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01-03 - In Christ

12-27 - What Is Truth

12-24 - Fear Not

12-20 - Christmas Is For the Redeemed

12-13 - Christmas Is For the Lost

12-06 - Christmas is for Misfits

            The central characters of today’s New Testament reading are shepherds.  In the Bible, shepherds are treated with a great deal of respect.  The first shepherd mentioned in the Bible was Abel. Genesis, Chapter 4, tells us about the nature of Abel.  “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering.”  Abel, the shepherd, was favored by God because of Abel’s humility before God.

            Elsewhere in the Book of Genesis, we find Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds.  In the first book of Samuel, we find God’s favor resting upon another shepherd.  God sent a man named Samuel to an out of the way town of Bethlehem to see a man named Jesse.  Among the members of Jesse’s family was the future king of Israel. God sent Samuel to anoint the future king with oil as a sign of God’s favor.  Samuel asked Jesse to have his sons presented to him. 

Scripture tells us, that “When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’  But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’  Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel.  But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ 11 So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’  ‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’ Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’  12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’  13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David” (1 Samuel 16:6-13).

The anointing of David, a shepherd boy and future king of Israel, occurred in the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem.  Now, we come back to see that Bethlehem and its shephers was once again the center of God’s attention.  Only this time, we need to understand that people of power looked down on shepherds and considered them lazy, unrespectable, smelly, and outside the mainstream of life.  Why did the world view the shepherds so differently from Scripture?  I think the answer is in the question.  The world always looks down on those things and those people God chooses to elevate.  How and why did we get back to Bethlehem?  Luke said it all happened because the most powerful man on earth, the Roman emperor, Augustus, ordered a census to be taken, a counting of the people.  The Roman government conducted periodic counting of people to assess the amount of tax their country should pay the treasury of the Roman Empire.  Luke wrote, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (Luke 2:1, 3-5).

            Joseph and Mary were of the lineage of David, the shepherd.  Augustus ordered and Joseph and Mary obeyed.  Augustus was considered perfect and the pinnacle of all power.  The ruling class that surrounded Augustus revered him.  Before the birth of Christ, the leading citizens honored Augustus with these words, “the most perfect good for our lives [came about] by producing Augustus...the benefaction of humankind, [having been sent to] us and those after us a savior …and whereas Caesar when he appeared exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good news...and whereas the birthday of this god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming...”  Augustus the powerful, the revered, the savior, the good news for the world, ordered the misfits of the world to be taxed.  Those ordered to be taxed included a young couple Joseph and Mary.  They were engaged but not married.  They were pregnant but not by each other.  They were misfits to the power of Rome and misfits to the society of their own people.

Luke continued the story of the misfits moved by the power of Rome.  “While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” The misfits, Joseph and Mary, were now parents but that did not change their circumstances.  In Bethlehem, they were homeless.  There was no room for them in the house of a family member, friend, or stranger.  There was only a stable.  Mary, Joseph, and the baby were among the unwelcomed and unwanted of the world. 

From a human experience they were in awful circumstances.  But we need to remember that we are reading from the Bible.  The Bible is not the language of humanity about God but is the language of God about Himself that is understandable by humanity. And God does not write stories we might write.  God does not raise the proud to even higher heights.  God uses the misfits of the world to humble the proud.  God elevates the misfits and gives them great purposes. Luke records for us the action of God to use the humble and the people the world considers misfits.  Luke wrote, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David [Bethlehem] a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-11).  The misfits, the shepherds in the field, looked down upon by the world, were elevated by God and told to look for a savior.  A Savior?  Where would they find this savior?  In the palace of Rome where Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world lived?  No.  In the Temple of Jerusalem, the place of worship for the High Priest of Israel, the most religious person in the world? No.  The savior was not to be found among the powerful.  The savior would be found among the homeless laying in an animal’s feeding trough.  The savior would be found among those considered misfits.  It is in the humblest of locations that makes the savior so accessible.

Luke wrote, “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about’” Luke 2:15).  The shepherds immediately left to find the homeless couple and the babe described to them by the angels.

Luke finished the story of the shepherds this way, “16 So they [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they [the shepherds] spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:16-18).  The misfits found the baby and shared the good news concerning this child with Mary and Joseph and all who listen to the shepherds’ excited words. Although the shepherds were put down in society, they did not want anyone to miss the message they had received from God.  What the shepherds had to say and that they were the ones chosen to announce the news amazed all who heard them speak.

The unwelcomed, the unwanted, and misfits of life had been chosen by God to bring the good news to other people of what God was doing.

Being unwelcomed and unwanted is painful but particularly so at Christmas.  In 1964, a Christmas stop motion animated television special was released called Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Rudolph and a companion elf named Hermey, misfits both, travel the icy and snowy North Pole regions.  In their travels, they arrive at the Island of Misfit toys where they meet such notables as a Charlie-in-the-Box, a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels on its caboose, and a water pistol that squirts jelly, just to name a few.  The characters talked about their pain of being called a misfit with the loneliness, the isolation, and the hopelessness.  We can all understand those feelings.

Misfits are the people of God.  As God said to Samuel when sent to Jesse to find the new king to anoint, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  God knew the heart of Mary and Joseph, two nobodies, and knew they were the perfect people for his plan.  God knew the heart of these shepherds and knew they were the right people to begin spreading the good news.  God knew his message of hope and peace could not come from the high and mighty among the world whether they were of the government or of the religious institutions.  Those who have power and prestige do not share the stage with God, so neither does God use them to share the message of hope.  God’s good news of hope and peace had to come from the misfits.

Wonder if the good news only comes from misfits? Look at the people this baby, Jesus, would surround himself?  Twelve men all either smelly fisherman, tax collectors, or other marginalized people. There were the women who cared for Jesus.  The sinner who pour perfume on his feet.  Mary Magdalene who had been possessed by seven evil spirits.  Speaking of evil spirits, Jesus once healed a man who roamed the cemetery because of the evil spirits possessing him.  That man was such a misfit that his own people tried to chain him down.  After Jesus healed this man, Jesus told him go and share the news of what God had done with his people.  Ten lepers approached Jesus and asked for healing.  These men were the ultimate misfits of society.  Jesus healed them and said go and show the priests what God had done.  Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, a misfit to the people of her town. She left Jesus and proclaimed the good news.  Christ came as a message of hope for the misfits not the mighty.  What of the powerful?  Oh, yes, the powerful religious people and powerful governmental forces of Rome would come together and in agreement on Jesus.  They would kill him as a misfit.

Not much has changed in the last 2,000 years.  Christ and Christmas are still for the misfits. You and I are here today because we, in our own unique ways, we are misfits.  You would not seek Jesus unless you were.  In Jesus own words, he said those who would come to him be blessed are those who are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, and those who peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-9). These are not the attributes of those who have everything.  These are attributes of those seeking a relationship with God. If you did not think of yourself as a misfit before seeking God, rest assured you will be considered a misfit to this society once you do seek God.

Jesus knew the journey of faith for those seeking him would be difficult and at times exhausting.  And to give us the strength we need for that journey, Jesus gave us a meal to sustain us. He gave of his body and his blood. His body nourishes our spirit, and his blood cleans us of all sin.  Together his body and blood unite us to him and one another.  Our status in Christ is changes us from misfit to citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  Our inner being is comforted.  We are heirs to eternity.  We are filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We will see God and be called his children.  This is not how humanity would write the story.  This is how God wrote the story.  We know the beginning.  We know the ending.  We are somewhere in between, on a journey of faith together.  Christ and Christmas were made for us misfits and we have a story to tell.

I want to encourage you to be strengthen for the journey as we share the Lord’s Supper.  I also want to encourage you to begin thinking about going in haste to share the good news and have people amazed that God chose you to speak to them.  Amen and Amen.

11-29 - Detangling

            We have now entered the Christmas season.  Despite COVID-19 virus, the social distancing regulations, and the color-coded zones established by NY State, the calendar relentlessly churns forward toward Christmas Day.  Interestingly enough, Christmas day is celebrated by the overwhelming majority of countries across the world.  Of the 195 countries in the world, 160 countries have some form of Christmas celebration. Among those nations there are some common traditions and some uncommon practices.  A few of the uncommon practices include one from Caracas, Venezuela, where it is the custom to travel to church on Christmas Eve wearing roller skates.  In the Ukraine, people add artificial spider webs to their tree decorations. In Spain, it is customary to wear red underwear on Christmas Eve.  This is just a sampling of the unusual ways Christmas is celebrated across the world.

            A common tradition is putting lights on the Christmas tree.  For many of us, putting up the lights can be a stressful event.  I read an article about reducing the stress of lighting the tree. A British company, Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job—a Christmas Light Untangler. The job involved 36-hour-a-week with the principle duty being to staff and manage the Christmas Lights Detangling stand. Detangling Christmas lights seems like a great service.

            It would also be a good service to the Christian community if we detangled the Biblical story of Jesus from the traditions, customs, and folklore about Jesus birth.  Detangling the story of Jesus’ birth helps us understand the true message of Christ from the glitter, tinsel, and wrapping paper that symbolizes Christmas. 

I would like us to begin our work at the detangling stand by reading from today’s New Testament reading found in  Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew.  The Bible says, “16 Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).  Then Matthew wrote, “18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” (Matthew 1:18a).  The first truth we learn from Matthew was that Jesus was the Messiah.  What did Messiah mean to the people of Israel?

The Messiah had been promised to Israel by God through the prophets.  The Messiah was believed to be a coming king of Israel anointed by God. There were two schools of thought about the Messiah.  One group believed the Messiah “king” would be a political leader; a ruler, visible and powerful, and victorious for Israel.  On the other hand, there were those who hoped the Messiah would be sent from heaven, part human, part divine, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth. Both groups believed that when the Messiah came, it was the beginning of the end of times.

The promise of a Messiah was found in passages from the Books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi, just to name a few.  It had been over 400 years since God spoke about the Messiah making the Messiah’s coming long expected.  Even the Romans wrote of an expectation of a king coming from Judea.  People were waiting for their version of the king to come.

As we untangle Christmas then, we should see the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, as the answer to prayer and the answer to promises made by God.  We should also see Jesus as king, not as a political leader, but as one who invites us to be led by him into God’s kingdom.  Christmas Day then should be a celebration of our place in God’s kingdom.

As we look further in verse 16, we notice that Jesus’ mother was Mary, but the name of Jesus’ father was omitted.  Matthew was signaling to his readers that Jesus did not have an earthly biological father.  Matthew would explain the truth about Jesus’ father a little later but he wanted his readers to wonder, who is the Dad?  The second thing we learn was that Jesus was born.  Jesus was not created out of thin air.  He did not descend from heaven in bodily form.  Matthew wrote Jesus was born of Mary.  This means Jesus, the Messiah, the king, was fully human. Jesus had the customary ten fingers and ten toes evenly divided over two hands and two feet.  Jesus was physically helpless and as dependent upon his mother as any other infant.  Jesus’ mother would have wrapped him tight with cloths much in the same way mother’s today wrap their newborn babies in a receiving blanket.  But as we detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas traditions, we need to bear in mind that there was no halo encircling Jesus’ head.  Jesus did not have blond hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion as is often depicted in paintings and nativity sets.  Jesus would have had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion.  Jesus was a king and a human being.

So in our detangling of Jesus’ life from Christmas tradition, we should celebrate Jesus was as human as we are.  Jesus understood the human experience firsthand because he lived it. 

            Matthew then wrote, “His [Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  Mary’s family had arranged her marriage to this man Joseph, but the wedding ceremony had not yet happened.  Marriage happened early in life, so Mary was only a teenager.  Mary was legally bound to Joseph but still lived in her father’s house.  The wedding would occur when Mary’s father decided the time was right.  When he decided, then Mary and her family would travel to Joseph’s house for the wedding.  Joseph needed to be ready.

            Matthew said that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, meaning that Jesus’ father was not human but was God himself.  The apostle John would later record these words from Jesus.  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).  Jesus was therefore, human because flesh, Mary, gave birth to flesh.  And Jesus was divine, God, because Spirit gave birth to Spirit.  This means Jesus had the will of God, the divine and the will of Jesus, the human.  Jesus had two wills in one being and yet his two wills were never in conflict.  Jesus always wanted whatever his father wanted. Jesus came as king to lead, human to live our experience, and was God who would get things right.

            We then read that Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and not by him.  Matthew wrote, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19).  God waited to act through Mary until she was engaged to Joseph and before they were married.  Mary was part of God’s plan, and so too was Joseph.  An unmarried pregnant young woman was at risk.  Her father could have her put out of his home or he could pursue the law and have Mary killed for fornication, sex before marriage.  God would use these circumstances to show the character of righteous men through Joseph. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph felt he had two choices: demand Mary be punished under the law with a cry for justice or divorce her as quietly as possible as an act of mercy.  Joseph could see no other alternatives.  As we detangle the emotions of the moment, we discover that Joseph loved mercy more than justice.

            From Joseph’s posture of mercy, Matthew picked up the story again.  Matthew wrote, “20 But after he (Joseph) had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him (Joseph) in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:20-24).  We detangle the next layer of emotions and discover that God helped Joseph see more options were available to a righteous man.  God asked Joseph to be obedience to God even over Joseph’s own sense of mercy.  In listening to God and being willing to be led by God, Joseph came to see that Mary, the baby Jesus, and he, Joseph, were part of God’s plan to fulfill his promises. Joseph came to see that God is not a God of chance or improper timing.  Nothing about Jesus’ birth was a coincidence and certainly was not a surprise to God.  Each person, including Joseph, had been hand-picked by God for a purpose.

            So when we detangle Jesus’ birth from the traditions of Christmas Day we realize that God has a plan and that plan includes you and me.  In God’s plan, He has a desire for us to be obedient to Him and in doing so we can display God’s righteousness through our lives. As important as Joseph was to the story of Jesus, there is not one sentence recording his words.  Joseph showed God’s righteousness by his behavior. 

            For nearly 400 years, the Jewish people waited for a messenger from God, the Messiah, to lead them as king.  Now, in Joseph’s life, God was finally acting.  The bitterness Joseph felt in believing Mary had betrayed him was removed and replaced with the joy of doing what God wanted him to do.  There was no need for justice or even mercy.  The only thing that God required of Joseph was obedience.  Matthew wrote, “24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24). Joseph conformed his will to the will of God.  That is what obedience means, conforming two wills into one.

            When we think of Christmas Day, we see that God was detangling the idea of Messiah.  The Messiah had come as a king.  But Jesus did not come to command and demand allegiance by the power of political forces or military might.  Jesus came in the flesh to walk with people and talk with them and to love them. Jesus came as God to heal the sick and give hope to those who were lost.  Matthew wrote that Jesus came to save people from their sins, sins that would destroy not just their bodies but their souls.  Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises.

            As we detangle Jesus’ story from Christmas Day traditions, we might ask ourselves some questions in the format commonly used in youth groups with each question beginning with the word, “Would you rather?”  Try these questions:

  • Would you rather live this life on your own or with a God who loves you?  Jesus came because God loves you.  Christmas is not about packages wrapped in pretty paper. It is about God’s plan to love the world.
  • Would you rather live your life where promises are often broken or in a kingdom of God where promises are always kept?  God kept his promise of sending His Messiah.  Christmas is not about ornaments hung on a tree.  It is about holding tightly to the promises of God that will be kept.
  • Would you rather wonder what your life is all about or know that you are part of God’s plan?  God sent Jesus that you and I would follow Him and fulfill a wonderful purpose. Christmas is not about chance as to what gift may be in our stocking.  It is about knowing that God wants to gift us with an abundant life.

We could go on with this list for quite some time. The point is that we need to detangle Jesus’ birth from Christmas Day traditions.  When we separate the two, we discover Jesus came to lead us into the kingdom of God. Jesus came to walk with us through the good and the challenging human experiences.  Jesus came to reveal the power of God.  Jesus came to reveal the plans of God.  And Jesus came to invite us to show God’s righteousness through our lives.  We will not find any of these wonderful and inspiring realities in our wearing roller skates to church, putting spiderwebs on our Christmas trees, or even wearing red underwear.  We can only find the essence of Christmas when we put such things aside and come into the presence of God through Jesus Christ.  This year, I encourage you to spend some time at the detangling station and pull from all the Christmas Day traditions the essence of Jesus birth.  Amen and Amen.