>"New King. New Year. New Directions." — Sermon for 2 January 2011

>Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...Image via WikipediaText:  Matthew 2:1-12
Title:  “New King.  New Year.  New Directions.”

Welcome to the 9th of the 12 days of Christmas.  If you have not yet received your “Nine Ladies Dancing” I’m sure they’re arriving later.

And while it may just be the 9th day of the 12, it’s amazing how fast things change.

I dropped Samuel off at the Ice Cream Shop yesterday for work and Bud and Carol were there early, taking down the ornaments that had hung from the ceiling since about Thanksgiving.  They were putting away their Christmas music for the year, which means that those who work there revert back to their old playlist for the hours they’re serving customers.

At a New Years Eve party we stopped at the night before, a Christmas tree made it onto the bonfire.  It’s amazing how fast those things burn.  But the smell of burning spruce was a nice change from the smell of all of those fireworks going off all around us that night.

Even today after worship we’ll have folks stay and help pack up our Christmas items for the year and start figuring out what this place looks like and feels like when it’s decorated for our weekly worship.

It can seem like Christ has come…and gone.  The decorations change.  The stories change.  The calendar changes.  People come up with lists of things they want to accomplish in the new year…resolutions, if you will.  And we reflect on what has happened over the past year…the joys…the pain…the things we learned…the things we experienced.  The things that shaped us and moved us and defined us.

But when we have moved on from that sweet little baby Jesus, we may have an empty manger, but we have an occupied throne.  We have looked forward to his coming to save us from our sins and now we settle into the reality that we have a new king to not only rule the world but rule the hearts of those of us in this world of ours. 

Part of the message of Christmas is there’s a new ruler in town, a new sheriff, one who seeks a response of faith and faithfulness from those who celebrate his coming.

Our magi give testimony to this.  The Common English Bible, a new translation, puts it this way:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.  They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.  He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”

There is a new king in town, say these magi.  The stars have revealed that to them.

Now, it is important to remember a couple of things about these magi.  First, Christmas may have been 8 days ago in our calendar, but it’s been a couple of years in the Biblical story.  We may bring wise men in with shepherds and angels and manger, but they’ve all moved on since then.  Second, they aren’t kings.  They are magi, or astrologers or court priests.  “Kings” is a mis-translation.  Third, there aren’t three of them.  That’s in the song, but not in the Bible.  There could have been many more.

The arrival of these travelers from afar is the root story of Ephiphany, which is officially celebrated on January 6th, commemorating the magi.  Ephiphany means “manifestation” and it’s in this story that the Son of God, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords is manifested, made known, revealed to the rest of the world.

This is what Isaiah foretold from of old:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
    but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (60:1-3)

And so it happens.  These rich wise guys from the east know this prophecy from Isaiah and come to Jerusalem knowing that THERE they will find the new king of the world ready to usher in an era of peace and tranquility and love enough to go around.

Someone who really doesn’t like the prospects of a new king coming to town are the old kings.  New kings are threats to existing powers.  And Herod wants to destroy his new rival.  So, he tells these magi to come back to him and tell him exactly where the child is, not so he can pay him homage but so that he can destroy him. 

The wise men find Jesus, they worship him, they give him their gifts, and, famously, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

There is a spirituality of Epiphany that comes out of this story to us.   Epiphany is about meeting Jesus in a new way.  It’s about the unexpected.  And all of what we talked about leading up to Christmas and even on Christmas day was about trying to push our way through the commercialism and the sentimentality and the busyness of the Christmas season so that through it, we might see the Christ child in a way that was deep for us.  We are surprised by so much in this life, why not be surprised by a God who pursues us so much that he’s willing to leave the side of his Father in Heaven to come down to earth.

And the hope and the prayer is that, after meeting Jesus in a new way, after being challenged, after being surprised, and excited, and moved…we will follow the magi and go home by another way…that we will turn our life in a new direction.

There is a spirituality associated with Epiphany that answers the practical, everyday, “so what” of Christmas.  It says, the Light of God has come, and I…we…will go home by another road…we’ll take a new path…preferably one that is shaped by and towards that new king we just welcomed in diapers.  It’s a prayer that maybe, THIS YEAR, Christ will make a difference in how I live my life, in what our family looks like, in how I do my job, in what responsibilities I take on or let go of.  Maybe I can go in a NEW DIRECTION this year.

In the secular world, it’s funny how this Epiphany time corresponds to the changing of our calendar.  We shoot off fireworks.  We parade down the mountain with torches.  We wear goofy hats and pop poppers. We toast.  We reflect on what the previous year held.  And we look ahead…many persons making resolutions.

  • This year I’ll finally lose 20 pounds.
  • This year I’ll get out of debt.
  • This year I’ll spend more time with my kids.
  • This year I’ll exercise every day.
  • This year I’ll read more books.

And it is true that there are many Christians who use this time of year to seek a new direction in their spiritual lives…

  • This year I’ll read through the Bible.
  • This year I’ll get up every morning and pray.
  • This year I’ll go on a mission trip.
  • This year I’ll have devotions with my family.
  • This year I’ll write every day about where I’ve seen God.

And, it true, that most of these spiritual resolutions go the same way as our less spiritual resolutions.  We may start strong…and with the best of intentions…but then slip and slide and let it go and forget about it all together.

As we, as a congregation, cross into the new year, we have a whole new space.  And it’s going to take some time to figure out how we LIVE in it and what MINISTRY looks like in this place.  “We’ve come a long way, baby”…but we still have a long way to go.  When we were sitting over there in our 30’ x 30’ building with a port-a-potty outside, it was pretty easy to let things revolve around the pastor…and let’s face it, I eat it up when it revolves around me.  I like being the center of attention.  When we tell folks we don’t have running water, we don’t have space, we have a leaky roof, there’s so much we can’t do, it’s easy to not do much and kind of justify it.

But not any more.  We may have some financial realities we’ll be working with for a long time, but we now have a lot of space.  And we have a lot of heat.  And we can dream. 

This past week I met via phone with a ministry coach down in Washington to help me pastor this place as we find our new directions together.  This coming week Sheila and I will meet with someone at our Conference office to think about how we start getting policies and practices REALLY into place to take protect our children, to work on managing our debt, to thinking about building use procedures.  And, even here on January 2nd we know that we need persons to offer their time to provide an activity during our sermons and persons to help count offering and persons to teach Sunday school and persons to finish off rooms and figure out how much it will cost, in each room to move in this direction.

There is a spirituality of Epiphany which calls us to enter this season of our life with some changes about who we are, what we do, and what’s important to us.

We have a new king.  Christ has come.

We have a new year.  We can lay aside the bad habits of last year.

And we’re called to travel in a new direction.

Will you follow the wise men and live your life and your life of faith by another road?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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>"Christmas in the Rear View Mirror" — Sermon for 26 December 2010

>Reflections in the back of a rear view mirrow...Image by Jezzebelle via FlickrText:  Matthew 2:13-23
Title:  “Christmas in the Rear View Mirror”

Waldo Beach was a rather old professor emeritus at Duke.  I never had him as a teacher but he came to the copy room to make copies regularly.  That’s where I worked.  He wrote a poem about Advent that I remember just the beginning of it at this point.  It said:

On coming to Christmas, misled, we forget
That the birth of God’s son was not lovely at all.
A stench filled the gloom of the bleak manger stall.
There was blood on the straw and a halo of sweat
Around Mary’s head.  Soon, warned they should flee
To escape Herod’s sword, by stealth in the night
The family of God was driven to flight,
As from Bethlehem’s inn outcast, refugee.

But as birth of new life is sprung out of pain,
And faith out of fear, so now once again,
If we come to the stable by way of the cross
And dismantle our spirits of tinsel and dross,
We can join with glad hearts and exuberant voice
To sing with the heavenly choir, “Rejoice!”

And it’s hard to remember how solemn and occasion Christmas really is as we’re leading up to it.  There’s all those presents to buy.  There’s phone calls to make and letters to get out.  There’s dinner parties to have and decorations to put up.  There are trees to cut down.  There are churches to get ready.  There are pageant clothes to mend. There are cookies to bake.  There’s music to listen to.  There presents to wrap. There’s mail to send out and to pick up.  There’s magic to create and children to please and traditions to uphold a Christmas ideal to maintain and a God to be praised!

It’s been a long time since I had tinsel on a tree and we don’t decorate near as much as we used to.  It just takes that much more energy to keep our family going these days.  But I understand the grandness of Christmas…its anticipation…its execution…its celebration. 

And, as we approach it, it’s all angel choirs and halos, babies in mangers, and beatific visions of shepherds in bathrobes.

There is a wonder and a mystery to it and we love getting lost in it.  If I could close my eyes I could almost stay in this place singing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” forever.  And it was beautiful on Friday night in this place.  I could almost stay there.  Almost.

But, Christmas comes and goes.  Yes, there are 12 Days of Christmas, with partridges in pear trees and ladies dancing and lords a-leaping….  Yes, we carry Christmas with us wherever we go, recognizing that the message “Joy to the World” is for all peoples…all days. 

But, December 26th comes.  The baby Jesus grows up.  His life happens.  Our life happens.

And so, with the festivities winding down, with the Christmas ham or turkey taking on its second life as soup or sandwiches, with a dump run of wrapping paper and boxes in order, we look in the rear-view mirror at the Christmas just past.

We have heard that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  But what does the coming of Jesus mean for us.

Perhaps, in order to understand that, it’s best to think about what it means for God.  CS Lewis put it something like this.

Lying at your feet is your dog.  Many of us here have dogs.  Many of us here love dogs.  I love mine. Just ask my kids.  They’re all my second favorite children.  And your dog is lying at your feet. 

Now, think for a moment, imagine if you will, that your dog is in some deep distress.  He or she is hurting.  He or she is scared…in danger.  And it’s not only your dog but every dog that is in the same bind.  It’s not important what the problem is but you know…it has been revealed to you…that if you could only get your dog to be more like people, you could help your dog and all of them.  Would you be willing to become a dog to make this happen…to teach…to show the way?   Would you be able to give up your humanity, all the things that seem to make you…you?  Your loved ones?  Your job?  Your sports?  Your hobbies?  Your music?   Would you choose, instead of intimate communion with the beloveds of your life, the poor substitute of looking at your children or spouse or friends and only be able to wag your tail…no speaking…no smiling?

Would you give all that up to save your dog?…

Years ago, when we were living in Kenai, I was out on a walk with Samuel and our dog Maggie and just as we passed a snow bank we found ourselves directly next to a large moose in the road.  We started walking away quite rapidly and I remember looking, thinking, “I love you dog, but you’re going to be the one I leave behind here.” 

Fortunately a car came by and honked and that choice didn’t need to be made.  But, as much as I talk of loving my dog, when the time came for a choice, I was going to choose my family.

In the church we understand that Christ was with the Father from the creation of the world.  We say that, with those two and the Holy Spirit, we have a model of perfect communion.  With the carols and trees and the joy we share, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that Christ gave up the most treasured thing to him… perfect communion with his Father…to become human and walk with us and, of course, to save us.

Perhaps, as we look in the rear view mirror, we can see what it is Jesus gave up to be here for us.

This makes the whole religion thing very unsafe for us Christians.  J.I. Packer said:

The divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needed to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child… The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets.

It gets staggering to us because, when we tell this story of Christmas, we can clearly see the great depths to which God is willing to sink to reach us.  We cannot trust our God to leave us alone.  Once we look over the shoulder of the shepherds and see the very son of God comforted in his mother’s arms we can know that we have a God who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of us.  The king of kings, the lord of lords, and he shall reign forever and ever–is born to us in a most underwhelming, lowly, earthbound, dirty, humble way.

Where could we possibly hide from a God who is willing to do this?  Where you think he’d be least expected, he’s fully there.  Where you think he’d be most helpless, he’s most strong. 

We are not safe from God because we have Emmanuel…God with us.  Our God has pursued us and come to us.

We may put away the ornaments.  We may take down the tree.  But our God is here.  And he won’t be put away.

All of this talk about what the coming of Jesus means is really talk about “the INCARNATION” – the enfleshment of God.  And it goes way beyond the manger scene.  The baby Jesus is cute to talk about.  We love hearing the kids sing “Away in a Manger” at the pageant.  We like to romanticize that “sweet baby Jesus no crying he makes.”  But it’s not true.  It wasn’t true on the night of his birth.  And we know that, as the days and years pass it continues to be untrue.

Even in today’s text we begin to see what that whole “Silent Night” was really about; and it’s not pretty:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

And THAT’S the PLEASANT part of the text.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

While many persons were oblivious to the INCARNATION…had no idea that God had indeed entered the world, Herod, with an assist from the magi saw that there was a threat in Bethlehem and he took matters into his own hand, killing all the children two years old and younger in the community.  But Jesus was safe.

Christmas looks different when we get past it, because, after the angels stop singing and the eggnog gets taken off the shelf, we can see a little more clearly what lies ahead.  It begins with Herod hoping to kill young Jesus.  It moves to people hoping to hear a word from him.  It carries on to broken and hurting and hungry people hoping to be healed.  We then find disciples hoping he could stay around forever and women hoping he would be declared innocent.  Hope dies.  And then lives again.

It makes Christmas look different, when we look at it in the rear-view mirror.

Some people worship gods of the heaven or gods of ideas.  Some persons put their faith in an entirely transcendent God…other worldly.  We don’t.  Our God has put on flesh to be with us, to save us.  It’s an inside job.

Barbara Lunblad wrote:

As his “body,” the church, through us, members of the body, the living Christ is always intruding, going where he is not necessarily wanted or expected, taking up space where people did not expect God to be.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus intruded into the homes of sinners. He showed up at a wedding and caused a scene. He came into places of death, where people hardly knew him, and brought forth unexpected life.

Maybe that is one reason people try to keep religion theoretical and spiritual. [But] Christianity is not a “spiritual” religion: it is an incarnational religion. It believes that God has a body, that God takes up space, that God will not remain ethereal and vague, distant and detached.

That is our God.  Incarnational in the world, involved, immersed, giving everything.

We are his church.  We must be incarnational as well…involved, immerse, giving everything.

May it be so.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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>An Advent Sonnet — A Great Poem by Waldo Beach

>Professor Beach was a Professor Emeritus at Duke Divinity School when I was there.  He wrote this poem that I will forever remember as Christmas approaches, and, now, as I look back at it.  The poem is “Advent Sonnet” and is found in his book Christmas Praise.

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On coming to Christmas, misled, we forget
That the birth of God’s son was not lovely at all.
A stench filled the gloom of the bleak manger stall.
There was blood on the straw and a halo of sweat
Around Mary’s head.  Soon, warned they should flee
To escape Herod’s sword, by stealth in the night
The family of God was driven to flight,
As from Bethlehem’s inn outcast, refugee.
But as birth of new life is sprung out of pain,
And faith out of fear, so now once again,
If we come to the stable by way of the cross
And dismantle our spirits of tinsel and dross,
We can join with glad hearts and exuberant voice
To sing with the heavenly choir, “Rejoice!”