Archive - December, 2013

GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY!

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be anativity_stained glassfraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

(The Gospel of Luke, 2:1-20)

May you this Christmas (literally Christ-mass) reveal the good news of great joy, Jesus Christ is born!  …. For you, for us, for all people!

Bishop Mike Lowry

 

 

 

The Perfect Christmas Gift

The perfect Christmas gift is given.  It is not found under the tree but first discovered out in the stable.  As the giver gives the gift, only one more thing is needed.  Again the story found in Luke’s gospel is instructive.

These low class, no account people called shepherds got it right.  They received the gift.  They didn’t stand around wondering or go immediately back to work as if nothing had happened.  “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, which the Lord has made known to us.”  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; . . . The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:15-17, 20).

They, the least deserving, received the perfect gift from God the giver, the very person of God in the form of a helpless vulnerable baby born to and for all people.  They acted on the reception of this greatest of gifts.  They worshipped and shared the gift with others by telling the story and by how they reached out in love to others.

A great preacher named Forsberg once recalled an incident that happened to him while he was standing in a post office line just before Christmas.  The man ahead of him in line was mailing a birthday gift to a friend born on Christmas day.  “The post office worker shook his head and commented, ‘Boy, that guy’s a loser.  Imagine having a birthday on Christmas.  One present fits all.  Thank God I don’t know of anyone born on Christmas Day.’  The man just behind Dr. Forsberg whispered rather loudly, ‘Thank God I do.’”

What about you?  The greatest gift, the perfect gift is given by God the giver.  It is the gift of God’s love, favor and salvation in the very person of God found in the vulnerable human form of a baby.  Will you receive this gift?  Will you unwrap this package given from God to you?

My friend and colleague Milton Lewis, Pastor of Northern Hills United Methodist Church in San Antonio, remembered the year the perfect gift was supposed to be Elmo.  He wrote perceptively:  “Do you find it curious and mildly disturbing that everyone’s looking for Elmo while no one’s looking for Jesus? Jesus has been here all along. Jesus is available every year. I guess the novelty of Jesus has just worn off.

“I guess that’s the meaning of the bumper sticker, “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” The One who sneaked quietly into human history.  The One who came to set us free and give us eternal life. The One who fills life with meaning. The One who, once you know Him, you aren’t so worked up about whether you have an Elmo or not. Jesus, even though He is available to all and free to all, is still worth seeking. Still worth finding. Still worth knowing. The wise still seek Him.

“Elmos come and go. Jesus endures. You play with Elmo awhile, then you get tired of Elmo and toss him in the closet. Jesus stays with you, abides with you, fills your life with direction and purpose and joy and hope.

“If you come looking for Jesus, you will find Him. We have plenty of Jesus in stock. So this Christmas I urge you: Give your life to Jesus. Jesus, not Elmo, is your passport to eternal life” (Rev. Milton Lewis, Pastoral Letter, Northern Hills United Methodist Church, December, 1996).

This baby is the perfect Christmas gift.  He is God’s gift to us, to all of us.  For now, let us simply receive this perfect gift given by the giver in love. “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” (Luke 2:10).

May we revel in the joy of this present; the wonder and love of it.  God enters the world for our sake through a homeless refugee couple and we, like the shepherds of old, are invited to receive the gift of God’s very person given in love.  Later, much may be required of us; later, we may respond in many ways; but at this time our greatest act can be simply to receive and enjoy this gift.

In this perfect gift there is here for us:

More light than we can learn,
More wealth than we can treasure,
More love than we can earn,
More peace than we can measure,
Because one child is born.”
(Christopher Frey)

 christmas-gift-red-bow

The Light Has a Name

Last January one of the many memorable experiences that took place on our trip to the Holy Land was a day spent in Bethlehem.  I recall the Prophet Micah’s reference to Bethlehem.  “As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.  His origin is from remote times, from ancient day.” (Micah 5:2).  As the reader may well know, Matthew picks up Micah’s comment and quotes it in telling the story of the Wiseman (or Magi) in Matthew 2:6.  Both reference the supposed insignificance of Bethlehem.  Furthermore, Phillip Brooks’ great hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” quickly comes to mind in thinking about Bethlehem.

I almost have to laugh.  The visitor to Bethlehem today encounters a bustling major urban city – an Arlington or Grapevine situated by Fort Worth.  Bethlehem is anything but quiet and little.

Strangely enough (or is it perhaps not strange at all), it was there on our tour in bustling Bethlehem that I experienced an epiphany of sorts.

We stepped of the street, ducked our heads and entered the famous Church of the Nativity.  The church was built over the site of the cave which is traditionally said to mark the stable where Jesus was born.  It was built by a Byzantine pilgrim in 327 A.D. and later rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian in 565 A.D.  It is in so many ways a classic Byzantine place of worship.  Candles and incense settled us into hushed tones.  We slipped quietly into line and when down in to the cave where the birth is reported to have taken place.

I confess, I didn’t find this part moving.  I know I should be more holy but as I knelt on the floor to pray it was hard not think, “Bless poor Mary!  This floor is hard!”

The epiphany for me came as we climbed the stone steps and quietly gathered in the main body of the sanctuary.  With dignified respect, our guide began sharing information about the church and its history.  I stepped back on the edge of the group and gazed around.  There was a hushed quiet in the church.  A moment ago we were a bunch of jostling pilgrims.  Now we were contemplative.

As we stood there, a beam of light broke through a clear window high on the opposite wall.  The printed word fails me as a medium to capture the moment.   The beam shown with remarkable brightness right on the altar.  It felt like a beam sent from God.  With my cell phone camera, I took the picture shown here.

Holy Land 011

For me the symbolism was and still is (pun fully intended!) brilliant!  The Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5).  Teaching in the Temple, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Daily I traverse busy streets in a modern city not unlike today’s Bethlehem.  This time of Advent preparation calls me to stop and reflect again on the light that shines in darkness.  That light has a name.  His name is Jesus the Christ!

The story of the wise men from Matthew’s gospel speaks into my life again, and I, like them, see a star.  “When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”  I hope and pray that – like them – I too might kneel, pay homage and offer my gifts.

Christmas Carols and Blaise Pascal

nativity_stained glassI confess that words of many Advent songs and Christmas Carols move me at a deep level closer to the Lord. Recently in worship we sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The verses swept over me as both a cry from the heart and prayer.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. (Hymn No. 211, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse 1)

The earliest Christians understood themselves as the new Israel and collectively we are captive. At breakfast I perused my way through the front section of my newspaper. The reader can well imagine the headlines and articles – wars and rumors of wars, crimes and corruption, political wrangling and tucked inside, a few heartwarming stories.

Ransom is a strange term for us and yet it describes our need. To be ransomed is to have one’s freedom purchased. A contemporary example might be North Korea’s recent detainment and later release of an 85 year old American tourist, Merrill Newman. Mr. Newman was ransomed for a public propaganda apology. Theologically speaking we all need to be ransomed, released, from the sin, decay, destruction and death that engulfs so much of our lives both individually and collectively. When we sing “ransom captive Israel, that morns in lowly exile here,” it is both a personal and collective cry from my/our heart(s). The carol is an offering to the Lord.

I find myself often overcome with some of the great Advent songs and Christmas carols in similar ways. In a recent blog, I reflected on the hymn “People Look East.” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” captures my spirit with tender prophetic, almost melancholic joy. “What Child is This” becomes a prayer. “Joy to the World” is a full throated act of praise. “Silent Night” expresses the depth of my soul. I have an album by the Contemporary Christian group Selah entitled “Rose of Bethlehem” that I play over and over because it so speaks to my heart! And, the list could go on and on.

I find it fascinating that at this time of year the same could be said for many non- or nominal Christians. There is something about this music, these Christmas Carols, which captures our hearts longing. It calls me back to one of Blaise Pascal’s (a French mathematician and theologian of the 17th century) famous quotes: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

Living in a post-modern age which seeks to move beyond reason in an attempt to get at greater truth(s), the carols give us a point of witness and sharing with non-Christians in a post Christendom era. Reason is not rejected but surmounted by a higher sense of spiritual hunger. Through the carols and there powerful words, God speaks to our age. And, we contemporary Christians are invited to a gracious sharing of the “heart’s reason.” Both the music and the words of witness which stand alongside the tunes call us to prayer, praise and sharing. They beckon for an offering of the “hearts reason which reason knows not.”

A Sign

As we approach Christmas, I cannot help but reflect on our time in Holy Land last January. We got to spend time in Bethlehem. Our visits to the Church of the Nativity were moving. For me, they were precious opportunities of reflection and sharing with our fellow pilgrims. There also was the inevitable time walking through a busy, crowded, modern city on the way to the holy site. I can even remember a knock-off version of Starbucks that clamored for our attention. (It gave us a good laugh.)

All this comes back to me as I head towards Christmas and hear songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The song was written by the famous Boston preacher Phillip Brooks on the occasion of his visit to Bethlehem at Christmas Eve in 1865. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!” (“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 230, verse 4). These words are a prayer which we and our wider world desperately need. We sing in response to God that the Lord might indeed “abide with us.”

Such a song and such a sentiment puts us on equal footing with old Isaiah. Doggedly he haunts the footsteps of King Ahaz as the king goes on his rounds securing the safety of Jerusalem. We think this week has been tough on our country but take that week for King Ahaz and the people of Judah. Eight centuries before the birth of Christ, Israel and Syria had formed a coalition to attack Judah laying siege to Jerusalem. Verse two of the seventh chapter tells us “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2).

About this passage Dr. James Harnish wrote: “For Jerusalem, the military crisis on the outside provoked a theological crisis on the inside. . . . The king was called to lead the nation on the basis of his relationship with God, but Ahaz’s faith had been shattered by the circumstances surrounding him. Under siege by military forces without and spiritual forces anxiety within, Ahaz desperately needed the word he received from Isaiah [in verse four]: ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’ But God’s promise was more than Ahaz could believe” (James A. Harnish, Meet the Son of God, pp. 33-34).

Thus the challenge is given. “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:11). Put God to the test, see if God is real, ask for a sign, insist of the crusty prophet. I confess that I choke at such a thought. Putting God to a test seems incredibly presumptive to me. And yet, there is this deep belief in God’s fundamental trustworthiness to which the prophet challenges my timid trusting faith.

We commonly think of a sign from God coming in spectacular form. Images of a flash of thunder or a blinding light come into our mind’s eye. If we’ve seen too much of Touched by an Angel or a similar television portrayal, then we are sure music needs to be present. Not so for Isaiah: the sign is so common, so everyday ordinary that it can’t be missed.

“Ahaz,” writes Harnish, “responds with mock humility, which fails to hide his lack of faith. ‘Oh, not me! I’d never stoop so low as to put God to a test!’ Isaiah’s response reveals unmistakable frustration: ‘It’s bad enough for you to wear out the patience of men – do you have to wear out God’s patience too?’” (James A. Harnish, Meet the Son of God, p. 34; Isaiah 7:13 TEV).

In confronting Ahaz the prophet confronts me. Isaiah assures King Ahaz that if he will trust God, he and his kingdom will be saved. The King, with his mind made up, ignores Isaiah. He prefers to trust his own political and diplomatic resources. All too often I too prefer to trust my own resources.

Surely the parallels to our own day and time can be seen. How often we come to Christmas like Ahaz, not wrestling with the deeper issues of God’s presence, believing in God all the while living as common deists (those who believe God is absent from human affairs). Is Christmas real? Is God with us? We are tempted to hedge our bets.

In the press of our casual doubt and fast-paced ignoring of God, Isaiah responds to the Ahaz in all of us. Whether we want to or not, we will receive a sign. “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). What could be more common than that?

It is here I must pause and invite the reader to join me in a movement of quiet reflection. In the time of Isaiah it was common to give a child’s name certain meaning. One Old Testament scholar notes that “Isaiah’s [own] oddly-named sons are described collectively as ‘signs and portents’ in 8:18” (John F. A. Sawyer, Isaiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 81). Isaiah is saying to the untrusting King, there will be a kid running by and you’ll look around and realize that his name is “God is with us.” A smiling, laughing, crying face will zip around the corner or yell at a classmate and people will say, “Oh, it’s God-is-with-us.” It is a sign which will be a constant reminder of the very presence of God in your life and in the life of your nation.

To us too is given a sign. In this day of super computers and mega debt, of life crammed to the brim with activities and yet often emptied of substance, in these times of war and political gridlock, a child will be born . . . again . . . “and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23).

Wrestling with Isaiah and John the Baptist

Recently in my Advent preparations I found myself reading Isaiah 35:1-10. It is one of the great classic Advent texts. The reader may well remember the lines. “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” (Isaiah 35:1 – I like the old KJV that it will blossom like a “rose”!) The passage closes with a powerful image: “The LORD’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10)

It is a wonderful passage but I always have to pause and re-read it in the context of Isaiah 34. Isaiah 34 is a passage of gloom and despair. It takes place in the wilderness and wasteland. We who would proclaim the gospel – good news – must remember the two go together. It reminds me of an old story I clipped out of a newspaper a couple of decades ago and used in conjunction with this passage.

“A group of Lutheran ministers were meeting in a Chicago hotel and a fire broke out. The clerics came close to panicking as flames and smoke blocked their normal escape routes through the corridor to the elevators and stairway. They went out onto a balcony to escape the smoke but were ten stories up so there was no escape that way. Then one of the ministers braved the smoke and went through the room where they had been meeting until he found an exit to a fire escape. As one of the ministers said later, ‘One cannot imagine the feeling of relief in hearing and seeing this man come back to us and say, “This way out,” and to see him point the way of escape.’”

The prophet Isaiah speaks to us; to our world on fire and in distress. Isaiah’s word rings through our advent preparation pointing us and all to the way at Christmas, pointing us to the Savior, and saying: “Here, this way out; this way to the prince of peace.” This is the good news we are called to share!

Now place Isaiah next to John the Baptist. Do you recall the interchange between John’s disciples and Jesus? “Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3)

This is, I think, the test of our preparations for Christmas. Do you and I trust the promise and believe the answer given to John the Baptist? Is this baby born the one or shall we look to another? Boldly Isaiah had stated that the answer will not lie within our meager human resources and powers but come from God. “He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35: 4)

The incredible promise from the Prophet Isaiah is answered in the person of this Jesus. And now, now the answer is to be lived. You and I are invited to sing the familiar carols and in the singing confess again the one in whom we put our hopes and trust. The way may not be clear, it often isn’t, yet we know now the one who leads us.

I invite you this Christmas season, in this time of preparation called Advent, to turn Him if you never have before. If for you Jesus is already truly Lord and Savior than I invite you to recommit yourself to trusting in His graceful love and magnificent leadership. Live the promise! The best present isn’t under the tree but rather is the one who walks beside us this day and in all our tomorrows. “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste, to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.” (“What Child is This?”, Hymn No. 219, The United Methodist Hymnal)

The Trajectory of Christianity – Musings on Advent and the Second Coming

The phrase stuck with me out of Sunday morning’s sermon – “the trajectory of Christianity.”  So too did the lectionary passage read for the day – Matthew 24:36-44.  Those who follow the lectionary constantly encounter the juxtaposition between advent – the coming of Christ, God with us in the flesh – and the second (or more properly the return of Christ in His final coming).  In Christian thinking the two are linked.  Advent is theologically yoked to the return of Christ and the consumption of human history.

I must confess that I am uncomfortable with this.  I struggle with its implications for faith, witness and proclamation.  Yet this insistence is built into the most basic affirmation we make in the communion liturgy.  At the culmination of the “Great Thanksgiving” is the adamant confession:  “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”

As I wrestle with the why of this affirmation amid my Advent preparations, in the reflective moments of my quiet and contemplation, the risen Lord speaks to me again.  When I am caught in despair with what appears to be the downward spiral of people and things I hold dear, the Lord God is in charge working into the greatness of a divine culmination that I in my best moments cannot fully see and only dimly comprehend.  That which is dying – nature, the church, people! etc. – is being reborn.  Christ shall return in glory and triumph.  This whole hurting world and all of us in it will be surprised in hope and joy.  The Lord whisperers to me in my doubt and timidity of faith of the Lord’s triumphant glory “on earth as it is in heaven.”  This strange almost bizarre connection between the birth of Christ and the return of Christ offers incredible hope in the trials of the present!  My faith is tested here as the Lord leans over and says, “trust me, trust me, I know what I am doing!”

Unlike other religions, the Christian faith is not cyclical.  We live in a linear faith with a destination in mind – the Kingdom of God under the rule and reign of Christ.  This is not something to be meekly spiritualized nor should it be lightly slid over as unimportant.  Rather the preaching of this season, the songs of hope and faith, are distant calls to a triumphant culmination that offers us a profound, deeply profound, hope that triumphs over sin and death, cruelty and injustice.  We assert such a truth when we affirm in the Apostles Creed “from thence he shall come to judge the quick [living] and the dead.”  Karl Barth reminds us: “In the biblical world of thought, the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; he is the man who creates order and restores what has been destroyed” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 134-135; taken from Give them Christ, by Stephen Seamands, p. 172).

The trajectory of Christianity is a hope-based, joy-filled triumph for all!  We close Sunday worship with a great old hymn whose 5th verse directs our preparation for both the Savior’s birth and for His final return in glory!

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way. 
(“People, Look East” written by Eleanor Farjeon)