Peace and Goodwill

Note: I am pleased to share these good words from the Christmas letter of a fellow pastor. Bill Hull was a classmate of mine in seminary and has been a cherished friend now for over 50 years. I am pleased to share his thoughts as a guest contributor and offer a hearty Amen.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14 RSV

As we draw near to Christmas, this is a season of anticipation, a time of promise. It is the promise of peace and goodwill, not as pie in the sky by and by or among only heavenly beings, “but on earth…among people with whom God is well pleased.” I take that to be all people.

When God created, God proclaimed the work to be “good” as in “God don’t make no junk.” We on the other hand tend to criticize or to reject and exclude those whose sins are different from ours. To do so, we pick and choose from the buffet of laws and prohibitions in the Scripture to justify our inclusion among those “with whom God is pleased.”

The promise of peace and goodwill is sometimes hard to believe. We live in a time of deep division within our own country, of alienation from those who have been our historic allies and of threats of destruction from our enemies. We live in a time of domestic and foreign terrorism, a time of increasing hatred for those whose skin color, religion or lifestyle are different from ours. We live in a time when violence, death and duplicity are all around us. How do we believe in the promise of peace and goodwill among people?

I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I believe that a part of the answer to believing the promise is to be the promise. I believe that part of the answer is to act as if being loving is more important than being right. I believe that part of the answer is treating all people as beloved of God, created in God’s image. I believe that it means being peacemakers, that it means being neighbors to all who need what we have and what we are.

To be the promise is eternal life here and now. It is all that we can do. The rest is up to God.

Messiah Vision, Advent Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11

When I told my wife, Diana, that I was preaching on this text she correctly pointed out to me that this story seems strangely out of place for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. We’re still 10 days from the birth of Jesus and the lectionary text for today jumps 30 years ahead where John the Baptist is in prison. It seems chronologically out of whack, but if we take off our historical/literal glasses and dig into John’s important question we find it is very relevant for us in this Advent season 2000 years later.

The text tells us “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”” Why would John be asking that question? He of all people should know who Jesus is. He is the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and in that story all 3 synoptic Gospels report that after the baptism “a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That seems pretty convincing to me and not something John would have forgotten.

So why is John asking, “Are you the one?” Let’s back up a minute to the first part of that verse. It says, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” That’s what prompts the question. John is confused as many were in Jesus’ day because Jesus wasn’t acting like the Messiah they were hoping for.

Did you ever get a Christmas gift that wasn’t what you expected or were hoping for? Kids are pretty good at showing their disappointment when they tear into a package they think contains the new X-box from Santa and find instead underwear and socks.
That kind of disappointment is at work in John’s question: “Are you the one or should we wait for another?” Jesus didn’t fulfill the Christmas wish list the oppressed Jews were hoping for. They wanted a political/military liberator and they got a suffering servant. They were hoping for Rambo and God sent Gandhi instead. They wanted a Messiah who would take to the streets and give the hated Romans their just desserts. Instead they got Jesus who ate dessert with tax collectors and sinners.

Let’s remind ourselves again of the situation and the audience Matthew was writing to. Mathew’s Gospel was written 40-50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which puts it sometime after the year 70 C.E. That is a very significant date for the Jewish Christians, rather like 9/11 for us, because we know that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The temple was God’s residence in their midst and now it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. That had to be a time when the Jews and their hopes for deliverance by the Messiah hit rock bottom. They were feeling like John, imprisoned and questioning their faith. So John’s question from his prison cell awaiting execution reflects the doubts of his readers, the Jews and new Christ followers sitting in the devastation of their city and their hope.

Are you the one, Jesus? Why haven’t you delivered us? It’s the question disciples of Christ have asked in every generation when suffering and despair threaten to drown our faith. Who is this Jesus, and why is there still so much injustice and suffering in our world?

The rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice came out when I was a senior in seminary, and I was drawn to the way it asked that same question about Jesus. The title song of that musical has Judas asking,
“Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

I talked one of my theology professors into letting me do an independent study on the theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. He was not a fan of rock music and very reluctant at first but finally agreed. I remember in particular one conversation we had about the scene in the musical where Jesus finally loses his cool and turns over the money changers’ tables in the temple and drives them out with a whip.

I was young and full of righteous indignation then. Now I’m old but still full of it. In 1970 I was idealistic and very impatient with the social injustices of war, racism and sexism – sound familiar? At any rate I was drawn to this angry Jesus upsetting the apple cart in the temple, but Professor Hopper cautioned me to put that incident in the context of Jesus’ total ministry. Yes, Jesus got angry a couple of times. He was human after all. But those incidents of anger are very rare and atypical of the patient, kind, compassionate and forgiving healer that Jesus was.

And that’s why John the Baptist is questioning Jesus’ Messiahship. Jesus isn’t doing things the way John would have done them. Pastor Chris reminded us last week what a wild man John was. He was a man of action, calling out the sins of the big shots of his day. He followed the examples of Amos and Micah and the other Hebrew prophets who were hell fire and brimstone preachers warning God’s people of the wrath to come if they didn’t repent of their sinful ways.

But Jesus broke the mold of the angry prophet and replaced it with the Messiah
who hangs out with the outcasts of society, who is the good shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep instead of blaming it for wandering off. Instead of heaping guilt on the oppressed he offers forgiveness and grace to prodigal daughters and sons like you and me.

So this question is exactly what we should be asking as we prepare for Christmas. Who are you Jesus? What kind of Messiah are you really? If we don’t understand the nature of God’s incarnation in our world, if we’re looking for the wrong kind of Messiah we will miss out on the greatest gift any of us can hope for.

My heart has always been touched by a song much older than “Jesus Christ Superstar” that poses the same question. It was written during the Great Depression, another time of great suffering in our country. Robert MacGimsey was a white composer, but he wrote this song in the style of an American slave song. The version I grew up with was recorded by Mahalia Jackson, but it continues to be recorded today by other artists because it raises an important warning that we’ll miss Jesus again if he’s not what we expect. The song says,

“Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
We didn’t know who you were.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn’t know who you were.”

Do we know Jesus today? Would we recognize him if he or she appeared to us in the checkout line at Kroger’s or at the food pantry? Do we treat the telemarketer or an ungrateful child as we would treat Jesus? Do we take time to pray and ask ourselves if the Jesus we want for Christmas is the one God sends to upset our values and call into question our way of life?

I had cataract surgery on both of my eyes this fall. I can now see much better than before because the old clouded lenses have been replaced by new ones. Someone has joked that we will all see 2020 come January. But the real question is will we have Messiah vision? Will you join me in praying for new spiritual lenses so we can see clearly who Jesus is and what he expects of us as his followers?

Yes, Jesus is the one! And we don’t have to wait for another because God’s Emmanuel is with us here and now every step of the way. We just need Messiah Vision so we don’t miss out on his Kingdom because of preconceived notions of what that kingdom should look like. Amen

4th Sunday of Advent, Candle of Love

Like expectant parents we can hardly wait for the miracle of new birth this Advent season. Our spirits are anxious about the labor pain required of us to be reborn in Christ, but the Love of God is stronger than our fears. And so like Mary and Joseph and. Elizabeth we dare to say no to hate in all its ugly forms and a resounding yes to God’s gift of Love wrapped in swaddling clothes.

It is God’s love we celebrate in Joseph’s devotion to Mary, a love so strong that even the baby John feels it while still inside his mother. It is love that dares to believe in the impossible, even a virgin birth. Love is the source of all of the Advent gifts. Hope, Peace, and Joy all flow from God’s love, but the greatest gift is Love. And so on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we light the Candle of Amazing Love that gives Hope, Peace and Joy to a world that badly needs them all.

Prayer of Confession: Please pray with me: O God of holy expectations, we are humbled when we ponder the faith and trust of all the Christmas story characters who trusted and believed in the power of your incredible love to change the world. We confess we don’t say yes to your Holy Spirit like Mary did, we don’t believe like Joseph, we don’t leap for joy like Elizabeth. The pressure of deadlines and responsibilities are enemies of love. Fear of getting outside our comfort zone keeps us from sharing the most precious gift of your love. Help us in the middle of this hectic season to recognize acts of kindness in others and face honestly our own failures to trust and obey your radical claim upon our lives. Help us keep Christ in us. Give us eyes to see the star, ears to hear the angels and the courage to obey and go where you say. Our Christmas prayer, O giver of life, is that we will be open to your amazing love being conceived in us this Holy Season. Amen

Incomprehensible Incarnation

Amid the cacophony of the mad world, in the darkest days of the year, in times of personal stress or sorrow, when we most need the peace that passes all human understanding, that’s exactly where God chooses to break into our world. Praying that you will feel that holy presence wherever you need it most this Christmas.

ADVENT PEACE

Advent is a season of waiting – not waiting for Christmas, but for Christ to come again. We wait and hope for a Savior to come into a world hungering for peace. We wait for God to set us free from the cares of the world that keep us awake at night. We long for a life that is calm and bright.

But sometimes we look for peace in all the wrong places, or we give up looking at all. We feel trapped in jobs that frustrate us, in classes that seem useless, in negative habits that do not serve us well. We confuse peace with comfort and security.

God’s peaceful kingdom is not anything the world can give us. It is a gift to those who know where to seek it, who follow the right star and listen to the angels instead of King Herod. God’s presence does not spare us from life’s problems, but is a peace of mind available everywhere in any of life’s circumstances if we make room for Christ.

And so today we light the second candle of Advent, the candle of peace, to remind ourselves to prepare while we wait for the Prince of Peace.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION
O Holy one who comes to set the captives free, we confess that for too long we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned by guilt, shame, fear, anger or hopelessness. We have put our trust in things that thieves can steal and rust can consume, and we are always disappointed. Our souls long for peace, but we have been led astray by false prophets of prosperity. We pity ourselves because of adversity and expect peace to just be provided for us. Speak to us again in the stories and songs of Advent. Come Emmanuel, be with us here and now and help us trust you enough that we can give up our foolish pursuits and find true peace that only comes when we are at home in your kingdom. Amen

Advent: Hope

As in the days of Jesus’ birth we live today in times of distress and fear. Our nation and world are so deeply divided it is sometimes hard to sense God’s spirit among us. News of violence and suffering bombard us on all sides. The holiday traditions are great, but they keep us so busy we may miss the signs of God’s kingdom right before our eyes.

The Advent season calls us again to raise our heads and be alert so we don’t miss the most important parts of Christmas. Advent is time for us to quiet our hearts and see clearly what we really need from God. We do not long for more stuff that does not satisfy, what we long for are hearts full of Hope that the world cannot give or take from us.

And so today we light the first Candle of Advent, the candle of Hope.

Prayer of Confession: Gracious God, we confess it is so easy to lose hope. Family conflicts, grieving hearts, loneliness, aging, and illness seem to rob us of the things we hope for. The Christmas lights shine into the darkness of December, but they can also be so bright they overshadow the light of the world. We are tempted to trust Amazon to be our deliverer instead of the Messiah. We decorate the halls earlier but fail to make room in our hearts for the Christ child. As we hope for the calmness that surpasses all human understanding, remind us again that we don’t just need a little Christmas; we need to be more like Jesus to truly be people of Hope. Amen

Prayer for 4th Sunday in Advent

Dec. 24, 2017
O God of our lives every day of the year, we just want to thank you for this special day. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to celebrate this special birth again. But even in our anticipation some of us are worn out from preparing for Christmas. Some of us are not joyful because of losses we have suffered in the last year. Help us all to be sensitive and caring for those who are feeling grief or loneliness that is multiplied by this season’s festivities.

For some of us life is a struggle. We lack adequate resources to sustain life and strength to care for loved ones. Or we are separated from family by circumstances beyond our control. As this Christmas approaches closer and closer in different time zones all around the world help us to feel the ties that bind us together by the universal love that Christmas represents. The angels proclaim good news for all people, Mary reminds us that the poor and oppressed among us have a special place in your heart, O Lord, and therefore in ours.

May the humble simplicity of Jesus’ birth remind us to examine our own lives and priorities. Touch us with your grace so we can truly put our trust in you and not in material idols or worldly power. Help us to experience the miracle of Christmas this year with fresh eyes and ears so we feel the power of how unique and revolutionary Christ’s birth was and is for those who place their total faith in him. Let us kneel with the shepherds at the manger with renewed amazement and commitment to share the wonderful news of Christ far beyond Christmas Day.
Fill us with such hope by your willingness to become one of us, sharing our humanity with all its brokenness that we not only ponder this miracle in our hearts, but witness to those who need you most by paying forward the gift of Christmas in grace and kindness, mercy and love to everyone our lives touch.

We ask these things in the name of our Lord and Savior who taught us this prayer….

Pastoral Prayer for 3rd Sunday in Advent

God of Mercy and Grace, again we pause to make ourselves aware of your presence. We know you are with us everywhere but in the rush and busyness of this season it’s easy to forget that and even to forget what Christmas is all about. Help us to center our hearts and souls just now that through Scripture and the blessed gift of music we will hear again and feel again the night and day of your eternal love. Bless these musicians as they proclaim the Good News, and give us open hearts to listen and believe.

Help us suspend our cynicism and doubt like Joseph did. Send your spirit to assure us that when life seems too much to bear, when we see no way out of impossible circumstances, if we seek your guidance you will show us the way, truth and life revealed so long ago in Christ Jesus. As we often sing, Love came down at Christmas, but that was just the ultimate expression of your presence that was with Sarah and Abraham, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah and Isaiah and all of your children in every generation since creation began.

And the sharing of your love didn’t stop at Bethlehem either – just as your spirit came to Mary and Joseph before the birth so it continued to protect the holy family from Herod’s evil way. The love that came down at Christmas was nurtured by Joseph and Mary; it was shared and proclaimed by Paul and the apostles and Christian martyrs and missionaries across the centuries in every corner of the world.

That Love still inspires kindness and mercy today, even in the midst of violence and unrest in the streets of Columbus or Jerusalem. It inspires sacrificial love as we share our blessings with those less fortunate and in those who will be traveling to Mexico 11 days from now to share the universal message of love that transcends all language and cultural barriers. We ask your blessing on those 12 messengers of Christ’s love that we have named today. Fill each of them to overflowing with the love of Christ and guide them safely on this mission of mercy.
In these final days of Advent, O Lord, we pray for the lonely, the sick, the discouraged and hopeless. We pray for generous hearts that our preparation for this holy birth will truly reflect the awe and mystery that is there every day for those who are humble enough to trust that with you all things are possible. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, as we pray the prayer he taught us to pray.

Second Sunday in Advent Prayer: Surprise Us, Lord!

Gracious God, as we go through the season of advent hearing the familiar stories, singing the beloved carols, there’s something very comforting about the traditions and the familiarity of the whole Christmas season. We feel cozy and at home with it all, and that’s good—up to a point.

But please pull a few surprises on us like you did with Elizabeth and Zechariah. Don’t let us get so much into auto pilot that our traditions become routine and lose their power. That first Christmas was anything but routine. Old women and virgins conceived, expectant parents were forced by foreign rulers to travel miles for a census only to be told they had to sleep in a barn.

But you had other plans, O God, and those oppressive rulers got upstaged by divine mischief and incarnation. Caesar and Herod took a back seat to a helpless baby in a manger!
What surprises do you have instore for our troubled and broken world this year, Lord? What unexpected and unheralded messengers of peace are you going to reveal to us in 2017. In these dark and cold shortest days of the year where will your light shine to show us your way of truth and justice? What healing miracles have you prepared for us? What acts of kindness and mercy is your Holy Spirit going to stir up in us to perform for those who least expect it.

Amid the clang and clamor of a world that has lost its way, dazzle us with a star that will lead us to Christ. Empower us like Elizabeth to believe the impossible so we can help produce for our time voices that cry in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord – Not back then but here and now. Whisper again in our ears the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate us from your amazing love in Jesus Christ. In his holy name we witness to your power as we join our voices in his prayer.

Lighting the Christ Candle:

During the Advent season, we have waited like expectant parents for God to deliver – to show up in the big brown truck with the promised gifts of hope, peace, joy and love. We wait in a world that has never needed those gifts more. And God hides the gifts in plain sight, in Bethlehem, right where the prophets told us they would be. And like every year, we’re surprised, still not convinced that God’s Messiah should be born in a barn.

Tonight our waiting is rewarded as we celebrate again the eternal gift of unconditional love and the marvelous ways God leads us to the Light of the World. God showed the shepherds and the magi the way to Bethlehem. And tonight God is showing us the Way again.

We light the Christ Candle on this holy night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. He has led us here and calls us to follow him on a marvelous journey of seeking, finding, waiting, hoping and growing.

Prayer:

O eternal God, forgive us when we doubt that a peasant boy of low estate could possibly overcome our fearful and divided world. When our skepticism threatens to overwhelm us, wrap us in the warm swaddling cloths of hope, peace, joy and love. We have waited and prayed for your Messiah. Now it’s time for us to receive the most precious gift ever and to be the light of Christ to warm and heal broken lives and our darkened world. In the holy name of the one we celebrate this night, Amen.