Monday, December 30, 2013

A Touchy Subject

Healings, and all the permutations of this very real miracle,  are a touchy subject in Christian circles.  I think we make two crucial mistakes with the subject of healing. The first mistake is to believe we are the ones in control of healing.  God sent the plagues on Egypt to correspond to the Egyptian gods of nature and carved images of frogs and insects.  God is saying, "You can choose to worship any of these things but they are not real and I am the God over all things." It has been a human desire for millenia to have control over God.  Sacrifices to Baal were made to seek Baal's favor.  Throughout history, in mythology and even in prayer we sometimes try to bargain our way to God's favor.  Have you ever prayed the "if then" prayer?  "God, if you get me outta this situation then I will do something for you?"  You get the point ... we sometimes forget that God is God and we treat Him like some kind of holy vending machine in which we insert our wish list and God delivers.  This manipulative attitude is the source of one distortion of the Gospel known as "The Prosperity Gospel."  I have seen many people pulled down into the dangerous idea that God somehow wants us to magically be in the lap of luxury.  It seems to me the greatest movements of God in the world today are not happening in places of affluence (this should be a red flag to us as we see the prosperity gospel preached).  They are happening in places where people are willing to stop and listen to God.  And if we look at the New Testament witness, we do not find many people in plush houses, palaces or the high-rent district.  We find people in the midst of struggles and persecution.  This continues into the early church and the church grows in influence during this time of persecution.  I am sure lots of those people prayed for delivery from their persecution, but somehow God knew that when faith is strong, we can praise Him best in the storms of life.

The second mistake we make is to think that Scriptural healing and miraculous healing is somehow not real.  We explain away the mysteries of Scripture.  We say that healings only happened when Jesus was here and that they somehow have stopped in the modern age.  Why, then, does Jesus tell his disciples "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father (John 14:12)?"  Jesus has left us the Holy Spirit to teach. lead, comfort, convict and to heal us.  If Jesus has told us there are greater things to come, what right do we have to deny His words?

Our message, blogs and reflections (you can access them through the website ) will be on the subject of how God heals us.  It is interesting that He begins this process by reminding us what He wold Moses in Exodus ... "I am the God who exists."  That will be our lesson on the 1st Sunday in January.  I hope you will be there and we can share!  Randy

Monday, December 23, 2013

We Made It

We made it!  We have negotiated two trips with Mary (Ein Karem and Bethlehem) and have walked the roads of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.  We have seen the sights, including the altars built by the Patriarchs.  And we have arrived in Bethlehem, to what was probably a cave for livestock in the back of Joseph's old homeplace.  Here we see a familiar scene.  There are animals.  It would look and smell like a barn in our world.  Sheep, goats and a cow or two might be munching hay.  The light would be from lamps or candles.  I'll bet Mary is reflecting on the sacrifice and inconvenience of obedience as she surveys the place where she will likely have her child ... Jesus.  We made it ... but IT is just a beginning.

In the business of the holiday I think we all breathe a sigh of relief on Christmas Eve.  Whether we are ready or not, Christmas Day is at hand.  Whether we have done everything we wanted to do or got every gift we desired, Christmas is (as the Grinch said) "practically here!"  We are planning the events of the day and I hope your plans include a time to go by your church and kneel in both thanks and remembrance at the altar.  We will be able to do this from 5-7 pm and even have a special candlelight service at 7:05pm in the Sanctuary at Abbeville United Methodist.  It will be a special time to celebrate with music and a short message the meaning of this day.  Yes, Christmas is practically here.

But let's not forget a very important thing.  Jesus is God's gift that keeps on giving from His birth to this very day.  Jesus will give us guidance through this dark world as He speaks God's Word into the world.  The Word did truly become flesh and dwell among us.  He will inspire four Gospels which lead us every day.  He will tell us hard truths about loving our enemies and how our first priority in all we do is to love God and people.  He will plant the Church in the midst of an occupied nation in an obscure part of the world and that Church will cover the entire globe.  He will, by His death, resurrection and ascension, do one more thing.  He (as He tells us in the last few chapters of John) leaves us one very special gift ... His Spirit.  He doesn't just walk among us and leave ... God lives in the hearts of people.  He is truly "God with us."

Sunday, you might have seen His Spirit as our praise team battled sickness and sang their hearts out because God's Spirit was there.  You might have seen the smiles and joy on the face of our choir at the second service as they sang past the franticness of the season to tell us God's message in song.  I was sustained by that Spirit as I shared the message of life, death and resurrection with two families this week, sending their loved one into the hands of a good and perfect God.  And on Christmas Eve, here in this little Sanctuary, we will count on God's Spirit to lead our worship.  I hope you will be here ... because we should be eager to give thanks to God for His lasting and perfect gift of Jesus.  Yes, we made it to the end of one journey but that journey begins another trip that starts in a manger and ends in eternity with a victorious Jesus in His everlasting kingdom.  Randy

Monday, December 16, 2013

An Unexpected Journey

One can only imagine the unexpected nature of the journey Mary and Joseph made that first Christmas.  Mary was settled in to bring her child into the world in the cozy confines of Nazareth, her home town.  Joseph was there, far away from the pressures and turned-up eyebrows of his hometown, Bethlehem.  They, like most young couples, probably had some of the first years of their lives planned out.  They sat and talked and dreamed of the days to come.  But then ... just when they had things under control ... enter, the government.  Yep ... a tax decree is what gets them, right there in the midst of their plans.  Augustus demands that a census, for the purpose of taxation, be taken.  All must go to their hometown (i.e., in the case of Mary and Joseph, they go to Joseph's hometown, Bethlehem).

So Mary, in her 8th month, and Joseph pack it all up and head south.  They could have gone at least two ways to get to Bethlehem.  There was the normal route, a twelve-day journey that crossed the Jordan to their west, avoiding the hated Samaritans.  Many would have been traveling this route since people were scrambling to get to their town of origin.  Then, there was the ten-day trip straight down Israel in a southward direction.  This path went through Samaria and followed a road known as the Path of the Patriarchs.  This is the road I believe Mary and Joseph took (I will tell you more on Sunday).  This road passes historic places like Shechem where Abraham built an altar to God, Bethel where Jacob sees a ladder reaching to heaven, olive orchards that were part of the "milk and honey" of God's covenant promise, Jerusalem, where Jesus would return as an accused adult and then Bethlehem, the City of David.

I wonder if Mary remembered her song of thankfulness and blessing as she leaves the care of her family to travel a long, cold road to the stable of Bethlehem.  Maybe she asked what we often ask ... "Why is this happening to me?  I have been obedient.  I did what God asked.  I have tried to do the right thing.  And then I get taken out of my comfort, out of my associations, and I get tossed into turmoil!"  It would have been a natural reaction, especially remembering her age of 13 or so.  Now she will bring her child into the world in what was probably a cave used for housing livestock, in a town where she is considered a country girl from hick town.  And the little town of Bethlehem is very close to an unknown danger named Herod.  I bet she experienced the haunting loneliness we sometimes feel as we are caught up in God's plan but don't know the next step or next event in the plan.  But maybe ... just maybe ... she reflected on the journey and remembered the words of her song as she and Elizabeth shared the news of their coming children.  The end of that song reminded her, and all of us, that this plan and this event was to fulfill a journey that began long before Mary was born and long before the patriarchs made their way along the path through the promised land.  This journey began when Adam and Eve took their first steps east of Eden.  Those steps were the first toward God's ultimate plan of bringing all of us home to Himself.  And the way to that place?  His name is Jesus.      Randy

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Promise

As I was reading our text for next Sunday's message I couldn't help but think about God and how He fulfills His promises.  From the first promises made in Scripture (some of them were covenants) to those made in The Revelation God has been in the business of fulfillment, often in spite of His people.  Noah drank too much.  Jacob was a schemer and a thief.  Gideon was fearful and reclusive.  Ruth was a gentile.  Rahab was a prostitute.  Jeremiah was a whiner.  David was an adulterer and a murderer.  Peter was a liar and betrayer.  I could go on for a long time but I think you get the point.

Mary says that God brings down the proud and powerful and lifts up the lowly (this should remind us of Handel's Messiah [and John Riley reminded us it is also written in Isaiah 40] in which we sing about every valley being filled and every hill being brought low to make a highway for our God).  She tells a story about God's nature of keeping His promises and fulfilling His plans "from generation to generation."  Read Luke 1:46-55 and think about how many times each week we doubt that God is really in charge.  "Our lives and our country are going down and we are living in terrible times."  Do you know that statement has been made in every generation from the first to the most recent?  David said it.  Paul said it.  And yet, Paul also said we are to rejoice in every circumstance.

Here's the punch line.  God has the ability to bless us in spite of anything.  Maybe if we listened to God more than we listened to our leaders in Washington, talk radio, TV news or local gossip we would come to the same conclusion Mary did ... "He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant."  And maybe we can't see or hear this passage because we haven't taken that lowly place where the flood of God's blessings seems to settle.  She says all of these things in the midst of 1) having to tell her betrothed that she is pregnant, 2) somehow wrestle with the societal shunning that will certainly come, 3) be a 13 year-old, 4) travel back to Nazareth and then down to Bethlehem, and 5) raise up a child she knows is the Son of God!  Maybe blessing is a little bit more than we think.  Come Sunday and let's talk about it!  Randy

Monday, December 2, 2013

A True Builder

As I reflect on the Christmas story I think of how Joseph is usually window dressing.  He operates on the periphery.  He is there but not often the headliner ... he is in the background.  But Joseph has a lot to do with how the Christmas story plays out.

Joseph was from Bethlehem.  It, unlike Nazareth (Mary's hometown), Bethlehem would have been famous.  After all, it was where David was from (thus the reference, City of David).  Rachel died there giving birth to Benjamin.  It was the city where the Book of Ruth was set. Bethlehem was near (about 4 miles) from Ein Karem, Elizabeth's hometown where Mary and Elizabeth exchange excited news in the Gospel of Luke.  And it was probably where Joseph, during Mary's visit to Elizabeth, would have learned that Mary was pregnant and would have had that troubled dream in which the angel tells Joseph to keep his engagement with Mary and become the earthly father of a little boy named Jesus.

Bethlehem, which means "house of bread" was probably a place where bread was baked and taken to Jerusalem, a 2 hour walk away.  Farmers, shepherds and at least one carpenter (Joseph) lived there.  It reminds us of the context of Jesus saying he was the "bread of life."

In my reflections about Joseph's profession, he is a carpenter or tekton.  It is where we get the word architect (arch-tekon would have been a master builder).  There was an arch-tekon in leadership in Jerusalem named Herod.  He built lavish palaces and elaborate places to entertain friends.  His building projects placed a huge tax burden on the people.  Joseph, just a builder, would have worked on small projects, yet his work of being a father to the son of God was a building project worthy of any investment he could make.  I think of the contrast between Joseph and Herod.  I think of how Herod burdened his people with his lavish lifestyle and how Jesus, raised in the simplicity of a carpenter's home, would have had good reason to contrast His kingdom with that of Israel's puppet king saying ... "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."  The story of Joseph is another example of how God tells this amazing story to show us His nature and what He thinks is important.  An obscure town of Nazareth.  The 'little (maybe 1,000 people) town of Bethlehem.  The richness of how God raised up His covenant people.  The birth of Jesus in a stable.  God's building on a simple, honest foundation of two good and faithful people named Mary and Joseph.  God shouting that he didn't need political power, tax revenue, cultural clout, and titles to bring His kingdom into the world.  He just needed two poor but obedient people and a mighty hand directing all of history to the birth of Jesus to a virgin named Mary and a simple man named Joseph.  With God, nothing is impossible.  Randy