Christmas Clothes

I got socks for Christmas!

I got a lot of other nice presents, too, but I got socks! I love to get socks for Christmas.

Now, that’s not always been true. I love that scene in the movie “A Christmas Story” where the little boys open their packages on Christmas morning and find socks. They look at each other with mild disgust, the frenzy of the morning briefly interrupted. They toss the socks over their shoulders and move on.

I remember feeling that way about socks and other items of clothing many years ago, but I now am old enough to really appreciate clothing, good socks in particular. This year, I got the heavy, reinforced socks, the ones you can wear in your hiking boots all day and never get a blister.

I’ve also grown to the age where I appreciate the fact that I’m blessed to have nice socks. There are a lot of people around us who can afford little in the way of new clothing. They would have been grateful to get my socks.

Now, you may think I’m being a little shallow, talking about stuff I got for Christmas during the sermon time. But I’m using something small to remind me of something big, a fantastic set of clothes we are all offered at Christmas.

Christmas, of course, marks the arrival of God among us, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Christ is born! And he is born in a way allowing everyone, rich or poor, to clothe themselves anew.

His birth, and ultimately, his death and resurrection, let us present ourselves beautifully. Don’t believe me? Just look at Colossians 3:12-17. Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and most of all, love, are ours for the wearing. Implicit in Paul’s words are a new power granted by Christ—the power to change, the power to appear to others in ways sin would not allow us to appear. Christ defeated sin, our stinking, horrible sin, and suddenly we are clean enough to wear new clothes.

Do you like to get dressed up from time to time? I think it is fun, even if it is just among co-workers at a company Christmas party, or something mundane like that. We put on our best, we gather in a friendly, loving environment, and we all behave a little differently.

Paul tells us it is the same as more of us regularly put on Christ’s offering of clothing. We exhibit all that compassionate, humble, loving behavior toward one another, and powerful changes happen in our community. There is forgiveness. There is a sense of peace and thankfulness.

And in all of that, true worship arises, and God is glorified. We find ourselves closer spiritually to that day when all of us as Christ’s followers don our pure, white clothes—those robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb—and worship our Savior continually, overwhelmed by the peace and joy he desired for us from the day of creation.

I am left to wonder something, though. Under those white robes, will we wear socks?

Way Off Broadway

Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)

From a human perspective, this angelic concert didn’t happen where it was supposed to happen.

Imagine the rush of sound. I love our choir; I love what our new music director and pianist have been able to accomplish with our choir and our worship music in general. But let’s be realistic. If a choir of angels—in Greek, literally an “army” of angels—were to show up and start singing, we would all be astonished, tears silently flowing, each of us wanting to hear every note. I have no doubt a multitude of angels can out-sing a choir of 100,000 of the most talented singers on earth.

With that kind of talent, you would think the angels would have played the palaces, hovering above Jerusalem and then moving on to Rome for an encore. But instead, God sent the angels about as off Broadway as you can get, to a field occupied by stinking shepherds.

Yes, for the record, biblical shepherds stunk. It’s hard to work among the sheep and the sheep dung, far away from a bath for weeks on end, and not stink. When they arrived to see the baby Jesus in the manger, I suspect the holy family smelled them before they saw them. Ancient sources also indicate shepherds were considered “sticky fingered” when in town, and they were considered so unreliable that they could not testify in court.

So, our first lesson from these verses reinforces last week’s lesson. God often begins his work in what human beings consider the lowest places, emphasizing his power and his love for all of creation. The best choir you could hope to hear unleashed its most glorious cantata in the middle of nowhere. But at the same time, we must note its effectiveness. We still talk about the performance.

There is more going on here, though.The angels’ song also reminds us of the true nature of worship, of worship’s true audience.

To whom do the angels sing? Well, listen to the words again: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

The angels sang first of all to praise and glorify God. It didn’t matter where they sang; God is everywhere. This truth should shape us whenever we worship, wherever we are.

Ministry professionals need to learn this more than anyone. Clergy, musicians—we sadly are sometimes guilty of thinking we’ll one day move on to a church more worthy of our education, elocution and liturgical temperament. But the primary audience, God, is always before us. God can be glorified in a cathedral, but he is equally glorified in a little country church, or a field of stinking shepherds.

There also is that other part, “Peace, good will toward men.” Well, of course the angels sang that. There was a baby in a manger, and his presence changed everything.

Despite our sin, despite our repeated resistance, God still loves us, so much that he came among us in flesh. And in Jesus’ growing, and ultimately, his dying, God made peace possible. We even believe this radical idea that peace will come in full—we are moving toward it, despite the violence and sadness we see around us.

I think the ideas of praising God and looking toward peace are deeply related, too. They belong together in this song.

When we worship rightly, we are brought into contact with the mind of God. We are changed. And perhaps, over time, our mind works more like God’s mind. We find ourselves more inclined to choose the path God would have us follow. We begin to exhibit the grace and mercy we sense in him while we worship.

And ultimately, there is movement, action. The story goes a little beyond what we read today. When the angels departed, the shepherds got up and went to see what had been declared; they found the baby. And then, in voices much smaller and rougher than what they had heard, they went on praising God.

The featured image is “Angel and Shepherds,” by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wholly Thine

Usually when we talk about Old Testament sacrifices, we end up exploring how they are precursors to Jesus’ death on the cross. His is the ultimate, all-atoning sacrifice, covering sins for all time.

The kind of sacrifice we see described in Leviticus 1:1-9, what we sometimes call “the whole burnt offering,” takes us there, but in a roundabout way. Like the other sacrifices described in Leviticus, it is an ancient practice, a Bronze Age ritual filled with blood and fire. The only similar experience we might have today involves smell—at some point in the process, that bull on the altar must have given off an aroma like steaks on a grill.

The point of the whole burnt offering still resonates today, though. For the one making the offering, it was an act of deep commitment.

Note again what was required to make this offering: an unblemished bull, what today would be a prize winner at the county fair. (People also could bring a male sheep or goat, or if they were poor, a bird. We’re going to focus on the bull today, however.) Such a well-formed beast usually represented years of careful breeding, hard work and what we might call a little luck.

The bull was valuable, not just for what it represented on the hoof, but more for what it represented in offspring for years to come. Bred with the right cows, it could make its owner and his family comfortable, well-off or even wealthy. With such a bull roaming his fields, a man might feel a little more secure in his future.

Instead of leaving it to do what bulls do, however, the owner chose instead to take this prize bull and have it turned into ashes and smoke. Unlike the other types of offerings, there was not the opportunity for the owner or even the priests to consume any of the meat. The priests were entitled to the skin only.

When the time came, the owner would stand before the bull and lay his hands upon the animal’s head. There must have been a sobering moment when the owner could feel the life in the animal, its pulsing, its twitching, perhaps its nervousness at the strangeness of the surroundings. Then, if the ritual were performed as it was typically done throughout history, the owner would slaughter the animal himself, cutting its windpipe and esophagus quickly and deeply with a very large, sharp knife.

Blood would have flown, of course, with the priests catching it and flinging it against the altar. The bull, so alive in one moment, would have buckled and fallen before the owner who had fed it and tended it with such care. It would then be cut up and burned according to the prescriptive details we find in Leviticus.

Certainly, it was an act of atonement, but the whole burnt offering was different from the sin offerings in one particular way. It was far less about blood and much more about establishing a right relationship with God. Or think of it this way: It was less about what a person had done and more about how a person intended to live.

First, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, the bull was intended as a gift to God. It was turned to smoke as much as possible because that is how Bronze Age Israelites perceived offerings going to God, by way of smoke, up into the heavens. A gift was a formal expression of a desire for solidarity, or even friendship.

Second, it was an act of dependency. The one making the offering was saying, “God, I need you more than I need this bull. God, I trust you more than I trust in my own ability as a breeder,” or whatever other occupation might make a person well-off enough to own such an animal.

And despite the seeming primitiveness of the whole burnt offering, we should be able to connect with what was happening in the heart of the worshiper when such a sacrifice occurred.

In fact, it is easier for us to reach that place where we no longer stand in cringing fear of God because of sin. God has made it easier. We simply claim Christ as our own, and the claim sin has on us vanishes. Through Christ, the path to a loving relationship with God has been made clear and simple.

What remains for us is a response to the gift of eternal life we’ve been given. What kind of gifts do we give to the one who has done so much for us already? How do we acknowledge our dependency?

Perhaps we need to determine what our bull in the field is. What might we have bred and grown for our own security, and how might we release that to God, demonstrating our trust in him?

For each person, the answer will be different. The question is well worth considering, however, particularly when so much ministry in the world is needed.

Knowing We Are Naked

Adam and Eve in Paradise, Lucas Cranach, 1532One of the weird things about sin is you sometimes find yourself committing it without having consciously thought, “I am now going to go against God.”

Oh, sure, there are people who revel in sin. But I feel certain even they achieved open defiance of God by first practicing an almost naive experiment, a slight turning away from the Creator to see what would happen.

The story of the first human sin is the classic example. Whether you read it literally or allegorically, you get to the same place: Sin begins with small, careful steps taken down a very slippery slope.

It doesn’t help that someone is looking for company as he slides down. Despite what Flip Wilson said, the devil doesn’t make us do it. He does, however, make right and wrong seem unclear, and suddenly it becomes easy to follow his lead.

Now, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, you know that Satan doesn’t actually make a formal appearance. The story of what we sometimes call “The Fall” is built around Eve’s encounter with a serpent. But Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent” for a reason. Both represent a very personal evil, a dark antagonist seeking to drive a wedge between God and humanity.

Eve was like a child in her innocence. She and Adam had just one rule to follow to stay right with God—don’t eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden—but the serpent was able to muddle even something that simple.

The serpent began by misstating the rule. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve rushed to correct him, but oddly enough, she followed the serpent’s lead in making the rule more restrictive than it actually was. She accurately said the humans were not supposed to eat of the fruit, but she added her own little twist, saying they would die if they merely touched it.

Why she did this isn’t completely clear. She had not yet been made when God gave Adam the rule; maybe Adam overstated the matter to keep the astonishing, treasured companion God had given him a safe distance from the tree. Or maybe her inaccurate gloss is just evidence of how quickly we begin to describe God as a harsh taskmaster when we let evil whisper to us.

The serpent then sowed further doubt about God, telling Eve she had been misled. God, he told her, was trying to keep the humans from being like their creator. We know where the story goes from there—she took the fruit, passed her self-devised “touch test” with flying colors, and proceeded to dig in, giving some to her husband, too.

That’s when they knew they were naked. Not that there was anything wrong with being naked before they ate the fruit. The problem was this fruit gave them knowledge of good and evil, and with all the possible choices in the universe suddenly before them, they felt vulnerable at the potential horrors they could see.

And, of course, they who defy God cannot exist for long in the presence of God, and they certainly cannot be allowed near the source of eternal life. Goodbye Paradise.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, saw a pattern in this story explaining how we step toward and finally slip into sin. It begins in a state of unbelief, a moment where we don’t trust that God is our loving Creator, the one to whom we owe complete allegiance.

Unbelief gives birth to pride, Wesley said, resulting in thoughts like “I know as well as God what to do” or even “I know better what to do.” From there, pride leads to self-will, that is, the decision to follow your own thoughts rather than God’s will. Finally, self-will leads to all sorts of foolish desires, wants unconnected to God, and a person ends up eating “forbidden fruit,” usually the indulgence in activities, possessions or people not part of God’s plan.

What is a weak, broken human to do? In the story of the fall, all we’re left with is the inevitability of sin, this sudden knowledge that we’re vulnerable.

We cannot do anything, of course. We remain dependent on God. Fortunately, God continues to love. God remains the source of grace. Even before banishing Adam and Eve to a world equally broken—a world where they could survive for at least a limited time—God sacrificed some of the precious animals of the garden so their skins could cover the humans’ shame. It was a precursor to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, just as all the animal sacrifices to God in human history would be.

I find it poetic that Jesus Christ, God walking among us in our flesh, preceded his ministry to rescue us from sin by going toe to toe with Satan, in the process reversing the pattern of temptation we see in Genesis. From the story, it is obvious the devil was unsure of Jesus’ identity. Satan’s first strategy was to deal with Jesus as a fallen human, one already familiar with the pattern of temptation and rooted in sin.

Satan began by placing before the fasting, hungry Jesus a temptation based on foolish desire: Turn these stones into bread. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus replied.

The devil then appealed to Jesus’ pride, testing to see if he would willfully demonstrate holy power: Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, he told Jesus. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ ” Jesus said.

Finally, realizing this was a tough one to break, Satan tested Jesus’ belief, offering Jesus all the world if Jesus would worship Satan. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus said. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Here is one who did not fall, one worthy of Paradise. And when we trust in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we know we can return to that blissful place, too.

Really Good Folk

There’s the right thing to do, and then there’s the really right thing to do. Usually, God has to show us the latter.

The Bible calls us to remember the different roles faithful human beings played in the arrival and upbringing of Jesus Christ on earth. The stories of Joseph and Mary have a particular twist to them that we should keep in mind whenever we’re trying to discern God’s will.

Joseph was a righteous or “just” man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in his story as found in Matthew 1:18-25. By “just,” the author of Matthew is saying that Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone he believed had wronged him terribly. Joseph was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond even high standards of goodness to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

To follow God’s will, Joseph had to do several difficult things. He had to trust that his relationship with God was strong enough to let him hear God correctly. He had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that may have happened in his village: “Joseph cannot control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

And most of all, he had to take on a challenge few people would feel equipped to handle, the protection and rearing of the Savior.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on this task as soon as he awoke.

In Luke, which focuses more on Mary’s story, we see a similar ability to go beyond the human definition of what is right and dwell in God’s holy plan. When Mary prophetically utters what we now know as the “Magnificat,” we see a mind open to God’s extraordinary plan to turn the world topsy-turvy through Christ.

I believe we still experience Joseph and Mary moments today. There are decisions we face where there are at least two answers, one demonstrably good to the world, the second riskier but even more in tune with something new that God seems to be doing.

Maybe the decision lies in how we deal with our spouses or raise our children. Maybe it has to do with the work of our church. Perhaps it is in the very calling God has placed on our lives.

The key is to stay in tune with God through prayer, study and worship, and then watch for God’s guidance in such moments. We’re left then to ask ourselves, “Can I respond as bravely as Joseph  and Mary?”

It’s not hard to get to “yes” if we keep in mind the lesson of the coming Christmas season. God is with us, and as the angels tell us repeatedly, we have nothing to fear.

Letting Go of the Locust Years

If you’re going to hear from prophets past or present, there are three overarching messages they’ll use repeatedly. Understand these broad concepts, and you’ll understand how prophecy remains relevant and life-changing even today.

I’ll work from the book of Joel today, including our reading, Joel 2:23-32. It’s a concise little book of prophecy, just three chapters, and it illustrates these three messages well. I would encourage you to read the whole book start to finish to get a feel for it.

Message no. 1: Life actually is full of trouble.

Joel had a particular form of trouble that was the context for his prophecies. Locusts had overwhelmed the land of Judah, destroying everything in sight, and then a drought ensued. The livestock longed for food; we can assume people were starving to death. Joel prophesied during a particularly bad time, but it was the kind of bad time the world has seen repeatedly.

Trouble as an ongoing event is an underlying theme of the Bible. The Bible as a whole doesn’t pull any punches about that particular truth. If you know your Book of Genesis, you know the root of that trouble, sin. God made things right and holy, but he also gave his creation free will. When that free will was exercised wrongly, sin occurred.

It was like tapping a perfect porcelain vase with a hammer. Cracks ran everywhere, and the brokenness impacts every aspect of our lives.

Fortunately, the prophets never just leave us with our troubles.

Message no. 2: God gives us tremendous promises and signs assuring us of his love. Despite our unholiness, God relents in regard to the punishment we deserve.

Much of the Old Testament contains promises that God will provide us a way out of trouble. That promise largely has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, whom Christians acknowledge as the promised Jewish Messiah. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, sin has been overcome, extending God’s grace to all the world. The resurrection of Christ is a sign this work has begun.

Pentecost, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the early church, is another sign of God at work in the world. Look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He spent a lot of time quoting Joel, placing Christ and the church in the context of Joel’s promises.

Message no. 3: Full, permanent restoration of creation is coming. God’s work will be complete; creation will be re-made as holy and unbroken.

It’s a fulfillment we await today. Faithful Christians know they move toward this time each day, regardless of what trouble we may face now.

As we hear from Joel or any other prophet, the question before us becomes simple: Where in the prophetic pattern are we going to live? Do we stay mired in misery, letting the locust years of our lives consume us? At a minimum, I would prefer to live in a state of expectant watchfulness, excited by glimpses of God at work now and trusting the signs that there is more to come.

Occasionally, we even run across people who seem to be able to live at least some of their lives as if the promises already have been kept in full. Call them what you want—kingdom people, the perfected ones, saints. I call them “forward thinkers.” At the end of his life, Paul was one of these people, facing trouble after trouble yet clinging joyously to what was already his, eternal life with God.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” a battered Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:7-8. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

I also feel I’ve known such people. In particular, I think of a woman prayer warrior I once knew who could take any situation and make you see it in the light of the resurrection and a fully restored relationship with God.

Spiritually, these forward-thinking people already are what we hope to be when Christ returns and completes his work in the resurrection of creation. I look at them and wonder what the world would be like if more of us were to bear such holiness now.

Beatitudes I

Today and the following three weeks, we’re going to focus on the Beatitudes, the sayings of Jesus that set the tone for the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew.

First, here’s a little background that any lay person could develop with a close reading of the text and an easy-to-use commentary, for example, William Barclay’s two-volume exploration of Matthew. While it’s obvious in the end of chapter 7 that the crowds ultimately hear Jesus’ teachings, his words are initially intended for his disciples.

After going up the mountain, Jesus sat down to teach, a sign in Jewish rabbinical tradition that something deeply important is about to be spoken. There also are other signs in the Greek text that Jesus was giving more than just an everyday talk; he was opening his heart and mind to his followers.

Before diving in, we also need to consider what it means to say someone is “blessed.” It’s important to remember we’re talking about a state that goes beyond happiness. Happiness is subject to our current condition. Blessedness is rooted in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, and the joy accompanying such blessedness remains with us regardless of our condition.

So, with all that in mind, I have a question for you: Do you want to see what the kingdom of heaven looks like? I’m talking about the kingdom Jesus spoke of repeatedly, the kingdom that is present in this world now and arriving more fully each day. As we work through the Beatitudes the next few weeks, we should begin to see the kingdom more clearly as we examine the faces of its citizens.

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

When the author of Matthew wrote of the “poor,” he used a Greek word that meant absolute poverty. He wanted us to think of having nothing, including no influence in the world, and how such a state would drive us to complete dependency on God.

People who are poor in spirit have this complete dependency regardless of their net worth or the stuff they own. The more we separate ourselves from reliance on the things of this world, the more we understand and experience eternal life with God now.

It’s not that Christ wants us to starve to death to be blessed, or to let others remain in abject poverty to be blessed. But he does want us to have the spirit of one who has abandoned all things. We are then in a place of perfect obedience and citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

The Greek word translated as “mourn” truly does mean mourning as if for the dead. When we suffer so, we also should begin to notice that others around us suffer similarly. If we’re sensitive at all, we should begin to notice that no one is exempt.

What Christ hopes is that we begin to mourn over the very presence of sorrow in the world, which of course is rooted in sin. We should regret and repent of our sins deeply, and it also makes sense if we are moved to act in other ways.

It seems to me there are two possible responses to the sorrow and pain of the world. One is to tune it out, to live numbly, feeling as little as possible. When working as a newspaper reporter covering crime, I actually achieved such a numbness for awhile. It’s a survival mechanism, but it’s not a good place to stay.

The other possible response is to seek ways to do your part with the church as Christ’s work overcomes the effects of sin. This may involve participating in what we sometimes call justice ministries, activities that undo some of the brokenness we see around us.

It’s proper to be appalled by sin and its effects and act accordingly. We stop adapting to this world and start demanding this world adapt to the kingdom that is present now.

Blessed Are the Meek

The Greek word we often render as “meek,” praus, can be very hard to translate. Barclay suggests “gentle,” but I’m not sure that really captures the full meaning, either. The Greek word contains notions of a person who has tremendous self-control combined with deep humility.

Moses, described in Numbers 12:3 as “very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth,” comes to mind. He was not meek in the sense of being cringing or helpless. He understood his relationship with God and got things done.

The description of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8 is a good example of the call to empty one’s self for the benefit of others, too.

There is one other idea we need to remember as we consider who is described as blessed in this sermon and in coming weeks. Striving to be like the people described won’t get us very far. Tremendous changes can happen in our lives, however, when we open ourselves to God, asking him to make us look more like citizens of the kingdom.

We open ourselves in such a way every time we take up the Bible, pray, participate in communion, worship, or spend time in holy fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. And ultimately, contentment is our reward.