Tuesday, January 10, 2017

January 8, 2017 Building Bridges

When Tanya and I had the opportunity to travel to London last year we greatly enjoyed the ability to travel the subway system, or the tube as they called it.  The tube was a great way to travel quickly around the city.  What we especially enjoyed was the recorded voice that played constantly when passengers entered or exited the train cars.  The voice was recorded in different versions of the English accent but always said the same three words – mind the gap.  One of the recent James Bond movies has a chase scene in a tube station and I enjoyed hearing that voice in the background – mind the gap.  I got so used to hearing that phrase – mind the gap – that I even bought a T-shirt with the expression.

Mind the gap is a reference to the space between the door of the train and the edge of the train platform.  The gap could be as wide as several inches and it was possible, if one was not careful, to allow your foot to slip into that gap and if it did, the results would be incredibly disastrous.

This morning, as we continue our series of messages built upon the theme of Building, we come to a message titled Building Bridges.  It is obvious that we live in a time of great division in our society, and the vastness of that divide became glaringly obvious during last year’s election campaign.  We are a society where the gaps have grown so wide and so vast that we are coming to a point where it seems that we can neither talk to one another nor understand one another across those divides. 

That gap was one of the reasons why, some months ago, I invited Linda Allewalt to write a series of columns with me in the Sentinel-News about belief and unbelief.  Linda and I have been acquainted for a number of years, and she is well known for her non-belief views that she has made known through the Sentinel.  The columns were published last summer and if you are a reader of my column you probably saw them in the paper.  I don’t know if they started many conversations, especially between believers and unbelievers, but I continue to hear from people about them, some of whom are not at all people of faith, so perhaps they accomplished a little bit of their purpose. I hope they helped to bring about a conversation across the very wide gap between belief and unbelief.  This morning I say that we must mind the gaps that have grown between us and we must work to build bridges across the divides that have come between us and threaten to tear us further asunder.

Our Scripture text this morning is comprised to two passages.  The first one printed in the bulletin this morning is from John 15:9-17, which is part of the long section John shares about the Last Supper.  The second passage comes from Acts 15:6-11.  I am going to read these in reverse order from which they are printed, and read them separately.

Hear the words from Acts 15:6-11.  Follow along as I read –

Acts 15:6-11
The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.
10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

1.  Bridges Take Us to Where We Wouldn’t Naturally Go.
Back in the 80s, when I was living in Anderson County, I was a member of one of the local civic clubs.  We met at lunchtime on Thursdays and were typical of most groups in that we all had our preferred places of seating.  One week, after installing a new president of the club, we came into the room to find a new arrangement.  The new president of the club had decided we should sit in different places and so had placed our nametags in a manner that placed us by people we didn’t know as well and seated us near people we wouldn’t ordinarily sit beside.  It seemed like a good idea to me, but some of the clubs members were surprisingly angry.  They did not want their seating arrangements disturbed!  We are, as the old adage reminds us, birds of a feather who flock together.  This is the way we are as human beings; we associate with those who look like us, think like us, believe like us, and talk like us.  Associating with those who are like us makes us comfortable.

I have longed believed that much of what affects church life, health, and growth is more sociological rather than theological.  Churches are full of people, and it is the natural inclination of people to gravitate to those who are both like-minded and like us, but as people who follow Jesus we must resist the temptation to affiliate only with those who we know, only those who look like us, only those who talk like us, only those who think like us, and only those who believe like us.

This passage from the book of Acts is part of a longer one that tells us about what is known as the Council of Jerusalem, which was convened because of all the Gentiles coming into the early church, which was at that time mostly Jewish.  Many members of the early church struggled to understand these new people who were flooding into the church.  They talked different, acted different, thought differently; they were different in so many ways that large numbers of the early church were not interested in welcoming them.  There were the, two groups in the early church – those who embraced the new people who were different and those who said those new people must conform to those already in the church before they would be accepted.  It was an incredibly important moment in the life of the church, and the decision made would have tremendously important ramifications for the future of the church.  Thankfully, the prevailing argument was the one that welcomed the Gentiles into the church without placing upon them unreasonable burdens or expectations.

At this point, I think it is important to add a further thought.  I have a friend who once described our church to me in this way – Dave, your church is a niche church in our community.  He went on to say that he was not intending the word niche to be insulting or judgmental in any way.  His use of the word was to indicate that he saw our church as being different from most churches in the community, primarily in the fact that we are not governed by a creed and we are more open and accepting than many other congregations.  I think this is true, and it is in great part due to the fact that we are a Disciples church.  Disciples churches, historically, are very hesitant to tell people what they must believe.  Disciples churches, historically, have understood that, in too many instances, people enshrine their personal opinions as God’s eternal truth and then require that people follow their opinions as though they are God’s eternal truth.  It is dangerous when we equate our opinions with God’s truth; they are certainly not one and the same.  In Disciples churches we acknowledge Peter’s confession of faith – you are the Christ, the son of the living God (Matthew 16:16) – as the one creed around which we unite.  From there, we respect the right and the responsibility of each person to come to their own conclusions about what the Bible means.  This is not for everyone, obviously.  Sometimes people, inquiring about our church, will ask me, what does your church believe?  Well, I respond, it depends on who you ask.  Well, they continue, are you conservative, moderate, or liberal, to which I answer, yes.  We are a very diverse collection of people, some of whom are conservative, while others are moderate or liberal.  In a recent phone call, I was asked, what are your church’s doctrinal positions; I looked on your web site and couldn’t find any listed.  I told the caller that we don’t have doctrinal positions.  Explaining that we don’t have creeds and that we encourage people to interpret the Bible for themselves, I could tell that we were not what the caller was seeking in a church.  I could tell that the caller believed we should have statements about doctrines and even political matters.  If that is what someone is looking for in a church, they will not find it here.  In fact, I find it troubling that churches are increasingly reflecting the birds of a feather flocking together dynamic found in our society.  It is possible now to find your own particular slice of the church pie that almost perfectly suits your individual taste.  You can find liturgical churches, traditional churches, contemporary churches, biker churches, and cowboy churches; you can find traditional and modern architecture, storefronts or home churches; you can find churches that adhere to particular political ideologies; and churches of any other descriptive term that you so desire.  But shouldn’t the church be reflective of the diversity of God’s wonderful and beautiful creation?  It is distressing, I believe, that we have arrived at the point of such little diversity and variety within individual congregations.

To return to the analogy of a bridge this morning, we know that for most of history a river has created a natural divide.  Rivers have almost always become the borders to mark the territory of different – and sometimes warring – groups.  We see the people on the other side of the border as being somehow different from us.  Most of you know that I play in a band.  All the other members of our band, as well as our sound person and our merchandise person, live in Indiana.  As the only Kentuckian in the band, I get to drive to Indiana every week for rehearsal. For the two-and-a-half years that I have been a member of the band I have enjoyed the gift of dealing with the bridge construction traffic in downtown Louisville.  But I like to think positively, so I remind the band that I would be greatly impoverished if I didn’t get to drive across the river and visit to Indiana each week.  If I didn’t come to Indiana, I tell them, I would not realize how fortunate I am to live in Kentucky!

Obviously, bridges take a great deal of time, effort, and expense.  The same is true of the bridges we are called to build within humanity.  It’s tough work to build bridges between people.  It is work that often progresses slowly, if it progresses at all.  And, building bridges to others can be costly, because some people will not stay with us when we build bridges to groups or individuals of whom they do not approve.  But we must resist the temptation to remain in our bubbles, living in safe subcultures where we are no required to interact with those who are different and with those who make us uncomfortable.

The second passage I will read this morning is from John 15:9-17.  Follow along as I read –

 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.

2.  God Has Called Us to Build Bridges out of Love.
I was changing a sign in front of a church years ago, and I don’t remember the exact message I was putting on the sign but it was something about love.  A guy walked by on the sidewalk as I was about finished and remarked, Love.  That’s what it’s all about.  We just have to keep reminding people of it.  We do.  We must speak of love often, reminding one another that it is the central focus of our faith.

The problem we most often confront, in regards to love, is that we are conditioned by the surrounding culture to view most everything as being transactional; that is, most everything is based on conditions, primarily the condition of you do something for me and I will do something for you.  If you are kind to me, I will be kind to you.  If you are helpful to me, I will be helpful to you.  If you love me, I will love you.  If you want to see easy proof of this, you can prove it when you are driving.  Let someone into traffic, and most often they will also let someone into traffic.  But if you pull up close to the car in front of you, keeping someone from cutting into traffic because they tried to bypass everyone else, they probably won’t let anyone into traffic either.  That’s transactional behavior, which is not the way love works.  Love is not a transactional event, and that is why it is so difficult.  Love continues when someone is not kind to us, when someone is not helpful to us, and when someone does not love us.

In this passage from John’s gospel, Jesus is very clear about his great command – love one another.  Notice that two times Jesus uses the word if.  In verse 10 he says if you keep my commands, you will remain in my love.  In verse 14 he says you are my friends if you do what I command.  Clearly, Jesus is not making a suggestion; he is issuing a command. 

In verse 16 Jesus also spoke about the fruit that we would bear.  He commissioned us to go and bear fruit – good fruit – but in too many cases it is a bitter fruit that has been sown by humanity, and it is a bitter harvest that we are reaping.  Have you picked up a newspaper this weekend?  Turned on the news?  How much evidence of good fruit is printed in the paper or reported on the news?  Not much, sadly.  Time and again we see one act of violence bump a previous act of violence from the front page.  In recent days we heard much in the news about the shooting at the Ft. Lauderdale airport; this morning that headline has been replaced by the headline of someone using a truck in Jerusalem as a weapon of violence and death.  We are reaping a harvest of bitter fruit because humanity has sown the seeds of hatred and division.

It is easy to believe, considering all that happens in our world, that it is impossible to bridge the gaps that exist between us.  Perhaps we have grown too skeptical, and too cynical.  There is no shortage of talk about building bridges and bringing people together in our society, but not always a lot of evidence of it.  We hear the talk after every election cycle, and then we quickly find it is the same old, same old, and we become skeptical about whether bridges can really be constructed.

But God has called us to build bridges of love.  Which means, that person of a different political party, driving us crazy with their pronouncements?  God loves them, so we must love them.  That person of another race that makes us uncomfortable?  God loves them, so we must love them.  That person of another perspective that we simply can’t understand?  God loves them, so we must love them.  That person whose religious perspective is different from us and we think they must surely be a heretic?  God loves them, so we must love them.  And we must be willing to build that bridge, as difficult as it might be to do so.

There is a great parable about two brothers who shared adjoining farms. For over 40 years they worked side-by-side, sharing equipment and helping each other out whenever needed. Then one day a rift developed. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by months of angry silence.

One day the eldest brother was out in his fields when a truck pulled up. Out jumped a man who approached, carrying a carpenter’s toolbox. I’m looking for a few days work, he said. Perhaps you would have a few small jobs I could do for you?  Well, yes I do, said the farmer.  See that creek down there?  It’s the border between my brother’s farm and mine.  We don’t get along any more.  In fact, I would prefer to not even see his farm.  I want you to take that timber over there by the barn and build me a new fence, a real tall one, so I don’t have to look over at my brother and his farm.  I’ll leave you to the work.  I will be gone until later this evening and will check on your progress when I return.

The carpenter was glad to have the work, so set about working.  The farmer drove into town and when he returned at sunset he was shocked to see what the carpenter had done.  The carpenter was just finishing the project, but it was not a fence.  In its place, he had built a bridge, and walking across it was the farmer’s younger brother.  Calling out to his older brother he said, after all that’s been done and said I can’t believe you’d still reach out to me.  I’m so glad you did.  It’s time to put things behind us and start again.  The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge and embraced.  Turning to the carpenter the older brother asked that he stay on for a few days, but the carpenter replied, I’d love to stay, but I have more bridges to build.

Do you need to build a bridge today?  Of course you do, because all of us have a bridge to build.  The real question is, will we build that bridge?

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

January 1, 2017 Building A Future

Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, “It will be happier.”
— Alfred Lord Tennyson

I think we all would like to believe Tennyson. I think we all hope that a new year will bring us greater happiness, greater success, and greater of everything. In that sense, if the New Year proves anything, it is that we are an optimistic people. Each year, as we stand at the doorstep of another year, we make our lists of resolutions, in spite of the fact that most years we don’t make it very many days before giving up on those resolutions. But we continue to hope, and continue to try, and that, I think, is a testament to our optimism and hope that a new year will be better than the concluding one.
As we continue with our theme of Building, this Sunday, on New Year’s Day, we will consider the topic of Building A Future. Some of you may be happy to close the door on 2016. Some of you have, perhaps, faced the greatest difficulties of your life, and you are hoping for a better year. If so, I certainly hope and pray that you have a blessed 2017.
The observation of the New Year is an interesting phenomenon, I think. There is, technically speaking, not New Year’s Day. Any day can be New Year’s Day. In fact, there are some groups that recognize days other than January 1st as their New Year’s Day. Though it takes 365 days for the earth to make its trip around the sun there is not particular point at which a “new year” begins. The New Year can be placed on any day. That being said, the observance of New Year’s Day, the turning of the page of the calendar into a new year, is a very important psychological milestone for us, because we need the promise of a new start. We need the practice of closing the door on one year – especially when it has been a bad one – and beginning a new one and embracing its promise of greater blessing.
Our Scripture text for the week comes from the life of David, the great king of Israel. David lived, I think it is safe to say, an epic life. He was, arguably, the greatest king in the history of the nation of Israel. He was a great warrior and, at times, a brilliant leader. He was also, at times, a leader who succumbed to weak moments that had grave consequences for his family and his nation.
The text comes from one of David’s lowest moments, and that is saying something, considering the fact that he had some very low moments. Absalom, one of David’s sons, had rebelled against his father and taken up arms to battle against him. The seeds of the rebellion were sown when Absalom’s sister Tamar, was raped by the oldest son of David, their half-brother Amnon. Absalom became very bitter because his father David did not seek justice for Tamar and he began to plot against his father. When the moment came, Absalom, after building support for himself and undermining his father, declared himself king. David, realizing he had lost the support of most of the people, had to flee from Jerusalem. In the ensuing battle, Absalom was left in a very vulnerable position, but David had declared that his son was not to be harmed. Ignoring those orders, one of David’s men killed Absalom, leaving David heartbroken. The anguish of David can be heard in his cry of heartbreak – O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!
For David, the heartbreak was compounded by the fact that his own actions – or lack of action – had brought about the circumstances leading to Absalom’s death. To David, it seemed like there was no hope for the future and no hope that life could ever again be joyous. But David did have a future, and the fact that he did have a future can serve as a reminder that we too can have a future, even when life seems very bleak.
Can there be any greater heartbreak than suffering the loss of a child? Listen to our Scripture text this morning, and hear, at the end, the heartbreak and anguish in David’s voice –

24 While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone.
25 The watchman called out to the king and reported it. The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.
26 Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!” The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”
27 The watchman said, “It seems to me that the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.” “He’s a good man,” the king said. “He comes with good news.”
28 Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, “All is well!” He bowed down before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise be to the Lord your God! He has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my lord the king.”
29 The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.”
30 The king said, “Stand aside and wait here.” So he stepped aside and stood there.
31 Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”
32 The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”

1. Admit Your Hurt and Open Yourself To Help.
That sounds very much like something from a 12-step group, doesn’t it? The 12-step groups have learned something important about people, and that is that we need to open ourselves to help.
When Tanya and I were in London last year, while I was on sabbatical, everywhere we went were shirts, coffee mugs, and other items with what must be the British national motto of Keep Calm and Carry On printed on them. Keep a stiff upper lip, as the British would say. My grandparents were British, so maybe I have some of that in my genes, but it’s not necessarily healthy to keep pushing forward and failing to admit there are times when we need help.
As Americans, perhaps our unofficial motto would be "Keep Calm And Act As If Nothing Is Wrong." Too often, people associate asking for help with weakness. If it is a weakness, then I would say there is no weakness in weakness. It is not a sign of weakness to admit that we hurt, that we struggle, and that we need help. I think that, sometimes, we believe it is necessary to be either stoic, acting as though nothing has happened, or to deny our suffering. We want to be tough and resilient; we want to pick ourselves up and carry on.
Refusing to seek help can cause us to carry unresolved grief, and there are a lot of people who have unresolved grief in their lives. The danger of unresolved grief is that it turns into bitterness and anger, and bitterness and anger poisons the soul.
David, it is widely acknowledged, wrote many of the Psalms, some of which are tough to read. In Psalm 22:1, for instance, David cries out my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It is the verse Jesus quotes while on the cross. In that verse, and in many others, David lays bare his soul and the anguish that is caused by his struggles. David, in his honesty and openness about his struggles, opens himself to healing.

2. Allow Your Suffering to Carry You Into the Suffering of Others.
Suffering can do one of two things to us. Suffering can cause us to turn inward, into ourselves, or it can cause us to turn outward, toward others. There is a time, in the midst of suffering, when we need to look after ourselves, but we cannot stay there. At some point, it is important for us to step into the hurt and the suffering of others. After all, who better to talk with someone who has suffered loss than someone else who has suffered loss? Who better to talk with someone who is facing a medical challenge than someone who has faced a medical challenge? Who better to talk with someone who has lost their job than someone who has also lost a job?
When I am experiencing difficulty I don’t want to talk to someone for whom that difficulty is merely an academic exercise or someone who has only learned of a struggle in a classroom lesson; I want to talk to someone who has experienced the same situation and who has concrete advice – as well as compassion – to help me through my time of difficulty. I want to listen to someone who can speak of how they got through their time of difficulty and how they found deliverance and healing from their time of difficulty.
In Galatians 6:2 Paul writes that we are to bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ. Turn your suffering and pain into ministry. Reach out to others, using your own experiences as a way of helping others in their time of trial.

3. Know That You Are Never Alone.
In I Kings 19 there is the story of Elijah, the prophet, who goes into hiding because Jezebel sent him a message that she was going to kill him. When you get that kind of message from the queen, you’re not having a good day. Elijah flees for his life, and after a day’s journey he sits down to rest under a tree. While under the tree he prays for God to take his life. Do you see the irony? When you are running for your life, but you stop and ask God to take your life? I don’t really understand that logic, but Elijah is not in the best frame of mind because of his fear. His prayer is an expression of his despair.
Elijah traveled further, for forty days and nights, and came to a cave, where he hid. While in the cave he hears from God, who asks him why he is in the cave. Elijah explains to God about how faithful he has remained to God and that he is the only one left who has remained faithful. But God reminds Elijah that he has many others who have remained faithful, and basically tells Elijah to go back to work and to remember that he is not alone.
It’s easy to feel alone; we all do at some point. Entering a new school, moving to a new town, starting a new job, attending a new church. Last week I said that we cannot allow ourselves to fall for the idea that reality is what we think it is; that is, if we feel alone, it’s easy to think that we are alone, but we are not. God is with us and he places people in our lives to remind us we are not alone.

4. God Is Greater Than Our Sufferings.
David wrote a lot of the psalms, and when you read through them it is obvious that he experienced a lot of suffering in his life. In many of those psalms, however, we read that in spite of the suffering David is able to proclaim the power and the greatness of God, a power that allows us to triumph over our suffering.
In the 23rd psalm, arguably the greatest of all the psalms, David writes those immortal words, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil (verse 4). Now, to be honest, I’m not that courageous. I am frightened by many things, and when I am in the valley of the shadow of death I feel very, very unsettled. But in such times I hold to the words of David – even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. Why does he not fear? You know that words; say them with me. For thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Who is with us? God is with us. And when God is with us, we need not fear, because he is greater than our sufferings.

On Thursday, I officiated the funeral for a 10-year-old girl. That’s a heartbreaking, heartbreaking experience for the family. Nothing in life is worse than suffering the loss of a child. As I always do at funerals, I read the 23rd psalm. Though I don’t know for sure, I can imagine David writing the 23rd psalm in response to the loss of his son, Absalom. My hope was that the words of one who had lost a child would help to comfort and encourage another family who had lost a child. The words of the 23rd psalm remind us that even when life is at its most troubled – when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, there is a light that shines and dispels that shadow. It is the light of God’s love, care, and presence, and a reminder that whatever the troubles of the past – or present – God will carry us through, into a new and blessed future!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

December 25, 2016 Building Christmas

As we continue with our theme of Building, today, on Christmas day, we consider the topic of Building Christmas.  Perhaps Rebuilding Christmas would be a more appropriate title, as Christmas has been remade, rebuilt, and repurposed into something very different from the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.  Christmas, as we often note, has become so busy, so commercialized, and so far removed from its origin that we sometimes struggle to recognize it as a holiday that celebrates the central act of God’s redemptive work with humankind.  And sometimes we find ourselves as active participants in the repurposing of Christmas.  I wonder if God will say to me one day in eternity, you know when you talked about the simplicity and humility of the first Christmas?  You had that right, so why did you help to make it so complicated?

I should add that I am not at all a scrooge when it comes to our modern Christmas.  I watch the Hallmark Channel movies, I go to the malls, and I enjoy giving and receiving gifts.  I like a nicely decorated tree (and I don’t even mind our Yoda tree topper, light saber and all), but I do, at times, wonder about what seems to be the rebuilding of Christmas into something it was never intended to be.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.  Lewis was right – Christmas is far, far bigger than what is often made of it.  Too often, our modern version of Christmas is an impoverished version.
Our Scripture text for this morning is a portion of the most well-known Advent passage, Luke 2:1-7.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

This morning, I want to think of Building Christmas in relation to three themes, themes that are taken from three phrases in this passage of Scripture –

1.  And it came to pass…

I often feel a measure of guilt about looking forward to the Christmas season coming to an end.  Does anyone else feel that way?  Sometimes, it seems as though Advent is an endurance contest more than a spiritual experience.  It is a very tiring time in the life of a minister, I can assure you that.  Sometimes, on days when I feel very tired, I hold to the Biblical admonition of this too shall pass.         
It is then that I like to turn to what is one of my favorite verses in all of the Biblical passages relating to the birth of Christ – the first phrase of Luke 2:1 – and it came to pass.  That verse presents to us not only an important reminder of an historical fact, but also of a promise yet to come.  It tells us of the reality of the birth of Jesus, but it also reminds us that the plans of God do come to pass; they do take place; they do happen.  It is God’s assurance that all of his promises will come to pass.
This verse carries an important message for all of those who have any doubts about God’s promises coming to fruition, and there are certainly many in our world who are skeptics not only about God’s promises, but of God himself.
Several years ago I read a fascinating book – The Fingerprints of God:  What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.  Some of the questions she ponders in the book are questions often asked by researchers – why are some people more attuned to spiritual matters than others?  Why is it that some people have an innate interest in spirituality while others never seem to think about anything spiritual?  They are interesting questions, but I’m not sure they are ones that science can answer.
Undoubtedly, we live in a time of some measure of skepticism about spiritual matters.  In our modern era it seems as though that skepticism feeds upon itself, growing more prevalent as more people express skepticism.  Unfortunately, some of those skeptics will claim that if we have any doubts or and questions about our faith there is something deficient in our faith.  These skeptics will point to those doubts and questions as evidence – in their minds, at least – of a loss of faith.  But we all ask questions and we all, at times, have doubts, and there is nothing wrong with doubts or questions.  In fact, I would say that doubts and questions are signs of a living and vibrant faith, because it they are signs of taking faith and its implications seriously.  I would also add that doubts and questions do not have an impact upon God’s fulfillment of his promises.  To assume that they do is to make the mistake that reality is based upon what we believe, what we can prove through evidence, or by what we can feel (these are a few of the mistakes of skeptics).  If one does not believe in God, for instance, one would then claim God must not exist.  But the existence of God is not predicated upon what one believes, because our beliefs do not alter reality.  Similarly, if one cannot produce irrevocable proof – absolute, can’t miss proof – of God’s existence, then one would claim that God must not exist.  But again, reality does not conform to what we can either prove or disprove by evidence.  And, finally, if one does not feel God’s presence or feel the reality of his existence, then one would conclude that God must not exist.  But, once again, reality is not dependent upon what we feel.
When I attended seminary I was put through the rigors of considering, examining, and defending my faith.  It was a difficult process for me and one that required me to think very seriously about what I believed.  One of the conclusions to which I arrived was that the existence of God, and God’s promises, were not predicated at all upon what I believed.  God’s existence, and his promises were either true or they were not true, regardless of what I thought or believed.  It was not up to me to make a case for their reality, but to choose whether or not I would accept their reality.  Obviously, I chose to accept those realities, and continue to do so.  I believe very strongly that reality is true whatever we believe, or don’t believe, and this verse reminds us that God not only exists, but he guarantees that his promises will come to pass.
And it came to pass is testimony to a reality that is true not because of what we feel or what we believe, but what is true, and that is the truth of God’s reality, and the truth that he entered into his own creation.

2.  And all went to be taxed…
If it came to pass is one of my favorite verses, this is one of my least favorite, because I am like everyone else and I complain about paying taxes.
When our children were young, Tanya and I opened a tax business.  It was quite a surprise to me that we had our own business, because I had never envisioned myself as an entrepreneur.  While it was a good experience, I learned that I did not have the mind of a tax preparer.  Tanya is very good with business and numbers, while I am not.  Preparing tax returns was easy for her.  She enjoyed working with numbers and could get them done quickly, which was important during the peak of the tax season.  I approached tax preparation much differently.  For me, it was an opportunity to engage in pastoral care.  I sat with clients and talked with them about their lives, listened to their problems, and offered counsel.  Sometimes, Tanya reminded me that I was there to prepare tax returns, not to be a marriage or family counselor.
But what I like about the phrase and all went to be taxed is this – for all the ways in which the powers of the world believe they dictate the destiny of the world, they do not.  Caesar Augustus might have decreed that the world was to be taxed, but Caesar was not the ultimate authority.  Where is Caesar now?  Where is the mighty Roman Empire now?  Caesar and the Roman Empire that not only ruled the world but also sought to vanquish the church are long gone.  The other empires that sought to vanquish the church are no more.
Psalm 2:1-4 tells us – 
1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
There are certainly consequences to the decisions of the rulers and the kingdoms of this world, but that does not mean they have the ultimate power, the ultimate control, or the ultimate destiny.  Their decisions can have very serious consequences and that is why we, as God’s people, should always stand apart from the powers of this world and serve as a voice for the voiceless, as an advocate for those who have no advocate, and a voice for justice when there is no justice.  But let it be known that God is in control.  The Romans might have decreed that all were to be taxed and must return to their own towns, but God decreed that the actions of the Romans would be part of his instrument for how he would enter into the world.  While the Romans decreed power, God decreed love.  Even today, in Aleppo, where Assad’s regime decrees ruthless power, God decrees love.  Everywhere and in every time, God declares love.

3.  And laid him in a manger…
It’s an amazing thought to imagine God in a manger as a tiny, helpless infant.  As one writer put it, God became not just the author of the human drama but an actor in it.
There is nothing else in the history of humanity that even comes close to matching the story of Jesus.  There are so many deeply theological ways to attempt to explain that story and in college and seminary I waded through many of those explanations.  I read the systematic theology and grappled with the depths of the explanations, but there is one story that helps to explain it better than perhaps any other.  Some of you will remember Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.  Some of you will hear me mention Paul Harvey and think I must really be old.  That may be the case, but in one of his broadcasts he tells a story that very clearly explains the nature of the Incarnation. 
The story goes as follows – a mother and her children were preparing to attend the Christmas Eve service at their church.  The father was not going, as he never attended the service or any church service.  To him, the idea of church was silly, filled with silly beliefs for which he had no time or tolerance.  After his wife and children left for the service, it began to snow.  Very quickly the snow turned into quite a storm, with the wind blowing and the snow falling and quickly becoming deep.  As he watched out the window at the snow he looked in the direction of a barn near their house.  A light on the front of the barn illuminated a scene that grabbed his attention.  Struggling with the wind and the snow was a group of birds, searching for shelter.  After watching them for several minutes, the man had an idea for how to help them.  His idea was to go outside and open the door of the barn, allowing the birds to fly to the shelter of the barn.  Though it seemed like a reasonable plan, it didn’t work as he hoped.  When he opened the door, the birds continued to fly around outside of the barn, struggling against the wind and the snow.  The man ran around, waving his arms, hoping that would corral them into shelter.  Once again, his plan did not work; in fact, it seemed to make matters worse.  Standing in the snow and the wind, frustrated at his lack of success, he thought to himself, if only I could become a bird, like one of them.  If I were one of them I could lead them to safety, shelter, and security.  At that moment it suddenly occurred to him – that was the nature of the Incarnation.  This is exactly why God had become part of his creation.  Go become one of us in order to lead us, to bring us to safety, and to save us.
That, indeed, is that nature of the Incarnation and the reason why Jesus was laid in a manger.  As we celebrate Christmas today, let us commit ourselves anew to the message of Christmas, and proclaim the good news that Christ has come!