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.