Monday, December 29, 2008

Ponder These Things

I don’t know if you noticed. I don’t know if you pay attention to such things or particularly care. But this year, Christmas stuff began to appear in your local big box retailer before Halloween. Before a single “trick or treat” was spoken, aisles of red and green stuff began to take over the seasonal section. I make this observation not to condemn the commercialization of Christmas, but just to say, boy, we seem to be stuck on “What’s Next.”
Think about your own life. How much time do you spend getting ready for the next thing? How much energy do you spend preparing for the next big event? What happens after the next big event takes place? Is there any time to reflect on what just happened? Christmas is a perfect example. Think of everything that you have done over the past couple weeks to get ready for tonight and tomorrow. Will there be any time for you to just sit back and enjoy yourself? And after Christmas Day has come and gone, will Christmas stay with you? Or will we set our sights on shopping, or New Years, or just the routine of life as usual? We are great at looking forward to things. We’re stuck on “What’s Next.” We’re not so good at “What Just Happened?” We don’t give ourselves much time to reflect—or even much time to enjoy the moment. We’re missing out when we just scramble towards the next thing without taking time to think about what has happened and what it means.
Now, having said that, I’ve met plenty of people who have a defining experience in their lives that they think about often. For some, that defining experience was their military service in a war. For others, it has to do with their first taste of independence, or meeting their future spouse, or becoming a parent. For still others, that defining experience may be decidedly negative: the breakup of a marriage and family; a horrible accident, or just cruel, heartbreaking words that can’t be forgotten. I would guess that most of us do have a memory that we return to time and again—one that seems to define us, for better or for worse.
On this Christmas Eve, we are invited into the defining experience of a young virgin mother named Mary. We are invited to imagine what it might have possibly been like to give birth to the Son of the Most High God in a stable. We are invited to put the brakes on the holiday express—if only for a few moments—and think about what happened there in Bethlehem, for Scripture tells us that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
What are the things that Mary treasured and pondered? I think we can safely start with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to her: that she would conceive and have a son named Jesus, who would take the throne of David and be the Son of God. Then to feel the unmistakable signs of that life growing inside of her. Certainly she would have reflected on Joseph’s reaction to this news—his own experience with an angel messenger—his acceptance of her and her miracle baby. She would have remembered the rough road to Bethlehem and the mounting frustration of being turned away again and again until the stable was offered as an option. Then there was the pain of childbirth, surpassed only by the wonder of this baby boy. As she held little Jesus that night, did she ponder the promises the angel had made? Did she run them through her mind again? “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. And the Lord will give him the throne of His ancestor David. He will be King over the people of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” We can only wonder if she heard those words as she wrapped her little one in strips of cloth to keep him warm and secure. It’s safe to say she would later ponder the abrupt arrival of shepherds from the fields, breaking the relative peace of the stall with a fantastic story. No doubt she would treasure the memory of their weather-worn faces as they reported their angelic encounter. She now had more words to turn over in her mind: “A great joy will come to all the people: the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, was born for you today in David’s town. This is how you will know him: you will find a Baby all wrapped up and lying in a manger.” That was her boy—her Yeshua. It was all happening just as the Lord had said. It is no wonder that Mary treasured and pondered these things. She would return to this defining experience and probably cling to it with all her might in the challenging years ahead.
You would do well to ponder these things yourself—and not just the events of Jesus’ birth, but the rest of His life as well. We would all do well to stop and create the time we need to reflect on the good news of great joy which is for us and everyone! As I mentioned before, this big event called Christmas is a perfect example of busyness versus reflection. It’s a timely example of “What’s Next” versus “What Just Happened?” But it is hardly the only one we could name.
The fact is, we fill our lives—we jam pack our lives—with stuff. Our homes are filled with possessions, our calendars are filled with events, our hearts and minds are filled with ideas and needs—but how much of that “filling” is truly “of God?” Wouldn’t we really rather get possessions for ourselves than give them away in God’s name? Don’t we effectively schedule God out of our plans—making Him the first option to get cut from our calendars? And don’t we really prefer the thoughts and ideas generated by Hollywood and man’s imagination to the ones generated by Holy Scripture? It turns out that this reflection stuff can be awfully uncomfortable, when it reveals that we often live our lives as if God doesn’t matter.
This Christmas Eve there is good news of great joy for you, because God still does what He did in Bethlehem. He breaks into our reality. The power of His message breaks into our lives like a brick being thrown through a pane of glass. Jesus comes to you whether you’re ready for Him or not; whether you’re looking for Him or not; and His arrival in your life demands a response. Jesus was not born into our world of a virgin mother so that you and I would have an excuse to party and exchange presents. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, did not agree to lower himself to the point of having his first crib be an animal’s feeding trough so that you could have a day off from work. No. The shadow of a cross falls across the manger where that baby lies. He will grow up to do what you and I could never do—that is, live a perfect life; exactly the way God wants us to live. But then he does something unexpected with that perfect life—He gives it as a sacrifice. He breaks into this world to lay down his life for you. He comes to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins, and he will pay for our selfishness dearly, nailed to a cross. He comes to become one of us in order to switch places with us—he gets our sin and our death; you and I get his forgiveness and life. And let’s not forget that He broke into our world not just to die our death but to defeat death. A ray of morning light also falls across the manger where the baby lies—the light of Easter morning! He rose from the dead physically, three days after dying, so that we would not fear death. Moreover, we rightly look forward to a time when we too will rise physically because Jesus did first. He broke into our reality to change it—to rise from the dead and to give us confidence that death is now nothing more than a doorway to a new kind of life made possible by his resurrection.
In your hearing of these words, the good news of a Savior, Jesus has broken into your reality right now. He wants you to know the peace of forgiveness. He wants you to know the confidence of life with him that never ends. He wants to show you the best way of life there is. He wants you to follow Him; to stop serving yourself and to start serving Him by serving those around you. But first, he wants you to believe that He broke into this world at Christmas to begin a journey that would save you from the slavery of sin, the terror of death, and the punishment of hell. He wants you to believe that He broke into this world to make a connection with you—a connection that gives you hope and happiness today—a connection that will never be broken. His arrival in your life demands a response. What is yours?
My prayer is that your response will be the “yes” of faith; the greatest gift of all. Ponder these things, and may it be a Merry Christmas for you

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Services at St. Paul's are held on Christmas Eve at 5, 7 and 11pm. Please join us!

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Light the Pink Candle

16(A) Rejoice always, 17(B) pray without ceasing, 18(C) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19(D) Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise(E) prophecies, 21but(F) test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Abstain from every form of evil.
23Now may(
G) the God of peace himself(H) sanctify you completely, and may your(I) whole(J) spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at(K) the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24(L) He who calls you is faithful;(M) he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5

Today (the Third Sunday in Advent)we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath. Have you ever wondered what’s up with the three purple and the one pink? And why the pink one today? Finding the answer is as simple as looking at the colors. Pink is lighter than purple. Purple is darker than pink. That’s easy enough to understand. Still, what’s the connection? Well, today’s Scripture readings are, like the pink candle, lighter than the ones we’ve been hearing this Advent. They’re lighter in the sense that they focus on the comfort and peace and joy that comes from the Lord Jesus. They focus on the positive results that our King creates by coming into our lives.
Let’s face it; this Advent season carries with it some darker themes. We are reminded that this present world will come to an end when Christ returns. In his office of Judge he will make an eternal separation between the faithful and the unfaithful. We hear the cry of John the Baptist and are confronted with his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is heavy, serious business. It can be uncomfortable as we squirm in recognition of our own sin. This is necessary. Making a straight path for the King to come into your life is hard work. But today the pink candle burns brightly. We enjoy the light and joyful quality of God’s mercy. We are touched by the Lord’s tenderness. He just wants to hold his sons and daughters close, and His sacrificial love makes it possible.
In Isaiah 61 we hear Jesus outlining His mission and life’s work. His Father is sending Him to preach good news to the poor; to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim freedom for the captives; to proclaim the time of God’s favor and his just judgment against sin; and to comfort all who mourn and grieve. With beautiful poetic language he promises to exchange his gladness for our mourning; and praise for despair. Jesus would fulfill this promise by rising from the dead, never to die again, three days after his crucifixion, and his resurrection has become our source of life, hope, peace and perspective. So we light the pink candle today and rejoice in our Risen Lord.
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he says: “16(A) Rejoice always, 17(B) pray without ceasing, 18(C) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Paul is saying here: Light the pink candle in your life! God wants you live thankfully. God wants you to live prayerfully. God wants you to live joyfully. But this is exactly where we fall down, more often than not. Thanks to sin at work in us, our memory tends to be awfully short. When problems come charging at us, we forget who stands by our side. We forget that He’s won the ultimate victory. We forget the many ways He’s delivered us in the past. We just see the problem; the loss; the threat barreling down on us and we react in fear or despair or anxiety. Human reactions, to be sure, common to all of us—yet still we need to stop and turn around. We need to remember who goes with us. Jesus, our companion on this journey, has already gone down through the valley of the shadow of death—for you—and come up and out into life that never ends. He’s blazed that trail for you. You need not fear it. He shepherds your every step. He is always faithful to you. This is our source of rejoicing! We rejoice because the resurrection of Jesus trumps any card that the devil tries to play to hurt us or scare us.
Let’s be very clear about one thing: this call to rejoice is not a command to Christians to slap on a fake smile in bad times, or a cold word of advice to “just get over it.” Rejoicing happens not by denying our troubles, but by looking above and beyond them to the Lord. Rejoicing happens when God’s Word (with the Holy Spirit) breaks into your life once again and brings you face to face with Jesus. Rejoicing happens when God’s Word reminds you that your strong Shepherd has never left your side. Christian author Sherwood Wirt has written that “joy is the enjoyment of God,” and to that I would add that “joy is the enjoyment of God and the gifts He has given you through the actions of His Son Jesus.” You are God’s child by baptismal adoption; your sins are forgiven in full, thanks to Jesus; your life is unfolding according to His plan; He has promised that you will never be without Him. No difficulty that you face can rob you of these gifts.
Our joy is in the Lord Jesus. Let the pink candle shine. Amen.