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.