Sunday, December 27, 2015

“Receive the Gift” (Colossians 3:12-17)

Christmas Day has come and gone . . . how’d ya do?

I am not always comfortable with Christmas.  I am quite comfortable with the “faith” side of Christmas . . . it is the “giving and receiving” side of Christmas that often makes me uncomfortable.  I have never been comfortable in receiving gifts whether they are physical or verbal gifts . . . I’m always quick with a “thank you” or a humorous quip in receiving; but most of the time I am not really sure why anyone would be giving me a gift.  And, I am not the only one. 

Recently our oldest child, John Andrew, confessed his uncomfortableness with the Christmas season and its emphasis on giving.  After receiving several anonymous—and very nice gifts, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Christmas has never been my holiday. I don't hate it but I just don't like receiving gifts from people. For a long time (and now) I just never thought I deserved anything from anyone.”

Now don’t get me wrong . . . I like Christmas . . . I appreciate the gifts that I receive; yet, it still makes me uncomfortable . . . uncomfortableness that is often expressed with a quick and mumbled “thank you” or a humorous quip acknowledging the “gift”.  Christmas seems to be a time when we shower those that we love with gifts . . . often gifts of things that our loved ones would never give to themselves.  Christmas seems to be a time of extreme graciousness on the part of those who are doing the giving . . . and, they do it because they love those whom they are giving the gifts.  It is an expression of love.

I think that we all have that feeling about gifts that we receive from time to time . . . that sense of awe and bafflement of a gift so gracious that we wonder why we are the recipients.  For example, the gift that God gives to all of us on Christmas . . . the gift of God’s own love . . . a gift of grace . . . God’s own son.  It is a gift of great grace that opens up the greatest gift of all—an intimate relationship with God . . . a call to take our rightful places in God’s family . . . to enter into the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that knows no end.  It is an overwhelming gift that makes us wonder . . . why us?  We don’t deserve this gift of grace and love.  Yet, God bestows the “gift” upon us.  God does it because God love us . . . loves us more than we could ever comprehend.

Thus it is that we are called upon to receive the “gift” . . . to step up and take our place in the family, the family of God.  Yeah, God loves us whether we love ourselves or not . . . God loves us.  Because God loves us, let us receive the “gift”.  Let us rip off the wrapping, tear open the box, and embrace the “gift” . . . let us jump up and down in excitement at the wonder of it all . . . and, with sincere hearts us repeat, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”  That’s the least we could do for such a cosmic and profound gift as this miracle of God with us.

Now a gift is not fully received or received until we respond to the actual gift.  For example, and I confess this . . . but, I have gifts from years past that are stashed away in the nooks and crannies of closets that have never seen the light of day since the day I opened them.  They just sit—hidden and out of sight, never used or acknowledge beyond the day they were opened.  Is this a “gift”?  I don’t think so.  I think that a “gift” becomes a “gift” when we acknowledge it and respond to it . . . when we start to actually appreciate and use it.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians he is sharing some common sense practices of faith with the freshly converted.  True, Paul waxes on about the things and ways that the faithful should change their lives, but he also shares with them the possibilities of new life filled with opportunities . . . new life filled with opportunities because they have received the “gift”.  They are “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved . . .”  And, if this is the case, says Paul, then to really receive the “gift” is to respond to the “gift” in such a way that it reflects it.  Nowhere does the Apostle Paul expect mystical practices or heroic sacrifices or special esoteric knowledge from those who receive the gift.  No, the apostle expects something simpler . . . he expects the faithful to be Christ-like in their everyday living.

The apostle writes: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

To receive and respond to the “gift” . . . of claiming one’s spot in relationship with God and in God’s family . . . is to be Christ-like in one’s life and the way that one lives on a daily basis.  It is to embrace and live love.  And, it all begins when one can truly open up his or her heart, allow the grace and love of God to enter in, and to accept it . . . to embrace it . . . and, discover the peace of Christ.  And, it means to be able to say, “Thank you.”  To say “thank you” whether you understand the reason why you received the gift in the first place.  It is to acknowledge God’s love . . . for you and for everyone else.  The apostle writes: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts . . . and be thankful.”   This is how we are to receive the “gift”.

Then we are to make the “gift” our own . . . we are to respond.  We are to respond in love . . . not mere words of love, but in actions of love . . . we are to become Christ-like in our lives and actions. 

The true “gift” of Christmas, as we all know, is not a gift that is meant to be kept and hoarded . . . it is a “gift” that was meant to be given away.  It is in the giving away that we know that we have truly received the “gift”.  It is in the giving away that God knows . . . that God knows that we accept and understand the graciousness and love of the original gift.  Thus, to truly receive the “gift” of Christmas . . . we have to give . . . to give of ourselves and of our love.

In a quote that has been attributed to many: “Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.”    Author Amy Carmichael writes: “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.”  And, Mother Teresa writes: “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”  The Apostle Pau tells the faithful: “. . . put on love . . .”

To receive the “gift” of Christmas is to receive the gift of love, but it does not stop there . . . it must be re-gifted . . . it must be given away if it has really been received.  Saint Francis tells us: “For it is in giving that we receive.”  As we ponder in our hearts all that this Christmas season has given to us . . . let us ponder how each of us can respond to this “gift”—this immense gift of grace and love . . . let us ponder how we can give it away on a daily basis . . . with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and most importantly with love.  As Paul writes to the Colossians: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In this season of Christmas . . . receive the “gift” . . . and go forth to share . . . go forth in love.  Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Sometimes You Just Gotta Sing" (Luke 1:39-45 [46-55])

When Mary heard Elizabeth's pronouncement, she was moved to song . . . she began to sing.  Elizabeth had declared that Mary was the chosen one to carry the child of God.  Declared to be blessed.  Overwhelmed with the immensity of the knowledge and affirmation of Elizabeth's words, Mary could do nothing but sing.  In my imagination I picture as one of those old musicals in which there is little conversation and lots of singing . . . people always breaking out in song.  Mary breaks out in song . . . she can't help it.  Sometimes there is no holding back . . . sometimes you just gotta break out in song.

Author Sharon Shinn in her book, Archangel, writes about a conversation between two of the characters.  One is asking the other about how he knows that there is a god--any God.  In response the character answers: “Are you asking me if there is a god?' he said, still in that soft voice. 'All I can say is, I believe there is. I feel him when I sing. He has responded to my prayers countless times. He guides my actions and he dwells in my heart. I know he is there.”  It is in singing that he is in the presence of God . . . it is in singing that he feels God . . . and, the song comes from the heart.

Mary acknowledges this deep seated connection to the Lord . . . to God's presence: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . ."  From her heart she sings of her love and devotion to God . . . for remembering her . . . for choosing her . . .for believing in her.  So overwhelmed she can do nothing but sing.  This is no ordinary song . . . not some top forty pop song or Karaoke ditty . . . no, this is something more intimate, more personal . . .almost a prayer.  Hers is a song of adoration . . . a form of worship . . . a prayer.  Writer Gangai Victor writes: “It’s easy to sing the song, but to pray the lyrics from deep within… that’s worship!”

We should all be familiar of the story of Mary . . . chosen by God to carry God's child . . . to be the mother of God's son.  Familiar with the chaos that this news created in her life and the life of her betroth . . . the rumors that flew . . . the gawking . . . the finger pointing . . . all the things that went against her religion and faith.  To feel ostracized.  How this surprise pregnancy nearly ruined her relationship with Joseph before it even had a chance.  It is not difficult to imagine that all of this had to have some sort of effect upon Mary and how she viewed herself--whether it was God or not, Mary's self-esteem had to be pretty low.

Thus it is no surprise that she is overwhelmed when Elizabeth confirms and affirms how special this pregnancy is . . . how blessed Mary is for having been chosen.  In Elizabeth's reaction and words Mary encounters an affirmation that not only is she loved, but God has chosen her . . . that God wants her . . .desires her.  No matter what happens, she realizes that God loves her and will always love her.  So overwhelmed, she can only sing--she responds with worship, she sings.

Again, in my mind's eye, I envision Mary breaking out in song a lot like Julie Andrews does in the Sound of Music . . . when she is up the Alps, surrounded by all those beautiful mountains, and she begins to belt out, "The hills are alive with the sound of music!"  Mary is that moved by the acceptance she feels from God in that moment of revelation in Elizabeth's presence.  She's gotta sing.

Hearing this story made me wonder about how we respond to God's acceptance and love for each of us . . . do we break out in song?  Are we spontaneous in letting out our feelings for God?

I think that we as a congregation . . . as the faithful gathered . . . we have this singing thing down.  And, I am not the only one who believes this.  Our regional minister, Ruth Fletcher, has often said to me that she enjoys worshipping at Joliet Christian Church because she always feels as if she has worshipped when she leaves.  Throughout the region . . . and, even in our own community . . . we are known for our singing.  Our singing comes from our hearts . . . our singing is our prayer . . . our singing is our worship.  We do it with deep devotion, love, and enthusiasm.  When we gather with the faithful we have no problem breaking out in song; but, are we apt to do the same when we are out in the world doing our jobs or living our lives on a daily basis?

There is an underlying shading that comes with the season of Advent . . . one that comes out of a reality check of the world around us.  These are tough times that we are living in . . . violent times . . . unjust times . . . times that long for peace.  And, these times are a reflection of the people who live in them.  Advent calls us to look at our lives and to begin to make the preparations to receive the gift of grace that come in Jesus and the life he reveals to us.  Living in such a time as these does not do much for one' shelf-esteem . . . doesn't make us feel very desirable.  And, yet, the gift is going to be ours whether we think we deserve it or not.  It is going to be ours because God loves us . . . desires us . . . and, ultimately has chosen us.  Each and every year, during the season of Advent, we are reminded of this . . . God loves us . . . plain and simple, God loves us.

And, because God loves us, we should respond accordingly.  How did Mary put it?  “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . ."  Then she broke in song because the joy she felt could be expressed no other way.  As a people who believe in the love and grace of God shown through Jesus, shouldn't we acknowledge our deep and overwhelming love for God . . . not just in our gathering as the faithful on Sunday mornings or in special services, but in each and every moment our love for God moves us beyond mere words? 

In this season of Advent we are reminded once again that we have been chosen to receive the affirmation of love . . . to receive the grace . . . to be acknowledged as the children of God.  A gift that is given to us each and every day.  In this season of Advent we are reminded that we always have the gift of starting over when it comes to our love for God and for one another.  When one considers the immensity of this gift of grace, one cannot helped but to be overwhelmed by the sense of being loved . . . it is more than words can express.  It makes you want to pray . . . to worship . . . to sing.  You just gotta sing.  Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2015

“Fearlessness in a Time of Fear” (Philippians 4:4-7 & Isaiah 12:2-6)

What scares you?

According to a survey by Chapman University and shared by Time magazine, these are the ten biggest fears of Americans in 2015:

  • Corruption of government officials

  • Cyber-terrorism

  • Corporate tracking of personal information

  • Terrorist attacks

  •  Government tracking of personal information

  • Bio-warfare

  • Identity theft

  • Economic collapse

  • Running out of money in the future
  • Credit card fraud

Those were the big fears of Americans . . . the ones we worry and fret about as we watch our news on television, hear it on the radio, or read it in the newspaper.  Those are the biggies, but we also have some of the more minor and common fears that strike us too.

According to a Gallup Poll, a few years ago, we Americans have lots of other fears.  According to that poll, in the greatest to the least, these are the more common and everyday fears we Americans have:

  • Snakes

  • Public speaking

  • Heights

  • Being closed in a small space

  •  Spiders and insects

  • Needles and getting shots

  • Mice
  • Flying on an airplane

  • Dogs

  •  Thunder and lightning

  • Crowds

  • Going to the doctor

  • The dark

I think that we can also add to that list our fears or concerns about getting older and everything that goes with getting older . . . illnesses . . . natural disasters . . . crime and violence . . . and, on and on the list could go. 

We are living in fearful times.  But, we are not the first people to live in a time of fear.  In our scripture readings this morning we hear two different readings—though very similar—of two time periods in the history of God’s people.  We hear a reading from the prophet Isaiah, and one from the Apostle Paul to a congregation in Philippi that he had started.  In both the people are living in a time of fear.

Isaiah is addressing God’s people who are in exile in Babylon for their indifference towards their covenant with God.  Despite Isaiah’s words of warning for the people to repent and turn back to their covenant with God, the people ignored his warnings . . . and, the result was that they were invaded by the armies of Babylon and severely defeated, captured, and moved to a strange land.  Behind them their homes were laid to waste and all that they knew and understood . . . even their relationship with God . . . was ripped away from them.  Now they were living far from home, and in their minds and hearts they were far from God . . . it was a time of fear as their past was destroyed and their future looked bleak.

The Apostle Paul has left the congregation he established in Philippi.  He is now in prison in Rome.  It is not a good time to be a “Christian” as there is persecution from both the Jews and the Roman government.  No longer does the congregation in Philippi have their leader, teacher, and mentor to lead them through these uncertain times.  It is a scary time . . . a time of uncertainty . . . a time of fear.

In both situations the people were living in fear.  In both situations they are given the word of hope.  Both the prophet and the apostle tell the people to have no fear for they are the children of God . . . they are not to live their lives in fear or the shadow of fear.  No, they are encouraged to rejoice . . . to always rejoice in the Lord.  Both the prophet and the apostle offer to the people words of encouragement.

Don’t you dislike those sorts of people?  Those people who are always telling us to put on a happy face no matter how rotten things seem to be?  Aren’t the words of Isaiah and Paul sounding a lot like one of that peppy song by Bobby Ferrin a few years ago . . . “Don’t worry, be happy”?  Don’t they realize how rotten things really are . . . the children of God in Isaiah’s time are captives in another nation—basically slaves far from their familiar home . . . the congregation in Philippi is in a hostile environment where they are constantly looking over their shoulders fearful of who might persecute them, might throw them into prison, or even kill them?  How is anyone supposed to rejoice in the Lord when life sucks?

Isaiah and Paul are well of the times and circumstances of the people they are addressing . . . shoot, Paul is sitting in prison of all things.  Times are hard . . . times are scary . . . the future is not certain . . . and, it is definitely a time of fear.  And, both understand that the problem is not with the captors or those who are persecuting them . . . it is not being thrown into prison . . . it is not even the threat of death; the problem, as they understand it, is fear.  Fear is the issue.

Fear is the great immobilizer of life.  Fear is what keeps people from trying things.  Fear is what keeps people from growing.  Fear is what keeps people from forming relationships.  Fear is what keeps people from loving.  Fear is what makes people lock their doors, shudder their windows, and go into hiding from the world around them.  Fear is what makes people set up barriers to keep out that which they fear.  Fear does not allow people the opportunity to discover who it is that God created them to be, nor does it allow them to step into the Kingdom of God.  Fear freezes people in their tracks, they spin their wheels, and they never complete the journey . . . the journey of faith . . . the journey of life.

The children of God in Isaiah’s time had screwed up majorly . . . they had broken their covenant with God despite God’s plea through Isaiah to come back into relationship with God and one another.  This did not make God happy . . . no, God was angry.  Captivity in Babylon was the result of that anger; and, yet, God still loved them . . . still desired a relationship with them . . . was still present to them whether they could see it or not . . . God did not abandon them—ever!  Even when the people screwed up, God still loved them.  Isaiah understood this . . . God is always there . . . always loving . . . always desiring a relationship no matter how good or bad things are—God is always there.  Because of that, Isaiah tells the people: “I will praise you, O Lord.  Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid . . . Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name . . . for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

Even in a time of captivity, the call is to rejoice in the God who never abandons.

What greater witness could the congregation in Philippi receive than a letter of encouragement from their founder, leader, mentor, and friend—the Apostle Pau, from a prison cell in Rome.  Sure times were hard . . . times were fearful, but here is Paul sitting in a prison cell praising God and telling his disciples to do likewise.  The apostle writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything . . . And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul understands that God never abandons the faithful . . . never abandons the family . . . never abandons creation.  No, God is always there, still loving, caring, and desiring that relationship.  Nothing ca ever strip away the presence of God . . . not persecution, not imprisonment, or even death itself.  God will never abandon you.  In that news all one can do is to rejoice . . . in the good times and in the bad.

Our journey during this Advent season has been one that has been disturbing in the news of the world in which we live.  It is a time of great fear of things that are big and scary, and of things that are small but put fear into us.  Our gut reaction is to shut down and hide . . . to dig our heels in and stay right where we are . . . because that is what fear does to us.  It immobilizes us and keeps us from completing the journey we have been called upon to take.  So, what are we scared of?

Someone once said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Fear is always going to be a part of life . . . always going to be a part of the journey through life and through faith.  But what have we . . . the followers of Jesus . . . what have we to fear?  Jesus demonstrated and continues to show us that God never abandons us . . . that God is always with us.  No matter what . . . in good times or bad times . . . God is always there . . . always in relationship with us.  Because God is, we should do as the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul encouraged . . . we should rejoice!  Rejoice!  God is with us!  Always with us!  Let us continue to make the journey.  Amen.