Saturday, January 19, 2019

"Embracing Our Doubts"

What is it about religious doubt that frightens Christians so much?

Perhaps it is that religious doubt interjects uncertainty into our lives.  With religious doubt, the stakes are very, very high.  For me personally, if God does not really exist, then the very meaning of my life and who I am would get taken away. If there were no God, then there would be no heaven, no life after death, and my ultimate destiny is taken away from me.  Or, as the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) 

Such doubts could cause me to lose my faith—and, my way.  Thus, the stakes are very, very high.  To acknowledge and talk about religious doubt creates fear and anxiety.  It can make this huge knot in the pit of my stomach.

For me, the most important scriptural discussion of religious doubt occurs in the Gospel of John, after Christ’s Resurrection; see John 20:24-29.  During the evening of that first Easter, most of Jesus’ followers had gathered together in the Upper Room.  Despite a locked door, Jesus appeared to them, greeting them with the words:  “Peace be with you.”  After his greeting, John records that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.”  When they saw this clear physical evidence of the resurrection, “the disciples rejoiced.” 

The only problem is that one of the disciples, Thomas, was not present when Jesus appeared to his followers.  When Thomas rejoins the other followers, and they tell him that they have seen the resurrected Christ, Thomas is really doubtful.  He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Now, notice here that Thomas is only asking for the same proof, which Jesus had already given the others in the Upper Room. 

            A week later, Jesus reappears to his followers in the Upper Room—this time, with Thomas present.  Jesus immediately goes to Thomas and offers, “Thomas, put your finger here and seen my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  Notice that Jesus is offering to provide Thomas with exactly the proof that Thomas identified as essential for him to have faith.  And, notice further that this is the same, exact evidence which Jesus had given the other disciples a week earlier, when he appeared to them.  One scholar points out that “Jesus is not attempting to shame Thomas, but is giving Thomas what he needs for faith, as Jesus has done so many times in the Gospel.”[i]  She notes further that Thomas’ response to Jesus, “My Lord and My God!” is “the most powerful confession [of faith] in the Gospel.”

            It seems to me that there are two prominent forms of religious doubt.  The first form is rational.  This form of doubt concerns the rational plausibility of certain aspects of a religion or sacred writing.  For instance, within the Christian tradition the claim, that after three days Jesus was resurrected from the dead, could create insurmountable religious doubt because physical resurrection is completely antithetical from all that we know about life and death from science.  Here, it is important to highlight that religious faith is not necessarily opposed to rationality—or, even science.  The English writer C. S. Lweis develops this distinction well in his book, Mere Christianity.[ii]  Lewis observes that there is a rational component to faith.  It is not as though faith is irrational.  Instead, reason is an integral component of faith.  Yet, reason may itself challenge faith or the propositions of a religious faith.  As Lewis observed, “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods..”.

            The second form of religious doubt concerns an emotional incongruity, instead of a rational incongruity.  As an illustration, consider the parents of a young daughter who dies at the age of 7, after a short lifetime of suffering from bone cancer.  Although initially devout Christians, the young girl’s parents may begin to doubt God—or, even the existence of God.  They may question why a supposedly all loving and all powerful God would have allowed their young daughter to suffer and die.  This is a different type of doubt from the doubt one may have due to some aspect of the religion not appearing rational or being consistent with what we have learned from science.

            There are two responses we can make regarding religious doubt.  The first response is to try and avoid thinking about any religious doubts which we may have.  We can take all of our doubts and cram them into a box; put a lid on, and then put the box way in the back of our closet, where we never have to see it.  Then, we can try and live our lives without ever having to open that box up and confront our doubts. 

However, the problem with this response is that we end up living our lives in fear that at some point, something is going to happen in our lives, which will force us to confront these doubts.  If that happens, then we may finally be forced to confront our doubts, and we may lose our faith.  In essence, the problem with this response is that we end up living in the shadow of our doubts.  By contrast, the alternative response is to simply confront our doubts head on; to struggle and wrestle with our doubts.    

            I believe that God does not oppose and probably intends for us to confront our doubts and to struggle with them.  There are a couple of considerations here.  First, consider the story of ‘doubting Thomas,’ which we examined earlier.  Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ doubt.  Instead, Jesus accepts his doubt and then encourages Thomas to find the answer he is seeking by placing his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in the wound from the spear.  In essence, Jesus is walking with Thomas as Thomas seeks to resolve his doubts. 

            A second consideration is that Christians sometimes experience profound spiritual growth by struggling with doubt.  It is only through his struggle of faith that Thomas eventually develops the spiritual discernment to see that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.   Thomas has been a disciple of Jesus for three years.  He has traveled with Jesus; eaten with Jesus; lived with Jesus; listened to all of Jesus’ teachings.  Thomas has had an inside track to Jesus life and teachings for 3 years.  Yet, it is not until after Thomas has struggled with his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection that he sees clearly who Jesus really and truly is:  “My Lord and My God!”

            Still, coping with religious doubt is hard.  As we have seen, there is the uncertainty of doubt.  We all want to know about God with certainty.  Yet, even worse, it is hard to admit our doubts to others.  We don’t want others to think badly of us.  We don’t want others to judge and condemn us as unbelievers, bad people, or troublemakers.  Sometimes we don’t even want to raise hard questions.  If we were to raise hard questions, then we might appear to be rude or difficult.  Finally, we don’t want to undermine other peoples’ faith by sharing our doubts or asking difficult questions.  So, our first inclination is to hide our doubts from others and struggle with them alone.

            Churches also have trouble with doubts.  Some churches are intolerant of doubts or questions.  In some churches, to raise doubts indicates that the doubter is not really a Christian; they are an imposter and need to be rooted out of the Body of Christ.  In those churches, doubters and questioners are ostracized as well as denigrated for not being truly faithful.

            I will argue that it is this negative attitude towards doubts and questions which is actually unfaithful to the teachings and example of Christ.  As we have seen in our analysis of “doubting Thomas,” Jesus did not condemn Thomas because of his doubts.  Instead, Jesus affirmed the legitimacy of Thomas’ questions and then sought to help Thomas answer his questions.

            But what if the Church actually did as Jesus?  What if the Church actually welcomed questioners and doubters?  What if the Church was willing to accompany doubters and questioners on the quest for answers, just as Jesus accompanied Thomas? 

Of course, there are some people who are looking for a church that will provide them with a definitive answer to all their questions about religion and spirituality.  Yet, at the same time, there are many, many other people who would like to have a church that does not claim to have all of the answers.  Rather than having a church which tells them what they must believe, many persons are looking for a safe place, with theological resources, to help them work out their own answers to their doubts and questions.

I think that the British theologian John Polkinghorne sums it up well, when he writes:  “For many in the Western-educated world today, [there is] a kind of wistful fellow-travelling with religion, able neither to accept [Christianity] nor wholly to dismiss it, retaining a memory of old talks of [God] kept echoing in the caverns of mind more by poetry than by argument.”[iii]  Among so many of our neighbors, our work colleagues, our family members, there is this huge spiritual hunger.  Yet, at the same time these individuals do not feel that they can join us in church because they still retain some significant doubts.  There are individuals who say, I would like to be more spiritual, but how can I be part of a church, when I have these questions? 

But, what if the Church…

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 20th.  As we continue our series on the “Upside Down Church,” we will examine the opportunities which doubt presents and why faithful Christians should embrace questions and doubt, just as Jesus embraced the questions and doubt of Thomas. 

Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street.  We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.   

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Gail R. O’Day, Commentary on the Gospel of John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1952).
[iii] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist:  Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 14.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Turning the World Upside Down

            These days the word, “Christian,” is a loaded term.  To some people, it means a “hypocrite,” while to others it refers to someone who is “superstitious” or “greedy.”  To still others, it refers to someone who is “judgmental,” while to others it means someone who is faithful to God.  To even others, a “Christian” may take on additional meanings. 

In our foundational scripture from the Book of Acts this weekend, the first Christians were described as “these people who have been turning the world upside down.”  During his ministry, Jesus frequently “turned the world upside down.”  In my post last week, I remembered how Jesus turned the popular, accepted notion of justice upside down.  Rather than accepting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Jesus taught his followers, “…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” (Matthew 5:39)

            There are many other examples of Jesus’ teachings turning the world upside down as well:

1.      When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20), he turns the socio-political world upside down by privileging the marginalized over the powerful.

2.      When Jesus teaches, “ ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” (Matthew 5:43-44), he turns our natural inclinations upside down.

3.      And, when Jesus consistently refers to God as Abba, “Pops,” then he turned the nature of our relationship with God upside down.

In addition to his teachings, Jesus also turns the world upside down through his actions: 

1.      Jesus turned the conventional understanding of keeping the Sabbath upside down, when he healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17) and allowed his disciples to pluck grain in the field on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-6).

2.      Rather than hanging out with the righteous and the powerful in society, Jesus frequently ate with sinners and the marginalized—thus turning the social order and the expectations for a rabbi upside down.  (Mark 2:15-22)

3.      During the last week of his earthly life, when Jesus was in Jerusalem, he stormed into the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers and the merchants who sold doves, quoting scripture and saying:  “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  (Matthew 21:13)

Again and again and again, Jesus and the early Church turned the world upside down.  Yet that all changed in 312 C.E., when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  Whereas before, Christianity was literally an outlaw religion, banished to the margins of society, after Constantine’s conversion Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.  Whereas before Constantine’s conversion, becoming a Christian meant becoming socially ostracized and risking the death for one’s faith, afterwards becoming a Christian was a career move leading to social and financial promotion. 

Constantine’s conversion became a watershed moment because it encouraged Christianity to shift away from turning the world upside down.  Rather, as the official religion of secular society, the Church was predisposed to defend and justify the prevailing secular society.  There were important exceptions to this generalization, of course.  For instance, one shining exception was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the religious-led Civil Rights movement.  Yet, despite these important exceptions, Christianity, and especially the Church, has focused more on supporting and defending the socio-economic status quo.

But, what if the Church began turning the world upside down again?

I began this post by noting that for many people today, the word “Christian” has a deeply negative meaning, raising up negative adjectives, such as hypocritical, superstitious, greedy, and judgmental.  The truth is that many contemporary people view the Church with great suspicion.  Yet, despite the negative assessment of the Church and Christianity in general, Jesus is popularly viewed in overwhelmingly positive terms.  This disconnect for many people—both inside and outside the Church—is that in his life Jesus clearly modeled the love and life which all of his followers should have.  Yet, when they look at the Church and contemporary Christians, they don’t see the enactment of Jesus’ teachings; they don’t see the Church doing anything productive or worthwhile.  Instead, they see hypocrisy, superstition, greed, and judgment.

Perhaps before the Church can turn the world upside down, someone needs to turn the Church upside down.  But, what does that mean, to turn the Church upside down?  And, what will it take to turn the Church upside down?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 13th.  As we continue our series on the “Upside Down Church,” I will suggest that it is the responsibility of those inside the Church to turn it upside down. 

Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street.  We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.   

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

"Jesus Calls Us"

            Happy New Year!

            As we begin a new year, my proclamation focus will examine what it means to be Christian in the 21st  century.  We have titled this series, “An Upside-Down Church.”  This past fall, as I continued to read and study the Gospels, I gained a new insight into Jesus.  Looking at Jesus from the perspective of faithful Jews in the first century, Jesus was someone who came in and turned upside-down their understanding of what it meant to be faithful to God.  For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made this claim:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”  ~ Matthew 5:38-39
At that time—as in our current time—the popular notion of justice was predominantly understood as lex talinois; that is, the right for a wronged person to seek retribution against any perpetrator who injured him.  Yet, in the passage quoted above, Jesus turns that understanding upside down.  Rather than permitting harm for harm, Jesus advocates the return of good in response to harm.  In so doing, Jesus turns the conception of being faithful to God upside down as well.  Now, persons loyal to God must re-think their understanding of justice, moving from lex talinois to an understanding which sees the importance of returning good—even for bad. 

In reflecting on this insight last fall, I began to ask myself what Jesus’ propensity to turn things upside-down might mean for the Christian faith and the Church in the 21st century?  If Jesus were to physically appear today, how might he turn his Church upside-down?  Then, I began to ask, as disciples of Jesus, are we called to turn the contemporary church upside down? 

            So, that question became the inspiration for this proclamation series:  How is God calling us now to turn the Church upside down, so that we may be more faithful disciples?

            This Sunday, January 5th, we begin this exploration with a foundational question: 

“What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?”

Our grounding scriptural text will be Matthew 4:18-23, which tells how Jesus recruited his first disciples:

As he [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Professional Biblical scholars are quick to point out that this is more than simply Matthew’s 
description of how Jesus began his ministry.  For instance, Eugene Boring writes, “How do people become disciples of Jesus Christ?  …this is the question Matthew is addressing, not the historical or biographical question of a past event.”[i]

            To fully appreciate the call of the disciples, some background context is in order.  In Judaism during this period, rabbis were the recognized Jewish authorities and teachers within the faith.  This was especially true in matters of the Jewish Law, which was so fundamental to their faith. One trained to become a rabbi by first becoming a disciple of an already established and highly regarded rabbi.  Rabbis’ disciples were literally their followers, who went wherever the rabbi went.  The disciples would sit and listen to the rabbi’s teaching.  In order to become a rabbi’s disciple, a young Jewish man would have to seek out a rabbi and apply to become a disciple.  Generally speaking, rabbis did not seek out students.

            Of course, Jesus turned this tradition completely upside-down.  First, as far as we know, Jesus was not formally trained with a well-regarded rabbi in the normal disciple system described in the previous paragraph.  Instead, he appears to have been self-taught.  Secondly, as we learn from the scripture, Jesus actively sought out and recruited Andrew and Peter, James and John, and the others to be his disciples.

            Jesus calls the disciples:  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Note that the disciples immediately drop everything and follow him.  The typical questions, “Where are we going?”  “What should we bring?”  Where will we stay?”  How will we feed ourselves?” “What do you mean we will become ‘fishers of men?’” etc. are never asked.  Eugene Boring notes that the disciples appear to have been comfortable in their life-situation.  They had a good profession, with boats and nets for their work.  They have families and friends.  They were not looking to start a new life.  They had never met Jesus and did not know who he was.              Yet, there was Jesus appearing and disrupting their entire lives.  And, the disciples embraced the call.

            What did Jesus mean when he said, “I will make you fish for people”?  We should not interpret this claim as just a clever metaphor which Jesus invoked because he was talking to fishermen.  There is something much deeper going on here.  Jesus is inviting Andrew, Peter, James, and John to join him in the work of building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a fundamental claim:  Not only is God the Creator of all Creation, but God will continue God’s work of Creation until the Kingdom of God has been fully established.  Although God’s Reign has not yet been fully established, we can see evidence in the world already and God has guaranteed the fulfillment of this reign through the Resurrection of Christ.

The theologian Phil Hefner coined the term, “created co-creators,” to indicate that we finite humans have been invited to join in the work of Kingdom-building by the Infinite One.  Jesus’ invitation to the disciples in Matthew is not restricted to Andrew, Peter, James, and John.  No.  Instead, this invitation is extended to all who seek to follow him.  As Eugene Boring writes, “…the picture seems to be that God’s judging/saving mission to the world is represented by Jesus, who calls disciples to participate in the divine mission to humanity.  The scene is thus utterly theological…  Nothing in the text suggests that this is a special call to apostleship; rather, a theological perspective on the way every follower becomes a disciple is here presented.”[ii]

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?  Out of his great love for us, Jesus invites us to enter into a special relationship as his disciples.  In this special relationship, we are invited to join with Jesus in the work of building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  This is a special invitation, which brings great honor, joy, hope, and peace.  Further, as we join in the work of Kingdom building, we also will grow closer and deeper in our relationship with the Divine.  At Christ United Methodist Church, we think of this special role of discipleship as comprised of four pillars:

1.      Seek God.
2.      Act Inclusively
3.      Serve Others.
4.      Do Justice.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 5th, as we begin our exploration of how Jesus is calling us to turn the Church upside-down.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street. 

We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.    

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

“A Bleaker View of Christmas”

            So, we’ve now moved firmly into the afterglow of Christmas Day.  All of the presents have been unwrapped; most of the Christmas dinners and parties are over; we’ve been back to the malls and stores for those after-Christmas sales.  We are now making preparations to celebrate New Year’s Eve and Day—sort of one last hoorah before we must begin returning to our everyday routines.

            Perhaps you’re different than me.  However, I find this in-between time to be something of a let-down after Christmas.  For the past month, I’ve been busily preparing myself and my church for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth and the confirmation that God loves us and keeps promises made to us.  With such a huge buildup, it is inevitable that there will be a corresponding let down afterwards.

            Of course, life goes on.  Pretty soon, New Year’s will be over and we will have to resume our daily routines.  If you’re like me, then you’ll have to shake yourself out of the post-Christmas doldrums and get back into the swing of things.

            The scriptural story of Jesus goes on after his birth on Christmas Day, as well.  After the shepherds and Wise Men have left the stable, Mary and Joseph face an uncertain future.  In my message this Sunday, December 30th, we will reflect on Matthew’s account of what happened after the first Christmas Day. 

In a dream, God instructs Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt because King Herod, who rules Bethlehem, will try to kill the baby Jesus.  Although he is King, Herod is a very insecure man and the prophecy of a mighty future king born in his territory terrifies Herod.  After Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus leave for Egypt, Herod has all of the children, who are two years or younger, massacred in the Bethlehem area.  As a result, this passage from Matthew has been traditionally called the story of the massacre of the innocents.  Although there is no independent historical account of Herod’s action, it is certainly consistent with what we know about King Herod and how viciously he exercised his powers as king.

Most Biblical scholars agree that from Matthew’s perspective this story shows how God was involved, watching over the newborn Messiah, instructing his parents, and insuring that he was kept safe as an infant and young child.  However, historically, many other Christians have looked at this story from a different perspective—the problem of theodicy.  Theodicy is the problem concerning how Christians reconcile our belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the evil which persists in the world.  In other words, how could an all-powerful, loving God allow all of those innocent children to be massacred by King Herod?  If God warned Joseph and helped Jesus escape from Herod’s wrath, why couldn’t God also have warned and helped all of the other families with small children in Bethlehem?

In my message this weekend, I will struggle with this problem of theodicy as it emerges in Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents.  As Christians, when we struggle with problems of theodicy, there are never any easy or straightforward answers.  However, I think that it is important to struggle with problems of theodicy because I firmly believe that we can grow and deepen our faith by engaging these challenges.  Hopefully, our struggle with theodicy this Sunday will prepare us as we celebrate a new year and resume our normal routines after the Christmas-New Year holiday season.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, December 30th, as we reflect on the massacre of the innocents and the problem of “theodicy.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Monday, December 24, 2018

“The Most Unexpected People, for Just Such a Time as This”

            We have now arrived at Christmas and the celebration of God’s love for us, made manifest in the birth of the Christ-Child.  During Christmas Eve services this year, I want to focus my Proclamation on the characters whom the Gospels describe around the infant Jesus.  These persons were Mary and Joseph, shepherds who had come in from the field, and Wise Men from the East.

            For the past several months at Christ United Methodist Church, where I pastor, a recurrent theme in our worship services has been a verse from the Hebrew book of Esther.  In this story, Esther is an orphaned young Jewish girl, living exile with other Hebrews in Persia.  Esther is under the guardianship of her uncle, Mordecai.  Even though a Hebrew, Mordecai has risen up through the ranks in the King’s Court, until he becomes a high official.  As the story unfolds, Esther is chosen by the King to marry him and become the Queen. 

After a period of time, Mordecai discovers a plot by another high court official to have all Jews living in Persia executed.  Mordecai implores Esther to intervene, using her power as queen, to overturn this planned genocide.  At first, Esther hesitates to get involved.  It is at this point in the story, where Mordecai says to Esther:  For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)  Esther responds to her uncle’s challenge and takes the necessary action to overturn the plot.

Esther was a most unexpected girl, whom God chose for a special time and purpose.  As Mordecai expressed it, perhaps God had chosen her “for just such a time as this.”  Over the past months, as I have reflected on this theme and studied the scriptures, I have discovered that frequently God chooses the most unexpected people for “just such a time.” 

God chooses the most unexpected people for special times and purposes.  In the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, God chose Rahab, a pagan cultic prostitute, to help Hebrew spies escape from the city of Jericho.  Rahab was a most unexpected person, chosen by God.  Similarly, Moses was a criminal fugitive, fleeing Egypt after murdering someone.  Yet, God chose Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promise Land, where they eventually settled.  As a fugitive from the law, Moses was a most unexpected person.  In the New Testament, God choses Paul to become a missionary to the Gentiles, sharing the story of Jesus and establishing many of the first churches.  Yet, previously, Paul had been an active opponent of Christians, arresting them for sharing their faith.  Paul was the last person we would expect to become an Apostle and missionary to the Gentiles.  Yet, God chose Paul.

Again and again and again, throughout the scriptures, God choses the most unexpected people for “just such a time as this.”  I believe this is true in the Christmas story as well.

·         Mary, the Mother of  Christ.  Mary was a young girl in an extremely patriarchal society, where women were regarded as the property of their husbands or fathers.  Mary was also from a poor family, living in a small village.  Then, Mary became pregnant.  We can be certain that she was judged and dismissed by the people around her as just a young, ignorant girl who had gotten herself pregnant.  In so many ways, she was a most unexpected person to be chosen by God to be the mother of the Christ-Child.  Yet, God chose Mary.

·         Joseph, the Earthly Father of Christ.  Joseph was not a prominent or important man in his society.  He was a builder and just “an average joe.”  He was a most unexpected person to become the earthly father of the Messiah.  Yet, God chose him for just such a purpose.  And, Joseph listened to God.  He accepted Mary, loving and caring for her throughout her pregnancy.  After Jesus was born, Joseph obediently fled with his family to Egypt, until it was safe for them to return to Nazareth.  Then, Joseph loved and cared for Jesus, as he grew from infancy to adulthood and up until the beginning of his ministry.  God chose Joseph.

·         The Shepherds.  Today, we have a positive view of shepherds.  We think of them as involved in a noble profession, similar to ranchers and farmers.  Yet at the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were a lowly, scorned group.  Most people viewed shepherds as a shiftless, dishonest people, who grazed their sheep on others’ pastures and were not to be trusted.  They were a most unexpected group of people.  Yet, according to Luke, the shepherds were the first group of people to hear the good news that the long-awaited Messiah had finally been born.  Of all the people to be chosen as “the first to know,” the shepherds were a most unexpected people.  Yet, God chose the shepherds.

·         The Wise Men.  While the shepherds were poor, the Wise Men were very rich and affluent.  Yet, they were pagans, not devout Jews.  Although we call them “Wise Men,” a more accurate appellation would be to call them astrologers.  They were pagan religious leaders who studied the stars.  They were from either modern-day Iraq or Iran.  They were a very unexpected group of people to discern the birth of the Jewish Messiah through the appearance of a star.  Yet, God chose the Wise Men.

When we step back from our manger scenes and reflect upon who is around the baby Jesus, everyone is a most unexpected person.  There was something “wrong” with every single person.  Yet, God chose each of them for “just such a time.”  God is always choosing the most unexpected persons for a special time and purpose.

This raises an important question for each of us, as we celebrate Christmas this year.  Are we also the most unexpected persons, whom God is choosing for a special purpose for “just such a time as this”?  We live in an age which has many similarities with the time in which Jesus was born.

At the time when Jesus was born, many people suffered from hunger, poverty, or serious disease.  Economically, there was a large chasm separating the very few wealthy persons from the vast majority who were poor and struggling.  There were also severe political divisions between “zealot” Jews who wanted to overthrow the Roman Army versus more accommodating Jews who tried to thrive within the given power structure.  And, there was significant corruption and deceit within the government.  Finally, there was a deep-seated spiritual hunger among the people.  There were deep antagonisms between religious groups, such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  And, frequently false teachers arose, claiming to be the Messiah, only to be exposed as a charlatan. There was great spiritual turmoil.

Our current age is similarly dark and chaotic.  Even though the United States is the richest and most affluent country in human history, there are many citizens, who are hungry, homeless, poor, and without healthcare.  For example, Bread for the World estimates that 1 out of 7 Nebraskans are hungry, while there are 13 million children living with food insecurity in the United States. Economically, there is a widening income and power gap between the wealthy few and everyone else, which is very disturbing because it will certainly undermine our democracy.  And, as at the time of Jesus’ birth, there is a great spiritual hunger.  Many persons desperately seek to find meaning in their lives.

We live in an age which is very similar to the situation when Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men gathered around the baby Jesus.  So, the question is this:  Are we those most unexpected people whom God calls for “just such a time”?  How is God calling us to respond?  What can we do as followers of Christ?

If you are searching for a Christmas Eve service in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our Christmas Eve services are at 7 pm and 11 pm.  Both services are candlelight services, meaning that we will conclude with individual lighted candles as we sing “Silent Night.”  At the 11 pm service, we will also celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Our building is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

“What We Can Learn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus”

            This Sunday, December 16th, I will be preaching during an alternative “preview worship” for a new service that we will launch in 2019.  The service will be held in the Family Life Center (gym) at Christ United Methodist Church. 

            For this proclamation, I will be reflecting on Mary’s “Magnificat” from Luke 1:46-55.  In Luke the story of Jesus’ birth begins with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the long-awaited Messiah; she is to name him, Jesus.  After the angel departs, Mary decides to visit her relative Elizabeth and share the great news.  Elizabeth, herself, is also pregnant with her own son, who will grow up to be John the Baptist.

            When Mary enters her home, Elizabeth’s child leaps within her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and prophesies that her child is the long-awaited Messiah.  The “Magnificat” is Mary’s response to the blessing and prophesy of Elizabeth.  This passage is traditionally called the “Magnificat” because in Latin the first word in the passage is “magnify”—or “magnificat" in Latin.

            A careful reading of Mary’s Magnificat suggests that we can divide it into three distinct parts.  In my proclamation, I will suggest that each part holds a valuable lesson for contemporary Christians.  The first lesson concerns the importance of gratitude for all that God gives to us.  Here’s the passage:

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.  (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary begins in gratitude.  Her soul magnifies the Lord and rejoices in God because God has favored her and done great things for her.  Over my life as a follower of Christ, I have discovered that I need to be very intentional in cultivating gratitude towards God.  I find that I get so busy and wrapped up in my activities and concerns that I sometimes forget to be grateful?  So, I have to be disciplined in my devotional life to include time for gratitude.  I suspect that I am not alone among Christians.

            The second lesson is that God will bring about a great reversal, leading to mercy and justice for the poor and marginalized: 

His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)

            Mary proclaims God’s love and mercy for those who are faithful.  Further, she prophesies a great reversal, in which God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly.  God will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.  Note that Mary is go confident God will perform these deeds in the future that she uses the past tense!  God has promised and God will deliver!  For Mary this prophesy is a certainty.

            To demonstrate this great reversal in the proclamation, I will show a video clip from the movie, Les Misérables. In the scene I have chosen, Jean Valjean, who is very poor and hungry, steals silver from the Cathedral.  The police apprehend Valjean and return him to the Bishop.  They tell the Bishop that Valjean claims he was given the silver and thus did not steal it.  Although Valjean has stolen the silver, the Bishop confirms his story, telling the authorities that he did give the silver to Valjean and then reminding Valjean that he forgot two silver candlesticks.  So, the police release Valjean.  After they leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to take the silver and make something worthwhile out of his life.  This exactly what Valjean does.  The gift of the silver leads to a great reversal in his life.

            We might well ask why God initiates such great reversals.  Why, for instance, does Mary predict that God will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty?  Does God not love the rich?  We know that God loves all people, rich and poor.  And, we know that God seeks to enter into loving relationships with all people, rich and poor.  The answer is that God fills the hungry with good things because they are hungry and have nothing, while God sends the rich away empty because they already plenty for themselves. 

God loves rich and poor equally.  However, to love two persons equally does not mean we treat them equally.  Even though a father may love both of his children equally, he is going to provide a sick child with extra care and attention because that child is suffering.  Similarly, we can say that God makes a preferential option for the poor because they are the ones who are suffering.  Further, as disciples of Christ, we are called by God to care for those on the margins of our society, who are powerless, poor, hungry, homeless, sick, and in need of medical care.  Ministries of mercy to those who suffer is fundamental to Christian discipleship.  Similarly, ministries of justice, in which we seek to disrupt and change systems that are unjust and exploitive is fundamental to Christian discipleship.

The third lesson from Mary is that God remains faithful.  She says:

He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:54-55)

Mary concludes by proclaiming God’s faithfulness.  The Hebrew scriptures tell story after story of how the Hebrew people are unfaithful and disobedient to God.  Again and again, the Old Testament prophets condemn the people of Israel for their disobedience and call upon them to repent and remain faithful to God.  Time after time, God forgives the people and welcomes them back into a loving relationship.  God remains faithful. 

            Down through the ages, trusting in God’s faithfulness has always been difficult for human persons.  It seems as though it’s part of human nature to prefer trusting in ourselves and our own resources. This difficulty may be greatly exacerbated in post-modern societies where we struggle to reconcile faith and science.  There appear to be a great many “Christian agnostics,” who verbally claim to be faithful Christians, even though their actions belie their faith claims. Yet, part of Christian discipleship involves trusting in God rather than ourselves.

In summary, Mary’s Magnificat provides three vital lessons for living as faithful Christian disciples:

1.       Cultivate an attitude of gratitude towards God for what God has already given us.
2.       Work for mercy for those in need, such as those who are hungry, homeless, or in need of healthcare, etc.  Also work for justice for those who are exploited and oppressed.
3.      Learn to trust in God’s love and faithfulness.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, December 16th.  You may wish to join our “preview” alternative service at 9:45, where I will reflect on what we can learn from Mary’s “Magnificat.”  In addition, you are welcome to attend our 8:30 am and 11:00 am services, where this week our children and youth will present their 2019 Christmas program.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.