Friday, December 18, 2015

“Shepherds” - December 20, 2015

Text: Luke 2:8-20

Christmas is now only five days away, and folks are making last minute preparations: shopping, wrapping presents, cooking, baking, mailing cards and packages, getting the house ready for guests.  It’s not usually a part of our pre-Christmas preparations, but my plans include mowing the lawn.  It struck me this week that instead of white snow we still have green grass, but I’ll actually be getting the mower out one last time to mulch up some leaves.

For some people, getting ready for Christmas is a much bigger operation than baking cookies, wrapping gifts and mowing the lawn.  Some will go to great lengths to insure that everything is just right.  If you want things to be perfect, then there is no need to decorate yourself; you can hire professionals to do it for you.  They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit.

Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has 350 franchises nationwide.  It’s a booming business.  To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1500 with no real limit to speak of.  I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 14' Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree, with 20,376 lights, which retails for $13,984.89 (it was not completely clear if this includes set-up and take down.)  Fortunately, their smaller 10’ Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree with Iced Trunk is still in stock for only $5272.50.  Now mind you, this is just one tree that can be used indoors or outdoors and would serve as one part of your beautiful holiday display.

It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find the whole idea very attractive.  These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block.

It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking.  Who has time for baking?  And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen.  Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies.  Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home.  And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping.  Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself.  You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas.

But the fact is, you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas.  There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right.

You know, the first Christmas was not exactly perfect, as we generally measure such things.  God seems to work through the everyday and ordinary more than the spectacular or bright and shiny.

The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus.  The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we have heard the story so many times that we can miss the power and the surprise of what is being said.  In our heads, we can have this “perfect Christmas” overlay on the story that tends to gloss over the more difficult parts of the narrative.

Bethlehem is not decorated for the holidays.  There are no beautiful displays around the city square, no performances of the Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol at the local theatre, no candlelight services planned, no festive holiday cheer to be found.  Instead, we find a city filled with people who do not want to be there but are forced by the Romans, the enemy invaders, to go and register so that they can be on the tax rolls.

We don’t find Mary and Joseph in a beautiful home, or any kind of home.  Despite the fact that Bethlehem is Joseph’s ancestral home, there don’t seem to be any relatives to take them in.    They are not even at the Motel 6.  After a difficult trip, with Mary in the last stages of her pregnancy, they wind up in a stable, a place for animals.  It’s the best they can do.  We don’t find candy and cookies and freshly baked holiday goodies.  There is no turkey and dressing on the dinner table –there isn’t even a dinner table.  We find weary, worn out travelers who are exhausted, hungry, and more than a little scared.

From giving birth in an outbuilding for animals to $14,000 color changing cherry blossom LED trees, Christmas has come a long way, hasn’t it?  Now, there is nothing wrong with out seasonal celebrations, and I enjoy it all, but what really matters is the message and the meaning of Jesus’ birth.  And even here, we can miss out on the depth of what Jesus’ birth means for us because of our familiarity with the story.

The traditions surrounding a birth in Jesus’ day were not all that different from ours.  When someone has a child, we celebrate.  You may see balloons in the front yard and a sign saying, “It’s a Girl!”  At one time new dads handed out cigars at the hospital, though now it is more likely bubble gum cigars.  Photos are shared on Facebook with congratulatory comments.  Family members come to see the new baby.  At church, there is a rose to announce the birth, as we have been doing regularly this fall.

But if a child is born to a famous person, things are a little different.  It makes the national news, at least Entertainment Tonight, and we read about it in People magazine.  If the birth is to royalty, it is a major news story.

In Jesus’ day, an important part of the celebration was music.  Local musicians would come and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing the birth and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a child to a person of power and wealth would be announced with great fanfare and singing.  If the child were a royal heir, there would be a huge celebration with wonderful music.

A choir rehearses.  Made up of wonderful singers, the very best singers around, the director works them hard.  (You know how those directors can be.)  The choir spends hours practicing so that everything is just right.  The music is powerful and incredibly beautiful.  Finally it is time for the big performance.

The choir has worked so hard and the music is so amazingly beautiful – angelic, you might even say – the choir members cannot believe that there will be only one performance.  This was the kind of music that deserved a tour at the finest venues around.  Crowds would love it.

But the director is adamant.  There will be only one performance.  It will not be at Carnegie Hall or an opera hall in Vienna.  It won’t even be at Stevens Auditorium.  There will be no network TV special, not even on PBS.  No, there will be one performance and one performance only, and it will be to a very small audience.  It is a free concert to some hard-living guys watching sheep out in a field.  That’s it.

Music at Jesus’ birth is entirely in keeping with the customs of the day.  What is amazing is that the audience for this beautiful, celebratory music, is some sheep herders.

Of all the people to whom the angels could have made the announcement, it is to shepherds.  Not to dignitaries, not to religious leaders, not to Roman officials, not to the upper crust of Jewish society, but to shepherds.  This sounds odd enough.

What we may not necessarily grasp is just how far down shepherds were on the social ladder.  For us, raising sheep sounds respectable enough, if that is what a person wants to do.  Ranching can be an honorable and profitable business.  But in Jesus’ day, shepherds were on the bottom rung of society, looked down upon because among other things, they were ritually and religiously unclean.  Besides being just unclean, period.  They were dirty and smelly, rough people, poorly educated.

Because of where and how they worked as well as their ceremonial uncleanness, shepherds mostly kept to themselves.  Because they had so much time alone, out in the middle of nowhere, many played a flute or some other instrument.  It helped to pass the time.  You may remember that King David as a boy was a shepherd, and a skilled musician.

Shepherding could be a lonely job, and shepherds did not tend to do a lot of socializing.  If you wanted to tell a group of people who might then go out and spread the word of this amazing birth, shepherds were about the least likely folks you could find.

And so - why do you suppose the angels sang to the shepherds?  It all has a kind of “pearls before swine” quality to it.  Why was this beautiful music announcing the birth of Christ sung to some shepherds out in the field?  I mean, this is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsing all year to perform Handel’s Messiah, and then performing the concert for a few guys on the building maintenance crew.

I suspect that the reason the angels sang to the shepherds is connected to everything else in the Christmas story.  An occupied country like Judea.  An insignificant town that had seen better days, like Bethlehem.  A poor, unmarried couple.  No room in the inn.  A stable.  Giving birth far from home and family.  Nothing in the whole story says wealth or privilege or power.  Nothing would seem to indicate lofty expectations.

Everything about the birth of Jesus says that this is a birth for all of us.  God’s love does not discriminate among people.  Kings and queens, shepherds and steelworkers, this child is for all of us.

The announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to the shepherds.  And that is Good News for us, because there is a sense in which we are all shepherds.  None of us are perfect.  We all can feel inadequate.  There are those times when all of us, because of our background or experience or age or occupation or because of what we believe or where we come from, can feel like we really don’t fit in.

We may feel like we are nothing special, just regular folks trying to get through life and not necessarily having an easy time of it.  We may feel like other people get the accolades, get all the breaks.  We may feel like the things that really matter go to the rich or glamorous or uber-gifted.

This may be the way that the world works, but this is not the way it works with God.  God is completely unconcerned by such things.  None of us would have written the script this way, but the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds.  This child is indeed for us – for all of us.

A pastor in Indianapolis named Kurt shared something that happened just this week.  Kurt had a Louisville Slugger baseball bat that had belonged to his brother, Scott.  His brother had been gone for 38 years.  In a moment of clarity, or so he thought, Kurt decided to take the bat to Goodwill.  He said to himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

He met a guy named Rudy at the Donations door.  After handing him the stuff he was donating he headed back home.  But in the parking lot, he heard the bat rolling around in the trunk.  He had apparently overlooked the bat.  So he turned around and approached the Donations entrance again.

“I forgot something,” he called out to Rudy.  He handed him the bat. “Tell me, what’s the story behind this old bat,” he asked unprompted.  “Well, this bat belonged to my brother, who passed away at the age of fourteen.  Make sure it gets into the hands of a child, OK?” “Will do,” he said.

Driving away, Kurt said to his son in the car, “That was nice of him to ask about the bat.  He didn’t have to do that.” Kurt thought about the bat, but told himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

Kurt returned to Goodwill later that evening to deliver more of the things he was trying to shed from the past; dishes, books, clothes, various nondescript stuff.  Upon pulling up to the Donations door, he was met by Rudy, who came to the door and called out... “Hey, here he is, he came back just like you said he would.”  Bewildered, Kurt saw someone slowly approach.

“Hey man, I’m Grant.  Listen, I can’t take that bat.  It’s no good here.  You have to take it back.” Somewhat annoyed, Kurt replied, “Oh, OK. That’s fine.”

“Listen,” he said, “I lost my sister to addiction and depression a year ago.  She left me a pair of her flip flops, and the only person who’s allowed to wear them is my daughter.  Your brother wants you to keep that bat safe.”  Kurt said he was stunned into silence which, for him is pretty unusual.

With eyes full of tears, Grant placed the bat into Kurt’s hands with tenderness, as if handing him a newborn baby. “Here he is. You keep it.”  Kurt turned to Grant. “Wait a second, Grant,” he said.  “I want to thank you for the gift you have given me tonight.  Thank you for forcing me to remember.  Really.  I appreciate it.”

The shepherds in the Christmas story might not seem like the main characters, but they are actually at the heart of what Christmas is about.  They are a reminder to us that God works through the most unlikely of people and places and things.  Rudy and Grant, working down at the Goodwill store.  A Louisville Slugger bat that was returned and is a symbol and reminder of love and grace and memory and hope.  A young, unmarried couple.  Rough shepherds abiding in the field.  A stable and an animal feed trough.  A child born in Bethlehem.  And yes, even you an me and an imperfect bunch like the First Baptist Church.

One of the names for Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.  The birth of Jesus is announced by angels to shepherds.  And as is the case all through the Christmas story, this is yet another reminder that God is indeed with us – with all of us, in all of the messiness of life.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

“Angels” - December 6, 2015

Text: Luke 1: 5-13, 18-20; 26-38

Throughout the fall, we have been reading some of the key, formative stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and if you were paying attention this morning, you may have noticed that we have finally made it to the New Testament.

As we come to the New Testament, it is very helpful to have some familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures, because for the early church, for those who wrote the New Testament, the Hebrew scriptures were their entire Bible.  The Old Testament is the Bible of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Peter and John and Paul.  And as we read the New Testament, there are all kinds of quotes and references and allusions to people and events that took place in the Old Testament.  You can’t really understand the New Testament without some familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures.

The prophets spoke of a coming messiah.  Isaiah spoke of the one who would come as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and the church has seen in Jesus the fulfillment of that prophecy. 

As we look ahead to Christ’s birth, we will be taking a look at two groups of characters that we find in the Christmas story.  In a Christmas pageant, at the bare minimum you’ve got Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.  (Now I will say that since we now two new babies in the church and one more due before Christmas, I think we should do a little re-write on the script and have Mary give birth to triplets.  Nobody else seems to like that idea, but I do think it is worth considering.) 

Anyway, traditionally there are Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.  You’ve got some sheep and possibly other animals around the manger.  You’ve got the Wise Men who show up after Jesus is born, but right around the time of birth, there are two important groups of characters.  There are angels and there are shepherds.  We will be thinking together about shepherds in a couple of weeks; this morning we are going to think about the angels.

As I was contemplating angels this week, I thought about going to Evansville White Sox games when I was 7 or 8 years old.  The White Sox were a minor league team of the Chicago White Sox.  I remember my friend Monty and I bringing our gloves to the game, hoping to catch a foul ball.   I remember eating salted in the shell peanuts, only Monty and I would sometimes eat them shell and all because they were so salty and good.  And I can remember exactly one player: Angel Bravo.  He went on to have a journeyman kind of career in the big leagues, but he had that awesome name.  Angel Bravo.  He seemed to epitomize what angels were supposed to be: a kind of larger than life hero.

Our thinking about angels is influenced by popular culture – or maybe popular culture reflects what we think about angels.  There was Charlie’s Angels, that 70’s TV cop show with Farrah Fawcett.  Angels in the Outfield, a movie in which angels are sent to fulfill the wish of a child that required getting the California Angels to win the pennant.  This was followed up by Angels in the End Zone and Angels in the Infield and no, I didn’t see any of these movies.  Of course, there is A Wonderful Life with Clarence the Angel and the line “Every time a bells rings, an angels gets its wings.”  You’ve also got the movie “Michael” in which John Travolta plays a chain-smoking angel.

There are TV shows: Touched By An Angel, where three angels have been dispatched from heaven to help people facing crossroads in their lives, and Highway to Heaven with Michael Landon, where a probationary angel teams up with a cop to help people.  And I just saw an ad this week for a new TV show called Angel from Hell with Jane Lynch playing a really messed up guardian angel.  

And then there is popular music.  Pretty Little Angel Eyes, Earth Angel, Angel of the Morning, 7 Spanish Angels by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, Angel of Harlem, Angel from Montgomery, on and on.  From popular culture, we might think that angels are beautiful women, brilliant but troubled souls who died too young, social workers on heavenly steroids, or heavenly beings with their own insecurities and issues trying to redeem themselves by helping others. 

When the Bible speaks of angels, however, the picture is very different.  Out of curiosity, I did a search and the word “angel” appears in scripture over 300 times, spread over the Old New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha, writings between the time period of the Old Testament and New Testament.

Angels would go ahead of and behind the camp of the Israelites as they made their way through the wilderness.  An angel would often go ahead of the Israelite army into battle.  In the Old Testament in particular, when angels showed up it was more often than not bad news.  Angels told Lot to high-tail it out of Sodom because God was going to destroy the city, and Lot and his family just made it out alive.  The angels warned them not to, but Lot’s wife looked back at the city anyway and turned into a pillar of salt.

When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to go, God sent plagues on Egypt, the worst of which was the death of Egyptian first-born brought about by a destroying angel.  The angel passed over Israelite households, and this is where Passover comes from.   

In 2 Kings chapter 19 we read, “the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.”  The prophet Isaiah makes reference to this same incident.

I could go on.  In scripture, angels bring messages and act on behalf of God.  And often it is really, really scary.  With that background, we come to the Christmas story.  Angels show up and they say, “Fear not.”  They keep saying it.  “Do not be afraid.”  There was a reason they keep saying this.  Seeing an angel was a reason to be very afraid.

In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream on two occasions.  The first time, Joseph has learned that Mary is with child and has decided to divorce her quietly, which would actually be a merciful thing to do.  But an angel tells him in a dream that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

And then after Jesus is born, an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee with his family to Egypt because Herod wants to kill the child.  Because of an angel’s warning, Jesus becomes a refugee.

Our scripture this morning includes two readings from the Gospel of Luke.  They mark the beginning of the Christmas story.  Zechariah is a priest, married to a woman named Elizabeth.  They are advanced in years.  They have led a good and righteous life but they have no children, which in that culture was an embarrassment, if not a disgrace.  When Zechariah is chosen to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him.  Zechariah is terrified.  He knows very well what the appearance of an angel can mean. 

But it is good news!  God has heard their prayers, and Elizabeth will have a son.  This is so unbelievable that Zechariah has doubts about it.  Because he doubted Gabriel’s word, Zechariah is made mute, unable to speak until the child is born.  The boy is named John.  He is known to us as John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus.

A few months later, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.  Right away, he tries to assure her that this visit is not a reason for fear or panic.  “Greetings, favored one.  The Lord is with you.”  Mary seems confused and troubled by this, and he continues, “Do not be afraid.”  Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.  The announcement that he has for Mary is that she will bear a Son and name him Jesus.  He shall be Son of the Most High.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.

This is pretty heady stuff, not the sort of thing Mary heard just every day.  Angels generally appeared and brought messages from God at the most crucial moments.  When an angel appeared, it was deadly serious.  But these were not message about death; these were messages of life.  Good news.  Great news.  Amazing news.

There is another appearance of angels in the Christmas story.  In Luke chapter 2, angels appear to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus.  “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Again, the shepherds know enough to be terrified by angels, but they are told not to be afraid and given good news.

Angels have fingerprints all over the Christmas story, but we usually focus more on their message and on the people to whom they speak than we do the angels themselves.  Part of this is because we are not entirely sure what to make of angels.  With the mystery and the mythology surrounding angels - some in the Bible and a great deal of it not in the Bible – as well as all of the pop culture fascination and ideas about angels, we may not know what to think about them.

The Bible actually has different things in mind when it speaks of angels.  Revelation speaks of seven churches and an angel of each church, which represent the spirit of the church.  There are angels surrounding the throne of God.  The book of Revelation is filled with apocalyptic imagery involving angels, which may fall under the more symbolic category, as John is watching a great spiritual drama unfold. 

People in the Bible were not always sure that what they were dealing with was an angel.  Jacob wrestled with a man, and in the end it is unclear if this was really an angel or the Lord.  Three men visit Abraham and turn out to be angels.  There is a humorous incident in which Balaam’s donkey recognizes an angel while Balaam himself does not.  And then in Hebrews we are told to extend hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, many have entertained angels unaware.

So here is the deal.  I’m not completely sure what I believe about angels today, but then the whole point of angels is not to point to themselves anyway.  The bigger issue is that God has ways of getting our attention.  God has ways of accomplishing God’s purposes.  There are spiritual forces at work in this world, and God is still in the business of speaking to us.

Angels are messengers from God.  And maybe the question for us today is: are we open to hear what God has to say?  Are we open to receiving God’s message?  And are we open to those messengers God may send our way?

In the Bible, people are almost always surprised or caught off guard when angels show up, and I suspect it is that way for us – when God speaks to us, we are not necessarily expecting it.

How does this work?  Who are the angels, the messengers, that speak to us today?  God’s message may come to us in all kinds of ways.  Through help provided by a stranger, through something we read, through a song, maybe through a dream, through a friend who speaks truth to us, maybe with a sudden realization that hits us like a ton of bricks of what it is God has been trying to say to us. 

The great preacher Fred Craddock told a story that happened when he was a young preacher in a small town in Tennessee.  There was a little girl who attended church faithfully.  Her parents sent her to church but never came with her.  They would pull in the church’s circle drive, drop her off, and go out for Sunday breakfast.  The father was an executive for a big chemical company, very ambitious, upwardly mobile.

The whole town knew about their Saturday night parties, given not so much for entertainment or out of friendship, but as a part of his career advancement program.  The whole town knew about the wild things that went on at those parties.  But every Sunday morning, there was the little girl.

One Sunday Craddock looked out at his congregation and there she was.  He thought, “There she is with a couple of adult friends.”  Later, he realized that it was mom and dad sitting with her.  When the invitation was given at the end of the service, mom and dad came down front to join the church.

After the service, Craddock, the young pastor, asked them what had prompted this.  “Do you know about our parties?,” they asked.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of your parties.”

“Well, we had one last night.  It got a bit loud, kind of rough, lots of drinking.  It woke up our daughter, who was asleep upstairs.  She came down the stairs and was on about the third step.  And she saw the eating and drinking and said, “Oh, can I have the blessing?  “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.  Goodnight, everybody.”  And she went back up the stairs.

Things quieted down quickly.  People began to say, “It’s getting late, we really need to be going, thanks for a great evening,” and within two minutes the whole place was empty.

Mom and dad started to pick up the crumpled napkins and half-eaten sandwiches and spilled peanuts, and then they looked at each other.  And he said what they both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?”

God had spoken to them.  It wasn’t the angel Gabriel who delivered the message.  It was their little girl.

You can say what you want, but it seems to me that they were touched by an angel.  And if we pay attention, we may be too.  Amen.