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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Don't Miss Out!

Are you a Christmas Eve person or a Christmas Day person?  In other words, do you have your big celebration on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day?

It’s funny how different families develop different traditions.  Wanda’s family was a Christmas Eve family.  They had their special meal and opened the presents on Christmas Eve.  My family was a Christmas Day family.  We opened the presents Christmas morning and had the big meal at noon.  Which is, of course, the proper way to do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Christmas Eve church service with the story from the Bible and the candles and everything.  But you have to wait until Christmas morning to open your presents because Santa doesn’t come until you go to bed on Christmas Eve.  Everyone knows that.

Kidding aside, while it’s interesting to see how different families develop their own traditions, in the long run it truly does not matter.  Celebrate Christmas at whatever time works best.  What really matters is, what happens now?  What happens when it’s December 29th or so?

What happens for a lot of people is that they move on with their lives.  Yes, there are a few who’ll leave the Christmas decorations up for a few more days.  Some of us will decide that it’s still the Christmas season until Epiphany, which is January 6.  But then, a lot of people will move on.  Christmas will be packed up and put away.  We’ll go on with our lives as if nothing had happened.

And, for some people, nothing will have happened.  They’ll go back to living their lives like they did before Christmas.  They’ll have had a good time, they’ll have had some good food and maybe a nice time with family and friends, but that all they’ll have had.  Christmas will have had no impact on their lives.

That’s too bad.  I’m not mad at them or anyhing, and I don’t think God is mad at them, either.  It’s just that they’re missing out on so much.  If the coming of the Savior has no impact on our lives, if it’s just a good time that we have once a year and then move on from, we’re missing out.  We’re missing out on the chance to feel God’s Spirit in our lives.  We’re missing out on the chance to feel God guiding us, helping us through life.  We’re missing out on the incredible miracle of God’s love.  We’re missing out on knowing that we’re not God’s servants, we’re God’s children, and that God loves us the way good parents love their children.  God loves us so much that God, in the form of Jesus Christ, literally died for us.  That’s an amazing love to have in our lives.  It’s sad when people miss out on it.

I hope you’re not missing out on it.  If you are, please let me know, so we can talk about it.  If you know someone who is, please try to talk to them about it.  I know it’s hard to do.  It can be a difficult conversation to have.  But try anyway.  It’s important.  If we care about people, the most loving thing we can do for them is try to help them feel God’s love.

People have to make their own decisions, but we need to do what we can.  People need to know God’s love.  People need to accept Jesus as their Savior.  Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  Don’t let anyone you care about miss out.  And make sure you don’t miss out, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Not Just Today

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 25, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 2:1-20.

When you look at the Christmas story, you can’t help but notice how many of the people in it were ordinary people.  They were people like you and me, going through their lives one day at a time, doing nothing particularly remarkable.  Then, all of a sudden, God called on these ordinary people and asked them to do some extraordinary things.  Today, on the day we celebrate the birth of the Savior, we’re going to take a look at the shepherds and their role in the Christmas story.
            If you want to get an idea of who the shepherds were, think of some of the cowboys who were in this country in the first part of the twentieth century.  I don’t mean the Hollywood version of cowboys, I mean the real thing.  I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a few people who, when they were young, were involved in some of that, and some of you have, too.  They have quite the stories to tell.
            Contradicting what Hollywood says, it was not a glamorous life.  It was a very hard life.  You were out in the elements constantly, no matter what those elements were.  In the summer, it was high heat and humidity.  In the winter, it was bitter cold and snowstorms.  There was everything in-between as well.  You found shelter whenever and wherever you could.  You did not get paid very much.  You were kind of looked down on by the higher-ups in society.  It was not the kind of life very many people actually aspired to live.
            That’s pretty much who the shepherds were, back in Jesus’ time.  They were better than the beggars—at least they were working for a living—but they were pretty much on the bottom rung of that part of society that was employed.  Those are the people to whom God chose to send an angel.  Those are the people God chose to be the first ones to know about the birth of the Savior.
            I’m sure that, on that first Christmas night, the last thing these shepherds expected was that they’d see an angel.  I don’t doubt they believed in angels.  Angels show up quite a few times in the Old Testament, and they’d have heard all those stories.  The thing is, though, that these shepherds knew they were considered low-class people.  They might have believed that angels could appear to people, but if they ever thought about it, they probably thought they were the last people on earth God would send angel to.
            Then, as they’re doing their jobs one night, there’s an angel in their midst.  We don’t know if this was Gabriel again, the one who appeared to Mary and Joseph.  The Bible just says it was an angel.  But just as every other time an angel appears in the Christmas story, the shepherds are terrified.  The angel tells them not to be afraid.  Then the angel says those words that many of have heard so often, the words we hear every time we watch the Charlie Brown Christmas show.  “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
            “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”
            And that’s it.  That’s all the Bible says about the angels coming to the shepherds.  Do you think it really happened exactly that way?  I mean, I’m not saying the Bible is wrong or anything, but think about it.  If you read the words the angel said, it takes about thirty seconds.  If you allow some time for the appearance and disappearance of the angel and the heavenly host, it takes about a minute.
            Was that really it?  Did the angel say some more stuff that’s not recorded?  Did the heavenly host have more to say, too?  Or did this all really just take a minute or less?  Did the angel and the heavenly host just pop in, say their bits, and leave?
            If so, try to imagine how you’d feel if you were those shepherds.  You’d think you’d been seeing things.  You’d wonder if you’d fallen asleep and dreamed that.  You’d be hesitant to even say anything to the others.  You’d be afraid they might think you’d gone nuts if you even started talking about seeing an angel, much less a heavenly host.
            You look around at the others, and you notice everyone else kind of doing the same thing.  They all have strange looks on their faces.  Finally, someone says, “Hey, did you guys see something?”
            You go, “Well, uh, maybe.  What kind of something?”
            “Well, I don’t know, just sort of like, well, a person, kind of, but not exactly.  It was sort of like they had this light around them.”
            “You mean, like an angel?”
            “Well, now I’m not saying an angel, but, you know, now that you mention it, yeah, sort of.  I mean, I’m not saying it was an angel.  I’m just saying that, now that you’ve put that idea in my head, it did kind of look like an angel, in a way.  You know?”
            You go on like that for a while, and eventually everyone admits that they saw the same thing.  They all heard the same thing, too.  So, you all decide you’re going to go down to Bethlehem and see what the angel was talking about.  When you get there, there it all is, just like the angel said.  There’s Mary, and there’s Joseph, and there’s the baby, this baby who’s going to be the Messiah, the Savior.  In fact, that’s not really accurate.  The angel did not say the child is going to be the Savior, the angel said the child already is the Savior, even though he’s still a baby.  The angel did not tell the shepherds about something that was going to happen someday.  The angel told them about something that was happening right now, in their presence.
            The shepherds told everyone there what had happened, about the angel and the heavenly host and all that.  Everyone was amazed, as of course you would be.  Then, we’re told, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
            We never hear about these shepherds again in the Bible.  We don’t know what happened to them.  We don’t know what they did.  Again, though, try to imagine yourself as one of them. You’ve seen the angel.  You’ve seen a great company of the heavenly host.  You’ve seen the baby who is the Savior.
            You think things would just go back to normal after that?  I don’t.  Now, they may have stayed shepherds.  The prospects for career advancement for a shepherd were not that great back then, and they still had to make a living.  I don’t think they just went about their business, though.  Listen again to what the scripture says.  It says “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
            I don’t think that’s something the shepherds just did that night.  I think it’s something the shepherds did the rest of their lives.  I think they told this story every chance they got.  I think they glorified and praised God every time they could.  Every time they saw someone, they talked about this.  When they were by themselves, they talked about it to each other.  I think they re-lived this night and glorified and praised God every day that they remained on this earth.  That might even be how Luke knew about the story and included it in his gospel.  If so, that would make these ordinary, low-class people among the most important people who ever lived.
            There’s a lesson there for all of us, I think.  What those shepherds did is what all of us are supposed to do.  No matter what we do for a living, no matter what our job is, even if we don’t have a job at all, this is what we’re supposed to do.  As we go about our lives, we’re supposed to glorify and praise God always.  We’re supposed to talk about the Savior every chance we get.  We’re supposed to spread the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ all our lives, for whatever time we have left on this earth.
            Do we do that?  For most of us, the answer is no.  It is for me.  I don’t do nearly as good a job of glorifying and praising God as I should.  I’ll do it in church.  I’ll do it at a gathering where a prayer is expected.  But just as I go about my everyday life?  Not very often.  That’s probably true of a lot of us.
            The point is not to make anyone to feel guilty.  The point is that we need to change.  That’s the point of the whole Christmas story, really.  We need to change.  That’s part of why Jesus came to earth.  We need to change.  Jesus brought a message that said we need to change, that we need to turn away from our sins, that we need to glorify and praise God always.  It’s a message that was true two thousand years ago, and it’s a message that’s still true today.

            Any time is a good time to make that change.  There could be no better day, though, than this day, Christmas Day.  On this day, we are doing what the shepherds did.  We’re celebrating the birth of the Savior.  Let’s not stop with today.  Let’s do what the shepherds did tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.  Let’s glorify and praise God every day of our lives.  Let’s spread the message of the Savior every chance we get, as long as we’re on this earth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Defending Christmas

This blog post is a Christmas tradition, having appeared every year at about this time since 2009 at my prior blog.

            We are just a few days away from Christmas Day.  Among other things, that means it’s the time of year for pastors to complain about the secularization of Christmas.

            There are secular aspects to Christmas, of course.  There always have been. Some of them are fine.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with giving and receiving presents, as long as you don’t go overboard about it.  There’s nothing wrong with decorating trees and putting up Christmas lights.  In fact, I enjoy looking at them.   

The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is not because Jesus was actually born on that date.  We don’t know the actual day on which Jesus was born, although there are various theories.  Some sources say the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that it was a time when there were already secular celebrations going on, centering on the winter solstice.  If so, then it might be more accurate to say that followers of Jesus have been trying to Christianize a secular holiday, rather than the other way around.

            Therefore, I really don’t think that, as Christians, we need to feel like we have to defend Jesus in some sort of war on Christmas.  In fact, the idea of Christians fighting a war over the birth of the Prince of Peace seems like a contradiction in terms.  All we need to do, as Christians, is make clear what it is that we are celebrating, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

            Let others wish us a “happy holiday”; we can still wish them a merry Christmas.  If some don’t want a nativity scene at the courthouse, we can still put one in our front yard.  More than three-fourths of Americans claim to be Christians.  If three-fourths of the houses in this country had nativity scenes in their yards, there’d be no need for one on public property.  In fact, we’d probably make more of an impact that way.

            We don’t need to get mad at people who want to secularize Christmas.  What we need to do is calmly, persistently, and lovingly make sure people know that, as Christians, we are celebrating the birth of Christ.  Then, in that same way, we need to make sure people know who Jesus is, why we worship him, and why others should worship him, too.  If we do that, our Lord and Savior will do the rest.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Getting Ready for Christmas

As I write this, it is exactly ten days until Christmas.  And I hear a lot of people talk about how they’re not ready for Christmas.  I sometimes say it myself, as I don’t have the Christmas Eve service prepared yet.

On the one hand, it seems kind of odd that, so often, we’re not ready for Christmas, as if Christmas kind of snuck up on us when we weren’t looking.  After all, Christmas comes on December 25th every year.  It has for about seventeen hundred years.  It’s not like we didn’t know when it was going to be this year.  And yet, somehow, we never seem to be quite ready for it to come, as if we thought maybe this year it would be December 28th or 29th or something.

But on the other hand, there truly is a sense in which it’s important that we get ready for Christmas.  Think of what we’re celebrating.  I mean, the trees and the gifts and the food and all that stuff is fun, and I’m not opposed to any of it, but think about what we’re really celebrating.  We’re celebrating the greatest gift there ever was—the gift of salvation.  We’re celebrating the birth of the Savior.  We’re celebrating God himself—because that’s who Jesus was, God the Son—leaving the splendor and majesty of heaven and coming to earth in the form of a human being.  A human being, subject to all the temptations and suffering of life that you and I are subject to.  Coming to earth, to live among us, to teach us, to heal us, to show us how we should live.  And then, ultimately, to die for us, taking the punishment that should have gone to us so that our sins could be forgiven and we could go on to eternal life.

We need to take some time to prepare ourselves to celebrate that.  We need to take some time to truly appreciate it.  We need to really think about what Christmas is actually all about.  If we don’t, we may still have a good time, but that’s all Christmas will be for us—a good time.  Some days to spend some time with family, share some gifts, and eat well.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, but all of those things are things that will pass.  A pleasant feeling, a good time, but then we move on.

Celebrating what Christmas is really about is not just a pleasant feeling.  It’s not something we just move on from.  Truly celebrating the birth of the Savior, thinking about who he was and who he is, what he did and what he still does, that’s life-changing.  It can change both our earthly life and our eternal life.  Because that’s what Jesus came to do—change both our earthly life and our eternal life.

So have some fun at Christmas, but also remember what it is we’re celebrating.  Embrace the life-changing spirit of Christmas this year.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It Never Fails

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 11, 2016.  The Bible verses used are 2 Samuel 7:8-16 and Luke 1:30-38.

             As we approach Christmas, we’ve been looking at the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Savior, and how those prophecies came true in the story of Jesus.  Today we look at the statement that Jesus would be a descendant of David.  The way this often shows up in the Bible is that Jesus is from “the house of David” or from “the line of David”.
            This prophecy appears in the second book of Samuel, but it was actually made by the prophet Nathan.  Nathan lived in the tenth century B. C., so this prophecy came about a thousand years before Jesus was born.
            This was at the time that David was the king of Israel.  King David asked Nathan whether he should build a great temple for God.  At first Nathan gave him the go-ahead, but then the word of God came to Nathan.  God, speaking through Nathan, tells David, I did not ask you to build anything for me and I don’t want you to.  Instead, I’m going to do something for you.  I’m going to make your name as great as anyone on earth.  And, God says, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
            And just like we said last week, this prophecy was remembered.  It was carefully written down and copied.  It was passed on from one generation to the next.  Even in the time of Joseph and Mary, when Jesus was born, people remembered it.  They knew that, when the Savior came, he would have to be from the line of David.  After all, the Savior would be the king forever, and David’s family would be the kings forever, so the Savior had to come from David’s family.
            When the angel is speaking to Mary, the angel reiterates that promise.  The angel tells Mary, “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end”.
            That’s why, at the start of the gospel of Matthew and in Chapter Three of the gospel of Luke, you get these long lists on genealogies.  Those genealogies establish that Jesus was, in fact, descended from David, at least as far as his earthly parents were concerned.  In fact, they both go back even farther than David.  Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestors all the way back to Abraham.  Luke traces Jesus’ ancestors even farther back, going all the way back to Adam.
            That’d be pretty cool, right?  To be able to trace your ancestry all the way back to Adam?  Let’s see do that!
            But you know, we look at all this today, and we say, well, so what, really?  I mean, it might be interesting to see that Jesus really was descended from David, and that the Old Testament prophecy came true.  We can maybe see why that was a big deal to the people back then.  But what difference does it make to us now?  This was a long time ago.  Why does it matter to us today if Jesus was descended from David or Saul or Ahaz or Ish-Kabibble?  
            It matters, I think, simply because it was a promise from God.  And we need to be able to trust God’s promises.  That’s one of the bases of our faith, after all:  that God’s word is true and that God’s word can be trusted.  As the old song says, we need to stand on the promises of God.  If God’s promises cannot be trusted, if God can break God’s word, then how do we trust anything we know about God?  How do we trust that God is good and that God is love and that God is merciful?  How do we trust that Jesus really did come to save us from our sins?  After all, if God’s promises cannot be trusted, if God cannot be trusted, then how do we believe any of the stuff we’ve heard about God?  
It might not matter to us whether Jesus was descended from David.  But it does matter to us whether God can be trusted.  It does matter to us that God’s word is true.  After all, what was the last thing the angel said to Mary?  The thing that convinced her to go along with being the mother of the divine son of God?  The angel said, “For no word from God will ever fail.”
That convinced Mary.  Does it convince us?  Do we really believe that we can trust God with everything, including our lives?  Do we really believe that no word from God will ever fail?  And if we say we do, how many of us really live our lives that way?
You know, if you continue with the story of Luke after what we read today, you read a lot of things that Mary did and that Mary said.  You read about Mary going to visit her relative Elizabeth.  You read a beautiful poem, a song really, from Mary about the greatness and glory and holiness of God.  You read about the trip to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.  You read about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to be circumcised.  You read all this stuff, but you know what you don’t read?  You don’t read anything about Mary being worried about anything.  You don’t read anything about her being fearful of what might happen.
That’s pretty remarkable.  Especially when you think about the situation Mary was in.  A single woman, pregnant, with no way to explain her pregnancy other than a miracle of God.  Having to make a long trip to Bethlehem, either on foot or, possibly riding a donkey, when she was about to give birth.  Having to give birth to her child in a stable, a barn.  And yet, Mary never seems to have worried about any of it.  She had the promise of God, given to her and everyone else by the prophet Nathan, and reiterated by the angel.  And that was all she needed.  She believed that if God had said this was the way things were supposed to go, then they would go that way, and it would be all right.  She believed what the angel had said, that no word of God will ever fail.  And so, Mary trusted God with everything.  Even her life.
Would you like to have that kind of faith?  I think we all would.  It would be wonderful, would it not?  To be able to face anything and not have any worries, not have any fears.  To be in a really difficult situation, maybe through no fault of your own, and just trust that it’s all going to work out.  To be able to turn everything over to God.  Even our life.  And to have complete and total trust that God will take care of things, that they will go the way they’re supposed to go, and that things will be all right.
We’d all like to have that kind of faith.  And we can.  We can trust God with our lives.  After all, as we said last week, Mary was nobody special.  She was an ordinary person when God called her.  A person like you and me.  And she was able to have that kind of faith.  So if Mary could do it, we can do it, too.  So why don’t we?
Let’s think about it.  If someone asked us whether we agree with the statement “No word from God will ever fail”, most of us would probably say that we do.  And yet, with all the promises God has made to us--promises to be just and righteous and compassionate, promises to love us and forgive our sins, promises to take us to heaven if we believe in Jesus Christ--and numerous other promises as well--we still have trouble living our lives as if we believe that.  We live our lives thinking that we have to take care of things ourselves, rather than trusting God to take care of things for us. We claim to believe in those promises, and we claim to believe that no word of God will ever fail, but too often, we don’t live our lives that way.
And please, don’t think I’m pointing fingers here.  Too often I don’t live my life that way, either.  But how do we get there?  How do we get to where we don’t just say we believe in the promises of God, but actually live our lives in a way that shows we really believe those promises?
I think the way we do it is to get as close to God as we possibly can.  After all, would you trust someone you did not feel close to?  Would you have faith in the promises of someone you did not spend much time with and did not feel like you knew very well?  We only trust people we feel close to, and the closer we feel to someone the more we trust them and the more faith we have in them.
So we need to get as close to God as we can.  We need to read God’s word, so we can see what God’s promises actually are and can see all the times in the past when God has kept those promises.  And we need to pray to God.  And when we pray, we need to not just give God our list of requests.  I mean, it’s okay to do that.  God says we can make requests of God.  But that should not be all we do.  We need to spend some time opening ourselves up to God.  We need to open our hearts and our souls to God, so God’s Spirit can come in.  We need to give God the chance to speak to us.  We need to give God the chance to let us know what God wants us to do.
If we get close to God, we can know what God wants us to do.  And if we know God’s promises, and if we see all the times God has kept God’s promises, then we can know, as the angel said, that no word from God will ever fail.  We can not just believe it in our heads, but we can know it in our hearts.  And then, we can live our lives as if we truly believe it.  We can ahead and do what God wants us to do.  And we can trust that, when we do, things will go the way they are supposed to go.  And then, we can trust God with everything.  Even our lives.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Cue the Christmas Music!

It’s the Christmas season.  Well, technically, it’s the Advent season.  A lot of my pastor friends, who go by the liturgical calendar, would say that it’s Advent until Christmas Day, and that the Christmas season comes after that, up until Epiphany.  And technically, from a liturgical standpoint, they’re right.  But the rest of the world says it’s the Christmas season, and I don’t see much point in arguing with the world about it.

And besides, if I call it the Christmas season, then I can start listening to (and singing along with) Christmas carols.  That’s one of the aspects of the Christmas season I like the most.  I love singing the old carols.  They don’t necessarily have to be religious—I love “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night”, but I also love “Jingle Bells” and “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”.  I even enjoy some of the novelty Christmas songs, like “Christmas on Christmas Island” and “Oh I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas”.  There are a few Christmas songs I don’t care for, but not that many.  For the most part, Christmas songs carry a message of love and peace and hope, and how can we not want to hear that message?

The other thing Christmas songs do is evoke memories.  All music does that, really, but Christmas music especially does.  I can remember singing some of these carols at Christmas programs when I was a kid.  I can remember singing them at any number of candlelight services. I can remember we had my grandmother’s funeral the day of Christmas Eve and how that night, wanting to make everyone feel better, I sat down at the piano and played some Christmas songs.   I can even remember a Christmas Eve when I was alone, and I sat down at the piano with the hymnal and played and sang every Christmas song in it, including some I didn’t know, and how much better it made me feel.

Christmas music, and really all music, is a gift from God.  Like all gifts God gives us, it can be misused.  People can send terrible messages through music, and sometimes they do.  But people can also send wonderful messages through music, and most of the time that is what we do.  And the message of Christmas is about as good a message to send through music as there can possibly be.

So I hope you’ll enjoy some Christmas music this year.  Start playing it now, and keep playing it through Christmas and through New Year’s.  Heck, play it through Valentine’s Day and beyond if you want to.  Why not?  The message of Christmas does not end on Christmas Day.  There’s no reason the music of Christmas has to end then, either.

But whenever you start it, and whenever you end it, enjoy the music of Christmas.  Even more, though, take to heart the message of Christmas.  “Christ, the Savior, is born.”  “Let heaven and nature sing!”

Saturday, December 3, 2016

God With Us

This is the message given Sunday, December 4, 2016 in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38.

            In this season of Advent, we’re looking at Old Testament prophecies that told about the coming of the Savior.  Those prophecies did not just say that a Savior was coming.  They were very specific about how the Savior was coming.  These prophecies said, in effect, “Here’s how you’re going to be able to tell if the person you’re looking at really is the Savior.”  Today we look at one of the big ones, the virgin birth.
            When we’ve grown up in the church, or when we’ve heard the Christmas story lots of times, we sometimes take the virgin birth for granted.  We use the term “Virgin Mary” so often it’s like the word “virgin” was part of her name.  We forget what an incredible, unbelievable thing the birth of Jesus Christ to a virgin truly was.
            I mean, think about this.  Imagine that you were Mary.  Not “The Virgin Mary”, just Mary.  You’re not a famous person.  You don’t come from a wealthy family.  You’re nobody special or important.  Except, of course, to Joseph.  You’re very special and important to him.  He loves you and he’s going to marry you.  But he’s just a common, ordinary person, too.  Just like you are.  Two common, ordinary people who plan to live a common, ordinary life together.  Joseph will make an ordinary living as a carpenter.  You’ll have some kids.  Raise a family.  Hopefully, grow old together.  Two common, ordinary people living common, ordinary lives, just like any number of other people do and have for thousands of years.
            And then, one day, this angel, Gabriel, comes to you.  That, in and of itself, would be shocking.  An angel, coming to see you?  Common, ordinary Mary?  And then, this angel tells you that you’re going to have a baby.  I mean, not a baby with Joseph, someday, after you’re married.  You’re going to have a baby now.  And Joseph’s not really going to have anything to do with it.  This baby is going to be conceived with the Holy Spirit.  This baby is going to be the Son of God.
            What would you think, if you were Mary?  Would you believe it?  It’d be pretty hard to, right?  Even having an angel come and tell you this, it still would be hard to believe.  In fact, you might wonder if you were seeing things, even hearing things.  You might wonder if you were dreaming or if this was an hallucination.  You might wonder if you were going crazy.  It would be really hard to believe.
It would’ve been hard for anyone else to believe, too.  Even Joseph had a hard time with it.  That’s why the prophecy from Isaiah was so important.  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”.  Immanuel.  A name that means “God with us”.  And that’s who Jesus was:  God with us.  And suddenly, Mary realized that she had been chosen to fulfill that prophecy from Isaiah.  She was the virgin Isaiah was talking about.  She was going to give birth to the Son of God.
            But then we think, “Well, so what, really?  Why is this virgin birth so important?  I mean, yes, it was really something for Mary to be the fulfillment of this prophecy made hundreds of years earlier, but how does it affect our lives now?  What do we make so much of a deal about the virgin birth?  What difference does it make to our faith today?”
            It makes all the difference in the world.  If Jesus was not born of a virgin, if Jesus was just a baby born from a human mother and a human father, the way every other human baby is, then Jesus is simply a human being.  He might be a good human being.  He might be a wise human being.  He might be a very kind, very loving human being.  But still, he’s just a human being.  Not the Savior.  Not the divine Son of God.  Just another human being.  Someone who lived and someone who died.  Someone who had interesting story, but just another human being.  Someone to admire, maybe.  Someone even to try to be like.  But still, not the Son of God.  Not the Savior.  Just another human being.
            A virgin birth is hard to believe.  It was hard to believe two thousand years ago.  It’s hard to believe now.  There are a lot of people who don’t believe it.  There are even some people who call themselves Christians who don’t believe it.  So, the question is:  do you?
            I hope you do.  If you don’t, I’m not sure what to tell you.  I can point you to the passage from Luke that we read.  I can point you to a similar passage in Matthew that tells the story from Joseph’s point of view.  But if you don’t accept that, I’m not sure what else I can tell you.
            Except for this.  This prophecy from Isaiah.  This prophecy that came about seven hundred years earlier.
            And you know, when you read that prophecy from Isaiah, it really is striking.  Isaiah has told Ahaz, the king of Israel, to ask God for a sign that will prove that God is faithful.  And Ahaz refuses to ask for one.  And God, speaking through Isaiah, says okay, I’m going to give you a sign anyway.  At some point in the future, a virgin is going to give birth to a son.  And that son is going to be called Immanuel, God with us.  Because that son, in a very real way, is going to be me, with you.  God, living with human beings.
            God went out of God’s way to make this prophecy through Isaiah.  And then, the prophecy was handed down.  It was carefully preserved in scrolls.  Carefully copied into new scrolls when the old ones got worn.  Handed down orally, from one generation to the next to the next.  For roughly seven hundred years.
            We gloss over that, too.  Seven hundred years.  Think about how long seven hundred years is.  Seven hundred years ago it was the year 1316.  There was no such thing as the United States of America.  Not only had Christopher Columbus not reached America yet, he had not even been born yet.  There was no such thing as the Methodist church.  There was not even such a thing as the Lutheran church.  There were no protestant churches at all, in fact.  There was the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church, and that was it as far as Christian churches.  In fact, the English language did not even exist in a form that you’d recognize it in today.  If you don’t believe me, try reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original.  And in fact, Chaucer had not yet been born in 1316, either.
            The point is that seven hundred years is a long time.  And that’s how long before Jesus this prophecy of the virgin birth was made.  And it was preserved, handed down from generation to generation, for all that time.  There would, at some point, be a child born of a virgin, and that child would be God, come to live with human beings.  Immanuel.  God with us.
            The people of Israel had waited seven hundred years for this prophecy to come true.  As long a time as that is, they did not give up.  They kept believing.  They kept teaching it to their children.  Mary’s parents believed it.  They taught it to her.  Mary believed it.  I’m sure it never in her wildest dreams occurred to her that she was going to be the virgin in the prophecy, but she believed it.  Joseph believed it, too.  And it was their belief that helped them be able to accept that this prophecy was going to come true through them.
            We talked last week about how God has a plan for the salvation of the world.  The thing is, God’s plans are rarely short-term plans.  They can be, and sometimes they are, but a lot of times they’re not.  After all, we’re talking about the eternal God here.  We’re talking about a God for whom we’re told a thousand years are like a day.  Seven hundred years is a long time for human beings, but it’s less than a day to God.
            God’s plan for the salvation of the world is a long-term plan.  We don’t know how long it’s going to take.  But God has given us some sign posts along the way.  One of them was the prophecy, seven hundred years before the fact, of a child born of a virgin who would be God in human form, God with us.  And another one was the fulfillment of that prophecy through the birth of Jesus Christ to a virgin.   Mary.
            The fulfillment of a prophecy from seven hundred years earlier is an incredible thing.  But then, the virgin birth of Christ was an even more incredible thing.  It was a miracle.  It’s something that could only happen through the divine power of God.
            If Jesus had been born with a human mother and human father, he would’ve just been another human being.  But he was not.  He was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit.  He truly was Immanuel.  God with us.  He truly was the divine Son of God, born to save us all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tentative Plans

Well, time marches on.  We got done with Thanksgiving, and now it’s time to get ready for Christmas.  Last Saturday it sure didn’t seem like Christmas weather—it was in the 50s, bright sunshine, no wind.  Now, though, that has all changed.  Monday through Wednesday we got a bunch of snow with very strong winds, and really just today is when things are getting back to normal.

But really, that’s nothing unusual around here.  If there’s one thing we know about the weather it’s that it will change.  And if there’s another thing we know about the weather, it’s that we’re going to have cold and snow at some point.  Sometimes we have it at many, many points.  That could happen this year, or it might not.  We’ll just have to see.

The weather we have this time of year means that all of our plans are actually tentative plans.  For example, we were supposed to take Wanda’s parents to Sioux Falls Monday.  We knew that was a tentative plan.  Had it turned out that the weather was better than what was forecast, we’d have gone.  As it did turn out, we didn’t.  But up through Sunday, there was no way for us to know.  We just had to wait and see.

But you know, that’s really kind of a Biblical attitude, when you think about it.  James writes that it is arrogant to say that tomorrow we will do this or that.  What we should say, James writes, is “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”.  James reminds us that none of us is ever promised tomorrow, that our lives are “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”.

Now, that’s not to say that we should never make a plan beyond today.  It’s pretty much impossible to live our lives that way.  But we should remind ourselves that our plans are, in fact, tentative plans.  They are dependent on a lot of things.  And one of the things they are dependent on is God’s will.  I wonder sometimes if maybe the weather we have around here is God’s way of reminding us of that.

There’s another aspect to James’ statement, too.  It’s not just that our plans depend on God’s will.  It’s that, in making our plans, we should be trying to do God’s will.  If we open ourselves to God’s leading and God’s guidance, if we make our plans with the goal of doing God’s will, there’s a lot better chance that we will actually end up doing what we planned to do.

So, I have a plan for what I’m going to do today.  If it’s God’s will, I’ll do it.  If it’s not, I’ll do something else.  But either way, our prayer should always be, “Thy will be done”.