Monday, December 17, 2012

December 16, 2012 - Think Again: When God Changed Everything

Matthew 2:1-12

In August of 1981 I was driving from Dothan, Alabama to Wellsburg, West Virginia. Somewhere along a lonely stretch of I65 in northern Alabama I pulled over to get something to drink.  It was one of those exits in the middle of nowhere with one very small service station.  As I was walking back to my car I noticed the smell of something burning.  I got down on my hands and knees and looked under the car and there was oil dripping, which is never a good sign.  I opened the hood and there was oil everywhere.  Oil was all over the inside of the hood and all over the engine.

I’ve never been the most mechanical person, but I certainly knew that had I driven much further all the oil in the engine would have emptied and the engine would seize up.  I was stuck, without much of an idea of what to do.

I walked back in the service station, which was one of those one-person operations, and asked the operator if he could take a look at my car.  He was kind enough to do so, but he kept shaking his head as he looked at it and making noises that convinced me I had a real problem.

When you see oil everywhere you assume it’s going to be a fairly serious repair.  He looked things over for a bit and stood up and said the problem was something like a sensor for my oil pressure gauge.  It had blown out and the oil was spraying out of that spot on the engine.  Well, of course I had two questions – can you fix it and how much will it cost?

I didn’t have much cash on me; a little more, perhaps, than what I needed for the trip.  I had no credit card or other way of paying.  What I had was a broken car and a panicked expression on my face.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and the man said he didn’t have the part in his little station but would call someone who might be able to deliver it.  Well, now there were two people involved in the repair, and that sounded really expensive.  I asked again how much it would cost.  He never really gave me an answer, which I took to be a bad sign.  He asked, do you want me to call and get the part?  I gave a foolish answer.  I said yes, which was foolish because I didn’t know what it would cost and if I could pay for it.  I answered yes in the hope that something would work out.

He called for the part, which was delivered after a little while.  I watched the two of them talk for a few minutes and wondered if they were hatching some kind of plan – let’s really take advantage of this guy.  The guy who delivered the part drove off and the service station owner started to work on my car. 

Have you been in a similar situation?  Or am I the only one who drove broken down cars?  It’s a lonely feeling sitting and wondering what would happen. 

He finished the work, walked over, and said let me show you what I did.  I looked under the hood, trying to act like I knew what I was looking at – oh yeah, there’s the engine.  He showed me the new part and explained what it did and I noticed he had also cleaned up as much of the oil as he could.  He said he didn’t want me to smell burning oil the rest of my trip.  I was happy for him to keep talking about anything but what it was going to cost.

He finally said, I think you’re good to go.  With a great deal of hesitation I asked, how much do I owe you?  I can still remember the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, wondering what I would do when he quoted me a really high price.  He said, I think five dollars will do it.  Five dollars!  He had a part delivered, had to pay for the part, put several quarts of oil in the engine, took a lot of time to replace the part and even cleaned up the old oil, and he charged five dollars.  I was ready to hug the guy, but was afraid he might charge me more if I did.

Perhaps he was a father who wanted to know someone would help his child if they were stuck somewhere, perhaps he was just a kind person.  Whatever his motivation, I was very grateful.

There are times when we feel very vulnerable in life.  There are times when we have a very pressing sense of anxiety.  There are times we face problems and we don’t know what to do.  The world sometimes seems so large, so unkind, and we feel very small and fragile.  Those are difficult moments, and it reminds us how fragile and how perilous life can be.

Imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt at they traveled to Bethlehem.  They were forced to pack up and travel because the Roman government decided they wanted to conduct a census.  A census is very easy for us; we fill out a form and put it in the mail or complete it online.  If we don’t get it done someone will come to our door and ask us the questions.  The Romans were not as cooperative.  You went were they told you to go, when they told you to go.  It didn’t matter that Mary was late in her pregnancy.  It didn’t matter what kind of financial hardship it placed upon them as a family.  Nothing mattered except they were told to go to Bethlehem to register for that census and they had no choice but to comply.

It was a journey of about 80 miles.  They would travel east rather directly south because they would seek to avoid Samaria, where they would not be welcome and may be vulnerable to attacks.  At the quickest, it would be a four-day journey, but taking into account concern for Mary’s health it was probably closer to a week’s journey.  It was days away from work for Joseph, which certainly imposed a financial burden.

And along the way, questions; many, many questions.  What is the purpose of God in these hard to understand events?  Why does God work in such unusual ways?  How do we see God’s hand in the events we experience?

As we have talked in recent weeks about what shapes our thinking, the birth of Jesus is the ultimate event in shaping our thinking, in shaping how we think about the world, how we think about others, and how we think about God.  We are preparing to celebrate the coming of God into the world.  What a strange way he chose to enter the world!

Why does God work in such strange ways?  Why doesn’t God make himself known in more obvious ways?  Why can’t we see and know exactly what he is doing?  Why do we have to struggle to connect the dots as we struggle through life?

Skeptics and doubters will rail against God – and even against us for believing – as they ask where is God in the world?  If God is really out there somewhere, why doesn’t he show himself in a more obvious way?  Where was God, they will ask, on Friday morning as the tragedy unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School?

Mary and Joseph lived through the tragic taking of life.  Herod was so paranoid about his throne that when he heard of the birth of one who was a king he took the lives of the male children up to the age of two.  There are always Herods in the world, tragically, who will take even the innocent lives of children in order to accomplish their twisted purposes and we will always be vulnerable to them.

God came into the world in such vulnerable circumstances to remind us that he walks with us through the vulnerabilities and struggles and tragedies of life.  Life is not easy, and it seems to be getting increasingly complicated and difficult.  Life has never been easy, and it seems we are at a tipping point from which there will be no return.  And I say that as one who is an optimist at heart.

But I hold to the truth that God came into the world as a vulnerable baby, surrounded by a family who felt the vulnerabilities of the time – just as we feel those of our time.  And God entered the world in such a way to remind us that he is not unfamiliar to what we experience in life.  Whatever we have experienced, God has as well.  But God also demonstrates that in spite of our vulnerabilities and struggles in life, faith and hope are the foundations of life.

It is in the coming of God into this world through the vulnerabilities and frailties of a young and anxious couple, into a troubled time, into a difficult world, that we find that faith and hope.  And God’s coming into the world reminds us that it is not the Herods of this world or the Roman Emperors of this world, or the mighty armies of this world that overcome.  No, it is the power of love.

The poet Carl Sandberg wrote in Star Silver –
... back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum

A baby's first cry mixing with the crunch
of a mule's teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn

Baby fists softer than snowflakes of Norway

The vagabond Mother of Christ
and the vagabond men of wisdom
all in a barn on a winter's night
and a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay –
Why does the story never wear out?

It doesn’t wear out because it is forever a story we need to hear – a story of faith, hope, and love that reminds us God and his love will always overcome.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 9, 2012 - Think Again: Great Expectations At Christmas

Isaiah 55:1-3a

In recent weeks our messages have been centered on the idea of Think Again, as we have considered people and events that have shaped our world and the way we think.

This morning, I want to tell you about a boy named Charles. 

In 1824, when he was 11, Charles’ father was sent to the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison in London.  At the time, a person could be held in debtor’s prison for decades.  Those who were placed in the debtor’s prisons found their debts actually increased while they were incarcerated.  The debtor’s prisons, such as Marshalsea, were privately run, so they actually charged the prisoners rent.  The prisoners also had to pay for their clothing, laundry, and other services provided to them.  They also had to pay for legal fees and interest on their debts, all of which meant that many of them found their indebtedness increased while they served their sentence.

To be near their loved ones, the families of prisoners moved to the vicinity of the prisons, which led to communities springing up around the debtor prisons.  The life of these communities was based around life in the debtor’s prisons, and life there was very difficult. Charles and his family moved to the community surrounding Marshalsea to be near his father.  After arriving, young Charles was forced to leave school, sell his books, and begin working in a blacking factory (Blacking was sort of a precursor to shoe polish, and was used to waterproof footwear) to help pay for his family’s indebtedness.  It was very difficult work and Charles was greatly shamed and very troubled by the necessity of working to pay off the indebtedness of his family.

Charles’ father was released from the debtor’s prison after three months, but young Charles was forced to continue his work.  He was humiliated and deeply hurt because he had to continue working to pay for his family’s debts, and he came to believe he was condemned to an unhappy life.  The rest of his life was shaped by this very difficult experience, and as a result he suffered a very deep psychological wound.  His relationship with his father was also greatly affected, as Charles loved, but also resented his father.

While his experience was very difficult for him, it also brought to him a great sensitivity about the struggles of other people.  Throughout his life, Charles was very deeply troubled by the plight of the poor, especially poor children, and how society trapped the poor in difficult and desperate lives.  He observed firsthand the harsh conditions that many children suffered as they worked long hours to help their impoverished families, and as an adult he worked as an advocate to improve the conditions faced by these children and their families.

In May of 1843 Charles decided to publish a political pamphlet condemning the social environment that led to such conditions.  The title of the pamphlet was to be An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.  In October of that year he spent three days in the city of Manchester, where he spoke before a charitable organization.  It was during those three days that Charles decided a political tract would not be the best way to further his goal of helping the poor, so he decided instead to write a story.  The purpose of the story would be to expose the sufferings of the poor and the extent to which many in society had closed their hearts to the plight of the poor. 

It took Charles six weeks to finish his story, with the final pages completed in December of that year, shortly before Christmas, which was good timing, as Christmas was the theme of his story.  There are some memorable lines from his story, one being it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.  Another line speaks of the hardheartedness of the main character towards the poor, when he says, if they would rather die . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.  If you haven’t yet guessed the identity of Charles you most likely will from the final words of the story, which speak of the great change of heart that takes place in the main character – and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!  The great Charles Dickens, from his classic story, A Christmas Carol.

Of the many interesting things about A Christmas Carol, one is how we often miss the context in which the story was written.  Today, we think of A Christmas Carol as a story of individual change and redemption – important concepts – but Dickens intended that it be a story to bring about social change. A Christmas Carol was written as a response to the poverty of Dickens’ day and was directed at the conditions that trapped people in poverty and the hardheartedness that many in that time exhibited to the poor. Despite the economic advancements of recent generations the poor remain, as Jesus said, always with us.  Trying to eradicate poverty has become one of the most vexing problems of humanity.

  Our modern expectations of Christmas greatly weigh upon the simplicity and message of the first Christmas.  Our modern celebration of Christmas has become so awash in materialism that we have placed an economic burden upon ourselves in paying for gifts and all of the other things that have been added to Christmas. We have unreasonably high expectations of happiness, family togetherness, and everything being perfect that we are sorely disappointed if those expectations are not met.

The simplicity of the first Christmas reminds us that Jesus was born into many uncertainties.  There was political uncertainty, social uncertainty, and in the most personal of ways, there was economic uncertainty.  Jesus was born into a family that struggled economically; of this I am convinced.  In the time of Jesus there was little or no middle class; there were two classes – the rich and the poor.  You can guess which class was larger. The first Christmas held no grand expectations for Joseph and Mary.

In the time of Jesus most people found daily survival an epic struggle.  Daily life was such a struggle that few people would live to what we would consider old age.  Even just 100 years ago, the average life span of only 47 and only 4% of people reached age 65.

The first Christmas and its simplicity and struggle remind us that we are called not just to individual transformation, but to social transformation as well.  We are called to transform society and its structures to bring justice to all people. 

Every year we hear so much about the war on Christmas.  I disagree about there being a war on Christmas, but I do believe that in a spiritual sense there is a struggle for the heart of Christmas.  It’s a struggle that is not being waged on Christmas from the outside of faith by those who oppose faith, but among those who have faith.  The struggle for the heart of Christmas reminds us that the simplicity and poverty of the first Christmas tells us the purpose is not to load ourselves up with more stuff, but that we are called to remember the poor, to remember those whose lives are full of struggle, to remember the brokenhearted, to remember the lonely, to remember the sick, to remember those who are imprisoned, to remember those who are without hope, to remember those who have given up on God, to remember those who need the promise of the message of the first Christmas.

We have a bare Christmas tree in the foyer of our church, and I’m glad that it is bare.  It is bare because every angel of the Angel Tree was taken, and I’m grateful that we will remember that many children who need extra help. 

May we also remember that our community is filled with many needs, and not all of them are material.  May we provide for those who are lacking of the necessities in life and for those who are in need of the hope of Christmas.

Isaiah reminds us why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live (Isaiah 55:2-3a).

May our expectation of Christmas be of the peace, happiness, and love that comes not from a mall or store, but from the manger in Bethlehem.