The Beginning

Sunday, December 25, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 1:1-14

“In the beginning….” These words from John are the words we need to hear on this first day of Christmas. For many people in our society, the celebration of Christmas will end tonight after all the festivities. Tomorrow or in the next couple of days, trees and decorations will be taken down. Christmas for many will be over. But today is Christmas Day. Today is the beginning of Christmas, not the end. Today we begin the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas. Today is the beginning.

This is exactly how John begins in telling us about Jesus. There’s a reason John’s description of the birth of Christ is different from the other gospels. There are no angels or shepherds in his account. Last night Luke’s gospel focused on the baby Jesus and his humanity. Today, after a night’s sleep, we wake up and hear how that same baby is also truly God. John wants us to understand that it all begins with Jesus.

In the beginning, God created the world with words. God called things into being and they were created. Jesus is God’s Word and the Word existed from the very beginning. And that same Word, Jesus, became flesh in order to come and live with us. God was still creating, only through Jesus’ birth God was re-creating God’s own self. Christmas therefore is the beginning. It’s the beginning of God through Jesus living among us instead of being far away. It’s the beginning of God through Jesus teaching us how to live. It’s the beginning of God through Jesus showing us how to love like God loves. It’s the beginning of God through Jesus shining light in our darkest places. Christmas is the beginning of our hope and salvation.

And today begins the first day of the 12 days of Christmas, ending on January 6th when we celebrate the feast of the epiphany. This Christmas – starting today – really experience the 12 days of Christmas. Don’t rush this time. Savor the gift of God coming to live with us. Like in the song the 12 Days of Christmas each day reflect on the gift your true love gives to you. Our true love is God. And on this first day of Christmas God gives us Jesus – the Word who became flesh for us. Each day think about another gift that you can be grateful to God for – God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s peace. Let Christmas be the beginning of your celebration, not the end. For Christ’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Because of Christmas we have hope, and peace, and eternal life. In Jesus Christ the gifts of Christmas he brings never ends because he is with us always. That’s reason to celebrate every day. Amen.

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Right On Time

Saturday, December 24, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 2:1-20

If you’ve ever traveled by airplane, train, bus, or any other mode of transportation you know that schedules can often be delayed without any notice. It could be a storm, bad weather, a technical malfunction, an accident, or any number of circumstances that can delay your arrival time. You make plans to get to a certain destination – maybe home for the holidays- and when you least expect it the plans you made quickly get changed by circumstances beyond your control. There’s nothing you can do. You might panic, or become filled with anxiety, you worry about making that connecting flight or transfer, you wonder if those waiting on you will get impatient and angry waiting for you. And you are helpless to do anything but wait. Instead of arriving on time you’re  now delayed. The journey is out of your hands.

The story of the first Christmas was a similar journey. It was an unexpected and difficult one. Joseph and Mary were engaged and waiting to be married when all of a sudden all their plans changed. Mary, the young teenage bride-to-be was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Both Joseph and Mary were caught off guard by this strange and unbelievable news. Yet they listened to God. They said yes to God. And they trusted in God though the direction of their lives drastically changed.

While they prepared for the coming of this special child, the government made them leave the safety and security of their home in Nazareth to register in another city for a census for tax purposes.  This was another unexpected and unwanted change of plans. By that time Mary was doing the usual nesting and making their home ready for the arrival of the baby. She didn’t want to travel, especially on foot, to a city far away – over 90 miles away to be more exact. This was not an easy journey, especially for a pregnant woman ready to give birth. As much as they wanted to stay home, they were forced to leave. It’s estimated that it took them between 7- 10 days walking depending on whether they walked 10 or 20 miles per day.

The most direct route would have been directly south across the Jezreel Valley and through the hills of Samaria. But that was a physically demanding way with constant walking up and down hills. Most likely Mary and Joseph traveled southeast across the Jezreel Valley, through the Jordan Valley, all the way to Jericho, up through the Judean desert to Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem. The last part of the journey was the worst. The walk from Jericho’s desert, which is below sea level to Bethlehem is an uphill hike of 3500 feet! It’s exhausting just thinking about this and let’s not forget…Mary was pregnant! Mary and Joseph’s plans for staying at home and preparing for the birth were long gone. They weren’t even sure where Jesus was going to be born. Their plans may have changed, but God’s plans didn’t. Jesus would be born in the place God decided and right on time, because nothing stops God’s plans.

In the midst of the Roman occupation of Israel over 2000 years ago, despite the hard and dangerous journey of Mary and Joseph, God arrived. The armies couldn’t stop God’s arrival. The government authorities couldn’t stop God’s arrival. The treacherous roads didn’t stop God’s arrival. The people who didn’t make room for Mary and Joseph at any of their houses couldn’t stop God’s arrival. God showed up. God showed up in an unexpected and surprising way – as a tiny baby in a stable. Despite all the unbelievable obstacles, nothing could stop God from showing up that first Christmas, and nothing will stop God from showing up today.

God arrives, God comes to us even when things don’t go as we planned. Even when we find ourselves in situations we’d rather not be in, even when the news we receive seems bleak and hopeless, even when we feel lost and along, even when what we’re up against seems insurmountable, God’s arrives right on time. It may not be the estimated arrival time according to our schedule, it may not be when we feel God should intervene according to our time-frame, but God will arrive right on time with the answer to our prayers. It may be in the form of angels or messengers from God. It may be the words they speak to us, or the kindness they show to us that points to God right in our midst.  We just need to keep walking the journey of faith, and trust in God who always shows up.

Be not afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, A Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.” These words spoken by the angel are for each and every one of us tonight. To you is born a Savior. The sign for you is the child – the Savior -wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger hidden in a stable. The sign for you is the Savior who came to show you how to live. The sign for you is the Savior who gave his life for you on the cross. The sign for you is the Savior hidden in the bread and the wine of the Holy Meal we are fed by tonight. The sign for you is the Savior hidden in the faces and the hands of the people you see every day. You are important to God.  God travelled all the way from the glories of heaven to earth and became human just for you in order to save you. God arrives and comes to us in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, and sometimes through unexpected people because you matter to God. God came for each and every one of you and God will never leave you.

This is the good news the angels speak to us tonight. God is with us. The signs are everywhere. God arrives in unexpected ways and in unexpected places at just the right time – all the time. Nothing stopped God from coming to us that first Christmas, and nothing will stop God from coming to us today. God shows up, time and time again, not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is – faithful, generous, gracious, loving, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father prince of Peace. What a gift! What a Savior! What a reason to celebrate this night and every day! Amen!

 

 

Extraordinary Ordinary Callings

Sunday, December 18, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 11:2-11

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. The celebration of the birth of Christ is almost here. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel wants us to stop and pause as to how this extraordinary event happened. It all started through the use of ordinary people and things. It also grew out of an incredible scandal. You see Joseph and Mary were ordinary people. Mary, a young teenage girl of around 15 years of age was engaged to Joseph. They were about to be married. And then Joseph hears this story that Mary is pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt- betrayed, anger, hurt, and disappointed? His dreams for his life, the plan of how things were supposed to be were now shattered. How could he believe a story like this? He was a righteous man, a man who obeyed the laws and customs of his time. And according to the rules Mary could be stoned for being pregnant before they were married on account of adultery. After much thought and anguish, Joseph decided he would end their relationship quietly. He still loved Mary, but he couldn’t go forth with their marriage under the circumstances. Joseph was troubled and I’m sure he had a lot of sleepless nights after hearing the news. His once perfect dream for married bliss was gone. This was now called a nightmare.

But God called it something else. God spoke to Joseph in a dream. An angel or messenger from God called to Joseph in his sleep and explained that this was not a nightmare, but a miracle in the making. Mary’s child was a gift from the Holy Spirit, not just to Mary and Joseph, but to all people. The angel told Joseph to call this child Jesus, which means God saves. What an extraordinary dream, yet when Joseph woke up he listened and did what the messenger told him. This ordinary man named Joseph did an extraordinary thing through faith – he listened to the message from God and changed his own plans in order that God’s plans would take place. The same Holy Spirit that caused Mary to conceive, also gave Joseph the courage to be part of God’s great plan of salvation. God needed Joseph to be a part of this plan and Joseph listened to God’s voice.

It’s not easy to listen to God’s voice when things seem to be going all wrong. Our worries and fears can get the best of us. We want to try and come up with a way to fix the problem, rather than trust that God will work it all out. This was the case for Joseph. It would have been much easier for Joseph to do things his own way. He would have spared himself and Mary the ridicule that others would say.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah we also heard how God spoke to Ahaz, and promised to give him a sign in his time of need. Ahaz knew that the armies that were coming to invade them were strong, and so he didn’t want to trust God. Ahaz wanted to put his trust in the Assyrian army that was coming to help him, but Isaiah said that he should listen to God. Yet that didn’t make any sense to Ahaz.

Listening and obeying God often means going against logic and reason. Trusting God may seem foolish to others. We may get treated cruelly for doing so, but this is where the real test of faith lies. Are we going to do what God wants even if it is hard, or are we going to do things our own way and the way others think we should go? Joseph and Mary listened to God. They said yes, and that changed the course of history.  History is changed most often by ordinary people with extraordinary courage, and that courage comes from God.

God has great dreams and plans for us. God has great dreams and plans for all creation. And God chooses to bring these dreams and plans to life through ordinary people and events. God did not choose a princess or other type of royalty to carry the savior, but a ordinary young peasant girl. God did not choose a successful businessman or political figure to adopt and care for Jesus, but chose a simple carpenter. God did not make a grand entrance into this world with neon lights and trumpets sounding, but came into the world as a tiny baby born in a simple bare stable. God does God’s best work through ordinary people and ordinary things, and transforms them into extraordinary people and things.

That is exactly how God works through the Church. God calls ordinary men and women to be messengers of God’s holy word, and witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. People like Dennes,  Jane, Greg, and Kriste who each have had their own share of struggles and pain in life, have heard God’s call to officially be part of this congregation as members, and help to spread the news that God was born into this world to save us, that Jesus died to save us, and that Jesus has risen and is alive and is here to save us. Neither they or any of us have to be perfect people in order to spread the news about Jesus. In fact, the Church is filled with imperfect and flawed people, but God does God’s best work through the ordinary people and things of this world. When we listen to God’s voice, when we are generous with our time, compassion, love and everything else we have, when we live in trust and joy, people will see Christ’s light shining through us and they will know that God is with us. Emmanuel is here, living and speaking, and working through us.

God takes ordinary things like bread and wine and transforms them into Christ’s very body and blood. Each week, we have the extraordinary privilege of receiving Christ’s very presence here in our worship service in Holy Communion. Each week we have the opportunity to be forgiven and transformed through this gift of grace. We are made holy by God’s own presence, so that we may be instruments through which God transform those whom we encounter.

Just as Joseph was told to name the child Jesus, which means God saves, our names have a meaning too. Our name of Christian, means that we are followers of Jesus Christ. We are to be his light in the world. Wherever people are hurting or suffering, we are called to show them that God is with us. We are called to show them Christ not only through our words, but our actions. We are called to be messengers of God to each other through the everyday and ordinary things we do.

A simple ordinary phone call to a lonely member who is homebound may be the voice of hope that person needs to hear. A small gift purchased on our angel tree may be the hope someone who is struggling needs to receive so they can get up the next day and try again. An ordinary cup of coffee or a meal given to a homeless person could be to them a sign that God truly cares about them. There are so many simple ordinary things we can do that are actually extraordinary signs of God’s grace to someone in need.

As the Advent season draws to a close and we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us be open to saying yes to God just as Mary and Joseph did to whatever God is urging us to do. Let us trust that God is with us and that no matter what challenges we face God will lead us through them. And let us be generous with the love and care we show to others. Let us allow God to use our ordinary selves in extraordinary ways to give glory to God. Amen.

Courage in Christ

Sunday, December 4, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, & Matthew 3:1-12

 

What gives you courage? What makes you feel like you can face anything and overcome any obstacle? When was the last time you actually felt brave? As we journey through this second week of Advent, the image of John the Baptist challenges us to look at courage in a new light. It guides us to thinking of courage as a part of faith. Matthew’s gospel describes John as a very strange character. He certainly wasn’t like the other people who gathered to hear him preach. John the kind of individual most people would be put off from at first. John was a bit eccentric. He wore clothes made out of camel’s hair, with a leather belt tied around his waist. If that wasn’t bad enough he ate bugs! Yes, locusts and other insects you’d find outside. And he ate honey, which isn’t all that strange, but strange enough as a main source of food. If we encountered John today, we might just excuse him as crazy.

And there would be good reason to call him crazy, because not only did he dress and eat strangely; he spoke with a passion and authority that could get him into trouble. (It’s actually what cost him his life.) But the fact is that John was a prophet. God put on his heart those things he was to tell people. His purpose and vocation in life was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus, who he believed was the messiah. So John told people that they needed to repent – to turn their lives around, to take a different path, to change the direction of their lives – because Jesus is coming and they needed to do all they could to be ready for Him. John wasn’t concerned about whether or not people would like him. He wasn’t concerned about calling people out on their bad behavior. John truly wanted people to be ready for Jesus, and so he bravely spoke the truth even if it hurt people’s feelings. John wanted individuals to examine their lives and change those things that would lead them in the opposite direction from Jesus. He was giving them a second chance.

This reminds me of the timeless story written by Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol. In it Ebenezer Scrooge was consumed by thinking only of himself. His wealth held him captive. His desire to accumulate more and more wealth kept him isolated and away from any sense of community. And Scrooge grew into being a bitter bully, until one evening the ghosts or messengers from Christmas past, present, and future, visited him to show him the mistakes he was making and the consequences of his choices. These ghosts were doing what John the Baptist was doing; they were calling Scrooge to repent, to turn around from the life he was living, to change the direction of his life before it was too late. Scrooge may have seen it initially as cruel and harsh to watch how the sins he committed had hurt others, but the purpose of these messengers was not to inflict judgment on Scrooge for judgment’s sake, but out of love in order that Scrooge would be ready – ready for Christmas.

This is the same reason John the Baptist had courage to speak to the people who came out into the wilderness to hear him.  They came to receive hope and encouragement, yet what they heard was what Scrooge heard – turn around before it’s too late. The same Holy Spirit who gave John the courage to speak those words long ago speaks to us today. Repent. Turn your lives around, change direction, set yourself on a different course, so that you will be ready for the messiah, for Christ, who is coming again. We like those who came from far away to hear John in the wilderness, live in our own wildernesses. Every one of you sitting in these pews today has your own personal wilderness that you are going through. You each have things that you are struggling with, thorny brambles, and dark fears. And that is felt by the entire congregation. That dark isolated wilderness is seen in the collective fears of the congregation such as a fear of scarcity of people, and money, and resources, but our fears are not always reality. They can cripple a congregation just as much as they cripple an individual like it did in the case of Scrooge. But there is hope. That is the message from God today.

There is hope because we have time to repent. We have time to turn our lives around and live out of a different focus – one of the abundance and faithfulness of God. When we think we don’t have enough, we need to remember that God will always provide. Yet that does not mean we can be complacent, because God provides through each and every one of us. The prophet Isaiah speaks words of hope that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Out of the remnants of our lives, out of the things that we think are dead and dying can spring forth new life. All is not lost. Not only can God take the things that seem to be impossible and turn them into new life, but God is doing that as we speak. This time in the wilderness is not done in isolation. God is with us even in the depths of darkness. Even when things seem lost, God is working on a solution as we speak. God has been doing this since the beginning of time. God took a formless void and created the entire universe, including us, and God is still creating new life out of nothing. That is the power of the mighty God we worship. That is the abundance of the mighty God we worship. That is the love of the mighty and awesome God we worship.

So what is there to fear? There is no obstacle that is bigger than our God. There is no problem that is stronger than our God. There is no voice that is mightier than our God. This is the reason why John had the courage to speak to those in the wilderness. He knew the power of God who was coming in the flesh in Jesus. That is why repentance is not a word to be thought of as a judgment, but an opportunity to change direction and walk in the direction of Jesus who is coming again. We are preparing to celebrate Jesus’ coming at Christmas, a remembrance of an event that happened long ago and changed our life.  Yet more importantly, we are preparing for Jesus’ coming again, and we have the opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our lives in preparation for this life-changing event.

What would happen if we really answered God’s call to repentance? In what one area of your life do you feel God is asking you to change direction? What is one element of our congregational life that needs repentance and how are you contributing to that? The answers to these questions start from imagining God’s vision for us. How is it that God is calling us to live? God calls us to live in harmony with one another. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The peaceable kingdom described in Isaiah, the peace we seek here on earth, can only happen when we first have peace within ourselves. Peace begins in letting go of those things that keep us away from God, repenting and changing direction, and having the faith and trust to believe that out of old stumps God will spring forth new life. This faith is what gives us courage and bravery to face any situation or obstacle. Our courage is found in Christ.

As we continue our journey through advent, let’s embrace the graciousness of God who offers us a time to begin anew, a time to change course and set our sights on Jesus. Pray, study God’s word, open your hearts to be transformed in worship. Listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit who is the source of our courage, our bravery, and our hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.