Saturday, December 24, 2016

Part 4

Many of us see the Birth of Christ through the lenses of Nativity sets and childrens' Christmas pageants; Shepherds in bathrobes, angels in white with chiffon wings and coat hanger halos. Everything quiet and oh so peaceful! And with the uproar that is going on around us at this time of year, the peace is so pleasant.

But if the Birth of Jesus was anything, it was not peaceful. Bethlehem was filled with the descendant's of David, gathered by Roman Decree to be counted an taxed. All of the inns were full, every house was filled with distant relatives, and Roman soldiers were everywhere.

Out in the fields beyond the village; the fields where David had watched his father's sheep, it was probably much quieter. It was, for the most part an ordinary night like the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that as long as any of the shepherds could remember. Whatever they were talking about, it wasn't angels or babies. More than likely they were commenting on the new serving girl at the inn, or the killing of a sheep-eating wolf in a neighboring village, maybe, even the politics of the census, all the things they normally talked about as they sat in the dark watching their charges. Yes, it started out a peaceful night. But then came the angel. Then came the light. The Common English, and the God's Word translations say they were “terrified”. The Modern English says they “were very afraid.” Other translations use “Badly frightened”, “Terror-stricken,” and Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Version says:”It nearly scared the life out of them.” In any event, the announcement and Birth of the Christ Child; the Prince of Peace was far from our peaceful vision.

It wasn't just the presence of the angel. It was all that light. Living in a world of artificial light that makes Time's Square at midnight on New Year's Eve,look like Medford at noon, it's hard for us to grasp. But imagine stepping out of your tent at 2 AM while elk hunting and suddenly the night is as bright as an exploding H-Bomb.
It was more than the angel, it was more than the light, it was the Glory, (literally the very apparent presence) of the Lord God Almighty—the one who was never to be seen, that surrounded them. In the midst of their routine, in the middle of the ordinary, the extraordinary became real. Night became day, dark became light. God has a way of doing that to and with us: transforming our brokenness into wholeness, our despair into joy, our sinfulness into righteousness.

But it doesn't require Angels or bright lights for God to break into our lives. God is the God of the extraordinarily ordinary. God takes the ordinary events of life and makes them extraordinary. Where was Saul when he met Christ? Riding to Damascus, an ordinary event, but God used it in extraordinary ways. Where was Martin Luther when he wrestled with the Biblical truth that we are saved not by works, but Grace? In his study, working on professorial lectures. And ordinary event made extraordinary by God. Where was John Wesley when his heart was strangely warmed? At a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street; he even notes that he went “unwillingly.” an ordinary event made extraordinary by the newly felt presence of Christ. Someone thanks me for something I don't even remember saying in a sermon. An ordinary event made extraordinary by God's using it. A clerk's smile brightens your day, an ordinary event made extraordinary by God.

It's amazing how God works through the ordinariness of life to bring new life. Every
simple act, from taking morning coffee to your spouse, to brushing your teeth, to sitting at your desk, or in a pew is a potential for God; an arena in which God can, and does with some regularity, appear. What a gift to walk on the tiptoe of expectation! To know that at any moment God may break through our routine with the Good News of the Gospel! To know that our lives are the crucible in which God works.

For the shepherds, it began as an ordinary night, but soon became extraordinary. . the Angel, the light of God's glory, the announcement: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And finally, The heavenly host, the Angel Armies, bursting forth in praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” The entire universe, “and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” all those to whom God extends grace, all of us.

And then, as quickly as they appeared, the angels were gone. Gone without a trace. Leaving the shepherds to wonder: “Did you see what I saw?” “Did you hear the angel saying the Messiah was born?” “Did you hear the heavens ringing with God's praise?”
C'mon! Let's go! I don't know about you, but I've gotta see this for myself!” And off they all traipsed to Bethlehem, apparently leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.
16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.

Amazed, but did they believe it? Not everyone. The word translated here as “Amazed” is: Thou-mad-zo; to marvel or to wonder. In a small town like Bethlehem, the birth of a baby, even a baby born in a barn, would not go unnoticed. Many of those the shepherds told probably questioned what they heard. After all, shepherds weren't exactly the most reliable news sources of the day. But the shepherd's persisted, rejoicing and praising God for all to hear. And all who heard, responded. Some wondered, some doubted, some waited for more information, some believed. It is still
the same today, when we proclaim the birth of the Messiah. Not all will accept, but those who do will find peace on earth: not peace as the world gives, or tries to create, but true peace that puts our past behind us and lets us face the future unafraid. Peace of which John Wesley says:
- Peace in general; peace with God and with your own consciences. My peace - In particular; that peace which I (Christ( enjoy, and which I(Christ) create, I (Christ)give - At this instant. Not as the world giveth - Unsatisfying unsettled, transient; but filling the soul with constant, even tranquility.

This is the message of the angels; the good news of Christmas.

The angels of Christmas: messengers, guardians, worshipers, and proclaimers. May you see them all this season. AMEN.  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Have You Seen the Angels? Part 3

All day, all night,
Angels watching over me, my Lord.
All Night, all day,
Angels watching over me.”

A little boy rushed into his kindergarten class one morning and made the following announcement:
My mother just had a baby, and it was born too soon, so they put it in a percolator.
It could never be said that the Baby Jesus was born too soon (or too late, for that matter). He was born, after all, right on schedule, in God's good time. It might be said, however, that right from the start, God put Him in a percolator.
...Even before he was delivered by Mary, she carried Him in her womb on a long, difficult, dangerous journey to Bethlehem.
...He was born under extremely adverse circumstances in a place designed to accommodate animals, not human beings.
...Shortly after His birth, He was targeted by King Herod for assassination.
...Then, in order to protect Him from the king's wrath, Mary and Joseph had to take their new born Babe on still another long, difficult, dangerous journey, into Egypt.
...This was followed by still another tedious trip back to Israel, after the death of King Herod.
When Jesus entered this "percolator" world, He needed protection. And the New Testament writers tell us how angels were assigned to keep Him safe and sound.

Little did Joseph know Mary's baby was in danger from the time of his conception. The huge red dragon of Revelation 12 was waiting and ready to destroy Jesus. Enter the guardian angels who stood watch over the child from the beginning. Hence we find angels again journeying to Nazareth. This time to reassure Joseph that all was well; to be sure an earthly father was in place to protect and care for the Holy Child. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife. For it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived.
Mat 1:21 She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus---because he will save his people from their sins." It was to be a perilous journey, fraught with danger every step of the way. When Herod tried to use the Magi to locate the child, Angels interceded, and sent them home by a different way. When Herod, in his anger at being tricked, determined to destroy the Child by killing all the males under two years old and around Bethlehem, a guardian angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up! Hurry and take the child and his mother to Egypt! Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is looking for the child and wants to kill him."
Mat 2:14 That night, Joseph got up and took his wife and the child to Egypt. Even after Herod died,and Joseph, was given the all clear by the angel, the family didn't return to Bethlehem, but to the remote village of Nazareth in distant Galilee; a move quite likely coached by the angels.

The fact that the child, Jesus, needed guardian angles speaks to his importance in God's plan. Yes, he was to die, but not yet. Still, trying to obstruct God's plan, Satan and his minions went after the child with a vengeance. Unable to convince Joseph to divorce Mary, bringing shame and shunning on her and her child, he used Herod's fear of loosing power to try to kill the infant. Never, in all history, was one infant the center of so much struggle. Without the angles to give warning, and Joseph to heed and obey, the story would certainly ended differently.

Like the Christ child, all of us need a bit of protection from time to time. I'm not certain if we all have heavenly guardian angels or non; theological scholars come down on both sides of the issue. But this I believe: Just as God surrounded Jesus with an army of angels. Some are heavenly, some are human.
All are here to help us and protect us. Fay is convinced that our friend Peggy is a guardian angel. When she had a difficult time bringing her mother back from sister's. It was Peggy who not only helped with transportation, but protected Fay from her Aunt.

Often times God sends people we don't know to help us. The story is told of a woman who came rushing into a beauty parlor asking:”Does anyone here know how to stop the hiccups? to the sink,
What is the matter with you!” the woman shouted as she jumped from the chair, “Are you crazy​?”
You don't have the hiccups any more, do you?” the stylist smiled.
I didn't have the hiccups when I came in.” the indignant woman snorted. My mother is sitting out in the car very upset because she has a stubborn case of hiccups. Perhaps you'd step outside and slap her.”
And then there are those times we don't really want an angel. The busy Christmas shopping season was in full swing. A little boy was standing in the middle of the aisle of one of the large department stores and he was crying, "I want my mommy!" As people would go by they would say, "There, there, little boy. Your Mama will find you." And a number of them had given him pocket change to help assuage his tears. But he kept sobbing, with tears running down his cheeks. Finally someone from the department store came along and said, "I know where your mommy is, son." And the little boy looked up and responded, "So do I, just keep quiet."

Did you ever wonder where are the angels when you do need them? In a Bill Keene Family Circus comic strip, Billy comes into the house all tattered and torn. He looks like he's been in a wreck and then a fight and then drug for a mile or two by a team of runaway horses. He asks: "Do guardian angels take days off?" No. God's presence is always with us, we are never alone, even when there is no one around. A little boy was eagerly looking forward to the birthday party of a friend who lived only a few blocks away. When the day finally arrived, a blizzard made the sidewalks and roads nearly impassable. The lad's father, sensing the danger, hesitated to let his son go. The youngster reacted tearfully. "But Dad," he pleaded, "all the other kids will be there. Their parents are letting them go." The father thought for a moment, then replied softly, "All right, you may go." Surprised but overjoyed, the boy bundled up and plunged into the raging storm. The driving snow made visibility almost impossible, and it took him more than half an hour to trudge the short distance to the party. As he rang the doorbell, he turned briefly to look out into the storm. His eye caught the shadow of a retreating figure. It was his father. He had followed his son's every step to make sure he arrived safely.
That is how God watches over us.

From before his birth to the time of his death, resurrection, and ascension, God surrounded Jesus with protection and care. In baptism we are raised with Christ, and Christ himself promises us in John 10: “My sheep know my voice, and I know them. They follow me,
and I give them eternal life, so that they will never be lost. No one can snatch them out of my hand.
My Father gave them to me, and he is greater than all others. No one can snatch them from his hands,”

Like Jesus, we are surrounded and protected by God's Holy Spirit. We are His, and He is ours. May your Advent be blessed with the sight of angels.

Have You Seen the Angels? Part 2

It's an obvious understatement to say we live in a time of great fear. The language of "terror" has become the motivating mantra of our day. A Google search for the word "fear," came up with a fascinating site called "The Phobia List"—pages of phobias, A to Z. Everything from Alliumphobia—the fear of garlic and Lachanophobia—the fear of vegetables to Zemmiphobia—the fear of the great mole rat. It even lists Ecclesiophobia—the fear of church and, get this, Homilophobia—the fear of sermons! You can even get a poster of the "Phobia List" which will cover your entire wall. We all have our own phobia lists, We all have our own phobia lists, and the list can be as fresh as the morning papers: Daily bad news about the state of the economy or personal security; Ongoing fighting in the middle east with no clear sense of how long it will go on, or when, if ever, it will end; horrendous fires, tornadoes, drug resistant bacteria, plane crashes, epidemics, drought and flooding. Add to that, fear-mongering TV preachers and politicians who use talk of terror for political gain until the fear of terror becomes its own terror. Then add to that, panic-driven newscasters who can't even give the weather without fear-filled, bated breath. It all leads to what Jane Spencer in the Wall Street Journal refers to as the "fear system" of our day. Into that maze of fear, we have the audacity to read the word of the angel to Mary: "Do not be afraid!"
Do not be afraid. It's a hard message to accept in the face of our world. But, like FDR, Advent reminds us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Mary was both troubled and confused by what the angel told her. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Mary was quite likely wondering just what such a greeting meant. Why would she, an insignificant young woman from an insignificant village be favored by God? Granted that she was of the House of David (Through Aaron) as was her husband Joseph; but then being descended from David wasn't all that unusual. So what had she done to deserve such a greeting?

As Mary wondered what the greeting meant, Gabriel continued: 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 1 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.

Why? Mary Asked. “Why Mary?” we ask. Why an unwed, impoverished, and teenage girl?

Throughout the gospels Mary is portrayed as thoughtful, obedient, believing, worshipful and devoted to Jewish law. To us, and to all who knew her, she is the ideal Christian. However, none of these qualities are offered as reasons for God choosing her, God’s reasoning is tucked away from our view. We can guess, and we can come to our own conclusions, but the truth of God’s choice is known only to God in his eternal plan.

If Mary had wanted a perfect life on unbroken happiness, ease and pleasure in all things, then she certainly didn’t get it. If she had tried to measure up the favor of the Lord by the expectations of the world, then it would seem that the promise and salutation of the angel was only an illusion.

There are those who would tell you that God's favor results in health, wealth, and prosperity. God's love is exhibited in a beautifully decorated tree with presents piled high around it. Televangelists and Christian writers proclaim that God’s favor is with them, that God wanted them to be wealthy and powerful. Their messages always contain some sort of theologically problematic promise: If only you pray more, if you only read your bible more, if you only put more money in the offering plate, then God will make you healthy, happy, holy, and wealthy. That is not the favor Mary Experienced, nor is it the Gospel Jesus proclaimed. If God had wanted our discipleship to be easy then he would not have come into the world through the difficult situation of an unwed virgin. If God had wanted our faith to be easy then we would have no need for church, repentance, and forgiveness.

On the contrary, it appears that if you are “favored”, you are probably being recruited by God, who has a task for you. At it may well be something you don't want to do. Like Jonah. The LORD told Jonah, the son of Amittai, (Jon 1:2) to go to the great city of Nineveh and say to the people, "The LORD has seen your terrible sins. You are doomed!" Jonah didn't want to go so he ran in the opposite direction only to learn that you cannot run away from God. God’s favor and blessing do not necessarily mean life is easy, we get our way, or we live happily ever after. It is not God’s reward for right behavior or right believing. It is rather a state, a condition, a way of being. Mary’s “yes” to God is not the source of or reason for her favoring and blessing. Rather, her favoring and blessing are the source and origin of and the means by which she can say “yes.”

With Mary, and frankly with every single one of us, it comes down to obedience. Purely and humbly Mary put herself into the hands of God. She sacrificed so that God’s will could be done in the world. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.

"Excuse me," Governor Herter said, "do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?"

"Sorry," the woman told him. "I'm supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person."

"But I'm starved," the governor said.

"Sorry," the woman said again. "Only one to a customer."

Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. "Do you know who I am?" he said. "I am the governor of this state."

"Do you know who I am?" the woman said. "I'm the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister."

The baby Mary would give birth to is the one in charge of this meal. It appears to be a simple meal, just bread and juice. But it is so much more. It is the body and blood of the one called great; the Son of the Most High God; poured out for you, and for many for the forgiveness of sins. So don't be afraid to take seconds...or even thirds. This is the food of salvation, the food of grace. Come, eat, drink, and celebrate! AMEN.

Have You Seen the Angels, part1

My beloved wife, has, from time to time, described me as being a bit on the stubborn side. The phrase she uses is something like: “You make a Missouri mule seem obedient.” Well, I may be a bit set in my ways, but I do like to think I would at at least recognize, listen to, and believe the words of an angel, should one appear to me. Not so Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah. He was old at the time of this story, and he and his wife had failed at one of their most important cultural duties, bearing children. In Israel and among oriental peoples generally barrenness was a woman's and a family's greatest misfortune. The highest sanctions of religion and patriotism blessed the fruitful woman, because children were necessary for the perpetuation of the tribe and its religion. Indeed, barrenness was considered a punishment, though for the life of him, Zechariah could not understand why he was punished. Some scholars suggest that by this time, probably the only time in his life he would serve at the temple, his faith had been reduced to a mere repetition of the prescribed rituals; he was simply going through the motions.

How many of us are, or know folks like that? Every Sunday finds them in church; they start and end their day with prayer; they treat others as they would want to be treated and even go out of their way to aid and assist those in need. Yet, in their hearts the”re is no fire. They even contemplate why they do all these things. Maybe it's like my Daddy told me: “There are some things you do simply because they are things you do. For Zechariah, going through the motions was what one did simply because one was born a priest.

And so, when Abijah's order was called, Zechariah dutifully reported to the temple where he offered sacrifices, adjudicated legal matters, pronounced blessings over the people and performed other priestly tasks. Then one day he won the lottery. It was the custom that each day a lottery was held to determine who would enter the Sanctuary and burn the incense. The Sanctuary was the most sacred part of the Temple. It was an impressively high building, of white stones some of which were of very great size: 36 feet long, 18 feet broad and 12 feet high! The building had a vestibule and two halls. The first hall was called the Holy Place. No one was allowed to enter it, except priests twice a day. It was beautifully decorated, as described in 1 Kings 6,15-36. The inner sanctuary was thirty feet in length, width, and height. Solomon overlaid it with pure gold and covered the altar with cedar.[a] 21 Solomon covered the temple’s interior with pure gold. He placed gold chains in front of the inner sanctuary and covered it with gold.
There were three main religious objects in the Holy Place: the altar on which incense was burned, the table with bread offerings and the candlestick with seven branches.
It was here that God interacted with humans, and here that God interacted with Zechariah through the angel Gabriel. While there are unknown thousands of angels in the bible, only three, Michael, Gabriel, and Lucifer are named. Michael the Archangel is the leader of all angels and of the army of God. Gabriel is the messenger

Most modern images of angels are sweet, cherubic appearing creatures in white flowing gowns, with halos and lovely wings...the parts played by little children in the classic Christmas pageant. But that's not an accurate or realistic image. Daniel was terrified when he saw Gabriel and fell with his face to the ground. While we do not know exactly what he looked like, we do know two things: His appearance was frightening, and he was recognizable as an angel.

As Zechariah was in the Sanctuary burning the incense, all the people who gathered to worship were praying outside. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.

Don't be afraid” Gabriel begins his message: “Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers[a] back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Poor stubborn, faith-lost Zechariah. Not only can he not believe what he has heard from the angel; he voices his disbelief. “I'm too old.” he says; “so is my wife.”

Well, then,” answers Gabriel, “because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”

When Zechariah comes out of the Sanctuary, it is clear to those waiting that something has happened. Because he was unable to speak to them,and could only gesture, they realized he had seen a vision.

We don't know how Zechariah explained to Elizabeth what had happened, but Gabriel was right, an elated Elizabeth soon found herself pregnant... (Luk 1:24) and for five months she did not leave the house. She said to herself, (Luk 1:25) "What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me."Even when we doubt God, even when our faith is reduced to simply going through the motions, God doesn't give up on us. Even though we may think God doesn't hear our prayers, that they are just empty recitations, God listens. God answers. It may not be when or how we think it should be, but God listens and fulfills our needs. Somewhere deep down in the bottom of his soul, Zechariah found the faith to recognize Gabriel, and the courage to ask “How?” In silencing Zechariah's tongue, Gabriel also silenced his doubts and restored his lost faith. If we can only find the strength to confess our doubts, to continue to pray when praying seems useless, we, too, will find our prayers answered and our faith restored.

May you see the angels this Advent. AMEN.