Go Deep

Tree silhouette with rootslucy-player-buttonDespite the fact that I have spent almost my entire life living in south Florida, my first experience with a major hurricane actually took place in northern Virginia. Hurricane Isabel was deadliest, costliest, and most intense hurricane of the year 2003. Reaching category five status for about a day, Isabel eventually slammed into the outer banks of North Carolina and sliced through the middle of the state of Virginia. I remember my wife and I hunkering down in the middle of our tiny apartment as we listened to the storm rage outside our windows.

Now Virginia Theological Seminary, where I was a student, is situated around a large grove of trees. At the time of the storm, many of these trees had been standing in that grove for decades and were several stories tall. But the day after the storm, as we began to return to campus, we discovered that many of those majestic trees had been toppled over by the storm. As I looked closely, I was surprised to see that the root systems of these trees were relatively shallow compared to their imposing height. The roots were several feet wide, but only a few feet deep. In other words, due to the weakness of their superficial root system, these trees didn’t stand a chance against powerful winds of Hurricane Isabel.

And in that moment, as I looked at these toppled trees, I remember thinking that these same trees had been the ones struggling to survive just one year earlier during a prolonged period of drought. Why? Because of their superficial root system. You see, these tall, majestic trees were okay as long the conditions stayed relative stable. As long as there were no difficulties, no challenges, no adverse circumstances, these trees were fine. But as soon as they were buffeted by the wind, as soon as they were scorched by the heat, as soon they were deprived of their status quo, they struggled to survive and in many cases were destroyed.

Now half way around the globe, near a place called Echo Caves in South Africa there is a tree called the Wild Fig. On the surface, this tree looks like any other tree, growing and bearing fruit in due season, but underneath the surface is a root system that descends as much as 400 feet into the earth. The root system of the Wild Fig Tree is the deepest ever recorded and because of the depth of its roots, the Wild Fig Tree of South Africa can withstand the harshest of environmental conditions. When it is buffeted by the wind, scorched by the heat, or in any other way deprived of its status quo, the Wild Fig is able to stand strong.

You see, the contrast between the beloved trees in the grove of Virginia Seminary and Wild Fig trees of South Africa couldn’t be more clear. It’s the difference between superficiality and depth. It’s the difference between going wide and going deep.

Our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah this morning is all about our call as the people of God to go deep. Jeremiah is writing during a time of significant political, economic, and social unrest. The kings of Israel have consistently failed to live into the covenant that God had established with his people and now the powerful Babylonian empire is threatening to conquer and dominate the very land that God had promised and entrusted to his people. The challenge for Jeremiah is that most of his contemporaries don’t think there is a problem. Most of the people don’t think anything is wrong and they would go about the streets declaring, “Peace, peace, but, in fact, there was no peace!”

But Jeremiah lifts up his prophetic voice and says “Listen! – things are going to worse before they get better. Challenging days are before us. The Babylonians are coming whether we like it or not!” And in these difficult days, we can choose to respond in one of two ways – we can go wide or we can go deep. We can choose to place our trust in human strength and human wisdom or we can choose to place our trust in the power and sovereignty of God. We can be superficial people tossed by the winds of change and scorched by the heat of violence and despair or we can be deep people who put down spiritual roots that penetrate the endless depths of God’s love and mercy and grace. Jeremiah is asking his community – “What kind of people do you want to be?”

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Everyone

to be continued

When I was a child growing up, our family, like most families, had our favorite primetime sitcoms that we watched faithfully almost every week. Now most of the time, a sitcom was one episode. It was self-contained within its allocated 30-minute time slot. But every once in a while, you would find yourself engaged in a riveting episode of The Golden Girls or Family Matters orGrowing Pains, and all of a sudden, the picture would freeze, and three little words would pop up on the bottom of the screen – to be continued. Of course, without the miracle of instant, on-demand access to your favorite shows, you had to wait an entire week before the second episode would air.

Last Sunday, what we heard from the gospel of Luke was, essentially, the first episode of a two-part mini-series. In other words, if last week’s gospel reading had been a 1980’s primetime sitcom, it would have ended with that climatic disclaimer – to be continued.

Now last week, in episode one, Jesus returned to his hometown in Nazareth. He went to worship at the local synagogue and was selected as the appointed reader for the day. The passage of scripture that is assigned for Jesus to read was taken from the ancient words of prophet Isaiah, who said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has appointed me to preach good news. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and to declare that this is the year of the Lord’s favor.” And after reading the lesson for the day, Jesus offered a one-sentence sermon – Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today, not yesterday, not tomorrow, today, here and now, in this present moment, these words of promise and hope are being fulfilled in your hearing. And that’s the end of episode one. Freeze picture. To be continued.

This morning, like any good sitcom, episode two begins with a reminder of how last week ended and then we get the initial response of the people. We’re told, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Translation: Here is a nice, handsome, young rabbi; he gives short sermons that are inspirational and to the point – the congregation is thinking “can’t we hire this guy full time.” You see, the crowd that is gathered at the synagogue that day thinks that this “good news,” this declaration of God’s blessing IS ALL ABOUT THEM. And here is where is episode two takes a dramatic turn. Because, at this point, Jesus offers an addendum to his one-sentence sermon. He realizes that the congregation isn’t quite understanding who he is or what his message is all about.

He points them to their own history, and he says, do you remember the story about the Elijah and the great famine that spread across the land? There were plenty of widows among the people of Israel, but God sent Elijah to a widow in Sidon. God sent Elijah to bring healing to someone outside the covenant, a Gentile, someone deemed unworthy to be a beneficiary of the promises of God. And then, do you remember when Elisha came on the scene? There were plenty of lepers among the people of Israel, but God used Elisha to heal Naaman from Syria, a Gentile, an outsider – once again, someone deemed unworthy to be a beneficiary of the promises of God.

You see, episode one was about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, the promise of salvation becoming a reality. Episode two is about the fact that the grace and mercy and salvation is no longer going to be constricted geographically, ethnically, or even religiously. Jesus is saying to the crowd, “many, who you thought were out, are actually going to be in. And many who you thought were going to be last are coming into the kingdom first.” At this point, at the conclusion of episode two, the same crowd who spoke well of Jesus, the same crowd that was amazed by his gracious words, now wants to throw him off a cliff.

They were fine with what Jesus had to say in episode one. They were excited about freedom and power and blessing of God breaking into the present moment, here and now, in order to bring healing and renewal of their land. Episode one was comfortable and safe. Episode one fit within their box of preconceived notions and expectations about how God would act on behalf of his people.

But the minute episode two begins, the minute Jesus starts talking about expanding the scope of who is included in the circle of God’s blessing and favor, the minute Jesus pushes them outside of their comfort zone, the crowd goes crazy and wants to get rid of their hometown prophet as quickly as possible. If the people listening to Jesus had their way, there would have been no “to be continued” message at the end of last week’s episode, because their preference is stay within the neat and tidy boundaries of their preconceived notions and expectations about who should and should not be a beneficiary of the promises of God. They were essentially saying to Jesus, you should have quite while you were ahead; your traveling preacher show should have been one episode, not two.

My friends, the question I have for us this morning is simple, “Are we going to be one-episode Christians or two-episode Christians?”

We like to think of ourselves as two-episode Christians. We like to think that if we had been part of that crowd in Nazareth when Jesus gave his first sermon that we would have acted differently. We like to imagine that we would have sided with Jesus as he proclaimed his radical message of grace that has no boundaries.

But the track record and the history of Christianity reveals a different story. Time and time again the Church has been a one-episode church. We have been content with the status quo. We have been overly confident and comfortable with our pre-conceived notions about who’s in and who’s out. Over and over again, we have attempted to create boundaries and put limits around the scope of God’s grace.

We have not always done a very good job of bearing witness to the extravagant love and scandalous grace of God. The God who seeks us out before we even know we are lost, who forgives us before we know we even need to be forgiven, who saves us when we don’t even know how far we have fallen. For too long, the Church has been a one-episode church.

And if we look at our world, we live in a one-episode world. We live in a world in which every political and ideological camp thinks we are right and everyone else is wrong, we are in and everyone else is out, we are righteous and everyone else is not.

What the world needs is a two-episode church!

A church that, on the one hand, boldly proclaims the good news of God’s salvation, the promise of healing and freedom that is present and active here and now in this present moment. But, on the other hand, we also need to be church that recognizes that the plans and purposes of God are ultimately, not just about us, but about the salvation of the world. We need to a church that not content with the status quo. We need to be a church is willing to move out of our comfort zone.We need to be a church that no longer puts boundariesaround the scope of God’s grace. We need to be a church that embodies God’s extravagant love and scandalous grace. Love and grace which have no limits and will never come to an end.

I know this is challenging work. This is work that can and probably should make us uncomfortable. But it’s work that is essential to our calling as followers of Jesus and it’s work that desperately needs to be continued.

Today

Today

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:21

Throughout my life, I have always been envious of people who seem to live and thrive in the present moment. You know the kind of people I’m talking about. These are the folks that seem to relish every experience. They exude authentic joy. They seem uninhibited by the stress and strain and striving of daily life. Now I don’t know about you, but I struggle to be that kind of person. I struggle to live fully in the present moment. Instead, I usually find myself stuck in one of two extremes. Either I am overly nostalgic about the past or I am overly anxious about the future. Can anyone else identify with that struggle? We spend a lot of our time and energy recollecting the past or anticipating the future, but we too often fail to fully experience the present. Yet, I’m convinced that there is something about connecting with the present moment that is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

And this call to live in the present is at the heart of today’s reading from the gospel of Luke. We find Jesus back in his home town of Nazareth and he has gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom. At the time of Jesus, worship in the synagogue would have included the recitation of the ten commandments, the praying of the Psalms, and the offering of various prayers and benedictions, but at the center of it all was the reading and exposition of holy scripture. On this particular occasion, Jesus is chosen to be the appointed reader for the day. He is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he runs his fingers over the text until he finds the place where it is written – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon, because he has anointed me to preach good news. He has sent me to declare liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. In the first century, it was customary for the preacher to sit down for the everyone to stand. Somehow, we’ve gotten that backwards. But, Jesus sits down. Everyone is watching with anticipation, and Jesus gives a one sentence sermon. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”Excuse, Jesus, when exactly is this supposed to happen? Today! Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Today. Jesus is making it abundantly clear that the good news of the gospel is not about being nostalgic for the past. It is not about being anxious about the future. The good news of the gospel is about being alive in the present.

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Baptism Basics

Baptism

How many of you woke up this morning and said to yourself, “I am so glad that I am baptized?” Don’t all raise your hand at once! The reality is that most of us don’t live our lives with a conscious awareness of the fact that we are baptized. It’s not something that we keep in the forefront of our minds. In fact, when we think about our daily lives, there are so many other things that seek to define us: our jobs, our families, our friends, the clothes that we wear, how much money we have or don’t have, the material possessions we have accumulated. And we spend most of our time and energy focused on these various facets of our lives and, as a result, we come to believe that those are the things that end up shaping our character and defining who we are. And yet, as Christians, as followers of Jesus. the defining characteristic of our lives, the reality that lies at the heart of all we are and all we do, is the fact that we are baptized – that our lives have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

In the gospel reading this morning, we hear about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Now many theologians have asked the question, “If baptism is cleanses us from sin, if baptism is about forgiveness, why did Jesus need to be baptized, since he was without sin?” Several answers have been offered in response to this question, but many commentators argue that Jesus, through his own baptism, gives us the paradigm through which we can understand our own experience of baptism. In other words, Jesus gives us, his followers, a model or a pattern for what baptism represents in our own spiritual journeys.

And so, this morning, with the baptism of Jesus as our paradigm, I would like to review what I call “the baptism basics.”

First of all, baptism defines WHO WE ARE. Baptism gives us our fundamental identity as children of God.

Now, when it comes to the baptism of Jesus, he was already fully divine. He was already the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. And yet, it is at the moment of his baptism, that God the Father chooses to make the public pronouncement: “You are my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It is at his baptism that the heavens or torn open and we hear the voice of God revealing the identity of his beloved Son. And this identity as God’s beloved Son that sustains Jesus throughout his earthly ministry.

Now, I have celebrated a number of baptisms and as of yet, I have not experienced the heavens opening up and an audible voice speaking to the congregation. But, nevertheless, through our baptism, we are given a new identity…we are called the beloved of God…we are called children of God.  And nothing can ever take that identity away from us! And (this is important) no other identity can ever overshadow our identity as beloved children of God.

When I was seminary, I had a wonderful New Testament professor, who also served as my academic advisor. And when you walked into his office, there was a wall full of framed diplomas. Several academic degrees, academic awards, and honorary degrees, but right in the middle of this wall of intellectual achievement hung his framed baptismal certificate.

And that baptismal certificate served as a reminder to every student that walked in his office, that no matter where we might go in ministry, no matter what we might achieve, our fundamental identity is the one given to us at baptism – you are a beloved son or daughter of God. Baptism defines WHO WE ARE as beloved children of God. Continue reading

The Work of Christmas

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* This poem was sung by our Parish Quartet on the Feast of the Epiphany. The words of the poem convey such a clear message of mission and the work of loving service to which we are called as followers of Jesus.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman

 

Be Good News

three kings

lucy-player-buttonThe season of Christmas has officially come to an end. The last of the lights and decorations are being stored until next year. The presents have been put away or in many cases returned or exchanged. And now, in the life of the church, we turn our attention to this feast called Epiphany. Every year, with the celebration of the Epiphany comes with the familiar story of the wise men bearing their gifts gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know, as a matter of fact, that these were indeed very wise men, because when they got lost, they actually stopped and asked for directions. That fact alone makes this a miraculous event!

In all seriousness, most of know this story quite well. The mysterious figures from the East. The star guiding the way to the city of Bethlehem. The lavish gifts offered to Jesus. It’s a story that has been embodied in our tradition through children’s pageants and musicals. The wise men have been preserved as pristine porcelain figurines that adorn our Christmas creche. However, because of the fact that we are so familiar with the story of the wise men, I think we have a tendency to sentimentalize, and perhaps even domesticate, what are actually rather amazing, dramatic, and shocking events. And as a result, we no longer encounter the real power of the story that is being told by Matthew in his gospel.

In Matthew’s gospel, the story of the wise men is unlike any children’s pageant you have ever seen. It’s a story that is characterized by fear, corruption, deception, and ultimately violence. This story has all the makings of a really good Netflix miniseries. First of all, we are told that Herod hears about these wise men who are searching for a newborn king. And Herod’s initial response is fear. Now it’s understandable that Herod is afraid, because, after all, news of a rival king would threaten to undermine his authority as the king of the Jews. But Matthew says that not only was Herod afraid, but all of Jerusalem with him!

You see, the visitation of the wise men from the East is a sign that something significant is happening. God is on the move. This is a sign that things are changing and nothing will remain the same. The birth of this newborn king represents a turning point in history and tipping point when it come to the powers of this world. In the face of change and uncertainty, the natural response is fear. And for Herod, fear leads to deception and deception leads to violence. It is fear that will ultimately drive King Herod to slaughter the innocent children of Bethlehem in order to preserve his power.

As you can see, Matthew is not presenting a sugar coated, children’s pageant version of the story. This is a story about political power, deception, brokenness, and violence!

But the real power of Matthew’s story, the power that we often miss, is that in the midst of a world gripped by fear, in the midst of a world of uncertainty and pain, there is an epiphany happening. There is a manifestation of the glory of God. There is good news!

Just as Isaiah prophesied centuries before, there is light breaking forth in the darkness. There is hope breaking forth in the midst of despair. There is freedom breaking forth in the midst of captivity. There is good news breaking forth when all else seems lost! And the presence of wise men from the east signals that this epiphany, this manifestation of the glory of God, this good news, is not just for a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. This good news is for the entire world!

As the church, the people of God, this is the Epiphany story we need to hear, not the sentimentalized, domesticated version. Because, the fear, corruption, deception, and violence that Matthew is describing are still with today. We still live in world gripped by fear – fear that often drives people to act and react in ways that are destructive and hurtful. We live in a world in which children are still the victims of violence and abuse.

We live in a world in which there remains political unrest and economic uncertainty, a world in which power and authority too often devolve into corruption and deception. The same powers of darkness that pervaded the landscape of Matthew’s story two thousand years ago are with us now.

But, my friends, we are here this morning because the same epiphany, the same manifestation of God’s glory, the same good news is also with us now. And his name is Jesus.

We are here because we believe that the baby whose birth we celebrated just twelve days ago is actually the One who came to bring light and hope and peace to the world

We are here because we believe that God so loved the world, God so loved you and me, that Jesus came among us, he came into the darkness and brokenness of our lives in order to make all things new.

You see, our world doesn’t need a sentimentalized, domesticated, Christmas pageant version of the gospel. What the world needs is an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s glory. What the world needs is good news!

And that good news, that epiphany, that manifestation of the very glory of God, is what you and I carry with us every time we walk out the back doors of this church. In other words, every week we are commissioned to be an Epiphany people. We are called to be bearers of the light and love and hope of Jesus. We are called to allow our lives to be so transformed that the very glory of God shines through us.

Nearly a century ago, Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In other words, let the way you live your life be the primary means by which you effect change and transformation in the world. This past week, I was given this t-shirt and it simply says, “be good news!” I was struck by the simplicity of these words.  They reminded me that with all that I am and all that have and all that I hope to be – I am called to “Be good news!” These words reminded me that the work of manifesting the light and love of Jesus, our calling to be an Epiphany people, is ultimately not about a program or a ministry. It’s not about an organization or an institution. It’s not even about a building or a budget or a bulletin. It’s about who we are and how we live.

And so, this morning, as we contemplate the story of these wise men. As we contemplate light and glory breaking forth into the darkness and despair of our world. May we be reminded that God is still at work. God’s epiphany, the manifestation of God’s glory, that began so long ago is still shining through us. And at the end of our service, when we hear the call to “go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the spirit” – let’s go! Let’s go with confidence. Let’s go with boldness. Let’s go into the world and be good news!

The Auction

auction

* This meditation was read on the First Sunday after Christmas. The origins and author of this text are unknown. 

lucy-player-buttonYears ago, there was a very wealthy man who, with his devoted young son, shared a passion for art collecting. Together they traveled around the world, adding only the finest art treasures to their collection. Priceless works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet and many others adorned the walls of the family estate. The widowed, elderly man looked on with satisfaction as his only child became an experienced art collector. The son’s trained eye and sharp business mind caused his father to beam with pride as they dealt with art collectors around the world.

As winter approached, war engulfed the nation, and the young man left to serve his country. After only a few short weeks, his father received a telegram. His beloved son was missing in action. The art collector anxiously awaited more news, fearing he would never see his son again. Within days, his fears were confirmed. The young man had died while rushing a fellow soldier to a medic.

Distraught and lonely, the old man faced the upcoming Christmas holidays with anguish and sadness. The joy of the season, a season that he and his son had so looked forward to, would visit his house no longer. On Christmas morning, a knock on the door awakened the depressed old man. As he walked to the door, the masterpieces of art that hung on the walls only reminded him that his son was not coming home.

As he opened the door, he was greeted by a soldier with a large package in his hand. The soldier introduced himself to the man by saying, “I was a friend of your son. I was the one he was rescuing when he died. May I come in for a few moments? I have something to show you.” As the two began to talk, the soldier told of how the man’s son had told everyone of the love of fine art he shared with his father. “I’m an artist,” said the soldier, “and I want to give you this.” As the old man unwrapped the package, the paper gave way to reveal a portrait of the son. Though the world would never consider it the work of a genius, the painting featured the young man’s face in striking detail. Overcome with emotion, the man thanked the soldier, promising to hang the picture over the fireplace. A few hours later, after the soldier had departed, the old man set about his task.

True to his word, the painting was placed above the fireplace, pushing aside thousands of dollars of paintings. And then the man sat in his chair and spent Christmas gazing at the gift he had been given. During the days and weeks that followed, the man realized that even though his son was no longer with him, the boy’s life would live on because of those he had touched. He would soon learn that his son had rescued dozens of wounded soldiers before a bullet stilled his caring heart.

As the stories of his son’s gallantry continued to reach him, fatherly pride and satisfaction began to ease the grief. The painting of his son soon became his most prized possession, far eclipsing any interest in the pieces for which museums around the world clamored. He told his neighbors it was the greatest gift he had ever received.

The following spring, the old man became ill and passed away. The art world was stirring with anticipation!

Unaware of the story of the man’s only son, but in his honor, those paintings would be sold at an auction. According to the will of the old man, all of the art works would be auctioned on Christmas day, the day he had received his greatest gift. The day soon arrived and art collectors from around the world gathered to bid on some of the world’s most spectacular paintings.

Dreams would be fulfilled this day; greatness would be achieved as many would claim, “I now have the greatest collection.” However, the auction began with a painting that was not on any museum’s list. It was the painting of the man’s son. The auctioneer asked for an opening bid. The room was silent.

“Who will open the bidding with $100?” he asked. Minutes passed. No one spoke. From the back of the room someone shouted, “Who cares about that painting? It’s just a picture of his son. Let’s forget it and go on to the good stuff.”

More voices echoed in agreement. “No, we have to sell this one first,” replied the auctioneer. “Now, who will take the son?” Finally, a friend of the old man spoke, “Will you take ten dollars for the painting? That’s all I have. I knew the boy, so I’d like to have it.”

“I have ten dollars. Will anyone go higher?” called the auctioneer. After more silence, the auctioneer said, “Going once, going twice. Gone.” The gavel fell, cheers filled the room and someone exclaimed, “Now we can get on with it and we can bid on these treasures!”

The auctioneer looked at the audience and announced the auction was over. Stunned disbelief quieted the room. Someone spoke up and asked, “What do you mean it’s over? We didn’t come here for a picture of some old guy’s son. What about all of these paintings? There are millions of dollars of art here! I demand that you explain what’s going on here!”

The auctioneer replied, “When I was called to conduct this auction, I was told of a stipulation in the will… I was not allowed to reveal that stipulation until this time. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned.

Whoever bought that painting would inherit the entire estate, including the paintings. “It’s very simple,” the auctioneer replied. “According to the will of the father, whoever takes the son . . . gets it all.”

A Manger and A Mission

manger

lucy-player-buttonOne of the most iconic images associated with the celebration of Christmas is, of course, the traditional nativity scene. We all know what it’s supposed to look like: Mary and Joseph peacefully and prayerfully gazing at the newborn Jesus. Farm animals and shepherds standing nearby. Angels hovering overhead joyfully proclaiming the good news. And at center of all this activity, the simple, humble, manger, holding a newborn king.

In recent years, people have come up with some creative ways to depict the Holy Family. There is the classic plastic nativity scene, which has graced the lawns of American households for decades.More recently, the inflatable nativity scene has become a more convenient option. If you have a family, you can choose from a Lego nativity, a Star Wars nativity, or a rubber duck nativity. I think the most unique interpretation of the Holy Family was created by a sculptor a few years ago in Iowa, who carved a life-size nativity scene entirely out of butter.

My point is that in the midst of the growing secularization of our culture, the traditional nativity scene remains a central image within the context of our Christmas celebration. The Manger of Jesus is still the focal point of our Christian observance. And yet, I think for many people there is a disconnect between the Manger of Jesus and the Mission of Jesus. We lose of the fact that baby in a manger is actually God on a mission to bring healing and renewal to the world. We have a tendency to crop out the rest of the story. We forget that beyond the margins of our Hallmark Christmas cards, there is a mission to change and transform the world.

And so, we are gathered here tonight to celebrate the fact that the Manger of Jesus is a foretaste of the Mission of Jesus – a mission to bring healing and renewal to the world, a mission to seek out and save the lost.

Think about this –

The manger was first and foremost a feeding trough situated in the midst of the messiness of a first century stable. This was not the Hallmark greeting card version of the nativity. It was messy, it was dirty, and it was real. And that foreshadows the fact the mission of Jesus was to enter into our reality, the messiness and brokenness of our lives, in order to bring healing and restoration.

Moreover, the manger was visited by shepherds, who were considered part of the lowest segment of society, lower even than the peasants. Shepherds were outcasts on the margins of society. And so, the fact that they are present at the manger foreshadows that fact that Jesus directed his ministry toward those who were on the margins of society, those who were forgotten and despised, in order to bring hope and redemption.

Finally, the manger was located in a stable just outside Bethlehem and Jesus’ parents were from Nazareth. These were both small, obscure, relatively unknown places. And this foreshadows the fact that Jesus didn’t come to the centers of power and authority; he came in humility. He came as one who serves.

In all of these ways, the manger foreshadows the transformational mission of Jesus!

He came to those who were on the margins of society.

He came to those who were sick.

He came to those who were grieving.

He came to those who were longing for something more in the lives.

Jesus himself said, “I came to see out and save the lost.” And I think that best summarizes the mission of the manger – Jesus coming into them messiness and brokenness of our world to seek out and save the lost.

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A Vision Fulfilled

ferris-wheel-pripyat-chernobyl

lucy-player-buttonSeveral years ago, a well-known photographer published a collection of photographs that captured images of cities and buildings and parks that at one time were places full of life and vitality, but had long since been abandoned and forgotten. One of the locations that was featured in this photo shoot was an amusement park that was under construction decades ago, but was never completed. There was once a vision of an amazing place that would bring joy and excitement and life to millions of people, but somewhere along the way the vision was lost – and those who once dreamed that dream simply walked away. And so, to this day, all that remains is a cinderblock shell

that was supposed to be a grand hotel. There’s a flume ride with water slides four stories high, but it’s barely visible behind the vines and roots that have taken over. And at the center of the park stands a towering Ferris wheel that has never been used; that rusted out Ferris wheel remains as a stark reminder of a vision that never came to pass, a dream that never came true.

Throughout this Advent season, we have been talking about God’s vision of hope for the world. In particular, we have been reflecting on this image of God’s grand construction project. And a few weeks ago, we heard from John the Baptist that God’s vision or God’s blueprint for the world is one in which every valley is lifted up and every mountain brought low, a world in which the crooked is made straight and rough places are made smooth. You see, God’s vision and God’s dream for the world are not just about the things that will be torn down – things like injustice and sickness and pain and fear. But it’s a vision of a new creation that is in the process of being constructed – and the materials used in that new construction will be peace and healing, forgiveness and grace, mercy and love.

That’s the vision – but if we’re really honest with ourselves, I think we can all agree that there are moments when we look at the world and we can’t help but wonder if that vision will ever come to pass. There are moments when we can’t help but wonder if that dream will ever come true. There are moments when we, like the builders of that long-lost amusement park, feel as though it might be easier to just walk away.

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Strangely Good News

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You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? I tell you that even now the ax is sharpened and ready to cut down all the unfruitful trees among you! And the chaff, that worthless garbage, will be incinerated with unquenchable fire! So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people! Now, if this is John’s “good news,” I’m not sure I want to hang around to hear his “bad news.” He sounds angry. He sounds frustrated. John is issuing a scathing, scolding rebuke that even makes us uncomfortable sitting here two thousand years later. And to complicate matters even more, the crowd that John is addressing has come to him to be baptized. Now during my years as a priest, I have had hundreds of people approach me about baptism, and to my recollection, never once have I responded by referring to them a venomous snake! These are harsh and challenging words indeed.

And yet, somehow, in the midst of these powerful, prophetic, words of warning and rebuke, the “good news,” the “gospel” is being proclaimed! So, what are we to make of this paradox? How do we hear these words from John the Baptist as a proclamation of good news?

Well, if we look back for moment to last Sunday, you might recall that we heard about the beginning of John’s public ministry, and in particular, we heard John describing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision for all of creation. And he said this new reality would be one in which the valleys of injustice would be lifted up and the mountains of pride would be brought low. In this new kingdom, everything that is crooked and out of alignment will be made straight and the even the rough patches, the potholes of life will be made smooth. That’s the vision! That’s the new reality of the kingdom of God that is even now breaking forth in our world!

But if last week was about the vision, the big picture of God’s grand construction project for the world, this week is about how that vision is built. This is week is about the concrete ways that we are called to put that vision into action. In other words, John is saying, “here is what this new reality is going to actually mean for your life and for the life of the world.”

The first thing John says about this new reality is that some things are going to have to change! In other words, it’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. Did you notice that many of the images and metaphors that John uses describe a process of change and it’s a process of change and transformation will not necessarily be easy?It will require repentance, choosing to turn and move in a different direction. And to move in a new direction means that we might have to let go of some the things that we once relied upon for a sense of security and safety. In fact, there may be some things in our lives that are no longer bearing fruit and those things need to be cut down. In other words, there will be things that need to be removed in order to create new pathways, underbrush that needs to be cleared away in order for the new thing that God is doing in our lives and in the world. In this new reality, as this new kingdom breaks forth into the world, somethings are going to have to change.

But according to John, this new reality is not just transformational, it’s also RELATIONAL. Did you notice that different groups keep asking John “What should we do?” We know things are changing, but how does that effect our lives? And in every case, the exhortation that John offers is about how to treat other people. The crowds asks, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “If you have an extra coat or some extra food, you should give it to those in need!” The tax collectors come and ask, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “How about stop cheating people on their taxes!” And the solders come, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “Well, for starters, don’t blackmail people in order to make more money!”

In each and every case, John is telling folks that in the new reality of the kingdom of God, relationships matter. How we treat each other matters. This is not just about the piety of individuals, this is about the transformation of society. This is not just about the conversion of the human heart, this is about the healing of the human family. In this new reality some things are going to need to change and where they need to change the most is in the context of our relationships with one another!

Finally, and I think most importantly, this transformational, relational work of the kingdom of God is surprisingly PRACTICAL. Did you notice all the advice that John gives to the crowd is something they can actually do right now? They don’t have to quite their jobs. They don’t have to get a seminary degree. They don’t have to join a new ministry. There’s not even a committee or a task-force to oversee the progress of these initiatives! John simply says, you can participate in the new reality of the kingdom of God right where you are!“If you’re a tax collector, go and be a decent tax collector!” “If you’re a soldier, go and be a honest soldier.”

You can fill in the blank with whatever life-situation describes you right now. “If you’re a parent, go and be a faithful parent.” “If you’re a supervisor in your company, go and be a good and trustworthy supervisor.” “If you’re a teacher, go and be a passionate and dedicated teacher.” And the list could go on. The point is that this transformational, relational work of the kingdom is something you can do today, right now, right where you are! The small corner of the world where you live and work and laugh and play is precisely where God has called you to be – and that is place where God is working in you and through you to bring about his kingdom in this world.

Our brother John the Baptist came onto the scene with a powerful, prophetic word of warning and rebuke – but he also came with a word of HOPE. He came announcing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision of a world turned right-side up. And John made it very clear that he was not the one to bring about this new reality – but that the One coming after him – the One whose coming we await – the One whose name is Jesus – He would be the One to bring about this new vision for the world.

It’s a vision that’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. It’s a vision that’s RELATIONAL. And above all, it’s a vision that’s PRACTICAL – a vision that starts today, right now, right where you are. And my friends, for you, for me, and for the world – this is indeed incredibly good news indeed!!