The Song of Simeon: Thoughts on waiting faithfully and trustingly (4th Sunday of Advent)

The Song of Simeon

We have reached the last Sunday of Advent and have come to the last Christmas song of our series.

We have heard Mary’s song, Zechariah’s song, the Angels’ song and now we close Luke’s birth narrative with the Song of Simeon.

Jesus family is now in Jerusalem at the Temple concluding the post-partum requirements of the Jewish law.

There they meet Simeon.

Simeon has been inspired by the Holy Spirit to search for the Messiah, which is a bit different that we have seen in the prior pregnancy and birth announcements.

They were all angelic announcements.

Simeon is not inspired by angels but by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit’s involvement here, like the angels in the other announcements, can be difficult to imagine.

But today is not a good day to describe or define who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does.

That is for another day.

Today, I choose to describe Simeon’s role in the birth narrative and the “movement of God”.

The urging of God to particular action.

I think most, if not all of us here, have experienced something like that and so can identify with Simeon.

Simeon, simply put, is a man on a mission.

A mission to find the Messiah.

A mission he dearly wants to complete.

 Luke 2: 25-35

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

I want you to imagine a scenario that might be familiar to some of you.

Your child is of an age where they go out for an evening.

It could be to a friend’s house.

It could be to go to some event.

It could be a date.

The last thing you say to them before the door closes is one of two things.

What time will you be home?

or

You will be home by your normal curfew.

There is an expected time.

Off they go.

You wait for their return.

You are patient and calm and unconcerned.

Then something changes.

The time agreed on for the child to come in the door arrives and departs.

No child.

How long before you reach for the phone to send the friendly “where are you” text?

How long of a wait after the text remains unanswered before you call the child?

How long after you don’t get a return call (they never answer) before your anger begins to boil over and you begin to pace and begin planning the punishment.

How long before your anger turns to worry, and you begin calling their friends?

How long before you call the police?

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the post deadline move from calm to terror is about 30 minutes.

This is true even though the child has been out for hours before the deadline and you had no worries at all.

Why is this the case?

Psychologists report that we are more than happy to wait for a particular event so long as we know when the waiting will end.

But when the expected time comes and goes, we have no patience whatsoever.

The usual time for this change from calm to blood pressure spike is three minutes.

Three minutes!

According to Gretchen Rubin, author of the book “The Happiness Project” this is what that looks like:

People wait more calmly when they’re told, “The doctor will see you in thirty minutes” than when they’re told, “The doctor will see you soon.” Maister gives an amusing illustration of a phenomenon that I’d noticed in my own life: if I arrive someplace thirty minutes early, I wait with perfect patience, but three minutes after my appointment time passes, I start to feel annoyed. “Just how long am I going to have to wait?” I think.

What has happened is that there is no set time anymore.

You don’t know when the wait will be over.

The uncertainty is intolerable.

And what is really interesting is that when the wait ends, it does not take long for you to sort of forget the angst.

The child is home.

The doctor has seen you.

This issue of waiting can be used to manipulate you as well.

Back in the day, before the internet, people would call L. L. Bean to make an order from the catalogue.

You would actually speak to a person and they would take your order.

I want two shirts.

They take down the information and your payment method and then the order taker would say one last thing.

You can expect your shirts in 5 to 7 days.

Fine, thanks.

When would the order arrive?

Three days.

Wow!

What great service!

I’m going to buy all my shirts from them.

Here is the secret.

L. L. Bean knew the shirts would get there in three days.

The order person was told to say 5-7 days because they knew when you got the shirts in 3, you would be impressed and happy.

And you would never have been “waiting”.

What does this have to do with the scripture reading?

Well, Israel had been waiting for Messiah.

For centuries.

Unlike L. L. Bean, the prophets did not specify a date when this event would occur.

So, there was never any expected timetable.

No ETA.

This never-ending hope for something that never seems to happen reminds me of Kate Bowler, the Duke Divinity School professor who was diagnosed with incurable colon cancer.

She undergoes an experimental treatment that will hopefully cure her.

But she has to have tests performed every three months to determine one of three things.

She is cured.

She is stable.

She is dying.

Her hope is for the cure.

She can manage stability.

Her nightmare is that the treatments have stopped working.

If she were Israel, she would be waiting for the promised Messiah.

Stability until the cure.

And not dying before it happens.

Which brings us to Simeon.

Who was Simeon?

He was a man in Jerusalem who was righteous and devout and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah.

The Messiah whose ETA was unknown.

This is the Kate Bowler scenario.

It is just hope.

And it had been going on for a very long time.

But it had been revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Nice.

But Simeon also had a problem.

He was getting older.

Still, no Messiah.

He was approaching the time where he could wait no longer.

I have this vision of him going to the Temple every morning and running from child to child, young man to young man, looking at each one to see if he was the one.

Every night, Simeon would head home and wonder if he would see the Messiah the next day.

Kind of like Waiting for Godot, for you literary folks.

But then, one morning he sees Mary and Joseph and Jesus.

We aren’t told how old Jesus is here but let’s assume he is still a baby.

Simeon runs up to the family and examines Jesus.

And Simeon just knows.

This is the one!

And Simeon sings:

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

Simeon is singing praises to God because the Messiah has now come.

His mission is over.

He is dismissed from his call.

Simeon can now … well … die in peace.

Time to rejoice.

Kind of like retirement.

But there is this.

Simeon has no way of knowing what this Messiah is going to do or how Israel is going to be consoled.

All he knows is what was in his song.

The Messiah, the consolation of Israel, the savior of the peoples, the revelation to the Gentiles, the glory to Israel, was here.

But even so, without knowing what any of that was going to look like, Simeon had peace.

How could he have peace?

Faith has been rewarded.

Hope satisfied.

No need to know more than that.

And there is something truly commendable about Simeon’s response.

There is no mention of “eternal life”.

The promise of a resurrection is nowhere to be seen.

All Simeon wanted was to see the Messiah, the consolation of Israel and the salvation of humankind.

This child would keep the promises of God, in whatever way God willed and that was sufficient for Simeon.

What that might actually look like was not something he was concerned about.

And that should be sufficient for us, too.

The birth story describes the incarnation and the songs celebrate Emanuel – God with us.

And because of the incarnation, we are changed.

The future of creation is changed.

But what that looks like and how it all shakes out is still a mystery.

But we should not be concerned.

There is this, though.

Simeon tells Mary that there will be conflict.

That a sword will pierce her.

That is what happens when the Kingdom of God intersects with the kingdom of the world.

Mary will witness it.

And so, will we.

But it is our faith that in the end, the Kingdom of God will prevail, and we will all live in that kingdom.

But until then, we need to live like Simeon.

Confident that God will keep God’s promises, even though we cannot imagine what that will look like.

It is enough.

So, rejoice.

The Messiah has come.

But because of that birth, because of the incarnation, we know that it will be an ending worth waiting for.

It is after all Good News.

Advent Devotionals (Christmas Day!)

December 25, 2019 Christmas Day!

… Jesus … said, ‘It is finished.’ John 19: 30

It seems a bit awkward to offer this text on the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth. It’s awkward because these are the last words Jesus speaks before he dies. Jesus’ last words. These words put a period on a life with a particular purpose. Jesus’ life. What began in Bethlehem ends here in Jerusalem. The purpose of that life was completed. It was finished.

In order to understand that, we need to understand what it was Jesus came to do. What did Jesus come to do? Jesus told Pilate.

John 18: 37b

‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Jesus came to tell the truth. What is the truth. Jesus told his 12 disciples.

John 14: 6-7

6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

You see Jesus, you see God. God is the truth. Jesus came to testify to that. So, what is God’s truth?

John 3: 16-17

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

And at Jesus’ baptism, his cousin John the Baptist knew exactly what Jesus came to do.

John 1: 29

29 [John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

So, we put all these things together:  God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, his exact human imprint, as a gift, to save the world. Jesus came to take away the sin of the world. You see Jesus. You see God. Follow Jesus. Enter into the presence of God. Eternally.

That is why Jesus came. That is God’s gift to us on Christmas Day.

Advent Devotionals (December 23, 2019)

December 23, 2019 Twenty-third day of Advent

Jesus said …, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14: 6

When I was in high school there was a kind of Christian revival going on. We referred to it as the “Jesus Movement”. I had several friends who were in the movement. They wore big wooden crosses around their necks and spent a good deal of time at “prayer meetings”. When describing what they believed, they would usually look up, point an index finger to the sky and say, “There’s only one way!” That little phrase comes from our text today. But what does it really mean? We need to put it in context. This is part of Jesus’ Final Discourse to his disciples. Jesus is telling them that he is leaving. This is what he says:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. He tells them they know how to get there. Thomas (typically) says something like, “I don’t know the way!” So, Thomas is asking directions. Jesus gives Thomas (and thanks to John, us) the directions. Follow Jesus. He is the way. He is the path. He is the route. If you follow Jesus’ directions, you will find the Father’s house. Anyone can follow them.

That is one reason why Jesus came. To tell us those directions.

Advent Devotionals (December 21, 2019)

December 21, 2019 Twenty-first day of Advent

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matthew 6: 25

In 1939, the British government created a department called the Ministry of Information. Its primary function was to create morale boosting propaganda to encourage the British people faced with the outbreak of WWII. The MOI created a poster that has become a popular modern meme. The poster simply said:

“Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Now, I want you to think about that for a moment. Your country is at war with an enemy 21 miles away across the Straits of Dover. Their goal is to conquer your country. Keep calm and carry on? Good advice, perhaps, but doable? Stiff upper lip and all that? Here is a bit of trivia that might surprise you. That poster was never used. Maybe because the MOI realized that “keep calm and carry on” was contrary to human nature and really not very inspiring.

This reminded me of Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” You know how it goes.

Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy

Good advice, maybe, but doable? Like the British Ministry of Information poster, I think this song is contrary to human nature and just not very helpful. Because frankly, it’s normal and healthy to worry a bit, right? I mean worry is a word with many connotations. It includes everything from concern over a planned dinner party to an anxiety disorder that requires medication. It can cause a bit of a bad mood or it can cause major depression. And there are difficult times in our lives that we simply cannot overcome by keeping calm and being happy. So, saying things like “keep calm and carry on” or “don’t worry, be happy” might be instructive when we are concerned with the Thanksgiving menu, but are not really all that meaningful to someone facing an enemy at its shores or a personal crisis or an anxiety disorder or major depression. To tell someone who is experiencing a serious illness or job loss or some other life changing time to keep calm or be happy can be downright insulting.

But when we read today’s scripture texts, doesn’t it sound like we are being told that when faced with any of these things we are to start singing McFerrin’s song or put on our t-shirt that says, “Keep Calm and Play the Trombone”?

That would be incorrect.

To understand what Jesus is saying we need to first understand its context. Jesus is preaching his Sermon on the Mount. Just before our text, Jesus is talking about where we should store our “treasures”. His preference? In heaven, where it cannot be taken away. What is the treasure Jesus says we should not be worried about? The stuff we think we need that … well … we already have! When we read these words we are called to change the orientation of how we approach worrisome things in our lives.

It’s not “Don’t worry, be happy”.

It should be, “Don’t worry, be grateful”.

Advent Devotionals (December 19, 2019)

December 19, 2019 Nineteenth day of Advent

This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me… Mark 7: 6

In the interests of full disclosure, my brother and I have a certain reputation in the family. It involves the rules of games we play. When we were children, my brother and I (and our friends truth be told) often got bored with our board games. To make a game more interesting we “adjusted” the rules. We did this so often that we kind of forgot what the real rules were. So, when we played these games with our kids, we would “announce” a rule that no one else knew about. These were dubbed “Tindall Rules”. My niece even bought us coffee cups that say, “Tindall Rules – The only rules you need to know”. I love that cup. Of course, its impossible to follow such rules when the rules get “adjusted” from time to time. This is kind of the context of our text today.

Let’s take a look at the entire passage.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Here the Pharisees question Jesus about ritual purity. Washing hands before eating was not just a matter of hygiene, it was a matter of ceremonial purity. This is all about tradition. But it was basically impossible for everyday folks to actually do it. Jesus makes the distinction between human traditions and the written law. The human tradition has no purpose but to preserve the tradition. The intent of the law is to preserve the community.

Tindall Rules preserve the tradition of the Tindall boys (of long past) while the written rules require the game to be played the way it was intended. That is why the incarnation is so important. Jesus came to challenge the traditions that were unfair, unjust or just impossible to follow. He gave us the “word” which was much simpler. Love God. Love each other. The rules of the game.

Advent Devotions (December 17, 2019)

December 17, 2019 Seventeenth day of Advent

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Matthew 7: 18

How many times have you heard people recite Jesus’ admonition that we are not to “judge”? I have heard that phrase used as a defense to many accusations of misbehavior. You know how it goes. Someone does something that you find inappropriate, troubling, unethical or shocking. You call them on it and say something like “I am so disappointed in you!” They respond with, “It sounds like you are judging me!” This is a verbal deflection that is intended to make you feel like your observation of their bad behavior is worse than their misconduct. It’s a nice rhetorical device. “I am free to do these things because Jesus says I am not to be judged.” But what about our text today? That is the response to the “do not judge defense”. But to understand this we need to hear the entire passage (which, by the way is part of the Sermon on the Mount that also includes Jesus’ “Do not judge” admonition).

15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Here Jesus is telling us to beware of people who deceive by claiming to be disciples of Jesus yet use their “discipleship” as a means of personal gain or the destruction of the faith community. In the recent past, we have heard of “church” people behaving badly – stealing money, inappropriate relationships within the community, power seeking, guilt spreading, rumor mongering, and, worst of all, preaching false gospel. Jesus is saying we need to beware of such folks. And to “be wary” means we are to identify them and avoid them. We identify them by looking at the fruit of their actions. Bad fruit means the people bearing it are “false prophets”. They are not for the community; they are for themselves. We don’t judge them. They judge themselves by the consequences of their actions. When we become aware of such folks among the faith community, we are well withing our rights to exclude them, so their bad fruit does not spoil the barrel, so to speak. Certainly, we should at least avoid them and give them no credibility or power. Who these folks are is not always obvious. So, we read this text with fear and trembling as we try to understand to whom it applies (us at times?).

What does this have to do with the incarnation? Emanuel – God with us – is the one who bears nothing but good fruit and teaches us what that is. What does good fruit look like? Love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Living the Jesus way. It is the peace we are promised at this time of year.

Advent Devotionals (December 15, 2019)

December 15, 2019 Fifteenth day of Advent

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. John 14: 15

Randy Pausch gave a lecture in September 2007 entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  The presentation was recorded and posted it on YouTube, I think. It went viral almost immediately. Why? Because the lecture was Pausch’s “last lecture” as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University where he taught computer science. He gave lecture shortly after he learned he was dying of cancer with only a few months to live. His lecture was presented to a group of about 400 people, many of whom were students in his computer science department. Pausch encouraged his students to fulfill their calling to make the world a better place through their field of study.  He gave advice on living a life worthy of your dreams. It was turned into a book that fills out those thoughts and is well worth the read.

This is the kind of thing we hear from Jesus in the Gospel of John. Today’s text is in the middle of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel. Jesus is preparing his disciples for life without him. Taken at first glance, Jesus’ words here might sound like a manipulation. “If you don’t do these things, you must not love me.” But that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is basically saying that if the disciples have learned anything from Jesus, they should carry on the lessons learned. That is how he wants to be loved. Live the way you were taught to live. Do the things you were taught to do. Live like the one who is now gone meant something to you. That is how you live once your teacher, mentor or Messiah has gone. It is intended to inspire, encourage and empower. But the passage goes on.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 

Jesus is saying that if his disciples live the way they were taught to live it will be like he was still with them, maybe in a different sort of way. And the new way will still be inspiring, encouraging and empowering to live the Jesus way.

This is the coming of the Holy Spirit, something that we can also celebrate during Advent. The incarnation has not ended.

The Song of the Angels: Thoughts on why we glorify God and the peace Jesus brought.

The Song of the Angels

We are now in our third week of Advent and so the third week of the Songs of Christmas.

If you have been following along, you might notice that we have been moving in chronological order.

Mary sings a song when she finds out she is pregnant.

Zechariah breaks into song at the birth of his son.

Today we hear a song sung at the birth of Jesus.

But today’s song is a bit different.

It is not a song of anticipation.

It is a song of proclamation.

We are not waiting for something; something has actually happened.

And, it is not sung by people, but by angels.

But before I talk about that song, I want to digress for a moment.

I know a lot of people who hear this story and think it is a bit hard to believe.

R. Alan Culpepper is a New Testament scholar who wrote the portion of The New Interpreter’s Bible about Luke.

He described our text this way:

Familiar as it is, the Christmas scene often seems to be little more than a fairy tale, a wonderful story that provides a brief escape from the real world we face each day.

Fairy tale?

One reason some might think it’s a fairy tale is because of those angels.

There are a lot of folks who just can’t wrap their brains around the appearance of these otherworldly creatures.

Are there really angels?

Did that really happen?

So, let’s take a moment and talk about angels.

First, are there things, beings, we cannot experience with our senses?

Many physicists think so.

Some propose parallel dimensions.

Things that can only be imagined through mathematics.

But I like the way Paul puts it when he describes Jesus.

Colossians 1: 15-16; 19-20

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. … 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

There are things visible and things invisible.

There are earthly things and heavenly things.

And angels are some of those invisible and heavenly things.

But what are they really?

Angels are heralds.

What is a herald?

A term used to describe a messenger sent by royalty to the people with a message.

An angel’s primary function is to communicate to us messages from God.

What do they look like?

They appear in many different forms in scripture.

To me they seem to take whatever form will make sure the message is delivered and understood by the particular recipient.

Sometimes they take human form, but most often they are ethereal beings, and even then, most often unseen even when delivering a message.

They are basically divine information.

And so, in today’s text, we see an angelic message delivered to shepherds.

Now we need to talk about the shepherds.

Why shepherds?

Maybe because shepherds were the lowest caste in Near Eastern society.

Aloof, dirty, uneducated, loners who were generally considered untrustworthy.

Less respected than even tax collectors.

This was part of the message of the incarnation.

God was coming even to you guys (and they were just guys).

How did the angels appear to the shepherds?

We are given no description.

Even the number is vague.

But they certainly got their message across, didn’t they?

Partly, maybe entirely, in a song.

Why a song?

I can’t say, but music certainly is a universal language, right?

I am reminded of this passage from Frederick Buechner’s novel “Brendan” about the life of St. Brendan the Navigator.

Finn, Brendan’s friend, describes Brendan’s experience of the divine.

“There came angels at last, Finn,” he said. “They were spread out against the sky like a great wreath.  The closest were close enough to touch nearly. The farthest were farther than the stars.  I never saw so many stars.  I could hear the stillness of them they were that still.”

“Lofty and fair beyond telling was the angels’ music,” he said.  “They heard me cry and they answered me.  They weren’t singing to me of the mercy of God, Finn.  Their singing was itself the mercy of God.  Do you think I could ever forget it even if I tried?”

I wonder if that is what the shepherds saw?

And maybe that’s why we think of “choirs of angels” around the birth of Jesus.

Because this event was beyond anything we can imagine or expect.

Emanuel – God with us!

The unseen suddenly seen.

Luke 2: 8-15

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’

There are two things I love to do during December.

On is listening to Christmas music.

Mainly the Christmas carols.

Both festive and spiritually moving.

What’s your favorite carol?

Mine?

“O’ Come All Ye Faithful”.

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

All about how we are to respond to the birth of Jesus.

I still choke up a bit on that one.

The other thing I like to do is watch the Christmas TV specials.

Not those sappy Hallmark style dramas.

The old time stuff.

 The Grinch.

Rudolf.

The Muppet Family Christmas.

Any version of “A Christmas Carol”.

Most don’t mention Jesus, but they are still fun.

What’s your favorite?

Mine?

The one that does mention Jesus.

The theologically correct “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

I think we all know the story.

Charlie Brown is depressed because Christmas has become too commercialized.

Even his dog, Snoopy is entered in a house decorating contest.

So, he begins a quest to find the true meaning of Christmas.

He tries to make Christmas mean something by directing the school Christmas play.

He writes Sally’s letter to Santa.

He finally buys a Christmas tree to decorate for the play.

But none of it works.

The Peanuts gang doesn’t listen.

They are easily distracted.

Sally’s defense of a rather materialistic letter to Santa is:

All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.

She is self-centered.

The tree is scorned by the gang because it is a real tree; not a shiny aluminum tree.

They are more interested in what is modern and new.

Nothing seems to be working for Charlie Brown.

When he is at his lowest, he cries out:

Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus steps forward.

Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

And he moves to the center of the stage and recites our text for today (in the King James Version).

I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
12And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. …

“…That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

While it might not be obvious, Linus is like the angel who appeared to the shepherds.

He is a herald.

A messenger.

Announcing the most profound good news.

God has come to all, even to the least of society.

Even to Charlie Brown.

God was here.

For all people.

Time to celebrate!

So, there we have it.

But there is something else about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that really resonates with me.

Not only does it contain a scriptural description of Jesus birth (the one we read today), it also contains my second favorite carol.

It is our sermon text and hymn today.

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald-angels sing

“Glory to the new-born king”

Hear those words?

“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”

Which kind of sounds like this, right?

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace among those whom he favors!

The Song of the Angels.

Words we hear in so many of our Christmas carols?

When you thought of your favorite carol, does it contain those words or at least the meaning of those words?

Everything from Handel’s “Messiah” to “The Christmas Song”.

Why did the angels sing this and why do we?

These words respond to the message of good news.

One angel announces:

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

And then the “host” (literally and army of angels) breaks into song.

Praising God and singing.

Glory to God.

Peace on earth.

Why glory to God?

Because God is doing this great thing.

The Messiah is born.

God is with us.

Why peace on earth?

Like I described it last week.

We have God’s presence in the midst of our chaotic world.

But more than that, this event is going to reconcile God and humanity.

Eliminate the conflict.

Its like that family dinner where there is an argument.

Conflict!

No peace there!

But when the conflict is removed, the argument over, there is peace.

That is the peace the incarnation brings.

Peace between us and God.

A new way to live.

A life with a purpose.

The shepherds show us what that looks like.

Outcasts and unloved, they receive the good news and instead of grumbling about their status, they go a new way and obtain a purpose.

Go and see and tell.

Got to Bethlehem and you will find a baby.

Which baby?

That one!

The one in a manger.

That one!

The one wrapped in bands of cloth.

Go see that one!

That is the Messiah.

And so, the shepherds went.

They found the baby, took a peek, told everyone about the angelic message and visitation, and then went back to their flocks doing something they had never done before.

Glorifying and praising God.

Maybe the first Christmas carol.

Maybe they sang “Hark the Herald”.

Because they were now heralds with the message they received from the angels.

They gave it to Mary who gave it to Luke who gave it to us.

Good news of great joy for all the people.

To you was born that day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

This was a sign for you: a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger

As Linus said:

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Glory to God.

Peace on earth.

God is here.

This week a John McMillan Presbyterian Church (December 15, 2019; Third Sunday of Advent)

What might it be like to see an angel? In the movie “Angels in the Outfield” a young boy in foster care is told by his father that they will only be reunited as a family when the California Angels win the pennant. The boy is a big Angels fan and knows that the likelihood of the Angels wining the pennant is pretty slim. So, the boy offers a prayer that the Angels get some divine help. And they do – in the form of a bunch of angels who help the team win. What is interesting about the angels is that the boy can clearly see them and see what they do to help the team win. But everyone else just sees some freak occurrence that allows the normally bumbling Angels to miraculously win. Frederic Buechner is an author of novels that intertwine legend, faith and history. He wrote this about angels.

SLEIGHT-OF-HAND MAGIC is based on the demonstrable fact that as a rule people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads its glittering wings over us, and we say things like, “It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive,” or “I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right,” or “I don’t know where I ever found the courage.” 

Is that us? Do we see the effect of angels without actually seeing the angels? Maybe.

Luke describes the appearance of angels to shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. His description is a bit hard to understand and to some hard to believe. But the impact was certainly real. Maybe in our minds we cannot “see” the angels, but we can see that something happened. Come hear about it this Sunday when Pastor Jeff preaches, “The Song of the Angels” based on Luke 2: 8-15. Come and hear. We will look forward to seeing you.

Advent Devotionals (December 13, 2019)

December 13, 2019 Thirteenth day of Advent

See, I am coming soon! Revelation 22: 7

When my son was in high school, the “Left Behind” books were very popular Christian novels. Written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, this series of books followed a set of characters who had been “left behind” after the rapture of all faithful Christians and who were doing what they could to get “redeemed” before Jesus” “second coming”. The books were an action-packed adventure series based primarily on a loose interpretation of the New Testament book of Revelation and the Old Testament book of Daniel (actually only the second part of Daniel). AJ and I read them all because they were entertaining. We did not read them because they described exactly what the “end times” were going to look like. That’s because Revelation and Daniel are not intended to be taken literally. They are a particular type of literature called “apocalyptic” that is entirely metaphorical. Such literature is hard to interpret and understand. But nevertheless, Revelation does speak to Jesus “return” as does Paul and to some extent Jesus. But the question remains, what does that mean and when will it happen?

Paul thought that Jesus would return in Paul’s lifetime. Jesus even suggested that the end times would come within the lifetime of at least some of his disciples. They are all dead and we still wait. Revelation just says “soon” and we all know that “soon” to God is not “soon” to us. We are like the Jews of Jesus’ day who waited generations for the Messiah. Waiting has become part of our Christian faith. Faith that God will come to live with us, again, and eternally.

It is appropriate that we ponder this during Advent. Advent celebrates the “waiting” for God to act. For Christians, we wait for God to act again. Jews understood God’s protection of and provision for Israel as a sign that God would act. We Christians should understand that the incarnation, the birth and life of Jesus, was that act, and that that act was God’s eternal act. What happens next, whether a “second coming” like the one in Revelation or some other unexpected “return” (remember Jesus did not really look like the Messiah the Jews expected, so his “return” might not be what we expect) is not part of Jesus promise of forgiveness. That was completed on the cross.  As my favorite seminary professor, Bonnie Thurston, once said: “The war is over. Everything now is just a clean-up action.” Emanuel – God with us is sufficient for us all. That is why the “I am coming soon” quote is nothing to worry about. Just wait and see.