Monthly Archives: December 2014

Gifts for the Christ-Child…A Christmas Eve Meditation

 

Christmas is the season for giving.   We all share memories of the joy of giving and receiving gifts.    I’m sure many of us have explored the gifts under the tree and maybe shook one or two of them to see if we could figure out what our gift might be?   Many of us have also probably been asked:  “What do you want for Christmas?    

          But have you ever wondered how Jesus would answer the question?    What does Jesus want for Christmas?   What gifts would Jesus want us to bring him for his birthday?

            Before Jesus’ birth, God required from two ordinary people, like you and I,  very similar gifts—-and that was the gift of their “self.”   Those two ordinary people were Mary, a simple peasant girl from Nazareth,  and Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth to whom Mary was betrothed.

Mary  was chosen to be the mother of the savior-child and it was within the gift of her body that human flesh grew together with the divine spark to create the infant Messiah—Jesus.

Joseph also was asked to give himself—his identity as a descendant of David.   His family name and his fatherly protection were the gifts of the self that Joseph bestowed on the baby Jesus.  

And You and I?   What gifts do we bring?  Sometimes we feel we don’t have much to give.   Let me remind you of two previous gifts.   One is found in the Christmas song we listen to—The Little Drummer Boy,   who sings that he has no gift to give the Christ-child,  but he will play his drum for him.    Another example is found in this true story from Russia written in 1994 by an American missionary couple after the fall of the Soviet Union.   It tells of a visit to a Russian orphanage:

At the orphanage the team of missionaries told the traditional story of Christmas to the children who had been abandoned, abused, and left in care of the government-run program at the orphanage.   It was the first time the children, and many of the staff, had heard the Christmas story and they sat in amazement at hearing it told. The missionaries wrote:   “We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and finding no room in the inn they went to a stable where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger.   Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me.  No colored papers were available in the city.   Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw.   Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown, were used for the baby’s blanket.  A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.  The orphans were busily assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed help.   All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat—he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project.   As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger!

            Quickly I called for the translator to ask Misha why there were two babies in the manger.   Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the Christmas story very seriously.   For such a young boy, who had heard the story only once, he related the happenings very accurately until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.  Then Misha started to ad lib.   He made up his own ending to the story as he said:   “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay.   I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay.   Then Jesus told me I could stay with him.   But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did.  But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much that I thought and thought and decided that maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.  So I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?’  And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’   So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him—for always!”

 The gift that Misha gave—-himself, is the gift that Jesus continues to ask for   from each of us every year—-the gift of ourselves dedicated to serving God through love for God and for our neighbor.        

   Just as God gave his very being at Christmas—Emmanuel, God with us—-we are asked to do the same—-we are asked to give ourselves to the Christ child, to give our heart and very being to the Christ in proclaiming God’s kingdom on earth! 

            We aren’t asked to just attend church more regularly, or volunteer for more committees, or promise more money, time, obedience, piety or praise to Jesus.   JESUS WANTS YOU!!     And he wants you tonight, tomorrow, and all through the year.     

            While we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child tonight—it is the rest of his life that brought the saving love of God into a world so much in need of it then and now.   And it is the rest of his life, his death, and his resurrection that brings to us the saving love of God throughout the year.

            That’s why when we remember his birth, we also remember his death and resurrection.   That is why we close this Christmas Eve service by participating with him in the Lord’s Supper…. 

WORDS OF INSTITUTION:  

            We remember that on the last night of his life as a human being on earth, he met with his disciples and friends and gave them something to remember him by when he would no longer be physically present with them.

He took a loaf of bread, and after giving thanks, he gave it to his disciples and said:  “Take, eat.   This is my body broken for you.   Do this in remembrance of me.”

And he took a cup after supper, and when he had given thanks for it, he gave it to them and said:   “Drink of it, each of you.    This is my blood, the blood of a new covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.”

Come—eat, and  drink with  Jesus  your Lord.   All who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, are invited to this meal…….

BRING YOURSELF TO THIS MEAL—IT IS THE GREATEST GIFT YOU CAN BRING TO JESUS THE CIRST.   Amen.

 

The Candles of Advent—Love

 

“Do We Really Want This Baby?

Text:  Luke 1:26-38

            Do We Really Want this Baby??    Due to the invention of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion, that is a question often asked in our country these days.   Our discussions about abortion often generate a lot more heat than they do light on the subject.   Listening to the arguments, that can be vicious on either side of the question, you would think that in the U.S. children are very important!!

            I’m not saying that children are not important.  I am saying that sometimes we have mixed emotions in the United States as well as the rest of the world about children.

            On the one hand, we have couples who spend thousands of dollars at fertility clinics trying to have a child.  On the other hand, we have couples who want to abort their prospective children if they are the wrong sex, have some physical disability, or if they think they are “not ready yet.”   So what do we really think about having children.    In truth, when we look at it statistically in the U.S., Germany, and Japan we see a we see a baby bust, not a baby boom.   People are having fewer and fewer babies.   In the U.S., the total birth rate has dropped from 3.2 children per woman in 1920 to 2.1 children today.   In Europe, the birth rate is even more changed—from 2.8 children to 1.5 over the period of 1970 to 2000.  WHY?  Lots of “experts” give lots of reasons that vary from:

The cost of children in the U.S.—that exceeds $200,000 per child, not including college.

The fact that we have good retirement insurance and don’t need children to take care of us in our old age.

The shift from an agricultural/non-industrial culture which needed lots of children to help do the work and keep the family alive, to a technical/industrial culture which needs less children.

A world dominated by terrorism threats causes parents to hesitate to bring children into such a world.

Whatever the reason might be, these statistics raise the question as to whether we as a nation are less welcoming to children, less willing to bring them into the world than we once were.   

“Do we really want this baby?”   the sermon title asks.   That is a question that Mary might well have asked as we look at our text this morning.  In that text we heard how the angel Gabriel visited a young peasant woman named Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter in her hometown of Nazareth.

            We often don’t realize how alarming what the angel said to Mary must have been to her!    “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

            That wasn’t necessarily good news to a young woman getting ready for her wedding night to find out that she was going to be pregnant although she had not yet been with her husband Joseph.  !    Her first question was:   “How can this be?”   It might well have been  “What am I supposed to tell Joseph?”

            In  first century Jewish culture what she had just learned would be seen by her religious neighbors as adultery and was grounds for stoning and not just grounds for divorce or breaking the engagement!   An engagement or betrothal was as binding as marriage.   Mary’s life was endangered by this news!

            Mary questioned the news saying:  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” and the angel answered her:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the son of God.”   WOW!!  And the angel told her that the child’s name would be “Jesus”—the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Joshua” that means “He will save” in the Hebrew.   WOW!!!

            Mary could have said:  “No way, Gabriel!   I’m not going to touch this baby thing with a 10 foot pole!   Way too much at risk here—my marriage, my very life is at risk.   Sorry—find someone else.  I don’t need this kind of a burden at this time of my life!

            What Mary said was“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word!”  In other words:  “Yes, Gabriel, I want this baby if that is God’s will for me!”

The same question comes to us this Advent Season as we read the announcement of the angel Gabriel– The question is:  Do we really want this baby Jesus? Are we really ready to birth and cradle this Christ child in our own lives?   Are we really ready to welcome the adult Jesus that he will grow into as a part of our world today?    Are we??

            Or are we more inclined upon hearing the claims and risks involved with accepting this Jesus into our world to hit the road and get outta town?   Because when we birth and cradle this Christ Child in our lives we will find that this baby grew up and that the Christ will challenges us to be transformed as a member of God’s kingdom on earth that he came to proclaim.  He will challenge us to also reach out our arms to others who will need our love and and the God of love that Christ proclaimed  in their lives.  And that might be inconvenient!   That might be risky!   That might we dangerous!  That might make demands on us we don’t want to meet!

            You see, if we truly welcome this Christ into our lives, our lives are going to be changed in a significant and total way, just as Mary’s life was changed significantly and totally!  

            It is significant that Mary said “yes” to the angel and to God and was willing to risk her reputation, her marriage, her very life, in order for the Son of God to enter the world.   She didn’t worry about her engagement, her social standing, her health, or her long-term financial security.   She didn’t spend a minute thinking about retirement benefits or whether she could use a child to take care of her in her old age.   Instead she said “yes” to a baby who would grow up to be called Jesus of Nazareth, and be called the Son of God who would proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom and rule had entered the world and who would reveal God to us in a new and wonderful way as a God of love.   Are we receptive to this rule of God in our lives?   Are we hearing the call of God through Jesus to be transformed?   Are we willing to embrace the Christ Child and the man, Jesus of Nazareth and allow his proclamation and his teachings and his example to make a difference in our lives?

            If we say “yes” to these questions,  we’ll find ourselves changed.   If our lives are not changed by saying “yes” then we really haven’t said it with honesty.   Because if we say “yes” then we will become a person who has Christ at the very center of who we are, just as Mary received the life of Jesus into the deepest and most intimate part of herself.   We’ll turn into a person who can say along with Mary:   “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your will!!   Are we willing to say that?

What we are talking about in this sermon is the word that we don’t find in the Bible but that the church invented to describe the mystery of Jesus’ birth—-INCARNATION.    John’s gospel tries to describe it as “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The prophet Isaiah spoke of the word as “Immanuel”—God with us.”     The incarnation means that our God, who stands outside of time—who is infinite (without ending)—-becomes finite (ending).   The God who is all powerful becomes all-vulnerable.   The God who brought the world into being now is born of Mary’s womb to bear the good news of God’s love for the world.  

This is the gift of Christmas—the gift of God’s love for the world that came as a flesh and blood baby—Jesus.    This Jesus was not some glow-in-the-dark-Christ- Child        Jesus, the very God incarnate, was a real, live, ordinary, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating, wetting baby.   And just as with all babies, his greatest need was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, soothed by human words of love and reassurance.              

He in turn, as we was brought up with love by Joseph and Mary, would reach out in love and show us that God was a God of love.   That God cares for us.   That God is with us at all times.   And that challenges us, because as God seeks us through the incarnation, God’s love demands that we answer this question:   DO WE WANT THIS JESUS IN OUR LIVES?

            If we do, we will be forever changed, just as Mary was forever changed—-and we, in turn, will reach out to others,   not just in this season of advent, but in all seasons, saying:   “HERE WE ARE, SERVANTS OF THE LORD.   LET IT BE ACCORDING TO YOUR WILL!    ARE WE WILLING TO DO THAT?

            Let me close with a story that took place during World War II:   

            A soldier was concluding sentry duty on Christmas morning outside London.  It had been his custom in other years to attend worship in his home church on Christmas Day, but here in the outlying areas of London it was not possible.   And so, with some of his buddies, the soldier walked down the road that led into the city just as dawn was breaking.    Soon the soldiers came upon an old greystone building over whose entrance was carved the words:   “Queen Anne’s Orphanage.”   They decided to check and see what kind of celebration was taking place inside.   In response to their knock, a matron came and explained that the children were war orphans whose parents had been killed in the London bombings.

            The soldiers went inside just as the children were tumbling out of their beds.   There was no Christmas Tree in the corner and no presents.   The soldiers moved around the room, wishing the children a Merry Christmas and giving as gifts whatever they had in their pockets; a stick of gum, a Life Saver, a nickel or a dime, a pencil, a knife, a good luck charm.   The soldier noticed a little fellow standing alone in the corner.   He looked a lot like his own nephew back home, so he approached and asked,  And you, little guy, what do you want for Christmas?   The boy replied,  “Will you hold me?”   The soldier, with tears in his eyes, picked up the boy, nestled him in his arms and held him close.” 

That’s what Emmanuel, God with us, means.   .  That’s what Jesus taught us:  God does not keep us at arms length, but reaches out lovingly to us and hold us as the soldier held the little boy.  

            IF CHRIST IS BORN IN US THIS CHRISTMAS, WE TOO WILL REACH OUT WITH OPEN AND LOVING ARMS TO THOSE IN NEED—WE TOO WILL HAVE A HANDS-ON LOVING RELATIONSHIP WITH ALL AROUND US.   WE WILL SHOW BY OUR CHANGED LIVES THAT WE REALLY DO WANT THIS BABY JESUS!   Amen.

          Today we light the 4th Candle of Advent—the Candle of Love. And the birth of Jesus tells us:    IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE!!    God so loved the world that he sent his only Son!    Jesus—that Son, told us that all the law and commandments and the prophets were summed up in this simple yet profound statement—-“You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength—-and your neighbor as yourself!”   

Jesus  didn’t say just at Christmas time!    He didn’t put any limits on how much or how often!   And when he said “love”  he said  “love as I have loved you!”    Amen.

The Candles of Advent….Joy

 

Text:  I Thessalonians 5:16-24

            Each of the Candles we light during this Advent season signify something.  The first candle was the candle of Hope, the second, the candle of Peace, the third is the candle of Joy, and the fourth is the candle of Love.

            This Sunday’s candle is the candle of Joy and that is what this message is all about!

JOY….   Something that is often missing in our congregations and in our individual daily lives.  I’m not talking about a belly-full of “Ho!Ho!Ho’s” here—-I’m not just talking about a lot of good-will toward everyone.   I’m not talking about just feeling good—I’m talking about an experience that goes down deep into the very foundation of our lives—the rejoicing and the Joy that we feel when we truly understand the Good News of the Gospel and how it applies to our lives.   This is the rejoicing and joy that Paul talks about in our text for the day and recommends to the Thessalonian Christians.

            This is the Joy that we can have when we shed all our super-sophistication, our skepticism, our “coolness” and we return to look at this Advent season through the eyes of a child and see its wonder and its mystery.    For some of us it has been awhile since we were children—but try and remember the awe that you felt as you listened to the Christmas Story—the birth of Jesus—Immanuel—God coming to us in human form so that God’s Self could be revealed more fully to us

            We need to listen to this story of the birth of the Christ child during the Advent Season each year and see and hear it again with the eyes and ears of children.   Try to remember what it was like to hear the story as a child as I read it again to you….

Luke 2:8-20    “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.   Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.   But the angel said to them,  ‘Do not be afraid:   for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.   To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.   This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.   And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

            When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another:   ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place’….So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.   When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them….The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them!.

This is a story of awe—it is a story of rejoicing, and “Great Joy—-it is a story of thanksgiving—-and of praise to God for his gift to the world.   And Advent should be such a time of Joy and rejoicing for all Christians, now even as it was for the shepherds.        

Joy is what our text for today is about—Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica and before he “signs off” he gives them some advice:   He says:  “Rejoice  always!” and he gives them the recipe for having that Joy—-he says “Pray without ceasing”  and “give thanks in all circumstances.” 

            This same advice is given to the Philippian church by Paul when he writes to them:   Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!   Let your genteleness be known to everyone.   The Lord is near.   Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.   And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:4-7)

Plainly spoken, Paul says:  be anxious about nothing; be prayerful in everything; be thankful for anything—-and God’s peace will settle over your hearts and minds!

            You see—if we are anxious, it means that we, in reality, do not trust God!   If we live a life of prayer it means that we are listening to what God speaks to us as well as telling God what he already knows (which we too often restrict ourselves to doing).    If we are thankful for everything, then we recognize the blessings we already have and are not constantly striving for more.   All of these things reduce our stress and give us a peace and Joy that fills our lives.   Because we can’t be stressed out by this season and rejoice.    It just doesn’t work that way, does it?  Remember the angel announcement was not:  “Stress to the World, the Lord has come.”  It was not:  “Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great stress—which shall be to all people.   Instead the angel’s message was    “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…” 

It is only a couple of weeks until Christmas!   How does that strike you?   Does it give you a feeling of peace  and goodwill and Joy—-or are your feelings ones of anxiety, desperation,  depression and even panic?   Especially this Christmas when there are so many problems that seem to threaten, are you feeling any of that “Peace”  and “Joy” that Paul was talking about?   Are you experiencing the Joy that the angels sang about?

In the middle of our stressful lives God wants us to experience joy.  He wants us to know that he favors us, that he treasures us, and that he will not fail us.  He sent Jesus to remind us that he with us always, in the very center of the pains and problems of human life.   God offers us this gift of Joy.  —-That’s the Good News!   That’s the News that brings Joy and awe and wonder to our hearts anew every time we hear it!    What is this Good News? It is that God has entered the world in human form of Jesus of Nazareth and has shown the world who God is—-has shown God’s love through the love of Jesus—-has shown that God cares for each and every one of us. Has shown that God’s reign has begun in the world and that we are a part of that Kingdom of God that will have no end.   That is our cause for Joy!

It is the joy that comes from opening our hearts to the continuing  presence of Christ in our lives. 

It is the joy that comes from the awareness of God blessing us each and every day?

It is the joy that comes from entrusting ourselves to God’s care each and every day

This Christmas, let us celebrate that Joy—as we approach the gift of God in the form of  the Christ Child may we see this gift with the eyes and ears and imagination of children—- the children of God that Jesus taught us we are when he said—“let the little children come to me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God”.   When we do so our heart will be filled  with Joy.

 

 

The Candles of Advent—Peace

 

Text:    Philippians 4;4-7

Theme:  Only when we are “anxious in nothing, prayerful in everything, thankful in much” does the “peace of God” settle over our hearts and minds.

            A lot of people like to wander through antique and collectible stores.  My wife loved to do that and therefore I spent a lot of time in antique stores.  There was a certain feeling of nostalgia, I’ll admit,  as I saw things that I remembered when I was young and recognized  them as familiar.    It sort of made me long for the “good old days” when life seemed simpler and better.   One of the things I often saw was an old kerosene lantern.  It made me think of the days when my Dad and I would light the lantern early in the morning and follow its glow to the barn, hang it on a post in the barn, and get to work on milking the cows.    It made me long for those days!   I treasured those times with my Dad.  Many people look back on their lives with longing, feeling that something precious has been lost or taken from them.   They want a missing treasure restored!  

            But what I lost cannot be restored by a visit to an antique store or by the purchase of an old lantern, can it?     As we struggle through our daily lives, we often stumble and fall, hurt ourselves and others, crash into obstacles and leave a trail of debris behind us.   We long many times for a lantern that will light our path, a beacon to guide us and lead us home.    And so we light a candle—an advent candle.   This is done on the first Sunday of the Advent season, and again on the second, third and fourth Sunday.  

            Each Sunday we light another candle and say,  “Restore us, O God”.   Restore our hope.   Restore our peace.   Restore our joy.   Restore your love.

            Last week we focused on the restoration of hope that we find in a relationship with God.   Today we will focus on the restoration of Peace. 

            When I say “Peace” I am not talking about peace as the absence of conflict.   During Jesus time on earth the word “peace” was often linked to Rome.   The time is referred to by historians as the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace.   This was a peace that was kept by the power of the sword of the Roman Army.   While there was an absence of conflict it was because of the overwhelming force of the Roman armies scattered throughout the world to keep the peace by the sword.

            The “Peace” I am referring to is the “Pax Christos”—the peace of Christ.   It is the Peace that comes not by the power of the sword but by the power of Love. 

            It is the “Peace” is reflected in the Hebrew word for “Peace” which is “Shalom”.    English translations often translate “shalom” as “peace”, but in reality the meaning of the word is much more complex.   As Sharon Watkins says in her book  Whole: A Call to unity in a Fractured World ,  Shalom “comes from a root word that means “whole”, as in “complete” or “safe”, either personally or within society.   Shalom does not indicate a passive harmony or mere absence of conflict, as the word “peace” sometimes does.   Shalom evokes a situation that is actively good, where the circumstances offer opportunities for inidividuals and communities to flourish….A good translation for “shalom” is “wholeness”.   (p. 48)            

            Many people in our world long for this kind of shalom peace and wholeness in their lives.   They feel an emptiness that remains deep within them.    Only God can fill this emptiness.   Long ago Augustine of Hippo, one of the great leaders of the early church, expressed it this way in his writing called “The Confessions”:   “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you!”  

            And so God’s peace will escape us until our restless hearts begin to rest in God.   This peace will come as a gift from God,  who  is the source of shalom or wholeness that we seek!    Paul writes of this shalom Peace in his letter to the church he founded at Philippi.    And he gives a way that we can to seek that peace.  Listen to what he writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.   Let your gentleness be known to everyone.   The Lord is near.   Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.   And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.   (Philippians 4:4-7)

A more literal translation of this that gets right to the point is:  “Be anxious in nothing, prayerful in everything, thankful in anything…then the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”   

            Let’s look more closely at this way of attaining God’s peace in our lives.  

First,  Be Anxious in Nothing:

            Frances Willard, the great temperance movement leader, once remarked that “anxiety is atheistic”!    What she was saying is that to be constantly anxious suggests that somehow we don’t trust God. 

            Some of us may remember our teenagers coming in just seconds before they were due home and finding us up and waiting for them.   They’d ask:  “What’s wrong, don’t you trust me?”

            What we don’t trust, what makes us anxious, whether it be our teenager’s curfew, our spouse’s health, or our own career—is when we feel we no longer have complete control over the situations we are facing.   No matter how many precautions we might take, or how well we think we have fortified ourselves against sneak attacks, down deep in our hearts we know that the much of the influences on our lives are out of our control.   Kids grow upillnesses attack without warningcompanies down-scale and lay off workers, an economy goes sourLife happens and we can’t control it!

            But if we let our anxieties over these uncontrollable factors in our lives rule us, we will never experience the “peace” of God.   If we can’t trust God to be in control of our lives regardless of what happens, then we will always be anxious.   That’s why we need to trust God and be anxious in nothing because God is God:  today, tomorrow, and always.  God will be there for us, no matter what happens.   We must trust in that to have “Shalom Peace”

 

Secondly, “Be Prayerful in Everything”  Paul advises.   

            The reason we can “be anxious in nothing”  and rejoice in God, is that God is powerfully present for us in prayer, always.    Paul recognizes that a good percentage of our prayers are more correctly “supplications” and “requests”.   Sometimes when we are spiritually strong our souls turn toward God and seek nothing but God’s presence—-but most of the time we approach God on our knees  (if not literally, figuratively) and come to God as supplicants who are admitting our own inadequacies and recognizing God as the source of our wholeness and strength.   Often our specific requests must seem childish and simple to God—-like the cartoon of two little boys who in early September donned all their mittens, coats and hats, perched themselves on their sled on the top of a hill and requested of God, “We’re ready….let ‘er rip!”    But other times our supplications and requests are deeply serious as we cry out…  “Help me!”   “Heal her!”   “Hear me!”   “Please, God, help me get through this!”

            Jesus told us that God wants our prayers and supplications and requests.  God wants to be vitally present in our lives and prayer is the way God can do that!    No wonder Paul advised his churches to “Pray without ceasing!”

 

Third, Be Thankful in All Things!

            Being thankful for all things does not mean putting on an “act” of being cheery come what may!   But being thankful in anything does mean believing that the guiding hand of God is constantly present in our lives.   It means our awareness that we are never “abandoned children” and that the love of God through Christ remains steadfastly by our side no matter what we face.  

            That is the reason we can be thankful in anything.   Our thankfulness is not a matter of “surface smiles” but is based in the confidence that whatever comes our way, God is there for us and will give us strength and wisdom to cope with our lives. 

If we truly practice the above three admonitions, then the “peace of God which passes understanding” that Paul writes of is ours.   God will guard our hearts and our minds and will give us Joy in Living.   And we’ll talk about that “Joy” next week as “Joy” is the Third Candle of Advent.

Let me close with a story that touched my heart when I read it and revealed how we find peace with God:

This story dates back to 1994—that was the year my wife and I visited our daughter Lisa and son-in-law Brian in Novisibursk, Siberia, in Russia.   They were there at the invitation of the Russian Department of Education to teach teachers how to teach morals and ethics to their students.   Another team in a different place for the same purpose told this story about a visit to a Russian orphanage: 

At the orphanage the team told the traditional story of Christmas to the children who had been abandoned, abused, and left in care of the government-run program at the orphanage.  It was the first time the children, and many of the staff had heard the Christmas story and they sat in amazement at hearing it told.

            The writers wrote:  “We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, and finding no room in the inn they went to a stable where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger.   Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger.   Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me.   No colored papers was available in the city.   Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw.   Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket.   A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States. 

            The orphans were busily assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help.   All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat—he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project.   As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger!

            Quickly I called for the translator to ask Misha why there were two babies in the manger.   Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the Christmas story very seriously.   For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he related the happenings very accurately until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.Then Misha started to ad lib.   He made up his own ending to the story as he said:  “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay.  I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay.   Then Jesus told me I could stay with him.   But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did.   But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much that I thought and thought and decided that maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.   So I asked Jesus,  “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?”  And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.”   So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him—for always!”

            As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears.   The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him—for always. 

We call Jesus by the name “IMMANUEL”, which means “GOD WITH US”.   In this Advent season we need to discover, like the orphan Misha, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abandon or abuse us, but will stay with us—for always

God will be with us:

When the cancer biopsy comes back positive, instead of negative.

 When the final exam is marked with an “F” rather than an “A”.

When the spouse of 15 years stomps out the door and doesn’t return.

When the dream of success in business is once again downsized and diminished.

When the late-night long-distance call communicates a death, not a birth.

When the longing for family harmony is shattered by a shouting match.

When the desire for companionship is drained by another lonely holiday season.

 

And we will have the “Shalom” Peace that we seek.  It is ours, a free gift from a loving God as we:

Are anxious in nothing!

Are prayerful in everything!

Are thankful for all things!

 

Amen!!!

 

           

 

 

 

 

The Candles of Advent

 

It is a practice in many churches to celebrate the Season of Advent—a season when we look forward to the coming of the Christ Child— by lighting a candle each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas.   Each candle helps us remember something as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve, when we light the Christ Candle remembering the birth of Jesus the Christ.   The first candle is a candle of “Hope”; the second a candle of “Peace”; the third a candle of “Joy” and the fourth is a candle of “Love.”

My posts for this month are built around an exposition of the meaning of each of these candles for our lives and the life of our churches.    I hope you will join me as we discuss each of the candles the next four weeks.

RESTORE US, O GOD:   Hope

Text:  Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19

Theme:   God’s strength meets us in the midst of our weakness and gives us hope.   That is the message of Advent.

 

Despite all the modern day electronic communication technology today there is something missing in the lives of many people.  That is that in the midst of all of this electronic communication people feel very alone.      What is missing is  real “heart to heart” talks where we see the person we are communicating with, not on a screen we are “skyping” on;  but we are missing the ability to reach out and touch each other  and reassure and express your concern for them with a hug.  We are missing  the messages we can read in their eyes and the vocal nuances that help us look into our hearts and share with in a way that all the electronic media in the world does not allow us to share.  In a nutshell—-we are missing having a relationship with each other “face to face” as we have what the French call a “tete a tete—-head to head communication.

That is the way we can have the hope that the Psalmist is crying out for in our text today.  Through our relationship with God.   Only as we place our lives in a personal relationship with God can we have hope for God’s strength in the times of our weakness.

Listen to some of his words: 

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.   Then we will never turn back from you; 

Give us life and we will call on your name!

 

Do you catch all the references to a “Face-to-Face” relationship with God that is desired by the Psalmist?     In that face to face relationship with God the Psalmist seeks and finds the strength of God in times of trouble.

This Psalm lays bare our need for God’s intervention in our lives and for a personal relationship with God.   The writer is not asking for a message of assurance.  This Psalm was probably written during the period of the Babylonian Exile and  he speaks for a people without hope– A people that fear they are being utterly consumed and lost—A people that feel alienated and alone.   The psalmist speaks of a need for hope in God’s favor, strength and love  because without hope, the people are not only not delivered from Exile, but are doomed to hopeless despair.

This Psalm then is a cry for relationship, for personal interaction, for “face time” with God!!

I believe the prayer of the Psalmist echoes the hopeful yearning of  people today.   “Let your face shine that we may be savedis the call of people today who are surrounded by technology but are still lonely for meaningful communication and relationship. It is the  hope  today we have as we seek to find strength for our trials in personal relationships with other people and the hope for a strength that we can find only in God.    It is the cry of people who may receive hundreds of texts every day on their smart phones but who still feel unheard and trapped by forces in their lives they cannot control.    It is the hope in the human heart which does not want simply to be told of love but needs to experience that love personally—from others and from our God.

Thus the  prayer of the Psalmist for God’s strength is echoed in different circumstances today by many people who feel that   are overcome by the stresses in their world and are losing or have lost all hope. 

Sometimes we may feel like we are “hitting the wall”  and spinning out of control.

We may face unemployment with the resulting loss of faith in ourselves and feel that future employment is hopeless.

We may  feel like the economy over which they seem to have no control, is eating us alive.

We may be faced with terminal illness for ourselves or a loved one.

We may be grieving the loss of a loved one.

All of these may cause us to feel hopeless.   But the message of the psalmist  is that we can find hope in all these things in our personal relationship with a God who loves us and cares for us, if we will open ourselves to His love and care.

One thing that I have experienced in my life is that we must face our losses and our helplessness, as the psalmist is doing, before we are able to seek God to restore us.  We must recognize that we cannot do it on our own.   We must come to the point where we see that we  have no hope by simply using only the resources that we have—-that they will not see us through—-then we are able to open ourselves to God and let God’s strength and love come to our rescue.    As Paul says in Romans 8:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  God’s strength then meets us in the midst of our weakness and gives us the hope that we so desperately need.   That is the message of  this candle of Advent.

A candle is made to give light, and the light of God’s love that the Psalmist proclaimed long before is portrayed again in the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.   He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.   The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. 

Hope is found in the “shining face of God” today as it was for the psalmist.   It is the hope we find as we experience a relationship with God.    The light of the knowledge and love of God that Jesus brought into the world is the source of the hope that still shines in our darkness and the darkness has not been able to overcome it. 

The question for us is—-where do we see and experience God’s face shining today?   The good news for this dark time is that the light of hope   continues to shine in the darkness of our world today.      The darkness cannot overcome God’s light of hope.   God’s face will shine and reflect God’s mercy and forgiveness for a world “hitting the wall and out of control.”   That is the hope expressed by the candle of Hope this week.

The answer to the plea of the Psalmist in Psalm 80 and the answer to our plea today is a resounding “YES”!!   GOD SAYS:

Yes, I will give ear to your cry.  I hear you!  

Yes, I will come and give you the strength you need because I love you.

Yes, I will restore our relationship that has been fractured by your faithlessness.

Yes, my hand of love and strength will be upon you.

Yes, you have hope because I am there for you whatever happens to you.

This is the promise of advent—-that God’s strength will meet us in the midst of our weakness.   There is no place too dismal, no sin too bad, no transgression too terrible to separate us from the love of God who now comes to us through Jesus the Christ.  That is what gives us Hope to face today and tomorrow and the future.

We need to open our heart, our soul, our mind, to the God who is our hope—-in a personal and tangible way.  God sends the  message of hope for us, not  in a text, not by a star in the sky. He sent it through Jesus the Christ, and  it is the message that God wants to reach out to us in a personal and mutually loving relationship. so that His face can shine upon us and give us His strength to overcome our weaknesses.   That is the message of Hope we have if we will open our lives to his transforming love and presence.   Amen.