Monday, December 24, 2012

Next Move

Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2).

Years ago when Tiger Woods was still busy doing commercials and endorsements, I saw a print ad that caught my attention. The photo showed Tiger standing on the edge of a water hazard, calculating. Hands on his hips, eyes on the lie of the ball, he’s clearly assessing the trouble and how to get out of it.

And then at the bottom of the photo, this caption: “It’s what you do next that counts.” What a fitting tag-line for Christmas Eve.

At Christmas we tell a very particular story. We’ve been telling it for weeks through the season of Advent. We will gather tonight and tell it as part of our Christmas Eve worship. This story is Israel’s story. It’s the story of a people and a hope, and in that sense it is our story too.

At Christmas the hope finds fulfillment in a very specific place, among very specific people. Christmas is the story of God entering this world in Jesus. But, it’s what you do next that counts. This particular story calls for a personal response.

Consider Matthew’s account of the Magi from the East. All of the characters in the story of the Magi have access, at some point, to the same information. The question at the heart of the drama is “Where is the Christ to be born?”

Herod wants to know this. The Magi who have come from the east want to know this. The scholars whom Herod consults provide the answer from their knowledge of the scriptures: “Bethlehem in Judea.” There is a moment in the drama when all the players have the same piece of information. The Christ is in Bethlehem. But it’s what you do next that counts.

Herod sets himself in hostile opposition to what he knows. The information presented to him represents an obstacle to be removed, a threat to his power and sense of identity.

For the scholars the information never becomes more than a book report. They issue a written response to Herod, properly footnoted, complete with bibliography. And that’s it. We never see or hear from them again.

And then there are the Magi. They are the only ones who take the information they have and move with it. They persevere in finding what they had sought all along. The information takes them from one place to another – and when they arrive, they worship.

On this Christmas Eve most of us have all the information we need. The information is simple and widely known. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. To use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, God has ‘moved into the neighborhood.’ We conclude our Advent reflections with a question: What will you do with what you know? You can resist it. You can read about it. But maybe you’ll find yourself moved and changed. Maybe you will worship.

It’s what you do next that counts.

These stories are so familiar to us, O God. We acknowledge that they don’t always move us. Sometimes we listen without ever intending to do anything about what we’ve heard. Send your Spirit this Christmas and move us to respond to the good news of your presence among us, we ask in Jesus name. Amen

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gift of a Good Book

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . (John 3:16)

There’s an irony in the fact that the man who wrote A Christmas Carol, giving us the tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge, lost money on the publication of his story.

In the fall of 1843 Charles Dickens and his wife Kate were expecting their fifth child. The writing he was doing at the time was not selling well. He was saddled with a large mortgage and family members were adding to his financial pressures with their own requests for money. In October Dickens began work on A Christmas Carol. The book was finished just before Christmas 1843.

The story is rooted in the soil of social problems that plagued England in the mid 19th century. Dickens was especially troubled by the hardships suffered by the children of London’s poor. The ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ shows Scrooge the sight of two destitute children, named “ignorance and want.” Dickens’ intent in writing A Christmas Carol was to wage war on ignorance and want, and he labored to advance the cause of education for the poor.

As for publication of the book itself, Dickens and his publishers had different ideas about how the book should be produced. Dickens was determined that A Christmas Carol would be a lavish volume. He ended up using his own money to produce a book with an attractive binding, gilt edged pages, and hand colored illustrations. In addition to this he then set the price of the book low so that everyone could afford it.

One of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time came to us at a great personal cost, born of a heart for the poor. And the first Christmas story came to us in much the same way. In the words of the apostle John, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16).

Charles Dickens gave the world the gift of a good book. God gave the gift of his very life in human form, the love and presence of God embodied. This is what we are called to be as God’s people. This involves both heart and hands.

A Christmas Carol came to us because Dickens’ heart was moved to act on behalf of the poor; the heart wanted to change the lives of real people. His hand possessed a particular skill and he worked at his craft, producing art that would touch the hearts of others.

In some way God has gifted you and calls you to use that gift in a way that is congruent with God’s own heart and his purposes in this world. You need not be a politician or a philanthropist or an artist. Somehow, by God’s grace, you have the capacity to make a difference in another person’s life. After 169 years our hearts are still moved because Charles Dickens gave us the gift of a good book.

How will you do this? What resonates in your heart and what will you attempt in order to make a difference?

We give you thanks, O God, for the gift of your son. Grant that we might discover the gift you’ve placed in us and make us eager to share it for the good of others and the glory of your name. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Do the Math

Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth (1 Cor. 1:26).

My children stopped asking me for help with their math years ago.

Back then I was still capable of tutoring them as they worked through whatever it was that had them stumped. However, the effort it required of me was a clue to my kids that math was never my academic strength. They take their math questions to Marnie.

As lacking as I may be in math skills, I can follow Paul’s mathematical reasoning with the Christians in Corinth. This is basic arithmetic, made simpler by the fact that Paul doesn’t actually use numbers. He speaks in generalities. Three times Paul makes his point by use of the phrase ‘not many.’

If you take away the ‘not many’ that leaves a few. A few were wise. A few were influential. A few were of noble birth. But most of them were not. ‘All’ minus ‘a few’ leaves ‘most.’ Most were lacking in wisdom, lacking in social standing, lacking in pedigree. It’s basic math.

For some reason, our minds often do not function according to Paul’s mathematical formula. When we look around a room we are prone to think that most of the people we see have it all together. Along with this we silently carry the weight of being the ‘only one.’

If we’re struggling with a financial crisis we think that most are managing fine while we worry about getting through the month. If our children won’t talk to us we think that everyone else’s families are perfect while wonder what we did wrong. If we’re suffocating in loneliness we look around and think every person we see is surrounded by friends.

Paul would tell us to do the math differently. Yes, in any place where crowds gather you’ll find a few who have it all together. There may even be several. But it is not ‘all.’ You are never the only one in the room struggling with something in your life that you’d rather keep quiet about.

Let’s go one step further. Every person you see has a story, even if they are among the wise and influential and well connected. Even the most well put-together lives have a place where things aren’t tightly nailed down. Again, do the math. You are never the only one on the room covering a wound.

Paul explains why this is so. God is not glorified in our boasting. When we live as if we are sufficient for whatever life brings to us, God remains small and marginal. There is always a point of need. Our boasting is silenced and God’s grace is large and real to us. In what area of your life do you sense your deepest need? In what way are you most dependent on God today?

This is how God works in every story. Look around the room . . . and do the math.

Meet us today, O God, in the place of our deep need. Glorify yourself in our limitations and weakness. And make us mindful of every soul that surrounds us, knowing that all of us have a story. Extend your grace through us, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Scorecard

. . . not many of you were wise according to worldly standards (1 Corinthians 1:26).

Over the weekend the winner of the 2012 Heisman Trophy was announced.

There is usually an element of drama or ‘hype’ surrounding this event. The Heisman is awarded annually to the most outstanding college football player in the country, a selection made by 928 votes: 870 journalists, 57 former Heisman winners, and 1 vote representing ‘the fans.’

This year the award went to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, nicknamed ‘Johnny Football.’ This is a historic selection in that Manziel is the first freshman to win the Heisman.

On Saturday evening before the announcement was made, my son and I were in the car listening to ESPN radio as a panel of commentators debated the merits of this year’s contenders for the Heisman. What criteria should be considered and how much weight should each factor receive in determining the most fitting recipient of the award? How do age, overall record, and position played factor into the decision?

In other words, what is the scorecard for determining the best college football player in the country? Apparently, it’s not a precise science. The process is hardly free of bias and subjectivity. But the scorecard exists and this year a freshman quarterback met the standards.

Scorecards are not restricted to the world of sports. The world we live in has a scorecard and we live with it every day.

We will receive no trophy. We are not the focus of frenzied media coverage. But in some way or another we’re continually asking ourselves if we measure up. We spend our energies every day proving to others that we do. The scorecard might be as simple as what we possess, what we’ve achieved, and who we know. The game is exhausting.

In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth he reminded them that God’s scorecard differed greatly from the scorecard of the culture in which they lived: noble birth, wisdom, power and all the trappings of success – none of these things mattered when it came to God’s grace. God’s scorecard is not at all like ours.

At this season of the year we need to hear Paul’s words again. We need to hear them because Christmas is a clear reminder of God’s disregard for the world’s scorecard. Whenever we tell the story about a young virgin, shepherds in the field, and a baby in a manger we see the truth set forth plainly: God chooses the weak and foolish to silence the arrogant boasting the powerful and wise. We’ll spend this week reflecting on the Christmas story in light of Paul’s surprising words.

What’s the scorecard that you’ve been using as you live your life? What are the criteria by which you determine that you’re doing ok?

Too many of us, O God, know the Christmas story but know little about your grace. We live our days using a scorecard that you’ve not given us, striving to prove our worth. Bring this familiar story to life in us that we might know your power and love through the gift of your son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

"O Little Town . . . "

"Sola Scriptura"
Sunday mornings @ 9:00 a.m.
Peachtree Presbyterian Church
Rm. 4303

The Advent 2012 Series:

Dec. 2 – Bethlehem: A Place of Surprises (1 Sam 16:1-13)
Dec. 9 – Bethlehem: A Place of Hope (Micah 5:1-6 and Matt. 2:1-16)
Dec. 16 – Bethlehem: A Place of Suffering and Grief (Matt. 2:16-18)
Dec. 23 – Bethlehem: A Place of Worship (Luke 2:15-20)

The origin of this much loved Christmas hymn is not specific. The author of the text was the renowned preacher and pulpiteer Phillips Brooks (1835-93). Brooks made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1865, traveling in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Stories vary here, some saying that Brooks was inspired by Christmas Eve worship in the Church of the Nativity; others mention a ride by horseback to the Shepherds Field. Brooks records both events in writing – but never attributes the hymn directly to a specific moment. It was three years later that Brooks penned the words we sing today, very likely inspired by his memories of the 1865 pilgrimage. He wrote the words for the children’s choir of the Sunday school, entrusting the text to the church organist, Lewis H. Redner, for a suitable tune. Redner is reported to have struggled with the task until the last hours before Sunday worship. The hymn was first sung on December 27, 1868 and published in 1874.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

December's Demands

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son . . . (Galatians 4:4-7)

The fullness of time. We know all about that, don’t we?

After all, it is December. With the passing of each day we feel time getting full. Soon we’ll pass a threshold into the back half of the month and time will be crammed. Many of us, remembering our catatonic exhaustion following Christmases past, have promised that it won’t happen again this year. We’re fooling ourselves.

December comes bringing the same relentless roll call of parties and programs and practices. Stores are crowded, traffic is thick. We want to be polite, but we’re easily perturbed. Some are on edge, harried and hurried. The big kids have exams and the little kids have expectations. Honestly, we’ve all got expectations.

I’ve got a calendar on my office wall. The pages of the year are held together by a spiral binding, a different piece of artwork adorning each month. As one might expect, the wall calendar has been turned to show the month of December. The days of the month are represented by nice crisp squares. Every square is blank. The days are wide open. This calendar is lying to me.

The calendar I actually use is on my computer and my phone. Unlike my wall calendar, the lines that border each day are cluttered. And it’s getting more that way. This is December, the fullness of time indeed.

Of course, what I’m describing is not quite what Paul had in mind when he wrote about the ‘fullness of time.’ Scholars and commentators have much to say when they try to unpack the theological significance of Paul’s phrase. The basic idea seems to be that God sent Jesus into the world at just the right time. Jesus came to us according to God’s plan, accomplishing God’s purposes, all in God’s timing.

My definition lacks exegetical precision, but it retains that basic idea. Christmas comes according to God’s plans and purposes. It comes whether we’re ready or not. The fullness of time has little to do with our crowded calendars. This is about God’s timing. I like John Calvin’s comment on Paul’s words.

At what time it was expedient that the Son of God should be revealed to the world, it belonged to God alone to judge and determine. This consideration ought to restrain all curiosity. Let no man presume to be dissatisfied with the secret purposes of God, and raise a dispute why Christ did not appear sooner (Calvin, Commentary on Galatians)

With December’s demands we easily forget that Christmas is God’s project. God comes to us in the fullness of time. God comes to us when our time is full, crammed and committed. God comes to us at the right moment, according to God’s own plan. As Calvin said, let none of us presume to be dissatisfied with God’s timing and purposes. We’re going to spend the remainder of the week thinking about God’s timing.

The month is still young. What kinds of demands is December making on you?

Find us, O God, in the fullness of time. In the midst of December’s demands grant us your presence yet again. In all our striving, grant us grace and make us graceful, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Work of Waiting

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son . . . (Galatians 4:4-7)

It’s been snowing at my house.

Lightly, off and on. A sustained breeze will always bring a flurry and cover the grass with a fresh dusting – not of crystal flakes of frozen precipitation, but brown and brittle flakes from the large branches that canopy my yard.

The leaves on the ground are one thing, but it’s the leaves that have yet to fall that mock me. Thousands of them are still clinging to branches. I imagine them hanging there, laughing at my labor, waiting for the very moment when the grass can be seen again, and then letting go.

There’s a school of thought that says “don’t even bother.” Until every leaf is down it’s futile to rake them up. Maybe so. Maybe it’s best to wait for this season to run its course. In one way or another it seems we spend our lives waiting: waiting for leaves to fall and the seasons to change, waiting for the market to go up, waiting for something or someone to change, for the big break or the breakthrough.

There is a kind of waiting that lulls us into boredom and atrophies into neglect. But there is also an active waiting, a waiting that works. The work doesn’t hurry things along. It doesn’t exercise control or set the schedule. Rather, it makes ready. The work is preparation for what will be. This kind of waiting is vigilant, guarding against the inattention that slides toward forgetfulness and lands in despair.

In Galatians 4:4 Paul told the story of Christmas in one tight sentence. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son.” We begin our Advent reflections this week by meditating on the fullness of time. This much is clear: Whatever Paul meant by the ‘fullness of time,’ it was God’s doing. We did not bring it about. We receive it and enter into it. These weeks before Christmas (Advent) remind us that our primary task, as much as we may dislike it, is to wait.

Waiting, however, is hard work. We do not always do it well. Sometimes we get tired of waiting and decide to take charge. Sometimes we get tired of waiting and stop caring, allowing our waiting to become neglect.

Perhaps the work of waiting simply means doing what you’ve been given to do today. Bring your life before God. Be obedient in familiar and simple things. Love your neighbor, pay attention to your family, tell the truth, do good work, bless others with your words, give thanks for good health and good food, for trees and sky and all kinds of weather.

Tend to that plot of ground that is your life; go ahead and rake the leaves. You’re not wasting time. You’re getting ready.

"Come thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.” (Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Charles Wesley, 1745).