Wednesday, December 16, 2015

December 13, 2015 Fear Not! Sing for Joy!

I read an article recently about a woman who was born unable to feel pain.  For 39 years she was unable to feel any type of physical pain.  Here is the scientific explanation of the condition – The disorder is caused by a rare genetic mutation that results in a lack of ion channels that transport sodium across sensory nerves. Without these channels, known as Nav1.7 channels, nerve cells are unable to communicate pain. Researchers quickly sought to make compounds that blocked Nav1.7 channels, thinking they might be able to block pain in people without the disorder.  

As I was reading I couldn’t help but think, those pesky Nav1.7 channels; that’s exactly what I would diagnose! 

Doctors found a way to reverse her condition so that she was able to feel pain, and upon receiving the treatment there is only one way to test its success – inflict pain.  I’m not sure why the doctors settled on this type of test, but they burned her with a laser, and upon receiving the burn she remarked that it felt good to experience pain.

There are a couple of fascinating matters elements related to that story.  First, the next story listed for reading on the journal’s web site was titled 7 Ways to Reduce the Pain You’re Feeling.  I think there’s some irony there somewhere.  Secondly, it did not address the other types of pain people experience, such as spiritual and emotional pain and how prevalent those kinds of pains are and what can be done about preventing them.  Third, that someone immune to physical pain is viewed as having a medical deficiency and, upon, being cured of that deficiency, would remark that she was glad to experience the sensation of pain.  How is it that, while most people seek to avoid pain, here is someone who found it a blessing to be able to feel pain?

Which begs the question, I think, does pain make us more open to, or more prepared for, blessing?  In a moment we’ll read the Scripture text for today’s message.  It comes from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, and it is a song of celebration, known as Zechariah’s song.  God had been mostly silent for 400-plus years.  People had many questions about that silence.  The people were suffering under the rule of Rome.  Times were difficult.  There were many reasons for people to feel pain, but because they had experienced so much pain, perhaps it made their time of rejoicing even sweeter.

Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist, and here is his song, offered after the birth of his son –

67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

When we think about all that is associated with Christmas, music would certainly be near the top of everyone’s list.  Who doesn’t love Christmas music?  We all love the songs of the season – Silent Night, Joy to the World, Angels We Have Heard On High, The First Noel, and so many more that are beloved by millions.  This morning, I want to use the idea of a song to frame this message.

1.  Sometimes we sing a sad song.
There are few things as powerful as music. Music expresses our emotions, it alters our emotions, it lifts us up, it challenges us, and it can literally change the world. Sometimes we want a sad or melancholy song – a song like How Can You Mend a Broken Heart by the Bee Gees, because it reflects our downcast state of being.  I can look at my recently played songs on my iPod and know what I was feeling on those days by what songs I chose to listen to.  The song choices sometimes reveal that my day was one of a sad song.

I love to read interviews with musicians, guitar players in particular, and one that is often asked of blues musicians is this – can you write a blues song when life is going well?  Maybe not.  Blues come from a unique time and place and history and blues was the musical language of suffering.

The people of Israel, suffering under the occupying Roman army, had experienced a four-century drought in hearing from God.  Had he gone silent forever, some probably wondered, and, if not, when would they hear from God again?

There are many passages in Scripture that we might call the Bible’s blues.  We find many of those passages in the psalms, such at the 22nd, which Jesus quoted while on the cross –

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. 
Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

There are many, many such passages throughout the Bible; sad songs, blues songs, songs of despair, mining the entire range of the difficulty of the human condition.

And that’s not at all a bad thing.  Music – sad music, blues music – purges our souls of the bitterness that builds up within us from the struggles of life.  Sometimes we sing a sad song, and in singing the sad song we release some of the sadness and the struggle.

By the time of the events in this morning’s Scripture passage, God’s people had been singing a lot of sad songs, a lot of blues.  They had been through centuries of struggles, and had not given up.  They had experienced much pain, but persevered. 

2.  Sometimes we sing a song of joy!
I’m going to date myself here, but I still remember the first time I heard the song Joy To the World.  Not the Christmas carol, but the song by Three Dog Night.  Who remembers that song?  I was getting ready for school one morning and as I came into our kitchen those first lines came blasting out of the radio on the table – Jeremiah was a bullfrog!  Was a good friend of mine!  Never understood a single word he said…  Of course you wouldn’t understand a word he said – he’s a bullfrog!  I thought those were some of the strangest lyrics ever but it’s a really cool, fun, joyful song when the chorus kicks in and I still love to listen to it.

Zechariah’s song was one of joy!  There was joy in the world!  God was again moving, and in a very big way, and in Luke’s gospel, in the Christmas story passages, there are four different songs that burst forth from the blessing and joy of God’s moving.

Were you aware of the four songs in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story? There are actually many other songs in the Scriptures, although we might not always realize we are reading a song.  Many of the psalms, for instance, were probably sung in worship services.  The early church probably sang portions of Scripture such as Philippians 2:1-12.

As the Christmas story begins, music enters as a response to the good news that God was indeed moving.  The first song in the Christmas story is Mary’s Song, in 1:46-55.  Also referred to as the Magnificat (so titled because the first word in the Latin translation of this passage is magnificat) it has become one of the most well-known passages of the Christmas story.  Mary’s magnificat, her response to God’s choosing her as the mother of the Messiah, is a song of hope and joy at what God was about to do.

The second song is the song of Zechariah, from the passage we study this morning.  Zechariah’s song (Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist) came after he had regained his voice (Zechariah was unable to speak from the time the angel told him that he and his wife would have a child until the eighth day after John’s birth).  It is known as the benedictus, a name taken from the first Latin words of this passage, which means blessed be the Lord God of Israel.  

The third is the song of the angels, in 2:13-14.  The angels sang after announcing the good news of the birth of Christ to the shepherds.

The fourth is the song of Simeon, in 2:29-32. Simeon sings when Jesus is brought to the Temple eight days after his birth.  Simeon had long waited and hoped for the good news of the coming of the Messiah, and he had been promised he would not die until after he had seen that promise fulfilled.  His song is also known as the Nunc Dimittis, which also comes from the first Latin words of the passage, and mean now you dismiss.  Simeon felt that, upon seeing the Messiah, God could dismiss him not only from his priestly duties but from life itself, as he had lived to see the fulfillment of his hopes and dreams – the coming of the Messiah.

All four of these songs are songs of joy, bursting forth in a time of great difficulty, as if to say, it is time for a song of joy!  We have sung the blues for centuries, but now it is a time of celebration!  God is on the move!

In today’s Scripture passage there are words and phrases that would hold particularly joyful meaning at the time of the birth of Jesus – a horn of salvation (verse 69), and the oath he swore to our father Abraham (verse 73). These refer to Jesus and his standing as the Messiah.  In the next part of the passage there are words and phrases that refer to John the Baptist – a prophet of the Most High and you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him (verse 76). There are also words rich with theological meaning – salvation (verse 71), mercy and covenant, (both found in verse 72), forgiveness (verse 77), and peace (verse 79).  The words and phrases in this passage are testimony that God was on the move, that something great was about to take place, and that the course of history would be forever changed.

3.  Let God help you Sing for Joy!
I have always wished I could sing.  Music is such a powerful gift, and the gift of a great singing voice is a great gift, I believe.  One of my favorite and most enduring memories of Christmas is hearing my father, who had a beautiful tenor voice, singing O Holy Night.

The story behind that great song is really fascinating.  In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissionaire of wines in a small French town.  He was a poet and was not a person who was interested in church, so he was most likely surprised when the local priest asked him to write a poem for Christmas mass.

He used Luke’s gospel as a guide and imagined what the events of that night in Bethlehem must have been like.  Soon, he had completed the Cantique de Noel.  He decided that it must be more than a poem, that it needed music, so he asked one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams to compose music for the piece.  He was a well-known musician at the time and received many requests to write music.  His work was well received by his friend and the priest, so only three weeks later it was performed at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

The song quickly became popular, but then things changed.  When Cappeau left the church to become part of the socialist movement and when church leaders realized that Adams did not share the Christian faith, the song was denounced by the church and they declared it was not fit to be used in worship.

Around a decade later an American writer named John Sullivan Dwight brought the song to the attention of an American audience by publishing it is his own magazine.  Dwight was an abolitionist and was especially moved by the third verse of the song – truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.  

In France, thought the song had been banned from the church for close to twenty years, many people still sang it in their homes.  Legend tells us that on Christmas Eve of 1871, in the midst of fighting between the armies of Germany and France, a French soldier suddenly climbed out of the trench where he was stationed and began to sing Minuit, Chretiens, c'est l'heure solennelle ou L'Homme Dieu descendit jusqu'a nous, the opening words to Cantique de Noel.

When he finished singing, a German soldier climbed from his trench to sing in return Vom Himmel noch, da komm' ich her. Ich bring' euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring' ich so viel, Davon ich sing'n und sagen will, the beginning of Martin Luther's hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.  The story continues by telling that for the next twenty-four hours there was no fighting, in honor of Christmas day.

On Christmas Eve of 1906, Reginald Fessenden, who had worked with Thomas Edison, picked up a microphone and, for the first time in history, broadcast the human voice over the airways.  He read the Christmas story from the second chapter of Luke, and upon completion, picked up a violin and played O Holy Night, making it the first song ever broadcast across the airwaves.

I love that story, because it reflects the many twists and turns of the history of O Holy Night, a twisting and turning journey that is much like our own lives.

Some of us need a new song.  Some of us have been singing a sad song for far too long.  Some of us need to sing a song of joy.  Allow this Advent to be the time when God gives to you a song of joy!

Monday, December 07, 2015

December 6, 2015 Fear Not! A New World Is Coming!

I am indebted to Heather McColl, who is the minister at Midway Christian Church, for the theme and titles of my Advent messages.  In a meeting we attended in August I asked if anyone had yet thought of themes for Advent, and Heather had both a theme and message titles.  She was way ahead of me, and I asked her if she minded if I borrowed the theme, which is Fear Not – and the four message titles from her.  I am grateful to use her theme and titles, as they helped me very much to formulate the following messages –   

Fear Not! A New World Is Coming!
Fear Not! Prophetic Peace Be With You!
Fear Not! Sing for Joy!
Fear Not! The Baby Means Change!

Our Scripture reading this morning is Matthew 2:12-18.  This passage actually takes place after the birth of Jesus, but it provides the foundation to our message today –

12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,
15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

I want to talk about three realities this morning, as we consider the message A New World Is Coming.  The first is –

Reality #1 – Our Tragic and Broken World.
The passage we just read is not very cheerful passage, is it?  It’s quite a downer, actually.  It’s probably not a passage we want to hear during Advent, or any other time of the year, for that matter.  But it’s a passage we need to hear, because it reflects the reality of our tragic and broken world.  It reflects the tragic reality of our world not only in the time of Jesus, but also the reality of the world before the time of Jesus, since the time of Jesus, all the way to the tragic reality of our world today.  It reflects the tragic reality that we live in a world that is broken, fallen, violent, and far too often indifferent to the fact that suffering is inflicted upon others far too often, even, as we see in this passage, upon young children.

This reality is a jolting reminder that the Christmas story is not a story containing only scenes of peace and beauty.  It is a passage that reminds us we live in a brutal world, where the innocent suffer at the hands of tyrants and people taken captive by evil and hatred.  That such people, and behaviors, exist will guarantee that fear remains an ever-present force in our lives. 

It seems to me that, in recent years, this part of the Christmas story has fallen from our focus, and it’s not hard to understand why.  Who wants to face such a reality while we’re enjoying our decorations, our parties, and our exchanging of gifts?  It is a harsh intrusion into a time that is designed in great measure to help us forget some of the difficult realities of life.

Herod was crowned King of the Jews in Rome, by the Roman Senate in the year 40 BC.  He was, however, a king without a kingdom.  Upon his return to the land of Israel, he was provided somewhat of an army and after some years was eventually able to capture Jerusalem.  His first order of business was to eliminate all of his predecessors and their allies and all future threats to his rule, and he spent the next roughly 35 years doing so.  One of the final acts of his life and his rule was to give the order that leads to the tragedy we just read.

For all of our advances in fields such as medicine and technology, do you know how much we have advanced in the way in which we treat one another?  Not much, if any.  We are so plagued by violence that every one of us is probably hesitant to turn on the news in the morning because we don’t want to hear the litany of violent acts that took place in the previous 24 hours.  ISIS is working to blow up our world and in our own country it’s one mass shooting after another.

I am, by nature, an optimist.  I really do try to look at the world in a positive light.  And I am not an apocalyptic kind of person, but there have been plenty of days lately when I’ve wondered if it’s time for me to revisit both of those positions, as I’ve asked myself, is this about it?  Just when we think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse!  How much more can humanity take, before completely imploding?

But the reality is that it has been century after century of such tragedy, down to our time when we see so many people forced from their homes because of tyrants and despots and so many who have lost their lives because of hatred and poisonous ideologies.  The names may have changed, but it’s the same old story.  There is no one named Herod ruling over territory in today’s world, but there are plenty who carry on his tragic ways, and there are millions who suffer every day because of their actions.

It’s one of the reasons why I think today’s Scripture passage is so timely, as we see that Jesus and his family were victims of political instability, tyranny, and as a result became refugees.  Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus and his family were, for a time, refugees?  As we live in a time when so many millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, how might this story from the life of Jesus speak to them?  It tells us, I think, that dealing with refugees in our world is not just a political question but also a spiritual one.  Among the least of these in today’s world most certainly are the refugees looking for a safe home, and certainly we would recognize the call of Jesus to care for them.  But our world too often turns a callous heart and covered eye to the sufferings experienced by so many millions in the world.  We don’t want to face the reality of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes. 

Our world is one of power that is too willing to allow the end to justify any means that become necessary.  And it is not just other powers; it is the power wielded by our own leaders and our own nation that is not always a power that leads to peace or justice. 

Jesus was not afraid to speak to the leaders of his people and his nation and tell them the hard truth that power is not always used justly, and in the same way we must be willing to speak to our leaders as well and remind them to use power justly and peacefully.

Reality #2 – A New World Is Coming!
I believe that a new world is coming; a new world in which peace will be victorious over violence, love will rule over hatred, and freedom will come to those under oppression.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is, it sure seems like a lot of the old world is left, and that the new world is a long way off, doesn’t it?  The new world is taking it’s time arriving.  How long must the insanity continue?

The Biblical record is one of a long-running promise that a new world is coming.  One of the great passages from the prophets is Isaiah 2:2-4 –

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

It is easy to be impatient about the promise of a new world.  For millenia, the prophets have promised that a new world is coming, and we wait, and wait.  But that new world is already here, in some ways.  It might not always be obvious, but it is here and it is becoming more of a reality with each passing day.  Every time a person allows love rather than hatred to rule their life, the new world takes deeper root.  Every time a person walks in the light rather than the darkness, the new world takes deeper root.  Every time a person expresses grace over judgment, the new world takes deeper root.  Every time a person expresses hope over despair, the new world takes deeper root.  Every time a person chooses faith over doubt, the new world takes deeper root. 

Some of you really need a new world to arrive.  Your world, your reality, has worn you down, has run over you, and has pushed you to the very edge of you faith.  Know that a new world is coming! 

Reality #3 – Fear is the great determiner between the first two realities – the continuing of our tragic world, or the welcoming of the new world.
There are dozens of times, literally hundreds of times, when either be not afraid or fear not is used in the Bible.  That’s a lot of references.  The Fear Not picture on the screen has some of those references included in the background. 

Fear is an ever-present influence in our lives.  Everyone is shaped by fear in some way, and anyone who believes they are without fear is either one of humanity’s great exceptions or they are very much lacking in self-awareness (I propose it to be the latter of those two choices). 

It seems my entire life has been one long, unending battle against fear.  And I thought once I conquered a particular fear it would reduce my list by one and eventually, one by one, I would scratch each fear off that list until at some point I would arrive at a time when every fear was marked off my list.  But I’ve found that as you go through life, you mark one fear off your list and add two or three more, as there seems to be evermore at stake.  When I was young, I worried about myself.  Now I worry about my children and the world they will inherit and what their lives will be like in the decades to come. 

The Biblical gives us many examples of those who allowed faith to raise them above their fears.  Think of the story of the Exodus.  Imagine the excitement of leaving bondage in Egypt, but imagine how that excitement turned to fear in the wilderness as you wondered how your family would be fed and sheltered from the harsh elements.  Think of the story of the Exile.  Imagine what it must have been like, making the long march to Babylon, under the watchful eye of armed guards.  Imagine what it must have been like, to walk into the gates of a strange city, whose residents cheered their victorious army while they jeered at you.  Imagine what it was like, when the Roman Empire entered into the land and became one more in a long line of oppressive occupiers.  Imagine the fear of wondering how life would be under their rule.  Imagine the fear of the disciples, watching the crucifixion of Jesus and wondering if they would be next.

Because fear is so powerful and pervasive in life, I find it very interesting that the word is never mentioned in this morning’s Scripture passage.  Did you notice that?  There are certainly ample reasons why fear should have been present.  Joseph is told that Herod is seeking Jesus in order to kill him; the family was compelled to flee to Egypt, a foreign country, in a journey that would certainly be fraught with difficulty and danger and where, perhaps, there would be no network of family and friends; there was no promise of economic opportunity, housing, or any of the basic necessities of life that would be guaranteed upon their arrival in Egypt.  Those are, in my opinion, very good reasons to become fearful.  Perhaps Joseph and Mary were fearful, but if so, it is never mentioned.  I prefer to believe that their deep and confident faith allowed them to undertake their journey without fear.  In contrast, the earlier part of the chapter, in verse three, we read that when King Herod heard this (the news that Jesus had been born), he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (NASV).

I believe that Matthew is very intentional about noting that Herod – the king, and possessor of all the power and privileges that comes with royalty – is filled with fear while no mention is made of Joseph and Mary being afraid. It is, I believe, one of the ways in which Matthew is reminding us that along with the birth of Jesus comes the promise that a new world is coming.  It is a world in which a different power will be dominant; it is a world in which the kings and tyrants will no longer be in charge or determine the destiny of those under their rule; and it is a world in which love, justice, and fairness will rule.

As long as we are afraid, we can be controlled.  It’s the reason tyrants and despots love to instill fear in people and it’s the reason why our political leaders will use fear, as they want to control us.  But do not yield to fear and do not allow fear to control you life.

Fear may be our ever-present companion in life.  We will never be absent of fear, but know this – we do not have to live in a way that allows fear to shape the boundaries of life or place limits upon our faith.  Fear not!  A new world is coming!