Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reflection on Luke 2:1-20

What a magical night Christmas Eve is! The trees are in houses. The green, fresh smelling branches are decorated and lit. Those tiny rays of light cast away the darkness; reminding us that even a glimmer of Christ’s light is enough in a dark world.

The manger scenes are set up in yards. They are decorated and lit. Those tiny shepherds and iconic figures of Mary and Joseph pointing us to the real reason we are celebrating.

The baby Jesus is placed in the manger. He is decorated and lit…from the inside in most yards. This either reminds us that the true light that comes into the world, bringing life into the world is Jesus, or seeing it sadly reminds us that we need a new plastic Jesus because our old one from 1968 is beginning to look more like a little red demonized child’s toy than the savior of the world.

The Christmas songs have finally broken loose in the church, flying through the pews and around the altar. The stars shine bright and the angels join in our songs, offering their prayers to God as we cry out with familiar melodies and beautiful harmonies of thirds and fifths up the scale. There are even some harmonies of 2 1/2s up the scale that certainly would never come out of the mouths of an angel but are certainly noises of praise. Glories are everywhere, and anticipation of tomorrow morning are on the thoughts of all children.

How can you not be excited about a night like this?

When I was a young child the smell of pipe also entered the picture as my grandfather sat down getting ready for all of us to open our presents. The smell of pipe smoke raised the heart rate as our cousins dealt out the gifts to everyone. Sitting on the floor, staring at the wrapping paper in front of me, the tender stuff just waiting to be destroyed, we sat and sat and sat, waiting to discover the prize inside.

There was only one problem; my grandparent’s house was the opposite of the quick paced, frantic, fantastically joyous and beautiful Christmas season. There was nothing quick about this gift unwrapping. You could honestly wait half an hour before you might open your gift. You see, everyone had to take turns unwrapping presents. We would wait and watch the next person open their present, and that person would then say “thank you,” and then they would both start a discussion of how they thought of the present and the other would sit and talk about how they might use it and how they loved their cousin or Uncle or Aunt or whoever had given them the present. This process took well over an hour, and it was pure torture for a seven year old. I would have rather been hung by my toenails at that age; at least that would be stimulating.

Like the story of Jesus’ birth, the process made Christmas rather simple and plain. Did you notice how plain this story of Jesus’ birth really is? Read it closely, there is no iconic Inn Keeper telling the young Mary and Joseph that there is no room. There also is no stable with talking animals and swirling Angels. In fact, the first Christmas was quite the opposite of tonight’s celebration. It was a regular pregnancy, and a regular labor, in a meager place with ordinary people doing ordinary birthing things. Luke seems to be trying to tell us something about how God works. It is not a great and glorious scene.  It is, rather, a simple scene with simple parents connecting closely with their new child.

Connecting closely; that is what was happening during those Christmas gift unveilings after-all. The gift givers and the gift receivers were being given the time to connect with each other through loving words. My grandparents were secretly wise. To the kid’s anxious disappointment, my grandparents knew that the gift themselves were not the important part of the tradition. Connecting with someone who loves you was the whole point.

Today, and through the rest of the Christmas season, take the time to slow down from the gloriousness of the Christmas season and take the time to connect one-on-one with Christ. “Glory to God in the highest heaven” yes, but simple time with a simple God is also very good. It is hard to be loved by someone who is held up with such high glory. But, we can easily be loved by a God who is willing to come down to be with us.  Take time right now to connect closely with Christ.

Reflection on Luke 3:7-18

You pit of snakes! You slithering, slinky, sneaky, snakes of systematic sin and suffering. You literarily alliterated selection of sinful snakes. Who warned you to slither your way onto a website to take sanctuary in a proclamation about God? Who told you to come here? Who told you that you needed to come here and turn your life around?

Are you here to read the words of a fabulous preacher? Or, are you here because you truly are thirsting to soak up the moist, refreshing water of God’s kingdom? Perhaps, the rush of the pre-Christmas season, or the pre-family tension season, or the ever popular pre-post Christmas shopping season has gotten to you. Perhaps, life has gotten to you in general. Perhaps, you cannot wait to stop reading this thing so that you can do something much more productive with your life. Perhaps, John the Baptist is judging you unfairly right now. Perhaps, Jira Albers is suggesting to you that John the Baptist is judging you unfairly while he gets off scot free to do all the judging himself. Perhaps, this reflection is a literary nightmare with way too many “perhaps” taking place all in one paragraph, and it should stop very soon!

Perhaps…why not, I’ve already used seven “perhaps,” can one more really be considered over the top…perhaps, you actually care about your life with God, and perhaps you have heard God’s beautiful symphony, and you simply seek some wisdom concerning living out a life that is in tune with the beautiful and haunting melody of God’s kingdom. In other words, you hear the tune while driving down the road of life, and you want to sing out loud in the car. As John the Baptist did, I will assume that you have an honest desire for God and God’s kingdom.

So, you ask, “What should we do?” The crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers asked John in his time and the question still echoes today. “What should we do.”

Some would say that you simply need to live your best life now. Go, make a bunch of money and buy your happiness. Go ahead, it’s simple! Making millions, at least for myself, has never been a problem. I simply do not want to right now. You know, I have other things to do.

Maybe, you should participate in a cheaply made sweat lodge ceremony run by a Hollywood guru?

Maybe, you should just listen to your instincts and do simply what they say. My instincts often tell me that the way to a good life is through a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I am willing to go with that.

Others will tell you to leave all that you have, go move to the top of the mountain, and contemplate the meaning of life alone in the woods with only wild fruits and berries to live on.

Maybe, you should go off and study in the ivory towers of the seminary. Putting your nose in theology books is famous for putting people at peace. You would not believe how far a snore travels in a library built with stone walls.

John’s answer to the question, “What should we do?” is not this complicated, it is amazingly simple. It does not require feats of starving yourself, over-indulging yourself, or living alone in the woods. What should we do? Professor David Lose from Luther seminary puts John's simple message this way, "Share. Be fair. Don't bully."

Do you want to sing a line in God’s symphony? Then, share what you have with someone else. Don’t take or expect things from others, rather share. If you have two coats, give one to someone who needs it. That is not too difficult.

Are you trying to adjust your voice’s pitch so you are not singing flat to Christ’s wonderful tune of grace? Then, be fair when you deal with others. Make sure to treat others as you would want to be treated. Tax collectors should not expect more than what is owed to them and neither should you. Be fair. That does not take a special person.  It is well within everyone’s reach.

Does your base note drown out every other tune God has put out there? Then do not bully. The world will continue to run without you having your way, really it will. Soldiers already have intrinsic power, they do not need to prove anything by bullying and neither do you. You will not die if you do not get your way over what to have for dinner. Really, it will not happen. Neither will the world come to an end if you do not get your way at your job or with your spouse. Do not bully. It does not take a theologian to accomplish that.

Does this sermon sound a little like it was written for kindergarteners? Well, it was…in a sense. Anyone is able to participate in God’s kingdom here on earth. Even a kindergartener can display God’s grace when they remember: "Share. Be fair. Don't bully." The kingdom of God is a realm that we all can participate in. God’s grace is not limited. If someone tells you it is not that simple, do not believe them. It is simple. It is a kingdom built for all to live in. It is a place where even kindergarteners can participate in sharing God’s grace with others. As we wait for the coming of our Lord, take the time to "Share. Be fair. And, don't bully."

Reflection on Luke 3:1-6

“Welcome to history class!” With those words out on the page I am sure that I have completely engaged you.  Perhaps not.  If you are anything like me your body is now thinking, “Welcome to my nap.” But, this will not be a long history lesson. Luke wants you to understand something about history and how Jesus fits into it but the lesson is very simple and direct.

John the Baptist came to prepare the way of Christ during the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius; who is now dead. That is right, this emperor is now gone and is not worshipped at all today. In a similar way, this nobody John came when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; who incidentally is also now dead. No one worships or follows the philosophy of the powerful Pilate today either. No one even remembers when and how he died. And, of course John came to proclaim Christ during the rule of Herod, ruler of Galilee; and his brother Philip, ruler of some linguistically unpronounceable regions; and Lysanias, who was the ruler yet another unpronounceable region. Though each of these rulers is remembered in history for their power, might, and political craftiness, guess what?  All three are history, literally. Oh yeah, and do not forget the high priests who put Jesus to death, Annas and Caiaphas. Guess what? Yep, they are dead also.

Alright, now for the history test. Are these people alive or dead?

Emperor Timberius?
Pontius Pilate?
John the Baptist?

What a great class! Of course, I am assuming that you are extremely intelligent and have shown everyone to be dead with the exception of Christ. 

Though the powers of the world try to control by force, corrupt ways, sly dealings, political calculations, selfish motivations, cruelty, false kindness, and suave tongues, all of these powers will be upturned and plowed under as the preparations for Christ’s word of repentance and forgiveness levels mountains, fills valleys, bends roads, and straightens paths. The foundations of the world will be grasped like a child grasps a handheld sandbox and shaken until all of the sand settles into a peaceful, smooth plain, where no one is higher or lower, and repentance and forgiveness brings us all onto the same level.

Recently, my foundations were shaken a little bit and my sands were leveled to some degree. Quite recently, the big news story was not the troop surge in Afghanistan, nor the health care debate, but was all about: Tiger Woods.

I had Tiger set up high on a mountain in my mind. You have to understand, he is the first of my generation. He is the first golf genius of my generation. He is the first of my generation to make it big. And, he was all class. He was what was right with the world. He and his character is what set us apart from the previous generation of drug induced hippies and corrupt politicians. And, as we found out this week, he was no better than any of them. With the exposure of his marital infidelities, the mountain was shaken, and a flat plain was created.

I am not trying to get down on the guy. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I had high hopes for my generation. I had created a mountain upon which we could stand proudly, and that mountain was shaken this week by the inherent need for repentance and forgiveness.

No one is immune to sin and the pain it causes those around you. No one. This should not have been such a big story. This should not have been such a big surprise. When Christ comes into the world, all the foundations are shaken and all the high are brought low and all the low are brought high until we all stand on the same plain facing the same God who has the same piercing gaze of truth and forgiveness for all flesh.

But, do not fear that piercing gaze. Allow your mountains to be made low. Do not fear. Allow your valleys to be filled in. Do not fear. Allow your crooked roads to be straightened. It may be painful and scary, but do not fear, in the end you find yourself standing next to Christ on a flat plain of grace.

Nowhere to hide.
No need to hide.

Nowhere to go in fear.
No need to fear.

All will be gathering on the same flat plain of grace and peace. Do not fear, Christ is coming.