Sunday, December 29, 2013

one of us

Hebrews 2: 10-18/ Psalm 148

This Psalm tells us to praise!  And while I know I should, I have to admit sometimes I just don’t feel like praising.  As we begin to take down our Christmas decorations, put away the gifts, and our families go back home and we return to our normal routine, if you didn’t feel the loneliness of Christmas itself, you may very well feel it now.  All the build up to the big day, the excitement of shopping and family gatherings have left us feeling a little bloated, maybe a little disappointed and our pocketbooks a little empty… now what?
Jesus has come,( yippee), but life hasn’t changed much.  Life is still hard.  Maybe it isn’t anything in particular that makes us feel blue, maybe we are disappointed that Santa didn’t bring us what we wanted or it is just a cold dreary day and we need more coffee but sometimes it is much more than that. 
It isn’t just at Christmas that we feel this way.  I am sure most of us have felt this way at some time or another.  Nothing seems to go as planned, the depression is deeper than just surface disappointment, life is not what we thought it would be.  We want to do things differently, be different.  Maybe we see others so joyful and excited about the holidays.  We begin to think that no one else has ever gone through what we are going through. In an effort to be strong and independent we struggle alone and in silence not wanting to burden others with our problems thinking that no one else would understand anyway. 
Then maybe we begin to question our faith.  If I was more faithful I wouldn’t be sick or I wouldn’t feel this way.  We start to question God and ask things like- If God really loved me I wouldn’t be suffering like this.  We begin to think that God has abandoned us in our most difficult hour. Sometimes we feel like we are really being tested and this time we are failing that test. 
We like to see God as all knowing and all powerful.  A God who not only has everything but made everything so how could God possibly understand my problems?  What does God know about loneliness, feeling abandoned, being in pain, struggling to make ends meet, paying off debt or fear and humiliation? 
When we envision God in this way it is easy to lose hope and seek to find comfort in our bad habits.  We wonder what could God, who has everything, want from me? We forget that the only thing God wants is to be in a relationship with us.  God has tried all kinds of things over the course of history to create that relationship.  God taught people how to worship, what it meant to be holy, what it meant to trust God, and how a relationship with our brothers and sisters in this world and how we care for and treat each other is a reflection on how much we love and feel loved by God. 
All this happened with pockets of success.  Some were good at this but other people still violated their neighbors, stole from one another, ignored the poor and the distance between humanity and God grew larger instead of narrower.  And there were those who felt they were not part of God’s plan for redemption- they felt left out.   God knew that in order to be in a relationship with us, we had to be able to connect with God in a more direct way.
God, not being one who is afraid to try new things decided to dwell with us and be Immanuel. Jesus Christ came to be that connection.  Not only did Jesus come to earth but instead of coming in on a divine, angelic cloud or riding in on a white horse to rescue us, he came as a human.

He came into the world, just as we do- crying.  He learned to walk, talk, push the parental limits of Mary and Joseph, and test his independence just as we do.  He knew as a child what it meant to flee out of fear.  He learned the pain of disappointment as the people whom he cared for abandoned him.  He knew hunger and the temptation of using his own power to have his needs met.  He learned the fear of death and loss as he watched the people around him suffer and die and faced a brutal death himself. 
God could have chosen a multitude of ways to show us compassion and build a relationship with us but chose to suffer with us and experience life as we live it.  When we feel like we are suffering alone, when no one understands what we are going through we can look to Jesus and know that he understands exactly how it is. 
Jesus is our spiritual support group.  As we face trials it is always those who have been through it and come out the other side who are our best guides.  It is the support we find through people who know what chemotherapy is like, what it is like to raise a child with a disability, what it is like to watch a parent age or lose a child that bring us the most comfort and encouragement. 
As we face our fears we know we can turn to God our parent, Jesus our brother and friend to gain encouragement knowing that Jesus faced all these things , faced death and the devil too and survived so that we can too.  We find comfort in knowing that God has brought glory to God’s children through Jesus.  We have reason to hope and to praise because Jesus became one of us and because he understands all that we are going through he can show us true mercy and compassion. It is not about testing our faith but experiencing that our faith as real by seeing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has passed the same tests.
This reminds us that it is not the absence of suffering that makes us who we are but learning to trust the one who created us to see us through even the most difficult times.   God showed us compassion and mercy so that when we are able to trust in God to get us through our trails we can then lead others through theirs as well.  God does not call us to be ashamed of who we are and the problems in our lives.  Through Christ we are claimed, faults and all, to be the brothers and Sisters of Christ, loved and embraced, forgiven and cherished for who we are and who we are becoming in Christ.
This is why we praise.  Not because God removes our problems.  Not because following Jesus makes our lives easier but because we know that trust in him brings peace, comfort and the realization that we are not alone.  Praise is not about being happy and joyous all the time.  It is about seeking a deeper and more meaningful connection with God who loves us and cares about us enough to become one of us and to walk through this life just like we do and experience the same challenges we face. 
Jesus willingly became the baby we celebrated just days ago so he could become the man who would show us the way and be the truth and the light that can guide us on any path, lead us out of danger, and bring light to a darkened world.  


Monday, December 16, 2013

doubt and expectation

Matthew 11: 2-6

Here we have John the Baptist; Prophet extraordinaire, Identified by Jesus as Elijah, the one who has come to prepare the way of the Lord, one of the first people to who really knows who Jesus is.  He is Jesus’ cousin.  He baptized him in the Jordan River, saw the dove and heard the voice of God declare that Jesus is God’s son, the beloved.  Of all people, John should have a very clear and unwavering opinion about who Jesus is….

And yet, we see him now, in prison.  He has spent his whole life calling people to repentance and speaking truth to power and now he is paying the price. He may have gotten away with calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” but he can’t get away with telling Herod he is an adulterer.   This wilderness wanderer who ate locust and wild honey and lived his life with the broad expanse of stars as his ceiling is now chained to the wall in the damp, dark dungeon prison cell and what he was once so sure of…. He now doubts.

This isn’t what he expected would happen.  He was doing God’s will after all.  He preached the coming messiah, the one who would challenge the worldly powers, separate the chaff from the wheat…. John is wheat, Herod is chaff right? So if Jesus has come, if the messiah has come, then why is John in prison and Herod celebrating with his new wife?  It doesn’t make sense! 

So John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask point blank: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Who can blame John for doubting?  Most of us have been there, maybe we are too embarrassed to say it out loud, but we have been there.  Maybe you have always been “good”.  Following all the rules, never questioning authority, you’re in church every week and then… the promotion you have been praying for doesn’t come through and instead you lose your job, the doctor calls and the test came back positive, the white picket fence life you always dreamed of comes crashing down around you…We all have our prison experiences… we all have our moments of doubt…. It is a natural part of the journey of life and faith.

We have an expectation of life that is imbedded in us from an early age.  An idea of what we think life will be like.  We have a sense of fairness, justice, right and wrong and we feel like if we keep up our end of the bargain, God will too! 

These are our misguided expectations of what Jesus is supposed to do.  Jesus is supposed to be on our side, fit in our box, answer our prayers, bless us, make our lives easy.   John had them too.  He thought Jesus would fit in his box and that the changes he was predicting would come immediately.

Jesus did turn the world upside down, just not in the way John expected.  In the narrowness of our vision we, like John often miss the true character of Jesus.
So John wants the same answer from Jesus that we do…. Are you really the Messiah? Are you really the one who will save humanity?  Have I wasted all my time and prayers on a figment of my imagination?  Jesus are you really my savior?

Jesus could have answered with a simple Yes but, when we are in the dark, damp, lonely prisons of our lives we need more than just words.  How many of you, during a crisis has been told- everything will be OK, It’s part of God’s plan, Jesus loves you, it will all work out for the best?   

I have to admit I have probably been guilty of saying some of those things before.  It is easy to give rote responses when we don’t know what to say or we don’t know what it is like to be in another person’s shoes and although it may be true, these words are just words. 

As good intentioned as they are, when someone is deep in doubt and uncertainty, they don’t really help.  What they need is to see and experience the presence of Jesus and to remember when Jesus has been an active force in their lives and those around them. 

I know Jesus is real.  Not just because this book tells me so but because I have seen him, I have witnessed his miracles and I have felt his presence, both personally and through the lives of others. 

Jesus is sometimes easier to see during this season of Advent and Christmas.  As many people spend this time of year putting change in the Salvation Army kettles, packing food boxes for UCM, singing Christmas Carols, spending time with friends and inviting those without family to share the lonely holidays together but God also shows up in other ways all year around.
And when Jesus shows up it is often in ways and places we don’t expect. 

One example of this is Pearce, a little girl I used to work with.  She died this week, exactly two months shy of her third birthday.  To an outsider, that seems devastating, and it is, but this child and this family have experienced first-hand the love of Christ.  While she lived a very short life, she is actually a miracle baby. Like most parents I am sure her mother was full of excitement and expectation until the doctors told her the baby she was carrying would never survive.  She was diagnosed with a condition called anencephaly, meaning she had little more than a brainstem.  Before she was even born hospice had been called.  Her coming home clothes were to be her burial clothes but at birth she chose to breath, then eat, and fill her diaper… all things the doctors said she would never do. 

She became the love of Christ to her family.  Teaching all that met her and some that never knew her, unconditional love, joy, what it means to believe when everyone else doubts, milestone after milestone, adversity after adversity met repeatedly by smiles and laughter, love, family, and faith.  While the days of darkness and doubt will come, they will be able to look back and remember that Christ does exist in the miracle of the baby they were told they would never get to hold.
Words are just words.  Jesus can say he is the messiah all day long but the proof is in our experiences both the expected and the unexpected.   While John’s disciples ask a direct question they get anything but a direct answer…. Jesus tells them-Look around you, what do you see, feel, hear, and experience?  The lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised, the good news of love and grace is preached to the poor, the hungry are fed and a little girl lived.   See these things then ask yourself, Is Jesus real?

Faith is not an intellectual decision we make.  We can study the words in the Bible.  We can tell other people what we think the words in the Bible mean.  We can give them a Bible to read for themselves but what makes Jesus real and the words in this book mean something is what we feel and what we experience as we encounter Jesus in our lives.  This is how we know Jesus is real. 
This is how we know Jesus is who he says he is.  This is where we turn when we face doubt and this is who we show others as they seek to discover who Christ is in their lives. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Santa is not God

Matthew 24: 36-44

I am always a little put off by this first week in advent.  If I am honest I don’t particularly like the apocalyptic stories in the bible.  We have just finished Thanksgiving and now it is time to get ready to shop, decorate the house, invite people over, and get ready for Christmas.  We are preparing for the birth of Jesus, cute little baby Jesus. We are getting ready for the beginning not the end. 

When I first read this text, I immediately got a feeling of doom.  The negative imagery of the flood and the thief pushes us in that direction. Popular Christian authors and fundamental preachers sell it this way too. 

It is the ever popular metaphor of Santa Clause portraying God.  You better watch out, you better not cry…. He knows when you have been bad or good…. So you better be good for goodness sake.  It is the attempt to scare people into heaven or for parents at Christmas it is how you stop children from fighting and being mischievous- Santa’s watching and you won’t get any presents if you aren’t good! 

If you want to get to heaven you better be good- and be good all the time because you don’t know when Jesus is coming back.  This feels like a threat to me. 

It is just like threatening children with coal in their stockings and it may work for a little while (Thankfully Santa comes every year so we just keep recycling the threat- until they become teenagers and it doesn’t work anymore). 

To make the threat effective we have to keep rehashing it, threatening people with Judgment and condemnation for this sin or that sin- depending on which ones we find personally the most repulsive and ignoring the ones we commit.  If it were up to us, and not the grace of God, we would all get coal in our stocking.

This isn’t the God I know though.  It doesn’t make sense to me that God would simply want us to behave a certain way just to get what we want--- so, I went back and read the rest of the chapter. Instead of a feeling of doom, I got an overwhelming sense of hope. 

The people in Matthew’s time didn’t need to wait for the Apocalypse.  They were living through it.  The first part of this chapter describes life as they knew it. 

Wars and rumors of wars, famine, natural disasters, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and people were being persecuted for their faith.  It seemed like the end times were there.  They wanted Jesus to come back now!  This was not a scripture of Judgment and threat.  It was a word of hope in trying and uncertain times. 

People all around us are living through very similar times.   People around the world live in war torn countries.  People of all faiths and nationalities are scared to leave their homes because of war and violence.  People are starving because of famine and government corruption.  Homes have been destroyed by tornado and typhoon.  People are afraid to go to the grocery store worried that there may not be any food to buy and even if there is they run the risk of being robbed on the way there. 

People around the world are living through this each and every day but it isn’t just someone else, somewhere else who feels this way. 

Ask the woman abused by her husband if you need to live in Syria to live in a war zone.

Ask the child who opens an empty cabinet everyday if you need to live in Ethiopia to be hungry.

Ask the person fighting addiction what it is like to not be in control of your own body.

Ask the person fighting cancer what it feels like to want to be taken or their caregiver what it is like to be left behind. 

We don’t have to watch the news or travel the world to find people who need hope.  Maybe it is you or your friend, neighbor, or maybe even the person sitting next to you. 

Waiting for God to answer prayers is often done in silence.

There is hope in all this waiting.  The words of Matthew tell us that even in the middle of all this mess, God is there.  While times feel uncertain God has not forgotten you.  God is coming to save you, and one way or another, will rescue you from whatever personal hell you are going through. 

There is hope.  Don’t give up on God or your faith in Jesus and your faith in humanity.  Keep living the life you have been given.  Not in a way that throws up your hands and gives up but in a way that says Bring it on!

Waiting and watching for the return of Jesus is done with Joy.  Waiting is not an opportunity for you to show how good you are so you can be rewarded with heavenly presents.  It is a time to show your faith and confidence in salvation through Christ to each person you meet.  Allowing God to use your trails as a way to teach you and others about the love and provision of Jesus.  

This scripture calls us to not only look forward to the life that is to come but also to the past. Matthew asks us to remember Noah- while the world may have been destroyed God never left and God rebuilt the world with the promise of the rainbow. 

Look back at your past.  Remember the times God has provided for you, when you experienced God’s presence and was saved by God’s grace.  Remembering your story of salvation and relationship with God encourages you when times get tough and helps you to look forward through the present challenges with hope for a coming future.  God has seen you through in the past and will see you through again.

As you look back on a life of faith remember the sacrifice Christ made for us, give thanks for his love and grace, and embrace hope, knowing that Christ Jesus has already come, and Jesus will come again.  This is a promise, not a threat for all those who believe. 

While we enter this waiting season of Advent- Be alert so that you do not fall victim to self-pity and doubt.  Be alert so that you can keep your hope and trust in Jesus Christ – the one who has already come and will come again.  Be alert to all the ways God shows up in your life- whether it be horrific, joyous or mundane moments.  Live out your faith in everything you say and do - your actions and words are a direct reflection of Christ to others.  Be alert, Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming.