Archive for Christmas

Beyond the Prison Cell

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2016 by timtrue

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Matthew 11:2-11

Spoiler alert!

Does anyone in this room believe in an actual, literal Santa Claus—you know, the jolly rotund guy in a red suit with fuzzy white fringe who somehow manages to deliver presents to several billion people all over the world in the mere space of twenty-four hours via a magical sleigh and some flying reindeer?  Anyone?

Well, if so, you might not want to be here for the next few minutes.  I mean, I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this innocent dream of yours.  Far be it from me to point out that people have been lying to you—your brothers and sisters, your parents, maybe even the whole world.

Okay, maybe not the whole world; that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But it might feel that way.

I can remember the day clearly—almost exactly forty-two years ago today.  Mom was out playing tennis.  Dad was tinkering in the garage, probably working on one of the cars.  Point is, both parents were preoccupied.

Technically, I suppose, my brother Andy and I were being supervised.  He was seven; I was six.  But, hey, this was the seventies: technically speaking, supervision meant Dad was home, sure; but in reality his two young boys might escape his watchful eye for an hour or two—or several.

Andy realized this.  He was the firstborn and therefore already quite savvy to Mom and Dad’s ways.  I, however, was the second-born and still the baby of the family, quite content to let everyone else fuss over the details of day-to-day life so that I could focus on what really mattered: not on how things really were but on how things ought to be.

Anyway, Andy, realizing that we boys were out from under Mom and Dad’s watchful eye for a while, stood up and walked across the avocado green shag carpet of the family room and turned off the TV and said, “Tim, I want to show you a secret.”

Secret, did he say?  I’m in!

So I followed him upstairs to the entryway closet.  We entered.  He pulled the string that turned on the single 40-watt bulb that dangled at the end of a cord from the ceiling.  And he shut the door.

Then, inside this secret space, he said, “Follow me,” and he ascended the built-in ladder, pushed open the attic door, and disappeared overhead.

“We’re not supposed to go up there,” I reminded from below.

No response.

Well, what was I to do?  What would you do?

I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.

And to my great surprise there were several beautifully wrapped presents, apparently ready to be set out under the Christmas tree.

Andy had a pocketknife and a roll of scotch tape with him.  How they got there, I didn’t ask.  But by now I was thinking this all was premeditated.

His plan, I learned, was to unwrap the presents carefully enough to find out what our gifts were.  He was savvy, remember.  And his head was rooted in pragmatic reality.

But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.

As such, that morning my world caved in.  For I read a few labels.  One said, “To, Timmy; with love, Santa.”  Another said, “For, Andy; love, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”  And the gig was up.

“Um, I’m leaving now,” I told my big brother.  And without waiting for his approval I left that attic, exited the entryway closet, and went to my bedroom, where I closed the door, fell despondently onto my bed, and cried forlornly into my pillow.

My brother had lied to me.  My parents also, I realized, had lied to me.  Good grief, the whole world had lied to me!

I remember this story from my childhood about this time every year. What triggered it this year was John the Baptist’s question in today’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now, John the Baptist was an idealist.  His head usually was not caught up with the way things are.  Rather, his concern was with the way things ought to be.

We know nothing about his early life, except that he leapt in the womb when he met his cousin Jesus, also in utero.  But we can pretty easily surmise that he spent a lot of his early life in study, trying to discern the signs of the times.  For, as an adult he assumed the role of a prophet.  He knew a lot of theology.  He connected his current, pragmatic world to God’s ideal world—the way the world ought to be, when the kingdom of God becomes reality.

All this was fine during his formative years, when he was able to study.  All this was fine as he began his prophetic ministry, as an adult.  All this was fine when the multitudes came to him to be baptized in the Jordan.  All this was fine when Jesus came to him too; and he publicly proclaimed that here is the very Messiah himself.  All this was fine when his message of the way things ought to be was well received.

But then reality interfered and interrupted.  Herod arrested John and threw him in jail.

Wait a minute!  This isn’t how things are supposed to go.  If Jesus truly is the Messiah, then he should be righting wrongs.  He should be increasing while the powers of this world are decreasing.  Yet Herod has thrown John in jail.  The powers of this world are yet triumphing.  Reality is not allowing Jesus to gain a foothold.  All is not fine now!

And John wonders: Maybe my brothers and sisters have lied to me; maybe my parents and teachers have lied to me; maybe the whole world has lied to me.  Maybe Jesus is not really who I think he is—who I’ve been told he is.

So: John the Baptist, the top kid in the class, the one person about whom the scriptures say no one born of a woman is greater, this John the Baptist asks a question that pesters all of us.

Maybe it only comes around only once or twice in your lifetime.  Maybe it comes around annually with Santa Claus.  Or maybe it pesters continuously.  But here it is: Jesus, are you really the Messiah?  Or are you nothing more than a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

Has my family been lying to me?  Have my teachers been lying to me?  Has the church been lying to me?  Has the whole world been lying to me?

And I’m glad John asks it.  Because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kid to raise my hand and ask a stupid question.

I don’t want everyone else to know that my faith is a struggle; that my faith is weak; that maybe at times my doubt is in fact stronger than my belief, maybe even for long stretches of time; that I often wonder if I even believe at all anymore.

I don’t want to be the one to admit I’ve lost my faith, especially when I’m sitting here in church!

But what about when I’m sitting in my own prison cell, and it sure seems like Jesus isn’t doing anything about it?

We all have them, you know: our own prison cells.

You might feel imprisoned by large events in the world: terrorist acts; supernatural disasters; large-scale events that produce chaos.  You sit there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless to do anything about them.

Or your prison cell might be a past relationship gone bad, and now it’s impossible to seek any kind of reconciliation.  You’re there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless, a cell made for you by another person.

Or your cell might be past mistakes you’ve made as an individual; and now you must face the consequences of your past choices, consequences you’re powerless to change.  Your cell has been made by your own hands.

Whatever your prison cell of brokenness, you are left with no other alternative but to cry out to a savior.

But what if your savior doesn’t deliver?  What if Jesus does not do the things you always thought he would?  What if Jesus does not do the things everyone always told you he would?  What then?

Has your family lied to you?  Has the church?  Has the whole world been lying to you?

I’m glad John the Baptist asks this question from his prison cell today.  Aren’t you?  For he’s the top kid in the class.  And if the top kid in the class struggles with this question, somehow that makes it okay for me and for you—for us—to struggle with this question too.

Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of this sin-infected world?

Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

So, guess what: Jesus does not answer John’s question directly; which compels me to think, by extension, that neither will Jesus answer our doubts directly. We’re talking about faith, after all; not proof.

Nevertheless, Jesus does give John a kind of answer.  And it is this: look outside your prison cell.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And I imagine John’s response: “Fine and well, Jesus—for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the half-dead, and the poor.  But what about me?”

I know it doesn’t feel like Jesus is saving the world as you sit there in your prison cell with John the Baptist.  But Jesus says to look outside your own prison cell.  And, when you do, if you are able, what do you see?

Despite all the bad news, great strides are being made in the world towards liberation—from oppressive governments, from poverty, from illiteracy, from terrorism, from disease.

And it’s not just global society I’m talking about: great strides are being made right here in Yuma County.  And it’s not just the corporate: we hear an awful lot these days about individual mental health and personal wellness.

All around us, people are being liberated.  Take a look beyond yourself and see and hear it.  Any time we see or hear about liberation for a person, a family, a community, or the globe, this is Jesus at work.  And this gives up hope.

But what about those people who just can’t do it?  What about those who just cannot seem to see beyond their own prison cells, no matter how hard they try?

If this is you, please, I ask, let someone know, someone you trust, someone who might be able to help you in your prison cell.

But know this.  Even there, imprisoned and unable to see beyond the very walls of your cell, Jesus is with you.  You have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  Whatever dignity you can find within yourself, whatever self-respect, there is comfort: Jesus in you.

Comfort, comfort, ye my people, says the Lord.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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Smack Dab in the Middle

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 1:1-14

The book of John is one of four Gospels in our New Testament: one of four books in the Bible that specifically proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Yet John begins not by connecting his Gospel to the other three Gospels.

The other three Gospels start with the human person Jesus.

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail.  A son is to be born of an unmarried maiden.  How scandalous!

Luke goes on to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark—a little different—begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John doesn’t begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with Jesus the divine: the logos, the Word.

And in using these words—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things:

  • In the beginning was the Word;
  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

So, for a little while anyway, let’s set aside what we normally focus on throughout this day—little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, the Christmas child—and spend some time together contemplating just how these two cosmic events are connected.

Just how is Christmas connected to creation?

Well, for starters, John says, “In the beginning was the Word.”  But in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void; and darkness was everywhere.  So, where does the Word fit into creation?

Just here: God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God also said, “Let there be dry land”; and there was dry land.  And God also said, “Let the waters teem with life”; and it was so.  And so on.

God spoke.  God used words.  And through God’s words—through God’s Word—all came into being that has come into being.

Most of you know by now that I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis’s children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  There are seven books in this series.  The first is called The Magician’s Nephew.  In this book, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth.  What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s description of creation—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence.  The children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them.  It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it.  It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky.  As more and more appear, the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Abruptly the music grows loud and strong.  The children now realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

All at once, in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song for a time and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Now, dazzled by the sudden appearance of such a bright, young sun, the children look into the distance and see a figure approaching.  It is the singer of this wonderful song: a lion, Aslan (they will soon learn his name).  Aslan is singing all things into existence.  And Aslan, if you know anything about the story at all, is an allegory of Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word.  And God said—or, maybe, and the Word sang—Let there be light.  And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.  But why not?  John’s Gospel is highly poetic.  Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  And the Word—spoken, written, sung, it doesn’t matter—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

Another connection between creation and Christmas: in Genesis we read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; and in John we read, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

What did light do at creation?

Before light was spoken into existence, the earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything.

Darkness covering everything shows up in another book from The Chronicles of Narnia: in The Last Battle, the seventh and final book.  Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.  And, of course, this book relates the final judgment.

All creation is summoned to Aslan.  And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day.  All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

At last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right.  And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness.  For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?  And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero.  The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead.  There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness.  It provided heat.  It provided life.

At Christmas a new light has shone forth.  Christmas has brought new life to this old creation.

One more connection between creation and Christmas: the Word of God, this new source of life, has become flesh and dwells among us.

Think back to creation.  Where was God’s dwelling place?  Where did God dwell among us?  Wasn’t it in the Garden of Eden, right alongside the Tree of Life?

And where does Jesus dwell among us today?

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book.  And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not always in the flesh.  Occasionally he shows up on the page of a book; or a person thinks she sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he shows up in another person’s dream.  He’s not a tame lion, you know.

But that’s just John’s point.  Jesus shows up where we would expect him too, right here in church—the Garden of Eden for the new age.  But he also shows up when and where we don’t expect him—in a conversation with a stranger, or at the dinner table when we’re simply laughing with friends.  He is the Word, after all.

On the flip side, sometimes he doesn’t show up when we expect him too; or he shows up in a different way than we ever expected, and only later we realize we missed him.  We can’t put a box around Jesus.  Aslan’s not a tame lion.

Christmas, then, is not just the story of God coming into the world in some backwater part of the Roman Empire.  Today we don’t just remember that God is involved in the intimate details of each of our lives.  Looking at Christmas through the eyes of St. John the Evangelist—and with some help from that modern evangelist, C. S. Lewis—today we see that Christmas is much more.  Today, we see clearly that Christmas is smack dab in the middle of the grand sweep of salvation history.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And thus we’ve crossed the great threshold of time.  The old is passing away; the new is here!

Merry Christmas!

Preparing for Christmas Company

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on December 7, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

Luke 3:1-6

Last week I pointed out an odd contrast we face during Advent. We walk down the aisles of local stores, maybe sipping on hot chocolates, shopping for gifts, listening to happy music, enjoying a sort of idealistic cheer as we remember Christ’s first coming, the Christmas season that’s everywhere around us.

Yet the Gospel was apocalyptic.  We heard about portents in the skies announcing Christ’s second coming and unknown distresses and fears for people: the end of the world as we know it.  Throughout Christian history, people have interpreted these portents in excessively gloomy ways.

On the one hand, then, we experienced idealistic cheer; yet on the other, excessive gloom.

The key to maintaining balance between these two attitudes, I said, is hope.  As we simultaneously look back in time at Christ’s birth and forward in time to his second coming, we maintain an attitude of hope.  The advents of Jesus give us reason to hope even though our world is falling apart.

This week we find a similarly odd contrast. Except now it’s not so much about attitude as it is about action; not so much about what we’re thinking as what we’re doing.  This week’s contrast deals with preparation.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

It’s that time of year again.  In just nineteen days you’ll be exchanging gifts, and, my, oh my, the house is a wreck.  Extended family is coming and why is that pile of clutter on the counter suddenly so big?

And so you clean; you decorate; you string lights up—on the tree and on the house.  You bake; you host; you attend Christmas parties.  And, if you’re like some people I know, you fix things—that broken doorknob; that burned out lightbulb; that loose handle on the chest of drawers; that leaky faucet in the guest bathroom.

The advent of guests has caused you to look at your home a little differently.  With a higher degree of scrutiny than normal, a kind of self-examination, you prepare for your guests’ arrival.

Then you come to church and hear today’s Gospel about a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to picture John the Baptist running around frenetically, trying to get his home ready for visitors.  I mean, the wilderness!  Locusts and wild honey!  Garment of camel’s hair (that likely hasn’t been laundered in months)!  Unkempt appearance!  He just doesn’t strike me as the type who’d be concerned about a leaky faucet.

Yet here is his message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

And you want to answer, “I am preparing already!”

But something about this contrast suggests that this yours not exactly the kind of preparation John has in mind.

Or is it?

John’s way of preparation can be summarized in one word: repentance.  It’s what he called the people of his day to do as they prepared a way for the Lord, as they made straight crooked paths.  It’s what the prophets of the OT called Israel to do as well.  And it’s what Jesus calls us, his disciples, to do.  It’s an important word and concept.

So, what does repentance have to do with our Christmas preparations?

A popular teaching likens repentance to a U-turn.  A person who has repented from sin, for instance, is said to have turned away from it completely, as if he was headed in one direction and then made a U-turn and now is heading in an entirely different direction.

We see this picture of repentance in the Bible, when Jesus has a conversation with a certain rich young leader.  “Teacher,” the young man says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.”  The young man says, “All these I have kept since my youth”; to which Jesus replies, “Go and give all you have to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”  The young man, we read, goes away sad; he is unable to part with his things.

The lesson is, so I’ve heard anyway, this young man didn’t fully repent.  He didn’t make the U-turn Jesus required of him.

But this picture of a U-turn is a bit too simplistic, don’t you think?  We’ve got our modern lives.  We have work and family obligations.  Surely Jesus doesn’t want us to walk away from our responsibilities, does he?

Well, like I said already, it’s not that simple.

Some people may in fact need to make a U-turn.  The rich young leader needed to, we assume.  A clearer example, if crasser, comes from prostitution.  We all know Jesus spent time with prostitutes.  But undoubtedly he did not approve of their profession.  For them, following Jesus meant making a definite U-turn.

Perhaps you need to make such a U-turn too.  If you are involved in a profession that doesn’t bring glory to God—such as prostitution—repentance for you means making an abrupt U-turn.

But I don’t know of anyone here who fits this category.  Instead, for all of us—I’m pretty sure—it’s not so easy as this.  When we come to Advent each year, Jesus is not asking us to make a complete U-turn, to run in an entirely opposite direction from what our life is currently all about.

Rather, for all of us, it’s more of a re-orientation.

For all of us, it’s more like Zacchaeus.

Remember him?

Jesus hung out with prostitutes.  He also hung out with tax collectors.  Jesus expected prostitutes to leave their professions.  But he didn’t expect this of tax collectors.

Later that day—after Jesus spotted him up in the sycamore tree, commanded him to come down, and spent the afternoon at his house—what does Zacchaeus do?

I’ll tell you what he doesn’t do.  He doesn’t leave his job.  He doesn’t abandon his wife and kids.  He doesn’t give everything he has to the poor.  He doesn’t change very much of his outward life at all.

What he does do is have a change of heart.  No longer will he cheat anyone of their money.  And if anyone has any just cause against him, he vows to repay them four times what he owes.

Repentance is less a U-turn than it is a re-orientation.

So: here we are, in Advent, preparing our homes and lives for the first advent of Jesus, Christmas; but also preparing daily to meet our Lord at his return, his second advent. What does repentance look like for us?

Our preparations give the answer.

Right now, we’re looking around with an eye we don’t always use.  We’ve been going about our daily routines for months: waking up when the alarm clock goes off, cooking breakfast, getting the kids to school, going through our work days, coming back together at the end of the day, going through our evening routines—dishes, laundry, bills—our normal mode of life.

But now, what with Christmas around the corner and presents to buy and lights to hang and trees to decorate and Christmas cards to get out in the mail and family coming to visit and—  You get the picture.  Right now, we’re looking at things a little differently than we normally do.  That clutter on the counter that’s been accumulating for months so that we hardly even notice it anymore—now, all of a sudden, it’s a huge eyesore and (doggone it!) I need to do something about it before the company arrives.

We’ve re-oriented.  During this time of preparation, we’re looking at our homes with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  We’re seeing things we don’t normally see.  All of a sudden the pictures on the walls are tilted and there are cobwebs on the ceiling fans.  All of a sudden, some things are amiss.

And so, with this new perspective, we do something about them.

And why?  Why have we re-oriented?  Why do we scrutinize ourselves more carefully at this time of year?  Why do we clean and repair and decorate?  Why do we bother with all these preparations?

It’s for love.  We love our guests.  And we love Jesus.

It’s just the same with your self, your soul.

Jesus is coming.  He’s your spiritual company.  You love him.

Don’t you think the right time is right for a re-orientation?

Look at yourself a little differently during this Advent season, with a higher level of self-scrutiny.  Examine yourself, making crooked paths straight as you prepare a way for the Lord.  Re-orient yourself.

Incarnation Trumps Sentimentality

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by timtrue

John 1:1-18

There’s quite a bit of sentimentality that accompanies the Christmas season in modern America. Do these sayings sound familiar?

  • Jesus is the reason for the season
  • Keep Christ in Christmas

But we know there’s more to it.  Christmas is about the Incarnation:

  • He came down from heaven;
  • He became incarnate;
  • He suffered, died, and rose again;
  • And he ascended to heaven, where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Descent and ascent.  And this is all true!

But there’s even more to it than this.

And here, in today’s passage in John, we are invited to go deeper.  For the Gospel writer John starts talking about Jesus in a different way than the other three Gospels.  John doesn’t start with events surrounding Jesus’s birth—as we read in Matthew and Luke; John doesn’t start with the events surrounding the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—as we read in Mark.  Rather, John starts at the beginning of all things.

“In the beginning,” he writes: a direct reference to the first words of the Bible.

So what happened when God created the heavens and the earth?  “In the beginning was the Word,” John continues.  “And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.”

So, John points out, in the beginning Jesus Christ, the Word, was there.  At the beginning of all things, it wasn’t just God the Father there creating it all.  The Word was there too.  He was with God.  And yet, enigmatically, he was somehow also God.

So when we think of the Incarnation, we shouldn’t limit our thinking just to the sentimentality of the season. Also, we shouldn’t constrain our thinking to descent and ascent.  The Incarnation, rather, has always been present.

Now, this eternal perspective puts something of a different spin on how we view the holiday season at the end of 2014.

“Jesus is the reason for the season,” yes; and we should strive to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  But the Incarnation runs so much more deeply.  The Word of God has become flesh.  The creator of the universe has descended to human realms of time and space as a baby named Jesus.  The God of all things has been born in a manger!

Think about Jesus’s life—what we know of it uniquely from the Gospel of John.

John tells the story of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader and teacher who came to Jesus in the dead of night out of fear of what the other Jewish leaders would say.  But Jesus doesn’t reprimand him.  Rather, he has compassion and tells Nicodemus a glorious and paradoxical parable about being born again.  Out of this story comes the most quoted verse of the Bible, in fact: John 3:16: For God so loved the world. . . .

John tells the story of Lazarus.  Remember this one?  Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is sick.  But he doesn’t go to him right away.  When he finally does arrive, Lazarus is already dead.  In fact, he’s been dead so long already that there is a stench.  Lazarus is dead—and decaying!  Mary and Martha seem both desperate and hopeful.  Then, right here, before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, what does he do?  He weeps!  Jesus, incarnate God, weeps with his friends!

There are other revealing stories unique to this Gospel too:

  • Jesus stoops and writes some unknown message in the dirt before a crowd ready to stone a woman caught in adultery—writing until all the crowd departs.
  • Jesus rebukes his stingy treasurer, a guy named Judas, for his reaction to a woman pouring expensive ointment on her savior’s feet.
  • Jesus heals a man born blind—and compassionately loves him after the synagogue excommunicates him.

What do these stories teach us?  Jesus knew all the joys and heartaches we know.  He was compassionate.  He was loving.

God is beyond our comprehension in many ways.  But we know God through Jesus Christ, the Word, the Incarnation.

The Incarnation, then, is not the sentimentality of the season. The Incarnation is not some dried up, old academic theory.  The Incarnation is not ancient history, irrelevant to us and the lives we live today.

Rather, the Incarnation is the living and present Word of God.  He forever has been; he forever is; and he forever will be.

We encounter him here, at church—in our fellowship with one another; in the Bible, the Word of God, read and proclaimed; in confessing our faith together in the Creed; in our prayers; and especially in Communion.

But we encounter him not just here.  We encounter the living Word, Jesus Christ, every moment of our lives—if we’re paying attention!

He’s with us in the making of lunches, in the folding of laundry, in taking out the trash and doing the dishes, and in the daily commute.  He’s with us at the family holiday meal, in the games we play together, and in the opening of presents.  He’s with us, too, in the eyes of that homeless person who sits in the downtown park across the street from St. Mark’s.

Jesus is the reason for the season, yes; but Jesus, the Word, the Incarnation, is also our reason for striving to live faithful Christian lives every day, throughout the year, regardless of the season—lives faithful in what we say and think; lives faithful in what we do; lives faithful to the Incarnate God who dwells in us.

May our prayers be not only in our hearts, but also in our hands and feet.

Venerating the Manger?

Posted in Homilies with tags , on December 25, 2014 by timtrue

manger

Luke 2:1-20

I begin with a comparison and contrast, to establish context.

Before getting into the details of Jesus’s birth, Luke mentions Caesar Augustus.  Caesar, meaning emperor.  And all the world knew it!—or at least all the world that mattered, the same all the world that was called to be registered for a census.  Augustus Caesar: after whom the month of our calendar is named; deified by the Romans after his death; called king of kings and lord of lords by upper and lower classes alike.

No small amount of pomp and circumstance accompanied him wherever he went, throughout his life.  It didn’t matter who you were or what social class you belonged to: whenever his cavalcade approached you had to stop whatever you were doing and focus your attention on him.  He was Caesar, after all; and could favor you or smite you as a god.  Indeed, songs, poems, encomiums, even hymns were written about his birth, life, and death.

In contrast, we turn to the baby Jesus.  By all accounts—except for one, which we’ll get to in a moment—his entrance into the world is anything but pomp and circumstance.  His mother and father are traveling by foot, more or less, with one small donkey, in order to register for this mandated census.  Later we hear that they offer a dove as a sacrifice—the allowable sacrifice for the poorer classes.  When Joseph and very pregnant Mary knock on the door of an inn, no special favors are made for them.  There is no political clout; no bargains are struck.  In fact, when the baby is born, he is laid in a manger, the feeding trough of an animal.  By all accounts Jesus’s birth is altogether ordinary.

But then a few shepherds show up.  They’re dusty with work, maybe even sweaty, grimy, and smelly.  This fact in and of itself is perhaps quite ordinary too, on the surface.  For the baby is in a manger: perhaps Mary, Joseph, and the baby are in the shepherds’ work space; perhaps the shepherds are coming into a stable in order to grab something needed out in the fields.  Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary here—at least on the surface.

But then the shepherds start to tell their story.  “Amazing!” one exclaims.  “Unbelievable!” cries another.  And Mary and Joseph begin to piece together that the shepherds saw something, a vision maybe, or more!  One angel with a message, and then a great multitude of them, apparently, appeared to these guys in the field.  And the message?  This baby—you will know him because he is lying in a manger, of all places!—he is the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Lord.

And as hearers of this story we think: Maybe this birth isn’t so ordinary after all.

So here’s our contrast.  By all worldly appearances, Caesar is king of kings and lord of lords.  He has come from the upper classes, he has gained the upper hand on all his enemies, and he is the emperor over all the known world.  He has all of the pomp and circumstance to show it.

On the other hand, this baby Jesus has nothing to show.  He is born into a low socioeconomic class, into a nationality that is subject to the oppressive hand of Roman oversight.  By all worldly appearances, his birth is entirely ordinary.

But what about heavenly appearances?

This baby’s birth is heralded by a vast multitude of heavenly hosts!  Not even the emperor Augustus can claim this credential.  Is this baby, perhaps, the king and lord even of Caesar himself?  Is Jesus the true King of kings and Lord of lords?

With this context in mind, let’s turn our attention to the manger.

Three times it is mentioned in this passage.  The first is in the narrative: after Mary gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.  The second mentioning is in the angel’s message to the shepherds: “You will find a child . . . lying in a manger.”  And the third is again in the narrative: so the shepherds went and found the child lying in the manger.

The manger, mentioned three times, is significant.  But why?

The answer comes in the middle, in the message proclaimed to the shepherds by the heavenly messenger.  Just before the angel says, “You will find a child . . . lying in a manger,” he says, “This will be a sign for you.”

The manger is a sign.  It is the defining object by which the shepherds will know who this baby is—this ordinary baby that is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord of the universe.  The manger points to Christ.

The problem comes when we forget this.

I have a dog, a nine year-old Labrador Retriever named Arwen.  The other day I spilled some food on the kitchen floor.  And I thought, well, I’ll just let her in and she’ll lick it up lickety-split.  Easy schmeasy!  But when I put this plan into action—when I opened the back door, whistled for her, and she came bounding into the house, happy, tail wagging furiously, and drooling—I pointed at the food and said, “Eat, dog!”  But she didn’t.

Instead, she looked (not at the floor but) at my finger; and started licking it!  She smelled the food, sure.  But when I pointed to it, instead of her looking to where I was pointing, she made the assumption (a perfectly natural assumption for a dog, I suppose) that the food was in my hand, not on the floor to where my finger was pointing.  So she licked my hand—to her disappointment!

Sometimes I have to wonder if we’re like my dog–we, meaning our culture.  I wonder if we look at the manger and get so caught up in the quaintness of the story that we forget the deeper, more significant meaning, that it is a signpost merely pointing us to the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

I wonder if we get so caught up with the quaintness of the season—all the wonderful lights and decorations, the shopping, the hot chocolate, the family time—that we get distracted from the deeper reality that is Christmas.

I wonder if the gifts we give and receive become such a beckoning and inviting pointer finger that we fail to see past them, to the greatest gift that has ever been given and received.

Whatever the case, not here, not now!  Not us!  We–not the broader culture, but we who are here today–we have each taken time out of our busy, holiday-dazed lives to gather this morning.  Here we are considering the manger.

But today the manger has taken on a different shape–a deeper, more profound shape.  Today we come not to a feeding trough but to a Table, the Lord’s Table; also a signpost of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord of the universe.

From a worldly and cultural perspective, what we do here today might look and feel quite ordinary.  But from a heavenly point of view, we are joining a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

God’s Christmas Gift to the World

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on December 25, 2013 by timtrue
English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Isaiah 9:2-7

Merry Christmas!

This morning I’d like to offer some thoughts about God’s gift to us, his Son, Jesus Christ, from the reading we heard from Isaiah.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” it begins; “those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

There is a contrast here between darkness and light.  What does this contrast represent?

Twenty years ago I would have said that the darkness here represents people who know nothing of Christ.  The Jews, to whom this passage was first written, why, they knew nothing of Christ because they had lived before his time.  As for the Gentiles all around them, well, they obviously knew nothing of Christ either: they weren’t God’s chosen people, the people through whom God would redeem the world.

Also, so my reasoning went, there are many people in our world today who do not know Christ.  Just think of all the world religions that claim that he is only a good teacher and not the Savior of the world.  These, I said, are the people in darkness today.  They need a light.  And that light is Christ.

So, twenty years ago, in my youthful zeal to serve God—not to mention in my youthful conviction that I had unlocked secret truths of the scriptures—I was ready to sell all my worldly possessions and move to Botswana, or Myanmar, or China, or Russia; to somewhere, anywhere, that was in need of Christ’s soul-saving light.

Fortunately, Holly wasn’t ready to make such a move with me.  She keeps me grounded.

Now, however true all that stuff may be—that there are many places in the world that could benefit from the soul-saving light of Christ—twenty years later I see that this is not what Isaiah is saying after all.  Not at all!  For the rest of the passage—even all that familiar stuff we hear sung year after year in Handel’s Messiah—is all about politics.

Listen to just a sampling of phrases:

  • “You [i. e., God] have multiplied the nation”—Isaiah was addressing a national issue, not just one about an individual’s salvation from sins.
  • “They rejoice . . . as people exult when dividing plunder”—plunder is the wealth that comes from military victory.
  • “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken”—yoke, bar, rod, burden, oppressor: these are words conveying slavery.

This whole passage is politically charged.  It is about a specific kind of liberation: not about one individual being freed from his or her own sins, but about one nation being freed from the domination of another, like when God freed the nation of Israel from the oppression of Midian.

Remember that story?  It involved a certain judge named Gideon.  The nation of Midian—a distant relative of Israel in fact—was bullying Israel.  Israel would plant crops.  And just when the crops were ready for harvest, numerous Midianite troops would move onto the Israelite fields, consume the crops for their own purposes, and trample what was left over.  In this way the people of Israel went hungry and cried out to God.  He raised up for them a judge named Gideon who miraculously delivered Israel from the bully Midian’s hand.  Read all about it in Judges 6-8.

Point is, this is the type of deliverance from oppression Isaiah is talking about.  It’s corporate.  It’s relational.  It involves one society against another.  It’s not individual—as I once believed, and as a good part of evangelical America believes today.

So, what are we supposed to do with this information?  Isaiah tells us that Christ came into the world to deliver one nation from the oppressive rule of another.

That mold certainly fit with what was going on in Jesus’s day.  The strong and mighty Romans ruled far and wide.  The ragtag Jewish nation in Palestine felt Rome’s presence continually.  They longed for deliverance, for the day when once again there would be a king like David, a man after God’s own heart, on the throne, ruling with justice, peace, and righteousness.  It was a nice dream for them, sure!

But what about for us?  We live in a day, by and large anyway, when nations cooperate with one another.  America doesn’t overwhelm, suffocate, and suppress other nations.  What does Isaiah’s Christmas message have to do with us?

I remind you, this is a good problem.  It wasn’t so long ago that a political man was trying to establish a world-wide tyranny.  That man’s name was Adolf Hitler, and he liked to refer to himself at the Kaiser.  Kaiser, by the way, is the German derivative of Caesar, itself an idiom for emperor.  Adolf Hitler fashioned himself as emperor of the world.  The world has made a lot of progress since WWII—progress for which I am grateful, and progress to which I give Christ all the credit.

But what we see here, in a word, is injustice.  God’s gift to the world, according to Isaiah, is to bring justice where it is lacking.  And regardless of whatever else we can say about our world today, there’s more than enough injustice.

Injustice happens at global levels, as it did with the Roman Empire, and as it did during WWII.

But it happens at smaller levels too.  This word we’ve heard several times today, nation, gets translated into English in other ways.  It can also mean people—as in, my people and your people—or race, or tribe, or clan, or even family.  Does injustice ever happen at these levels, between peoples, between races, between tribes, between clans, between families?  Let’s take it a step further.  Does injustice happen between individuals?

Of course it does!  And putting a stop to this—to injustice at every level—is God’s Christmas gift to us.  Shouldn’t you give the same gift whenever and wherever you are able?  It doesn’t matter if you live in Botswana, Myanmar, China, Russia, or right here in San Antonio.  Spread the Christmas gift of justice whenever and wherever you find it lacking; and in doing so you will spread God’s Christmas gift to the world.

String (of Bad Luck) Theory

Posted in Family with tags , , , , on December 23, 2013 by timtrue
English: Christmas Lights in Downtown San Anto...

Christmas Lights in Downtown San Antonio (photo credit: Wikipedia).

“Things come in threes,” the old adage goes.

I’ve got a threesome for you.  On Saturday night I took my family to see a Holiday Pops concert in San Antonio.  It was given by the San Antonio Symphony and the San Antonio Mastersingers, a group to which I belonged once upon a time, as a tenor.  They always put on a good show.  So I was fairly excited about this opportunity, my Christmas gift to the family, all seven of us.

The first of this trinity of bad luck happened at dinner.  I’d made a reservation for 6pm at a local favorite restaurant.  I’d made it, in fact, that very morning, at about 10am.  “We’ll have a table for seven ready for you at 6pm,” the guy said on the other end of the phone.  I should have asked him his name.

I’d picked the time of 6pm strategically.  This would afford us some temporal cushions in the slight chance that something were to go wrong–oh, I don’t know, like maybe if there were excessive traffic, if we were to find full parking lots downtown, or even if, say, the restaurant were to lose our reservation.

Which they did!

More on that in a minute.  But at this point I just have to digress a little.  Notice in the final sentence of the above paragraph that I am using the subjunctive mood.  Sadly, this mood doesn’t make it into many English grammar texts anymore.  But it’s a very telling mood–when used correctly and when the author and readers know what to look for.  Hence my digression.  Anyway, all that stuff about “if there were . . .” “if we were . . .” and “if the restaurant were . . .” incorporates this mood, the subjunctive.  What this mood conveys is the hypothetical.  It’s not really supposed to happen.  So, for instance, consider this brief example: If we were to have gone to McDonald’s for dinner, then we all would have thrown up.  The “if we were” part of this sentence tells the hearer that there really is no possibility of it actually happening.  So, really, the sentence should be read like this: If we were to have gone to McDonald’s for dinner (but we never actually would have because we all saw the movie Supersize Me), then we all would have thrown up (but, in reality, since we never would in fact have gone to McDonald’s, throwing up shouldn’t be a worry either).

Got it?

So, this restaurant with which I’d made reservations for 6pm, and which verified that a table for seven would be ready for me at 6pm, well, it defied the subjunctive mood and lost our reservations.  Surely, the guy on the other end of the phone failed English!  Anyway, we had to wait twenty-five minutes to get our “reserved” table.  Then, somewhat regrettably, dinner felt a little rushed.

During dinner my four year-old son didn’t eat a thing.  He’s a little picky by nature, but he should have been feeling peckish.  It was 6:30 after all, and he normally eats closer to 5:30.  And this was Mexican, meaning some of his favorite foods: chips and salsa, tortillas, tacos.  But all through the meal he ate nothing.  He even–and this is highly unusual–lay down.  Yeah!  Right there in the crowded restaurant, sprawled across the booth!  At the time my wife and I agreed that he simply must be tired from the high Christmastime activity levels.  Yeah, we assured ourselves, that’s it.

So much for the first episode of bad luck.

The second was indeed traffic.  Remember that subjunctive mood explanation above?  Again, the world of hypothetical became reality.  We left the restaurant at 7:20 and made it downtown by 7:30.  This really should have given us plenty of time to park, walk to the theater, and find our seats before the 8pm curtain call.

Now I’ve been downtown many times before.  I’m usually quite savvy in the ways of San Antonio.  But, alas, the parking garage I was aiming for was full.  Then, unlikeliness of all unlikelinesses, traffic came to a complete halt.  Yeah!  Dead still in downtown!  Long story short, fifty minutes later we pulled into a parking spot three blocks from the theater–a parking lot I had driven by at 7:25 in fact.

While all this second-of-the-bad-luck threesome was going on, the four year-old boy slept.  Again, this was an unlikely circumstance, for at least two reasons.  One was that downtown was chock-full of Christmas lights, and he absolutely loves Christmas lights.  So that was weird.  But also, his four teenage sisters were singing Christmas carols, gawking, joking, and otherwise trying to console me in my disbelief of the subjunctive defiance I was experiencing, besides my personal abhorrence at being late to anything.  Point is, it was downright noisy in the minivan.  Yet the boy slept on.

Now I should have seen more clearly the third part of our bad-luck sequence approaching.  But I was not altogether in my logical mind, so emotional had I become over said subjunctive defiance.  Yet I did see it coming more clearly than anyone else.  For I was holding the groggy boy in my arms as we traipsed the three blocks to the theater and he burped one of those suggestive burps, you know, when vomit might soon follow.

So, despite the ten bucks we’d just paid for parking, not to mention the small fortune I’d spent on tickets for the concert, I stopped and said, “Maybe we should just forget about the whole thing.  We’re already a half-hour late.  And the boy ain’t feeling so well.”

But no sooner had these words left my mouth than I felt like Bard of Laketown in The Hobbit from all the glaring eyes upon me.  A prophet has no honor in his home town!

So we went to the theater, found our seats at an appropriate time, enjoyed a grand total of one complete piece performed–an awesome arrangement of Carol of the Bells with the largest hand bells I’ll likely ever see–before the boy barfed.  Yep!  All over me (he was on my lap), himself, and–sad to say–a couple people in front of us.

So it was merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  We high-tailed it out of there and made a bee line for home, where we have been living happily ever after since, without further incident.

Strange how that adage has a ring of truth to it.