Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011: "The Light's in our eyes"

Isaiah 52:7-10
John 1:1-14

Merry Christmas!  Your presence in worship on this holy of Holy Days, Christmas on a Sunday, is a testament to that which you know to be true.  You have seen the Light, and you have rejected the darkness of the world to come into that Light for all to see.  You have rejected the temporary, yet constantly changing and exhausting demands of the world and have sought sanctuary in the reality of the eternal Holy.  You have defied the will of the dominant culture and have ascended to something greater and longer lasting.  By choosing to worship our Lord today, you have made your God and Father primary rather than incidental because you have come to realize our Holy Father really does not ask much of us; and you have taught your children a valuable lesson.

Christmas is old news to the world that has over the years come to be taken for granted, but we notice that in the last few years an unbelieving world seems to be pushing back in resistance.  By the looks of it, it would appear the pagans are trying to reclaim a solstice that once was theirs and into which the early Church inserted the Mass of the Christ in an effort to reach them, in an effort to SHARE THIS GOOD NEWS of the birth of Messiah to a new generation and culture!  It is the same glorious story told over and over to every generation, and yet it is a story that should not get old.  It is that time of year almost everyone looks forward to because there is something magical about the whole thing.

Why, then, does it have to end?  I think it is because the Light begins to reveal something we would prefer to stay in the dark and hidden away.

Christmas is the season of revelation when we celebrate something we cannot begin to imagine but have spent the past 2000 years trying to explain: the Holy God of all creation revealing Himself in the perfection of humanity by coming to us as a Child into the very world spoken into existence by His Word; yet being revealed as that same "Word made Flesh", He found Himself rejected by His own creation.  This was expressed by St. John some 2000 years ago and is strangely and sadly relevant and equally true even today.  Only this time it is not the Jews to whom John refers.

I remember a funny story (written by Paul Lee Tan, "Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations") in which the late president Calvin Coolidge had returned home from worship early one Sunday afternoon.  His wife had been sick and unable to attend, but she wanted to know what the pastor had spoken about in his sermon.  Mr. Coolidge responded, "He talked about sin".  His wife pressed him for more details, so Mr. Coolidge was said to have responded: "I think he was against it."

The Church does not seem to like talking about "sin" much anymore (it's so negative and somewhat "offensive"); some traditions come dangerously close to suggesting that sin no longer exists for the Christian.  We are a nation - and even a Church - fixated on being "politically correct" so as to be as inoffensive as possible.  I agree to a certain extent because there is no good to come from inflicting harm or being offensive just because we can, and I think St. Paul would agree as well that it is preferable we at least show some common courtesy and basic respect toward one another even as it pertains to religious beliefs: "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with everyone" (Romans 12:18).  St. Paul further states, "I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.  [So] if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love.  Do not destroy with food the one for whom Christ [also] died" (Romans 14:14-15).

Let us be clear, however.  St. Paul is not talking about "food"; he is talking about something much more profound, of much greater substance and consequence.  There is a practicality to our faith and the practice of our religion that demands daily acquiescence to the certain knowledge that we do not have to be "right" in order to be "righteous", but we must act within a certain level of consciousness that demands attention to be paid to others besides ourselves.  For instance, we are aware of the so-called "seven deadly sins".  Mahatma Gandhi, however, had his own list of "deadly sins" that should pique the conscience of every right-thinking human person regardless of religious affiliation: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, politics without principle, and worship without sacrifice.

It has been said so many times and in so many ways that we cannot appreciate the power of - or even the "need" for - a Savior until we can appreciate the power of sin itself; for if sin does not exist or is just not that big of a deal, there is no need of the Savior and Jesus is nothing more than a philosopher.  It has been said that "because of sin man has taken the deity out of religion, the supernatural out of Christianity, the authority from the Bible, the Lord out of education, morality and virtue out of literature, beauty and truth out of art, ethics out of business, and fidelity out of marriage" (author unknown).  So if there is no sin for which atonement is required, Jesus was just a prophet; just a teacher.  And His painful death little more than an act of injustice and mob violence - which is nothing new or special.

One need only to have an honest look around - in and outside the Church - to know this all to be painfully true.  And if such things can be said to be "going a bit too far", for instance toward censorship, then we understand - or should understand - that the birth of the Christ is overblown and that Jesus was nothing more than another preacher in a long line of preachers who was murdered for calling people of faith back into the fold of that faith - AND - calling "sin" out for what it really is.    

When we allow this profound disconnect between "sin" and "salvation", we diminish - or eliminate altogether - the role of the Holy Son in the Holy Trinity.  It is a falsehood to suggest that Christmas means different things to different people; this is perhaps the single, greatest deception of all time!  It is not unlike Jesus speaking to His disciples about false prophets and false messiahs in Matthew 24.  There have been many before, and there will be many more to come.  People have been and will continue to be willingly misled by such false promises as "worship without sacrifice" because such reasoning gives us an excuse to step away.  It denies that Ultimate Sacrifice made with Christ's own Blood and simply says Jesus died in vain; for there was no sin for which to atone.

Whether the unbelieving world will admit it or not, we all have a desperate need to know what Christmas really means.  And it can only mean ONE THING: "The Lord so loved the world that He gave His only Son ..."  And my guess is that if we knew - REALLY KNEW - what the birth of Messiah means to the entire world, there would be NO CHURCHES CLOSED ON CHRISTMAS DAY regardless of what day of the week Christmas falls on!  If we really could understand and appreciate our desperate need for a Savior, churches would be open each morning so the faithful could prepare themselves AND ONE ANOTHER for the day ahead - AND - the churches would reopen at noon for the faithful to recharge for the afternoon - AND - reopen again in the late afternoon so the faithful could prepare for the evening's challenges and give thanks for all that day brought forth.

But we don't.  We don't because we have mistakenly pushed aside the "Word made Flesh" in favor of the world of flesh.  We have chosen not "two sides of the same coin" in works of piety and works of mercy; we have chosen another coin altogether.  We have decided against following the Light of Christ and have chosen instead to turn in another direction - because that "Light" is just getting in our eyes.

In the name of the Holy Father, the Holy Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Thought

“We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first; that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”  2 Peter 1:19-21

I am more and more convinced that part of the mystery of Scripture, those parts most of us find difficult to understand, is in reminding us of our need for the Lord.  After all, how much need for the Lord could there be if we could figure out all things, all mysteries, for ourselves?  But we must also be very careful in that familiar saying, “The Bible means different things to different people”.  I would agree that the Bible in general is either important for some people or it is not, but to suggest the Lord says one thing to person A but a whole different thing to person B from the same biblical passage can be dangerous. 

To be sure, we will interpret what we read according to many factors; among these being our level of spiritual development as well as where we happen to be in our lives at any given time.  This is also why group Bible studies are so important to the disciple.  We often need to be brought back to earth by the perspectives of other believers lest we take something entirely off the wall from Scripture that can lead us far off the path of righteousness.

In the end it is about “reverence”, not “scholarship”; it is about “righteousness”, not being “right”.  Some of the most educated atheists and agnostics I know are as well versed in Scripture as they are in classical literature or poetry; they know well what they have read, but it has no real meaning for them.

Consider the difficult passages of Scripture to be divine “whispers” by which we are compelled to draw closer to the Lord so that we may hear Him more clearly, for it is this intimate encounter that makes our Lord real.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Thought

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  G.K. Chesterton

Jesus never promised us an easy path; in fact He taught that the difficult and dangerous path was the road less traveled but the one that would lead us where we need to go.  Too many, however, believe they have found an alternate path that is much easier and less challenging and have therefore scoffed at Jesus’ very words. 

The Holy Day season is no less the challenge especially for the Church.  To stay focused on what is really important with all the commercial distractions is probably what makes Christmas much more the challenge than Easter!  We must stay tuned into the only Promise we can count on, the only Promise that actually came to fruition, the only Promise that committed to showing us the way Home – before that Promise was destroyed by those who chose an alternate route. 

Our Lord has been given the “keys” to every door we need to enter through.  Only those who are committed to His path will find the way home.  We must not allow the world to distract us, and we must NEVER allow anyone or anything to convince us an easier way has been discoverd.  That way simply does not lead to the Promised Land.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent: Beyond the End of the Nose

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28

"Among you stands One whom you do not know, the One who is coming after me."                   - St. John the Baptist, John 1:26b, 27a

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me ... [yet] truly do I [also] tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me." Jesus the Christ, Matthew 25:40, 45

"Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  Jesus the Christ, Matthew 28:20

So the big question is this: Is the Christ to "return", or can it be equally stated that He never really left?  There is no denying the Resurrection just as there can be no reasonable denial of the Ascension when the apostles witnessed for themselves the Lord being "carried up into heaven" (Luke 24:51b).  But we also remember that awesome Day of Pentecost when the promised "Helper", the Holy Spirit came down and the Church born; when "there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind [that] filled the entire house where [the apostles] were sitting.  Divided tongues as of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them" (Acts 2:2-4).

We continue the spiritual journey begun that day through Advent not as a countdown to a Holy Day commemorating what has already taken place, but rather as a continuing spiritual assessment of whether we the Church have properly maintained and defended the fine tradition of St. John the Baptist in having adequately "prepared the way of the Lord" - OR - if not, what we must be prepared to do as we remember not only to celebrate that great and awesome day when Heaven touched the Earth but to remember that the Promised Land of the Kingdom which is to come is still just beyond the horizon.  If we are to continue to be the Body of Christ redeemed by His blood, it is necessary that we continue the spiritual journey and resist the temptation to call it "good" and "done" come December 26.     

Yet this is exactly what will happen for many because fatigue will finally settle in.  We have all seen the energy so many put into preparations for the coming Holy Day, and I honestly cannot think of a better time than for Christmas to fall on Sunday because, quite frankly, a good Sabbath rest will be in order.  There is also no more appropriate thing to do than to worship the Lord on His very special day which, if we think about it, is truly a marvelous day for all of humanity.  As we are reminded in the lighting of today's candle, we anticipate with great JOY that something wonderful is upon us!  And we look forward in joyful anticipation because everything we are excited about and can be excited about is that which has yet to be revealed - just like an unwrapped Christmas gift!

The question remains, however.  Did the Lord ever really "leave" so much so that His return is something we anticipate, especially when while He walked among us He taught us such profound lessons - AND - gave His Church the certain Promise that He will "always" be with us?  When we are baptized, when we make a profession of faith, when we are confirmed in the Church, and when we repent of our sinful ways and obvious mistakes; we are aligning ourselves with Christ and are making that public confession so that we speak in His behalf, we act in His behalf, and we bear witness to that which we know to be true.  This, my dear friends, is the Church, the Body of Christ.  

The Spirit of the Lord continues to teach us and to guide us, that very essence of the Holy God and Father who reassures us when we doubt, who comforts us when we are afraid, and even jerks a little knot in our spiritual tails when we get a little too full of ourselves or stray too far off the path of the righteous journey.  The Holy Lord promised Joshua that as long as he remained faithful to the Law which had been imparted to Moses, as long as he "meditated on the Law day and night", as long as he did not add to or take away from that which has been written, the Lord promised that "I will not fail you nor forsake you" ... and ... "I am with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:5-9).

I think it is safe and a faithful thing to be able to say with confidence that the Lord is with His beloved Church.  It is a wonderful and reassuring comfort to know with certainty that as long as we follow the Lord faithfully and "meditate on His word day and night", and as long as we do not "add to or take away from" the Word of the Lord, He "will not fail [us] nor forsake [us]".  And let's face it: there are many days when so many of us have our doubts for this one simple reason: we see with our eyes and hear with our ears that evil appears to flourish - in and outside the Church.  Even the so-called "Occupy" movement has captured the attention and imagination of many because whether we agree with these people or not, we can see how excess wealth can so easily corrupt. 

We've known it all along, but we have been conditioned to turn a blind eye to it because it no longer shocks us.  We've just learned to work around it.  And if we are to be honest with ourselves; as long as we are doing ok personally, we just don't get that fired up.  It is not until we lose our own jobs or our own homes or when our own investment portfolios begin to shrivel that we finally appreciate the gravity of the situation.  It is like the saying that came from Nazi Germany attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoller: "When the Nazis came for the communists I remained silent, for I was not a communist.  When the Nazis came for the social democrats I remained silent, for I was not a social democrat.  When they came for the trade unions I did not speak out, for I was not a trade unionist.  When the Nazis came for the Jews I remained silent, for I was not a Jew.  When they finally came for me, there was no one left to speak out."

Pastor Niemoller took a lot of heat from German citizens - and ended up imprisoned by the Nazis - because he refused to let himself or the nation of German citizens and especially Christians off the hook who had turned a blind eye to the atrocities of their day.  They knew what was going on, but it was safer for them to pay homage to the Fuhrer than to admit that evil flourishes when decent people remain silent.  As long as the Nazis were not coming for them, as long as they had jobs and money, there was no problem.  This narrow mindset is called "not looking beyond the end of your own nose", and it is a travesty when Christians allow themselves to get so caught up in such narrow visions without remembering Christ's own words: "Whatever you do (or don't do) for the least of these, you do (or don't do) for Me."

The magnitude of evil, however, is overwhelming.  It is not until we are actively engaged in such spiritual warfare that we can finally and completely appreciate the raw power of evil, and then finally realize our own limitations in the face of such evil.  Yet even when evil seems to triumph, when evil seems to get its own way, and when we finally realize that evil itself cannot be stopped by humans alone; we remember the Lord's assurance to the prophet Isaiah that the coming Day of the Lord will be "the DAY OF VENGEANCE OF OUR GOD" (Isaiah 61:2).  Evil will finally have its comeuppance and will face the full fury and wrath of our Holy Father.

Until that glorious Day, then, the faithful Church waits; but we wait with the joyful knowledge and assurance of faith that until that time when the Trumpet shall sound, our Lord has assured us that He will not "fail nor forsake" those who pursue Him relentlessly and follow Him faithfully.  Yet until that Day is upon us, the Church must tirelessly announce the coming of the One "whose sandal thong we are not worthy to untie"; the One who did come, the One who was crucified for our sins, the One who will come again.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.        

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

A Thought

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”  Luke 1:30-33

There is great anticipation this time of year because we have seen the Light of Gabriel’s witness to Mary.  We also look forward to the family gatherings, the church programs and cantata presentations, and “feel good” Christmas movies.  It is a wonderful time of year when, as stated in a Christmas movie, “We become the kind of person we always hoped we would be.”

We can never get so caught up in our revelry, however, that we forget that this time of year is also one of profound loneliness and depression for those who have lost loved ones, for those who have no family to speak of, for those who continue to struggle in this challenging economy and – above all else – those who do not yet believe that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …”

Let the Light of Christ shine forth in all we do this Holy Day season.  Let us be the messengers of Glad Tidings as Gabriel was to Mary, and let us receive this Good News as joyously and as reverently as Mary did.  This is the true witness of the Church.

Monday, December 05, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent - Striving to be found

2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

It has often been said that the apostles seemed to believe the Lord would return to establish His Kingdom during their lifetimes.  It would likely have been incomprehensible for them to think that some 2000 years later, the Church would still be found waiting (can we think 2000 years ahead??).  I think, then, they would have appreciated that the Church sometime in the 5th-6th century would move to establish the practice and season of Advent as a means to help the Church to not take the coming Day of the Lord for granted and to help the faithful to "prepare the way of the Lord [and] make His paths straight."

Yet here we are some 2000 years later talking about something that is as inconceivable to us as any other thing we can imagine; the End of the World, the End of Days, the End of Time, the Day of the Lord.  Advent was much simpler when we were children because it was merely a countdown to Christmas and Santa Claus.  Once December 26 hit the mark, it was all over.  No more fuss, no more muss, no more PRESSURE!  Put everything away, give it not another thought, and wait until next year.  As adults and mature Christians, however, we can no longer do this, of course, because even though we appropriately celebrate and commemorate the birth of the Christ Child we cannot rest on our laurels because the Day of the Lord - His imminent return - is still upon us.  Our Lord compels us to never, ever take Him for granted. And yet we do.

It is fascinating to read the account of John's ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy because of the way the acclamation and public response are portrayed.  "John ... appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And the people from the WHOLE JUDEAN COUNTRYSIDE and ALL THE PEOPLE OF JERUSALEM were going out to him ..."  The accounts make it sound like the entire nation all but shut down so everyone could go to the river to repent, be baptized, and thus "flee from the wrath to come" (Luke 3:7).    

Advent makes this same proclamation and call to repentance as the means by which to "prepare the way of the Lord" who, according to our doctrine and theology, will certainly return; but the response even within the Church is tepid and lukewarm at best.  It's just another mark on the calendar that ends December 25 after the last package from under the tree is unwrapped and tossed aside.  We are unable and sometimes perhaps unwilling to see beyond that calendar date.  Besides, we're already baptized in a tradition that also states "we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins", and the contemporary Church is being virtually overrun by the notion that there is nothing left to do except "get saved"; and once "saved", the journey is complete.  Oh, there will be the so-called "C & E" Christians who will faithfully show up for Christmas and Easter Sunday services whether they want to or not, but there is no general spike in worship attendance and participation during Advent.  So why the urgency now?  What else is there to do?  Where is the sense of urgency and anticipation which seemed to have existed during the time of John the baptizer?  Has the Return of the Lord somehow become "old news"?

Maybe we would do well to consider Advent in the same way we consider a prior notice of guests coming to our homes.  Who does not jump through hoops to make sure everything is "just so" before guests arrive?  Or better yet: how do you prepare your home when you know your MOTHER-IN-LAW is coming?!?!  Well, this changes everything!  And while we can certainly believe the Lord will be far more merciful than mothers-in-law during the "inspection tour", would it not do well for us to put at least as much attention on "preparation" for the Lord's arrival as we would for some other guest - or our MOTHERS-IN-LAW??

St. Peter urges the faithful to "strive to be found by Him".  The psalmist says the Lord "will speak peace ... to those who turn to Him in their hearts" (Psalm 85:8).  So it seems to me the Scriptures indicate that the ones who will be "found" by the Lord are those who are found in the Last Day engaged in those means of grace by which we are actively - and not incidentally -"striving to be found" (rather than striving against one another) and "turning to Him" (rather than turning away those who need our help or those who disagree with us).  We would be ill-advised to disregard the judgment of the "sheep" and the "goats" from Matthew 25:31-46, for the journey is far over.

Yet the Church universal is in a state of decline and has been for two generations.  We can blame this faction or that element or this doctrinal dispute or that political issue for the decline, but if one denomination is having a problem - and they all are to one extent or another - then the Church herself is having a problem.  Each is striving in its own way and within its own understanding of what it means to be actively engaged in the struggle to complete the Journey as faithfully as possible, and many within every denomination are stumbling. 

Some have chosen to strike out on their own, believing (or claiming to believe) that the Church is only impeding their personal spiritual growth - or that the Church has done far more harm than good.  In the end, then, it seems they do not want to be found "striving"; they only want to be found in the Last Day having been "saved" at some point in the past.  It is incumbent upon the Church - that's you and me - to faithfully fulfill the Church's mission and help these many back into the sheepfold, back into the flock and away from the many "goats".  It is necessary for the Church to continue to proclaim the Gospel that invites - rather than judges - and it is necessary for the Church to remind these many who have pulled away by "blaming" someone or something that the Church is weakened by their absence and the journey made much more burdensome for the many who need genuine spiritual help.

It is easy to see that patience for this coming Day of the Lord is wearing thin and the Church is losing - or has already lost - her focus by paying more attention to political issues than spiritual ones.  The Church seems more intent on being socially respectable rather than doctrinally faithful and if this is so, then perhaps what Peter is challenging the Church to do is to shift her focus from the here-and-now and put the spiritual spotlight back where it belongs: on what is to come.  "Regarding the patience of our Lord as salvation", according to what Peter wrote, could be construed as suggesting the Lord will NOT return to rescue His faithful or establish His Kingdom until the faithful get it right; until we prove to the Lord that HE alone is our focus, that HE alone is our salvation, that HE alone is our prayer.  Until we make this choice, until we make this our priority, perhaps it is He will leave us to languish, watch, and wait for yet another 2000 years.

It is impossible and counterproductive, of course, to try and outthink the Lord and His Coming Day especially when Jesus Himself makes it clear that even HE is not privy to when this Day will occur.  It is also a dangerous and spiritually disingenuous thing to proclaim or use the Last Day as a spiritual threat in any way, remembering that it is the LORD'S DAY and not our weapon of choice; much in the same way we should view and embrace the Sabbath itself as a PROMISE of spiritual restoration.  This, my dear friends, is what we are waiting for.  And for those "striving to be found"?  This they will find - and in abundance.  To His Eternal Glory, and in the Eternity of His Kingdom to Come.  Amen.