Monday, December 28, 2020

A Different Way

The story of the Magi in Matthew is one of those stories that can engender thought, reflection and questions.  They were clearly people come from the east (probably modern-day Iraq) with a purpose to follow a star, find a king and offer homage to that king.  Jesus would have been a toddler (sorry if this messes with our Christmas traditions and manger scenes).  The story can be taken in many directions, but today I want to suggest some present-day advice from these "wise" travelers.

The first word that comes to mind is discernment.  It is a trait that is a sparse commodity in a world led by fads, factless statements and hyperbole.  In Matthew's story of the Magi, our travelers meet Herod, religious leaders and probably other people, all full of advice.  Herod is powerful, so maybe they should listen to him?  The religious leaders seem to know the Scripture, so maybe they are telling the truth?  I am sure convincing and charismatic people would have given them advice.  After all, they seem to be people of means and importance.  So, who do they believe?  The Magi chose to believe the Scriptures and the star.  They press on, following those things till the reach the child, the mother and their goal.

The second word that comes to mind is ... deceit.  They knew that many of the people they met would have reason to deceive them.  The Magi had money, importance, influence and information.  Other people wanted those things.  The Magi knew this and were wise in how they dealt with the people they encountered.  In our world today I see lots of deceit.  People want you to follow them and promote their agenda.  Conservatives, liberals, charismatic sellers of prosperity theology and purveyors of negativity all seek your attention.  Like social media, they want you to become users and conduits of their agenda that ultimately captures your attention.  The Magi encountered these people, especially in the palace of Herod.  They smiled, they sounded helpful, but they wanted something ... to stop the life, the work and the will of Jesus.  They had a king, and they didn't need God's ordained Son, come to save the world.

We are told that the Holy Spirit will give us discernment that will guide us and lead us to see and avoid deceit.  But we, as God's people, must decide about a third word ... direction.  Wise men (and women) know that every day is a directional choice.  When the Holy Spirit has helped us discern truth, when we have opened our eyes so that we can see the deceit around us and when we meet Jesus, "the way, the truth and life itself," do we stay the course and keep going in the same direction, or is our direction altered by that little boy of Bethlehem?  The Magi went off in a different direction.

I have a friend who says he has solved his issue of following negativity.  He has done this at least once a year.  My advice ... let God change you and your direction.  I met a woman whose  "my way or the highway" attitude has damaged relationships and her witness.  My advice ... let God change you and your direction.  I see a nation that seems to be caught in a merry-go-round of solving issues in nasty, mean-spirited and predictable ways ... and the results seem to see us never solving the issues that we say are important.  My advice ... let God change us and our direction!

If we really want to leave our most tenacious demons behind and have the newness of life promised by our faith and following of Jesus, see the deceit ... use the Spirit's discernment ... go off in the direction that has a star, and a real king, and a child of promise ... and a savior named Jesus.  Randy

Monday, December 21, 2020

Born In Me?

Every Christmas we do a song by Francesca Battistelli called "Born In Me."  The words are beautiful and challenging.  They reflect, especially, the chaotic year we have individually and corporately experienced.  "Everything inside me cries for order ... everything inside me tries to hide.  Is this shadow and angel or a warrior?  If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?  Someone tell me I am only dreaming.  Somehow help me see with heaven's eyes.  And before my head agrees, my heart is on its knees.  Holy is He, blessed am I. Be born in me, be born in me.  Trembling heart, somehow, I believe.  That You chose me. ... Make my heart your Bethlehem, be born in me."  Great words, but a better idea.

There is a verse of submission ... humility ... and clarity, when Mary, amidst fear, unknown outcomes, national chaos and personal sacrifice, says these words ... "I am the Lord's servant, Mary answered.  May Your word to me be fulfilled.  Then the angel left her (Luke 1:38)."  Be born in me!

Those are hard words and the idea is even harder.  We live in a self-focused world.  "What's in it for me?"  It's all about my rights, my body, my perspective.  We have somehow shrunk god down to an idea that fits into a box of our understanding.  But this story has Mary, a teenager, that knows nothing about how all of this will impact her future.  There will certainly be shame, hardship, pain and some very uncomfortable family discussions.  Her new status will be hard, even impossible, to love for some of her family and friends.  Everything she has known will be in a rear-view mirror that she will never see again.  Everything will change for her, and she has no idea how any of it will turn out.  Yet ... she says, in The Message version of this passage, "Let it be with me, just as you say!"  Be born in me!

The words that come to me as I read this passage are Submission, Sacrifice, Sorrow and Significance.  Mary submits her very body to God's plan ... not her plan.  As we debate abortion, Mary reminds us that life isn't about us ... it is about something bigger than us.  Mary sacrifices her planned future for the hope and future God has planned.  She is all in to what God is doing, no matter what it means for her.  Mary accepts the sorrow that will accompany her decision.  Most of us say, "God doesn't want me to have sorrow or hurt."  I wonder if God doesn't intervene in those events that cause sorrow because God knows that part of life with/in Him is to go through pain in His comfort, presence and sufficiency?  While my words can't adequately explain this, my heart sees this unfold as we, with God's help, are able to comfort and love friends in their times of hurt, pain and need.  God is truly (Psalm 34:18) "near to those who are brokenhearted."  Finally, Mary becomes, through submission, sacrifice and sorrow, cosmically significant.  I hear so many wanting their lives to be meaningful, worthwhile and significant.  So, they bargain with God ... they become human 'doers' instead of human 'beings' ... they run on the hamster wheel of spirituality like their effort and energy can somehow attain and fathom a God that is above and beyond our ability to fully know.  And all the while little Mary, in a little room in Nazareth (a truly obscure teenager) does something that makes her (according to God's Word) "the most fortunate woman on earth."  She sings, "What God has done for me will never be forgotten!"  Mary knows that what is happening is the most significant thing that has ever happened on earth!

Do you want some of that significance?  Instead of following the world's plan, try submission, sacrifice, sorrow as paths to God's plan.  It isn't easy, but love and life are never easy.  But Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light, and you will find rest for your soul!  Randy 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Love's Here!

We have lit the candles of Hope, Peace and Joy.  We Methodists call these things 'outward signs of inward grace' reminding us that life, reality and God's Kingdom aren't always what we see and perceive ... these symbols are greater things that give us the surety that God is present with us.  This truth reminds us of Isaiah's words (7:14) ... "Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel!"  We light those candles because something big has happened and is happening.  Advent shouts "He's coming!" but the Gospel shouts "He's here!"  Who and what is here?

Hope is here.  In a land of darkness, 'behold, a light has come!'  So be hopeful!  We are not defined by the news, the virus, the negativity of false teachings, the falseness of the 'prosperity gospel.'  Our hope comes from an eternal source ... and we have seen the sign, the child and the Savior!  Hope is here!

Peace is here!  Not a peace like the world gives, because the world says peace is lack of conflict, acquiescence to mediocrity or adoption of politically-correct and socially-popular ideas.  Jesus reminds us that peace can come when your nation seems lost and your people have lost their center.  Jesus says peace can come when you are an occupied people, taxed to the breaking point and challenged by a worldly king that demands we bow down to Caesar.  The Prince of Peace comes into that world and proclaims a non-situational peace that comes from a heart devoted to following our leader, Jesus.  It is a peace that says, recognize and process your feelings, but never be directed by them ... for we are more and better than that!  We can have peace in the storm, for our peace has a name ... Jesus.  Peace is here!

Joy has come!  The angels tell us that "unto us is born this day a Savior that is Christ the Lord" and that this "Good News" will bring joy to all people.  We are some of those people and we are the messengers of that Good News that tells the world a joyful message ... your sins are forgiven, your guilt is taken by God Himself and your growth into a new creation has begun.  Joy has come!

This Sunday we will light the candle of love, the greatest of the eternal things.  Love, like peace, joy and hope, are not situational.  An old song said ... "love is a verb!"  And I have heard often that love is a choice.  How do I know this is absolutely true!?  Because a God who knows me, who sees everything I do, who knows my innermost thoughts, and who knows that I am fallen/broken/fragile ... loves me so much He has sent my sins as far as the East is from the West.  That God knows love is a verb and a choice.  That God demonstrates that love with the leadership of action ... leadership that I am excited and honored to follow.  Love has come ... and His name is Jesus!

That Good News should bring joy, peace and hope!  That is the reality in which I choose to live and dream!  For love has come!  Randy

Monday, December 7, 2020

Great Joy!

Surely you remember it!?  "But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid!  I bring you Good News that will cause great joy for all the people!" (Luke 2:10).  It is part of the Christmas Story we have all heard.  If you were at the Community Christmas Tree Lighting or at 1st service last week, you have heard these words at least twice this Christmas.  I hope you hear it many more times and I hope you listen to what this short little passage is saying to us.

The angel is saying Jesus is coming to town.  To Bethlehem.  To Judea.  To all people.  To the world.  The angel is clear ... this is a message of Good News, quelled fear, and great joy.  So ... and this is to all my Christian friends and my family of believers ... why not joy?  In fact, why not GREAT JOY!?

Here is what I think is happening.  In John 10:10 we hear that Satan, represented by poor leadership in Israel (corporately) and by the very real person of Satan (individually), comes to steal and destroy.  One thing done by Satan and misdirected leaders is this 'stealing' of joy.  Joy can be stolen by 1) continually delivering the body punches of negativity, 2) continually highlighting fear, 3) continually ignoring the Gospel and 4) continually dwelling on guilt as a tool of manipulation.  Jesus addressed this when he said (also from John 10:10) "I came so you may have life, and have it to the full."  COVID-19 isn't the only contagious thing going around ... all of the above things that steal our joy can be contagious and lethal to faith.  So what do we do?

The angel gives us great advice.  First, do not be afraid.  If you are in places where you are hearing a barrage of fear-mongering, get out of those places.  Second, remember the 'euangelion' (in Biblical Greek this is the word for Gospel or Good News).  Third, remember that Jesus coming to town should have a causal impact on us ... the angel said the Good News will cause great joy.  Finally, remember that this joy is something that we desire to contract.

I am going to leave this blog today with a bit of advice.  Get the world and Jesus into the right perspective.  We are in the world to be light, a blessing and little expressions of Jesus.  We are not in the world to be joyless, hopeless and peaceless.  The Advent candles lit so far are hope and peace.  This Sunday we light the candle of joy.  In Wesleyan tradition these candles are outward signs of inward grace which brings truth into our lives.  That truth comes from God's Word.  If you will take notice, hope, peace and joy are in short supply if you listen to talking heads, angry preachers and joyless posts on social media.  How is that working for us?  Would it be better to listen to negative people who are agents of stealing our joy, or would the Advent of Jesus (He did come to town and He is coming back) be better expressed by following what the Christmas angel said ... "Do not be afraid.  I bring you Good News that will cause great joy for all people."  Good News causes great joy!  That's my take!  Randy