Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent 2: The Coming Celebration (Hebrews 1:1-14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father writes: “For two months before her third birthday our daughter Sandie said, "I'm going to have a party" countless times a day.  When her birthday was over, Sandie then told everyone, "I had a party countless times a day."  Finally we told her not to talk about the party any more.  For one whole day, no mention was made. But as I tucked her into bed that night she prayed, "Dear God, I can't talk about it, but thank you for my birthday party."  Amen!  Yes, birthdays are joyful occasions.

In the Gospel of Luke the angel announces: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  Christmas is about joyful news for all people.   Christmas is a time for celebration.  How did the Christmas Holy Day start?  The Bible says: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman.”  We don’t know the precise date of Jesus’ birth.  Christmas was first observed by the church as the birthday of Jesus somewhere around A.D. 325 or later.  St. Chrysostom says that Pope Julius I of Rome, was responsible for establishing December 25 as the birth date of Jesus. 

A Roman pagan festival had been held on this date to celebrate the Winter Solstice, when the North Pole is farthest away from the sun.  It was the feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, which was starting to turn northward once again.   In a bold action, the Church re-instituted a Christian celebration for a pagan feast.   The church was making the culture conform to the faith and introduced a Christian holy day.    From that time to today, December 25th has honored not the unconquerable sun, but the birthday of the Son of God. 

For centuries Christians have promulgated arguments for and against this historical fact.   One argument is that since the roots of Christmas are pagan, with pagan symbols and trappings still attached to it, like feasts and trees and lights and ornaments representing stars and planets, we should not celebrate it.   The Puritans outlawed Christmas in Boston for 22 years and it wasn’t fully accepted until the mid 1800’s.

The counter argument is that the church was being faithful to the commission of Christ to go out and convert the world, to win the world for Christ.  So it was a good thing to turn a pagan festival into a Christian holy day.  This argument asserts that trees and symbols representing stars or planets are good, God made them; lights on the tree are good, God created light and Jesus is the light of the world; singing is good, the angels sang; giving gifts is good, the Magi brought gifts to Jesus.  So you decide which argument you agree with.

Why are birthdays special?    Birthdays say: “We’re happy you were born.  We are glad you are alive for another year.  You count among us and we want to honor you.”   We don’t commiserate with someone on their birthday, dress in black clothing and say: “Oh no another birthday, I’m so sorry for you, I feel terrible for you and immediately burst into tears; no, we say Happy Birthday!”  We don’t say: “Miserable Christmas; we say Merry Christmas!”   Christmas is about a birthday party, the birthday of Jesus the Savior of the world.   There are some spectacular Christmas celebrations of Jesus around the world in cities like San Juan, Puerto Rico, Rome, Italy, and Rio de Janero, Brazil

Yes, Jesus’ birth was forgettable and pedestrian on the one hand, and yet on the other it was an extraordinary birth of historical and cosmic significance.   Remember every time you check your calendar you are using Jesus Christ as your reference point, because history is divided into B.C. and A.D. 

Other holidays recognize but one day; Christmas is celebrated for 12 days.   That seems right to me since it is about the coming Savior of the world.   We celebrate the good news of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds.  It’s good news, no matter who you are or what you have done.  It’s good news, not for a select few, but for all people. 

What is the heart of the good news of Christmas.  It's not –“ Whew, I made it through another year,” or “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping.”   It's not about Rudolph, or Frosty, or Santa, or The Grinch, its this: Emmanuel, God is with you, God is for you, and God loves you.  It’s the good news that God saw that because of sin and evil, the world needed a savior and God sent one.

Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback church writes:  “Christmas reminds us that God is not mad at you.   God is mad about you.”  Jesus said:  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.” 

Christmas declares that God knew that the best way to communicate with us would be to come in person.  If God had wanted to communicate with birds, he would have become a bird, if God had wanted to communicate with dogs, he would have become a dog, if God had wanted to communicate with cats, he would have become a cat, but God wanted to communicate with human beings, so God became one of us in Jesus.   Like when comedian Billy Crystal’s daughter got a call from him saying there was a birthday present waiting for her on the front porch.  She was on the east coast and thought her father was calling from the west coast.  She walked out and saw a large box on the porch.  When she opened it, out jumped Billy Crystal?  

Listen to how the Gospel writer John speaks of Christmas:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”    

Listen to what the letter of Hebrews says about Christmas:  “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, who sustains all things by his powerful word.” 

Christmas announces that God the creator condescended, bent down and got involved with His creatures.  That the God of the heavens decided to get his hands dirty.  The immortal God took on human mortality.   God stepped out of eternity into our time.  God showed up in our neighborhood.   Christian music like George Frederick Handel’s Messiah, Christian art like the Adoration of the Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds, and Christmas carols honor and rejoice in the greatest birth the world has ever known.

Christmas celebrates God’s love. God loved us so much, that he came to earth as a human.  Christmas celebrates God’s revelation, God revealed himself to us in Jesus so we could see who God is and what God is like and come to know him and trust him and follow him and worship him and love him.  Christmas celebrates God’s purpose - God sent Jesus as our Savior to save us from our sins, to enlist us in Christ's service, and to instill hope and joy and strength and peace for our lives today and forever.

Christmas declares the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human.  It affirms the unique unity of God and humanity in this one person.  That is a theological way of saying as scripture does that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Being born accents Jesus’ humanity and being born of a virgin accents his divinity.   Christmas declares that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, the anointed One of Israel, as foretold by the prophets.

A Pastor writes:  “I had to go to church and our 5 year old daughter Lauren remained home with her mother.  When I arrived back home later that day, I saw that our daughter had placed figures of her miniature nativity set at each person's plate.  Apparently shepherds, wise men, cows, and sheep would be joining us for dinner.  Then she raced into the kitchen. "Daddy, Daddy!" "Jesus is missing!  We've looked everywhere and can't find him!"  As I glanced at the supper table, I didn't see baby Jesus anywhere!" We looked high and low.  Then I zeroed in on her backpack which she carries everywhere she goes.  In it she transports her hair bows, her Barbie, her plastic wallet, and gummi bears.  And there, at the bottom of the pack was baby Jesus, ready to go with her to preschool the next day." 

“I later realized that Jesus wasn't "missing in action" at all.  He was in the middle of the action. His place in Lauren's backpack was divinely appropriate.  In the midst of all the symbols of my daughter's interests and activities was the Lord of life.”  “Christmas reminds us that Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.  We are not alone.  God sent Jesus to us and He remains with us in all our days.”   

Don’t let the pressure and stress and preparations of the season, cause you to miss out on the good news, the joy of Christmas.  In the light of this busy season, in closing, listen to a version of the 23rd Psalm that I think is so appropriate for Advent.  “The lord is my pace setter . . . I shall not rush.  He makes me stop for quiet intervals, He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity.  He leads me in the way of efficiency through calmness of mind and his guidance is peace. Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day, I will not fret, for his presence is here, His timelessness, his all importance will keep me in balance.  He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity by anointing my mind with his oils of tranquility. My cup of joyous energy overflows. Truly harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours, for I shall walk in the Pace of my Lord and dwell in his house for ever.  The author is Mother Teresa.

Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, who sustains all things by his powerful word.”  This is the one we shall honor in the coming celebration.  Amen!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent 1: Maranatha (Revelation 22: 12-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember an author who told his story about being adopted.  He barely remembered his birth parents.   He learned as he grew older that his father had abandoned him when he was a baby, leaving him alone with his mother, who gradually descended into the dark world of drugs.   Parents are supposed to care for and protect children, but this didn't happen in his case.  Eventually his plight came to the attention of child protective services.  At age 3 he was removed from his home and became a ward of the state and was placed into the foster care system.   He lived with different families but the situations were less than ideal.   He said it just never seemed to fit.  

He said that from the time he could remember, he had dreamed about a loving family coming to adopt him.  He said he wanted desperately to find someone to belong to and to be able to call them mother and father and to be called son.  He waited and waited and hoped that day would come.  When he was 10 years old, a Christian family came to visit him.  He said the meeting was surreal, it was like they were always meant to be together.  Eventually the family adopted him and raised him with love and guidance and Christian faith.  He said that he was forever grateful to God for sending these people to adopt him after all the years of waiting and hoping to finally belong to a family. 

Yes in life we often find ourselves looking to the future for something.   Sometimes we await with optimism and hope.  Other times we are fearful and anxious about what the future holds, we are pessimistic and gloomy.   How do you look to the future?

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent and Advent is all about looking to the future.  That the future belongs to God and that God will fulfill His purpose for the world are fundamental truths of our Judeo Christian faith.  The future of this world does not belong to the devil, to sinful human eings, to evil, to any political system, to any nation, to any dictator, or terrorist organization, no, it belongs solely to God. 

What does the Bible say about the future, Christ is coming?  God who created this world has a plan for the consummation of all creation.  At Christ's return, the world as we know it will come to an end, and in its place, a new or transformed universe will be established.  No, the world will not be totally annihilated by God, but rather the world will be restored and set right. This is the Christian Biblical world view. 

The Bible paints different pictures about how God will usher in this future – Armageddon, the final victory of God over evil, the Apocalypse, resurrection, rapture, second coming, universal judgment, and glorification.  

It's ironic that another word which occurs only once in Scripture, has become a popular word in the language of the church and the Christian vocabulary about Advent.   Maranatha!  It is an Aramaic word – and it means “Come Lord,” or Our Lord, Come”.  It expresses a profound desire and hope among Christians down through the ages for the cosmic return of Christ to the world.  It is perhaps the shortest of all Christian prayers.  It is a one word prayer, a petition to God, “Maranatha, come Lord.”   I'm sure you appreciate being able to leave church today knowing how to speak some Aramaic.

You see this word, this prayer, this notion everywhere.  There are Maranatha schools in San Diego and around the country, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Maranatha music out of the 70's, Maranatha Book stores, Maranatha chapel,  Maranatha Volunteers International and more.

Jesus said: Watch, hope, wait for God’s future!   Yes, Jesus said watch out for false prophets and false messiahs, but he also said watch for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus also said watch out for wars, famines, pestilences, and natural disasters but he also said wait for the coming Messiah.  Jesus further said watch out for times of persecution, but also watch out for the glorious return of the Lord of Lords.   Jesus always kept the accent on the victory, the triumph, the defeat of evil, the positive outcome, God's fulfilled purpose, the ultimate sovereignty of God. 

And we should too.  Often I hear all about bleak and dire predictions about the future.  We look with fear, with terror, with anxiety, with despair, about tomorrow.   But we as people of faith need to remember who holds the future, who the future belongs to, and whose plans and purpose will ultimately prevail in the future.

I believe with all my soul that Jesus’ is coming again in glory?   Why?  First, I believe it because Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord, the Savior, the Word incarnate declares it to be so!  Jesus says: “You will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.  It is like a man going on a journey when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the hour will come, in the evening, or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn.”   

Second, I believe it because this truth is attested to in the Bible and the Bible is the unique, authoritative and inspired Word of God!  Entire chapters and books of the Bible are devoted to this promise about the coming end of the world.   There are 216 chapters and well over 300 references to the return of Christ.    

Third, I believe it because the Biblical and Christian view of history predicts it!   The ancient Greeks believed that the world  was eternal and cyclical, going round and round like an eternal merry-go-round.   According to our Judeo/Christian tradition only God is eternal. Once there was no world, no matter, no life, no organisms, no cells, no atoms.  God created the world.   Our Judeo/Christian tradition describes it as teleological.   The world is moving toward the end time, to the destination which God has appointed when God’s final purpose for His world will be realized.   Life and history are meaningful not meaningless.   There is one divine, far-off event toward which the whole creation is moving; the final triumph of God.   

Fourth, I believe it because the Biblical view of justice declares it.   We see in history and today as well that righteous and innocent people have suffered and been oppressed and persecuted.   The wicked have prospered.  We have seen horrific examples of evil in the rule of dictators and tyrants of countries who have murdered millions.  Yet, the Bible says we are not to despair.  God is holy.  They will be held accountable before the judge.  You reap what you sow.   Justice declares that Christ there will be a divine reckoning.   

Jesus’ judgment will be a universal judgment, all of the living and the dead.  God will judge humanity’s behavior, good and bad, moral and immoral, good deeds and misdeeds.  He will judge how much light humanity has about God and morality and what we have done with that faith and knowledge.  God will judge cruelty, injustice, oppression, disobedience and faithlessness.   And unlike human beings, and our judicial system, which though a good system in many respects, is imperfect and flawed, God’s judgment is perfect.   God will judge with consummate fairness and even handedness.  

Acts 17:31 says:  "God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

Finally, I believe in Christ’s coming because God loves His creation. God is a loving God, a forgiving God; merciful and kind, empathetic and compassionate, patient and slow to anger.  The God we worship is one who brings hope and new life and new beginnings in the future.    God loves the world and the people he created.   And that’s why the Bible is clear – God will judge the world and purge the world, but God will not destroy it, God will not annihilate the world.  I believe contemporary prophets of only doom and gloom are wrong.   God will renew the world. God will restore the world. God will re-create a new and glorious world.

In the mean time we must keep watch, keep awake, and wait, for we don’t know when Jesus will return.  We must look to the future with hope and not hopelessness, with courage and not fear.   Christ is coming and a new indescribable, unimaginable, and spectacular world will be established forever. 

I close with these inspiring words from the Book of Revelation:   “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Maranatha!  Amen!