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.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Taking a Break

This Sunday, December 2nd, Beth Menhusen, the Associate Pastor at Christ UMC is preaching.  So, I'm taking a week off from writing my blog, but check back next week for some new reflections.