Overwhelmed: Your world is not THE world.

overwhelmed4forworship

Have you ever run from God? Maybe not physically run – I doubt any of us believe we could actually “run” from God.

But I would bet there is at least someone in this room held in the bondage of regret for having ignored or turned down or walked away from or turned your back on something You KNEW God was calling you to do or to say or to go.

Some say hindsight is 20/20. However true this is, I say it is also a weapon we use against our own souls. How do we use hindsight against ourselves?

“If only…” I might say, or you might say. “If only…”

I had stayed in school. I hadn’t married so-and-so. I had taken that job…. I hadn’t punched that kid in 10th grade.

I don’t know what you might regret. But I’m pretty sure that if you’re old enough to follow this message this far, there’s something that has, from time to time, reared up only to drag you down.

Maybe, at least, you’ve done like Rascal Flatts and “dealt with my ghosts and I’ve faced all my demons Finally content with a past I regret”

Or maybe you’re more John Mark McMillan, who wrote

my heart turns violently inside of my chest.
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way…

That He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,

Or maybe you’re Jonah, son of Amittai. We don’t get any backstory about Jonah, except that he is Amittai’s son, and 2 Kings adds that he is from Gath-Hepher. Anyone know where Gath-hepher is? That’s what I thought. It won’t be on the quiz at the end of the sermon, but it is in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, west and a little south from the Sea of Galilee.

But we know Jonah because of his 3 night Airbnb in the belly of a great fish.

And what led him to that great stay (I wonder how he rated it?)? Jonah heard God call him to do something, and so he did what a lot of us do. He ran the other way.

Except he literally ran the other way. God told him to “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

I don’t know what city or nation you might think of as evil enough to get God’s attention, but if you clearly heard God telling you to go there and preach repentance, you might pull a Jonah.

It’s not unheard of. We tend to get kind of set in our ways. We kind of domesticate God into a supernatural power who really mostly wants us to be happy. And nice; of course, God wants us to be nice, right?

Well, God wanted Nineveh to repent! Here’s the rub: Jonah didn’t much care if Nineveh repented. (in fact, we learn later in the story that Jonah DIDN’T want God to forgive them!

In Jonah’s world, you see, there were 2 kinds of people:

  1. God’s people and;
  2. Everyone else.

God’s people deserved – well, we better say received – forgiveness and mercy and patience. God’s people knew that God was a “ a God who is compassionate and merciful,
       very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness,.”

Everyone else? Well, some of God’s people have always thought that everyone else was just doomed. They could, we suppose, come groveling to us, or to God. We think they should  become like us, one of us, and then they, too, could know the joy and comfort of being among God’s people.

Except that  God is not really looking to get more people to be “like us.” God is interested in helping other people – and us – become more like Jesus.”

But if Jonah teaches us anything, it is that this isn’t a fair reading of scriptures. First off, from the start, from God’s call to Abraham, God’s people are called to be God’s people to be a blessing to everyone else.

Second, if we read the Bible as though it mostly says “God’s people are in and whoever isn’t God’s people are out,” we kinda have to ignore Jonah, and, honestly, Jesus.

And we don’t want to find ourselves ignoring Jesus, or having to admit that we have read Jesus into this this little box where he approves of us and not of everyone else.

We don’t want to find ourselves like Jonah; thinking we have God and the world figured out. Because typically, if we think we have God and the world figured out, we are in for a rude awakening that our world is not the world.

In Jonah’s world, God’s people were blessed and everyone else was cursed.

In Job’s world, you live a righteous life, and things work out. You go above and beyond – remember, from chapter 1, how Job woke up early each morning to over sacrifices in case any of his adult children had sinned?

So Job had a lot of experience in the world where everything works the way things are supposed to work.

To be fair, there is a clear thread throughout the Bible that this is how the world works! In preparing God’s people finally to enter the Promised Land, Moses told them this in Deuteronomy 8:

But watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God:

the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery;

the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water;

the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock;

the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end.

Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now. But if you do, in fact, forget the Lord your God and follow other gods, serving and bowing down to them, I swear to you right now that you will be completely destroyed.

Sum it up the way the Psalmist did in Psalm 37:25

I was young and now I’m old,
   but I have never seen the righteous left all alone,
   have never seen their children begging for bread.

This IS the way the world is supposed to work! It is clear, biblically, that this pattern is advised by God.

But what happens when not everything works this way?

I mean it’s easy to heap judgment on someone else – like Nineveh or the next natural disaster (that must be God’s judgment on them) – but what happens when YOUR world doesn’t work this way?

Most of us, I remain convinced, easily blame God – or give God credit. I mean, if you and are nothing but sinners and we have no hope to change or grow or get better or leave negative behavior behind, then OF COURSE if something bad happens it MUST be God’s judgment.

Except, there’s Job. We KNOW Job isn’t cursed for his sin or misbehavior. Job’s losses are presented as a kind of a wager between the Satan and God.

Job also knows that these horrible losses he suffers are not on account of his sin or anything he’s done wrong.

But he doesn’t so easily grasp the bigger point – that his world isn’t the world.

In his world things always work this way – good behavior brings blessed, bad behavior brings curse.

But in THE world, let’s face it; this is NOT always how it works.

The best paid person is not always the most virtuous person. The most powerful is not always the best.

Some criminals never get caught and live long lives with lots of material possessions.

What seems even less fair, of course, is all the people who just keep their heads down, do the things they’ve always been taught to do, and struggle their whole lives.

Along the way, pretty much all of us get a chance to learn that our world is not the world.

In this morning’s reading, Job still doesn’t get it: he is so convinced that what has happened to him is unfair that he both wishes he could just die and he wants to take God to court.

Have you ever felt like taking God to court? If you have, it’s ok: Job isn’t punished for his exasperation; neither will you be.

But neither does he get an explanation. At least, not one that satisfies. Not one that assures him that his world is the world; that everything works like you think it ought to work.

I hope you don’t take this as a spoiler, being only the second week in a 6 week series, but the way this comes out is God appears in a whirlwind, not for Job to ask all his questions or continue all his claims to be justified in getting answers.

God shows up with questions. Lots of questions. Here’s a summary of God’s questions:

“Do you really think you’ve got the world – the whole world, the real world – figured out?”

What all these questions really say, though, is that “your world is not the world.”

There’s this beautiful little passage where we see that Job starts to get it. God starts asking questions in chapter 38. Then, in Ch 40,

The Lord continued to respond to Job:
Will the one who disputes with the Almighty correct him?
   God’s instructor must answer him.
Job responded to the Lord:
Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you?
   I’ll put my hand over my mouth.
I have spoken once, I won’t answer;
   twice, I won’t do it again.

Then, more questions from God. Finally, in Ch 42, Job answers:

Job answered the Lord:
I know you can do anything;
   no plan of yours can be opposed successfully.
You said, “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?”
   I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand,
   wonders beyond my comprehension.
You said, “Listen and I will speak;
   I will question you and you will inform me.”
My ears had heard about you,
   but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore, I relent and find comfort
   on dust and ashes.

Job doesn’t get answers, but, by this time, he doesn’t seem to want all the answers anymore. He has realized that his world is not the world. He has also realized that in the world God is still God, whether or not everything falls orderly into patterns as we think it should.

Whether or not your world is neat and orderly and consequences all seem to make sense, God is still God, and God still loves you enough to come to you, face the questions, maybe ask a few of God’s own questions, and welcome you into this larger perspective that your world isn’t the world.

Let me add this: your world may not be or feel orderly. Maybe it never has! I’m not encouraging you to better order your life. No, Whatever state of order or chaos your world is, I want to assure you that your world is not the world.

Are you ready for a larger perspective?  Or are you ready, at least, to consider not holding so tightly onto the perspective you have?

Mark’s Gospel tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth. In fact, we meet Jesus at his baptism. Jesus goes to John for baptism. John knows, in each of the gospels, that he isn’t worthy to baptize Jesus.

But even his world isn’t the world.

In the world, the world where God is God and God loves us whether or not everything falls orderly into patterns as we think it should, Jesus presents himself humbly for baptism by John.

Jesus is, of course, continuing the pattern of being born in a barn and laid in a food trough. Jesus is born humbly, he is baptized humbly, and he will die humbly. Jesus, our best opportunity to grasp who God really is, is humble.

Sometimes we want loud, boisterous, let-em-have-it God, “Show our opponents who’s right” God, but that’s usually a God we’ve created within our world. That’s the way we want God to be because that’s the way we want to be.

Jesus submits to being baptized. As he comes up out of the water, a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

In baptism, you and I are invited out of our world, beyond our world, into the world. The world where, I believe, God wants us to hear, “You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you in find happiness.”

We have a rubber ducky for you – for each of you – this morning, as a reminder of Jesus’ baptism, and of yours. The duck reminds us of water, and of the dove. I know doves aren’t ducks; but they don’t make rubber dovies. The rubber duckies did, though, come in packs of twelve, just like the disciples. So, as you receive a rubber ducky, may it remind you that in the water of baptism, God welcomes us beyond our own world, into the larger world; into the world where God is still God, and God still loves you whether or not everything falls orderly into patterns as we think it should.

 

Text for “remember your baptism” that I’ll say after everyone has their ducky:

the Holy Spirit work within you,
that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.Amen.

 

Overwhelmed: Is the Bible an Instruction Manual?

overwhelmed4forworshipAnyone besides me watch a little football recently? Watching live tv felt a little new to me – I realized how little of it I do anymore, but waiting an hour or a day to watch a game isn’t the same, so I watched several “live.” Which meant watching commercials. Or, at least, not being able to FF through them.

One of the ads I saw particularly made me chuckle. It was an Allstate ad. And, since I was watching the game streaming through an app, I saw the same ad over and over again.

It was mayhem. You know the guy? It’s actor Ryan O’Reily, but that’s no

mayhem flare

t really important.  Seeing the guy lying in the road, as though he’s a flare was cute – amusingly cute.

Then there was the text overlay. “Demonstration only. 

 

Do not attempt.”

Really?

And I was just about to go lay in the road and light up the top of my head in pinkish flame.

I know this is nothing new: we’ve had this kind of warning for years.

You know, the warning on your hair dryer not to use it in the shower? (Yes, there was a time when I had enough hair to use a hair dryer, so I knew this)

Some of the warnings, like on McDonald’s Coffee, come as a result of litigation and as liability protection. Some are just common sense information.

Some, I suppose, are because I am not about to sit down and read a manual. Before using a hair dryer?  Before drinking coffee? Maybe you are. Maybe you seek the instruction manual. Maybe you read the entire list of instructions before starting.

Do you read the terms and conditions on all the those things we sign for banks and software.

Then there are all those things there isn’t a manual for. Like being a parent? Is there a manual?  Would you really read it?

I didn’t even think about such a thing until my first VERY long night with a baby that couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep. And by that time, I didn’t have time to read the manual, I had to actually care for the baby!

“Excuse me, baby, could you stop for a few minutes so I can read this chapter on cholic?” Thought every new parent when first confronted with a cholicky baby.

But raising a child is far too complex for it to be containable, explainable in a single book.

So there are lots of books and articles and videos. And people who want to be good parents read and watch a variety of them and also talk with their support staff – their own parents, other people at the same stage of parenting as they are, etc. Crowdsourcing didn’t start with internet 2.0, but it sure has broadened the concept!

Because we all want to do our best, and you only have to be a parent for maybe a minute before you realize you really don’t have any idea how to do it all!

We even make up new words about these things. “Parenting” wasn’t a word a generation ago. Sure, we had parents, but no one turned it into a verb until relatively recently.

Even more recently, “adult” has been turned into a verb. People are “adulting” now. Of course, becoming an adult is nothing new; people have been doing it for years.

To be fair, I want to point out that while people have been becoming adults for years, others have resisted becoming adults all their lives, but that’s a different sermon (maybe)

I had this realization about “adulting” this past fall. As I pulled into the NE Tarrant County Courthouse a few months ago, I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to gift a car to my adult child, but I had no idea how to do so. Websites were not particularly clear, concise, or complete, in their descriptions, so I did what I knew I could: go to a courthouse and physically throw myself at the mercy of the automobile registration branch of the county tax assessor/collector.

The clerk who drew my number was really, really helpful.

It turns out, I think, that being an adult, or “adulting” is NOT knowing how to do or where to go for every possible thing or challenge or question or issue you might face. It is, rather, taking one step at a time in the direction you think you probably need to go. And taking each of those steps with an awareness that while the second step might be in another direction.

How, some of you might be wondering, is this an introduction to the book of Job? Because this: we too easily think of the Bible as an owner’s manual, an instruction book, as cliche as this mnemonic is, as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

Several years ago now, I was part of a Divorce Care group that met at Western Heights Baptist Church in Waco. I credit that group, and it’s leader, Nancy Smith, with a lot of good and a lot of help for a time in my life when I needed it.

But I always felt well, conflicted, when we get to the week of the curriculum titled, “What does the Owner’s Manual say? Here is the description of the segment:

This video seminar explores real-world answers from the Bible on issues related to separation, divorce and remarriage, presented in an easily understandable format.

The video really did a good job of “presenting in an easily understandable format.”

But can the same really, honestly be said about the Bible?

No.

There. I’ve said it. The bible is not simple, straightforward, or easy to understand.

But we should have expected this: After all, the first 5 books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the “books of Moses,” are called the “torah” collectively by the Jewish faith.

“Torah” means “instruction.”

We understand instructions. We crave instructions!  Tell me how to change the oil in my car!  Tell me how to change a diaper on my baby! Teach me how to set up netflix on my phone and my TV! Give me step-by-step instructions on how to gift my car to someone!

Churches understand instructions: every church I’ve ever known had published at least one cookbook, and cookbooks are full of instructions!  Of course, nowadays we all just type in something like “turducken recipe” and search it up.

And we get step by step instructions – sometimes even step-by-step video – for literally almost anything we can think of.

That’s not the kind of instruction we find in the Torah, the book of instruction. Or, really, throughout the Bible.

Maybe this will help. The Torah IS the book of instruction, but not so much the book of instructions. It operates a lot like Jesus does: When Jesus was asked “and who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10, Jesus answers with “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” and tells the story we know as the Good Samaritan. A few chapters later, when Jesus stands accused of “welcoming sinners and eating with them,” he tells three stories: about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

Jesus senses the crowds following him are hungry, so he orders his disciples to feed them. “Where are we going to get food?” they answer. “How much bread do you have?” Jesus replies. And proceeds to feed everyone.

The instruction we receive from the Bible we receive in story form because we live in story form!

I mean, I suppose you might say the 10 commandments, and most of Leviticus are straightforward instructions, but the way we get tangled up over even the 10 commandments makes me think otherwise.

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it as holy” seems pretty straightforward, but have you ever argued with a 7th Day Adventist about it? They’re right, btw; the sabbath is Saturday. And we’re right; early on in Christianity many Christians began to meet for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, to remember the resurrection.

But that’s just the beginning!  What does it mean to “remember the Sabbath”? Are you doing it right? Is your neighbor?

If remembering the sabbath means not working, do you honor the sabbath by not working – and by not shopping or going out to eat, either, since shopping and going out to eat both require others to work?

The book of Job invites us to the next level, actually, and in doing so, the Bible invites us to set aside some of the overwhelming pressure we exert on ourselves to obey, to follow, to keep up.

Or, as many of us do, throw up our spiritual hands in desperation, declare we can’t actually do this “be a disciple” thing, and pray for forgiveness every time we think to pray.

What kind of God is it who would want the people created in God’s image to grovel all the time, to think they were nothing but horrible, miserable sinners and could never do anything about it no matter what?

I know Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but WAy before that we are introduced to Job, a man who “was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.” He even got up early every morning to offer sacrifices in case his children had sinned!

Of course, you and I know he couldn’t possibly have been that good. Because Paul writes in Romans that “all have sinned….” and the Psalmist wrote (in Psalm 53)

God looks down from heaven on humans
   to see if anyone is wise,
   to see if anyone seeks God.
But all have turned away.
   Everyone is corrupt.
   No one does good—
   not even one person!

But in Genesis 6, God “approved of Noah.” and we all know that David was “a man after God’s own heart.”  Speaking of “heart,” Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is “devious,” or “deceitful,” or even “beyond help.”

Do we believe our hearts are beyond help? No; I would guess we pull out Jeremiah 17:9 when it conveniently helps us understand what is wrong with other people, or even when we, ourselves, fail for the nth time.

But if we really believed our hearts were beyond help, we wouldn’t gather for worship. We would all throw up our hands a walk away.

Reading the rest of Job ch 1, you’d have to say if anyone had reason to throw up his hands and walk away, it would be Job.

EVERYTHING was taken away from him. Everything.

Some of us; many of us have been at a point that we felt like everything had been taken away. As though a cosmic “kick me” sign was hung on our backs and everyone was standing in line for their turn.

I know a guy who lives near here who is working hard to make ends meet. But even a full time job at minimum wage doesn’t really get you there. $15K is what you make working full time at our minimum wage. And you can’t rent a dump of an apartment around here for less than $600 a month – which is more than half that total.

This guy got training to operate a forklift – better pay, right? Pulling himself up by his bootstraps, right? (He actually doesn’t own any boots, btw, or a car, so he walks 3 miles to and from work) Then he gets pneumonia. No family to take care of him. No health insurance.

And no savings to pay the bills that keep coming even when he can’t work. None of the minimum wage jobs I ever had got paid sick time, either.

You may never have been that down and out. Your down and out may not have been financial. Maybe it was familial. Maybe you burned bridges with family and friends, or maybe they’ve burned them with you.

My guess is we’ve all felt like we were the one wearing the cosmic “kick-me.”

So, what do you do with it?

If the Bible were an owner’s manual like we think of owner’s manuals; if the Bible were a list of instructions, we would know how to take the cosmic “kick-me” sign.

We would know that we have done something to deserve it. That, in addition to everyone else in the world, God is standing in line, waiting for a turn to kick.

But the book of Job sets this story on its head! The book of Job is in the Bible precisely because the bible isn’t such a simple set of instructions because living life as people God loves, and people created in God’s image, is never so simple and straightforward.

Of course, for many of us, it is, or seems like it is. Live right, the best you can, and you’ll be ok. Keep your head down, work hard, and you’ll make it.

Until you don’t. Until you catch pneumonia. Until you say that thing you shouldn’t have said. Until someone steps in front of you in the “blessings equal material possessions” line. Until the Satan challenges God that you’re only good because God has blessed you.

We’re going to spend the next 6 weeks wrestling with the Book of Job and the rest of scriptures about how God is with us in the midst of this overwhelming thing called life.

For now, I want you to know this much from the Book of Job. Life is not so simple as if you are good God will take care of you and if you are bad God won’t. Rather, like in Job, God is with us, all the time, through it all. Even when, at the end of the story God says to Job’s 3 friends, “I’m angry at you… because you haven’t spoken about me correctly….” God doesn’t punish them or send them away.

The kind of “instruction” that the Bible is is not always enough instruction to get everything in your life settled. Sometimes even with instructions we are left without all the answers.

The overarching message throughout the Book of Job, and, indeed, the entire Bible, is that God loves us and wants us closer, not farther away. Any way of reading any parts of the Bible that are at odds with this are not being read faithfully to the overall message of the Bible.

So, for now, however overwhelmed you are, take things one step at a time in the direction you think is best from where you are. Read the bible, consult with friends, family, people you trust, and keep taking one step at a time. And adjust your direction accordingly, one step at a time.

We are a church of people trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. What is one step you need to take to follow Jesus better today than yesterday? Just one step. You might not be certain about it, and, even if you are, it might not work. But will you commit today to taking that one step?

IncarnATE 2.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Christmas Eve Sermon, Dec. 24, 2017

A long long time ago in a pastoral appointment far, far away….

There was a bible. Actually, there were a lot of bibles. That church, not unlike this church and almost every other church, had invested in a bunch of bibles. I don’t know if “bunch” is the technically correct group term for Bibles. You know, like gaggle of geese, pride of lions, congress of crows or committee of vultures (You gotta love those last 2!).

Anyway, this church had quite a few bibles. A pantsload of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload. You get the idea.

One of these bibles, at least only 1 to my knowledge, had an error.

I’m not talking doctrine here. Get your mind out of the theological gutter.

I mean the cover was put on backwards. And, therefore, upside down.

Which, I don’t mind telling you, was more than a little frustrating, at least for me, when I’d open it to read it.

I know, plenty of us read the bible on your phones now, and your phone has this little thingamabob called an accelerometer. The accelerometer is what turns the screen the right way when you, maybe, pick your phone up upside down to read the bible.

This bible that I’m talking about didn’t have an accelerometer.

So, you know how sometimes youth find things funny that other people might not think are funny? And you know how sometimes youth have this built-in alert system that catches all us adults when we do something that we would ordinarily tell youth they shouldn’t do?

Well, here’s how that works. With a totally hypothetical story:

Just say, maybe, you were the pastor at a church that had bibles. Bunches of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload of bibles. And 1 of those bibles had an error.

YES, I still mean that the cover was applied backwards. And upside down. Come on!

And just say that, as the pastor, you were, one night, leading a youth bible study, and happened to pick up this particular bible and open it to read from it.

And it didn’t have an accelerometer in it, so you opened it upside down when you thought it was right side up.

And then imagine, because, again, this is all hypothetical, that before you stopped to think about it, you slammed the book shut and tossed it across the table.

And then imagine you said something. Something you might regret as the words were coming out of your mouth.

Something like, “I hate this book!”

Again, this is all hypothetical. Except that it actually happened. I was there. I saw it.

Yep; that pastor? That was me.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

So those youth had caught me, their pastor, saying, about a bible, “I hate this book!”

I am SO thankful I had enough of a relationship with those kids that they laughed it off. They knew I didn’t actually mean that about the bible.

And for the rest of my years there, they never let me forget about it!

And you might wonder why I would tell you that story tonight, on Christmas Eve.

I told you that story because I think it can help us understand the scripture for tonight.

The Christmas story. You might say it is Luke’s Christmas story, which would be true, but perhaps misleadingly so – Luke is the only one with an actual Christmas story.

Matthew comes close, telling us about how the angel appeared Joseph (we don’t get Mary’s side of the story at all), then skipping to “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem….”

Luke gives us the details. But do we really want details? I mean, we don’t need the bible for details; we make up our own! Many of us include the wise men in the story, though they appear in Matthew, not in Luke, and came looking for the babe as much as two years after the birth.

But, really: who wants a 2 year long Christmas pageant?

So: we usually end up reading in one of two ways. The first is like this. https://youtu.be/suowe2czxcA

The second is like this: https://youtu.be/BqpJvey-7-s

I worry that we make Christmas either a sappy, sentimental thing for kids or a anachronistic stepping stone on the way to something else.
Honestly, I don’t think, and there is no indication, Mary felt very sappy. Giving birth is hard work – I’ve witnessed it!  And when Rachel was about to deliver Eliza, one of our favorite songs came up on the playlist we’d curated for the morning.

I lovingly and gently pointed it out. Rachel, in the process of delivering her first child and having had no pain killer, wasn’t feeling “loving” or “gentle.” In retrospect, I can’t blame her.

Pretty sure Mary wasn’t in the mood for hosting a “live nativity scene” either. Doubtful that was a silent night.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas Pageants. But, folks,  This incarnation thing isn’t JUST that.

There’s one thing that probably did happen that first Christmas that I’ve seen at most live nativity scenes. At least the one with animals. Instead of just standing there like a petting zoo, the donkey, or one of the sheep,, will likely relieve itself just when you don’t want it to.

Hey, donkey, that wasn’t in the script!

Which brings me to another point. We tend to read the Christmas story like it was a stage production. As if Luke’s gospel had been written in heaven from the foundation of the world, and finally, here and now, Mary, check, Joseph, check, Bethlehem, check. Places, folks – and – action!

Luke is telling the story after it unfolded, not writing the script for how it was to unfold.

Which leads me to George Washington in the Dodge Challenger. That’s a different kind of in car nation.

We tend to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as though it only really happened so that he could die on the cross about 33 years later.

That’s getting the story out of order and reading something that happened later in history onto an event that happened before it.

Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world.  But that “slain from the foundation of the world,” a phrase we get from Rev 13:8, is more a reference to the character of God than to an event that happened.

In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t a story about what happened to Jesus, but about who Jesus is.

Jesus, God incarnate – that is, in human flesh, is a God who suffers at the hands of the powers of the world.

Jesus, born an innocent, fragile baby, is another picture, at the other end of his earthly life, that tells us the same thing about God. That God comes to us, that God’s hope for saving the world, come powerless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of those created in God’s very image.

At this end of the story, vulnerable, powerless God receives care and love and attention. Born to a lowly woman – a woman who has powerful introspective and reflective thoughts. If you doubt it, check back into 1:46-55, or  you catch it here in verse 19: “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”

What God was doing in that first Christmas God has been doing since the creation of the world, and God continues to do today. Tonight. In the morning.

You remember, don’t you, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the ONE TREE God had told them not to eat? God comes walking in the garden (do you worship a God who takes walks in a garden?), and they hide because they are “naked and ashamed.” God calls out, “Adam, where are you?”

Like God didn’t know?

No: like God is a god who comes to us, a god who came to the world God had created, as humbly and vulnerable and powerless as possible.

Because you love someone, you don’t approach them in power. You approach them humbly and with vulnerability and powerless as possible.

And that’s the way the Bible actually tells the story. My prayer is that tonight, and in the morning, you and I will hear it that way.

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
S

IncarnATE 1.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017

Mary, did you know?

No, really, Mary: did you know?

Maybe a better question would be, “Mary, what did you know, and when did you know it?”

I mean, really: dare we think that Mary could have possibly imagined thinking about Jesus the way we think about Jesus?

When you think about thinking about Jesus this time of year,  you likely think of donkeys and camels and angels blowing horns.  

Have you spent much time thinking about how you think about Jesus?

Please notice: I’m not asking if you think about Jesus. I’m asking if you ever think about how you think about Jesus. Because this 4th Sunday of Advent,which also happens to be Christmas Eve, is a really good time to think about how you think about Jesus.

But asking you to think about how you think about Jesus might get you defensive, so, instead, I’ll tell you a couple of stories. The first one I got from sunday school or confirmation literature at least 20 years ago. The second story is still going on today.

The first story starts with the challenge of explaining the incarnation to a child (or youth – I can’t remember which).  In case you’re not very churched, or just not in the mood, I’ll also give you a heads up on incarnation.

Incarnation is a big word that describes someone who lives in the United States. We love our automobiles. The average American spends 101 minutes per day driving. This means we are an “in car nation.”

Dad Joke for the morning.

Incarnation is actually a word to describe or explain what happened in Jesus/birth. Jesus was, according to Christian understanding, God in human flesh. “Incarnation” is another way to say “in human flesh.”

Sounds way more theological, too, doesn’t it?

So, the first story is this. A person was sitting  at her front window, looking out at the falling snow. In her driveway, she saw a bird. A tiny dove, that she imagined must be feeling awfully cold.

“I wonder if birds enjoy watching the snow fall the way I do,” she thought.

Realizing that snow falling is beautiful – perhaps especially from the warmth of one’s bay window, she suddenly began to wonder if, maybe, the bird was cold. Too cold?

What could she do to help?  If she went outside, no matter how slowly and carefully, the bird would fly off. Maybe if she went around through the kitchen and opened the garage door from inside, then the bird might not get scared away.

But how could she be sure the bird would recognize the safety and relative warmth of the garage?

Then it struck her. If she could become a bird, she could fly out there, and land alongside that little bird, and share the good news of the warmth of the garage.

If she could become a bird, the bird could better understand her efforts to communicate.

We aren’t birds, and God isn’t a person sitting by a window watching snow fall, but I think you get the picture.

Jesus came to us – emmanuel, God with us, God as one of us, to better communicate with us and live among us and show us with more depth than we could have grasped before, the good news of God’s love for us.

Most of us get that aspect of incarnation, I think.

Which brings me to the second story. This one is about a guy named Mark. Well, it’s about me and a guy named Mark.

God’s been on me lately about the incarnation. Trying to help me understand it in a deeper way.

And when I say “God’s been on me,” I don’t mean in a nagging or mean or bullying way. One consequence of trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday is that God gives you opportunities to put your life where your mouth is.

I can talk a good game about incarnation. But can I live it?

I met Mark a couple months ago. Like many other people, he found our church office looking for help.

Unlike when those other people find our church office, I was really the only one there to help.

I kinda went Peter and John on him. You know, from Acts 3:

Peter and John went to pray, and the met a lame man on the way. He sheld out his palm and asked for some alms, and this is what Peter did say: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of nazareth rise up and walk.”

That’s how I learned the song in youth group, anyway.

So, I told Mark, after listening to a little of his story, that I didn’t have any money, which was kinda true (I rarely have cash on me).

I was a bit thankful he wasn’t lame, because I’m not sure I would have had the courage to dare to tell him to rise up and walk.

But then this is where God and incarnation kick in.

As I said, I’ve never been in such a situation where I was finding church offices in bank buildings because I needed help. So I don’t know how I would present the story. My story.

I’m pretty sure I would tell it in a way that would elicit help. If I need money, or food, or clothing, or shelter, and I think you have these, or the resources to help me get these, then I’m going to tell the story in a way that will, hopefully, get you to want to help me.

But, I don’t know about you, I’m usually a little leery of people telling that kind of story.

I’m one of these, “can we cut to the chase – where you tell me what you want, I tell you ‘no,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ depending on your presentation, and we move on?”

I get to remain here. Holding all these resources – a pocket full of credit cards,  a house on which I am up-to-date, and even a little ahead, on the payments. I’ve got family who could, if I needed, who have, when I needed, come to the rescue when I had made poor decisions or just wasn’t quite able to make things work on my own. I’ve got a church family – dozens, maybe hundreds of people I could approach, if I needed, to help out in a bind.

Not to toot my own horn, but in this comparison, I’m like a king with a crown and he is subject to my benevolence

Or, to put it differently, I might as well be telling Mark that I’m the girl sitting in the bay window and he’s the bird out in the snow.

Wouldn’t it be kind of me to find a way to help him?!

Wouldn’t I be such an awesome person?! I could really make Mark think I’m an awesome person, too.

But it’s going to cost me. I have to open my Hearts.

Here’s the tricky part of the incarnation: I don’t really want Mark to think I’m an awesome person. I want Mark to believe the things I tell him about Jesus are true.

And I’m going to have a hard time convincing him of that as long as I stay up here, in the place where I’m the one who helps him. If I help him now, he can come back to me again. As long as he knows that how he gets help. He comes to me, and I am the help dispenser.

When I think about how I think about Jesus, I have to admit: sometimes I think about Jesus as the help dispenser.

But that’s not how Jesus came to us. If I want to be part of Mark meeting and knowing Jesus, I have to give up being the help dispenser or the Jesus dispenser and be a friend.

I am going to have to give up my place, my privilege,  my easy access to resources, my presumption that I can or should help him, and be a friend.

God didn’t send the angel Gabriel to a young woman to say, “God would like you to be the help dispenser dispenser.” Mary was more than just the baby mama!

God, through Gabriel, invited Mary into an awesome partnership that would offer us the presence of God in human form.

And this isn’t just God the almighty poured into a human shell; no; this God incarnate came just as he would live – humbly, powerless, at the mercy of others.

This is how God comes to us. It’s God saying “I can’t get close enough.”

This is how Christmas Eve invites us to think about thinking about Jesus.

This is what Mary knew!

 

I (h)ate Christmas Sermon 3

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
 Advent 2017.3: DesperATE to ImmediATE

I don’t know if this is true, but rumor had it, when I was a college student, federal regulations said you couldn’t call something a hamburger that wasn’t pure beef.

You couldn’t just google it back then.

We began to wonder when the campus dining hall would post the day’s menu with things like “beef patty on bun.”

What’s the difference between a “hamburger” and a “beef patty on bun”?

We weren’t sure, so we figured naming rights were somehow involved. You couldn’t call it a hamburger unless it was all hanburger. Sure, “beef patty on bun” implies some beef, but that word “patty” leaves a lot of wiggle room.

Like, I learned this week, peanut butter has to be a minimum of 90% actual peanuts. That’s why, you’ll notice, there are jars of product on the shelves in the “peanut butter” section of your grocery store that say “peanut butter spread.” “Spread” is the wiggle room.

And, you probably knew this, but Pringles are not actually potato chips. They are less than 50% potato! And I don’t know about you, but I’ll probably go on eating pringles, even though I know this!

I think we’d all agree, wouldn’t we, that transparency is important.

When Jif Peanut butter first entered the market, they didn’t want to have to admit to the public – to peanut butter buyers, that it was 20% crisco, but I’d want to know if what I thought was peanut butter was ⅕ crisco!

Jiff has long since raised their peanut butter content to at least 90% peanuts. So don’t worry.

What’s in a name?

In Bible times, names had significance.”Israel” means “to struggle with God and men and win.” “Jesus” means “Yahweh is salvation,” and is the same name in Hebrew as Joshua – in the bible we get one directly from Hebrew, the other through the Greek.

The name “John” comes from Hebrew for “Yahweh is gracious.”

That wasn’t enough for Jewish leaders in John chapter 1. They wanted to know more because of what John was doing and how many people were seeking him for what he was doing.

John the Baptist had gotten their attention, so they wanted to know more.

John confessed (and didn’t deny) that he was not the Christ. Serious clarification there, huh? That wasn’t enough.

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

John said, “I’m not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

John answered, “No.”

They asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied,
“‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness,
   Make the Lord’s path straight,’
just as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Sometimes when we want clarification and details and transparency, what we really want is control.

In Genesis 32, when God and Jacob are wrestling, and Jacob won’t give up, God asks for his name. There was an understanding that knowing someone’s name could give you some power over them.

We want to know names, and we want answers – often because we, too, think that knowing gives us control.

In the early days of social media and internet gaming and chat rooms, almost no one used their real name. Many of us still have email addresses that hide our actual identity.

We want to know, and to control, and we don’t want others to know too much, or to control us.

Too much desire for knowledge and control, though, leads to desperation.

Especially in this information age, we can never know enough or control enough to guarantee our own safety or security. Focussing too much doing so leaves one feeling nothing but desperate.

This is not the time of year when anyone wants to feel desperate, but, can we admit, we do?

I tend to feel desperate when, usually on December 23rd or so, I realize that the shopping I have to do isn’t just going to happen. I have to do something!

And, full disclosure, Rachel takes responsibility for almost all of “our” christmas shopping. All that’s left for me to do is “my” christmas shopping.

And I have been slow to learn that it won’t just happen. I have to decide to make it happen, and then I have to act.let

So, I don’t know how desperate you feel right now, but I want to offer you an alternative for the day.

This won’t take care of the shopping you have left to do, but it will help you face it.

For right now, give up a little need for knowledge and control. If you need knowledge, get out your Advent book and open to today’s order. There’s the song order.

That’s all you’ll need. Other than that, receive it. Accept it. Let being here replace your frustration. Let the immediate, the now, the right here, the presence of God, melt your desperation away.

Because what we really want is for you to receive this cantata. Receive it, accept it. Now.

Jesus warned us (in the Sermon on the Mount)  not to borrow worry. Not about tomorrow, our about clothing, or food, or any of the other issues that tempt us to desperation.

Words cannot grasp or define or limit God, though we may try. So let them go.

Trade the desperate for the Immediate. And receive our choir’s cantata. Let it bless you, and bring you into the very presence of God!

Am I Addicted?

irresistible
I just finished my first read of Adam Alter’s Irresistible. I clarified “my first read” because I am going to start it again today. I social media-ed that “I can’t put it down,” partly for the irony, partly because I really enjoyed the read.

We are, most of us, addicted to technology that didn’t exist at the turn of the century. If we aren’t addicted, we have certainly learned to rely heavily upon it.

Case in point: I tried the other day to remember how I got directions and found places before google maps and gps technology.

All I could think of was Mapquest. Mapping and printing out maps and carrying them with me.

Alter doesn’t spend much time on using our phones to find our next lunch stop. Rather, he digs into why we are so addictable and how high tech and low tech companies keep us hooked.

His thesis relies on behavioral addiction being analogous to substance addiction, and, while you might not buy this link, I do.

After all, I have a fitbit, and have had one since 2012.

That’s when I joined the health care plan I have currently, so that’s when I became eligible to earn rewards for reaching or achieving certain activity levels. Since then, I can assure you, I have averaged a little more than 12,000 steps per day. My resting heart-rate, since I “upgraded” to a tracker that monitors my pulse, has averaged 59 this year.

Alter suggests that fitness trackers lead us to place our emphasis in the wrong place. We walk (or run) for the sake of the counter, rather than for health.

I had to admit this morning there may be some truth to this contention.

I’ve been a  runner for at least 7 years. That’s when I became a father again at age 46, and committed to being a vital 64 and 66 when my 2 younger kids graduate.

But I achieved  the final level of reward that my health plan offers during the first week of December.

And I haven’t run very much since then. I’ve been lacking the motivation.

When I started, good health was all the motivation I needed. It seems the opportunity for cash rewards (and, honestly, not all that much cash) has blurred that original vision.

I am going to keep wearing my fitbit – it serves as my watch, after all! – but I think my motivation needs a bit of

RECALCULATING

How’s your motivation?  Are you distracted by technology, or have you found ways to keep it’s addictive nature in check?  If you have developed practices to integrate tech into your life but not let it run you, please let me know, and share them. Because this confrontation isn’t going to get any easier!

AnticipATE to DedicATE

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like 1000 years and a 1000 years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise,a s some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.

What does that mean?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, can’t God make it so no one will perish?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, why do some people persist in making God out to be mean, bloodthirsty, or eager to condemn some people to hell?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, Don’t you suppose that guilt you carry around, that voice that whispers to you that you haven’t done enough, or you aren’t good enough, is NOT coming from God?

I hope you’ll listen for the voice of God; especially this time of year. It is hard, because we want to anticipate. What we don’t know we make up and plan accordingly, sometimes with leaving us with deep despair, frustration, and even anger.

Today’s reading in 2 Peter joins Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13 from last week, and fills our over-graphic-induced brains with imaginations based more on Hal Lindsey, Tim Lahaye, and Jerry Jenkins than on scripture.

Sure; there is the fear-invoking, imagination-inducing language of ”But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.”

But, I hope you noticed, Peter follows immediately with this question: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?

Great question, Peter!

“You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. He continues in v. 14: Therefore, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found by him in peace – pure and faultless.”

There we go: live holy and godly lives, make every effort to be found by him in peace, pure, and faultless. I think a reasonable shorthand for that is “trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday.”

As we approached Y2K (remember that?), sales in Christian bookstores (that was, for all practical purposes, before Amazon), sales of books and videos about the end of the world boomed.

They rose precipitously again immediately after 9-11.

Now, here’s an interesting thing I hope you’ll help me figure out. Immediately after 9-11, crime rates and suicide rates plummeted. The number of new prescriptions for antidepressants dropped.

Why? The country pulled together to counteract and resist evil.

And what did Christians do? Well, hopefully most of us joined with everyone else and prayed and worked and hugged a little extra.

But we also suddenly bought more books about prophecy and the end of the world.

Why? I believe because we have an anticipation problem. We passively anticipate what God’s going to do, and sit on our hands.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people had been anticipating the coming of the Messiah for quite some time. and they did so with varying amounts of energy and intensity. Sime nearly paralyzed by anticipation and expectation, others going on with life almost as if Messiah would never come.

But there was this strong stream in Judaism of the day which taught that God’s people were to practice living as if Messiah was coming tomorrow.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph trekking to Bethlehem – she very pregnant, he likely uncertain exactly what was going on. Yet they proceeded.

Anticipation can paralyze. If I just sit and wait, and make up stuff in my head about what’s going to happen and what isn’t.  But Anticipation doesn’t have to paralyze. Mary and Joseph responded to the good and great news they had been given with a dedication to do what they needed to do.

Anticipation of Christmas expectations can paralyze us. Or they can send us into a downward,darkward spiral. Or Anticipation can draw us toward the wonderful event that we recognize at Christmas. The event that HAS happened, and that can happen again in us and among us.

Today, we want to make sure that anticipation propels us to action. We don’t want anticipation to paralyze us.

For example, like it did me when I was a teenager. And I presume I’m not the only one this happened to. Working up the courage to ask a girl out. Or even just to call her. I’ve heard that kind of anticipation works both ways – that it isn’t gender specific.

I got to re-live all that about 15 years ago, when I found myself single again at around 40.

To my surprise, it hadn’t changed much. Dial all but the last digit of her phone number, and pace my parsonage. Was  I ready for this? Ok, what would I say? “Hi, it’s Steve.” No, too obvious. Everyone had caller id, she’d know it was me!  How about a joke?  Will she like a joke?  Not too funny. Not too corny, either.

Dial the number. Hang up quickly.

Dial the number, actually listen to it ring. Get voicemail, hang up. Realize 2.3 seconds later that she has caller id. Now she’ll get home, see that you called, and that you hung up on her answering machine!

How does this end well?

I don’t know about for you, but for me all that ended well ‘cause I married Rachel.

But has it really ended?

Sure, the anticipation of will she answer the phone, will she go out with me, will she say yes, etc., may be behind us, but oh, the anticipation doesn’t die so easily.

And you know what I’m talking about, whether or not you are married or ever have been or ever want to be. You know because you also anticipate. Make up scenarios in your mind about how things will or won’t work out. Many of us not only run these scenarios, almost constantly, through our minds, but also bring God into the equation.

We make up what we are going to do, what other people are going to do, and what God is going to do. Or what God will think. Or how God will be disappointed.

I don’t know about you, but I had a much easier time on my wedding day picturing an awesome future with Rachel than I did when I was holding my phone, one number away from dialing, wondering what might happen.

Yet, some of us enter marriage with a very similar plan as when we’re summoning the courage to make that first call. Or text. Or WhatsApp, or whatever.

Some of us enter marriage with an expectation that we’ve done this, now it will just happen. We’ll live “happily ever after.” Everything will be awesome. Maybe we watch videos or read stories about the “perfect” marriages and think that’ll just happen to us.

You don’t have to be married more than maybe a week before you see life doesn’t work that way.

A good life, a good relationship, doesn’t just happen. You can’t anticipate your way into it.

It takes work. It takes effort. It requires patience with yourself and with the other.

You have to dedicate yourself to it, to others.

Let’s walk away from anticipation this morning, and move toward dedication.

You see, while 2 people may actually DECIDE to get married, being married isn’t a decision; it is a commitment. A dedication.

A good, healthy marriage requires numerous decisions – thousands over the years, and multiple decisions a day.

Kinda like baptism.

Which brings us to the Gospel reading for the day. Jesus is baptized. Baptism isn’t a decision to get wet. Baptism is a commitment, a dedication, to a way of life. That’s why when we baptize babies, we all commit to doing all we can to

“Surround that child with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.” We agree – we commit – to “pray for them that they may be true disciples.”

They can’t possibly follow Jesus on their own. Not now, not when they’re grown up, either. Because when they grow up, they start to anticipate, rather than dedicate.

Remember what Peter calls us to do? Live holy and godly lives, make every effort to be found by him in peace, pure, and faultless.

This will take dedication! Which might start with a decision, but one decision is never enough.

John Wesley was challenged by some free-church traditioned people on his support of infant baptism. These were people who practiced “believer’s baptism’ – that people were baptized only after their own profession of faith, not as infants or small children. They asked Wesley: “Do you think they can rely on that experience as a baby so many years later when they are an adult?” they asked.

“No more,” Wesley answered, “than I would say that someone baptized at age 21, who arrives at the age of 30 with no other evidence of God in his or her life, ought to count on that singular experience.”

One decision does not a dedication make. But one decision can be a first step to a commitment, to a dedication. To thousands more decisions along the same way. Eugene Peterson has a magnificent book titled, “A long obedience in the same direction.” The subtitle is “Discipleship in an instant age.” And that was written in 1980.

Instant has only gotten instanter. We need a long obedience in the same direction. We need dedication, not just decision. We need to let go of our anticipation, and follow Jesus.

So I’m going to invite you to do something. Yes, I know, this is just one decision, one action, but it can be the start of a long obedience in the same direction. It can be the start of a dedication replacing a decision. It can be taking up the commitment you made, or that was made for you, at your baptism. It can also be a jump-start. Maybe you’ve been dedicated before, but that’s grown cold. Or distant.

I invite you simply to mark on your connection card that you are interested in moving from anticipATE to dedicATE; from decision to dedication.

We are going to start a process in the new year, an historic, Wesleyan process, that will give everyone who is interested the opportunity to dedicate themselves – their lives – to trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday.

I hope you’ll consider it.