Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Three Conversions

Epiphany II
16 January 2011

The Three Conversions


What a perfect set of readings for this morning, as we prepare to bless and send the LIGHT out into the world in very tangible hands and feet ways this morning. Today we are going to bless four separate mission teams with seven different participants from this congregation who are all going to be going on their missions in the next three weeks. This Epiphany has become a World Missions two months.

This year we have a long Epiphany season and a late Easter. And I think that’s by design for us here at REZ as we hear, more and more what it means to be a people sent by God and a sending people of God.

It cannot be mistaken, if you’ve listened to more than two sermons at this church, that we are ALL missionaries, -- every day, everywhere we go, to everyone we meet.

Our prayers and our giving minister in many corners of the globe. Today we have another of our famous Men’s Bake Sales to help fund the translation of the Bible into the Dungan tongue, a language of the Muslim Dungan People in Kirghiztan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, descendants of Chinese Muslims. This bake sale has been happening now for over a decade to fund a translator, and the whole New Testament and large parts of the Old Testament are completed. When we began this project at St. George’s Church there were 6 identified Christians in this people group!! Now there is a Bible and a growing church, 10 years on.

Today we will bless teams and individuals who are joining teams that will touch Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Rwanda and Uganda with the Light of Jesus Christ.

And I want to talk for a few moments before we do that, about three conversions that we must go through, as believers to be turned into missionaries. We can see these in our collect – our opening prayer for the day, appointed for this day by the calendar of the church year!! Let’s read it together again:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I just want to point to three bases that have to be touched on the way around to home plate!!

FIRST BASE: CONVERSION TO CHRIST JESUS
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world

We must, if we are going to be a missionary church, be rooted in and convinced of the faith once received by the saints. We must be converted – saved – born from above, of water and the Spirit of God, to quote Jesus himself. We must be convinced, with Peter, that “you are the Messiah, the Son of God”, when Jesus asks US “who do YOU say I am?”

This faith is the foundation of all else that we are called to do. Understanding who Jesus is, what He said and did, how he did these things and why, even to the why of his death and unshakeable belief in his resurrection, is the bedrock on which this whole enterprise rests. “APART FROM ME, YOU CAN DO NOTHING!” is the gospel truth in this regard!

There is NO FAITH apart from Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He is the unique Son of God, as John testifies in our gospel this morning: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." The Apostle Paul is clear as well in his introduction to the Corinthian letter:

“… the grace of God… has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We know from the preaching of Acts and Romans that the Apostle to the Gentiles saw Jesus as vital and central to all that he was doing. Paul said that “There is no other Name given among men by which we must be saved!” And later in his letter to the Roman church he set this out as the bedrock of the gospel:

"But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. … For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

This is First Base, but there is more.

SECOND BASE: THE CONVERSION TO THE CHURCH
“Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory,…”

This conversion is perhaps the most difficult in our day and age, when the church is being bypassed in the equation. But we cannot overlook what God has put an emphasis on – His People! We must be converted to The Church – to believe in the beauty and usefulness of the Sanctorum Communio – the Fellowship of All Believers. There is no plan B for God – we are the plan.

Just as Jesus is the Light of the World, so He has given into our hands the stewardship of that Light – we too, are the light of the world. He said it himself, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

It is the church on the earth that God has appointed as the heralds of His Good News of Jesus, the Christ; and has anointed to be the very hands and feet of Jesus, active in good works, just as He was while He was on earth, where “he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”

This is the churches destiny and purpose in the earth – just as it was Jesus’ destiny and purpose. As He was in the world, so are we now as His Body! But conversion to the Church, isn’t seeking some perfection in the here and now… it is seeking to be perfected in the communion of the Saints. As Paul tells the Corinthians in our reading: “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Our blamelessness, our “life” is hidden in Christ and will be revealed, when He is revealed, ON THAT DAY. So we are called, the writer of Hebrews tells us to “not give up meeting together, as the custom of some is, but all the more, to encourage one another, as we see the day approaching.” (Heb 10:24)

THIRD BASE: THE CONVERSION TO THE WORLD
“…that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth”

Once we have been converted to Christ, our savior – the Author and the Finisher of our faith – and to the Church, His chosen instrument for the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, we must be converted to the World! We must gain the heart of God (or a small part of it) for the world that He created and that He loved so much that He came, in Jesus, "extending His hands on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might experience his saving embrace." (BCP, 101)

The Spirit was sent in power to EM-POWER the witness of the People of God. The whole force of the book of ACTS is outwardly focused – taking the Gospel to the ends of the known world – “to Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth” (Acts 1:8). Today this is our work and our call, just as it was those who received the Spirit on that first Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. The Church has no purpose beyond this single greatest task ever given into the hands of men and women!

Paul puts it most beautifully as he writes in his Second letter to the Corinthian church on this subject:

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. … what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us."

And further on in the same letter he concludes with this:

"All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

So what is HOME PLATE?

HOMEPLATE is going out. SCORING is winning someone to Christ! Bringing someone who does NOT know Him to the knowledge and love of Him, for the honor of His Name! Not just around the world, but next door. It has to start here today.

The saddest game to go home from is the one where the winning runs were left on base at the bottom of the last inning. Let’s go the distance for the Kingdom.

Amen!

Monday, January 10, 2011

God's Heart for the World - Our Heart for God's World

God’s Heart for the World
January 8, 2011


Last Thursday began a new season in our church year. Epiphany – the shedding of light – The Light into all the world. The symbol of the season is the coming of the gentiles to worship, the Three Magi – the Wise Men – who came guided by a star, from the east.

And this Sunday, specifically is the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. An unnecessary act – so much so that it drew comment at the time from the baptizer himself!

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, as our is – something for which Jesus had no need at all. John knew that he actually needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way round! But Jesus persisted – a new baptism came forth – not of repentance but of identification; a baptism of radical inclusion: inclusion of himself in identifying with us sinners, his creation; and finally, in his death, inclusion of us, each one, into our place IN CHRIST; baptized by One Spirit into One Body.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Epiphany is the sign of the radical inclusion of the whole world in the revelation of the Messiah, Jesus Christ – The Baptism of Jesus is the sign of our own radical inclusion in the life we have IN Christ -- our own salvation for the sake of the world. Our opening collect this morning made our prayer today : “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.” Salvation is the outcome of the heart that God has always had for this world!

Salvation is the “Why?” of Jesus coming: “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son …” We all know the rest, but what about then next verse? "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

God’s heart for the world is well documented. It flows from the root of creation itself: And God saw all that He had made and it was very good! (Gen 1:31) God’s love for the world flows through the grace he shows Noah and the call of Abraham – the covenant he made with Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3)

We see God’s heart in the calling of Moses, of David, of Isaiah, the prophet. All of the Old Testament is filled with this focus, not only on God’s people Israel, but on their calling to be a blessing to the whole world. And it is all carried into the New Testament by none less than Jesus, God’s Son! And then through baptism, the call is given into our hands!!

Through baptism we are rescued from sin and sent, empowered by His very Spirit, into the world as His agents of reconciliation. All this began at the baptism of Jesus! It was different from the baptism offered by John for repentance. He knew it. He said it. “I should be the one being baptized here – by You!!”

But Jesus said, “No. This is in order to fulfill all righteousness.” But Jesus, as John alluded to WAS RIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE FLESH. How could this act fill it full?

We believe that Jesus is referring to His identification with us – the “man” part of the God-Man Incarnation; Just as in baptism we are identified with Him in his death (Ro 6), here Jesus was identified with us, in our life. And what we see that follows: God’s voice and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, without measure – is God’s approval and empowerment for the mission of identification – the mission of Jesus as savior of the world.


Our Heart for God’s World

Jesus’ baptism is the one side of this coin – our baptism is the obverse side of the equation. He was baptized into our life – and we are baptized into His death, and thus into his resurrection and New Life from the dead.

We are baptized into his death, Paul tells us, in order that we can be free from sin and born from above – born again. Baptism is the symbolic enactment of God’s grace of forgiveness in our lives and our radical inclusion in the very life of God. This is a life that flows from the creation, through the whole history of God and His People on the earth. Through Christ and the Cross and finally, into us, and further, out into the world. We are immersed in the flow of God’s providence – His love for all humankind, and for all kinds of humans! There are no levels of sinners and there are no depths nor heights nor widths nor lengths to which God will no go to show forth His love to us and to all.

And He does it through us!!

All we have to do is look – no to GLANCE – even in passing at the ways that God has revealed His love to mankind, to know that He is “head over heals” for this world! And He is waiting for us to get “bit.” To fall in love… To make the leap of faith… to finally see the world through His eyes! We sing, “Open the eyes of our hearts Lord… we want to see You!” but he wants to open the eyes of our hearts to see others… in Him and to see Him in others!

The word of Isaiah the prophet regarding Jesus apply equally to His Body, us, the Church!
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Friends, it’s a two-sided coin. The Baptism of Jesus and our baptism, are the mirror image of each other;
He was baptized into our life and we are baptized into His death.
He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and we are baptized to be filled with His righteousness!!
He was baptized by water and the Spirit of God – the firstborn, Paul tells us, among many brothers and sisters; US, who are baptized by Him, subsequently, by the Holy Spirit and with fire. We are baptized to become partakers of His nature, through His death and our identification with it. By baptism we share in both His death and in his eternal life – life that begins the moment we “rise” from the water.

It is all a mysterious and supernatural exchange – as is all of sacramental reality! His life is given and received by us through these simple signs of water, of wine and bread. We truly are IN CHRIST and He truly is IN US. Not just for our enjoyment friends, but to continue this mission to its end – to its final conclusion!

Our prayer this morning echoes again in our thinking: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior! The confession of our faith – the public witness that we have to the life of Jesus is the end game of our purpose in the world and God’s purpose for the world.

Yesterday as we prayed together for the upcoming mission trips from REZ we were led to a passage in the second chapter of Philippians. Let me summarize what it said to us:
Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. 14 … Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. 16 Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud… 17 … your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. 18 Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy.

Friends, we have been included in God’s plan for His beloved world. Through baptism into his death and into his eternal life, we begin now to be empowered by His Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, and to be a part of the ongoing witness to Jesus life in the world and for the world. He lives his life in us and extends his hands through us.

I pray that you will take hold of this today. Now, here, on this First Sunday of Epiphany, as God reveals His love for the whole world through the sending of His Son, and as we partake in the Baptismal Life of Jesus this day, identifying with God’s mission and His ever-reaching Hands – our hands stretched out to the world, to bring those who do not know Him to the knowledge and love of Him, for the fame of His Name and the glory of His Kingdom.

Amen.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

God's Heart for the World - Our Heart for God's World

First Sunday of Epiphany
Jan 9, 2011

God’s Heart for the World



Last Thursday began a new season in our church year. Epiphany – the shedding of light – The Light, into all the world. The symbol of the season is the coming of the gentiles to worship, the Three Magi – the Wise Men – who came guided by a star, from the east.

And this Sunday, specifically is the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. An unnecessary act – so much so that it drew comment at the time from the baptizer himself!

John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, as our is – something for which Jesus had no need at all. John knew that he actually needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way round! But Jesus persisted – a new baptism came forth – not of repentance but of identification; a baptism of radical inclusion: inclusion of himself in identifying with us sinners, his creation; and finally, in his death, inclusion of us, each one, into our place IN CHRIST; baptized by One Spirit into One Body.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Epiphany is the sign of the radical inclusion of the whole world in the revelation of the Messiah, Jesus Christ – The Baptism of Jesus is the sign of our own radical inclusion in the life we have IN Christ -- our own salvation for the sake of the world. Our opening collect this morning made our prayer today : “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.” Salvation is the outcome of the heart that God has always had for this world! Salvation is the “Why?” of Jesus coming: “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son …” We all know the rest, but what about then next verse?
"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

God’s heart for the world is well documented. It flows from the root of creation itself: And God saw all that He had made and it was very good! (Gen 1:31) God’s love for the world flows through the grace he shows Noah and the call of Abraham – the covenant he made with Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3)

We see God’s heart in the calling of Moses, of David, of Isaiah, the prophet. All of the Old Testament is filled with this focus, not only on God’s people Israel, but on their calling to be a blessing to the whole world. And it is all carried into the New Testament by none less than Jesus, God’s Son! And then through baptism, the call is given into our hands!!

Through baptism we are rescued from sin and sent, empowered by His very Spirit, into the world as His agents of reconciliation. All this began at the baptism of Jesus! It was different from the baptism offered by John for repentance. He knew it. He said it.
“I should be the one being baptized here – by You!!”

But Jesus said, “No. This is in order to fulfill all righteousness.” But Jesus, as John alluded to WAS RIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE FLESH. How could this act fill it full?


We believe that Jesus is referring to His identification with us – the “man” part of the God-Man Incarnation; Just as in baptism we are identified with Him in his death (Ro 6), here Jesus
was identified with us, in our life. And what we see that follows: God’s voice and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, without measure – is God’s approval and empowerment for the mission of identification – the mission of Jesus as savior of the world.


Our Heart for God’s World

Jesus’ baptism is the one side of this coin – our baptism is the reciprocal side of the equation. He was baptized into our life – and we are baptized into His death, and thus into his resurrection and New Life from the dead.

We are baptized into his death, Paul tells us, in order that we can be free from sin and born from above – born again. Baptism is the symbolic enactment of God’s grace of forgiveness in our lives and our radical inclusion in the very life of God. This is a life that flows from the creation, through the whole history of God and His People on the earth. Through Christ and the Cross and finally, into us, and further, out into the world. We are immersed in the flow of God’s providence – His love for all humankind, and for all kinds of humans! There are no levels of sinners and there are no depths nor heights nor widths nor lengths to which God will no go to show forth His love to us and to all. And He does it through us!!

All we have to do is look – no to GLANCE – even in passing at the ways that God has revealed His love to mankind, to know that He is “head over heals” for this world! And He is waiting for us to get “bit.” To fall in love… To make the leap of faith… to finally see the world through His eyes! We sing, “Open the eyes of our hearts Lord… we want to see You!” but he wants to open the eyes of our hearts to see others… in Him and to see Him in others!

The word of Isaiah the prophet regarding Jesus apply equally to His Body, us, the Church!
0Friends, it’s a two-sided coin. The Baptism of Jesus and our baptism, are the mirror image of each other; He was baptized into our life and we are baptized into His death.
He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and we are baptized to be filled with His righteousness!! He was baptized by water and the Spirit of God – the firstborn, Paul tells us, among many brothers and sisters; US, who are baptized by Him, subsequently, by the Holy Spirit and with fire. We are baptized to become partakers of His nature, through His death and our identification with it. By baptism we share in both His death and in his eternal life – life that begins the moment we “rise” from the water.

It is all a mysterious and supernatural exchange – as is all of sacramental reality! His life is given and received by us through these simple signs of water, of wine and bread. We truly are IN CHRIST and He is truly IN US. Not just for our enjoyment friends, but to continue this mission to its end – to its final conclusion!

Our prayer this morning echoes again in our thinking: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior! The confession of our faith – the public witness that we have to the life of Jesus is the end game of our purpose in the world and God’s purpose for the world.

Yesterday as we prayed together for the upcoming mission trips from REZ we were led to a passage in the second chapter of Philippians. Let me summarize what it said to us:
Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. 14 … Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. 16 Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud… 17 … your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. 18 Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy.

Friends, we have been included in God’s plan for His beloved world. Through baptism into his death and into his eternal life, we begin now to be empowered by His Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, and to be a part of the ongoing witness to Jesus life in the world and for the world. He lives his life in us and extends his hands through us.

I pray that you will take hold of this today. Now, here, on this First Sunday of Epiphany, as God reveals His love for the whole world through the sending of His Son, and as we partake in the Baptismal Life of Jesus this day, identifying with God’s mission and His ever-reaching Hands – our hands stretched out to the world, to bring those who do not know Him to the knowledge and love of Him, for the fame of His Name and the glory of His Kingdom.

Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Building Blocks of Faith

December 26, 2010
“To As Many as Believed”

The Building Blocks of Faith


So how important are some of the building blocks … some of the specifics of what we believe about Jesus Christ?

For instance, just how important is this Virgin Birth thing? And if it is important, why is it important?

The problem with our age, according to a recent Barna poll of Christian believers across the US is that we have stopped thinking theologically … probably an outgrowth of the fact that some decades ago we stopped reading … biblically !! Our understanding of the import of individual pieces of doctrine and how it fits together systematically to make the whole of what we call “belief” is, for much of the country, at an all time low.

Now I wouldn’t say that this is true of us at REZ generally, but I am certain that we cannot swim in the water of our culture without being effected by its pollutants !! And I know that we approach our faith in America kind of like a HOBBY! I’ve heard it said that in America “we Worship our work, we Work at our play and we Play at our worship!” And if we do indeed play at our worship then we probably approach belief much like this game of JENGA. Certainly our culture does.

The point of the game is to sit with an opponent and try to remove as much of the foundational structure of the tower until it topples over. Whoever removes the last piece before it topples, loses!! Its fun!

The question before us is 1: What pieces of our faith are foundational? And 2: What happens to us if we do not hold to them or really understand that they are foundational?

The writer to the Hebrews urges his readers to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” (10:23) But we have a tendency to easily set aside tenets within the structure of our hope, without thinking about them too much. And pretty soon we are experiencing a crisis of faith – the toppling effect of removing pieces of the foundation.

So how about this Virgin Birth thing? How important is it and why?

Our gospel reading begins with the classic words of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Most of us accept that Jesus is somehow divine and human together – that is the doctrine of the incarnation and it is central to our understanding of Jesus and is foundational to our understanding of who He was, and is and what He did among us.

Larry King, of CNN fame, was once asked if he could interview anyone from the history of the world, who would he interview. His answer was Jesus Christ. When asked what his interview would consist of he said he would ask one question: “Were you really virgin born?” Because if the answer is Yes, it “explains history for me.”

How important is this little piece of our foundation?

Is the Virgin Birth of Jesus something we can negotiate with? And what real evidence do we have to support our belief in it?

IS IT NEGOTIABLE?

Well, NO, not if you want to have the “faith once delivered to the saints.” (Jude)

If we remove the Virgin Birth of Jesus, we subsequently and necessarily must remove Miracles and Divinity from the equation, as the Virgin Birth speaks to his origins… to the mechanics of his arrival among us … as simply a man or … as a God/Man.

The choices are two: Either Jesus was the illegitimate son of a carpenter and his teen bride (as many in his village likely believed) OR he was the supernatural gift of God through a chosen virgin, as prophecy predicts and as the story recounts in Scripture.

The choice then made sets one on a path of belief or unbelief, based on the assumptions that form this one building block of faith and hope.

The Virgin Birth points at least to a world that is unbound by sheer naturalism. Ravi Zacharias makes this point in his book, “Jesus Among Other Gods”. (p. 38) He points out that such a claim, especially in the time and culture in which it was advanced, would have been subject to scorn and ridicule at the very least – stoning and death at the worst. For a young, betrothed bride to turn up pregnant at the wedding was a scandal of the first order – and for her to be accepted in that condition by the new husband was evidence, in and of itself, that something else – something extraordinary was happening.

But what proofs can be offered except the recounting of dreams or visions by Mary herself or by Joseph her husband, both of whom have the most to lose if this was a fabrication – a lie.
Interestingly the other characters in the story also play an important role as does an understanding of the culture. Zacharias goes on,

“Mary, Joseph, Zacharias, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and then the disciples risked everything for this truth.”

He explains that the culture was one of “power and position,” and for them to set their son up for his humiliation toward a cousin younger than himself and to maintain that position of “second fiddle” even up to their son’s death at the hands of Herod’s daughter and the guards who brought her his head, was cultural suicide. It was a path toward ostracism and living as outcasts in their own home towns!

And for Mary and Joseph, the claim of a supernatural pregnancy, while they were engaged, would have been laughed at and they would have been ostracized in the harshest ways by those in closest relationships with them. Instead the opposite appears to be the case, as Joseph took Mary in, though pregnant without disgracing her publically, as did Elizabeth, her cousin, during the final trimester of her pregnancy, when the outward evidence of her pregnancy was irrefutable. All these point to the veracity of what they believed about the pregnancy – that they believed what Mary had said about God’s hand in all this.

Do you believe it?

Do you believe what we say each Sunday:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

If you believe it what does this mean?

As Larry King said, “it explains all of history!” It means that Jesus is who he said he was, the very Son of God – God With Us, Emmanuel. The Virgin Birth is set as a diamond in the setting of hundreds of prophecies regarding this coming of Messiah. Matthew spends inordinate amounts of ink on making those connections, and that is why you have Joseph’s genealogy and the Joseph dream story up front in Matthew. Those two stories are the ring setting for the story Luke tells us of the details of the birth, the testimony of Mary (which has little real credibility apart from Joseph’s acceptance of her), and the theological ramifications of such a birth.

Valerie is working today, but she related to me her astonishment this past week at a discovery she made at her work. She works with two muslim women, who celebrate Christmas. Seems like a contradiction, right? But no! It seems that one other religion in the world holds to Jesus’ Virgin Birth: Islam!!

In the Koran (Surah 19:19ff) Jesus, it asserts, was “born of a virgin.” Yet Islam denies the divinity of Jesus, maintaining that he was the last great prophet, before Mohammed. The Koran was written 600 years after Jesus birth, yet affirms this birth story as true, but does not make the connection to Jesus origin then, in God. Just as for many in our modern culture, the connection between the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus is lost. But it is one of the features of this story that is unique among world religions: Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, all born of natural means and died natural deaths.

Jesus stands alone here, and is the unique witness of God’s power and love for humankind the ssssssssssworld over. From the beginning, “communion and the power to give life existed in God himself. God, who is Father, Son and Spirit is in fact, Being-in-relationship. In Christ, the Word became flesh. God created flesh in the act of the creation of man and woman but God was not bound by our requirements of consummation in begetting His One and Only, Unique Son, through whom He was “reconciling the world to himelf.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

You see, to be born of God, we must follow the way of Jesus, the Virgin Born One, who was born, "not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God." It is thus, just as Jesus was, that we are given the power and right to become children of God.

So let us hold fast the hope that we profess and believe and receive Him, once again,
In the stable that is our heart, as he is born in us this day.

Amen.

Simple Obedience

Simple Obedience : The Christmas Story in Your Life


Have you ever listened, when all the stories of the birth of Jesus are told, for the many instances of simple obedience that happened around the story? Simple obedience – just doing what you are directed to do! Of course that begs the question, “How do you know what to do and what not to do?” which leads to a discussion of listening to God in deeper relationship and hearing from Him in some kind of on-going communication.

Really all of these things are tied together. Relationship, hearing & obedience.

The list of people in the Christmas story is really impressive, beginning with Mary herself. My wife once asked me if Mary could have said, “NO.” And of course the answer is, “YES.” That is why we have the record of her obedience … to give us an example of obedience in the face of terrible hardship. Her decision to say, “YES” was not an easy one, if you are taking all the ramifications for her into account.

Teen pregnancy while engaged, punishable by death by stoning; ostracism from family and friends; rejection by Joseph, her fiancĂ©. Her reasons to say NO to this angel were compelling indeed. But she said, “Be it unto me according to your word.”

Joseph likewise, had choices to make, and they were being made, when he dreamed a dream. His dream set him on a different and difficult course, saying “YES” to God and God’s plan for him and for Mary, his new wife to be.

Zacharias & Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer, were also faced with visions and dreams which set their course and the course of their son, even to his untimely death at the hands of Herod.

The shepherds and here in today’s reading, the Magi: men of learning and study, men of science, likely men of wealth, who traveled a great distance to pay homage; to worship the new King of Kings.

None of these obeyed the heavenly visions at no cost. Simple obedience always costs us something. But without simple obedience, the Christmas story and all that follows from it in our lives and in the lives of billions across the world, would not have happened as it has. Nor would the story continue to unfold as it does today without… simple obedience.

This second Sunday of Christmastide we have also entered a New Year, … a new decade!
I chuckled yesterday as I listened to one of the recaps of the decade past, and heard that they are trying to figure out what to call it. Can’t call it the zero’s or the oughts’. One suggestion was the Y2K’s. Whatever we call it, we have passed through the first decade of a new century.

And just as in that very first decade, even now, in the midst of our high technology and "higher" learning, the learning that we do in relationship to God and in simple obedience to His Word, is still some of the most difficult and life-changing learning that we do in our lifetime. But it’s the learning that has the potential to change the world!

In this new year… In this next decade – (if we have another decade in God’s plan, ) what will simple obedience look like for you… or for me? Do you have some idea of what God is asking you to say YES to in your life? Do you have some dream that is guiding your footsteps like the star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem? Unless we act on them, dreams and visions have a way of getting fuzzy in our minds, don’t they? We can easily forget some of the things that God has asked of us, if we do not say YES to him in simple obedience.

How do we dream dreams and see visions? How can we see beyond the hum-drum, day-in-day-out of the rat race that is American life? How can we lift our heads up from having our noses to the grind stone? We are used to phrases like that describing our reality. We are NOT that used to entering into the reality of Biblical revelation and relationship. For many the language of visions and dreams is only used in corporate America and the visions and dreams are of profits and success.

How do we dream dreams and see visions… for God? From God?

We have talked at length in the last year or so about three steps that are formative in our walk with the Lord – three steps that place us in His will and into the flow of what God is doing in the world today.

Willingness … Availability … and Obedience. We all know them well.

But we can see from the readings of our Christmastide season that both willingness and availability arise out of a mindset – actually a heart set on obedience. A heart set to hear from God and do what He asks of us, is the prerequisite to even our willingness. It is here (in our hearts) that the course is set, to follow God or to go our own way. A Heart Set on Obedience! That is my prayer for us, … for me, for my family and for our church in this new year … in this new decade.

I believe that obedience is the key to the larger vision and dream that God has for this world today. It is the key to the vision that God has for each of our lives and for our life together.

And as we learn from our readings this morning and throughout the Christmas stories, obedience is not really convenient, very often. It is not really logical, in many cases – at least by our logic. It is not really easy – doesn’t just go along with the flow. The fact is that obedience will set you apart. It will mark you as different. It will put you at odds with the world in some situations. Obedience is really different!

Obedience starts in our submission to God. Yesterday afternoon after the Rose Bowl, where Texas Christian ( a David-sized school) beat Wisconsin ( A Goliath-sized school), the MVP for the game from TCU was asked about the little guy status of TCU. On national TV he quoted 1 Peter 5:6 “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time He may exalt you” Obedience begins with our humility and submission to God. It begins with our desire to do HIS thing, not ours.

And obedience means doing HIS thing, HIS way. The Lord tells us in the Psalms that His ways are higher than our ways. Over and over again I am reminded by God that my ways are ground level – his ways are heaven level! We pray over and over again that His will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN. We are the agents for the fulfillment of that prayer! Obedience is the key.
And so with Paul, once again, as several times before I make my prayer for the New Year:
"that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe."

I pray that as you come to this wisdom and revelation you will adopt an attitude of submission and obedience to God that is the bedrock and foundation of all that can be done in His Name.

And I pray that you will, from that place, find the God sized dreams and visions for your life that He is putting in your heart – by His Holy Spirit.

In the Name of His beloved Son, Jesus!

Amen.