Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reflection on John 1:29-42

John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove and remain on Jesus. When John's eyes rested on Jesus, he saw the Son of God. He then pointed out the Son of God to two of his own disciples. He wanted them to see for themselves.

The two disciples ran up to Jesus, not knowing what to expect. Jesus asked, “What they are looking for?” They asked, “Where do you abide?” Jesus said, “Come and see.” They came and saw.

The grandmother saw the peace on the face of her life-long love as she held his hand and he took his final breath. His last vision was of God, and it brought him peace. She carried this peace with her from that hospital room. She took that peace out and stared at it through the tears of the following months. She wore that peace like a handbag and gathered as much peace as she could into it again and again every week in worship.

“Why do you go to that building with the plus sign on it grandma?” the granddaughter asked.

“Because it is a good place,” the grandma answered. “Why don’t we go together this morning? We can see what the big plus sign is all about. Come and see.”

And, the two held hands, came, and saw.

The man could not really explain his faith. He could not exactly find the right words that would describe it. If he had tried, it would look something like, "a doubter and skeptic who searches anyway." Long ago he began to doubt the miracles. Long ago he began to doubt the virgin birth. Long ago he began to doubt the talking serpent and talking donkey. Long ago he began to doubt the words of his pastor. But, what he did see in Jesus captivated him. He saw a love that could transform the world from what it is to what it could be. He believed that not only could we show love and do loving things, but like Christ, we could be love. More than anything he desired Christ to abide in him. He wanted the same for his teenage son.

“Why should I go to church. It's stupid and boring,” the teenaged son said for what seemed the millionth time. “You don’t even believe half the stuff they say anyway!”

The man looked at his son with a tired expression, weighing carefully his words. “You are right. Sometimes the music is old and boring. Sometimes I don’t believe a lick of what is said. But every once and a while, if I wait and listen, Jesus comes to me through the boring words of the songs and the long Bible readings. If I am patient, Jesus says something that changes my life. Please come and see."

Together, they sat through another boring service.  It was, as expected, a waste of time until the son saw a woman with a deep scar on her face, and torn, dirt smudged jeans on her legs join the nicely dressed at the communion table. The nicely dressed smiled at her and made room for her to kneel. "What kind of love allows that to happen?" he wondered in awe of the people. He came and he saw.

Some say that the three most important words for any Christian to know are “Jesus loves me.” This is probably true. What is more important than God’s love for us demonstrated clearly in Jesus? But, a close second has to be these three words, “come and see.” You do not have to understand why you believe what you believe in order to say, “come and see.” You do not need to be a trained theologian to offer the chance to “come and see.” You do not need to be able to explain the deep questions of life in order to say, “come and see.” All that is required is a desire for others to share what the Lord has done for you. “Come and see;” these are some of the first words spoken by Jesus. They are the very words that inspired the disciples to follow; “Come and see.”

The man caught her in the hall at work. She had seen him before, he cleaned the offices. He was an unshaven tangle of confusion; talking about how he thinks God hates the fornicators; then shifting to how hypocritical church people are; and then, with tears building in his eyes, talking about how he misses his daughter this time every year…the anniversary of the day he messed up and lost her from his custody forever.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if you will find any answers in my church. I’m not sure that I always do, but it wouldn’t hurt to come at least once and see.”

She waited at the church door, but did not see him. As the music started, she took a place at the back of the church, but he did not come. And, as the readings began, and she looked back to the church door one last time.  She did not expect to see him there, but there he was.  She smiled immediately at the sight of his unshaven face. He looked at her, smiled back, and then walked over as she signaled him to sit next to her. He took a seat, and for at least one Sunday, he came and he saw.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on John 1:1-18

“No one has ever seen God.” There it is, right there; John lays it right out for everyone to see. “No one has ever seen God.” This truth is painfully real to those who have lost hope and stare out at night to the stars, seeing only the vast emptiness stretches between the stars. If no one has seen God, how do we even know there is a God? And, even if we knew there was a God, how would we know what God is like? After-all, the Bible itself states that “No one has ever seen God.” All we can see are the things around us, and the vast spans of emptiness in between.

“Is God good?” The man laid his question right out on the table. The man sat in the break room; struggling with the reality of unaffordable medical bills and the imminent loss of his job (his medical condition and his poor job performance were intimately connected). “Why is this happening to me? Is God good, or is God like the one I read about in the Old Testament who punishes harshly? I must have done something wrong. I must be doing something wrong right now!” He put his head in his hands and muttered, “I wish God were more like Jesus. I could deal with a God like that.”

“No one has ever seen God.” I am sorry if past doubts are starting to churn once again as you read, but sometimes the Bible does not allow doubts to remain dormant forever. John, of all the gospel writers, is very concerned about truth, and the only way to see truth is to allow doubt to rise up from the pit where it was asleep so that it may be confronted anew.

That said, I am pretty certain that this doubt is not just me or John bringing up bad memories. Christmas Eve is usually great, but it is always followed by the truth that it was celebrated without a certain someone, or ot was not as festive as we remembered it to be.

Perhaps, doubt does not rear its ugly head this time of year for you. Certainly though, your neighbor is not so lucky as to walk away unscathed. And, you will not be so lucky in the future. Sooner or later, doubt rises from the pit and threatens to overpower us once again. If only it could be slain for good and we would be free from the questions and the stabbing chest pains that come with them! Unfortunately, doubt does not work that way. Doubt is an ever-present companion, asking the hard questions. “Is God there?” “Is God good?”

As a pastor, I have the opportunity to talk with lots of church going people. Not simply those within this congregation, but from everywhere. They seem to be able to seek me out. Rarely, do I even get a peaceful plane ride.  Each time I sit down in my seat I try to decide whether or not to tell the person next to me that I am a dentist. I imagine that no one wants to talk to a dentist. I would not want anyone staring at my teeth. If you are a dentist, let me know if I am wrong. However, everyone wants to talk to the pastor. It seems like every person who rides planes wants to tell the pastor about how God hates adulterers and fornicators and how people like that deserve the punishments they get from God, because pastors will most certainly agree with a kind, fake smile. If you see that smile from a pastor, it means “I would rather be talking with a dentist right now.” These people definitely believe that they have seen the face of God and know for certain what God is about.

But, the god that they know is the same god that the struggling people sitting in the break room fear. This god, the god of unbendable laws, is the reason the people in the break room do not go to church. They are not certain that such a god is good.

John would assure those in the break room that “no one has ever seen God,” especially not those who claim to know what God is up to. And, John would remind those who think that they have seen God that it was Moses who came bearing the unbendable laws. As for God, “no one has ever seen God.” John continues, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made God known.” Only Jesus is close to the Father’s heart. Only Jesus knows what God is up to. Jesus has not seen God, Jesus is God…Emmanuel, God with us.

The law, as understood by the religious, says that adulterers should be stoned to death. But, this is not the heart of God. Of course, God does not like adultery, but, when an adulterous woman is dragged out in the street to be crushed with huge slabs of stone, Jesus runs up to her, faces her accusers and says, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.” The heart of God is one of mercy. The heart of God is the same heart we see in Jesus.

The man in the break room declared, “I wish God were more like Jesus. I could deal with a God like that.” And, the answer to that man is; “God is like that. Whenever you are dealing with Jesus, you are dealing with the heart of God.” When Jesus forgives the sinner, heals the sick, and cares for the poor, God forgives the sinner, heals the sick, and cares for the poor. Jesus shows us exactly what God is about and what God is up to in the world.

I look forward to the day when I sit on the plane and am pleasantly surprised to hear from the person in the seat next to me that God has healed the sick, cared for the poor, and turned the life of an adulterer around. That would be a nice conversation. That would be a conversation that speaks truth about God. No fake smile needed.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

The Shepherds heard a glorious message declared from the Angel above.

I heard a message blaring at me from the television that I better hurry up, the deals are about gone!

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The Shepherds were terrified when they saw the angel who sent them on their way.

I was terrified when I saw the traffic backed up across the bridge extending all the way past the church; why did I even think to come out at 5:00pm?

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The sign to the shepherd was a child wrapped in bands of cloth, lying a manger. Peace surrounding him.

My sign was a backlight monstrosity; the remains of summer moths still plastered on its surface.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The heavenly host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When I saw the long line of people at the checkouts, despairing even before I searched for my wonderful deal, words to Jesus Christ rang out from my lips also.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The shepherds made haste to see Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

I made haste and beat a shrimp of a seven-year-old to my deal.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

"Whose birthday is it anyway?"

“It’s my birthday…I’m a Christmas baby,” the boy shouted.

“Your still to slow,” I shouted back and ran off giggling a triumphant giggle!

All were amazed at the shepherd’s story.

I was amazed how big a bruise a mother’s shopping bag can deliver. Apparently, her children where all getting coal for Christmas.
Whose birthday is it anyway?

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

I’m not even going to mention the mother’s words, she made sailors sound like a children’s choir.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

I returned battered and bruised, with a gift purchased (but not the one I wanted), looked at myself and the people around me, and wondered aloud:

Whose birthday is it anyway?

With all the extravagant gifts bought for other people, I would swear that we had gone wrong somewhere in celebrating this day. It is a birthday alright, but who is getting the gifts?

This year children of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, and members who pitched in also, did indeed buy a birthday gift for baby Jesus. Since Jesus cared about the poor, we bought a milk cow for a poor family somewhere in the world. I love this gift. It is truly a gift to Jesus, in line with the things Jesus cared about. It is a gift full of grace to the poor. We also bought $25 worth of crabs, a nice stocking stuffer…until you reach in the stocking that is. But, my point is, these gifts seem right, and they are. They remember whose birthday it is this night.

Well, yes and no.

The writer of John sees this night, this anticipated birthday a little differently. The one who reminds us this night that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” also reminds us that those people who follow the light, Jesus Christ, became on this night children of God, "born not from the will of man and woman, but born from the will of God." According to John, Jesus Christ (the light of the world), was born on Christmas night, and so were we. It is our birthday also. When Jesus entered into the world as a child of God, "on this night" we did also. Maybe there should be some presents for us too.

The kind and generous bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, St. Nicholas, (yes, the one who shares Santa Claus’ name) seemed to think so anyway. One of the oldest legends about St. Nicholas and his miracles is the one about the stockings. A widowed father had three daughters.  Unfortunately, he had no money and, therefore, no dowry to give them so they may be married. The father despaired at the thought of selling his daughters into slavery, but what else could he do? To save them from being sold into lives of slavery, St. Nicholas threw three bags of gold down their chimney so they may each have a wedding dowry. The bags of gold landed in the three socks hanging there to dry and the girls were thereby saved by the grace of this saint of God. Through the gifts, the father and the girls were reminded that God had not forgotten them. Through the gifts, and through the generosity of the St. Nicholas, the father and daughters knew that God would come to them and save them.

Maybe, the gifts, and the driving, and the angry shoppers are worth it…to a certain degree. The gifts given have always been, and always should be signs that we have a loving God who is willing to come to us and save us. We had simply forgotten this truth about those gifts under our trees. The gifts are a reminder that we have a new life because of Jesus. The gifts are a reminder of the birthday we and Jesus share.

So, go ahead and give your gifts this season without guilt. Give with the generous heart of Saint Nicholas; a generous heart that is given by God. Go ahead and give your gifts as a reminder that it is your loved one’s faith birthday. It is the day we celebrate our new birth as God’s children and the day we celebrate the one who gave us a new birth, Jesus Christ our Lord. Whose birthday is it? It is the Lord’s and it is also ours. Go ahead and celebrate!

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.