Is There Hope?

manger

Every single hope and longing of your heart is to be found with a baby born two-thousand years ago.  The birth of Jesus Christ is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum on which the entire history of humanity hinges for its purpose and fulfillment.  Come and take-a-peek inside of a smelly room with stinky sheep and the distinct aroma of fresh hay – a dimly lit room which could be the place of any ordinary ancient family – and gaze upon the infant born.  The Christ child entered this world, this banal common space, just for you – to bring to fulfillment all your hopes and dreams.  The hope of the nations, the anticipation of peace on earth is just beginning….

Now your past, with of all its lack of direction, poor decisions, and missed opportunities can fade away.  “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit… name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Now your present circumstances, whether good or ill, have meaning and are not random events with no purpose.  “And the star they [the wise men] had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  They were thrilled and excited to see the star.  When the wise men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:9-11).

Now your future, which was so uncertain and filled with worry and anxiety, has direction and a trajectory in which to shape your entire life.  “With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this.  Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people” (Luke 2:30-32).  “The Word became a human being and lived here with us.  We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us” (John 1:14).

I was once in the mass of people who were familiar with Jesus, knew the supposed facts of his birth, and gave no real credence to it.  After all, that was then, and this is now.  What has an ancient birth have to do with me today?  But I found within Jesus all that he claimed to be, and discovered that his words and ways were more than worth following.  What is more, I realized that forgiveness is real, grace is enough, faith is as epistemically sound as my five senses, and that the world really does revolve on the axis of love.  That is, if Jesus is at the center of it all.

This season, this most blessed time of year, is truly a call to all humanity.  It is a summons to awaken to God, to discern that he is there wooing you to himself through his Son, the Lord Jesus.  It is an invitation to forsake the old life and familiar path, to strike out and find your heart’s truest hope.  It is the chance to make a difference as a new person.  Your past does not need to define you forever.  Your present is awaiting your next move.  And your future can be bright.  Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittester, has wisely said:

“The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to re-enter the human race, to take our part in it knowing that it has as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.  It requires us to understand that misfortune is not failure.  It is at most simply a digression through life intended to make us reassess our course, our goals, our aspirations.”

            That reassessment is the opportunity to hope again with the real hope of Christmas and the Christ child.  It is not a call to a job, or necessarily to do something.  Rather, it is an appeal to becoming fully human and alive to the image of God within, awakened by coming to the manger.

Take some time and withdraw to a quiet place, either sitting down in your favorite chair or walk along a secluded path.  Use your imagination in coming to Jesus and see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the birth of the Savior.  What is the sixth sense of faith telling you as you ponder the scene?  How is Christ filling your heart?   Where are the places of your life Jesus is coming and enlarging?  Is there hope as you find an alternative way of sensing God in your life?

Luke 1:46-54

 

           
 
            Faith that is faith in itself is not faith at all.  But a deep and personal faith arises from a healthy and robust theology.  Today, let the words of Mary’s Magnificat (Song of Praise) communicate to you a God who is aware, hears, and responds with power and grace.  Read it slowly several times and allow your own praise to arise in cognizance of what God has done and will do for you:

 

46 Mary said:

 

With all my heart
I praise the Lord,
47 and I am glad
because of God my Savior.
48 He cares for me,
his humble servant.
From now on,
all people will say
God has blessed me.
49 God All-Powerful has done
great things for me,
and his name is holy.
50 He always shows mercy
to everyone
who worships him.
51 The Lord has used
his powerful arm
to scatter those
who are proud.
52 He drags strong rulers
from their thrones
and puts humble people
in places of power.
53 God gives the hungry
good things to eat,
and sends the rich away
with nothing.
54 He helps his servant Israel
and is always merciful
to his people. (CEV)

 

Amen.

 

Smelling Christmas

 
 
When I think about the smells of the Advent and Christmas seasons, my nose immediately goes to my Grandma’s homemade Christmas cookies.  I would gladly spend an afternoon making the dough, rolling it out, using the Christmas cookie cutter shapes, and sprinkling red and green sugar in order to do some kid-serious kind of cookie indulgence.  And the smell!  Oh, my, the whole house would smell something of what I think heaven probably smells like.
 
            But the smells we might typically associate with Christmas (i.e. Christmas cookies, Christmas evergreen trees, and, Christmas presents) are a far cry from the smells of the first Christmas in Bethlehem.  When Christ was born, he was surrounded by animals.  Jesus was actually placed in a manger, a feeding trough.  Shepherds came to pay him homage.  I don’t know if you have ever been around shepherds.  To put it delicately, they usually stink.  In my first church in Michigan, our immediate neighbor was a shepherd.  He spent his days shepherding his sheep.  His name was Art.  Art always smelled bad.  Art smelled bad because he was constantly dealing with stinky sheep (not to mention that Art also never used deodorant – guess he thought that was pretty useless).
 
 
 
It is interesting that when Jesus grew up and began his ministry as an adult, he continued to associate with people of low position.  The guys he mostly hung out with were his disciples – a bunch of commercial fishermen.  If you put a shepherd and a fisherman side by side, I’m not sure which one would stink more.  But, to Jesus, shepherds and fishermen had the aroma of salvation on them.  Christ purposely sought out those who needed God.
 
After our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, his disciples continued his ministry of associating with stinky people who need Jesus.  It was the Apostle Paul who encouraged the church to “Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited” (Romans 12:16). 
 
Jesus did not come to this earth as a privileged upper class king who demanded that others give him honor and obedience.  Instead, he humbled himself and became a servant.  He was born into the most humble of circumstances and never aspired to anything but doing his Father’s will.  As God’s people, we are to carry with us the aroma of Christ – not creatively finding ways to avoid others – but lovingly engaging those who need the message of Christmas.  How do you smell?  What aroma do you give off to others?
 
 
 
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
 
Jesus was a real baby.  There were times he smelled.  Changing diapers is just part of the deal with babies.  The very same baby, Jesus, who had to be cleaned-up and have a first century diaper change, was the person who would one day be stripped of his clothes and hung naked on the cross for the world to see.  There is perhaps no more terrible smell than the smell of death, especially death on a cross.
 
            I don’t know of anyone who actually likes dirty diapers, except maybe your dog.  You do those endless cleanings and put up with the smell of it because of love.  The reason Jesus came to this earth as a vulnerable little baby who was dependent on someone else cleaning him up, and the reason he became obedient to the horrible smell of death was because of love.  “This is love,” said the Apostle John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And, because Jesus is our pioneer, blazing a trail of salvation love before us, we are to follow him as his devoted disciples.  “Dear friends,” John said, “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
 
 
 

 

            We would do well to remember and emphasize such gospel love, especially when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, this year.  In our business and our busy-ness, let’s keep our focus on why we have a Christmas.  May your church season be filled with hope, peace, joy, and love as you anticipate the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 3:1-10

            The Lord Jesus will return.  He is coming.  A Second Advent shall occur.  Yes, I know we Christians have been babbling on about Christ’s Second Coming for centuries.  It’s been two-thousand years since the incarnation, and here we are still talking about Jesus’ return.  No, followers of Christ are not deluded or unusually weird (well, maybe a little weird).  God is not on vacation.  He isn’t aloof or unconcerned.  He exists, and he is up to something.  “The Lord isn’t slow about keeping his promises, as some people think he is.  In fact, God is patient, because he wants everyone to turn from sin and no one to be lost.”  Like a watching and concerned parent, God is waiting for all kinds of people to turn from empty wayward lives and return to him.  Yes, God has not yet returned because he is waiting for us to return.
 
            What some people often interpret as not caring is simply a cold misinterpretation of reality.  God cares.  God is infinitely patient.  God carefully and adroitly graces individuals with repentance full of faith that leads to a new life of peace, joy, and righteousness.  If we can admit that our perspective on things is typically puny and very limited, then we can begin to entertain a larger notion that God doesn’t operate like we do and his timetable is quite different than ours.
 
            There is no better time than now to participate with God by praying that your prodigal son or daughter, your wayward friend, and your clueless neighbor will come to know Jesus in this Advent season.  If God is waiting for folks to repent and believe the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ, then he is also waiting for us to have some focused, sustained, and passionate prayer for those in need of Jesus.  May the angels in heaven rejoice on Christmas Day that salvation has come to your world.
 

 

            Saving Lord, your grace and compassion know no bounds.  Let the finished work of Jesus be applied to the homes of my friends, neighbors, and relatives so that they can know the incredible joy of new life through the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Christ.  Amen.

Taste That the Lord is Good

 
 
            Throughout the past thirty-one years of Thanksgivings that my wife and I have celebrated together, many of them have included college students, co-workers, and church members – all with no family in the area.  On one particular Thanksgiving we had a young woman from India over to eat with us.  She was a Hindu from the highest caste in Indian society.  She looked like a real live Indian Barbie doll and carried herself like royalty.  She had never observed Thanksgiving and been with an American family to celebrate it.  It is always our tradition to go around the table during the meal and describe one thing we are thankful for in the past year.  I purposely made sure she was the last one to share, and let her know that she was not obligated to do so.  But she wanted to speak and said this:  “I never knew that there could be love like this amongst a family.  You see, in my culture we are always concerned about how we are displeasing one of our many gods and what we can do to appease them and solicit their help.  Love is not something we think much about.  I do have a question, if I might ask:  Why do you eat this food, and why so much?”  Yeah, good question!  Why dowe do that?  And why do we do what we do at Christmas?  Why do we hold to certain traditions and do particular things in the holiday season?
 
            I said something to her like this:  “The food reminds us that the God we serve is a good God who provides us not only with what we need, but graciously gives us beyond what we even ask or deserve.  This is what we call “grace.”  And the fellowship we share around the table reinforces the story of God – how we were once spiritually hungry – and God sent his Son, Jesus, to give us what we could gain for ourselves.  He satisfied us with the spiritual food of forgiveness and freedom to become the people we were intended to be from the beginning.  The food is symbolic and the celebration is a ritual that reinforces God’s grace to us in Christ.”  She left that day with many questions and lots to think about.
 
            God uses symbols to reveal himself to us.  For example, when he wanted to show us the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told his people, the Israelites, to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar.  It sounds awful.  But no worshiper ever walked away from that experience scratching his head and wondering what in the heck it was all about.  That’s because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption.  His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 
 
            Symbols have power.  God wants us to know him, and we cannot know him with only our minds.  We are not just brains on a stick.  We need more – we need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals.  We need both words and sacraments.  That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of love in giving gifts and sharing food.  Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people.  Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together.  Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of love and redemption.  Jesus did not just tell them about his upcoming death.  He spoke and acted symbolically.  “Take and eat – this is my body….  Take this cup – this is my blood – drink from it, all of you.”  The disciples did not sit around and analyze the bread and discuss the wine’s vintage.  They ate and drank.  They tasted real food and drink, but they also tasted real spiritual food.  It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.
 

 

The taste of bread reminds us of:  the life of Jesus who humbled himself and became a baby; the incarnation of Christ; Christ’s humiliation and death.  The taste of drinking the cup reminds us of:  the blood of Christ; the sacrifice of Christ; the drops of blood which Jesus sweated in Gethsemane; and, the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that resulted in Christ’s bleeding.  Tasting the bread and cup when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper reminds us that:  our sins are forgiven; we are united to Christ; and, we are united together.  We are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until he comes again.  Respond to God’s wooing invitation through his church to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through repentance and faith in Jesus.

Matthew 24:23-35

            I live in the upper Midwest of the United States.  The summers can be brutally hot and humid.  The winters can be incredibly frigid and full of snow.  Having worked with college students for many years, every Fall there was always one of those international students, or a student from the South, that had never experienced a Midwest winter and snow.  I could tell them over and over again that they needed a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies.  But, having never known sub-freezing, let alone sub-zero, temperatures it was difficult to imagine such cold when the weather was currently so warm.  Well, you know where this is going.  I, or someone else, usually had to hook them up with a suitable coat.  Even then, they just shook all winter and never took their scarves off.
 
            It might be difficult to imagine that someday Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead.  That’s why Jesus told his disciples to learn a lesson from the fig tree.  When you see the tree beginning to change, know that something is about to happen.  The tree will become altogether different than how you see it now.  Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through so many hard winters, it is incredible to know that the landscape as it is right now will be completely different come January.
 
            The sky and the earth won’t last forever.  But Christ’s words will endure for all time.  It’s hard to believe that seeing everything as it is right now is not how it is going to be forever.  Yet, a time is coming when it will change.  And if we are attentive and alert we will be ready.  We won’t be left out in the cold with no warm winter coat.  We are to be ready for Christ’s return.  That means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate, and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit.  Winter is nearly here.  Are you ready?
 

 

            Holy God, your promises are sure and altogether just.  Help me to always do your will and follow the ways of Jesus so that I am suitably prepared for eternity.  Amen.

How Has Jesus Touched You?

 
 
Touch is one of those things that we likely take for granted.  Yet, touch is very important to everyday life.  Several years ago, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book entitled “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.”  It is largely a biography of Dr. Brand who pioneered both the diagnosis and prognosis of leprosy.  He discovered that leprosy occurs because of a lack of feeling – an inability to sense touch.  The delicate nerve endings we all have in our fingers and toes are numb to the leper.  The lack of sensing pain in the extremities leads to small cuts or injuries, which would be immediately treated by someone who feels pain, becoming gangrene with the losing of fingers and toes.
 
            When it comes to the spiritual and the emotional, the ability to feel is vitally important.  A calloused unfeeling heart and soul does not realize the damage that is being done to it.  One of the greatest gifts we have as people is the ability to feel guilt, sorrow, disappointment, and pain – it is actually a gift.  It brings about attention to prayer and addressing the situation.  In Luke’s Gospel account, Elizabeth was a godly woman who was sensitive to God.  She was the wife of Zechariah the priest, and came from a family of priests.  Elizabeth was also old and childless.  She believed her opportunity to be a mother was gone forever, and it pained her (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45).
 
            But God specializes in the impossible, and Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.  My wife and I are definitely past the child bearing years.  If my wife became pregnant right now it would really be a miracle.  But, when I think about it, the real miracle might not be a conception but in having the strength and energy to raise a newborn, a toddler, and make it through the tweener and teen-age years!
 
            Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the niece of Elizabeth.  As soon as Mary approached Elizabeth, the baby within Elizabeth did not just move but leaped in her womb (Luke 1:41).  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit – she felt the touch of Jesus.  Jesus touched Elizabeth’s life in ways she could never have dreamed.  Jesus changed her life.  Elizabeth was never the same after encountering this miraculous touch.  She knew great joy because she first knew great pain and sorrow.
 
            How has the touch of Jesus impacted your life?  As great as Elizabeth’s story is, and your story and my story, it really only points to a much larger and even more significant story:  the birth of Jesus and its significance.  All of our stories have meaning because of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is what made Elizabeth’s story such a great one.  Elizabeth’s response to being touched by Jesus was joy, thanksgiving, and blessing.  She blessed the whole thing.  To be “blessed” is to have God’s stamp of approval on your life.  There is an emotional component to the word.  It is to be happy.  In other words, to recognize God’s grace and goodness through his merciful approval results in the response of being happy and joyous.
 

 

            How has Jesus touched you?  What is your story?  How has that touch changed your life?  How, in response, have you touched Jesus and blessed his heart?  All of our stories are still being written.  Our lives aren’t over yet.  We still have the opportunity of using our lives in a way that will bless the heart of Jesus.  Having the courage and boldness to share our story with another, even in a church setting, has the possibility of not only affirming your own faith, but impacting someone else’s faith, as well.  May we believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished in us.