Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Faith or Fear: the only real choice

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:21-40

The 1st Sunday after Christmas almost always seems anti-climactic because the festive fury of Christmas reaches a particular crescendo and then suddenly dies down – or completely out. It is as if the Story that began to unfold with so much excitement and anticipation only came about in a few short weeks and then abruptly ended. To make matters worse, at least according to the church calendar, we will move into Lent in a few short weeks. So what began as the fevered pitch of excitement and anticipation at our welcoming the birth of Messiah will come to a somewhat sinister conclusion at Calvary when man utterly rejects Him, even as we know how that turns out.

This is one of the reasons why I am not entirely comfortable with the Advent season. Lent is another story and another sermon altogether, of course, but the anticipation of what will come in Advent with a BANG and a CRASH will die out as soon as everyone realizes that the Christmas season is over. The only regrets will be in saying goodbye to loved ones who came to spend the holidays with us or figuring out what to do with the ugly neck tie or the fruitcake some “thoughtful” soul gave to us.

Life goes on, however. Even during the time of Jesus’ birth, there was still much to be done and years to come before Jesus would enter into His public ministry. Until His appointed time, He is raised in the faith of His parents. In order to enter into the faith of His parents, He is brought into the Covenant by the faith of His parents. Few seem to notice or care that Jesus’ parents did not decide to “let the Boy wait until He can make His own profession of faith”. Jesus the boy, the child of Mary and Joseph, was very intentionally and rightly brought forth by His parents and was given into that about which is written, “an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:7, 13b) established by the Lord God. According to what is written in Genesis, it is a Covenant with no shelf life, no expiration date. It is, according to the Lord God Himself, “everlasting”.

What far too many misunderstand about the nature of a Covenant is that such a Covenant is a divine promise. It is, by its very nature, the essence of the Lord, and each Covenant the Lord has offered has come by its very nature: eternal and divinely imparted to man regardless of man’s actions. That is to say, the Lord’s Covenant is His promise, His Word. If we believe in the eternal nature of the Lord God Himself, then we must surely understand that His promise is as eternal as He is; it does not stand only until He changes His mind, for it is written: “I am the Lord; I do not change.” Malachi 3:6

Something to remember in exploring the nature of a Covenant: one might suggest that Mary and Joseph were under the threat of LAW and would have been bringing the Boy regardless. Such a thought is not consistent with the reality, however, that the Holy Father entrusted Himself as a Child, as a helpless infant, into the care of such faithful and favored souls. For everything that has been and will be asked of Mary and Joseph, these are persons who obviously live by faith, not fear.

In Luke’s reading, it is also notable that “the Child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about Him” (Luke 2:33) by Simeon, a man blessed by the Holy Spirit. He was promised by the Lord Himself that he would not see death until he had placed his own eyes upon the Messiah. So we are not dealing with people of the Law here who are involved in a legalistic “baby dedication”; we are dealing strictly with people of faith. The Child is being brought into THE COVENANT by his parents. The unusual circumstances of the Child’s birth seem not to be so fresh in the minds of Mary and Joseph; they are only doing the right thing by their God and their Child according to their faith.

The mark of that Covenant, which still exists among our Jewish brethren, happens to be circumcision. And in the continuing traditions and practices of the Jewish faith, the child will make his own proclamation at his Bar-Mitzvah at the age of 13. Obviously a boy cannot be re-circumcised nor is there any need to be, not because the foreskin will have grown back and not because the child did not remember the event, but because the Covenant he was brought into was GOD’S PROMISE, not man’s.
The Covenant came to life because GOD MADE IT, not man. And the Covenant is the real deal because GOD MADE IT SO, not man. And the Covenant is everlasting and a done deal because GOD MADE THE PROMISE – it is irrelevant whether the child was old enough to remember it though at Bar-Mitzvah, the child is called upon to recall the Covenant – again – that GOD MADE. The parents, at the child’s bris, merely brought the child into GOD’S PROMISE because they … believed in the Covenant which already existed. It would become, for the child, a Covenant to freely walk away from if the child would so choose; but it was not, and is not, a Covenant the parents are free to withhold from their children.

So Paul challenges the practice of circumcision according to his understanding of the New Covenant and grace, so this is not necessarily about the validity of the physical act and certainly not about Paul’s understanding of the need for circumcision. We are, indeed, people of the New Covenant; the mark of this New Covenant is baptism. It is our duty and privilege as Christians and parents of the New Covenant to bring our young children into that New Covenant – GOD’S PROMISE, not ours, to offer all people of faith eternal life.

But even this is not about the difference between Calvinists who refute the validity of infant baptism and Arminians who uphold ALL baptism – including that of infants. It is about the sacramental nature of the Covenant. And, ultimately, about our faith.

Being a Sacrament of the Church, it is understood that Baptism, the mark of the New Covenant, then, is evidence of the Lord’s giving of Himself. It is understood that a Sacrament is HIS ACT, not man’s. Just like Holy Communion as a gathering of all Covenant people – and yes, incidentally, though “legally”, unbaptized children should not be allowed to participate in Holy Communion. There again, however, is the tricky part about explaining to a young child why he or she cannot have some Jesus! To explain to a young child why he or she is excluded from GOD’S PROMISE, especially when Jesus said: “Let the little children come to Me and DO NOT PROHIBIT THEM …”

Before us as reasonable persons, then, is but this one choice and has nothing to do with man-made traditions. We can continue to live in FEAR of doing the wrong thing the wrong way at the wrong time … or we can choose to live in FAITH that the Right Thing has already been done and is divinely imparted to us. Finally and completely. No apologies, no doubts. No Fear.

It is, ultimately, the choice responsible Christian parents make not for their children but for their GOD to bring all whom we are responsible for and entrusted with to Him and into Him through the New Covenant, the Promise He has made for all time. It is our duty and privilege to share – but it is NOT ours to withhold.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas 2008

It’s been a tough year for many with the US economy in a tail spin and jobs being lost by the thousands. As pastor of a church that administers a food pantry, I’ve become more acutely aware of the challenges so many face in such a harsh economic climate. I’ve also become more aware of those who spend most of their time attempting to get something for nothing and will do or say most anything to get what they want. I suppose I could say more about these but they are merely incidental, if something of a pain. If we give groceries to one-hundred persons but only one among these many is that one who is genuinely in need (and does not hesitate to express such profound gratitude), then I suppose it will all have been worth it.

It is both heart-wrenching and somewhat encouraging to hear news reports about how the American Christmas shopper is being much more cautious about holiday spending and traveling; heart-wrenching in that so many of these are either about to lose their jobs or are living in fear of what may happen tomorrow at work, and encouraging in that perhaps some of these are rethinking the notion that Christmas must be expensive in order to be good. Though many of these who are being tight-fisted are likely being more practical than spiritual, it is always good that we get reason to pause so that we may reconsider the priorities of our lives. Still, it is sad to hear of so many who consider Christmas Eve or Day worship services to be obstacles to be planned around in favor of family or friendship gatherings.

I often wonder if I expect too much. I lost my secular job earlier this year and suddenly found myself caught up in the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that this economy produced. I was in the big middle of a constantly shrinking job market and wondering where my own future would take me. Thankfully, I was able to make the transition from part-time to full-time ministry, but there was a lot of financial ground lost in the interim. I find myself now being somewhat tight-fisted and questioning my reasoning: am I in spiritual protest against the consumer-driven Christmas rush, or am I also caught up in the fear of uncertainty when even I begin to question my own faith?

I recall Christmases past as a small boy with mixed emotions. I always loved Midnight Mass and the wonderment of the Christmas story, but I also remember that it was a great way to help the time pass between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And I remember all the brightly colored packages under the tree, more than any should have, and my parents almost always put a special present somewhere else. For instance, I will never forget the Christmas when I got my first shotgun. I didn’t even ask for it, and my dad had it hidden behind the couch! What a great Christmas that turned out to be, although I soon found myself a little bored with the whole thing because I could not “play” with the shotgun just any ol’ time I pleased. It was, after all, a weapon.

As I came of age and began playing Santa for my own children, the reality of those abundant Christmases we had enjoyed as children began to hit home. I never realized what a financial burden my parents had placed upon themselves to give us a “good” Christmas until I soon found myself up to my ears in debt. And for what? Worthless crap that would not last. Oh, there would always be the occasional toy or special prize that would be remembered and cherished and valued, but for the most part the presents were just additional packages to be unwrapped to somehow make Christmas more fun.

Soon enough I became more spiritually aware of how far away from the Lord we actually move during what is supposed to be the holiest day of the year when we spend all we have – and then some! - giving our children more than they could ever possibly need or even appreciate and then dropping some left-over change in the Salvation Army buckets as a mere afterthought. It began to haunt me that the financial pain I was feeling may have been more a judgment against me than merely a result of carelessness on my part.

Even now, however, I still feel a little inadequate that I cannot give to my children all that MY own heart desires. They are old enough to understand the challenges we faced this past year, so they’ve not asked for much at all. And because they seem to “get it”, I want to give them even more.

What my wife and I have managed to give our children over the years, however, is a stable home and an abiding faith. We have raised decent children who are turning into decent adults who will one day make positive contributions to church and society and will soon enough raise up children of their own. Most importantly, however, my wife and I finally wised up and gave our children the Greatest Gift any child can receive from a parent: we gave Christmas back to Christ.

Always remember that there is no such thing as a “better” Christmas than any Christmas past, for the real Christmas – the birth of Messiah – will always stand as the best Christmas of all. For this reason alone, such a holy day deserves all our hearts, minds, souls, strength, and will.

Merry Christmas,


Friday, December 19, 2008

For Better or Worse

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written anything seriously. The plain truth is that I have been somewhat under the weather and have just not had much to seriously contemplate. Even my sermons these past couple of weeks have been, in my own opinion, completely lacking in substance. Maybe they’ve been adequate at least for some, but I certainly didn’t walk away feeling very good about any of it.

It doesn’t help much that we are in the midst of the Christmas season which is, for most, a joyous and happy time. Not so much for me, though. I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch, but I am more of a quiet, “Silent Night” sort of person who likes a home that is tastefully decorated for Christmas with maybe some candles burning here and there, a faint and almost imperceptible, glowing flicker of light but not the loud, flashing, multi-colored lights that challenge a city’s power grid. The hustle-and-bustle I absolutely loathe. The mindless spending and grabbing and buying and selling I detest.

I am even at an awkward place geographically that will require that I spend virtually the entire holiday season on the road driving from one end of the state to the other if I want to see everyone in the family, some I’ve not seen in at least a year. Truth be told, it matters more to my wife than to me because I am not a “this is what Christmas is all about” kind of guy. Christmas is about Christ, pure and simple. It is about the New Covenant that the Lord God has offered to all of mankind. It is a promise He has made to us all, and we repay Him by twisting and turning this holy day into anything but a holy day. Christmas is now exactly what we have made it to be.

It is amusing to me that so many “militants” will demand that Christ be put back into Christmas, but these same people will not be in churches on Christmas Eve and certainly not on Christmas Day because they have other plans. Oh, there are exceptions as there must always be, of course, but far too many have re-created for themselves a new Winter Solstice with Christmas being merely incidental, not the other way around.

Experts have suggested that there is no way Jesus could have been born in December, that He was likely born in May or June based on what is written in Scripture and maybe a few other sources of information. If this is true, or if December 25 can even be absolutely ruled out, then let the Church return to the time closest to that of the actual birth date of Jesus and “retake” (as my militant friends would say) Christmas for what it is supposed to be: the celebration of the birth of Christ.

I remain convinced that people are leaving the Church overall not because one church is lacking this or the other church is lacking that but because the Church is not a consistent voice of integrity. Too many churches have helped the Church Universal to compromise its moral integrity and authority by bowing to the whims and wishes of a people at large who have no idea what they really want or need, so they bend and sway according to the latest trends or go running to the church with the shiniest baubles. And they are always unsettled because fads fade in favor of something else, anything else so long as it is different.

For these who bend and sway, the foundation they sorely lack – but sorely need - is constantly shifting and is never stable. A sudden shift to the right or to the left they might notice and even resist, but subtle changes made almost imperceptibly over time will help them to shift right or left according to design of the entertainment or the skilled leader. Think about it: how can a nation as the US, which claims to be over 80% Christian, be so mindlessly consumed at Christmas about everything except Christ-mass? The so-called “commercialism” is only being noticed this year because so many have lost, or are losing, jobs and homes and cars and … and ….

For the sake of reclaiming what was once the holiest day of the Christian calendar, this economic melt-down could not have come at a better time. My prayer is that we may see this time not as a curse but as the True Blessing we’ve been lacking for so long.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Commercialism and Christmas: the curse and the blessing

I always get roused up this time of year watching people fleeting from here to yonder, worrying about creating for themselves and their loved ones “the best Christmas ever”. By the time Christmas actually arrives, these same people are so wrung out and exhausted from all the anxiety that the end of the Christmas season is quite a welcome sight. It occurs to me, however, that it is not the commercialism, per se, that is the problem with Christmas; I think the problem we have goes much deeper than this, but it is much easier to blame stores and a faceless concept for trying to lead us away from the “reason for the season”. In actuality, it is we Christians who make deliberate choices that lead us away from what Christmas should be about. Commercialism, for better or worse, always has been and always will be. It is how we earn our bread and butter.

Commercialism in and of itself is not inherently evil though it could be construed as the curse brought upon us by Adam’s failure in the Garden of Eden to abide by the Word of the Lord. Because of his disobedience, man was put out of Paradise where all his needs were met and was forced to fend for himself in a world filled with thorns and thistles. Commercialism, then, is an extension of that curse which man has brought upon himself for his disobedience. We live outside of Paradise and must fend for ourselves. Perhaps it is, then, that we simply try to make the best of it.

Christmas brings to us the greatest Gift of all: the Lord’s fully and completely giving of Himself to all of humanity, to walk among us, to teach us, to guide us, to heal us, and to show us the way back to Paradise, our true Home. Because of this tremendous and remarkable Gift we’ve been given, we in turn give. It is our tradition, a tradition that we have tried to pass from generation to generation in trying to teach our young what Christmas is all about: giving. Clearly, however, the concept of what it means to give of oneself has been lost, entirely surrendered to the world of thorns and thistles.

The problem begins when we fall prey to this mindless, senseless demon better known as “consumption” or, more specifically, mindless consumption. It begins to overtake us when we, for instance, decide that our current TV (which is working just fine, by the way) is no longer good enough and we opt for the bigger, better, more technologically advanced model. And since such electronic devices have virtually no resale value, we either give the old one away or put it in the bedroom or wherever. Soon enough, this newer, bigger, better TV will be obsolete (at least in our consumption-driven mind) and in need of replacement. And Lord help us when marketers convince us of the newest “must-have” toy. Whether we need it or not, we will seek it out and pay top dollar for it. As evidenced in the past, some are willing to take a beating – or give a beating – over the last one on the shelf. We have no real need for it and have done quite well without it, but we will have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the value of our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, will somehow be forever diminished for lack of it.

Commercialism is not the problem; it is our mindless consumption mentality that leads us farther away from the true Spirit of Christmas, that Spirit being the Lord God. Without Him and His grace and mercy, there is no Christmas … period. And truly, theologically, the farther removed from Christmas we are, the farther removed from Him we are.

Christmas, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists within our contemporary society. And because Christmas is exclusively a Christian Holy Day, we Christians have no one to blame but ourselves because we are fully on board with what has become nothing more than a Winter Solstice and have fallen in line with the pagans who have overwhelmed us and influenced us rather than the other way around. And we have fallen victim to such nonsense almost mindlessly, certainly blindly, because we have believed commercials over the Bible.

I wish I had an answer that would be palpable for Christians. If a suggestion is made to parents of young children that each child get only one toy and perhaps one article of clothing and nothing else in favor of more generous gifts to a charity, these parents will likely react as if someone had lost complete control of their senses. How can “my” child face other children after Christmas who got this and this and those and that, but “my” child ONLY got this? What will the neighbors think? How our children would come to hate us if we somehow “cheated” them on Christmas! How they would soon come to hate Christmas!!

The truth is our children and our children’s children are being cheated out of Christmas and are being handed over to the pagan festival that has no mind, no soul, and no purpose. The only celebration is that of being capable of spending money for one’s own pleasure. One feels “cheated” only if there is not enough money to buy all the stuff our hearts desire, failing to realize that the birth of the Christ is still very real. Somehow, though, without the newest, latest, biggest, best device or toy, Christmas just isn’t the same, not quite so shiny or even desirable. How sad.

The bright spot in all this is that we did not arrive at this point overnight, so we will not be able to overcome the mentality overnight, but it can be done. Over time, if Christians are willing to lead by example and show the joy that Christmas is, to prove it beyond any doubt, the evidence abundant in our hearts would be compelling to many, those who need to hear it most. After all, who would desire all the cultural anxiety we only bring upon ourselves? Certainly not I.

The dull spot is that as long as Christian churches forego the Christmas services because far too many will opt out of worship in favor of parties and family gatherings (after all, this is what Christmas is really all about, right?), the Church herself will have surrendered her moral authority as the herald of the Gospel. The message will have been completely lost, and the flicker of the lighted candle of hope will be finally snuffed out.

One must still believe in miracles to have hope enough that this can change. My prayer is that there is sufficient faith among Christ’s disciples that we can one day claim and proclaim Christmas for what it truly is: a Divine Message of Hope and not a shopping season.