Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 4, 2011

Two Builders: Joseph and Herod
Matthew 1.18-25                                                                                                                Advent 2

            One figure in the Christmas story whose contributions and faithfulness have been under-appreciated was Joseph. Joseph is mainly remembered as the man who was definitely not the father of Mary’s child. Then, we expand the insult by recalling how he almost dumped Mary when he learned that she was pregnant before their formal marriage. Oh yes, he was a carpenter. And, it seems that he dreamed a lot and took his dreams pretty seriously. Other than that, he is seen as little more than that guy leading the donkey on front of Christmas cards, or the rather un-resourceful fellow who couldn't even find a fit place for his wife to give birth, or the tall kid wearing his father's bathrobe who doesn't have to do or say anything in children's Christmas pageants.
            This sermon, like all our preaching this Advent is inspired by an Advent Study written by Rev. Adam Hamilton; it is titled, *The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem*. This study invites us to see how the geography and history of the places where Jesus was born shapes the Christmas story and indeed shapes the great gospel message of salvation.

            In any list of our *10 favorite Christmas carols*, we would certainly include “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It is a dreamy carol which sets out to transport us to an idyllic Bethlehem where a baby as precious as Jesus would certainly be born.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by…

That night, of course, was the night of the Baby Jesus’ birth. Beguiled by the carol, we imagine Bethlehem to be a place of unbroken peace and simple beauty, set apart from the dangers of the Romans and their heavy-handed ruler, King Herod.
            In some ways, the magic and beauty of the Christmas season make it hard for us to look at the larger story of the birth of the Christ Child. We want our Christmas to be about “angels and shepherds and starry nights;” any other details get in the way. But, as we turn our attention to Joseph and his birthplace in Bethlehem this morning, we need to see the bigger picture. It is rich with evidence of the hand of God and well worth our attention. This time let’s look at the familiar Christmas story from the viewpoint of Joseph, the intended husband of Mary, and thus the earthly father who raised Jesus as his own child.

I. According to Luke, Joseph was required by King Herod to return to the city of his birth to register for a census. Most people further assume that this census was for the purpose of a taxation. This city was Bethlehem.
            Because of the Christmas Carol, we assume that Bethlehem was a peaceful place, set apart from the dangers of the larger world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Further, talking about Bethlehem will help us better understand the character of Joseph and the wonderful contribution he made to the coming of the Christ Child.
            The first clue that there is more to the story of Bethlehem comes in the verses which follow our scripture reading this morning. If your Bible is still open to our scripture, just continue reading with Matthew 2 beginning with verse 1:
**In the time of King Herod,
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. . .**

In chapter 1, we began with Joseph; now in chapter 2, we must pay attention to King Herod. Herod was born around 74 BC and died in 4 BC. The year of Herod’s death and this reference in Matthew are the reason that many think that Jesus was actually born in 4 BC. Herod was a Roman client who ruled Judea. He is described as "a madman who murdered his own family including many of his own sons. He is also known for his colossal building projects in Jerusalem and elsewhere, including his expansion of the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
            When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, they did not find a sweet town isolated from the politics and oppressions of King Herod and his Roman patrons. Just a short distance south of Bethlehem, King Herod had built a fortress palace for himself. At the site of one of his military victories, Herod took an ordinary hill and built it up until it was one of the highest mountains in the area. Inside that man-made mountain, he built a self-contained fortress and palace where he could defend himself against any attacker. On the outside, it looked like a smallish fortress on top of a hill. Inside it had a water system, barracks for troops, a villa for the King and his court – all reached by narrow steps going up the side. At the base of the mountain he built an artificial lake, gardens and a city for his guests. King Herod was so proud of this fortress built inside a mountain that he named it the “Herodion” – he named it for himself.
            The Herodion was so tall and prominent that you could see it from most places in Bethlehem. Roman soldiers and officials traveling between Jerusalem the capital and the Herodion fortress could have passed through Bethlehem often.
            I have described all of this to prepare you to think about the fact that what we have in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus is the contrast of two builders. *Joseph the carpenter* and *Herod the great builder*. Mark uses the Greek word, *tekton*, to describe Jesus as the son of a *carpenter*. The word can also mean *builder*. A person who was a *master builder* was called *arch-tekton* which is where our word *architect* comes from. You might imagine that King Herod with all his building projects could be called an *arch-tekton,” but Joseph was only a *tekton* -- a craftsman.

II. Now, contrast these two builders:
            A. Joseph was a modest man; he does not have single word recorded in the Bible. He lived out the role of father-figure in Jesus’ early life. The New Testament assumes that Jesus was trained as a carpenter himself.
+Joseph wanted to marry and proposed marriage to Mary.
+He learned that Mary was with child before they had married – a great shame for both of them.
+He considered divorcing her;
+Matthew describes him as a *righteous man*, but we need to think about what righteousness means in this instance. Usually, *righteousness* means doing the right thing as required by the law. Their law, like ours, required each person to do certain things and not-to-do certain things. The law of that day required that a woman who was engaged to marry but became pregnant by another man should be condemned for adultery and stoned to death. This is what righteousness according to the Law required. In our society, it is still considered grounds for ending an engagement. So, Joseph could have ended the engagement; many would have expected him to condemn her for adultery publicly so that she could be stoned to death. He chose neither of these. Instead, because of a dream, he took her as his wife. Then, when the child was born, Joseph named him Jesus. In that society, it was the father who publicly named a child; it was the traditional way by which the father claimed the child as his own and gave the child his name.
                        Thus, we would have to say that Joseph’s righteousness was really what we would call compassion. He might have done many things to protect his honor and the honor of his family; he chose instead to act with mercy toward Mary and protect her. Remember, at this point in the story of Jesus, only Mary and Joseph have any assurance that this child is of the Holy Spirit. Every other person sees only a scandal.
+Clearly, Joseph was willing to listen to the voice of God. At the point where he was most confused by the events unfolding around him, he listened when God spoke to him in a dream. He accepted the assurance from God, given in the dream that this child was from the Holy Spirit. // How many of us at the point of our greatest confusion and distrust will listen to the still, small voice of God? I fear that it would not be many.
So, here is Joseph:
            +listening for the voice of God.
In my opinion, this Joseph of the Christmas story is a man of quiet integrity, who has something to teach us about character.

            B. Herod the King was a very different sort of man. We have already talked some about him, so I’ll just summarize. Herod was:
            +a master-builder,
            +as a king, he was considered a madman,
            +unrighteous – using his authority to inflict his will on others,
            +unmerciful – killing many of his own sons,
            +untrusting, even paranoid according to some,
            +certainly, not listening or heeding the voice of God.
What a contrast! Two builders, each with a different character. Two fathers – Joseph giving life to the Son that would not be his own; Herod killing his own flesh and blood out of paranoia.
            This is not some far away point; this is a very current point to be made about the American character. In Terry Mattingly’s article on “George Gallup’s Interest in Religion” said on Saturday:
"We revere the Bible, but don't read it." "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them. We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him" (1).

            [LESSON:] The lesson to learn from Joseph is that often the greatest witness to our faith in God is not the speeches we make or the honors we win for ourselves. Often our greatest witness is measured
            +by our willingness to live inconvenienced by faith in this God;
            +by those who are helped because we passed their way;
            +by the trust we offer when things begin badly -- that they will one day work out well.
            The question we bring to the communion table is morning is just this: “What do we bring to this table? Our trophies and honors? Or our willingness to follow?
Are we coming to this table today as consumers of grace or as those committed to the God of grace – wherever that God may send us? You see, the difference between these two builders and now in these two visions of life is enormous.

1. Mattingly, Terry. "George Gallup's Interest in Religion," Knoxville News-Sentinel, December 3,  2001.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

November 20, 2011

A Grateful, Courageous heart
Psalm 66
            Thanksgiving Day is coming. There are some who will complain that we have nothing to be thankful for this year.
+The Stock Market is down.
+Groceries are high.
+Folks are out of jobs.
+There is no end in sight!
How can we give thanks on Thanksgiving when this year has been harder than the last year, and recent years have been harder than years in the not-so-recent past?
            If giving thanks requires that every year be bigger and richer than the year before, then the complainers are right. We should only give thanks when every THIS year is bigger than every LAST year. But if giving thanks has a different source, then you’d better get to the store to buy food for a feast. Thanksgiving Day is almost upon us.

[Illus: Have You Taken Inventory Lately?]
            Author David McLennon tells a story of his very first job in a small town general store. This was in the day before mails and supermarket chains. At age thirteen he was hired as a handy boy. He would sweep the floor, bag items for customers, and put up stock.
            On one particular Saturday, he heard the owner say to one of the clerks: “It’s that time of the year again: Inventory Season." Dr. McLennon confessed that this was a word that had not yet entered into his vocabulary. When an opportune moment arrived, he went to the store owner and asked, “Sir, what is Inventory Season?” Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had -- from groceries on the shelves to wrapping paper and string.”
            Still somewhat puzzled, the young McLennon then asked, “Why?”
            “Well,” responded the owner, “We need to count the stock we have at the end of the year. Every now and then we have to take inventory just to see what we have.”
            That little story, to me, provides an important aspect of what Thanksgiving is about. It is a time when each of us needs to ask ourselves the question:  “Have I taken inventory of my life lately? Have I made an effort to count all the things that I do have in life instead of complaining about the things that I don’t have? It is a good exercise especially when we are of a mind to brood or worry. Have you taken inventory lately?

            What I am suggesting here is that from time to time, we should sit down and do some talking to ourselves about all of the gifts and opportunities and challenges that God has given each one of us. This is a simple and gracious attitude toward life.
            Now, one step further: Is this attitude of taking inventory of our blessings harder this year than it was in years past? After all, if we have suffered losses and setbacks in this year, should we be expected to give thanks? In good years, “Yes;” in bad years, is our answer, “No”? The core of the matter is this: What is the source of our gratitude? Is the source of our thanksgiving spirit an ever-growing abundance of blessings and upward mobility? Or does a thanksgiving spirit have a different source?
            A young boy had only heard his Grandfather offer the blessing before the meal at Thanksgiving, Easter, and other special occasions; when he, typically, said a long prayer over the food.
            One night, after a fun campout and fishing trip, the Grandfather (to the boy’s surprise) asked a very brief blessing on the food. With a gleam in his eye, the boy grinned at his Grandfather and said, "You don't pray so long when you're hungry, do you Grandpa?"

The young boy caught the question that I am raising this Sunday before Thanksgiving. Are we more grateful when we are well-fed and life is filled with promise than when we are not-so-well fed and maybe even worried about our future?
            I contend that the source of our gratitude is not the measure of the blessings we pile around us on Thanksgiving or any other day. Instead, the source of our gratitude is our confidence in the goodness and constancy of God. You see, if our gratitude depends on the measured pile of our blessings, then that measure can vary from day to day and year to year. Some years are better than others. Some days are better than others. Some days I just feel more able to take on the challenges than I do on other days.
            As a nation, we measure our readiness to take on the challenges with something called “The Consumer Confidence Index.” I’m not sure how they come up with it, but we hear it reported from time to time on the news. But, what does it measure? Is it only focused on our readiness to buy things? Or does it measure other areas of confidence and worry?
            Certainly, our confidence that the future looks bright enough to make a major purchase is a kind of measure. Still, I contend that it is not a worthy basis for deciding our thankfulness on this Thanksgiving Day.
[ILLUS: Grinch who stole Christmas]
            Remember that wonderful Children's holiday classic "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?" It was will be on TV again this Christmas. You'll recall in the story how the Grinch, disguised as Santa Claus, enters all the homes by way of the chimneys. He takes all the presents and ornaments, the trees and stockings, and even their food down to the last morsel. He drags his loot up to his mountain and then looks down upon Whoville with a sinister grin. He is listening for the cries and wailings of the people to start as they wake up on Christmas morning to discover a Christmas lost. What he hears instead surprises him. Up from the town of the Whos comes a joyful Christmas carol. They are singing.
            "Why?" he asks. It is because, he learns, Christmas resides not in things but in the heart which is thankful. He could not steal their gratitude (3).

While the movie does teach us that gratitude is in the heart, not in presents and things, it does not explore the deeper source of that gratitude. I want to explore that well-spring of gratitude now with you.

II. The source of our gratitude is plain to see in our scripture this morning from the Psalms. The source is our confidence in the goodness and constancy of God.
            TEXT: The Psalm we read this morning reaches back into Israel’s past to tell the story of God’s faithfulness. It reaches back to tell the defining story of God’s love for his people:
5 Come and see what God has done,
His wonderful acts among people.
 6 He changed the sea into dry land;
      our ancestors crossed the river on foot.
   There we rejoiced because of what he did.
 7 He rules forever by his might
      and keeps his eyes on the nations.
      Let no rebels rise against him. (Psalm 66.5-7).

            [A.] This Psalm reminds Israel that God led Israel out of Egypt and slavery, to form them as a distinct people and then brought them to the Land of Promise. Every time Israel told this story, they were reminded of that defining moment in their history. Even though we do not cherish this story as ancient Israel did, this story reminds Christians of God’s mighty deeds, too. And this story prepares us to hear how God acted again in the person of Jesus Christ to call the world out of sin and into righteousness. You see it in our Christian story, the Gospel, too.
            [B.]  There is something more about the Exodus story that hits us who are Americans in a distinct way. The Exodus story is not just about geography – as if moving from Egypt to Israel was the whole story. This story tells us that God’s great defining act was leading Israel out of slavery into freedom. Some might claim that this is the power of liberation over the power of oppression. But, I read this as more personal than the triumph of one concept over another. This is God, who moved by love, called Israel out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Land of Promise. Not finished, God, in that same love, would extend such freedom to all the peoples of the earth. This is the God, who fully revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ, would extend such grace and hope and freedom to whosoever would believe in Him. It is not just about geography; it also about God’s gift of freedom from oppression.
            [C.]  So, the Psalmist called Israel, in every year following that defining moment of freedom and love, to give thanks to God, knowing that this is the constant character of God. Now, as Christians, we freely add to that story of Israel’s liberation, the Christian story of the gracious gift of the Christ.
            [D.]  And one further step: as Americans on Thanksgiving Day, we now add to this faith story our nation’s story which has been a blessing to each and every one of us. Almost from our nation’s beginnings, we have heard the call for a day of national Thanksgiving for God’s gift of this good land, its people, and its vision of freedom with opportunity.
            So regardless of the current economic indicators, we reach back for the great stories of our history to find evidence of God’s goodness and God’s love. In the conviction that God’s love and goodness do not waver, we rise up to give thanks for God and God’s many blessings.
            Last year, the Thanksgiving Proclamation from the President of the United States included this thought when he said:
      Thanksgiving Day is a time each year, dating back to our founding, when we lay aside the troubles and disagreements of the day and bow our heads in humble recognition of the Providence bestowed upon our Nation.  Amidst the uncertainty of a fledgling experiment in democracy, President George Washington declared the first Thanksgiving in America, recounting the blessings of tranquility, union, and plenty that shined upon our young country.  In the dark days of the Civil War when the fate of our Union was in doubt, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day, calling for "the Almighty hand" to heal and restore our Nation.
      In confronting the challenges of our day, we must draw strength from the resolve of previous generations who faced their own struggles and take comfort in knowing a brighter day has always dawned on our great land.  As we stand at the close of one year and look to the promise of the next, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our Nation (1).
Thankfulness comes, not from our piled up trophies; instead, it rises out of a grateful, courageous heart. It comes from the great story of God’s faithfulness which does not waver and our confidence in God’s loving-kindness. The fortunes of each passing year will vary; some years are better than others. But, each time we recall the great story of God’s mighty acts by which we have been brought to freedom, we return to our foundation of gratitude.

III. Take this thought one step further. Thankful is not merely our response to our God who is good and constant in love. I believe that thankfulness shapes us into the people we become.
            Do you remember the poem by Dorothy Nolte, “Children Learn What they Live”? While is focuses on children, it actually speaks about the way our environment shapes the people we become.

The poem begins with words of caution:
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

It ends with more positive thoughts:
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live (2).

If I could add one more line to the poem, it would say: “If people live with thankfulness, then they learn to receive the world with gratitude.” Of course, the opposite is true, too. We are shaped by what we live with. On Thanksgiving Day, we are learning to receive the world with gratitude by gathering with family and friends to share the feast of Thanksgiving.
            On Thursday, all across this nation, we share a feast. Let it be a feast of gratitude, a feast of retelling the great story of this nation with its freedom and its opportunity, a feast of remembering the goodness and faithfulness of God.

1. President Barak Obama, The Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, 2010
2. Nolte, Dorothy Law. “Children Learn What They Live,” Copyright 1972.
3. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” written by Dr. Seuss, published as a book by Random House in 1957. Chuck Jones adapted the story as an animated special for TV in 1966. (Source Wikopedia.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

October 2, 2011 - Throwing out the Good Stuff

Philippians 3.4b-12

            It is a matter of values: what are you and I willing to give up to get what we want? Does kids’ soccer mean that much? Does getting an education mean so much to us that we are willing to pay for it? Does getting the right job mean you’d be willing to leave behind home and friends to move anywhere? This is Sunday church: What would we GIVE UP to follow Christ?

            Being a United Methodist preacher across these many years has meant moving from time to time. When I committed myself at my ordination to go where I am sent, I did not realize how seriously the Bishop was going to take that promise. It didn’t talk long to see that, in the world of United Methodist pastors, moving is just part of the deal.
            Each time we move, it seems to take a slightly bigger truck. For a long time, I assumed it was the children who came from the hospital with so much stuff. Even now, they are kind enough to store some of their high school and college boxes with us. But, they moved out to homes of their own some years ago, and our pattern did not change. The last truck that brought us to Knoxville was the biggest one of all.
            Being married means that moving is an exercise in delicate, inter-spousal diplomacy. Like most husbands, I can cull my wife’s carefully saved treasures with an iron hand. This is a husband-skill that she does not appreciate in the least. That I have never thrown away a tool or a book from my side of the house is sure evidence that I am not qualified to make any decisions about her treasured keepings. So, like most couples who pack up and move from time to time, we pack together, each keeping a watchful eye on the other lest something precious to one callously fall into the discard pile.
            C. I’m going to guess that someone in your house and in your pedigree has had to deal with the same decisions: about what to keep, about what to throw away, about what to pass along to someone else. You know the old sayings:
            + “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure.”
            + “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
That kind of thing. Mostly, we try to make the case that something is no longer useful or does not work or is hopelessly out of style. That makes it easier to part with it. Sometimes in the inter-spousal diplomacy, we defer to the other and let it go to Goodwill.
            But the truth is that we rarely get rid of the good stuff.
+If we might need it.
+if it can still be in style,
+And especially if it has sentimental value for us,
We are righteously unwilling to part with it.

II. But, then we meet Paul, the apostle, the follower of Jesus. He is confident, to say the least. No one would ever have to tell him that he really ought to stand up for himself.
            In this passage from the Letter to the Philippians, he does not list his accomplishments as a politician in America might do; instead he enumerates his pedigree. Apparently, there were voices in Philippi who claimed that only real Jews could be full Christians; they were uncomfortable with the gospel being offered to these pagan gentiles. As you know, Christianity rose out of the Jewish world; Jesus was the son of a Jewish carpenter, after all. These Judaizers wanted to make the case for keeping Christianity as Jewish as possible. So, Paul addresses these Judaizers about his right to speak on the subject.
+I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. In fact, if anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:
+circumcised on the eighth day,
+a member of the people of Israel,
+of the tribe of Benjamin,
+a Hebrew born of Hebrews;
+as to the law, a Pharisee;
+as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
+as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Now, what we expect Paul to say is this: “Since I have the right pedigree to speak out on Jewish subjects, I’m going to tell you the way I see it.” But, that is not what he says. Instead, this:
[A.] Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
[B.] I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Paul states that he is willing to count everything he holds dear as so much rubbish, if only he can gain Christ. Knowing the life of evangelism he undertook, knowing the risks he endured, knowing the hardships he endured, it is clear what he gave up to follow Christ.
            Think about the contrast here. We struggle to throw out the junk that accumulates in our lives; Paul says he has thrown out the good stuff so that he can follow Christ. He has thrown out:
+the house,
+the best car – the one that’s not even paid for yet;
+his Sunday suit and all those new shirts and ties;
+a career doing something ordinary that would have allowed him to stay home,
+the good china and with that the company silver;
+the best tools in his workshop;
+maybe even the family that would have meant living a normal life.
The GOOD STUFF is all that furnishes our homes and our lives, the stuff we touch and depend on every day. All this Paul has willingly tossed aside so that he might know Christ. He has gained Christ and the righteousness that comes from following him. Immersing himself in knowing Christ has become the mission of his life.
            Consider the claim Paul has made, and think what it would mean for you and me to do the same. It’s not so much that Paul has set a high standard; it is that Paul sees the treasure hidden in a field, and he is willing to sacrifice everything else to buy that field and claim the treasure. I hope you can see it, too.

            What does it mean to Paul to give up the Good Stuff in order to gain Christ? Just this: Paul clearly wants to be like Christ, to imitate Christ in his life, his witness, and his commitment.
            Since the beginning, God has attempted to get people’s attention and to call them into a commitment to live with principles, values, and sense of sacredness that God wants from all humanity. It is in the living, breathing person of Jesus that we really see all things we call holy, such as forgiveness, sharing, joy, vision, courage, perseverance, and especially love. We might think we understand love, for example, but when we receive totally unconditional love from another person, love takes on a completely new meaning for us. Jesus shows us the ultimate example of love, namely, God’s love. Seeing this example in Jesus’ life makes all the difference in the world for us.
When Charles Swindoll was a young boy, he was greatly influenced by a remark from an old Texan: "The problem with the Christian life is that it's so daily."

            Following Jesus is a lifestyle that builds on past lessons and decisions, but it also depends on our dedication day by day. We cannot live off yesterday's successes, last week's prayers, or the Bible stories we heard when we were children.
            Each new day is both a challenge and an opportunity. Our faith will be challenged, and we can use that challenge as an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God. Jesus Himself said that those who wanted to be His disciples were expected to be in a continual attitude of self denial and obedience to Him. Here's how the Lord put it: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Lk 9:23).
            As each day unfolds, we must pause and remind ourselves that this is a day dedicated to God, that it is to be used for His glory, and that it is best lived in continual recollection of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Starting today, let's look at life that way. It's a daily commitment.
 [ILLUS: Fred Craddock]
             Dr Fred Craddock spoke about commitment and sacrifice and grand gestures. He told this story: "A wealthy man went to his priest with a check for fifty thousand dollars made out to the church. He handed the check to the preacher and the preacher looked at it. It was a lot of money! Then the preacher handed it back and said, "Go cash it in. Cash it in for quarters and dollar bills. Then, go out and spend fifty cents or a dollar at a time doing the Lord's work."
            The man exclaimed, "But that will take the rest of my life!"
            "That's right!" answered the priest. “That is the point!" (3)

2. Loren B. Mead. The Once and Future Church.
3. Craddock, Fred. Reprinted in Our Daily Bread, February 12, 1997