Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sermon for Dec. 10, 2006, Advent II

Heralds of Jesus
Luke 3:1-6

We begin in the year 587 BC. If we could time travel to Jerusalem, we would see a city ravaged by war. Babylon, the merciless and dominant military power, has captured the King of Jerusalem and his family. One by one, The conquering army slays King Zedekiah’s sons as he is forced to look on. Men and boys are taken to the sanctuary of the Temple and killed. These moment of terror are the last things King Zedekiah sees before soldiers gouge his eyes out. The king and all of the Jewish survivors are shackled and marched across the desert to Babylon as political prisoners. It’s a lampoon of a victory parade as 15,000 prisoners march away from Jerusalem. Most of them will never see their homes again.

Israel’s prophets warned that their defeat was the punishment for Israel’s sin. The leaders hated justice and honesty, and led the people in the worship of the fertility gods of the other nations. God’s patience had run out. Judgment had come.

We don’t know much about what happened to the people of Israel over the next 70 years of exile in Babylon. We assume that the exiles built houses and farms and blended in with the general population. After generations passed, some forgot about their homeland. Yet, some never forgot Jerusalem. They longed for a day when their punishment would be over and God would bring them back to the Promised Land. One of these people was a prophet. Scholars call him “Second Isaiah.” We don’t know his real name or occupation. We only have his message, preserved in chapters 40-59 in the book of Isaiah. His prophecy begins with words of hope: “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for’” (Is 40:1-2).

God promises comfort. No more harsh words of anger and judgment. Now God promises a time when the exiles will return to their land. God will flatten all obstacles like hills, mountains and valleys. The people of Israel will find safety and security in their relationship with God. When that day comes, all who look to God will find salvation.

The Jews did return to the Promised Land, as the prophet foretold. The Persians came to power, conquered Babylon, and the Jews home. God opened a way through impassible forests, broken rocks, and sandy deserts for his people to return from exile.

500 years later, we read about a wild man living in the desert. His name is John. He might be the kind of person whom we wouldn’t want our kids to hang out with. He lives in the desert no man’s land of the Dead Sea. He wears itchy clothes made from camel’s hair, and eats locusts for lunch. I imagine him with long hair, twisted and matted from neglect. In my mind, John has a grizzly beard, and he smells. As he talks, his eyes wildly stab at his listeners. He is the fulfillment of prophecy, this weirdo in the desert. Luke tells us that God chose John to as a herald or forerunner of Jesus. He is the voice crying out the words of Isaiah, “In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord.” John preaches repentance and baptism so that all people will be able to recognize the coming salvation that is about to break in upon the world.
John the Baptist’s message is that there is hope in the wilderness. Wilderness is not only found in untamed domains of land. Wilderness is also the bare and threatening place in the hearts of humankind. In the wilderness times of life, we are stripped of comfort and pretense. It is the place where we meet God. I hear John the Baptist saying, “In the barren areas of your life, prepare the way for the coming King. In the frozen muck of your being, in the emptiness that the world has to offer you, get ready to come face-to-face with God’s salvation. The impassable forests of sin are about to be mowed down. The desert areas of dry religion are going to be removed. Everyone now ha a chance to see what God is about to do.”

If we listen, we can still hear the herald call of John today. It says, “Prepare the way for the Lord.” God is going to make a way to enter your life so that you can be transformed by God’s salvation.

We live in a world that needs to know about this saving touch from God. People need to know that there is hope in the wilderness – rescue from spiritual exile. Many of our friends and neighbors suffer in the wilderness areas of life and they need to know that God sends a message of Good News. I’m not just talking about head knowledge about Jesus. I’m sure that most Americans have heard the basics of the Christmas story: the baby, the shepherds, the angels, the manger. But how many hurting people have let the story speak to their souls? How many know that the child born in Bethlehem is also the King of kings and the Lord of lords? The world still needs heralds of Jesus – followers of Christ who go before him to prepare the way.

God can use you a messenger today. The world around you urgently needs men and women who have the courage to say, “No matter what you struggle with God has Good News for you. In the grip of sickness, there can be hope. In the turbulent ride of addiction, there can be peace. In the arbitrary disasters that hit without warning, there can be comfort. For those who go from religion to religion, from spiritual fix to spiritual fix, there is a firm foundation of truth in Jesus the Messiah. In depression, in disappointment, even in death, there is an assurance of new life through Jesus.

I’m not asking you to go to football games wearing John 3:16 placards. I’m not asking you to go knocking on doors or to hand out gospel tracts at the mall. Preparing the way for the Lord is nothing more than finding where people are hurting and offering faith in Christ as a pathway out of the wilderness. It’s all about relationships with one another, and connection with God. What the world needs is people who care enough to make those relationships – people who commit to loving others enough to show them how Jesus can make a positive difference in life. Some will do it like John the Baptist – publicly condemning authorities with brash actions. Others share the news of salvation through gentle words and loving gestures that speak from God’s heart through you. Being a herald means that we reach people where they are, telling them through words and actions that God has a path out of the wilderness. There can be comfort and safety in God’s presence.

Whether you like it or not, your life may be the only Bible some people will ever read. So today, go from here and be Good News. Let your life point to the Truth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, I hope you have the courage to be heralds of Jesus – living and speaking the gospel to a world waiting to see the salvation of God.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Sermon for December 3, 2005

The Days are Coming
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

As we prepare our hearts for Advent, I invite you to listen to the Christmas Story.
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay. (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing.) As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a fat little man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”

Christian Century magazine published this commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. In the article, the author, Michael Martin, asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?

The author suggests that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," or, possibly, the "Mercantile Messiah Motif." Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away, and is only mentioned once a year. Actually, all mature people know that he doesn’t really exist; but he’s a convenient excuse for celebration. The prophet Jeremiah would not approve.

The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone; he just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back in the closet when the New Year begins. The prophet Jeremiah would not approve.

The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about giving. “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else,” say the advertisements. What would Jeremiah say?

The problem with Santa Christ, Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never change anyone. They don’t reveal anything about God. They don’t make demands. Jeremiah longed for a different Savior. The text says, “He shall execute righteousness and judgment in the land.” Jeremiah knew that the people needed to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that did not reveal the true nature of God. He proclaimed a costly coming of the Messiah. God says, “The days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute righteousness in the Land.”

I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Luke. His followers ask him about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says, “There will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

Stop for a minute with me and think about it. What does it mean when Jesus says to us that there is a day coming when the Son of Man will come to us in a cloud with power and great glory? What can these words mean in the midst of a busy life, a hectic life, a crazy life?
. . . a life where our kids expect to be driven here and there and ask for things that we just can't afford?
. . . a life where our employers expect us to work overtime,
. . . and our clubs, our church, and our sports teams ask for hours we don’t have?

What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present - what do they man when we are struggling to live one day at a time - when we are trying to be all things to all to many people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue throughout the world; that crime and starvation and terrorism and war and earthquakes and floods abound and indeed seen to be increasing?

To me they mean that I should rejoice, that I should stand up and watch and pray.

The promise of Christ is that the future is not going to be like the present. On that day, evil will perish and that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us – a heaven and earth of everlasting peace and justice, joy and love.

Don’t get so caught up in the worries of this life that you are unprepared for the return of the Savior. Jesus reminds us to be alert to the bigger picture. Understand your place in the greater scheme of things. Be on guard.

Let me ask you, what one or two things do you tend to be so focused on that lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, I was sure I was going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. As children, we asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age. By mistake or intention, someone launches their weapons, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction.

Our worries may not be on a global scale. The toughest distractions are the personal ones. For instance, sometimes I become so focused on my work, I tend to lose sight of my place in the big picture. I can spend hours before the computer, and then rush around doing visits and getting ready for meetings and then going to them - that I forget what it is that I am proclaiming. I can miss my family’s joys and what it is God is actually doing all around me.

What about you? Do you ever feel lost in today -- lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate what else is going on?

Jesus tells us in not to be distracted by the big issues: warfare, floods, famine, and creation seeming to fall apart. They are only signs that point toward a better future. Jesus also reminds us that personal worries can be more distracting than any civil war halfway around the planet. Those personal events are so dangerous because they are subtle and sneaky. We don't realize what is happening until it is too late. All of a sudden, we're trapped, feeling sorry for ourselves, working so hard, being so focused on one thing, that we miss the bigger picture.

That’s why Jesus tells us to be alert. To watch. To not be so caught up in the everyday things that we fail to look down the road and see the presence of God’s Kingdom with all its hope and promise.

Jeremiah and Jesus tell us about the signs of the coming of the kingdom so that we might ready ourselves for it. A righteous Branch has sprouted from David's line; and he will do what is just and right in the land. Look around you and prepare for Jesus to come. Spend this Advent in prayer and in hope, in righteousness and in love, knowing that as so many of promises of God were fulfilled at the birth of Christ, so too the rest will be fulfilled – to his praise and his glory.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Sermon for November 26, 2006 -- Christ the King

Serving the King
Revelation 1:4b-8 / John 18:33-37

When you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you comes to mind? Sometimes I think of Jesus as my brother and my friend -- someone who walks the journey of life with me, someone who talks with me and counsels me on the way, someone to whom it’s comfortable to talk and share life.

When you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you most often use? Some people think of Jesus as the good shepherd -- as one who guides and leads -- as the gentle savior who seek out the lost and injured sheep and carries the wounded and the lame on his shoulders till they are safe back in the fold.

What image do you have of Christ? How about Jesus as King? We don’t talk about that one much. Today we celebrate Christ as King. When I think about kings, here’s what comes to my mind:
« fairy-tale kings: benevolent, often dead, with a wicked queen
« king of the hill: the game where the strongest pushes everyone else off the hill
« “king me” -- checkers king jumps in all directions, taking over and winning
« The King - Elvis Presley - of which no more needs to be said
« the king in the “Wizard of Id - a self-centered bumbling dictator
« king o' the road - a wanderer with no cares
« A chess king - one of limited movement and power to protect
« Burger King – the only place on earth where you can have it your way.

Think about your images of Jesus and kings as we listen to an event from the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (NRSV)

Let’s try to place ourselves in the year 31 AD. We are in Jerusalem in the Roman province of Palestine. In the eyes of Rome, this is a small but troubled land. The Emperor Tiberius has placed 500 Roman soldiers in the area under the full command of a governor named Pontius Pilate. It’s his sole duty to keep this tiny province under control at all costs. Pilate is an effective peacekeeper, but he is unpopular with the Jews in the area.

Whenever Pilate marches into Jerusalem, his guards carry Roman flags, topped off with a bust of the emperor, whom the Romans viewed as a god. The Jews consider this idolatry. They have asked Pilate to remove this image of the emperor before he enters the city -- not an outrageous request. Other governors had done it in the past. But Pilate refuses to pander to the superstitions of the Jews. Once day, when Pilate left Jerusalem for his palace in Ceasarea, a number of enraged Jews followed him home. Pilate evaded them for five days. Finally, he told the Jews to meet him in the amphitheater. The Jews arrived to the drawn swords of Roman soldiers. Pilate ordered the Jews to either withdraw their requests or be killed immediately. The Jews bared their necks, tempting the soldiers to strike. Not even Pilate could massacre these defenseless men. From that point on, the Jews knew Pilate could be manipulated to follow their will.

In another incident, Pilate took money from the treasury of the Jewish Temple to build an aqueduct. The people resented it and rioted through the streets. Pilate dressed his soldiers in civilian clothes and gave them concealed weapons before sending them into the surging crowds. At a given signal, the soldiers attacked the mob, stabbing and clubbing many Jews to death.

Once again, Pilate straddles Roman custom and Jewish law. Before him sits a Jewish prisoner from Galilee named Jesus. Religious leaders accuse the man of calling himself the King of the Jews, and they demand his execution. Pilate doesn’t have time to bother with these nagging people, so he gets right to the point and asks the prisoner, “Are you the king of the Jews?” The man calmly responds with another question. “Is that your own idea, or did you hear others saying that?” This upsets Pilate. He’s supposed to be asking the questions, and now this criminal is putting him on trial. “Am I a Jew?” Pilate cries. “Your people handed you over to me, not the Romans. What did you do, anyway?” The accused man is silent for a moment, then he answers the first question. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest, but my kingdom is of another place.” Pilate thinks this is so strange. The criminal is not really defending himself. “So, are you a king then?” Pilate asks. Jesus replies, “You could say it that way. I was born for a reason–to come into the world to testify to the truth.” Pilate is getting confused. The prisoner is obviously not a military king, but he is still claiming to be a ruler. Pilate’s verdict: this man is harmless. He might be slightly crazy, but he’s innocent. He poses no political threat to the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, like most of his decisions, his choice to release Jesus will only make more trouble with the Jewish leaders. Pilate will ultimately cave into their demands and have Jesus put to death.

In this scene, Pilate is confronted with the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t fall within geographical or political boundaries. He has no soldiers to fight for him. Jesus is not a national hero. He doesn’t tame his subjects with force or manipulation. The kingdom of Jesus is different. King Jesus persuades men and women to follow him in spirit and in truth. Christ the King rules with love, and asks his subjects to love God and one another in return. In his kingdom, people relate to one another as servants. King Jesus rules the human heart and conquers the world with love, one single person at a time.

In one brief encounter, Pilate faced the reality of Christ’s kingdom. And Pilate has some choices to make. He can declare him an innocent man and let Jesus go free. Or, Pilate can accept the reality of Jesus’ words. He can allow the kingdom of Christ to do its transforming work of love in his own heart.

In the end, Pilate doesn’t make a decision for or against Jesus. He tries to remain neutral. He allows others to decide for him. Pilate will not even face the invitation of Jesus. He hides behind a compromise. First, he offers the Jews a choice–release Barabbas the insurrectionist or Jesus. When that doesn’t work, he has Jesus whipped and publicly humiliated, hoping that will meet the crowd’s taste for violence. This too fails. And with that failure comes Pilate’s fall from neutrality. Pilate fails to hear the truth, and orders the execution of Jesus, knowing the whole time that this King of the Jews is an innocent man. By the world’s standards Pilate was a successful man. He had made it to the top of civil service. Yet, here in the presence of this simple, disturbing Galilean, Pilate fails to see and accept the truth of Jesus.
History judges Pontius Pilate harshly. He was not necessarily an evil man. He had ambitions, and he misused his power. In the end, he was just an ordinary man. Perhaps we are more like Pontius Pilate than we care to admit. Like Pilate, we have goals and ambitions. Most of us are ordinary people. Today we come face-to-face with the simple honesty of Jesus Christ–the divine Lord who sits before us, inviting us allow him to rule the domain of our heart. He’s not going to force his way in. He’s not going to manipulate us or give us a guilt trip. He’s not going to play games in order to win our devotion. He simply presents us with the truth and waits for us to make a decision.

Like Pilate, we can stay neutral as we avoid Christ’s request to be in control of our hearts. We can choose to see Jesus as a harmless person who has no effect on our spirits. We can ask, “Jesus, are you a king?” but close our ears to his answer. We can see him as some great historical figure who has no impact on our lives today. But when it comes to Jesus, I have learned an important lesson: there is no neutrality. Being uninvolved only puts off the day when you will have to decide–are you part of Christ’s rule on earth, or are you working against it?

It sounds confrontational, but this is exactly what I have found so encouraging in my own life. Jesus loves us. He wants to be part of our lives. He is our sovereign leader and he calls each one of us to be a servant. I made a decision 18 years ago that changed my life. I said “yes” to Jesus and asked him to govern my life. Each day I get up and try to align my choices with what God wants from my life. Sometimes I don’t do very well. On a good day I take time to ask, “How can I serve the aims of your kingdom, Jesus? How can I yield my own will and my own desires to what you have planned for me today?” When I take time to be aware of God’s presence, I find that God usually sends someone into my life: someone who needs help, someone who needs to talk, someone who needs to be connected with the truth of the gospel, or someone to encourage me. It’s demanding work. It’s not something I do because I’m a minister. It’s what I do as an inhabitant of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is our King. He is Lord of all. We don’t vote Jesus in by popular election. We don’t hold a convention to nominate him to the position. God has made him our leader. Jesus rules forever and ever. And one day, like it or not, every nation, every state, every individual person will see Jesus as he really is, The Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come.

Is Jesus the sovereign Ruler of your life? Do you find you are part of Christ’s growing kingdom, or are you working against it by resisting his new government? Jesus calls us to hear, to decide, and to follow.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...