Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Angel's Word (Matthew 1:18-25) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you know the story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas?   It's a children's story of the 1950's by Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel. The subtext of the story is a critique on the commercialization of Christmas.  The Grinch is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small" who lives on snowy Mount Crumpit, a steep high mountain, just north of Whoville, home of the merry and warm-hearted Whos. His only companion is his unloved, but loyal dog, Max.

From his perch high atop, the Grinch can hear the noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville.  Annoyed, he decides to stop Christmas from coming, by stealing their presents, ornaments, stockings, trees, and food for their Christmas feast.  He crudely disguises himself as Santa Claus, and forces poor Max, disguised as a reindeer, to drag a sleigh to Whoville, where he slides down the chimney's of all the homes and steals all of the Whos' Christmas presents,  Christmas trees, and the logs for their fire. The Grinch then takes his sleigh to the top of Mount Crumpit, and prepares to dump all of the presents into the abyss.

As dawn breaks, he expects to hear the Whos' bitter and sorrowful cries, but what he hears shocks him.   "They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do! "Their mouths will hang open a minute or two "Then all the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!"  "That's a noise," grinned the Grinch,"That I simply must hear!"  So he paused.  And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.  And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.  It started in low. Then it started to grow...But the sound wasn't sad!  Why, this sound sounded merry!  It couldn't be so!  But it was merry! Very!”

“He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes!  Then he shook!  What he saw was a shocking surprise!  Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing!  Without any presents at all!  They are singing. "Why?" he asks.   And the Grinch, stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?  It came without ribbons! It came without tags!  "It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.   He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming!  It came!  Somehow or other, it came just the same!  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!  "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"  

Yes, Dr. Suess, you are right, Christmas does mean a little bit more, in fact a lot more, than all the commercialization that has envoloped it over the years.   Thank you for reminding us of this truth. 

Commercialization always poses a threat, a threat to stop the true meaning and message of Christmas.  But there are other threats as well.  Busyness can stop Christmas from coming.  We get so wrapped up in the materialism and expectations and pressures and planning of the season, buying and shopping and preparing, that we don't enjoy and experience its central message. 

There are forces like secularism and humanism that try to stop Christmas in our culture.  Atheism tries with litigation to stop Christmas.  The threat of lawsuits is always a good club to use to try to eradicate Christmas from our culture.  We see it in legal challenges to creche scenes, being displayed in the public square. 

We see it in politics, when towns and cities vote to change the name, and call it a holiday parade.  Or when some schools allow Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs, but ban Christmas carols.  Or in some schools where Jewish and Islamic symbols are allowed, but they ban Christmas symbols.  We see it when the language of Christmas  becomes generic, with names like happy holidays or winter festivals.  I personally prefer saying Happy Hannukah or Merry Christmas or Happy Kwanzaa, than simply going generic, because we don't want to offend people.   And yet despite all of these Grinch-like attempts to stop Christmas, once again it is time to hear the joyful story 

And what is that jubilant story of Christmas?  It is beautifully stated in our biblical narrative from the Gospel of Matthew.  “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  And Matthew tells us about Mary and Joseph discovering she was pregnant, and Joseph hears a word from an angel - “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.”  The name Jesus means one who saves.  Christmas announces the miracle of God coming into the world in Jesus to bring salvation.

Christmas announces that God came into the world to save sinners, because the world needed a savior.  We cannot save ourselves.   We invent gods to worship, like power, wealth, hate, empire building, and self.  This truth isn’t a shock to anyone who sees examples of greed, barbarism and bondage that humans apart from God exact on others.  Humanity broke away from God and Christmas announces the glorious news that God sent Jesus to bring us back to be at – one with him.  

Pascal, the French physicist and philosopher said:  “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the creator, made known through His Son, Jesus Christ.”

That’s why God sent us a savior, to break the power of sin, to break the power of guilt over past sins, to free us from the fear of death and from the power of evil, a savior sent to restore our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves.  Salvation is about right relationships. Pastor Rick Warren writes:  “God has a great purpose and a good plan for your life.  Salvation also means being given the freedom and power to fulfill God's purpose for your life.

The Gospel of John says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

A pastor in New Jersey tells about taking his mother into New York City every Christmas to go shopping and look at the decorations in department stores.  The windows of the Macy's Department Store were unforgettable one year.  The first window had a scroll which read:  “The Smell of Christmas is in the Kitchen.”  The scene was an old-fashioned kitchen with a black stove and food cooking on it.  The second window was titled: “The Taste of Christmas is in the Dining Room.”  There was a long table laden with food.  The third window showed a beautiful tree decorated with ornaments and lights, little toys and popcorn strings.  The scroll read:  “The color of Christmas is in the Tree.”  The fourth window scroll said:  “The sound of Christmas is in the carols.”  This scene was a group of animated figures singing Christmas carols.  Then came the store's main entrance.  The scroll in this window proclaimed:  “But the heart and soul of Christmas is here.  In this window, was a stable with shepherds, wise men, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, lying in a manger.” 

Yes, the heart of the Christmas story is that God brought salvation to the world in Jesus.  Praise the Lord.   It is a Merry Christmas because of what God has said and done in His Son.  

And what miracle occurs, when we human beings experience the salvation of our Savior?  I close by returning to the story of the Grinch.   “And what happened then...? Who-ville they say, that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!  And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight, He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light.   And he brought back the toys!  And the food for the feast!  And the Grinch was warmly invited to the Whos' feast, where he had the honor of carving the Roast Beast.”   Amen!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent 2: Spoken to us by a Son (Hebrews 1:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Rev. Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Community Church, tells how one Christmas, he decided to take a survey of Christmas shoppers.  He asked, “What are you celebrating this Christmas?”  People said:  “I'm celebrating that I made it through another year,” I'm celebrating being home with my family,” “I got a Christmas bonus,” “My son is home from Iraq,” “The candidate I voted for got elected,” “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping,” “I'm not celebrating anything, I'm just trying to survive.”  Some pretty good answers, I agree.  But like Rev. Warren said, most answers had nothing to do with Jesus.    Is this a reflection of our modern culture?

Advent is a season where Christians prepare to celebrate an extraordinary event, the birth of a baby, a glorious and joyful occasion.  Christmas sings forth – “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”   Christmas announces a miraculous birthday, the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. 

Humans have long been plagued with a haunting question – Am I alone in this universe?  Is this world impersonal, empty, and meaningless?  Am I a momentary spark in a dark abyss?  Christmas declares that an eternal light has broken into the darkness of the world.  “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”  Christmas is Christianity's answer to that question.  In Jesus, God has made himself known to the world.  We are not alone.

There are some today who see Christmas as an invention of western culture; it's a fairytale, a myth, a legend, a sentimental story about a baby.  I disagree.  Christmas is about a unique and joyous and astonishing birth.  A humble birth, and yet the birth of the Messiah, the king of kings and lord of lords, which occurred in a real world, a world of Caesar's and Herod’s and Pilates, and a Roman Empire, and a Jewish people occupied by a foreign power. 

Christmas announces that Jesus Christ is truly and fully God.   The ruler of the universe, God himself, was incarnate, in the flesh, in Jesus.  In the Gospel of John Jesus says:  “I and the Father are one.” I like the way the letter of Colossians says it: “In Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”   The letter of Philippians says: “Though He was in the form of God, Jesus humbled himself, and was born in human likeness.”   The Letter of Hebrews says:  “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”   This is hardly a fairy tale.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit; his birth was unique, unlike any other birth, this is what sets his birth apart from all other births, and affirms Jesus' divinity.  So on the one hand Jesus is the eternal Word of God, God’s logos, God’s self-communication, God’s self-revelation, Immanuel, God is with us.   

But paradoxically, Christmas also declares just the opposite, that Jesus Christ was a human being.  Jesus was fully and truly human.   The letter of Hebrews says:  “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus likewise shared the same things.”  Jesus was without sin, yes, but Jesus’ flesh was precisely like our flesh.  He got tired, needed rest, became thirsty and hungry   He knew physical pain.  His heart and emotions were like ours.  He experienced joy and elation, as well as discouragement, disappointment, and the pain of betrayal by a disciple.  He felt the stress of daily life and faced the same temptations which we face.   Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus was human, born of a woman like you and I are born.

That God became a human being was a shocking claim then and it's a scandalous claim today.  The Jews considered it blasphemy, an unforgiveable insult and offense to God.  God is a free spirit and not bound by a physical body.   It was shocking to the Romans and Greeks because they held a low view of the material and physical world in contrast to the spiritual world.   The body was a prison house of the immortal soul; God would never take on a body, the claim was disgraceful.   And there are some today who deplore Christmas, they loathe it, and would like to see Christmas eradicated from our culture and will stop at nothing, including legal action, to accomplish this goal.    

What is the extraordinary claim of Christmas?  In Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity are united in one personal existence.  So 2,000 years ago, Christmas was born in controversy, that controversy is alive today, and yet the birthday announcement and celebration continues. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.  In Jesus the God of the heavens stooped down to earth. In Jesus the glory of God appeared.  Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, God one of us.  In Jesus, God entered this world as a fragile and helpless baby.  At Christmas God entered our neighborhood, God moved into our town, our city, our world, God came to be in your life and my life, God came in person to be with us.
It is like a father who is a brilliant astronomer, who on Christmas morning gets down on the floor with his three-year-old boy and plays with him.  In some real sense, he becomes a child again, thinking the thoughts and speaking the language of a child.  The father could espouse lofty ideas about interstellar space, galaxies, astrophysics, and black holes.  But on Christmas morning he was a father, not an astronomer. He talks about simple things in a simple way to a little child.  Does the father lose stature when he is on the floor with his little boy? No. The test of God is not how great God is in the heavens, but how little God is willing to become, in order to reach out to us, His children.

Why did God come into this world in Jesus?  Because God loves the world, because God loves all people, because God love's  you and me.  God came so that we could see him and know him.  God was willing to do whatever was necessary to reach us.   God’s love for us never ends.  God's love is passionate and powerful.  If God had wanted to relate to birds, He would have become a bird, if God had wanted to relate to cows, He would have become a cow, if God had wanted to relate to trees, he would have become a tree, but God wanted to relate to human beings, so God became one of us.  God chose to stoop to our level, and to come to us because we could not go to God. 

The eminent 5th century Church Father St. Augustine said: “God became a man for this purpose.  Since you, a human being could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, God became a human so that following a human, something you are able to do, you might reach God.”

I think of the salient values of the incarnation.  The incarnation means the physical world has value, your body has value, your mind and heart has value, your life has value, because God in Jesus became one of us. The incarnation means God indentifies with our needs and concerns.  God is no stranger to the challenges and trials and sufferings of being human.  God understands the life we live.  For God took on human flesh and lived as we live.  The incarnation means you are not alone, God is with you.

I close with a story On Good Morning America about a family reunion.  It’s about a family from PA.  The mother is a captain in the Army and has been deployed for most of the year in Iraq.  Her husband took their two little boys, ages two and four, dressed alike in little sweaters and pants, to a mall to see Santa Claus.   While sitting on Santa’s lap they tell Santa what they want for Christmas.  Then Santa says: “I have one more big surprise for you.  Look over there.”  And suddenly, the mom steps out from behind the crowd of people; the little boys see her, yell “mom,” rush to her and throw their arms around her, with tears flowing everywhere. 

What is the greatest gift a parent can give a child?   You, your being there 100% with them.  This is what kids need more than anything else.  Loving them, dedicating your attention, time, wisdom, and your energy.   Giving and forgiving, loving and caring, disciplining and guiding, teaching and inspiring.     What is the greatest gift God could give us, coming in person to be with us.  In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.

Let us prepare for Christmas.  Let us get ready to celebrate Jesus’ coming into our lives and into the world.  Amen!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent 1: About that Day and Hour (Mark 13:32-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, tells the story about a little boy named Brian.  For weeks Brian hounded his parents about getting him a watch for Christmas.  Finally, his dad told him, “Brian, if you mention that watch again, you're not going to get it.“  One night Brian's parents asked him to say grace before dinner.  Brian said, “OK but I'd like to read a scripture verse before I pray.  He opened his Bible and read: “I say unto you, what I have already told you before, watch.”

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching and expectations.   We human beings are fascinated by and curious about the future.  We wonder what the future will hold?  We fantasize about being able to see into the future.  We think about our future and the future of our family, our children and grandchildren, we think about the future of our church, our government, our economy, our nation and of our world.  

We question, for example, if we are going to see more violence and rioting in our nation's future like in Ferguson, MS and other cities.   Whether we agree with the official decision about the police officer or not, and while we grieve with the family who lost their son, though protests are protected by the constitution,  violence, lawlessness, burning down businesses and looting go against our values, not to mention the laws of the land.  

Some people are inherently optimistic about the future?  They are positive and see the silver lining in clouds and the light at the end of the tunnel.   Problems and disappointments they see as blessings in disguise.  The glass is always half full.  They look to the future with confidence.  They envision a better future for themselves and their children and grandchildren, a future filled with greater opportunities and achievements brought about by capitalism and free enterprise, science, technology, and sound social policy.
Other people are filled with dread and anxiety about the future, they are pessimistic and negative.   They see the changes taking place in our culture as detrimental to our future.  The glass is always half empty.  They cannot see any silver lining or light in regard to looking toward tomorrow.

How do you see the future?   Without question, many in our day, and for good reason, are filled with uncertainty about what the future holds.  We witness the continuing historic hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, we see how polarized we are in politics and government and in our society at-large, we are witnessing atrocities and unmerciful violence perpetuated by radical militant terrorism around the world including in our own nation. 

And yet, in spite of our questions, our uncertainity and our fears, Advent says don't dismay – you have a bright future, a hope-filled future, a glorious future, look to the future with glad hearts.

Advent says the days are coming when Jesus Christ will return in glory.  Do we know precisely when this will occur?  No.  No one knows, despite some who claim they do know the time and the hour.   Those who make such predictions are at best misguided and at worst deceivers.

We read in I Thessalonians: “Now concerning the times and seasons brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  

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 servants in charge, each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  Keep awake, watch, 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.”  

We are those servants.  Christ has put us in charge.  The master is coming.  We are doorkeepers and we are to be on watch.  The days are coming.  We are awaiting that day and that hour.

Further, Advent says the days are coming when justice will reign throughout the land.   As people of faith, we believe in and worship a just God.  We believe that the concept of justice is grounded in the mind and will of God.  People must act justly toward one another because it is the divine imperative, God commands it, God wills that people and nations treat one another justly, for all of creation is accountable to God. 

The Jewish prophets spoke for God.  The prophet Amos cries out:  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  The prophet Micah cries out: “God has told you O mortal what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

We see examples of injustice in our world everyday.  We see kids bullying other kids on playgrounds,  people shooting others on the streets or in schools, or movie threaters and leaders like Putin of Russia invading countries in order to expand his power and empire.  We see Abu Bakar Al Bagdadi, self-proclaimed Caliph of Isis and the Islamic State, taking over cities in Syria and Iraq, murdering Muslims and Christians and building his army and his empire.    And we are angry, we are outraged, and we are fearful at such injustice in our world.

We see injustice in our criminal justice system.  A man was on trial for murder.  There were many witnesses.  The case was airtight.  That was why the judge almost keeled over when he heart the jury foreman pronounce the verdict.  “Not guilty.”  “Not guilty, the judge shrieked, but how?”  “By what reason?”   “By reason of insanity,” the foreman replied.  “Insanity,” the judge howled, “All twelve of you!”   

That's how we feel when there is a miscarriage of justice.  It's right to bring people to justice.  Whether it is criminal, or economic or social or ecological or moral, we are incensed when we witness acts of injustice. We are repelled when someone gets away with something.  We believe people must be held accountable for their actions. 

And yet in spite of this reality, Advent promises that one day the playing fields of this world will be leveled, crooked things will be set straight, broken things will be set right, and justice will reign.

Finally, Advent says the days are coming when peace will reign throughout the land.   The prophet Isaiah says:  “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”     The prophet Isaiah says:  “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

A Christian recalls her trip to Israel and a sacred moment, when she experienced a foretaste of the peace, Christ will one day establish on earth.  She writes:  “We walked through the dusty streets of Bethlehem town and soon came to the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. We stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding our way downward into a series of caves, Christ was actually born in a cave.

Once there, I was hushed by the holiness of it all. There were candles lit here, there, and everywhere. Hundreds were on their knees in prayer, scattered about on the cold, damp floor. We made our way to the traditional cave of the birth where we read Matthew's story once again. Soon we were singing. "O Holy Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night."

Right there in a church that has been ravaged by war and terrorism and today is owned by four different religious groups, we prayed for peace.  As we left, I passed by all the pilgrims yet again. Some were from Germany, Poland, or Italy and others from England, Spain, or China. They, too, sang and prayed.  Anger and violence wrestled about in all our worlds, but in that moment we had all come together in Bethlehem to worship and celebrate the Prince of Peace who was working shalom into the folds of our lives, as he will, until the day he returns to work it into all things, once-for-all.

Yes, we certainly question whether peace in our world will ever become a reality.  While we await its advent, the scriptures, and our Christian faith, remind us that we too can have a foretaste of Christ's coming peace, when we experience the presence of God.   The prophet Isaiah says:  “God will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on him, because he trusts in God.”

We become anxious when we feel that things around us are out of control.  We like to believe that we are in control.  Peace comes when we rely not on our self-perceptions of control, but when you trust in God's control of events and circumstances.   Though things do get beyond our control, nothing is beyond the control and will of God.  The prophet Jeremiah says:  “Oh, Lord God, It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you.”

Advent stirs our hearts.  It’s a message of hope.  It declares that the future belongs not to evil, not to sin, but to God.    Jesus is coming to establish an unimaginable and spectacular world.  C.S. Lewis writes:  “When the author appears on stage, you know the play is over.”

We are to watch and wait for the day and the hour in the confidence of God's promise.  I close with these inspiring words from the Book of Revelation:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, see the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease, for these things have passed away.”   Amen