Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lessons from the Wise Men

During this month of December we’ve shared in an interesting journey.  Our journey has included anticipation, preparation and celebration.  It began with Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation based on the hopes and promises of the prophets. We considered the preparations necessary for us as a people of faith to grasp the true meaning of Christmas. 
Last week we talked about the perfect gift that Christ’s birth offers for our lives.  The goal of our journey was to claim the Christmas story in all its glory and its message. Today as our journey continues, we address the rest of the Christmas story.

The traditional Christmas story includes the account of the journey of the wise men following a bright star in search for the anticipated new born king.  Many of us have heard that story numerous times.  Some of us have even played roles in the drama.  One of my Christmas memories includes the time when I got to play one of the kings.  Of course my costume was a bathrobe and I sang a verse from the song “We Three Kings” that identified the gift I was to present to the Christ child.
The story of the Wise Men has many interpretations. Five year old Daniel returned from Sunday school with a new perspective on the Christmas story. He had learned about the wise men from the East who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Daniel was so excited he just had to tell his parents, "I learned today all about the very first Christmas. There wasn't a Santa Claus way back then, so these three guys on camels had to deliver all the toys. And Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer with his nose so bright wasn't there yet either, so they had to have this big light in the sky to find their way around." 

The story of the wise men is found only in Matthew’s gospel.  There we find the account of nameless men coming from the East in search of the new born king of the Jews. We know very little about these travelers.  Matthew refers to them as “magi” which means “wise men.”  Were they kings, or astrologers, dream interpreters, or perhaps Roman advisors or counselors?  Matthew doesn’t tell us, though tradition suggests that they may have been any one of these.  However, they were probably not kings as suggested by the song of the season, but rather astrologers – men who studied the stars. They were more than likely educated men, trained in philosophy, religion and the natural sciences.  They had probably committed their adult lives to the study of the stars in the belief that the heavens held the key to understanding all great events in history. Their journey was motivated by a gigantic star like none they had even seen before. They didn’t know where they were going, or a predetermined destination. They had no idea how long their journey would last. There was no map, no GPS, only the light of the bright star in the heavens to guide them.
Tradition suggests that there were three, although the number is not confirmed in scriptures. The number was probably chosen because of the three gifts presented to the Christ child.  And other than the reference to the East, we do not know where they came from. Tradition also gives them names, Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar, although their identities are not confirmed anywhere in scriptures.

Their journey took them to king Herod residence in the holy city of Jerusalem to inquire about the birth of a new king and promised Messiah. But Herod was surprised and even threatened to learn that there might be a new king to challenge his throne. So he called together his chief religious leaders and asked them what the scriptures had to say concerning where the promised messiah would be born. They in turn, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, told him that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then told the wise men what he had learned and sent them on their way in search of the new born Christ child, falsely claiming he, too, wanted to go and worship him.
Contrary to popular interpretation and pageantry of the Christmas story, the wise men did not find the child in a manger since sometime had passed.  The Epiphany, which we celebrate on January 6, twelve days following the celebration of Jesus’ birth is traditionally recognized as the day of their arrival. Scriptures tell us that they were guided by the light of a bright star which went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they went into the house they found the child with his mother, Mary. Their immediate response was to fall on their knees before the new born king to honor him. Then they presented expensive gifts fit for a king: gold, symbolizing kingship, frankincense, an incense symbolizing divinity; and myrrh, a perfume used as an embalming fluid at one’s death and symbolic of sacrifice.  Scriptures then tell us that “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”   

And that is the rest of the Christmas story.  Now it’s up to us to learn the lessons from the wise men as our journey of faith continues.  Let me briefly offer several for our consideration today.
First, we learn that life is a journey in search of religious truths that help shape our destination and destiny.  In an article titled “The Wise Men”, Frank Fowler suggests that the wise men represent our own search for God.  He says that our life long journey is about seeking a deeper understanding of God, and looking for signs of God’s saving presence in our lives. Our journey is a search of something that we have not fully attained, and attainable only through faith. Perhaps the secret to a meaningful life isn’t the destination, but the journey itself. And if life is to have meaning, we must continue to ask questions and seek answers to the complexities and mysteries of life in the context of our faith.

Second, we learn about the importance of gift giving during the journey. Sometimes we only find what we are looking for when we give away what we have.  One of the traditional stories of this season is one by Henry Van Dyke called “The Other Wise Man.” In this story the wise man, named Artaban, also went in search of the Christ child. In preparation for his journey he sold his possession and bought three jewels: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl to present to the new born king. His journey took a lifetime. Along the way he found persons in need, and one by one he gave away the treasured jewels to help alleviate the pain and suffering of humanity.  In the closing lines of this wonderful story, Artaban has become an older man, disappointed that he had not found Christ. But when he hears a voice assuring him that he had in his journey, he responds: “Not so my Lord!  For when did I see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink, or naked and clothe you, or sick or in prison and visited you?  Thirty three years I have looked for you, but I have never seen your face or ministered to you, my king.”  Then came the response, “Truly I say to you, as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”  Van Dyke closes the story with these words: “His journey was ended.  His treasures were accepted. The other wise man had found the king.” 
I suspect that we too may only discover what we are looking for in our journey by giving gifts of compassion to those who need it the most.  When our lifestyle is based on the selfless and a sacrificial giving spirit of Christ, we, too, can claim the affirmation,  “Well done good and faithful servant.”  

Finally, we learn that we do not journey alone.  This is the essential message of the continuing Christmas story that is summed up in the word Emmanuel which means, “God with us.”  Like the wise men of old, we need to recognize the signs along the way that guide our journey, and listen for God’s voice speaking to us to guide our path toward a destination that God desires for us –a destination based on hope that produces peace, joy, and love.   
Yes, we must have faith for the journey if we are to realize our potential, achieve our goals, and reach our destination. In faith we find strength for the journey through the promise and abiding presence of the gift of the Holy Spirit which provides us comfort and strength for the journey no matter what life holds in store.  Let me remind you: being people of faith doesn’t exempt us for traveling some difficult and painful roads, and encountering difficult times.  But it does mean that we have companionship for the journey.  For as the song proclaims, we are “no longer alone… In joy and sorrow, today and tomorrow, love will be with us, love’s here to stay. Sing every morning, it’s Christmas today.”  

Several years ago I wrote these words for a Christmas greeting message that my wife and I sent to family and friends. As we move through these final days of the Christmas season and prepare to face a new year, may these words challenge you as your journey continues: When the songs of the season have faded, and the star no longer shines brightly; when the angel’s message is but a memory, and the visitors to the Christ child have returned home, it is then the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry; to bring peace for all of humanity.  It is then that Christmas has meaning throughout all the year!  Amen!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Perfect Gift

It was a few weeks before Christmas as a mother and her young son were in a local mall buying Christmas presents. The store windows were beautifully decorated with symbols of the holiday season.  One store had a sign in its window that read:  "You'll find the perfect gift inside."  The child stopped at the window, read the sign, turned to his mother and said,   "That's what I want to get you, mommy – can we go in?" 
Most of us have that deep desire too -- to give and receive the perfect gift, but where does one to find it?  What would you consider to be the perfect Christmas gift?  To answer that question we must understand that Christmas is a spiritual experience and we cannot discover its meaning apart from faith.  That’s why we need to reconnect with Luke’s wonderful story of the birth of Jesus and claim its message of our lives. 

I recall one occasion during this season when my son, David, was a small child.  When my children were growing up, as a part of our Christmas decorations we displayed a nativity scene, complete with the major characters of the Christmas story:  a stable, figurines of Mary and Joseph, an angel, a shepherd, and animals including sheep, donkey, and a cow. One afternoon, when the two of us were sitting in the living room admiring the decorations, I pointed out the crèche and the characters that were a part of the story. I asked him, “What is your favorite character?”  Without hesitation, he replied, “The cow.”  From that response I knew that a theological discussion was in order!  But how do you explain the wonder of the Christmas story, which we refer to in theological terms as the Incarnation, to a small child?  I recall shifting his focus to the more central figure -  the little manger where a baby lay, that was so small it could have easily been overlooked.  I told him about the baby whose name was Jesus, and how his birth was the first Christmas and how he was a gift to the world. I assured him that when he got older that he would understand how important Jesus’ birth was in human history.  After all, it does take adult maturity to comprehend the rest of the story – and how that baby Jesus grew to manhood, and how his teachings and actions transformed not only person’s lives of his day, but have continued to do so to this day!  So significant was that event that we mark time by his birth!  And here we are today in the twenty-first century, A.D., still recalling that magnificent event that transformed the world for all time.  God’s perfect gift came to us in the form of love incarnate!  John’s gospel expresses the Christmas story in these words: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth…and he have seen his glory…”   (John1:1; 14)    
The story of God’s perfect gift has deeper meaning for the message of Christmas is about love and reconciliation.  A few years ago one of the hit holiday movies that has now become a classis of the season was “Home Alone”.  It's about a family living in the suburbs of Chicago who plan to spend Christmas in Paris. In the rush of a late departure for the airport, the large family leaves their eight-year-old son, Kevin, behind. It is not until the plane has taken off that they discover he is missing. The remainder of the movie deals with how he copes with being alone in the house. There are many hilarious scenes, but my favorite scene centers around Kevin's encounter with the old man who lives next door. The old man has an unwarranted reputation as being cruet and mean. On Christmas Eve, Kevin wanders into church and while sitting alone in the pew, the old man comes in and sits down beside him. At first he is terrified, but then they began to talk, and Kevin learns that the old man is anything but mean and cruel. He learns that the man is lonely because he and his son haven't spoken for years. Then Kevin suggests that the old man invite his son and family over for Christmas. It's not until later that we learn that the old man took Kevin's advice and that reconciliation takes place. It is a powerful reminder that the most perfect gift is the gift of love that has the power to tear down walls that divide and build bridges and reconcile broken relationships. 
The message of Christmas can touch our lives with meaning no matter what the circumstances. When we least expect it and need it the most Christ comes to us as love we experience the miracle of Christmas. I have found that to be true many times.  Several years ago, I attended the funeral for John Arrington, the twenty-one year old son of a ministerial colleague.  As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I pondered what words would be used to bring comfort to the broken hearts of this family. John's pastor truly became God's Messenger of the hour as she spoke of John's life as God's gift to the world and to us who knew him. Then she reminded us of God's gift of love and the power of that love that conquers death.  She said all the right things, and I was comforted. As the service concluded and the body was moved from the chapel to the hearse, the organist began to play "Joy to the World." At first I was surprised at the selection of this song for a funeral. But then I realized that this was the affirmation needed at such a time as this. What a powerful reminder that in all circumstances, God has given us the perfect gift and nothing can take that away from us. The Apostle Paul expresses it this way: “Nothing can separate us for the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord…” This is the reminder we need today to move through this season and every season every day in hope and confidence.

We need to know in all of life's circumstances that God is with us. That's the meaning of Emmanuel --
God with us -- and the message of Emmanuel can touch us at our greatest times of need. We
need the reminder that the incarnation is still a part of our faith story -- that God can and will come to us again and again. This is the perfect gift of Christmas! God's perfect gift to the world was expressed in John’s gospel: "God so loved each of us so much that he gave his only son that we who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”  Those who believe in Christmas must find ways to demonstrate Christ-like love for others so that the Word might become flesh once again. As we wrap and unwrap, give and receive gifts this Christmas, we need to remember God's perfect gift to the world.  To keep faith with the meaning of Christmas, our giving and receiving should be expressions of God's love in Jesus Christ. 
A man was shopping in a department store. Waiting in line to check out in front of him was a red-headed freckle-faced young teenager who began a conversation. “I know what I’m getting for Christmas,“ he said.  “What”, asked the old man.  The teenager replied, "I'm getting a ten-speed bike and a stereo, and that's just what I'm getting from my grandparents.  How about you, mister, what are you going to get?", he asked.  The man responded that he really didn't know. He had almost everything he needed and that he might not get anything. With that the youngster responded in surprise: "Not getting anything for Christmas -- come on, you’re kidding!  You've got to get something.  Christmas isn't Christmas unless you get something.”  I suppose in a way, the young man was right, though not in the way he meant it. Christmas is a reminder that we are recipients of the greatest gift of love in human form in Jesus Christ.  Scriptures remind us:  “We love because he first loved us.”  (1 John 4:19)   And when we receive God’s gift of love, we want to express love in return.
Throughout his life Jesus defined love as a self-less gift of oneself to another, given without conditions or expectations of receiving anything in return.  The heart of Christmas is that kind of love… a love that addresses the needs of others… a love that binds wounded, lifts the spirits of the discouraged, restores hope and seeks to make things whole again. It’s the kind of gift we need more than anything else in our world today! Indeed, Jesus taught us the meaning of love!

So how do we express love in return?  Simply by sharing the spirit of Christ-like love,  looking beyond ourselves and our desires to the needs of others.  Several years ago there was a terrible earthquake in Alaska and Anchorage suffered great devastation. Many people wrote to the governor demanding help.  The governor appeared on television and reported that, among all the demands, he had received a letter from a boy who had written him a note on a 3x5 card.  Taped to the card was two nickels. On the card was the following words:  “Use this where ever it is needed. If you need more, let me know.”  While two nickel isn’t much, it was a symbol of a child’s love and desire to help, and his gift motivated a tremendous response.  His simple message and act of giving touched the lives of thousands who responded with acts of charity.  A manger and stable in Bethlehem with a tiny baby didn’t seem like much either.  But because of his birth, the greatest love story began.  And the message of peace, motivated by Christ-like love, is still finding expression today through those who have come to know the Prince of Peace.  

One of my favorite songs of the season is the one about a drummer boy who want to give the baby Jesus a gift, but he had little to offer because he was poor.  This touching song remind us that the most meaningful gifts do not come wrapped in boxes. The most meaningful gifts come when we give something of ourselves in relationship to others. This is what the late Rev. Peter Marshall meant when he once said, "The important part of Christmas giving is any token of love: friendship, understanding, a helping hand, a smile, a prayer. You cannot buy these gifts in any store and they are the very things people need most."

My wife, Betty, and I receive many beautiful Christmas cards with messages during this special season. One card defines the meaning of Christmas this way:  "Jesus:  the gift of love; given to us eternally... freely... fully... without reservation.  Seeking our good... lifting us higher... bringing the best.  Forever He gives... forever He cares…Forever He Loves.”                                                               

Christmas offers each of us God’s perfect gift through faith – the gift that keeps giving.  As you claim, celebrate, and share that gift with others this Christmas, may you experience the true joy of Christmas! 


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Are You Ready for Christmas?

During the past several weeks we have been reminded that we are in the season of Advent – a season of preparation for Christmas.  In last week's sermon we considered the kind of preparations we need to make to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the greatest gift given to humankind.  Stores are now filled with anxious shoppers looking for gifts for persons on their lists. Gift-buying is pretty much the priority of the season, and once the gifts are bought and wrapped, one can relax a little. It is usually the people who have everything done that ask the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” so they can brag a bit about their accomplishments.  Many of you have probably been asked that question, or even asked it of others!  It is an appropriate question to consider on this third Sunday of Advent, because the countdown is on! 
I suspect many of us still have long lists of things that need to be done before we think we are ready. The real meaning of Christmas often becomes lost in the frantic pursuits of getting everything done in time. With so much happening this time of year, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what Christmas is all about. Think about it:  Santa Claus competes with the baby Jesus, songs like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" drown out "Silent Night", and fancy wrapped packages under a brightly lighted tree outshine the star of Bethlehem.  When we add all this   to the pressure of Christmas shopping and the constant reminder of the number of shopping days left before the magic day arrives, (as of today the number is 10), it is little wonder that many people are worn out, or turned off by Christmas.  In spite of all this confusion and competition in interpreting the reason for the season, the Christian faith helps keep the meaning and message in focus.  It reminds us to make preparations that capture the spirit of Christmas and its meaning for our lives.
For centuries the Christian Church has observed Advent as a time of joyous preparation for the coming of the Messiah. But what is required for people of faith to truly get ready for Christmas so that the secular observance doesn't dominate the spiritual dimension?  Most of us will do the usual things for Christmas: buy and exchange gifts, visit family and friends, perhaps attend a party or two. But if we simply do the usual things expected of us at Christmas, the true meaning of Christmas will pass us by. Let me offer several insights that might help us get ready to celebrate Christmas more fully. 
Let me suggest that we are not ready for Christmas until we discover the Christmas story in all its glory and claim its message for our lives. You have probably heard the traditional Christmas story from the gospel of Luke many times.  Picture with me the characters and actions involved:  an announcement that a young woman named Mary would give birth, and her son would be the Promised Messiah; a long journey to Bethlehem by Mary and Joseph who upon arrival, found all the rooms were full; the kindness of an inn keeper who offers shelter in the stable with the animals.  And that night, a baby was born in those humble surroundings; on a hillside nearby an angel proclaimed the good news not only of the baby’s birth but his identity to a group of shepherds; a bright shining star marking the place of the birth.  Luke's gospel tells the story so beautifully.  But we can never fully comprehend the Christmas story as long as we keep baby Jesus in the manger. You see, the question is not simply do you know the story, but do you know the Savior?  The Christmas story in all its glory involves more than a story – it’s a miraculous happening that when understood, transforms person’s lives. 

The glory of Christmas includes the hope of deliverance expressed through the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed: "Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel ... For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!" (Isaiah 7:14)   

These words of hope shared some 700 years before Jesus' birth remind us that even then, God was concerned about his people. The entire Old Testament story is one of God's acts of deliverance and calling people to live in right relationship with him. The unfolding drama of the Bible is a love story of how much God has always cared about humanity. The Christmas story in all its glory includes God's promises through the prophets and the realization that the promises have been fulfilled in Christ. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!" (Isaiah 9:6)  It also includes understanding that the child born in a manger became the deliverer, the Christ for the world. The lifestyle of self-giving love revealed in the cross lies at the heart of the Christmas message. This message continues to challenge us today and adds to the glory of the season. We aren't ready for Christmas until we discover the Christmas story in all its glory and claim its message for our lives.   

I suggest that we aren't ready for Christmas until we discover the joy of giving, rather than receiving. Christmas has become a time for exchanging gifts. Ask almost any child about Christmas and the reply will include details about Santa Claus and a list of personal desires. Many adults look upon Christmas shopping as a burden which adds headaches, rather than joy to the season. Perhaps we need to reexamine our attitudes about Christmas giving. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, "Has gift-giving become just a mechanical exercise because it is expected, or is it a genuine effort to express love for another?"

Many years ago, when I was Wesley Foundation director and campus minister at the College of William and Mary, we held a series of Advent prayer breakfasts for the students. During one session, we decided to adopt a needy family for Christmas – a mother and three small children, whose husband had left her several months earlier and she was trying to make ends meet as a single parent.

In preparation for our visit the students bought toys for the children, food for the family, and we put together a care package of other items, complete with a red bow on top, and took the gifts to the home. The mother answered the door and was somewhat shocked and surprised to see us standing there. We began to sing: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.”  Tears came to her eyes as she called her children to come to see what was happening. You could see the joy in the mother’s eyes through her tears, and in the children’s smiles. When the singing stopped with her children at her side, the mother said, "It's so good to know that somebody cares. How can I ever thank you enough for making Christmas happen for us?"  

Later one of the students commented, "I grew up in a wonderful family and never wanted for anything.  I thought Christmas was about me and what I wanted and would get. But my eyes were opened through what we did for that family. For the first time in my life, I discovered what Christmas is all about. It's not about receiving, but giving."  

Finally, let me suggest that we are not ready for Christmas until we realize that Christmas is about living a lifestyle of love. It's difficult for the historic event of the birth of the Savior to touch people's lives with meaning in our modern age of computerized toys, electronic devices, and dolls that walk, talk and sing. But Christmas can touch people’s lives in transforming ways as it is demonstrated through expressions of love. Christmas continues to happen whenever there are those who believe in the Christ and who attempt to express Christ-like love. The Christmas season challenges us to transform Christmas giving into Christ-like living. Christmas calls us to practice charity, to tear down walls of hostility which separate us, to erase resentment which divides us, and to be reconciled in the name of love. For when all has been said and done, all the special activities are over, and the sounds of the season cease, Christmas will continue as long as there are those who believe in its message of love and seek to demonstrate love by the way they live.

Henry Van Dyke's classic, "Keeping Christmas", seems to sum up what we need to do to celebrate the birth of Christ:  "Are you willing to forget what you have done for others and remember what others have done for you? To ignore what the world owes you and to think of what you owe the world?  To see your fellow men as just as real as you are, and to try to took behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy? Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs of little children, to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old, to stop asking how much your friends love you and ask whether you love them enough? To bear in mind the things other people have to bear in their hearts ... Are you willing to do these things, if only for a day? If so, then you can keep Christmas.” 

To these thoughts I would only add one other:  Christmas is not a day nor a season but anytime love is expressed.  And remember this: you and I who know the Christmas story get to live its message every day.  We are not ready for Christmas until we discover that Christmas is about living a lifestyle of love.  So let me ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent Preparations

In the Christian calendar we began a new year last week, and have begun the season of Advent. The word advent means “coming” or “arrival.”  We use these four weeks prior to Christmas Day to prepare ourselves for the celebration of that which is to come. This season also helps us focus on what has already arrived. We prepare to celebrate a holy and life-changing historical event. This season is an important prelude to a proper celebration of the experience we call Christmas.

Many words could be used to describe this season – words like joyful, busy, colorful.  Or perhaps, hope, expectancy, anticipation.  We might also describe the season as anxiety producing, or filled with commercialization.  As a season in the church calendar, Advent is the most difficult to observe properly.  Calendars fill with activities; special events and opportunities are abundant. We are all aware that the secularization of Christmas seeks to dominate the reason for the observance. Advertising is filled with reminders that it is time to do our gift buying. Once again we are tempted to get caught up in the shopping frenzy, and all the other activities that contribute to the “business of the holidays.”

Our preparations include many things – some of which actually contribute to the joy of the season:  decorating our homes with lights and trees, gift-buying, and sending cards to those we will not see during the holidays. Perhaps we are even inspired to become more generous and thoughtful of the needs of others. We do so because we hope that these things will make the observance more meaningful.  In the midst of all the secular activities and enticements this time of year includes, it is our responsibility as Christians to make proper preparations for the observance of this holy season called Advent.

So what preparations can we make so the secular observance doesn't dominate the religious and spiritual dimensions of Advent?   This season calls for an exploration of the meaning and message of the biblical faith for our lives. It is only then that the season will have special meaning. We must not become so busy that we fail to take time for spiritual devotions and activities that strengthen our faith.
The Old Testament prophets spoke words of hope that called for preparations. The mandate was that people of faith had to do something, not simply be spectators. In ancient days when a king planned a visit to a distant part of his kingdom he sent a messenger ahead to announce this planned visit so they could make preparations for his coming.  In those days the roads were in poor condition, so the people were expected to repair the roads so the king could make the journey.  Often the roads had to be straightened so that they could become passable.  No doubt this is what the prophet Isaiah had in mind when  he wrote these words:  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.  Every valley and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord.” 

This image of preparing a highway is still challenging and meaningful for us today. It reminds us of the preparations that must take place for welcoming the King of Kings!  It suggests that we need to undertake spiritual preparations to prepare our hearts and minds for Christ’s coming more fully into our lives, shaping us into his likeness.  We are asked to look at the rough and crooked places and low spots in our own lives that make it difficult to welcome Christ   fully into our lives in this Advent/Christmas season.

In the New Testament the gospel of Luke captures for us the real story of Christmas. Reading the stories found there helps us prepare to receive anew the gospel message for our lives.  We need to take time to read the age-old story that never grows old and hear the angelic announcement to the shepherds of what God has done on our behalf.  Throughout its pages the New Testament reminds us that we have some work to do to become all God desires of us. We need to participate in the spiritual disciplines of faith that draw us closer to God. We need to join in the church‘s activities and ministries to experience the joy of Christian fellowship.  We need to find ways to share the blessings we have received with others. These are the kind of preparations that will enable us to discover the true meaning of the season.
I enjoy watching some of the television specials aired during this season.  One of my favorites is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  As the story unfolds, Charlie Brown has become depressed and seeks advice from his friends on how to get into the spirit of Christmas.  He gets involved in directing a Christmas play, only to find out that most of the characters have missed the meaning behind the whole story.  In desperation he goes to find a proper tree to decorate for the Christmas pageant.  He finds one of the shabbiest trees you’ve ever seen. He decides it needs a home so he makes his selection and hurries off to show the tree to the others so they can decorate it for the pageant.  But they can’t believe his selection!  Their responses are over-whelmingly negative.  What place does an ugly tree have in a Christmas pageant? Surely something bigger and more beautiful would be more fitting for such a special occasion. The story ends with a magic twist that could only be called a miracle. That scrawny, unwanted tree becomes a thing of beauty. The message of Charlie Brown’s Christmas story for me is that God can make something special from even the simplest and sometimes seemingly unfit.  Our preparations don’t need to include elaborate decorations or buying the biggest and best gifts we can buy. We simply need to let our preparations be motivated by child-like love which comes from the heart. In this lies the meaning of Christmas.
We all get caught up in the activities of the season, but many will simply go through the motions, and miss what the main event is all about. Our world needs modern day prophets to speak as a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Perhaps you can be that voice for someone who needs to hear the meaning and purpose for Advent preparations to welcome the Christ once again.

Charles Wesley captures the hope and expectation of this season in one of his hymns as he wrote:  “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people red; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee…  May this be our experience as we prepare once again to celebrate the gift of God’s love in the birth of Christ!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Six Days and Sunday: A Labor Day Sermon

Scriptures:  Epistle:  I Corin.3:9-14; 58:18;  Gospel: John 13:12-15; 34-35
A pastor once invited some of his members from various professions to meet with him to dialog about their work and the role of faith.  The group included an office worker, a corporate manager, a salesperson, a lawyer, a teacher, and several in public service.  After a brief sharing of what each did for a living, he asked them this question: “How does your faith impact what you do in your work?” That’s a profound and insightful question.  Here’s another way to ask the question: “What does what we do on Sunday have to do with the other six days of the week?”  I think that is a good question for us to consider on this Labor Day Weekend.
This federal holiday that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers across our nation was first observed in 1894. Labor Day is always the first Monday of September and for most of us, provides an opportunity for a three-day weekend. It is generally viewed as the end of summer vacations and more leisurely activities. But Labor Day is more than observing a holiday. It also causes us to focus on the word labor and what it means for our lives. I invite you to consider the meaning of labor as addressed in scriptures, and its implications for Christian living.
The word labor appears numerous times in scriptures. The first is from Exodus in the Old Testament: "Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.”  These words are among the most familiar relating to labor because they are in the Ten Commandments. The term “hard labor” is found numerous times in the books of the Old Testament and relate to what the Israelites endured while in captivity.  The Psalmist wrote: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” (Ps.127)
But the word labor takes on new meaning in the New Testament. In John’s gospel, we find these words spoken by Jesus to his disciples: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (4:38 NIV)
In the New Testament, labor refers to not only tasks performed by slaves out of necessity for wages, but more importantly as the work of faith and acts of love.  During the final week of his ministry, Jesus y taking on the role of servant and washing his disciples feet prior to the celebrating the Passover Meal offered his disciples an example of servanthood.  In so doing he offered them an example of servant love in action in addressing the needs of others.  Then he gave them a new commandment that continues to challenge us who seek to be his disciples today:  “Love one another as I have loved you.  By this all will know that you are my disciples.” 
The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Church at Thessalonica, “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”   Such words speak of faithfulness to the mandates of discipleship.
Paul is known as the chief missionary and theologian of the newly formed faith that centered in the life, teachings and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In today’s epistle reading, he addresses the Christians in the community of faith in Corinth. The city of Corinth was one of moral decay.  Its people were greatly influenced by many pagan philosophies and practices.  Many lived by the popular concept of that day, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” The quality of life was an all-time low. Those first century Christians had so much to learn about the newly formed faith in Christ as taught by Paul, and there were many voices of that day offering advice concerning religious practices and rituals.  There was dissention and quarrelling among believes in the Corinth church because of the differences sand divided loyalties.  Some believers were convinced that the end of time was near and they simply quit work and awaited the second coming. Others wanted to know more about God's requirements and expectations of them as followers of Jesus, and sought to be obedient to the mandates of faith.  And a few recognized that there was a connection between faith and works. It was sometime later that James wrote in his letter “faith without works is dead.”  He wanted to make a strong statement that what one believes should impact how one lives.
But Paul offers even a deeper insight for us on the meaning of labor and the implications for Christian living in his writings to the Church in Corinth: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. (1Corin. 3:8 NIV)  He also wrote these words of challenge to them:  Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." (1Corin. 15:58 NIV)
From the beginning of Christianity, Christ's followers sought to understand the implications of their faith and beliefs faith upon daily life. Christianity was not just a ritual to be followed. Being Christian involved more than obedience to certain religious practices and faithful attendance at worship. Paul reminded them that to follow Christ involved a commitment to a lifestyle of sacrificial love that covered all aspects of life, their work, or leisure, every day of the week. 
Christ through his life and teachings offered a new interpretation to life, faith and work.  And those who responded to his message were transformed.  Some, like Matthew, the tax collector, even changed their occupations because of the requirements of faithful disciple-ship.  Others changed their practices within their occupations because Christ’s way led to practice a morality based on honesty, love and compassion for others.  Unfortunately, in many cases today, religion is practiced only on Sunday morning, if then.  But our religion, the core of our faith and beliefs, should inspire and drive us, inform and form who we are and all that we do. Our faith should be present in the values we affirm in our politics, in the activities we enter into in our spare time, in the ways we spend our money, and, in all that we do. The challenge of faithful living is to ask: “Can others see Christ at work in us?”
The challenges we face today are many. We are living in a day in which work practices and the very ethical fiber of our society are being challenged.  Young people are often confused because adults have failed to project stable moral and ethical standards. One of the greatest challenges facing the Christian church today is to make faith relevant in the work place. If Christianity is to survive, it will not depend on what we do on Sunday in church, but on what we do during the week outside the church. When what we profess in our creeds finds expression in our deeds, more people will want what the Christian faith and church have to offer. 
Have you heard about Change the World RVA?  Let me tell you a little about it, for it is a story about labors of love. It’s an organization I’m working with that began a little more than a year ago as a part of Bon Air UMC’s mission ministry. Our mission is “to provide unconditional nurture, support and hope to students in unstable housing situations through transforming relationships, inspiring positive personal and societal change.” The focus is on helping homeless high school students in Richmond to become more self-sufficient. Their needs are many -- food, clothing, shelter, school supplies, and transportation. The needs are over-whelming and ever-expanding.  Even so, a small group of Christians are respond-ing to make a difference in the lives of these students by volunteering as mentors, tutors, drivers, and contributing financially.  Almost a hundred persons from several partner churches are now engaged in this unique ministry to make life better for these students. Through Christ-like acts of loving kindness and caring relationships, needs are being met and lives transformed, not only among the students helped, but in the lives of those who offer themselves through labors of love.  
George McLeod, a British clergyman and founder of industrial chaplaincy in England, has written these words:  “I simply argue that the cross should be raised at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town's garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title  in Hebrew and Latin and Greek… at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.  Because that is where he died.  And that is what he died for. And that is what he died about.  That is where [the] church ought to be and what [the] church ought to be about."
Here we are, gathered on a Sunday morning, joined together in a community of faith to share in Holy Communion. When our service of worship is over, we will go our separate ways to live life guided by what we profess and believe.  The Apostle Paul offers us a departing challenge: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corin. 15:58)  Indeed, when all has been said and done, it is the labor performed through Christ-like acts of love and kindness towards others that will last and live on forever.  
So I leave you with the question that I raised at the beginning of my message: “What does what we do on Sunday have to do with the other six days of the week?”  It’s up to you to answer that question as you leave this place.  May God help you find an answer.  Amen.