Saturday, December 15, 2012

Luke 2:8 - 20 Christmas, Shepherds, and a Few Questions

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from god the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,

The passages from the gospel of Luke we read a few minutes ago invite us to ask a few questions. We’ll find Christian answers for some of them in the next few minutes, starting with a general question.

Since we can’t see God, can we know where he is? Scripture tells us that God is everywhere – in the rocks, in the lakes and the forests, in the crowds at the malls and the crowded Toronto streets. He is in our neighbors and in people on the other side of the world we’ll never meet. We may marvel at the beauty and order of creation, and God is there. We may also conclude that God is present in our consciences. Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong. Everyone has a guiding inner voice that he or she ought to listen to because it is trustworthy.

God is present in all these things, yet we cannot really take hold of him in any one of them. What is God’s nature? Is he on our side? Does he have plans for our lives? To answer these questions, we have the guidance of God’s revelation. God is present with us every day and he is especially present in the Word he sent to us – his Holy Scriptures. That’s where we take hold of him. His message never changes. The Bible is clear and consistent; we can rely on it because it always tells us the truth.

The message we take hold of this afternoon by way of God’s revelation to us is that he is very much on our side. He has a plan for our lives. Her set his angels and the great host of heaven to a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to proclaim peace on earth and good will to all people.

That must have been a wonderful thing to see – greater than a fireworks display or all the Christmas lights in Toronto. The God who is hidden from our everyday sight broke into the world of nature with a tremendous affirmation of his love and his good intentions for humanity.

It happened only once in the last 2000 years and we can’t expect another visible display of God’s power like that until Christ returns in glory.

Now, here’s another question. We understand why God celebrated the birth of his Son in a public way, but why did he choose shepherds to receive the news rather than powerful and influential folk in Jerusalem? The Heavenly Father knew that the shepherds would listen to him. They were the sort of people to whom he could safely communicate the good news.

God often acts contrary to our expectations. We expect him to deal with the highest and mightiest people. Instead, he reveals himself to very ordinary folks. Shepherds followed a very old calling that had many traditions. They worked close to the earth. They needed to find grass and water and to protect their flocks from bad weather and wild animals. Even though the shepherds Luke tells us about lived centuries ago they are the kind of working people you and I can understand, loyal, devoted to their callings, trustworthy. There are millions and millions of people like that in the world and there always will be. Nations and societies rest on them, so to speak. They are the guardians of values. God wants them to know that he speaks directly to them and that they are included in his plan. God offers them an honored place in his kingdom.

Then, too, in Old Testament times, God referred to himself as the shepherd of his flock, and Jesus told his disciples that he himself is the good shepherd. He is our shepherd who guides and cares for us and is bringing us safely into eternity. It’s fitting, then, for our Heavenly Father to announce the arrival of his Son in an unforgettable way to a group of shepherds.

We want to know, as well, why the shepherds were afraid. They weren’t accustomed to seeing great wonders It’s good for us that God is hidden from our sight, for a passage in the Old Testament says that no human can look upon God and live. The presence of God’s angels and the heavenly host made the shepherds aware of their weakness and shortcomings. The angel quickly reassured them, however. This is always the way. Because we can’t see him, the Lord reassures us about his good intentions toward us and toward all people. He calls us to live in faith and confidence, not in fear. His reassurance is no farther away than Sunday worship and the promises we find in the Bible.

We ask also what was the purpose of the shepherds’ visit to Christ and the holy family. Surely there was more involved than idle curiosity. For one thing, the Heavenly Father wanted the shepherds to visit his son for the sake of their own salvations. The angel called the infant Christ Savior and Lord. God wanted the shepherds to receive the benefits Jesus came to bring. He also wanted them to talk, to spread the word, to glorify and praise God. This is part of the life of every Christian. We are talking people. We gossip about God and the gospel. We pass along the good news. If the church as a whole is to experience a revival, it will take place partly because Christians will share the gospel with their neighbors in millions of private conversations.

Our culture celebrates Christmas every year, and every year it is easy to overlook the true reason for the holiday. So we ask another question. What prompted God to come to earth as an infant?
Somebody said many centuries ago that the human race is so deeply corrupted by sin that only the power of God can save us from eternal damnation. We can’t do a thing to help ourselves. At the same time, only another human being can experience life as we do, with all its ups and downs. There is no barrier between ourselves and another human the way there would be between ourselves and a holy and perfectly righteous God. We can easily approach a God who became fully man. What’s more, since God has made us responsible beings, our sins must be paid for. It takes a human being to stand in our place and pay the penalty.

So God set aside his power and majesty and took on our frail human flesh. He became a servant for our sakes. He suffered humiliation and the death of a criminal in our place and then rose again from the grave.
This is the most important reason that God came to earth as a child. Other than that, we also say that God has nothing to do with evil, so by taking on human life, he shows us that life is good It’s good to be an infant, good to be a teenager, a grown-up and so on. Our world needs reminders of God’s love for human life. One of the themes of the culture that surrounds us seems to be disregard for life. Consider the millions who’ve died in wars in the last hundred years, how much abortion there is, and the number of people who are pushed to the sidelines to fend for themselves because they are different from the majority or can’t keep up with the strong and the aggressive.

Jesus affirms that every life is worthwhile and meaningful. The old, the sick, members of minority groups, the disabled, folks who are challenged in one way or another. God loves them all.

Now, let’s look at Christ’s coming in a different way. There are times when trouble marks our lives. We don’t get discouraged, for we know that our Savior walked ahead of us along a bumpy road. His struggles were not in vain. He passed from this life to a glorious new life in eternity that he promises to share with us. God uses our troubles in his mysterious way to bring honor to himself and good to us and to our neighbors. The endurance of Christians, our faith in tough times, gives glory to our Savior. If he hadn’t come to the earth, the bad side of life would overwhelm us and we would be lost in the world. Christ is our light, the one who unfailingly guides us to safety.

We won’t stop here, though, for we have one final question. Is there a connection between us and the shepherds to whom the angel and the heavenly host appeared? We might not think so at first. The shepherds lived 2000 years ago. They had the special privilege of seeing the heavenly host first hand and Jesus as he lay in the manger. We don’t expect such wonderful events to happen to us, at least not on this side of the grave. 
We may be tempted to think that we’ve missed out on something necessary or at least important.

It’s true that God is hidden. He doesn’t come to meet us face to face. He asks us to live with him by faith. The shepherds also lived by faith and not by sight. A week after the wonderful events in Bethlehem, as far as the shepherds were concerned, they were only events in their memories that they could talk about. They didn’t happen a second time. They had no documentary evidence to back up their claims. They trusted, nevertheless, that some of the people they spoke to would respond to the good news with joy and faith, so they offered their witness, out of hearts full of faith, glorifying and praising God.

The Lord brings the shepherds and ourselves together into one eternal community of faith. No one who has experienced the life of faith ever claims that it’s easy. God sends challenges to test and refine us. Some moments will be rockier than others. We expect that.

At the same time, the Lord sends us powerful resources to help us that the shepherds didn’t have. We have the Bible in full, which tells us about the later life of our Lord and the work of his apostles. We have the full story of what God has done for our salvation and also his church, a well-established Christian community that nourishes our faith.

Faith is difficult but not impossible. God uses our worship this afternoon to take us away  from the seasonal push and pull and gives us a chance to focus on what’s most important. Jesus intends our hour together today to build up our faith in the God who is hidden from our sight. An old prayer puts it this way: the Lord gives us a new revelation of his glory in the mystery of the infant Christ, the word made flesh. The writer of the prayer asks that we see God by faith in the person of his Son so that we love things that are not seen –the God who made us and redeems us in Christ plus his blessings to us such as the forgiveness of our sins, his love for us, and our eternal home. We become skilled at trusting what we can’t see.

This is a good place to stop. The Bible and the church assure us that the God we can’t see loves us. He sent his Son to prove it. He makes it possible to us to believe that his love for us won’t end today or tomorrow but will last forever and has the power to carry us into eternity. So in Jesus Name we rejoice. AMEN.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Matthew 3:1 - 12 John the Baptist and God's Fire

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
     We’ll begin with some thoughts about basic teachings of the Bible. All people were born in sin and it is our nature to run from God.  Even so, he didn’t abandon us in our folly, but sent Jesus to live and die for us and to rise again and to make us new people.  He claimed us as his adopted daughters and sons.  He says to us, “You are mine, you are in my family.”  He will love us and bless us.
     As it happens, our preparation for Christmas brings us to reflect on John the Baptist this morning.  He was different from other people of his time and certainly different from folks today.  His example teaches us how worldly and short-sighted our lives can be.  This is one of the messages God wants us to take from John the Baptist.
     A down-to-earth man, he lived close to the soil.  He knew the pattern of the wind and the rhythm of the seasons.  He used word-pictures from everyday life to tell the people what God wanted them to hear – trees, and an axe, a barn, and so on.
     God’s people in those days didn’t analyse   everything as we so often do.  They saw the world as a whole, ruled by God.  They understood what one of the Psalm-writers meant, for example, when he said that rivers clap their hands and hills rejoice.  They believed that the Lord ties everything together into a unity – that life comes from him and is under his direction.  Things that are very different from each other, such as our souls and our bodies, nature and spirit, are all parts of God’s creation and fit together into his plan.
But many of the Israelites strayed from their heritage.  They ran away from God in their hearts and became like the pagans around them.  They were in danger of losing their salvation and needed to reverse direction and return to the Lord who loved them, so the Heavenly Father sent John the Baptist to help them get ready for the Savior who was about to come to them.
     Before they could receive Jesus, though, and appreciate him they needed to hear what God thought of their present spiritual condition.  Using picture language he knew they’d understand, John said that God wanted his people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire.  The fire:  a word picture that the people could easily visualize.  If God’s people don’t turn to him with repentant hearts, sorry for our sins, he will consider us useless and throw us into the fire like rubbish.
     Everyone knows how destructive fire can be – to the wilderness, to homes, to human life.  John is speaking about a more worrisome kind of fire, however, eternal punishment for those who make a lifelong habit of ignoring God and disobeying him.  He forgives; he restores repentant sinners; he forgets.  But he promises to punish impenitence and stiff-necked pride.  Somebody wrote, “to become hell-fodder, a soul must have a pronounced and ineradicable streak of arrogance, a belief that his or her judgment is infallible…anyone who is driven by pride in their own power or skill, their own beauty or genius, or their own unaided intellect is a candidate for eternal damnation – anyone who tries to be like God.”
     Because of our trust in Christ, though, our customary humility before God, and because we accept his forgiveness, you and I don’t worry about the fires of hell.  Heaven is our home and our destination, but Biblical warnings of hell-fire do help to keep us on track. They remind us to trust in God and not our own achievements or the fact that we live in an advanced civilization.  God’s ways are not our ways.  It is wise not to lean on our own understanding, but to rest in him.
     That is not the final word, however.  John used the word “fire” another way, too, that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  John does not mean the fire of condemnation now, but a divine fire that is connected with God.  You may remember that Moses saw God in a burning bush and that when he received the law, God came down to Mt. Sinai in fire, and that a pillar of fire guided the Hebrew people at night as they traveled through the wilderness through the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit came to the apostles at Pentecost as flames that rested on their heads.  Luke wrote in Acts:  “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”  God also uses fire, then, to guide and protect and as sign of his presence for purification and refinement.
     One of the Old Testament prophets, who was distressed at the way God’s chosen people thought and behaved wrote that God had told him two-thirds would be struck down and perish, “yet a third will be left in it,” the Heavenly Father said, “and this third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.”
     The prophet Isaiah wrote that God would cleanse the blood stains from Jerusalem by a spirit of fire.      
Our Father in heaven cleanses every believer.  St. Peter said that we rejoice in temporary trials of all kinds so that our faith, which is worth more than gold that perishes even though refined by fire, may be proved genuine.  The Lord cleanses all his children with a loving fire.  “Yes, I have refined you,” he said in the Book of Isaiah.  “I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  And a faithful man of Old Testament times who suffered greatly said: “the Almighty knows the way that I take. When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”
     In other words, God’s fire drives away our complacency, our worldliness, and our self-satisfaction.  His fire clarifies our souls so that we rejoice in him and not the world and so that we think to turn to him every day with our burdens and our needs and the things we’re happy about. Furthermore, God’s fire also lifts up and inspires.  One of our hymn texts for Pentecost asks God to revive our drooping faith, remove our doubts and fears, and kindle in our hearts the flame of never-dying love.  And Martin Luther asked the Lord to inspire every believing soul with his own pure and holy fire.
     God’s fire, then, that cleanses and purifies also inspires us with love for him and our neighbors and zeal for our faith. God’s fire never rests; it prods and guides and invigorates; it lights our path so that we may always find our way to Jesus by faith.
     Now, returning to the Lord is one of the main themes of the Advent season, when the church helps us get ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” God said in the Old Testament.  “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.”   
     Our sins are not great crimes like those of hard-hearted tyrants; we don’t worship false gods like some of the worldly kings of the Old Testament; we don’t lift ourselves up to challenge God, like the Egyptian Pharaohs who held God’s people in slavery.  Still, things of the world can draw us away from the Lord, cares and amusements can infiltrate our souls.  We may grow sluggish. God’s fire comes to our rescue.  It burns up the chaff that sticks to our thoughts and feelings.  It shines with a more reliable warmth than the beguiling light that glimmers from the world.  God’s chastening and encouraging fire assures us that he is at work on us; it keeps our wills focused on him, for he has promised not to let us go or lose us or give up on us.
     John the Baptist warns us not to let the pride and vanity of earthly life deceive us.  The way to truth and strength is through repentance and faith in Christ.  The divine fire that chastens does not harm.  It is good for us.  We don’t rebel but accept the corrections of God.
     To conclude, then, we’ll say that the wise Heavenly Father gave John the Baptist a role in public life.  The church today carries on John’s mission by putting the Lord’s truth before our neighbors and pointing them to Christ.  Though we may not be aware of the results of our work, a member of our family or a friend may see in us the joy and confidence that come with faith in Christ.  A neighbor may learn something from our refusal to take part in the excesses that lead up to Christmas and follow our example by seeking refreshment through rest in the Lord.  We trust that God’s fire will continue to work on us during these chilly December weeks.  May our families and loved ones find in us the warmth that comes from our contact with the fire of God’s love.  In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus, AMEN.