Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A No Frills Birth

Jesus was not born in what we call a barn, with a metal roof and a concrete floor, and a place for cars, tractors, and tools. It wouldn’t have looked like one of those red barns we see in rustic paintings. It also wouldn’t have been a small structure made with rough hewn wood.

In fact, you know the pictures we’ve seen of the stable with the gentle farm animals, sweet hay, and the warm glow from an oil lantern?

None of that is in scripture.

The innkeeper that’s in all our skits about Jesus birth? There’s no mention of him either.

We are told only that there was no place for this family to stay inside at night. All available rooms were occupied.

Perhaps they had a lean-to. Or perhaps they stayed in a small cave on the edge of town. But they could have been completely exposed to the outside elements and they probably slept on the ground.

These were truly poor people, just on the edge of existence. There was no government assistance program to give them a roof over their heads. There was no medical care available. There was no food being distributed. Plus, they were out of town far from their own community.

People like Mary and Joseph are not even seen by the world.

In this poverty stricken state, a baby was born. And no one noticed.

He was given the name, Jesus. A common name for a common baby. But this pitiful baby born to these desperately poor parents also carried a title that was given to him before he was born:

Emmanuel. Which means, “God with us.”

And his name, which was very ordinary back then, is actually a powerful statement when we translate it. It means, “The Lord saves.”

Today, we celebrate the life of a child who meant nothing to his society, but is everything to the world.

The Announcement

When a king is born, everyone knows about it. Grand announcements are made. Events involving huge crowds are planned. Celebrations are arranged with music and cheering. Politicians make their speeches and foreign dignitaries send extravagant gifts.

None of this happened at Jesus’ birth.

However, there was one small group who heard the news: Shepherds.

They were field hands--guys who handled the livestock. They slept outside, stayed dirty, and smelled like the animals they cared for.

They were not important people at all.

But their profession had a royal legacy. David, the greatest King of Israel, was once a shepherd picked by God from the pastures to lead the nation. This king later wrote one of our greatest psalms, describing God as a shepherd.

So it makes a kind of sense that shepherds were the only ones who were told about the arrival of the Christ. It was their eyes that beheld a mighty angel and their ears that heard him announce that the Messiah was born. Their eyes alone saw the night sky explode in white celebration as the angels sang their praises to the newborn king.

It was the shepherds who first found their way to the baby lying in a feed box. They were the first to worship the newborn king who would one day be called The Good Shepherd.

Touched by Holiness

The scripture tells us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

To us, the words “manger” and “swaddling clothes” have a sweet sound to them, and they are reserved for the story of Christ’s birth.

But they weren’t special. Swaddling clothes were simply old rags used because there were no cute clothes given to them at baby showers.

A manger was a feed box for the livestock. Most of us would refuse to put our babies in one. But it was the only place where these tired parents could lay their new child.
In our minds this grubby little box is beautiful and the old rags appear like royal clothing. Paintings depict the scene with soft hay and a gentle glow and we sing moving songs about it that make us cry.

Why is that?

It’s because the tiny person who lay there was holy, and he made everything he touched holy.

His holy touch healed people and raised people from the dead. And his spirit continues to breathe holiness into our souls.

The Christ Candle

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
  for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.

                                                       --(Luke 1:46-49)

During the month of Advent we lit a new candle each Sunday, each one symbolizing a special gift. 

The Candle for week one stands for Hope.  Week two is for love.  The third Candle is for Joy. And the fourth one is for Peace. We believe these gifts are real and eternal.

Tonight we light the large candle in the center, which is a symbol for Christ. 

We believe the qualities celebrated at Advent exist because of Jesus.  He is the center of our hope, love, joy, and peace.  His Spirit of Holiness is a flame that shines throughout the world, as well as in our hearts. 

May the fullness of Christ’s holiness be recognized and celebrated tonight in each of our hearts.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Light of Peace

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward people!”

--Luke 2:12-13

It is interesting to note that Jesus later said in chapter 12 of the same book that he did NOT come to bring peace but division.

Before he would finish his task there would be a lot of violent conflict. And of course, there is still much violence in the world. 

Too many places suffer from the ravages of war.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have peace on earth? Where we could all lay down our armor and wrap our arms around each other? 

Where the lamb could lay down with the lion?

The angels sang about the day when peace would happen because the Christ child was born. Through Jesus, there will one day be peace. 

The candles of advent represent hope, love, joy, and today, we light the candle of peace. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

You Never Know

The minister introduced the young man to the Sunday school class. A lot of people knew who this fellow was although they didn’t know him well.

He was odd.

You know what I mean. Not a bad sort, but rather strange. In high school the other kids avoided him and he never once had a date. As he grew into adulthood, it never occurred to people that he was lonely and sad. Once, he felt so bad that he tried to take his life.

The minister found out and persuaded him to come to the Sunday school class. With his permission, the minister told the class of this boy’s struggles. 

“I thought we would make him a member of our group,” he said. 

Before the class dismissed each of the members hugged him and told him how glad they were to have him in the class. Every week, he came to get his hugs and to hear people say they were glad to see him. 

I don’t know the end of his story. I don’t know how well he’s doing these days.   

But I know that he never picked up a gun and went on a shooting spree. 

The Third Week of Advent

On the first week of advent we lit the candle of hope

Last week, we lit the candle of love. 

Today, we light the candle of Joy.  

 It is hard to acknowledge joy in the face of the dreadful act of violence that occurred in the Connecticut school two days ago. For the survivors who suffer greatly, we wish for them the tender compassion of Christ. Even at this distance, we bless them with our wishes of healing.  We pray that one day the gift of hope will return to them. 

We celebrate this third week of Advent because we will not shy away from the idea that joy is with us even in the darkest of times.

Today, as we light these candles, let them be for those who died in that tragedy, as well for the Christ child who one day will rescue us from dark times such as these.

From Psalm 30:5:  “Weeping may stay through the night. But rejoicing comes in the morning.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bless All the Dear Children

I offer these fumbling, anemic words for the people of Newtown, Connecticut.  

We’re upset and afraid.  For this moment, without intending to rebuke or argue, could I ask each of us to set aside politicized subjects, and focus on the poor people who are devastated by violence? 

May the Lord bless them with compassion and healing. May God bless each of you with a peace that passes understanding.

And may he “bless all the dear children in His tender care, and take us to heaven to be with Him there.” 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Transitional Moments

Everything goes from order to disorder, according to old Newtonian Mechanics. However, quantum physics takes things in a different direction and suggests that everything is made of energy and it is never lost, but rather changes form. They’re discovering new insights all the time in the science world, and these newest thoughts will probably change again (In fact they already are). As a distant onlooker, I find these things fascinating, and I wonder if we’ll ever reach the point where science and faith actually meet amicably. 

Most of us conduct our lives under the old assumption that things break down and diminish. Buildings don’t last, cars quit running, and all living things get old, sick, and die.  We hate it. We fight hard to resist it. We try not to think about it. We pray for it not to happen. We cry and mourn when our loves ones succumb to it. But we believe it’s inevitable.

But there is another law at work in spiritual realms and perhaps physics, too, where all things break down, but then there is rebuilding or regeneration. We see it all the time in nature, where living things break down into elements that are used to form and nurture new life. 

We see it in other ways, too. In moments of increased enlightenment, we note that our failures are not defeats, but defining moments that allow us to rebuild our lives into something greater. I see it when a person’s childhood faith is dissembled and makes way for deeper spiritual insight. We perceive of these transitional moments as catastrophic, but perhaps they are more like growth pains. 

The end of physical life can be seen this way, too.  We remind ourselves that life does not end, but changes forms when we step into eternity.  It’s a difficult transition, but it’s not termination. 

How many times did Jesus talk about this, especially in John:

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24). 

He was speaking of all kinds of transitions where changes feel like loss but are really gains.

I often think of how Jesus gave up a lot of himself when he left heaven to come to earth as a child. And yet when he went through the entire transition that led to death on a cross, he was brought to an even higher place and is bringing us with him.  (Read Philippians 2:1-18 and get back to me). 

Remembering this makes me less scared of impending losses and less sad about the ones that have already occurred. Perhaps it can help me enjoy more of the moments I have here, and I can make better use of them.  Perhaps I can even be more generous in giving myself away. 

When I become less, I become more.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Candle of Love

The second candle of Advent usually  represents Love. 

The hymn says:

Why did my Savior come to Earth
And to the humble go?
Why did he choose the lowly birth?
Because he loved me so.

He loved me so.
He loved me so!
He gave his precious life for me.
For me.
Because he loved me so.

 First John 3:1 says, “How great is the love of God that he has lavished on us that we should all be called his children.”    

 *from "Why Did My Savior Come to Earth" by J.G. Dailey

A Happy Jesus

Evidently, Jesus liked to have a good time. Everybody talked about his going to the parties where the real action occurred with wealthy tax collectors and prostitutes.  Plus, he was known to keep the fun going at wedding feasts, where he could be counted on to provide the very best wine.  

Then the very next day he would go to worship in the synagogue like some kind of saint, even daring to take the seat of authority to preach.  The truly religious people thought he was the worst kind of hypocrite.

No wonder he was so popular with regular folks. 

I have lived in religious communities where the people cultivated dour looks of pained endurance as they sang dull songs and listened to dull sermons, and claimed to feel joyful about it.  They would insist that heaven is like one long worship service, and I’ll admit when I was a kid, the worship time sure seemed like an eternity. 

I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

Maybe it’s to say that occasionally, we should change our perspective of Jesus.  Perhaps he was more than a “suffering servant,” or a religious reformer.  He was a shepherd, a storyteller, a healer, a prophet, and he liked to go to parties.

Maybe it’s to say that it’s okay to enjoy the moment, to laugh, sing and dance, just like Jesus did. 

Perhaps it’s to say that churches ought to “loosen up” instead of making people feel so guarded and self controlled.  Perhaps we could help each other get more in touch with freedom and joy.

And, I confess I might simply wish to entertain myself by teasing my friends who take themselves just a little too seriously.  Perhaps it’s also a reminder that I should refrain from taking myself to too seriously. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent 2012, Week One: Hope

Every year I write the meditations for the weeks of Advent and this year I thought I would publish them.  

Today we begin the celebration of Advent, which starts every year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Like a family awaiting the arrival of a new baby, we await the designated anniversary of our Lord’s birth.

The presence of the Christ child appeals to the tender place in our hearts where we discover great love for small children. The Child awakens a sense of loving obligation and generosity where we aspire to be the best persons we can be.

With a sense of anticipation, we light a candle each week of Advent, each one signifying something special about the season. Today, we begin Advent by lighting the candle of Hope.

I know that my redeemer lives, 
     and that in the end 
     he will stand on the earth.

I myself will see him
     with my own eyes—I, and not another.
     How my heart yearns within me! *

These words were spoken by a man named Job who had lost everything: his wealth, his family, his health, his dignity, and the respect of his community. But even though he had lost everything, and even though he was confused and bitter about God, Job held onto the hope that one day someone would come to rescue him.

His Redeemer didn’t come in his lifetime. In fact, the Redeemer didn’t come for a thousand years… maybe two thousand years.

But he did come, arriving late in the night. No one noticed his arrival and relatively few knew him during his life, but many have come to know him since then.  

Like Job, we have not seen our Redeemer, but we believe he did arrive and that his name is Jesus. 

Because we share that hope with Job, we believe that one day we will be delivered from our struggles and pain, and we will see God clearly.

May the Hope of Christ, which combines powerful longing with great expectations, bless each of you this season.  Amen.

*From Job 19:25, 27.