Sunday, December 27, 2015

Becoming a Person of Life-Giving Radiance - How Does That Happen?

I’ve been wondering lately.  What happened to sunny Florida?   We still get sun, but, it hasn’t been as sunny as normal.   Have you noticed it, the rain, the clouds, even the sticky humidity?   Isn’t summer over?    

But I still remember what it was like when I lived in the Northeast, and that was far worse.  I’m not talking about the cold and snow.  I could handle that.    No, what really got to me was the lack of sun.  Week after week I would wake up to a smothering blanket of clouds.   Sure it was light.  I knew the sun was there somewhere.  But I couldn’t see it.   No one could.   And not seeing it drained me.  It was awful.

In fact, not seeing the sun is so awful, so draining for many folks, that they get seriously depressed, even kill themselves.   It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD (which is kind of appropriate).  Doctors even prescribe sun lamps to keep these SAD folks healthy when they lack sun. 
Now here’s the stunning truth, Jesus expects those who follow him to be as life-giving as the sun, lights shining in the midst of a dark world.  He even called us that.  He said in Matthew 5.  “You are the light of the world.” And what is the light of the world?   It’s the sun.  

Christians should be so incredibly life-giving, that when you don’t see them around it depresses you.   Can you imagine if that were true?   If someone didn’t hang around Christians for a while, they’d get depressed.  Doctors would even diagnose it, SCAD (Scarcity of Christians Affective Disorder).   They’d ask you to get some Christian friends so you’d feel better. 

But how does that happen?  How do Christians become that life-giving, that vibrant and joyful?  It has happened before. It’s how the church spread from a few hundred followers to millions in the space of a few hundred years.   But how did it happen?  How can it happen again?    In these powerful prophetic words, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

It’s stunning really.    Isaiah talks about a time when those who follow God will shine so radiantly that entire nations will be drawn to them.  The rulers of the world will come “to the brightness of your dawn.”   How do followers of Jesus become radiant like that?  Here in Isaiah, God tells us.    It happens when the ultimate radiance, when God, the source of all life, truth and beauty dwells within us.   And how does that indwelling happen?  It happens when we grasp the truth of who we are, and see the beauty of what God has done for us.  The more we do, the more God’s life grows within us.
After all any light we have comes from God.  And that’s where Isaiah begins.   He talks about God as the Sun, as God’s coming as the dawn.   And what an image that is.   Have you even been at the ocean at sunrise, seen how dark it is, and then that first glimmer of light on the horizon, how it stretches and grows.  Before you know it, that rising sun has literally lit up the world.  It is amazing, and it happens every day!  

Yet how we take the sun for granted.   Do you realize nothing living would exist without it?   But beyond simply the life it gives us, it gives us truth too.   We see things more clearly in the light.    In the end it is only light that enables us to see anything.  But beyond truth and life, the sun gives us beauty.   The sun opens us to the vibrant colors of the world.   Its very presence makes the world more beautiful.   What a great image to use to describe God.  Even so, it’s limited.

After all, God doesn’t simply give life to this planet.   God gives life to everything.  God undergirds all of reality.   Without God, reality would collapse.  Now, some folks wonder.  Well, if God is that huge, why don’t we have more evidence of God?   Well, if you are part of reality, it’s going to be pretty hard for you to discern what lies beneath it.    Heck, when it comes to reality itself, we know so little.  Do you know how much of the universe we can actually see, and I’m talking with telescopes and colliders, everything we have?   4%.  That’s it.  Why? Because the other 96% of the universe doesn’t interact with light.   Light passes through it like it’s not even there.   We have no clue, even now, about 96% of the universe.      

But God doesn’t simply undergird all reality, from God comes all truth and beauty.   Only in God do we see clearly.    And all that is beautiful comes from God.   God is the author of all beauty. 
But Isaiah doesn’t stop with God as the sun.   Isaiah tells us that this God will shine upon us, that through us, God’s radiance will shine into the world.   In that radiance, war will end.   Beauty will blossom as never before.   And all the world will see in us the life of God bursting forth.    Now Isaiah is giving a vision of the final day, of the end to which God is moving all history.   Still, that light should be showing a bit right now, that radiance should be starting to shine forth already.   But how does it shine forth?  How does that light grow within us?  

Well, let me first tell you how it doesn’t happen. If I had a brick here, and I piled up another brick and another brick and another.   You would say that the bricks are growing, yes?  But a few years ago, we also planted some trees down where we have the pumpkin patch, and when we planted them, they were maybe 15 feet tall.  But now I look at them, they must be almost thirty feet tall.   That’s some growth, yeah?   

God grows the life within us the same way that tree grows, but too often people think that God’s life grows in us like the bricks.    They think.   Ok, if I attend worship, serve the church, do the right things, obey the rules, if I pile up good deeds, then the life of God grows within me.  But God’s growth doesn’t work that way.   The life of God doesn’t grow mechanically in us like brick upon brick.   It grows organically like a tree.  

That’s why you can have people who can be part of a church for years, and still pretty much be the same people they were when they first came in.   Whatever good deeds, they’ve piled up on the outside hasn’t changed anything on the inside.   It’s all mechanical.   Do you realize that two of the most famous Christians ever, Martin Luther and John Wesley, were both ministers before either of them became Christians, before, by their own accounts, they experienced the life of God in them. They were both doing lots of good things.  But they were growing like a pile of bricks not like a tree.  They were not changing on the inside.

If you’ve been a Christian for a while, are you a happier person than you were two years ago?   Are you harder to discourage?  Are you humbler, able to take criticism better?  Are you wiser, more self-aware than you used to be?   Do you worry less?   If you don’t know, ask someone close to you.  Am I growing?   I wonder how many of you won’t ask simply because you are afraid of the answer.  But here’s the question.  If it’s not happening, are you children of the light then?   Has God’s glory really appeared over you?   Because if it has, then you grow, not simply in the things you do, but who you are.   The light of God changes you.  God’s life lives within you.  You grow in love and peace and joy and patience and humility and wisdom and self-control.   And if you grow like that, than you become incredibly attractive.  

In the early days of Christianity, so many believers were persecuted that the church had to worry about informers infiltrating their gatherings.  So non-believers, the non-baptized, could not come to worship gatherings.  The Deacons even served as bouncers to keep them out.   But the church still grew remarkably rapidly.  So how did it happen, if you couldn’t even invite your friends to hear the preacher?  It happened because simply the lives of Christians magnetically attracted others.  Their generosity, their kindness, their integrity; how they welcomed others into their homes, even strangers; how they handled suffering and how they cared for the poor; all of it stunned those around them. It made them irresistibly attractive.

So how does that sort of attractive, magnetic life happen?  Let’s go back to that Sun metaphor. The light and life of God grows within you when you see two things: when you see the truth of who you are, and the beauty of what God has done. 

After all, when the lights come on, what happens?  You see things. When God’s light dawns in you, you see things in yourself that you never saw before.

When I was in college, my friends and I went to a dance club, called the FOE club.   Now it wasn’t the fanciest club in the world, but I thought it was still pretty nice.  But I only saw it in the dark.    But then, I visited the club during the day.  What a shock!   The placed looked awful, worn, stained carpet, tables with water-marks and nicks, holes in the ceiling.   It was revolting.  After that, I never saw the place the same way again.  

So how do you know the light of God is dawning in your life?  You have a FOE club experience.  You see yourself like never before, and what you see isn’t pretty.  You see your flaws, your dirty places; stuff that you made excuses for before, or didn’t even see.   The more the light of God dawns in you, the more you see that stuff.  That’s what it means to become a Christian.  You look at your life, and you never see it the same way again.

Before the light of God dawns, you look at verses like we’re going to look at in Romans in the New Year.    “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No one is righteous, no not one.”   And you think.   How pessimistic!  How exaggerated.  I know lots of good people.   I’m not perfect, but I do good things.   But when the light comes on, you realize.  If everything, even my very existence, comes from God, then everything I do should be for God.  But you realize.  You’ve probably never done anything for God ever.  Even your good deeds weren’t for God.  You did them to get praise, to feel good about yourself.   Even your religious deeds were all about you.   And you see that everything in your life is tainted by that, twisted by it into something not pretty at all.    And if you don’t see that yet, then the light hasn’t come on.  

But when that light does, when you see the truth of who you actually are, it leads you to the beauty, to the beauty of what God has done for you.  Verses ten to sixteen here shows you that.    God is speaking to a people that he has sent into exile because of their evil.   But now he says though I struck you down in anger, now I will have mercy on you.   Though you were forsaken and hated, now I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.   Then God says, then you will know that I the Lord, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the mighty one of Jacob.  

If you had been an Israelite hearing that, that God would be your redeemer?   You’d think.  I can’t take that literally.  That’s crazy.   Why is it crazy?   Because not just anyone could become a redeemer.   In Israel, if you got so far in debt, that you could not hope to pay back your lenders, you had one hope.   You needed a redeemer.    But only a member of your family could become that.  And that member had to take on everything, the entire debt.   Only that would save you.  Now do you see how weird it is for God to say that?  An Israelite would think. God can’t be a member of my family, can’t become my blood, much less cover all my debt.

But now we know not only that God can, but God did.   Jesus in John 5 lays it right out.  He says.   I am the Light of the World.   I am the Glory of God dawning upon you.   I am God come to be your kinsman, your blood.   I am God come to redeem you.   How did Jesus redeem us?   How did he pay our debt?

Isaiah 60 shows us.   Jesus was struck down in anger, so that we might find favor.  Jesus was forsaken and hated so that we might become a joy from age to age.  On that cross, darkness literally fell upon Jesus.   The light of the world fell into darkness.   What does that mean?    If God is light, then the further you are from God, the darker things become.  It’s a darkness that takes you away from the source of all life and beauty and truth.  That’s the darkness that came over Jesus.   He became cut off from God, totally and completely, utterly forsaken.  Why?  So that we would never be forsaken.   He took on the darkness we deserve so that he might give us the light; that we might become the radiance of God.   And when you grasp the beauty of that,  the depth of that love for you.   It changes you.   It frees you.   You live in confident humility. Why?  You know how cherished you are.  You give of yourself freely.  Why?  You see how freely God gave himself for you.   That’s how it happens.  You see the truth of who you are.  You see the beauty of what he did.  And in that truth and beauty, the life comes.  And in that life, you become more than you ever dreamed that you could be.  You become the light of the world.  

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ringing in Hope, Ringing in the Light

I love trivia.   I don’t just love it because it makes me a wicked trivial pursuit player, though it does.  I love it because a little known fact can change the way I see the world.  One piece of trivia can cause me to see things I always took for granted in a whole new light. 

Take these handbells here.   Did you know in the middle ages, we baptizedthe bells?   Folks believed that once a bell got baptized, it could ward off evil spirits.  So when people died, they had a ringer come in and ring the bell at the bedside as the person passed.   Otherwise the evil spirits that hung around would seize the person’s soul as they died.  The bigger the bell you rang, the better; bigger bells kept the evil spirits further away. 

That’s why people started hangingbells in the doorways of their homes.   They thought that evil spirits were always hanging around outside just waiting to get in.   So if you rung the bell when you visited someone, you’d chase them away.  You’d both protect yourself and them too from the evil spirits lurking about.   That’s why even today we have doorbells in our houses.   After hearing that, will you ever take for granted your doorbell again?     

And I’m sure glad that we had a lot of bell-ringing today.  We need it.  Our world needs it. In the last months, we’ve seen how evil can hit us anywhere.  Death and mayhem can come in ways and to places we could never have imagined.  We live in a world that can be very dark.  

But in the face of such darkness, Christmas comes with a profound response.  That’s why we celebrate it at this time of year.  We don’t know when Jesus was born.   Our best guess doesn’t lead us to December, but maybe the fall or the spring, but definitely not the winter.   So why do we celebrate his birth now?   As Christianity spread, it connected to people who had other traditions, ones often rooted in the seasons.  So, folks would hold a celebration called Yule around the time of the winter solstice, the time when the nights were longest, and they days shortest.   They did so to remember that even in the dead of winter, soon would come the new life of spring.   What better time to celebrate Jesus’ coming than then, early Christian leaders thought, a time when darkness hangs so heavy.  What better time could there be to remember the coming of the light of God’s love to the world.    So around the year 300, Christians set Christmas in the darkest days of the year.

Still in the midst of these days of terrorism and uncertainty, it can be hard to see that light at times.  Fear can hold us instead of hope. How do you not let the fear take hold?  How do you live in the hope and confidence of the good news that proclaims no evil shall defeat Jesus’s love?  In these words, words written in the midst of darker days than these, God shows us the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say. 

As Zephaniah shares this incredible song of joy, his nation has suffered under the two worst kings in their entire history, Amon and Mannaseh.    And Zephaniah knew just how bad they had been.  He saw it up close.  He was a member of the royal family.  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see how angry their abuses made him.  Yet here he closes his writings with exuberant joy?  What’s up with that?

Zephaniah understood that these evil kings hadn’t written the end of the story.  God was writing that.   That’s why Zephaniah can write a song of joy even after the calamitous rule of two kings.  He knew that somehow, some way God will work it out.   The darkness would not win.   God’s light would shine through.  And as crazy as that sounded, he was right.  After the reign of those two horrible kings, God brought to the throne, a young boy, named Josiah.  Josiah became, after King David, Israel’s greatest king.

But Zephaniah wasn’t simply pointing to Josiah.  Zephaniah was looking further ahead than that.   Zephaniah was telling us that, even when it may not seem that way, evil is dying.   The light of love is spreading.   God is making what is broken whole.    Zephaniah was looking ahead to the One who would bring that light of love like no one else, to the coming of the one whose light would shine in the darkness as no other.   

And indeed here we are, 2000 years later, looking back at that good news that Zephaniah could only look towards.   And indeed in spite of this world’s brokenness and pain, that light still shines.   Indeed it has changed the world.  Too often in our world, we hear all the bad news.  But in reality this year has been the best yet in human history.   37% of the world used to be desperately poor.  Now less than 10% is.  Violent crime is at at its lowest level likely ever with 600,000 less violent crimes in this country alone than 20 years ago.  Today more kids are in school than ever.   Polio has been virtually eradicated, and measles outbreaks have been cut by 2/3s saving 17 million lives.  And these transformations happened because of the transforming value that followers of Jesus brought to the world.   Today, what began in an obscure Roman province in a small town among a poor family now captures the world.   If God could in that small event change the world so profoundly, do you really think some hate-filled extremists in the Middle East are stressing him out?  

So in those moments, when you sense the darkness rushing in, the fear rising up, the discouragement seeping into your soul, ring the bells.  Let the light shine in.  Christmas is coming.    And when you see the darkness that lies in your own heart, don’t let that deter you either.   As the great song-writer Leonard Cohen put it:

Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

When you see the cracks in you, and in our world, remember that in those cracks the light of Jesus shines.    His perfect love will cast out your fear.   His faithful presence will make room in you for hope and joy.  His light will overwhelm your darkness.  And you will experience that hope that no circumstance can take away.   You will know that God’s love will win, because that love has won you. But Jesus didn’t simply come to let the light shine in.  Jesus came so that together we might shine the light out.  The more we let Jesus work, the brighter the light of his love will shine into the dark places around us, turning our world from violence toward peace, from vengeance towards compassion, from death towards life.   That is the call of Christmas, to let that light shine, to let it shine brighter and brighter until by God’s grace, there lives only the light of God’s love. 
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in

In the name of the God who first loved us, who gave his life for us, and who is doing more in us and in our world than we could ever ask or dream or imagine. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Don't get distracted. God is Working in the Small Far More than the Big.

I still remember the thrill.   I walked into that big room, with those video cameras rolling around on wheels, cables slung in every direction.   And there before me, stood the bleachers I had seen on TV, filled with lucky youngsters such as me.  Now it was my turn.  I was appearing on the Bob Brandy show.   If you grew up in Chattanooga, TN in the 70s or 60s for that matter, nothing was bigger than Bob Brandy, our own TV cowboy.  (His real name was Robert Brandenburg – I don’t think I need to tell you why he shortened it.)

Each weekday, and then on Saturdays, Bob would appear with his beautiful wife, Ingrid, and his horse, Rebel.   (There they are).  Each week, lucky kids from the TV audience would sit on Rebel, and try to throw a ball into a barrel.   That might not sound exciting now, but when I was seven, it sounded awesome!

I don’t remember much about my time on the Bob Brandy show except that it did kinda did feel awesome.   But today when I see what appears on TV, I don’t feel so awesome.   I see reports of mass shootings or politicians snapping at each other or the latest horror from ISIS.   The ads urge me to buy things I can’t afford.  The shows highlight people who gain fame by behaving rudely or acting stupidly.  It’s not all bad, but I gotta tell you.  I kinda miss Bob Brandy.  Do you know what I mean?  Do you ever get discouraged about what appears at the center of our culture; about what gets rewarded in the halls of power?    Does it trouble you how often the evil or simply the shallow seizes the world’s attention? And all of that attention carries power, power that can lead you to distraction, to lose focus on what ultimately matters.  How do you deal with a world that highlights so often the wrong things?  And how do you make sure you focus on the right?  In these ancient prophetic words, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

The world around us often centers its attention, even its praise on things that are hollow, even false.   How do you deal with that?   And how do you not get swayed by that attention?   How do you live a live that centers on what really matters rather than one that gets distracted by what doesn’t matter at all?  

Here God shows us the way.  God reminds us.  The truly great things rarely get noticed. The significant things rarely appear on TV.  Why?   Because God works in ways so obscure and small, you can hardly see them.  Yet in that obscurity, God is doing things so great, so utterly huge, they can hardly be believed.  

That’s what this first prophecy points out right at the beginning.   It tells us that God’s deliverance is coming from, of all places, Zebulun and Naphtali.   Zebulun and Naphtali were in the far north of Israel, right on the border.  And by Isaiah’s day, hardly any Israelites even lived there anymore.   That title Galilee of the Nations means literally Galilee of the Gentiles.  Do you get how weird this is?  Shouldn’t God’s deliverance happen in Jerusalem, the center of things, and not out in the boonies, where few Israelites even lived?   Yet Isaiah tells us.  No, God’s deliverance comes from here.  
And not only that, what will God’s deliverance be?   Isaiah says it will be a child.   But then Isaiah gives us the names of this child.  Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.   Do you see what Isaiah is doing? He is giving this child divine names, not just divinish names, but names like Mighty God.   Isaiah is telling us.  God isn’t just sending you some great king or prophet.   God is sending himself.   The creator of the universe will become a human being.  

The Child that was ere worlds begun
    (…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
    Is playing with a little hay.

The child that played with moon and sun is playing with a little hay…In no other religion do you find this, a God who becomes an utterly vulnerable part of his creation like this.   And in case, we still didn’t get it.   In Chapter 11, Isaiah makes it clear again.   He tells us in verse 1 that a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse.   That makes sense.   Jesse is the father of King David, the greatest King of Israel, and so this baby will come from his royal line.  But then in verse 11, he tells us this.   On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.  Hold on.  You’re telling me this child is the root of Jesse.  How can he come before Jesse, who has been dead for a thousand years?  But that’s the stunning reality that Isaiah is telling us.   This child will be both shoot and root, will be both human and divine.  And what will this child do?    Will he conquer Israel’s enemies, make them a great kingdom again?   No, forget that.  This child will transform nature.  Wolves and lambs will lie down together. Lions will eat hay.  God’s presence will fill the world as waters fill the ocean. 
Do you see how incredibly big this is?    Yet how will it happen?  It will happen in the most out of the way place you can imagine.   It will occur in the smallest way possible with the birth of a child, something that happens countless times every day.    Yet that’s how God works.  No, let me correct that.  That’s how God did work. 

Let’s do a little thought experiment for a moment.  Imagine if I came to y’all one day, and said “Hey, I really want my son to be successful. I want your feedback on my plan of success.”  You might ask, “What do you mean by success?”   And let’s say I said, “Well, 2000 years from now, virtually everyone on earth will know his name.   25% of the world’s population will center their life around him, and his birthday will be the biggest holiday on the planet.   His teaching will be the most influential in human history, and be the foundation of two or three major civilizations.”    Now, you might reply, “Wow. That is ambitious.  What’s your plan?”   Well, he’ll need to be poor, and never travel any further than a few days by foot from his home.   He won’t go to any prestigious schools, certainly not college.   He’ll do manual labor for most of his life.    And he won’t associate with anyone who has any real power, political or religious.    And when he is coming close to his peak years of productivity, say early 30s, he’ll be arrested and executed in disgrace.”   Do you see how God works?   God came to earth as a child, and the child of an unwed mother at that.   But in that child and in his obscure life, God changes everything. 

Do you want to work where God is working?  Forget what gets the news and the fame.   Go to the places and people that few pay attention to.   There you’ll find God at work.

God reminded me of that again when I learned about John Barfield.   About 90 years ago, John Barfield was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.   But he almost didn’t live past his second birthday.  He caught a fever, and nothing was bringing it down.   Then two white women in long white dresses walked into his family’s house.  They handed Barfield’s father a note with an address and told him to find the house and to hurry.  Then they disappeared.   His father ran all the way to the white side of town.  He found the man, a doctor, who rushed to his son’s bedside and stayed there all night.   John recovered.  And what of those two women?   No-one had ever seen them before that night, and no-one saw them afterwards ever.  They came to the only conclusion they could.  God had intervened directly to spare that child’s life. 

What happened to John Barfield?  He never graduated from high school.  He got a job as a janitor at the University of Michigan.  But then he started his own cleaning company.   And from there, he started 11 companies and provided jobs for tens of thousands of African Americans looking for a way out of poverty.  His firm Bartech Group now has hundreds of millions in revenue.  PBS has done a documentary on his life.  And his memoir is raising funds to immunize children from polio in the poorest places on the planet.   Amazing huh?   But that’s how God works, in the places that no one notices, and in those places, doing things bigger than anyone could ever imagine.   

That’s why on Friday, we’re hosting a tour of our partner school, Hollywood Central.   At Hollywood Central, over half of the children, get free or reduced lunch or breakfast.  A good number live in hotels off Federal Highway.   Yet God is working in those kids. That’s not the question.  The question is are you going to make time to come and see that work, to even be part of it?    This Christmas, part of our offering will go to care for our HIV orphans in Haiti.   Those who have seen that work know the powerful things God is doing there.  That’s not the question.  The question is how many of your dollars will go to what the advertisers tell you is important and how many to what God does?  

Sisters and brothers, you can’t get distracted by the glittering and the glamorous.   That is never where God is doing his greatest work.   Just look at this meal.  It’s not much to look at really.   A small piece of bread.   A little touch of juice.   Yet here God will do more in you than in any other meal you will ever have. In this simple meal, Jesus will fill you with the beautiful, wondrous, powerful love of God.   And don’t worry about what you need to bring.  All you need is to bring yourself.  God will do the rest.  God will work even in the smallest, most obscure places in your heart, and in those places bring to birth things more wondrous and more beautiful than you could ever imagine.  Just as he did in that manger in Bethlehem so will he do there.  

Monday, November 30, 2015

How Do You Live in Hope when the World, Including Your World, Feels Stuck and Even Broken?

I hate to wait for anything.   Sometimes that has got me into trouble.   IAs a child very early one Christmas morning I woke up and discovered.  Santa had arrived.   I quickly ran and banged on my parents’ door to share the joyful news.  But they did not share nearly the same excitement.    They told me to go back to bed.   But I thought.  Here are my presents.   And here am I.   Why wait?  When my parents and siblings walked into that wrapping paper strewn living room two hours later, they did not see my reasoning at all.  But, well, I just hate to wait.

But really, who likes to wait?   Who looks at a long line at the store and says, “Wow, this is awesome!   15 minutes of waiting! This is my lucky day!”    Who celebrates a traffic jam or feels joy when they get put on hold?   Nobody likes to wait.   Still, as irritating as that type of waiting is, it’s not the worst.   At least with that waiting, you can see an end.  

But what of the waiting where you can’t?    You wait for a change in a relationship.  You want to see healing or simply for it to get better.  But you fear it will never happen.  You yearn for a change in your finances or your job, but it seems less and less likely.  You hunger for changes in yourself, changes that seem painfully slow in coming.  You hope for a changed world, one less brutal and more kind; one less scary and more safe, one that lifts you up more and grinds you down less.     Yet as you wait for those things, you wonder.   Will it ever happen?  Can it ever happen?   

How do you wait with hope in the midst of all the challenges of your life?  How do you carry hope for a world where so much is broken, where too often violence and hatred reign?  Here in these words, God shows us the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you wait with hope in the face of all the disappointments and struggles of life?  How do you live with hope in a world where so much has gone wrong?  Here God tells us.   You realize who you are waiting for, who is even now coming into the world.    A King has come, and is coming still, a king who is coming to make all things right. 

That’s what these words from Isaiah are telling us.    Anyone who heard these words in the ancient world would know that.   That’s what the voice that is calling is announcing when he says, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”   When a king came to visit his subjects, he didn’t just take any old way.   No, the king made a new one.    Haven’t you ever heard the phrase in some old story the king’s highway or the king’s way?   In those stories, they mean exactly what they say.    When a king came to visit some area, he made a new road just for that coming. Why?   Beyond showing his power and authority, the king did it for the same reason a politician in an election year loads up on the public works projects.   He wanted his subjects to see what a good deal they had, how the King was bringing good things.    But the king that Isaiah proclaims doesn’t just bring a nice road.   This king raises up valleys.  He brings mountains down.  He makes rough ground level and the rugged places a plain.   This king brings a way that changes everything.   He makes a way that brings the world we all yearn to see.  

Now if you’re honest, isn’t this what you yearn for, a world where everything gets made right?   Hasn’t every human being yearned for this, someone who will come and bring in the golden age, a world as it should be?    But you might say.  Sure, I dream for this.   I also dream of winning the Florida lottery.   But come on, isn’t this just some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy?  It can’t be real    But don’t you see the evidence for its truth right in your own heart?

Many years ago, the cat that I owned, Sen, came in the house and was making the strangest noise.  As he got closer, I saw why.   He was carrying a little field mouse in his jaw.   He dropped it in front of me, and the poor thing scrambled off.   But the little creature didn’t have a chance.  In a few moments, my cat, Sen, had cornered him again in the living room.   And in that moment, I swear that little mouse looked right into my eyes, as if saying, “Dude, you are my only hope.”    And I answered his call.   I went in the kitchen. I pulled out an empty piece of Tupperware, and some catnip.   I threw the catnip down, and my cat went to catnip heaven and forgot all about the mouse.   Then I went over, and opened up the lid of that Tupperware, and that mouse hopped right in.   I guess he figured any place was better than where he was.   I carried him out to the edge of the woods by my home, and as I let him out, I warned him.  “Stay clear of here.   I don’t know if I’ll be able to save you again.” 
But why did I do that?  Why did I care?   Isn’t that the way of nature?  The strong devour the weak.   

The poet Tennyson put it well. “Nature is red in tooth and claw.”   But why does that bother me?   Why do human beings care about the weak and vulnerable at all?    Why do you become appalled when the strong ruthlessly, even cruelly devour the weak?   Isn’t that the way of nature, and aren’t you part of nature?  Why do you have such trouble getting with the program?   Because somewhere inside of you, you sense that nature isn’t completely natural, that something in it has gone horribly wrong.   But how did you who evolved right out of nature get that idea?  Is it because youare some sort of strange mutation or is it because you sense a super-nature?  Is it because you sense a perspective beyond the world you see? When you get upset at how the strong devour the weak, you are picking up the perspective of the original designer, the creator’s original intention for the world.  Your heart and mind pick up that perspective, like a radio picks up radio waves.

This is the perspective that Isaiah proclaims, the perspective of the One that comes from beyond this world.   Otherwise how can all the people see the glory of this king together?   But this king comes to not only make the world right. This king comes to make us right.

Up until this chapter in Isaiah, the prophet has been delivering nothing but bad news, how the people of Israel have gone horribly wrong, and literally there will be hell to pay.   But here in this chapter, everything changes.  Hear the words again, and keep in mind that since this is a prophecy Isaiah is talking about the future, but relaying it to us like it already has happened.   “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that that she has from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  God suddenly moves here from judgment to mercy.  Why?   As you first hear these words, you can think that God is saying, mercy will come because Jerusalem has suffered enough.    But Isaiah doesn’t say that at all.   Isaiah says that yes, the sins of Israel will be paid for, but not by Israel.   No, instead Isaiah proclaims.   God will pay the cost.  In fact, God will pay double the price.  
What does this mean?  Isaiah is saying.    God is not simply going to forgive you.   God isn’t simply going to pardon you.    God is going to restore you.    God is going to raise you higher than ever before.

Think about it.   If you were a prisoner on death row, and the Governor pardons you.  Does that solve your problems?  Sure, now you are free, but you still carry the weight of what you did.   You still walk out a marked man.   But what if not only are you pardoned, but the Governor adopts you as a member of her family.   She gives you an honored place at her table.  Now that would be some serious restoration.

And Isaiah is telling us.  This is what the coming King will do.   This king won’t just pardon you.   He will make you his own.   And in case we still don’t get it, he tells us this. 
Isaiah goes on and on about this king’s power.  His word stands forever.  “See the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him.”  Then boom, up pops up a completely different picture.   “He tends his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”   What is going on here? 
Isaiah is telling us.  Yes this King has power, but how does he use it?   He uses it to gather those that are lost.  He uses it to protect the vulnerable, and lead the young.  The king comes as a shepherd.  He comes as a shepherd who will even lay down his life for his sheep.

Do you begin to get why Christians have read these words for thousands of years before Christmas?   They don’t just describe any King.  They describe this King, the one born in a manger, the one that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds, the one who said, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.”   

How can Israel’s sin be paid for, even doubly so?   How can the world in all its brokenness and evil get restored?  How can the mountains get brought down, and the valleys filled.   Because God will do it.  God will do what only God can.    The King will come and lay down his life for those whom he loves.   And when he does, everything will change.

But what Isaiah saw as the future, we know as the past and the present.   We know.  The King has come.  And this King is still coming.  And he is making low the mountains.  He is raising up the valleys.  He is revealing his glory, a glory that all the world can see. 

And so what do you do in the face of that news?   You wait, and you wait with hope.   And that means, you don’t worry.   Why?  Because if indeed the King has come, and is coming, then you already know who has the final say.   Violence, and hatred, and evil do not write the end of history.   The king does, a king who gathers the lambs in his arms.   Again and again, this king has shown that truth.   Yes are there bad things happening in our world?  Of course.  Can we understand how God is working in the midst of that?  Of course not.      Remember what Isaiah said, “His understanding no one can fathom.”  But just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean God is not working.

Remember what I said last week.   The Romans who killed Jesus had the greatest armies, the largest empire.   And Jesus had nothing, only a few hundred disciples at best. But where are the Romans today?   Today, we name our children Mary andElizabeth, and James and John.   And what do we name our dogs?  Caesar and Nero.  Doesn’t that tell you who really is king?

When you worry do you know what you are saying?   You are saying, “I know best.  I know how things need to go.  I know better than God does.”  Do you see how ridiculous that is?  The great reformer, Martin Luther had a colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, who worried about everything.  When Phillip came to Luther with some worry, do you know what Luther said?  He said, “Let Phillip cease to rule the world.”     Stop trying to rule the world.   Let your worry go.  

And letting worry go, doesn’t mean, you don’t take action.  You live under the King’s rule after all.  So live as the King orders.  Pray and love.  Do as Jesus calls you to.  Do that, and trust the king to deal with the rest. 

And as you do these things, live with hope.   Pessimism is a profoundly unchristian trait.  If you think the world is getting worse, not only are you wrong, you are behaving as if the gospel is not true.   You are acting as if God does not exist.   You are living as a functional atheist.    

And if you wait with hope, what will happen?  You will renew your strength.  You will soar on wings like eagles.  You will run and not grow weary.  You will walk and not be faint.   Why? 

Because this king, King Jesus, has made a new way.   Jesus made it with his very life.   And in Jesus way, the mountains fall, and the valleys rise.  In his way, he pays double for your sin.  In his way, Jesus doesn’t just forgive you.   He makes you God’s beloved child.   So when hard things hit, remember, you are a child of the King.  When things seem slow to change, remember who has overcome the world.   When you worry, remember the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

When Horrors like Paris and Mali Happen, You Can't Forget the End of the Story. What is the End? Read It Here.

I really like thrillers.   Those books, the good ones at least, well, they thrill me.  I can hardly wait to see what happens on the next page.   But sometimes, I wonder why.   Why do I find these books so thrilling? After all, I already know the ending. Let me make clear.  I don’t know it because I cheat.  I don’t peek at the last chapter.   So how do I know?   Because every thriller ends pretty much the same way. The hero wins.    You may not how he or she wins, but you can definitely know that they do. What sort of thriller would it be if you get to the end, and the villain shoots the hero dead?   It wouldn’t be a very good one.   Always at the end, the hero defeats the villains, solves the crime, makes what is wrong right again.  That’s part of what makes them so fun to read.

But do you realize, you live in a thriller?  You live in the most amazing, incredible thriller ever created.   But it isn’t a made up story.  It’s real.  It’s the most real thing in the entire universe.   And like any good thriller, we know the end of this story too.  But do you know this?   Do you really know it?  

Even if you know it, it can be easy to forget.  When bad news comes crashing into your life, you can forget.   When you see evil unleashed like we saw in Paris last week or Mali on Friday, you can forget.   How do you stay centered in the truth, in what is ultimately real, in a world where things still go horribly wrong?   In this story, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s hear what Jesus has to say.  

In a world where things go so tragically wrong, how do you know things will come out right? How do you really know that? So that it changes your perspective; so that it transforms your life; so that it empowers you to live with the boldness of those who know the end of the story.   How does that happen?  It happens when you realize first that the truth really is the truth, and that, that truth walks with you every moment of every day.   And what is the truth?  Jesus lives.   Once you know that, really know it, you already know the end of the story, the only end that ultimately matters.  

As this story begins, Cleopas and his friend don’t have that end at all.   They only know this end.  The powers that be, have killed Jesus, the man they loved, the man they followed, the man they believed in.   And they are devastated.    They carry a sadness, a grief that has become almost overwhelming.   Do you see how Luke tells us that?   When Jesus approaches them, when he asks what are they discussing, what happens?   They stop.   At that question, they simply stand and bow their heads.    It literally takes a moment for one of them to collect himself enough to even answer his question.
And then they bring Jesus up to date on his own death.  Sheesh, you gotta see the irony in that.  Whenever I read this, I almost feel like I’m watching candid camera.   (These people think Jesus is dead, but he is actually the one talking to them right now.)    But what they say about Jesus tells us something crucially important.   How do they describe what happened?  They say.  “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.  The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”     Do you see where they go wrong?   One word says it all.  But…as in but we had hoped.

What had they hoped?   The word they use, redeemed, literally means to liberate from slavery.  And that’s what they expected Jesus to do.  They expected Jesus to liberate Israel, but not from sin and death, but from the evil Romans.  They looked for Jesus to raise up a revolution, to start a war.  That’s the liberation they were looking for.   But that liberation doesn’t liberate anything.  In the short term it does, but it never lasts.  Jesus didn’t come to change a little bit of history.  Jesus came to change everything, to change it forever.  Violence will never do that.   Only love will, only love that has no limits; that pays any price, only the love of God changes things forever.

In the midst of all the mess in the Middle East, you’ve gotta remember that.   ISIS has done horrible things.  They have killed thousands.  And in the face of that, defend ourselves, and the vulnerable who cannot do so, nations, including our own, may be compelled to fight.  But don’t deceive yourself.    You don’t defeat ISIS with guns and ammo.  Even the generals know that.   What defeats ISIS?    An old hymn says it best.  It starts out sounding well, war-like.  “Lead on, OKing eternal, the day of march has come; henceforth in fields of conquest thy tents shall be our home. Through days of preparation thy grace has made us strong; and now, O King eternal, we lift our battle song.”
But the second verse, tells the story:  “Lead on, O King eternal, till sin's fierce war shall cease, 
and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, 
nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”   That’s how you defeat evil.    ISIS, and Boko Haram, and others, think violence and brutality wins the day.  But they will lose.    Those who trust in violence always have. 

Look at the Romans who crucified Jesus.   They had the greatest armies.  They created the biggest empire.  Yet, two thousand years later, we name our children, Peter and John, even Jesus.  And what do we name our dogs?  Caesar and Nero.   Does that not say everything?

Now for Cleopas and his friend, this truth is beginning to dawn.   They have heard the reports of the resurrection.  But they don’t yet believe.  So what does Jesus do in response to their doubts?  He delivers the proof   He lays out for them how the Messiah had to die and rise again from their own holy texts.  

And Jesus is still doing that, still delivering the proof.   In fact, he does it right here in this story.  Do you notice how Luke only gives us one name instead of two?  Why doesn’t Luke give us both names?  Did he forget?   No.  In ancient texts, when you include a name in an eyewitness account, youare delivering a sort of footnote.    What do I mean?  Well, what do footnotes do?  They substantiate your argument.  They deliver proof of the point you make.    And Luke is doing the same.  He gives the name of Cleopas, because when he is writing this story, Cleopas is alive.   Luke is saying.   If you doubt this, just go ask Cleopas.  He was there.   You see this sort of footnote in other places in the gospels.   When Jesus collapses carrying his cross, Mark tells us that the soldiers recruit a man in the crowd to carry it for him.   And how does Mark describe him?   He says.  “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”  What do his sons have to do with it?  Mark is giving a footnote.   If you doubt this, ask Alexander and Rufus, it was their dad who did it.   Do you get this?   These stories in the Bible aren’t some nice fables meant to assure you that love triumphs over death.  They are telling you something that actually happened.    

How did followers who were so terrified, that instead of witnessing Jesus’ death they go into hiding become within a matter of weeks people who boldly proclaim that he is risen?   How, out of Judaism, the one religion in the world, most adamantly opposed to seeing a human being as divine, do you get devout Jews who say that very thing?   How does that happen?  It happens because this happened.   Jesus did rise from the dead.   Any other explanation is pretty much impossible.  As Sherlock Holmes put it.    “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”    

But Jesus doesn’t simply deliver a powerful argument to Cleopas and his friend, he delivers an even more powerful reality.   After their conversation, they invite him over for dinner.   And as he breaks the bread, they finally see.  It was Jesus walking with them all along.   But then they realize.  They already knew that, even before.  They say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road.”

In the end, you don’t know that Jesus lives, because you know it only in your head.   You know Jesus lives, because you experience him walking with you.   You don’t simply know the truth.  You experience the truth walking with you each day.

In this story, Jesus shows you how that works.   First, when Jesus walks with you, he meets you where you are.   Jesus doesn’t condemn Cleopas and his friend for missing the point of his coming.  He helps them see the point.    If you are struggling to believe, to begin the walk at all or just having a hard time putting one foot in front of another, know this.   Jesus is standing right where you are.  You don’t need to go anywhere to find him, he’s already there.

But while Jesus meets you where you are, he loves you too much to leave you there.   To walk with Jesus means you move forward.   You go somewhere.   And on that journey, you are not always going to know where Jesus is taking you.   But the more you walk, the more you will grow, the more you will become the very person you deeply yearn to be, that God created you to be.

That walk means you do your part.    You pray.  You read scripture.   You come to gatherings such as these.   And you give sacrificially to Jesus’ mission in the world. And as you pray, your prayers will become more like conversations with your best friend.  As you read the Bible, your heart will start to burn within you just like Cleopas’did.  . As you gather, you will not simply feel Jesus’ presence, you will see Jesus in those around you.   And as you give, you will discover what truly matters, instead of what the advertisers tell you does.  And in that giving you will learn that Jesus will always make sure you have enough bread for your journey.  He will provide.

Sisters and brothers, don’t you get it?  You know the end of the story.   You don’t know how we get to that end.  But you know it is coming.   The hero wins.  Love triumphs over hate.  Good defeats evil.    In fact, every good story is at its heart, this story, the story of Jesus.   How do you know this story is true?   Because, all the evidence makes clear that this actually happened.   But beyond the evidence, you can have the experience.  You can experience Jesus walking with you. 

And you can experience this, because Jesus first came to you.   He took the first step.  He walked in your shoes.  He became human.  He even became poor.   After all, it’s the poor who walk all the time.   And then he walked in your place.   He walked into death, into unspeakable suffering.  He walked into a place where even God cannot be found.    He walked there because he loves you.   And then he walked out of a tomb to show you that his love wins over everything.

Let him walk with you.   When you get worried over the news from Paris or Baghdad, remember Jesus defeated death.   So ISIS is no problem.   When you fell the weight of your worries and problems, let Jesus remind you, with him all things are possible.   You know, he rose again from the dead, don’t you?  So he can handle your problems.    When you simple feel alone, let Jesus remind you, you are not.    Let him walkwith you, and talk with you, and tell you that you are his own.   And the joy you will feel as you tarrythere, none other has ever known.