Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Reflection on Matthew 1:18-25

Sometimes it is confounding how God manages to make good things take place.

If you were in charge of creating the conditions which would bring about the birthing the savior of the whole world, how would you do it?

Would it be done with high amounts of honor, celebration, and religious piety? A parade maybe would seem fitting.

Would it resemble a respectable, quiet, and orderly Christmas Eve Candlelight celebration? Songs of praise would seem about right.

I only ask, because the reality of the birth seems to be so…not that. Instead it is messy and full of what resembles family dysfunction of the lowest order. I am not even talking about the messy stable here. What I am talking about is the situation in which Joseph, and by extension, Mary, is put.

Let us take a moment to envision the unfolding of the Christmas events from Joseph’s perspective.

Joseph’s world is rocked from a presumed life of peace, stability, and excitement about his future marriage when he finds out that his soon-to-be wife is pregnant.

I can imagine the sleepless nights of tossing and turning as he tries to figure out why his fiancĂ© would do such a thing to him. Staring at the ceiling, he goes back and forth between self-loathing, trying to figure out what he did wrong to push her away into another man’s arms, and anger at how she could have stepped out on him. They had not even slept together yet!

Tossing on his side and staring out the window, he struggles to figure out what to do. He still loves her, so the very thought of throwing her out into the town square to face execution by a barrage of stones and torturous ridicule turns his stomach.

He is not that kind of man. Mercy is more in his character.

Just swallowing the pain, Joseph decides to just allow everything to go away quietly, including the one he loves.

You see what I mean? Life is most likely not turning out like Joseph expected it may.

All he wanted in life, all any on us want in life, is a life of peace, joy, and love. A normal life of work and kids and laughter is not too much to ask for is it? But, as someone who lives an actual life, Joseph find out that the answer is “yes,” yes it is too much to ask.

Life is messier in reality. Why should the birth of the savior be any different?

The birth of Jesus is messy. It is full of drama (the bad kind of drama) and full of heart ache. But, the story does not end in heart ache. God is somehow able to turn the story around from something messy, and redeem it into something beautiful with a small child in which the world will put its hope.

Sometimes messiness is the way God manages to make good things take place.

This business of messy lives sounds a little too familiar does it not?

I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me at the end of the year and proclaimed that they are ready to have this year pass away into oblivion. Death, family struggles, employment struggles, health struggles, political squabbles, friendships strained, and relationships ended or still clinging on in struggle; no matter the reality, most people are ready for the ball to drop and for a new year to turn over.

But, here is a sobering thought. Most of us could not wait for the previous year to pass into oblivion. We know the truth: life in the new year will look a lot like regular life. It will have its own struggles. It will have its own drama. Life is not easy. That never changes.

So, maybe that is why I like this Christmas story so much. It does not point to a perfect story in a perfect fairy-tale land. Instead, the story is real. And, if God can redeem this story, maybe God can redeem our story also.

In the night, by the means of a dream, an angel comes to redeem Joseph’s heartbreaking story. An angel of the Lord puts the whole matter into perspective for Joseph, and allows him to see the situation in a whole new light.

From the angel Joseph learns had not been betrayed. His relationship with Mary is much more secure than he ever imagined. She is with child by the Holy Spirit, and the child will save the world from its sin. He will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God is with us.

God is with us. Is that not the truth that we tend to forget when life fails to go the way we expect? We forget that even though life is not as peaceful and secure as we would like, God is with us. God can take even our messy lives and transform them into something beautiful and redeeming.

We are not alone in it all. God is with us.

Even when life brings you to a horrible, undeserved death on a cross, this event too can be redeemed by God. God is with us. On the third day, that death can be transformed into a reality of new life and new possibilities. Does it all seem a little messy? Of course, but, that is life! Life is messy.

That makes no difference what-so-ever because it is through the messiness itself that God manages to make good things take place.

In the end of the story, Joseph wakes up from his dream and lives his life in a new way. In reality, nothing has changed. His wife is still pregnant from a source other than himself, the people around him may still look with side-ways glances and disgrace in their thoughts, and he did not ask for any of this! Nothing in reality has changed.

So, what is different? What allows Joseph to get up, take Mary as his wife, and name the baby Jesus, raising him as his own? What has changed?

One thing has changed. More to the point, one person has changed. Joseph has changed. Joseph has been reminded of a powerful truth, God is with us. And, when God is with us, even what appears to be a horrible situation can be transformed into something beautiful.

I pray this day that you also remember that God is with you.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Reflection on Matthew 11:2-11

When you look at the three kings making their way to the Christ child, crowns of gold and gems on their heads and rich gifts in their hands, it is easy to assume that their lives are full and rich.

Following a divine star to their destination, it is easy to assume that the kings are special, with a divine appointment for this royal task of delivering gifts to the savior of the world.

But, if you would take the time to look closely, underneath the distracting shine of the crowns, you would see a different truth. If you looked closely at their faces, you would see the dark circles under their eyes and the struggles of life in the creases of their wrinkled foreheads.

You see, the moment the first king was summoned by the star to travel to Bethlehem, he was sitting all alone in his castle. The light of the star fell upon him as he sat eating alone.

Most days he ate alone, slept alone, and kept his own company. Even his kingdom rarely appealed to him for guidance. He was a lonely king, surrounded by the cold company of his gold.

As he gathered his things to travel to the newborn king, he took some of the gold as a gift in one hand, and carried his loneliness in the other.

Miles away from the first king was the second king who also held a secret underneath the gleaming riches of his crown. The secret had something to do with that crown that shined upon his head. For, when the star shown on him, directing him to travel to see the newborn king, his brow furrowed in worry about the cost of such an expedition.

You see, the truth was that the king had almost no riches, aside from that gilded crown on his head. He was as poor as his people, but he was expected to represent the nation as a rich and powerful leader. How many times had he given up his own dinner completely in order to impress a royal guest?

Giving up the valuable frankincense that was once gifted to him, and giving it to the newborn king was both an honor and a terrible sacrifice.

Still, many miles further was the third king. His kingdom flourished, and he was beloved by his people. All was well. Except that when the star shown on him to lead him to the Christ child, he did not see it. He did not see anything for that matter. He was blind. It was a servant who told the blind king that the star had appeared and summoned him.

How long had it been since the king had seen the faces of his family? How long had it been since he could see his brothers? “Too many years to count,” the king thought to himself. He did not even know where his family was any longer.

Grabbing some myrrh as a gift for the newborn king, and with help from an assistant, he mounted his camel with sadness in his heart and blindness in his eyes.

Now that you know the truth. Now you know not to be distracted by the crowns of gold and gems on the king's heads, and rich gifts in their hands as they arrive and make their way through the door to honor the new king.

The first king bows bearing a gift of gold and loneliness. The second king arrives next to the first, bowing and bearing a gift of frankincense and the worries of someone who is poor. The third king is helped to his position by the servant, and he bears the gift out into the open air ahead, his blindness no secret to anyone in the room.

The child king coos at the sight, and is briefly distracted by the gleam of the gems on the walls. But, soon the child toddles over to the first king, pushes the gold aside and gives the lonely man a hug. It is his first hug in years. The king’s heart melts, and for the first time in years the kings feels a strange and beautiful sense of joy, and belonging.

Soon, the child takes the bag of gold, pulls and scoots the bag the short distance to the second king and says, “You take, you take.”

The other two kings assume it is the crazy antics of a small child, but the second king knows better. It is a gift for him. The child knows him.

The child takes the frankincense and sets it next to the bag of gold. “Yours,” he giggles. Then the child’s smile fades as he looks straight into the king’s eyes and says “For you.” Never had the king been given such a gift.

Wandering off toward the third of his kingly visitors, the child relieves the king’s tiring arms of the dangling myrrh and pushes it toward the second king.

The third king soon feels the Christ child playing with his face; first his lips, then his cheeks, then his nose, and finally the child playfully, and gently, tugs at his eye lids.

Opening one eye lid, the child whispers, “peekaboo,” and the blind king sees the child’s lips say the words.

The king sees the child’s lips!

The king can see!

For the first time in years, the king can see!

They had each traveled to bear gifts to the child king, but what they had never expected was that they would be the ones to receive a gift. And, they certainly had never expected the last gift the child had in store.

The small child whispered to the once blind man, “Brothers” and pointed to the other two kings. The now seeing king focused his new eyes on the other two men, searching beyond the gleam of their crowns and beyond their dark circled eyes and wrinkles.

Seeing clearly, he recognized two faces that he remembered from his youth.

The child’s last gift was the gift of his brothers.

The Christ Child had brought them all together once again. And, as they rejoiced, the star above their heads shone brighter and gave light to the world.

This story is most rightly considered a legend of course.

Anyone who has studied their bibles knows that the men who visited the Christ child were not kings, but were magi, or men of wisdom. They were probably astrologers.

They also would note that the bible does not say how many of them visited. There may have been three, there may have been fifty three.

The bible certainly does not say anything about any ailments each one had, nor does it report of any healing that occurred because of the Christ child. As I said, the story is best considered a legend.

But, that does not mean there is no truth in the story.

Just as John the Baptist once asked if Jesus was the Messiah, or if he should wait for another, the answer given John the Baptist is the same one given in the legend: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Wherever the blind (whether physically or spiritually blind) are given sight, Jesus is there.

Wherever people who have been limited either physically or psychologically from connecting with others are finally healed and restored to community, Jesus is there.

Wherever the poor are made whole and made to feel equal with all others, Jesus is there.

The story you just heard may be a legend, but it is full of the truth of Jesus. It tells the truth, that we do not bear gifts to Jesus, rather Jesus is our gift and Jesus is the one graces us with gifts.

And, if you ever desired to share in the work of Jesus’ kingdom, to follow in his path, your work might look something like teaching someone a trade (the blind see), supporting the recovery of amputee soldier (the lame will walk), opening the heart of someone who is closed off by hate, (the deaf hear), sitting with those who have lost everything (the dead are raised), and giving a job to a single mom (the poor have good news brought to them).

All of those things are signs of the kingdom of God. And, in all those things and more, Jesus is there.

Jesus is there.

Reflection on Matthew 3:1-12

“In the wilderness.” The words might have been easily overlooked in order to get into the meat of the story with ideas of repentance and images of baptism by fire and threshing floors. But, those three words, “in the wilderness,” have the ability to tell the whole story.

As a scenic designer for the theatre, I realize that setting can shape everything. If the play is intimate, you want to design small little nooks and crannies in the scenery where people can be close to each other and attention focused.

If the play is whimsical, you want to use exaggerated roof lines and use extremely sized props like a book twice as big as it should be.

Though people rarely think about the nature of the scenery in the play and how it contributes to the plot (other than to marvel if it is particularly beautiful), it still can make or break show by focusing the audience appropriately.

But, you do not need to be trained as a scenic designer to understand this concept. Most people already understand it quite naturally.

When you want to pop the big question, “Will you marry me?” you carefully consider the setting. Perhaps, you choose an intimate setting, a restaurant maybe, with low light, candles, and high backed booths so as to provide privacy and space for quiet and personal conversation.

When you want to get away from it all, you may choose a cabin out in the woods, or…better yet…next to a lake on which it is impossible for other people to stand and bother you. Unless, of course, it is Jesus bothering you. Standing on lakes do not seem to faze the savior.

So, if you wanted to choose a setting for repentance, where would you choose?

It probably would help if you knew exactly what repentance was first.

Repentance, contrary to popular notions, is not the state of emotion where we simply feel sorry all the time. No need for depressing dark basements on our stage. Though feeling sorry can definitely be a part of repentance, the true meaning of repentance is “to turn around,” or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction.

As Ron Allen, Professor of Preaching and New Testament
Christian Theological Seminary Indianapolis, Indiana puts it in his workingpreacher.org commentary: "To repent is to turn away from the values and practices of the old age (e.g., idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery, and scarcity)" and to turn towards the values and practices of the Realm of God "which seek to increase love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom, and abundance."

So, back to setting, if you wanted to choose a setting for repentance…for leaving old values behind, and turning toward new ones, which one would you choose?

That is where the wilderness comes in. Picture a barren flat plain where only locusts and bees make an appearance every-so-often. Imagine a place devoid of human civilization and innovation. Imagine a place that lacks all of your old ways of life, and only holds space…vast amounts of space for something new.

Spring flowers are nice in any setting, but they are particularly striking on a barren flat plain in the wilderness. They are like a dream that materialize into reality where, before, there seemed to be dust and no possibilities.

Only in the wilderness, barren of all distractions, do the best dreams spring up. Dreams and hopes that look a lot like a wolf living peacefully with a lamb.

Such an image in the real world seems absurd with all of the world’s complexities, but in the wilderness, where we can strip away realness for a few moments, it gives us hope and provides the space for new ideas on how to achieve the peace found within the image.

The same is true for the other images in Isaiah 11 where, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.”

Only in the wilderness, stripped of the old ways of life, can we even start to dream such dreams and scheme new ways to make a world of love, peace, and justice a reality.

So, what are we waiting for? Give yourself the gift of taking a moment right now to walk toward the wilderness.

As you walk toward the barren plain, dust swirling just mere feet ahead of you, you realize that most of the weight you have been carrying around has no use in the wilderness. Just as you have no use for kitchen sinks in the wilderness, you too have no use for the other things that have been weighing you down in life.

What has been weighing you down the past few weeks?

What has been taking control of your thoughts and feelings?

What has been causing anxiety and influencing all that you do and say?

Allow Christ to slip those things off of your shoulders as you step into the wilderness.

Take a moment to breathe a deep breath. Breath the same fresh air to which John the Baptist was drawn as he wandered out into the barren space.

Feeling refreshed, feeling the weight of the past dropped from your shoulders, allow yourself a moment to consider the dreams God has allowed you to dream.

After-all, the world does not have to be the way it is. It does not have to have hate. It does not have to have conflict. It does not have to have insensitivity. It does not have to have addictions. It does not have to have any of the stuff that weighs us down.

Just take a moment and allow yourself to image that the world does not have to be this way.

What sort of vision has God given you for a new world?

What sort of vision has God given you for your life and the life of your neighbor?

What is the dream God has given you?

Like the flowers growing in the wilderness, those dreams are possibilities that God can bring into reality. Wait for them to grow. Wait for the Lord to move. Wait for the Lord, and, join in when the Jesus does move. Follow in the path that Jesus creates, and be God’s dream.

Do not just dream God’s dream for the world, be God’s dream for the world.

And, with an actual step taken in a new direction in life; that, my friends, is repentance.

Repentance is not a one and done deal either. It is a way of life. It is a way of faith. It is wandering into the wilderness daily, allowing Christ to put the old to death, and then allowing Christ to raise us up again in the new.

It is the clearing of the weeds and trash from our threshing floors and burning it up so that we only have rich grain left.

Repentance and new life is the way that Jesus provides for us to be the kingdom of God. And, it all starts with a trip into the wilderness.