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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Are You Ready to Glorify?

Luke 2: 1-20

They were, you know, the very first Christians, these sheep herders at the margins of Jewish society. Scorned by polite society as shiftless and dishonest, shepherds grazed their flocks on land belonging to other people. Living out in the open, they were not welcomed into homes, synagogues, and marketplaces. They smelled like sheep, and that's not a good thing.

Into the darkness of the black Judean night there came a star, and then a light bursting upon the shepherds. An angel, followed by thousands upon thousands of angels, stood in the sky over them. The shepherds were terrified: the sight in the sky was not a being of great benevolence and beauty -- angels are frightening beings who guard the throne of God. The heavenly host are God's army, dressed for battle. For the shepherds, this was the end of the world.

The angel stood before and over them, and, Luke says, the glory of the Lord shone around them. Glory -- the Greek is doxos: it's the same word we use in that part of the worship service called the Doxology. It's hard to translate the word -- it means greatness -- praise -- reputation -- opinion -- dignity -- magnificence. Maybe it means -- WOW! The wow of the Lord was all around them.

Where's the wow in your life? What do you glorify? My dentist is a graduate of the University of North Carolina. Everything in his dental office is Carolina blue. The walls of the office are covered with Carolina sports posters. Every six months I know that while I'm lying in that chair, unable to respond because there are dental instruments in my mouth, I am going to listen to a nonstop dissertation on college basketball and football, about which I care not one whit. He's a great dentist, so I put up with his glorification of Carolina athletics. That, and the state of my teeth, are of first importance to my dentist.

I try to be a Baltimore Ravens fan, but I am so tired of Ray Lewis and other athletes putting on a show when they do what they're supposed to do -- make a tackle, score a touchdown, or catch a pass. In the end zone or standing over a tackled player, they glorify themselves. That's one of the reasons I love baseball so much more than football -- one of the unwritten rules of baseball is that if you hit a home run, you don't show up the pitcher. You drop your bat and run, head down, around the bases. If you show up the pitcher, the next time you or one of your teammates comes to bat, someone's going to get thrown at. You don't glorify yourself in baseball.

Christmas is probably the one time in the year when we can best measure what people glorify -- where they're looking for the wow. My son-in-law, a college professor of religious studies, says that Christmas is our culture's vision of the end of the world. Santa Claus is the Messiah who will come, like a thief in the night, to reward the good and punish the wicked. We will all get what we truly deserve -- that glorious thing that will make us say wow forever. I remember well the glories about to be revealed to me over the years -- a guitar, a tape recorder, a new guitar, a new tape recorder. I remember the year my mother gave Vicki and me a teddy bear for Christmas -- because if you put a teddy bear under the tree, next Christmas there'll be a baby under the tree. The next year, sure enough, there was a granddaughter under the tree. Two years later we gave my mother back the bear -- that was our way of telling her another baby was on the way. That was my mother's wow.

Where is our glory? What makes you say, wow? In the black church, there is a tradition of introducing a guest preacher with flowing praise, and then, when the preacher steps into the pulpit, the first words out of his or her mouth are first of all, I want to give honor and glory to my Lord Jesus Christ. That's a deflection of the glory away from the preacher and to Jesus. In the fall of 1988, Kern Eustler introduced the clergy of the Virginia Conference to their new bishop, Tom Stockton. Kern was brilliant at delivering long introductions of people, heaping glory upon glory upon their heads. After the long litany of praise, our new bishop bounded to the pulpit and said, "You know, I'm still not used to this Bishop title: I keep looking around to see who they're talking about." And then he told a joke about a hunting dog named Reverend, who was mistakenly called Bishop. It went to the dog's head, and afterwards all the dog ever did was sit on his tail and bark. After eight years of Bishop Goodson, who absolutely loved the glory of being bishop, and eight years of Bishop Blackburn, who hated being bishop, it was wonderful to have a humble bishop with a sense of humor who directed the glory somewhere else.

The angels sing of glory -- Glory to GOD in the highest. The wow of the angels is in God, and in what God is doing. That's what angels do -- that's why they're angels -- they spend eternity giving praise to the magnificence of God, and combating everything else that claims that same glory. They don't dance in the end zone when they score -- they run around the bases with their heads down, because the glory belongs to God and God alone.

The shepherds, confronted with the glory in the sky, do the only thing that makes any sense. They descend the hill and find the baby and his mother, just as the angels told them. They tell Mary and Joseph about what they've seen and heard. They don't praise themselves for their faithfulness or for the brilliance of their insight. They follow the trail of glory to the manger, fall on their knees, and glorify the baby and the God who sent him. And then the story ends like this: the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

That's the Christian life, brothers and sisters. We didn't make this story up; we didn't discern it by our great intellects and creativity. Someone sang us a song of a miracle God did down in the manger. We do the only thing that makes sense -- we follow the song to see for ourselves. And when we meet the love of God made flesh in the manger, or in a homeless family, or in the love of a Sunday School teacher, or in forgiveness extended and arms opened, we fall to our knees and worship. We repeat the story, getting it right. And then, we go back home, glorifying and praising God. Glorifying and praising -- God. Not ourselves, not things we can make or buy, not the things we do, not athletes or entertainers or politicians or pundits or artists or lovers -- we worship and glorify God. That's why in this simple story we see the whole life of faith encapsulated in twelve verses. Listen. Go. See. Worship. Tell. Return. Glorify.

So, tonight, listen once again. Go, see for yourself. Worship. Tell the story. Go back. Glorify the One who alone -- alone -- is worthy. Build your life around that glory, and none other.

Are you ready to glorify?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Are You Ready to Rejoice?

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7

When I was a campus minister, there was a brilliant young black preacher at one of the Baptist churches in town who died suddenly. His congregation, his friends, and his wife and two young children were understandably distraught. This young brother was a rising star in the church and in the community -- he was destined for greatness -- but was felled by illness before his prime. I went to his funeral, and sat in the gallery overlooking the sanctuary. The service was moving and powerful, a great witness to this young man's brief impact on his church. At the end of the service, the congregation stood as the casket was carried out of the church, preceded by the clergy and followed by the widow and children. The organist launched into a song I had never heard before, but will never forget. As this young man's body was carried from the church, the congregation sang in full voice,

My God is a good God; He's a great God.

He can do anything but fail.

He can move any mountain out of my way.

My God is a wonderful God.

How could a young widow and her children, and a grieving congregation and friends sing such a song in the face of the enormity of their loss? As the congregation sang the song over and over, it became an affirmation of faith and life. In the midst of that bottomless sorrow, there was joy.

The prophet Zephaniah writes during the reign of the great reformer king, Josiah. The book of Deuteronomy had been found deep within the basement of the Temple, and upon its reading, Josiah had commanded a radical reform of the Temple and the nation to be in harmony with God's law. Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Zephaniah cries. The Lord, your God, is in your midst . . . he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on the day of festival. I will remove disaster from you. . . I will bring you home.

Paul's letter to the Philippians is a letter from a founding pastor to a church he loves more than life. Again and again in the letter, Paul tells the church to rejoice, because the Lord is near. On one hand, Paul believes that Christ will return soon and change the world forever. But it's also clear that Paul understands the nearness of the Lord in a more existential sense: in his great hymn in the second chapter, Paul describes how Christ emptied himself of all divine privilege so he could take on humanity, thereby raising humanity with him in resurrection. That is a future hope, but it is also a present reality: we are united here and now in Christ's death and in his resurrection. All the privileges and joys of heaven are ours right here and now. Rejoice, Paul says, because the Lord is near.

Have you grown exhausted by the commercials, by the ads in your mailbox, by the internet advertising for just the right gift that will make you or someone you love happy forever? I remember the Christmas that my mother hounded my father for what seemed like months for a Stieff sterling silver rose pattern bacon server. Her life just could not be complete without that bacon server. It was a wonder that we had ever been able to eat bacon without it. So, on Christmas morning, there, under the tree, was a box with the silver bacon server. What's the bacon server that you, or someone you love, are searching for this Christmas? Maybe it's something as important as a job. Maybe it's healing for you or someone you love. Maybe it's enough money back in your pension to retire. Perhaps it's someone to love you, or someone to love. Maybe it's a new video game, a new piece of clothing. Maybe it's a letter of acceptance to a college. Or maybe it's a silver bacon server.

I only remember my mother using it once, and it's not in the box with the rest of her silver that I inherited. My mother wasn't any happier after she got that piece of silver than she had been before, because there's no present that comes under the tree that addresses the deeper hunger in every one of us of which unhappiness is only a symptom.

The great British writer C.S. Lewis entitled his autobiography Surprised by Joy because he had searched ever since his childhood for a feeling of wholeness he had known fleetingly as a boy, and had missed for years afterward. His happy childhood had been shattered by his mother's death and by his being shuttled to a series of boarding schools. In his search for joy, Lewis meant not pleasure, but an experience of the transcendent -- something beyond himself and ordinary life -- a glimpse of the eternal that is only partially glimpsed in earthly loves and aesthetics. Lewis sought joy in all the places an adolescent and young adult does -- in art, in literature, in fantasy, in sexual pleasure, in war -- but at best caught only momentary glimpses of the joy he sought. Raised in the church, he became an atheist, then a theist, then, thanks in large part to fellow scholars J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, finally returned to faith in Christ while on a train trip. Lewis said all he knew was that he got on the train an unbeliever and got off believing, but in surrendering his life to God, he rediscovered the deep joy he had been seeking since childhood.

What is this joy that the Bible talks so much about. Jesus says in John 15 that he has given us the commandment to love each other so that his joy would be in us, and our joy would be complete. The German theologian and preacher Paul Tillich had a famous sermon about joy:

Joy is more than pleasure; and it is more than happiness. Happiness is a state of mind which for a longer or shorter time and is dependent on many conditions, external and internal. . . Happiness can stand a large amount of pain and lack of pleasure. But happiness cannot withstand the lack of joy. For joy is the expression of our central and essential fulfillment. No peripheral fulfillments and no favorable conditions can be substituted for the central fulfillment. Even in an unhappy state a great joy can transform unhappiness into happiness . . . For joy has something within itself which is beyond joy and sorrow. This something is called blessedness.[1]

Joy is the expression of our central and essential fulfillment. Full -- fill -- ment: that's why bacon servers, in all their forms, for whatever temporary happiness or pleasure they may give us, cannot bring us the deep and eternal joy that Jesus and Zephaniah and Paul were talking about. God does not want us to walk around empty and spiritually starving: God wants to fill our lives. But only God can fill our lives. Everything and everyone else is only a substitute. Maybe that's why God's Christmas present to the world isn't a bacon server: it's himself. Now, what does that tell you to ask for at Christmas?

The reason that church in Charlottesville could sing joyfully in the face of death is because they knew that even this young man's tragic death could not separate them from God. Their hearts were completely broken; that young family's life was in pieces; that congregation was a flock of sheep without a shepherd. They were filled with grief and sorrow, but the joy that lay under all their sorrow could not be taken away. That's the joy that Zephaniah and Paul point to -- a confidence that knows, no matter what darkness we face at the moment, even the darkness of death, God is in our midst, and will bring us home. That's the peace that passes all understanding, and the joy that never ends.

My God is a good God; He's a great God.

He can do anything but fail.

He can move any mountain out of my way.

My God is a wonderful God.

[1] Tillich, Paul, The New Being, New York: Scribner, 1955, pp. 149 - 150

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Are You Ready to Listen?

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

In 1970, as college campuses were rocked by student strikes and protests over the widening of the war in Vietnam, a small book was published entitled The Late, Great Planet Earth. Written by former Campus Crusade staff member Hal Lindsey, the book became the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970's. To date, it has sold over 28 million copies. The premise of the book is that -- as of 1970 -- the world may be in its last generation before the rapture of Christians and the beginning of a great tribulation preceding the thousand-year reign of Christ. The beginning of the end times was the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, Lindsey inferred, and one generation -- thirty, then adjusted to forty years -- afterwards would be 1978 or 1988. That, Lindsey implied, was about whom Jesus was talking when he said "this generation shall not pass away before all these things take place."

Do you all remember the panic ten years ago that the world -- at least the part of the world governed by IBM-related computers -- was going to come to an end at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve? Preachers had so-called Bible prophecy lined up to prove their case for the end. Of course, those of us with Macintoshes, which had four-digit year clocks, knew we were safe.

For the last two thousand years, there's been no shortage of prophecies of the end -- or of prophecies in general. Augustine thought that when the Goths sacked Rome in 410, it was a sign of the end of the world. Luther thought that the Pope was the anti-Christ. William Miller, a preacher in western New York state, researched biblical dates and carefully calculated that the world was ending in 1844. His followers, who believed they had been spared for a special purpose, are now called Seventh Day Adventists. Charles Taze Russell decided on the basic of biblical study that Christ would return in 1874. His followers are now called the Jehovah's Witnesses. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jack Van Impe, and a host of preachers and teachers have made hay, and some a great deal of money, predicting the imminent end of the world, all on the basis of what they called "Bible prophecy."

Today's lessons are actual Bible prophecy. The Book of Malachi was probably written about 450 BC to condemn priestly corruption in the Second Temple. Today's reading refers to a messenger who will come before God's arrival to purify the Temple and the nation. The messenger may be Malachi, warning the priests to clean up their act before God arrives. Or, it may be a reference to someone who was already stirring up trouble among the priests, trying to reform them. This troublemaker, Malachi says, is God's agent.

In the lesson from the gospel, Luke interprets the mission of John the Baptizer in the light of Isaiah, chapter 40. Isaiah, writing at the end of the Jewish exile in Babylon around 525 BC, was interpreting something that had already happened: Cyrus, King of Persia, had conquered Babylon and had freed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem and their Temple. A great leveling was taking place, Isaiah said, and God was preparing a metaphorical interstate for the Jews to travel back home.

Six hundred years later, Luke looked at the ministry of John the Baptizer, who prepared the way for Jesus by announcing the coming of the Messiah and by calling the Jews to repentance. It was just like Isaiah, Luke said: John was out there in the wilderness, preparing the way. God was at work evening out all the inequities -- the low places and low people would be lifted up, and the high places and high people would be brought down.

As we look at these two passages, it's important to understand what Bible prophecy is, and what it isn't. It is NOT fortune telling or prediction of the future. That is at best the misunderstanding, and at worst the outright lie, that many Christians promote. The prophetic books of the Old Testament and the apocalyptic passages in the New Testament, especially Revelation, are not about the current nation of Israel or the European Union or President Obama or Social Security or nationalized healthcare or Osama bin Laden. They are first and foremost about the times in which they were written: scholars can date the Book of Daniel almost to the month of its writing because its thinly veiled references to King Antochus Epiphanes IV are historically verifiable up to a certain point in chapter 9, but then unverifiable afterwards. The Book of Revelation was understood in the second and third centuries AD to have been written during and about the persecutions of the Emperor Domitian at the end of the first century AD. If you read Revelation with the Bible in one hand and a history of first-century Rome in the other, the book becomes astoundingly clear.

In the Bible, the role of the prophet is not to predict events, but to interpret them. What we see all around us, the prophet says, is part of a much larger picture. Here is what is going on underneath, within, above, and beyond the obvious. So, when Luke appropriates Isaiah's imagery to describe John the Baptizer, Luke is telling us that God is doing once again, through John, what God did before in Babylon: God is going to restore a broken and enslaved people to new life, new faith, and new hope. John was not some accidental crazy man out in the desert: he was part of Jesus' ministry and an agent of God's redemptive work in the world. The power of Biblical prophecy is that again and again it points to God's never-ending work to heal, reclaim, and revive the Creation.

Beware of people, no matter how sterling their pedigree, who use the Bible to predict the future. That's a fundamental -- irony intended -- misuse of the text. The Bible doesn't claim to be a kind of spiritual Farmer's Almanac, telling us what's going to happen and when. Anyone who uses it for that purpose is abusing it. What the Bible does is point us to the meaning beneath the surface. It's true over and over and over because the meaning is always the same: human beings are always trying to live as though God does not exist, and God is always trying to get them to understand how much they are loved and how much better everything would be if they lived in love with God and in love with each other.

If Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, then we need to listen to the prophecies. Not the prophecies of the end of the world and of the conspiracy of the day. We need to listen to the prophecy that says God is always trying to level the playing field, to straighten out our crooked ways of living and moving, to smooth out the roughness of our lives, and to clear all the ways we cloud God's grace, mercy, and love. God is shouting that good news in the sound of sheer silence: are you ready to listen?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Are You Prepared?

When did it hit you on Thursday? Was it before dessert, or after? You know what I'm talking about -- that moment when you absolutely cannot stuff another morsel of anything in your mouth -- when you wonder why in the world you ate that much, and now you're just miserable. Or was it, as threatened to be the case in our kitchen, when everyone has arrived and there's no room on the counter tops for more food and there are too many people in the kitchen and everything is ready at the same time except that you forgot to mash to potatoes and there's no place to do it? Maybe it was later -- at some point during the third consecutive blow-out football game when Uncle Bob is passed out on the couch, snoring -- and you're wondering why you didn't take a walk around the block instead of watching three games you care nothing about. Or maybe it was Friday when you went to the Mall to see how good the specials were, and you were lost in a sea of humanity pushing and shoving each other in the true Spirit of Christmas.

During Holy Week in Jerusalem, Jesus reacts to people marveling at the beauty of the Temple. "The time is coming," Jesus tells them, "when there won't be one Temple stone still standing on another. It's all going to be destroyed." "When?" they ask. Then Jesus tells them what's coming -- wars and insurrections, earthquakes, persecution, signs in the stars and the oceans, and the coming of a messianic figure in the clouds. Pay attention, Jesus says, because it's all coming soon.

Pay attention. Be Prepared, Boy and Girl Scouts would say. Then, in verse 34, Jesus gets specific about how to be prepared: 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. I know what drunkenness is -- I did go to UVa. I know too well what the worries of this life are. What, I wondered, is dissipation? The Greek word here is kripale. This is the only place in the Bible it appears. It's a word that is usually used in Greek medical texts of the ancient world, and means the nausea that follows drunkenness. Jesus says, don't let your hearts be hung over.

What a great text for the Sunday after Thanksgiving and Black Friday. You don't have to have consumed any alcohol to answer the question how many of us the last four days experienced having our hearts weighed down with nausea following excessive consumption? Indeed, how better to describe the whole season between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day as the nausea that follows overindulgence?

Isn't that also what we've been experiencing in our economy the last year -- nausea following overindulgence? Tom Brokaw has a series on TV following Rt. 50 across the country, from Ocean City to Sacramento. This week he profiled a couple and their son, who live in Nevada and are struggling to make ends meet. When times were good, they bought a four-bedroom house, new cars, and maxed out their credit cards. The husband lost his job, and now they're in big trouble. They're experiencing kripale. The environment -- the sky, the soil, the waters -- is experiencing kripale. We live in a kripalic culture, that runs on excessive consumption and even feeds on the attendant nausea. Hung over? No problem. That's what Alka-Seltzer, or credit counseling, or liposuction are all about.

There's an Eastern Shore expression for having eaten too much: I've run aground. It means that your boat is stuck in water that's too shallow, and you can't move. Running aground is dangerous, because if the wind begins to blow, the waves will beat a grounded boat to pieces. When our hearts and lives are weighed down by excess and worry, Jesus says, then we are in danger of destruction. We can't escape.

How do we avoid kripale? It's a no-brainer: don't eat, drink, spend, fret, do, and worry so much. Let me invite you to Advent: Winter Lent. The tactic of the world is to get us to overindulge and over spend and overdo for the next month. The result, year after year after year, is kripale. We collapse at the end under a mountain of fat and bills and junk, and then wonder where the manger was. Look at today's gospel: we can't respond to God's nimble, surprising, and subtle movements in the world if we're groaning in dissipation. Because we're so numbed by this season, we can't notice anything unless it hits us like a two by four. Like any addict, we require larger and larger stimuli to notice anything. But that's not how God works, and it's not how love works. The Messiah comes to a barn in an obscure village, and the only people who notice are shepherds out on a hill and foreign astrologers looking for signs.

I know you're not going to do this, but I'm going to preach it anyhow. Spend the next four weeks making room, not accumulating and buying. Use the bulletin insert with your family or just yourself to spend time in silence, reading scripture, and praying. Instead of buying junk for people you love, give them memories. Spend time with people. Give the gift of yourself instead of something made in China and bought in a store. Go see the Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter. Make a special food together. Go see the Nutcracker, or a Christmas concert. Help the homeless here Christmas week. Visit someone you haven't seen in a long time, and take them something special, or invite them to your house or to a concert. Wait until Christmas week to decorate your house. Eat less, not more. Buy less, not more. Take the clothes you don't wear and the toys you don't play with to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Read a book together as a family. Make some room in your life.

We live in a kripalic culture and have just entered the most kripalic season of the year. Last week I told you that Jesus' kingdom is not from this world, and to stop living like we're from here. Unless we painfully and deliberately do otherwise, we're going to run aground on the dissipation and drunkenness of this culture and this world. We don't have to live that way. We don't have to be numb. We really can pay attention, but only if we support each other in the effort, and take very deliberate steps to live and act otherwise. I invite you to Advent: a time to slow down, clear out, and make room for God to be born in the mangers of your hearts. But I absolutely guarantee that if you buy, literally, into the excess of this season, there will be no room in the inn.

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. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.