Tag Archives: Advent

Believe: An Message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the message is called Believe.* Let’s read from the Gospel of Luke and I want to read two passages today, Luke 1:26-38 and then Luke 2:13-14.

As I mentioned, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. Or perhaps better said Christ Mass. We join in the heavenly chorus of praise for the good news that God is fulfilling in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But far from the setting of some grand cathedral with shining lights and the ringing of bells echoing throughout, the story unfolds in Nazareth. It’s a city but more like a small village in the Galilean region of northern Israel, far from Jerusalem — the center of Jewish social-culture and political power.

That’s where God sends this angel known as Gabriel. He’s sent to visit Mary. Except before Luke ever identifies her as Mary, he identifies her as “a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph.”

Now the story is getting good. Although Mary is a virgin, which will be even more clear as the story gets told, the word virgin also implies a young woman who is of a marriageable age. It seems like a small but important detail because now, the story not only takes place in a setting of no significance but we also have a woman of no social significance.

Think about it for a moment. Before this story, Luke tells us about the foretelling of Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth is said to be “righteous” and “blameless” before God and in regards to the Law (1:6), but Luke doesn’t offer such commending words for Mary. She’s just a young woman and in a strong patriarchal society that values age, is ruled by men in a stratified economy, she’s a powerless poor young woman for a little town that anyone would miss with the blink of an eye. 

So it’s understandable why Mary is confused. The angel comes to her saying, [v. 28] “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But then immediately Luke tells us that Mary was “confused” or as the NRSV reads, “perplexed.” The greeting of the angel may sound fairly emotionless but the greeting is literally one that speaks of grace, of bestowing a favor upon someone. Yet the angel is speaking to her, a young virgin woman without any social-standing among her society.

Sensing her confusion, the angel says to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” It’s almost humorous because in the same breath that he tells Mary not to be afraid, the angel continues says that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son she is to name Jesus. He then says to Mary that her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and will receive the throne of David, ruling over the house of Jacob forever without any end to his kingdom.

That’s messianic language right there. Such language invokes the message of Israel’s prophets and the promise of messianic hope that the prophets proclaimed to exiled Israel. Essentially, the angel is announcing the fulfillment of this messianic promise that God is going to send a Messiah to restore the kingdom. It’s a message that says God is making good on his promise of salvation.

But I’m not sure Mary heard a single word after the Angel told her she was going to conceive a child. After all, Mary’s only response is, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

It’s a good question. After all, she’s a virgin. 

When my brothers and sisters and I when we were young, my mother would always say keep those pants zipped up and you won’t have to worry about having a child. She was right. Biologically, it’s impossible to be a virgin and conceive a child. Which begs the question of how is this even possible?

It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s fair to ask the other important question too. How is a child born to Mary going to restore the kingdom of God and make good on the promise of salvation? That might seem like a simple question to us but in Mary’s day such a question was legit because the powerful Romans were in charge and they ruled with brute force. Even King Herod was in bed with the Romans and only had power because of the Romans. Added to this is the fact that other Jewish leaders, some even claiming to be the Messiah, attempted to lead revolts, only to be crushed by the brute force of Rome. So to hear the angel say what he’s saying raises the question of how is this even possible.

But  listen again to how the angel responds. He says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.” 

That’s how. It’s the work of God through the Holy Spirit, not the work of humans. God’s work. And there’s one more thing the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

With those words, Mary believed. Her response to the angels words are, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

But how about us? Do we believe? As I ask that knowing how sometimes people want rational arguments for the credibility of faith and I get that, to a point. But if we’re not careful, such a demand can actually be a way fo resisting faith.

Mary didn’t get the luxury of having all the scientific and philosophical arguments for how God could restore the kingdom through the birth of Jesus through her virgin body. The angel simply told her that God was at work just as he was with Elizabeth becoming pregnant and that was enough. Mary believed. That is, she trusted God enough to say “Let it be…” even though everything about this story is beyond all possibilities to the human mind.

But isn’t that what it means to believe? Isn’t that the kind of faith we’re called to have? To believe God can accomplish what is impossible for us to even fully understand?

The season of Advent is to remind us that the Lord, Jesus Christ is coming to restore the kingdom, so that there will be “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But it’s easy to wonder sometimes if that’s really so. We’re twenty years removed from the most violent, war-waging, century in world history. We live in a nation that has been at war for about 225 years of its 244 year existence, where a hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sang “Glory!Glory! Hallelujah!” were first sang as a song of victory during the American Civil War. 

That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s really tempting to wonder if this is at all possible. To wonder if God can really bring about his peaceable kingdom through the birth of a baby to a virgin woman of no social-political significance at all. And sometimes in the wondering, God, in his grace to us, reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, that God is restoring his kingdom through Jesus. Perhaps such a reminder is this song, Your Peace Will Make Us One, by Audrey Assad.

Believe! In the form of a helpless baby, Christ has come. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Born to Joseph and Mary but born so that God and sinners may be reconciled; born so that man may no more die, to raise the sons of earth, to give them second birth. Through crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation, this is more than possible because it is the work of God. So believe and let this bread and wine that we are about to share in together remind us all that this salvation is possible because it is the work of God and nothing is impossible for God.


* This message was originally preached for the Newark Church whom I serve with as Lead Minister/Pastor.

Following Jesus in 2020

Face of Jesus ChristHere we are in the second week of 2020, which seems a bit surreal. I was just getting used to saying 2019 and now it’s 2020. Churches have just traversed from a season of Advent into the season of Epiphany, from the birth of King Jesus to God’s revelation of King Jesus to the entire world. But does that mean anything?

As we step forward into year 2020 in America, we do so in a year of contention. President Trump is facing an impeachment trial, there is a rapidly escalating conflict with Iran, and there is an upcoming political election that is sure to bring out the worst vitriol and anger in many people. Besides all the contentious politics in America, we live in a society that has been sinking into a moral quagmire for sometime. Whether we talk about the life of the unborn, the increasing number of socially displaced poor living in our neighborhoods, or the life of immigrants seeking refuge from war and violence in their homeland, their livelihood always seems to come at the expense of politics. But where I find myself is with a growing disappointment for the ways in which it seems some Christians respond, acting as though the politics of right and left matter more than lives affected by these challenges.

Have we forgotten what it means to live as followers of Jesus? I’m talking about the Jesus we read of in scripture, who embraced the powerless over the powerful, took up the cause of the oppressed by show mercy and acting with justice, became a humble servant rather than an ego-driven despot, and who chose the way of the cross rather than the much easier way of the sword. This is the Jesus we are called to follow and the Christianity we profess as our religion must be coherent with the life Jesus lived, is nothing but another self-made false religion.

So as 2020 is upon us, I’ve heard a lot of pastors talking about sharing a “2020 Vision” with their church. I don’t have any problem with the language, playing on the year 2020, if that helps captivate the attention of the church. But from where I sit, churches don’t need a 2020 Vision for some new ministry initiative or how they can help take their church to the next level, whatever that means. What churches need is a 2020 vision for who Jesus is and the kingdom he called us to serve in as his followers.

On the night before Jesus was crucified, he prayed for this disciples. As a part of his prayer, he asked his Heavenly Father…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, os that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:16-19 (NRSV)

Clearly Jesus did not want his followers withdrawing or from the world, which I believe includes not avoiding the problems that society must face. Rather, Jesus has sent his disciples into the world. However, in sending his disciples into the world, he does so with the expectation that they will be sanctified which has to do with being set apart in the world for the mission of God. This is the rub, the tension. How do we, as followers of Jesus, live in society facing numerous challenges and live as believers who singular focus is participating in the mission of God? 

I certainly don’t have the final answer but I remain committed to living as a follower of Jesus. And by that, I mean striving to live my life by the same beliefs and values that Jesus lived so that my life might be a coherent reflection of who Jesus is. I’m sure I’ll fail along the way but that is my commitment. As a pastor, I am also preaching through the Gospel of John this winter and spring with the Newark Church of Christ. As I preach through the Gospel of John, I am asking the question of what God is doing in Jesus as a way of trying to understand what is this eternal life that the church is called to participate in as believers following Jesus. And that’s it… I hope that by living as a follower of Jesus and preaching about Jesus, that whatever influence I have will be harnessed towards encouraging others to live as followers of Jesus.

 

Advent: Meth, The Messiness of Lie, and the Incarnation of God

Years ago I was sitting in the living room of a couple that I was reading the Bible with. I met them because I had seen the man hitchhiking in the rain and stopped to give him a ride. As I go to know them, I heard that both he and his wife had been released from jail for crimes related to a methamphetamine habit. Nevertheless, they were nice and I was hoping to teach them about Jesus

On this particular day, the wife had made some brownies and she offered me one. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, so I politely received the plate with this very appetizing warm and fresh out of the oven chocolate brownie. The problem was that is was so gooey that I needed a fork and so when I asked for a fork, I was told to look in a particular drawer in the kitchen. So I did and when I opened the drawer, there on top of the utensils was a used hypodermic needle which presumably was used to shoot up meth.

As you might imagine, every worst case scenario of possible health issues suddenly came to mind. I also had a decision to make. Do I eat the brownie or do I not? Be polite or possibly risk offending this wife? Do I put my own health first or the relationship I am building with this couple first? What does faith look like in this moment and do I have that faith?

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus

I mention all that just to illustrate how messy life can really be. The good news is that God doesn’t avoid the mess, our mess, that life often is. Instead God embraces the mess by becoming one of us, becoming flesh, in the person of Jesus. We call this the Incarnation and a significant portion of our incarnational theology flows from reading the Gospel of John but the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about our understanding of the Incarnation too.

In short, Matthew draws attention in the genealogy to the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” which we know is Bathsheba. There is scandal attached to each of their stories which sets us up for the scandal attached to the story of Joseph and Mary, namely the fact that Mary is unmarried and pregnant. You see, prior to the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph, all he knows is that Mary is pregnant and he’s not the father. In his eyes, Mary has committed adultery and this is why the angel must first tell Joseph “don’t be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Then in the eyes of their neighbors, who are unaware of what the Angel says about Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit, Mary simply appears as unmarried and pregnant.

Those two words, unmarried and pregnant, are word that no pious and God-fearing person wants to hear in the same sentence. It’s scandalous! And yet this is the story in which this baby child, who will be named Jesus because he save his people from sin, is born (Mt 1:21). It also is the fulfillment of prophesy in which child will be called Emmanuel because this child is “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

This is the scandalous story that Matthew tells of the Incarnation and it tells us something about who God really is. God doesn’t run from our sin, with all of its scandal and shame. Rather, in Jesus, God risks becoming associated as a sinner so that he might embrace us as sinners and save us from our sin. In fact, God took this risk knowing that  the cost of salvation would lead Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Though we feel the shame of our own sin and often our hesitant at involving ourselves in the lives of others, whose sin we seem to deem as more shameful than our own, God risks his own self to embrace us and the other so that he might save us from sin.

And if you’re wondering, I ate the brownie and it tasted good. I never became sick or experienced any illnesses that I irrationally feared might happen. I don’t know what ever happened to the couple because it wasn’t long before they both were back in jail facing new criminal charges. But on that day, as the ambassador of Christ that I am, I hope they somehow saw that God loves them and isn’t afraid or ashamed to be around them because of their sin.

That’s good news to us as well. For we know very well that we are sinners too and yet God still loves us and embraces us with the grace extended in his Incarnation. And this is another reason why Advent matters. It’s the messiness of life, marred by our sins, that is met in the coming of God Incarnate, born among us as the Savior.

Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

Advent: Do We Really?

The season of Advent is upon us. We are in the second week of this lovely season and so we sing.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

John the Baptist came before the Lord as a prophet sent from God to prepare the way. He did this by calling people into a baptism of repentance. That is, in preparation for the coming of the Lord, he was inviting people into baptism “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Lk 3:3).

Our God is coming! But do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent?

shelteredbyhisglory.jpgEmbracing Advent is more than just anticipating the coming of God, it’s an anticipation of participating in the life for which God comes to offer us. This is a life wrapped up in the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet it’s a life that can only be received by those willing to repent. This is why John the Baptist came before the Lord as a prophet sent from God to prepare the way. He called us into a baptism of repentance, telling us “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Lk 3:3).

If we follow the good news of the Lord’s coming, we are led to Jerusalem where the cross awaits our Lord. It’s not the path anyone would expect of this Jesus, who was born as King of the Jews (Mt 2:2) but that to the cross he goes and we either follow him there or we don’t follow him.

The apostle Paul tells us that it is by the death of Christ on the cross that he destroys division and hostility between Jew and Gentile. The cross is where enemies, factions, and tribes are reconciled as one new people who belong to God. This is the reason for the Advent of God, the coming of Christ. Now do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent? Or is Advent just some religious ritual we observe on four Sunday’s in December only to go back to business as usual, lost in the growing animosity of our tribal ways?

I’m not asking such questions in a vacuum of nothingness but in the context of an American culture that is heading towards a chaos of hatred and political division. The polarities of left and right, Democrats and Republicans, is the new tribalism that is bubbling up like as a volcano ready to erupt. As a divided Congress argues over the impeachment proceedings of President Trump, many people are already poised along the sidelines, ready to defend the side they are on at all costs. And sadly, many Christians are lined up on one side or the other while trying to convince themselves and others that God is on their side too.

So again I ask, do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent? Christ has come, we believe, to heal the nations. As we sing in the great hymn O Holy Night

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.

Now Christians, if we really believe this and want to participate in this gospel, then maybe it’s time we let go of our tribalistic garments and be the church. Because it’s very difficult to see how we can embody this gospel as long as we continue aligning ourselves with the sides of left and right, Democrat and Republican.

Whether America knows it or not, America needs the church. Not the church it is all too accustomed with, a church that has baptized the gospel into Americanism, but the church that is wholly aligned with King Jesus. Not the church that confesses “Jesus is Lord” on Sunday but then gives her allegiance away to the tribal politics, but the church whose singular alignment with King Jesus results in embodying the kind of life that makes for peace.

Oh church, do we really desire Advent?

Advent: Waiting With Hope

One of my favorite lines in the Psalter says “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4, NIV). It’s a line that has resonated with me for seventeen years, ever since that doctor in the emergency room pronounced Kenny dead. For I still know not the words that adequately describe losing my son.

In my lament, I ask how can it be that my son is dead? Why did God allow this child to be conceived and born only to die three days later? Where was God throughout those nine months as my wife and I prayed so fervently for the well-being of our son? Why did God not heal Kenny when the doctors were attempting to resuscitate him? Has God even heard my cries begging aloud for him to help my son? Yet God did not answer… Why?

Seventeen years later, I’ve certainly processed through these questions of lament. I seem to think I can answers them, at least in part, as abstract theological inquiries, though that offers little, if any, comfort. Perhaps I can even answer some of those questions in a pastoral manner that gets at the heart level.

Maybe.

But even then, these answers don’t assuage the grief and pain of such a loss like this. As a believer committed to following Jesus, all I am left with is the hope that one day God is making all things new. So I hope for the day of salvation when death will be no more, when the grief and pain is consumed in the fulfillment of redemption, when the tears and disappointment are gone, when the blessing of joy and peace are forever lived in the presence of the Lord, when the sting of death gives way to the victory that we will forever share in with the Lord.

christmasstar

This promise of hope is one of waiting. It is to look upon a distant bright star showing forth among clouds of darkness, with an anticipation veiled by tears. This is advent hope.

For four-hundred years after being exiled into Babylonian captivity ended, Israel waited for the day of the Lord. That’s four hundred years of waiting. At the time, they weren’t sure when that period of waiting would end and that is what makes waiting with hope so difficult.

The season of Advent is upon us again. We celebrate Advent knowing that the Lord has come. God came into our world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby destined to suffer a humiliating death on the cross so that he could take his life up again in resurrection and thereby save us all from the sting of death, our sins. While we have this assurance of hope, by faith we still wait for it as the day when salvation will be fully realized. Until then, what we have is hope. So we wait with hope.

Waiting with hope isn’t so easy. It’s never so easy and the hope we have doesn’t negate the darkness of silence that we live with as we wait. So what can we do? Wait! And don’t look pass the darkness by For as the great hymn Be Still, My Soul reminds us, the mystery of our hope is known as we wait in the darkness.

Be still, my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below