Saturday, December 28, 2013

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.  In a few days, we will begin 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 weekend (December 28 & 29), 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 of how do 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 weekend 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 Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Joseph, a Father's Strong Faith

            Perhaps Joseph is the most overlooked and under-appreciated of all the persons in the Christmas story.  Yet, he played a pivotal role at that first Christmas.  So, in my message this week, I intend to focus on Joseph and what he can teach us about Christian faith and discipleship. 

            My reflections are based upon Matthew 1: 18-25.  As Matthew begins his story of Jesus’ birth, we learn that Joseph and Mary were already engaged to be married, but Joseph has recently discovered that Mary is pregnant.  According to Jewish law, an engagement was considered a legally binding arrangement, in which the couple were essentially already married.  As a result, Mary’s pregnancy could be considered as evidence of adultery and Joseph had the legal right to divorce her. 

In Jewish culture at the time, Mary could have been subjected to severe legal penalty that would have been publicly humiliating for her and her family.  But, Joseph was a caring person, who sought to be faithful to God.  So, rather than pursuing his legal rights in a public way that would humiliate Mary and embarrass her family, Joseph decided to end their relationship, quietly. 

At this point, God intercedes, using an angel to speak to Joseph in a dream.  The angel explains that Mary’s child was conceived through the Holy Spirit and that the baby is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah.  Then, the angel asks Joseph to accept the baby and adopt him as a son.  Since Joseph is a descendent of King David, his adoption of Jesus enables many of the ancient Hebrew prophecies concerning the Messiah to be fulfilled because these prophecies had claimed that the Messiah would be “of the house and lineage” of David.  When Joseph awoke from his dream, he did exactly as God had instructed.

During my proclamation this coming weekend (December 21st and 22nd), I will focus on several key characteristics which Joseph had.

1.      Generosity.  At first, it appears that Mary has been unfaithful and Joseph has a legal right to extract his revenge in a way that will humiliate her.  Instead of following up on this legal right, however, Joseph exhibits profound generosity, as he seeks a quieter, less confrontational resolution to the dilemma.

2.      Protective Care.  Joseph exhibits a protective care in several different ways.  First, his decision to avoid publicly exposing Mary is not only generous, but it also demonstrates his desire to provide protective care, even for a woman who has betrayed him.  Secondly, we know that Joseph cared for Mary during their long, difficult journey to Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth.  Finally, Joseph cared for the boy, Jesus, just as any loving father would.

3.      Strong Faith.  Joseph exhibits a strong faith when he trusts the angel’s rather incredible explanation that Mary has not been unfaithful, but is rather carrying the long-awaited Messiah. 

4.      Obedience.  Joseph is obedient to God.  He follows though and marries Mary.  Joseph also adopts Jesus, welcoming him into his household and caring for Jesus as though he were Joseph’s own biological son.

I believe that each of Joseph’s four characteristics are important qualities for twenty-first century Christians to nurture in our lives.  During my sermon this weekend, I will discuss and illustrate how we can nurture these qualities in our own faith journeys.

              If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending this weekend as we reflect on Joseph’s strong faith.  At Meriden United Methodist Church, we have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

I also encourage you to celebrate Christmas with us next week.  We will have two special Christmas services: 
Monday, December 23rd at 6 pm
A Special Children's Christmas Eve Service,
featuring a Special Children’s Christmas Story that I have written for the children of the church

Tuesday, December 24th at 7 pm
Adult Christmas Eve Candlelight Service,
featuring lessons and carols,
During the service, we will also celebrate the Moravian tradition of a Love Feast,
as we share sweet buns and spiced tea in the pews as part of the service

Everyone is always welcome and accepted at
Meriden United Methodist Church because God loves us all.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mary's Great Reversal

            In her book, Homespun Memories from the Heart, Karen Ehman recalls reading a Christmas story to her children.  When she had finished the story, her son, Mitchell, asked her “to read him a story from the Bible about the other Jesus.”

            “‘What other Jesus?’” she asked. 

            “‘Not baby Jesus,’ he replied.  ‘Big Jesus, who died on the cross.’” 

            Karen Ehman realized that in her young son’s mind there were actually two people named, Jesus.  She continues by observing, “We can’t have one part of the story without the other.  We can never forget that the hand-hewn manger one day became a rugged cross.  Nor can we peer lovingly into that same manger without looking to the cross.”[i]

            This weekend, we continue our preparation for Christmas by reading about and reflecting on Mary, the mother of Jesus.  On Saturday evening, I will be preaching on Mary’s “song,” from Luke 1: 46-55.  Mary’s song is one of both praise and prophecy.

            The passage begins with Mary giving thanks for being chosen as the woman who will give birth to the Messiah.  Mary says, “‘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…”(verses 47-48).

            Mary’s song is also one of prophecy, as she looks ahead to Jesus’ life and ministry.  Later in her song, Mary proclaims a time of “great reversal” in society, brought about by Jesus the Messiah:

            “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.”
                                                                                                      (verses 52-53)

            During the Christmas season, as we focus on the baby Jesus, it is easy to ignore or dismiss the prophetic vision contained in Mary’s Song.  Yet, if we are Christians of genuine faith, then we must allow our lives to be transformed by the other Jesus who died on the cross.  This transformation includes taking seriously Mary’s prophetic vision and allowing it to change our outlook and our lives. 

            We live in a society that has vast discrepancies in income and wealth.  Earlier this week, Robinson Canó, the baseball player, signed a new contract valued at $240 million.  Yet, at the same time, 20% of children in our society live below the poverty line.  How can a truly just society tolerate such disparities in resources and opportunities?

            Jesus expects his disciples to join with him as partners in establishing God’s Reign on Earth.  An important part of being a faithful Christian is working for social justice within our society.  Yet, our churches—as our society—are deeply divided politically.  Within my church in Meriden, we have Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, all worshipping together, side-by-side, in the same pews.  As a result, many pastors are afraid to preach on social justice because they are afraid this topic will divide their congregation—as a result, Mary’s prophetic vision gets overlooked and ignored.

            In my message on Saturday evening, I will suggest that, despite the risks, faithful Christians must work for social justice, but that this doesn’t have to divide congregations.  Rather, than focusing on what divides us, we need to begin with issues where we can agree. For instance, regardless of our political outlook, we can all agree that human trafficking (modern slavery) is wrong, and we can join together to stop this injustice.  Similarly, regardless of our political outlook, we can all agree that every child in our society deserves the basic resources needed to develop their potential in life.


If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.

Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

This Saturday evening, I will be preaching on the “great reversal” in Mary’s Song.  On Sunday morning, our Adult Choir will be performing a Christmas cantata, “Glory to the Newborn King.”

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Karen Ehman, Homespun Memories from the Heart (Ada, Michigan:  Revell, A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2005).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

There Is Hope in Judgment

            This Sunday I’m preaching on a very familiar figure during the Advent season, but I’m asking a question that I have never really explored before.  John the Baptist was sent by God to spiritually prepare the way for Jesus to come as the Messiah. 

            Matthew 3: 1-12 tells us that “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  John appeared as a wild man in the wilderness.  He wore clothing made from camel’s hair, and he primarily ate grasshoppers and wild honey.  Yet, despite his eccentric dress and diet, John the Baptist became something of a celebrity in his day.  In Jerusalem and throughout the area of Judea, people were talking about this weird man in the wilderness.  Among the Jewish people, all the “buzz” in the marketplace and in people’s homes was about this weird man, who was preaching in the wilderness.

            So, people began to flock to the river Jordan to see and hear this new prophet.  When they found John in the wilderness, he would preach to them about repenting from all of their sins.  When he was finished each day, most people would confess their sins and then be baptized by John in the Jordan River.  John was especially hard on the leaders of the Jewish religion, calling them “a brood of vipers”! 

After he baptized people, John would always caution them by saying, “‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but  one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’”

I have preached on John the Baptist many times over the course of my ministry.  In the past, I have always focused on John’s message of judgment and his call for all of us to repent before it’s too late.  In those previous sermons, I have asked how John would judge contemporary Christians and what he would condemn about our contemporary lifestyles. 

This weekend (December 7th and 8th), I intend to bring a new question to the story about John the Baptist.  This new question is simple:  Why did all of those people take a day off from their lives and go to the wilderness to hear John?  This really is a perplexing question, when you think about it.  In general, most of us do not like to have all of our sins and weaknesses pointed out to us.  And, we especially don’t like to be condemned for our sinfulness.  For instance, most of us have a bit of dread and anxiety when we have to sit through a performance review at work or school. 

So, given that most of us do not exactly cherish being condemned for our shortcomings, why would hard-working people voluntarily take a day off from their busy lives and; take a difficult hike through the dangerous wilderness, in order to be condemned by a strange man with bizarre habits?  Why would so many people do this?

What I will suggest in my proclamation this weekend is that people went out to hear John because they discovered a renewed hope for their lives in his message of judgment and doom.  There was hope in judgment.  Further, I will suggest that most Christians today are not all that different from the crowds who journeyed into the wilderness to hear John.  For us today, there is hope in judgment.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church.  Come this weekend to hear how there is hope for you, even if you’re not perfect.  Meriden United Methodist Church is located at the corner of Dawson and Main Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.

Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.