will wipe every tear from [believers'] eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”

No matter how far from God you may have felt when you walked in here tonight, you can walk away from here knowing that the God Who came into our world at Christmas and Who will return one day to fully establish His eternal kingdom, will never leave your nor forsake you.

Christmas, the feast of Jesus’ birth, can be a moment of rebirth and renewal for you, whether you’ve followed Christ your whole life, had a distant, Christmas-and-Easter relationship with Christ, or never in your life bowed down and confessed that Jesus the Messiah is your Lord and your God and your King.

You see, God wants you to be “in on the joke.” He wants you to let Him love you and make you new, now, and He wants you to be with Him for all eternity. He wants all of us to experience intimacy with Him and the incredible comfort and power that belongs to all who surrender and dare to believe in Him.

If you want any of those things tonight, please bow your heads now and silently affirm that the prayer I’m about to offer is your prayer, too:
Gracious Father God, we thank You that You have never given up on us or on Your promises to us. We thank You that on the first Christmas You sent Jesus, God the Son, to live life as we do, to experience all that we experience, to die on our behalf, and to rise from death, so that You can give forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Jesus. We thank You that Your Holy Spirit is here with us right now, in good and bad times, in moments of clarity and in times of confounding mystery, convincing us that Your promises are true, that You want to be with us always, that You want to reshape our characters and make us more like Jesus, and that, at the ends of our days, whenever they come, You will be waiting for us with open arms and infinite love. We ask You to fill us with joy, peace, and hope, no matter the condition of our health, our emotions, or our pocketbooks. As Jesus lived for us, help us to live for You only, tonight and always. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen
Merry Christmas, everybody!

"Calculating Christmas"

I thought I knew how the date for Christmas was set. But I may have been wrong. Read this interesting article.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are Bishops Necessary?

From today's devotional in Our Daily Bread: "Caring for God’s people includes feeding them spiritually, leading them gently, and warning them firmly. Leaders in the church are to be motivated by the incalculable price Christ paid on the cross."

These are important words.

But here are a few additional thoughts triggered by the Bible passage on which the devotion is based, Acts 2:22-32. (You might want to go read it now. Go ahead! I'll wait here for you to do it.)

The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version rendering of the passage, as "overseers," is, in the original Greek, "episcopos." Episcopos is a compound word composed of the prefix, "epi," meaning "over," and "skopos" (from which we get words like telescope and microscope) and means "see."

So, an episcopos, is an overseer, someone who, in the church, sees over the spiritual needs of a congregation or a group of individual Christians.

The word "episcopos" came to be rendered in English as "bishop" and has come to be applied to clergy persons who oversee the work of groups of congregations and pastors, whether those groups are referred to as synods, conferences, districts, or dioceses.

However, the New Testament has no reference to persons bearing the title "bishop" or "episcopos" functioning in this way.*

When the New Testament refers to "overseers" or "bishops," it has in mind what we would today call "pastors." Pastors, in the New Testament context, could be the shepherds of congregations or serve the shepherding role among groups of believers within a larger body.

The New Testament doesn't lay out any particular system for individual congregations or groups of congregations to organize themselves. Biblically, we are free in Christ to be organized in any way that seems practical, helping us to pursue our common mission as believers in Christ.

The Lutheran Confessions are similarly indifferent to how congregations or groups of congregations are organized. Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, an expression of how Lutheran Christians understand God, the Bible, and Christian faith, says, "It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word."

Lutherans have always believed that authority over the actions of the Church aren't governed by human beings, but by God, as mediated to us through God's Word, the Bible. Part 1 of the Formula of Concord, another basic Lutheran confessional statement, says, "We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged...Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures..." [italics are mine]

It's fine for denominational groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) of which I am a part, to have bishops, so long as that's agreeable to those within the ELCA. But the Bible only knows "bishops" (overseers) as pastors. Bishops over a synod or a diocese are in a category Martin Luther called "adiaphora," an element of church life that has nothing to do with and is unnecessary for, our salvation.

*You will notice that the word episcopos is very much like the term Episcopalian. That's because the Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, traces its organizational structure back to that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and other Christian traditions, operate with an episcopal system. This means that they are governed largely by bishops. Most notably, bishops in all of these traditions assign pastors to congregations, rather than congregations prayerfully deciding who to call to be their pastors. 

Under episcopal structures, to varying degrees, bishops also are deemed to be the ultimate authorities within the regions, dioceses, synods, or districts in which they serve, over the faith and practice of the Church. So, for example, when some bishops in the the Episcopal Church-USA, authorized the ordination of practicing homosexuals, some Episcopal parishes chose to place themselves under the authority of bishops of other dioceses, ones in which the bishops adhered to differing understandings of the underlying Biblical issues.