Christmas Reflection – December 27, 2009

These past couple of weeks, my wife, Lauren and I have been talking about the Advent and Christmas season and how funny it is that it is meant to be a time of quiet reflection and preparation. At church, so often during these two seasons, we talk and emphasize how important it is to slow down and reflect. Not only to celebrate Christmas, but to ponder what we are actually saying when we tell this Christmas story. But in all honesty, I think it can easily be our least reflective time of the year. We are busier this season than any other. And the problem is that we are busy with great things – holiday and Christmas concerts, a friend’s cookie baking party, making Christmas cards to send out, and gathering together as a family. But so rarely does it actually allow us to slow down and take pause.

As I reflect a little on what Christmas means for me, I hope it will provide you with a little bit of space to allow you to slow down and wonder about what Christmas means for you.

With all of this talk about Jesus being born, I’ve been thinking about the “firsts” that many children have. First steps, first tooth, first birthday, first words. And so I kept wondering, what were those things like for Jesus? Jesus’ first step, first tooth, first birthday. And what were Jesus’ first words? These words that we hold so dear, that we print in red ink in our Bibles – What were the first words that Jesus uttered?

For those of you who have children or have watched a child grow up, you know what an important and powerful moment it is when a child speaks for the first time. Family and friends are called to announce the event; the video camera is often pulled out as we coax the young child, “Say it again! Say it again” – and they likely stare back at us blankly and silent. When my wife Lauren spoke her first words, it was a particularly special moment. One day, when Lauren was about one and a half years old, she walked into the kitchen where her mom was, grabbed a fist full of jeans and gave a big tug. When Lauren’s mom turned towards her and said, “Yes, honey?” Lauren opens her mouth and speaks for the first time, by saying, “Guess what, Mom? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!” As if she had been preparing for months for this momentous event, Lauren’s first words were an inviting question and a successful demonstration of counting up to ten. First words are important. They are something we wait and hope for, and if they come, they are something we remember and share stories about them.

So what were the first words of Jesus? Unfortunately, we don’t know those first words of little one-and-a-half year old Jesus. But the first words of Jesus that we do get to eavesdrop on come from the gospel of Luke, when Jesus’ is 12 years old. As the story goes, Jesus is hanging out in the temple, while his parents have been frantically searching for him for days. Between Nazareth and Jerusalem, they have been fearfully looking for him. When they hear that he is in the temple, Mary bursts through the doors of the temple and scolds Jesus for having gone missing. At that moment, Jesus opens his mouth and speaks for the first time by saying, “Why have you been searching for me?” Twelve-year-old Jesus. Lost for three days. He does not say, “Mom, Dad! Thank God you found me. I’ve been so scared!” No, Jesus’ inaugural words, those first red letters in the gospel of Luke are, “Why have you been searching for me?” First words are important. They are something we wait and hope for. If they come, we remember them and share stories about them. So I believe the author of Luke’s gospel knew exactly what he was doing when he inked these words as the first to come out of Jesus’ mouth. These words were not meant just for Mary and Joseph, these words were meant for the reader of Luke’s gospel. When Jesus asks, “Why have you been searching for me?” the words leap off the page inviting the readers to stop and pause, to reflect for themselves, “Why have I been searching for Jesus?” And so as readers of Luke’s gospel, maybe these words are meant for you and I. Why have you been searching for Jesus? What are you searching for? What have you come seeking? We are on that bridge between the end of the past year and the beginning of a new year. What are you searching for in this new year?

Perhaps you are searching for life to feel meaningful? You’re here at church out of habit, but you’re not really sure what you believe but you’re tired of nonsense. Perhaps you are searching for assurance that a loved one who has died is okay and in the company of God. Perhaps you are searching for someone to join you in your joy. Life feels full and exciting right now and you simply want someone to be excited with you. Whatever you are searching for this year, remember that we have a narrative. A story from our community, that has been whispered about between friends, dramatized around camp fires, and passed down from generation to generation. A story about a God that loves creation so much, that delights in creation so much that God chooses to join it. A god that thrusts God’s own self into creation and becomes a part of it. This is our Christmas story. Refusing to abandon it, God in fact is born into this world. Because God is for humanity. God is for creation. God is a loyal God. And isn’t that what we crave? Loyalty. Someone to stand beside us and love us?

Thinking about God’s loyalty reminds me of a story from the president of Luther Seminary.  Years back, President Bliese was interviewing to be a pastor for a church in South Chicago. When he went to the interview, he was asked two questions. The first question was a question about Jesus. Which makes sense, since he was interviewing to be a pastor. But the second question was a little different. The second question they asked him was this: Are you a white sox fan or a Cubs fan? While he thankfully answered correctly (White Sox), it was not until years later that he realized the question really had nothing to do with baseball. But it was a question about loyalty. Are you a white sox fan or are you a Cubs fan? Are you with us or are you against us?

And it is in the Christmas story that we hear God is with us, not against us. God is a White Sox fan. And a Cubs fan, and a Twins fan, even a Yankees fan. Loving and loyal to all. All of humanity and all of creation. So much that God does not abandon this world, but actually enters it, becomes incarnate in this world. And not simply as a child two thousand years ago, but today, God joins us here. This is our Christmas narrative. With a divine love such as that active and loose in the world, we can let go of what weighs us down and we can trust. Trust that when we are overjoyed with the fullness of life, God sings out with us. Trust that when when a loved one dies, they are welcomed into God’s care. Trust that when we are lost and not sure what to believe and what to do, God accompanies and wanders alongside us.

So whatever you are searching for today, know this. Our God is a loyal God. With us, not against us. For creation. For humanity. For you. In all its mystery, this is the heart of our Christmas narrative. Thanks be to God.

AMEN

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Sermon-Luke 21:25-36 – November 29, 2009

Just coming off of Thanksgiving and now at the start of Advent and the Christian new year, I find our gospel text for today a bit unsightly. With the season of Advent, there is much excitement brewing. Christmas lights and Christmas trees are starting to show up, family events are being planed and plane tickets purchased. Church groups are preparing for their events, while choirs and Sunday schools are gearing up for Advent concerts and pageants. Advent is a time that often brings great joy and anticipation. And, yet, the way we kick it all off, to inaugurate the coming 5 weeks is with a text about the end of the world? A text that often brings with it much fear and panic? If not that, then surely a text that rings a bit hollow, because I imagine for many of us, we have little to no connection to a text about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

Sure we’ve seen the anxiety and anticipation that came with the coming of the year 2000 and the Y2K fiasco. And now, we have the upcoming movie 2012, that is creating buzz and fear around the Mayan prediction that the world will come to end on December 21, 2012 from an astronomical anomaly.

Even so, I hardly ever find myself worrying about God destroying this world and saving only the righteous. And in fact, when it comes right down to it, such texts rarely speak to me, and I suspect it might be the same for some of you. But whether this text speaks to us or not, I wonder what such a text might have said to its original hearers, those earlier Christians for whom this gospel was written.

When the gospel of Luke was written, Israelites had recently been at war with the Roman Empire and the temple in Jerusalem had already been torn down. Meaning that the people of Israel had lost their sanctuary, their priests, and their homeland; meaning that the people of Israel likely began to doubt God’s loyalty to them. These early Christians were no strangers to fear and panic, suffering and persecution. So for them to hear this text about nation rising against nation and people fainting from fear is already a part of their present reality. But for them to hear that it is the kingdom of God, this is surely good news. You see, this community would recognize these words of Jesus. Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars was not something new to their ears, in fact it is fulfillment of prophecy from the Hebrew scriptures that God will bring about justice to the earth. Such imagery from Jesus’ words points back to the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel. The phrase ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ points back to the book of Daniel. Even hearing a parable about the fig tree would recall the Hebrew scriptures that use fig trees as a sign of peace and prosperity. Scripture is being fulfilled; prophecies are coming true. This is certainly good news because this means that God’s promises might also be true. There will be an end to the persecutions and terror that these people have endured for centuries; God will remember them and be loyal to them. As the text says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” That is how faithful God will be. When everything else has passed away, God’s promises will not pass away.

While the end of the world and the second coming of Christ was a very real expectation for this community, what is underneath this text and their expectation, is really a desire and yearning for a future that is without conflict and suffering, a future filled with peace and the fullness of life, a future with God.

A desire and yearning for a future that is without conflict and suffering, a future filled with peace and fullness of life, a future with God. Perhaps this is our door into the text today. Because isn’t this something to which we can connect, a deep need for all to be well in the world? Particularly around this holiday season? All too often times of such celebration can also be the most marginalizing times. I think of a woman who told me last week that it is the holiday season that most reminds her of her isolation and disconnection from a conflict-ridden family. Or a neighbor who struggles with the holidays because of family and friends who have died around this time of year. Or all military families separated from their loved ones and fearfully praying for their safety. We, too, are no strangers to such waiting and pleading for a time that isn’t so dark, and perhaps the good news for us is the same: that in the face of such things, God will remember us and be loyal to us.

But this isn’t all the text has to say to us or those early Christians. What is ultimately crucial about this text is that not only does it name the hope that these early Christians cling to, but it gives them a word of direction and command as well. Jesus says to his disciples, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly like a trap….be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Stand up, raise your heads, be on guard, be alert, stand. In the midst of such waiting, Jesus calls his disciples into action. To continue their path of discipleship, wherever it may lead them.

Like the Jews and early Christians, we are a waiting people. Today, waiting for all that the Advent and holiday season has to bring, but also waiting for a very real encounter with God. Waiting for God to bring peace and justice to this world that God loves so much. But it is our path of discipleship that calls us to be active waiters. To not be weighed down with scattered minds and numb hearts, because the world just might swallow us up. But rather to be one who stands up, raises their head, and embodies God’s love for this world. Such action shines light into darkness. Just how in Genesis God calls light into being in the midst of darkness and chaos, Jesus is calling us into being in the midst of darkness and chaos.

And if we stand up and embody God’s love for this world – if we keep feeding the hungry, though we can’t feed them all; if we keep comforting the grieving, though we can’t comfort them all, and if we keep loving our enemies, though we can’t love them all, we just might find that Jesus shows up sooner than we expected. In fact that day after day, Jesus keeps showing up in the midst of our relationships and in our work towards the peace and equality that God is bringing about in this world. This is our light of hope. Again and again, God will be faithful to us, coming to us in the midst of chaos and darkness. For it is as the psalmist says in Psalm 27 that we heard earlier, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” AMEN.