Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mary's Christmas Story: an Advent Conversation

Mary's Christmas story Angels have a big part in the Christmas story. Mary's meeting with God's messenger Gabriel transformed her life and ours too.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Luke 1:26-29, NRSV

The angel's words were different than any she'd heard before. When Gabriel said, "The Lord is with you." he meant it. Mary wondered what this greeting meant. God was with Mary right there in her hometown, Nazareth. Gabriel was speaking about more than just God's presence in her life. He was speaking about God revealing himself in the world through her life.

Christians believe that God is always present. There is never a time when you are out of God's reach. At home, work, school, traveling, playing, just hanging out you are always within God's reach. Mary's story starts with God's presence and grows into a story of God coming into her life and ours.

Talk it over: The angel announced God's presence to Mary; but God was already in her life. What difference did hearing the angel say the Lord is with you make to Mary? What difference does it make to know God is with you?

Think about it: God is always is close at hand. We like to have God close when we need help; but we don't God knowing our every move and thought. The God who can help you in a time of need knows every time you hurt another person through words or actions. The God close enough to help knows you in and out. Every time someone hurts you God knows. And God grieves in all situations where one of his children either hurts another of his children.

Mary's Baby: Jesus came to help us come back to God. His life and Mary's moved together so God could help us return to him,

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”Luke 1:30-34, NRSV

Mary replied with a question, How can this be?. She didn't ask “why me?” or say no way. What's the difference between asking God how? and asking why me? or just saying no?

Mary experienced God's promises coming true. When Jesus grew in Mary God was growing in her body. When she raised him her son she was raising God the Father's son who came to help us return to our heavenly Father.

Christmas starts with God coming for us and it ends when we come back to him. Jesus, God's own Son, is the real gift of Christmas. The Christmas story ends when we turn away from things that hurt ourselves and others and return to our Father through a relationship with his Son Jesus. How can we return to the Father? How can we share the Good News that God sent his son to bring us back?

Pray if you like. Father, we thank you for Jesus. We thank you for being with us at all times. We thank you for searching us out when we leave you. We thank you for giving Jesus as a our way back to you. AMEN.

What do you think? Let me know.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Joseph's Christmas Story an Advent Conversation

Who was Joseph? He was Jesus' dad, but God the Father, was Jesus' Father. There's no way around it, the Christmas story's messy. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph's real life complications mirror many people's stories. And that's no accident. God comes at Christmas for the world. Joseph's part in the Christmas story shows God's work in the real world where sin, death, and evil are all at work.
Matthew's tells the Christmas story,
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19 ESV)
The facts seemed very clear to Joseph. He was engaged to Mary. He counted on her faithfulness. He learned she was pregnant. Joseph knew one thing for certain, the child growing inside Mary wasn't his. His plan was simple--end this relationship with Mary and get on with his life. What do you think of Joseph at this point in the story?
Think about it: Joseph's trust in Mary just evaporated. He took Mary's faithfulness for granted. But something happened. The evidence was clear for everybody to see. Joseph lost trust--an essential part of any lasting relationship. Some argue Joseph, in his day, had reason to seek Mary's life. She dishonored him; but he sought to quietly walk away.
How can a person who's broken trust become trustworthy again?
Remember Joseph's plan was to quietly end his commitment to Mary. But somebody had a different plan for Joseph's life. Matthew tells the story this way,
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21 NIV)
Digging deeper There's no question, Joseph had a change of heart. His attitude and actions towards Mary and the child growing inside her change after meeting the angel. The facts of the situation hadn't changed: but his attitude did. Mary was still pregnant, they weren't yet married, he wasn't this babies father, and people were likely still talking behind their backs about what had happened. But Joseph saw things differently. He stopped looking for a way out of his promise to Mary stepping forward instead to help her raise this child. How would you explain Joseph's change of heart to somebody who knows about Christmas trees and Santa Claus but has never heard the whole Christmas story?
A visit from an angel changed Joseph's attitude. And God keeps speaking today through His Word read in scripture, sung about in psalm, hymns, and spiritual songs, heard from friends and family who share God Word with us. God's Word changes how we see things. At a funeral we see a dead body; but faith in God's Word helps us see new life for believers who die. The circumstances haven't changed on this earth; but a heart of faith sees something different. How does God change hearts today?
How important is Joseph's change of heart to the whole Christmas story?
Jesus finds us in the middle of our lives and dreams with both broken and healed parts of our souls. Looking at Joseph's part in the Christmas story leaves no question, our attitude towards our circumstances makes a huge difference. What would it take to change your perspective to see people you dislike as someone God very much cares about?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

God the Father of Christmas: Part 1 of an Advent Conversation

God the Father and Christmas? Most people can name 3 people in the Christmas story. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. But there was a fourth individual who was part of the story long before Joseph and Mary: God the Father. Think back to the first chapter's of Genesis. God made the world and after finishing making people God said the creation—but especially people were more than good—they were very good. Women and men had been made in God's own image and likeness. 

But the story twists. A snake enticed Eve and Adam. They ignored God's directions and ate food God had forbidden them to even touch. Soon after Adam's and Eve's son Cain killed their other boy Abel. The creation that was very good changed: sin, death, and evil are present in our lives even though the Father hadn't planned the world to work that way.
Talk it over: How do people experience sin, death, and evil in our world today?

DIGGING DEEPER: The Father's reaching for us. Christmas is part God the Father's plan to rewrite the human story sending his Son straight into our world. God the Father eliminated any distance between us and Him. Jesus was God's son—his direct and personal way back into our our lives.

The prophet Malachi spoke on God's behalf to his people. God understood their questions and sent Jesus as the answer.
Malachi wrote: The Lord said, “I have loved you.”
But you ask, “How have you loved us?
Malachi 1:2a NCV

Talk it over: In what ways do experience God's love?
Why might some people think God is distant and doesn't love them?

Malachi wrote: The Lord All-Powerful says, “A child honors his father, and a servant honors his master. I am a father, so why don’t you honor me? I am a master, so why don’t you respect me? You priests do not respect me.
But you ask, ‘How have we shown you disrespect?
Malachi 1:6-7 NCV
Talk it over: In what ways do people disrespect God?

Malachi Wrote: You have tired the Lord with your words.
You ask, “How have we tired him?”
You did it by saying,
The Lord thinks anyone who does evil is good, and he is pleased with them.”
Or you asked, “Where is the God who is fair?

The Lord All-Powerful says, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way for me. Suddenly, the Lord you are looking for will come to his Temple; the messenger of the agreement, whom you want, will come.
Malachi 2:17-3:1 NCV.
Talk it over: What does God's “messenger” have to do with Christmas?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

3 Advent Conversations

A writing project waits on this pastors to do list.
It's a fun project: write 3 conversation sheets for young people and mentors. These are more than sheets of questions. The goal: start 3 significant conversations about God's coming to earth in the person we call Jesus. One mentor asked to have all this available with time to think things through in advance. So over the next 7 days my goal is to create a starting point for 3 Advent Conversations.
  1. God the Father's plan for us at Christmas
  2. Why God's plan meant a turned over life for Joseph
  3. Mary's whole self participation in God's plan
Please check back in and let me know what you think.
thanks, John

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Feedback requested: Come to your Senses or How do sense God?

Have you ever been told to, "Come to your senses"  For some deep thinkers it's a common accusation, "you are being to cerebral" or "you are not in tune with what's actually going on in the world right around you";
In the next month we'll be working in churches in Fairmont, Minnesota USA toward a shared Lenten Series entitled Come to Your Senses: A Lenten Journey with God.
A possible theme verse is, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 NIV
I'm wondering how other people experience God through all five senses. I am most curious about the way you sense God in tangible ways through touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell.
What has been your experience: How do you sense God?
What stories are you aware of that explore an experience of God's presence?
I am also very curious what scripture you point to as you explain experiences of God's tangible--incarnate--activity in the world.
thanks for your input. Pax, John.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How are you Holy?

We struggle as sinners to appreciate both the calling, out of our sins to faith, and the freedom that faith give us to live. Our trouble starts when we look for proof–for evidence–not of what God has done for us in Christ but of what we are doing for God. And this is where simple faith always stands strong and works always fail.
We sinners by our very nature need a redeemer–and no matter how hard we try to be pious or righteous we are still sinners saved simply by grace. One of the clearest teachers I've ever had was Gerhard Forde. And Dr. Forde pointed to Hans Joachim Iwand as a clear teacher about the nature of faith, grace, and salvation. When Dr. Forde wrote, “Justification and Sanctification” in the section Christian Life of Braaten and Jenson’s Christian Dogmatics (P 438-439) he was wrestling with these very real questions of personal identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. Dr Forde wrote,

Being holy or saintly in that sense cannot be identified with being Christian. The Reformation means a complete break with such thinking.
Here it finally dawns on one why Reformation comes about, because here it is not merely mistakes and shortcomings that are repaired, but here the ideal that shaped the entire life of the Middle Ages is rejected: “Therefore one is not called a Christian because one accomplishes much; something higher is here. Rather it is because one takes something from, draws from, Christ, and simply lets oneself be given to. When one no longer takes from Christ, then one is no longer a Christian. The name Christian stays only in the taking and not in the giving or the doing, and that one takes from no one except from Christ. When you begin to regard what you have done then you have already lost the name of Christian." [Hans Joachim Iwand Nachgellassene Werke, vol 5 Luthers Theologie]
Such a view is preposterous to the world and the old Adam, but this is exactly what it means to die to the old and be born again to the new. One must simply be still and listen where God enters the scene—and believe, for only such faith will save. This rejection of the ancient ideal of piety and sanctity is what lies behind Luther's shocking advice to Melancthon: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe even more boldly and rejoice in Christ, who is victor over sin, death and the world.” The point is that when one begins to be grasped by the overwhelming gift of grace, when one is beginning to die to the old, the temptation (Anfectung) will always sound: “Is it not dangerous?” “Are you not going to far?” “Is not this grace too cheap?” “If you lose your 'virtue' what will protect you then?” Luther's advice in such situations was: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe even more boldly.” The point is not to go out and find some sins to commit. The point is rather not to be deceived by the glitter of ideals, of sanctity and piety, by the quest for the Holy Grail. Christ and Christ alone has dealt with sin and saves sinners. It is impossible for there to be any sin which is not removed by him and by him alone. “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe more boldly” is simply a stance of a faith which know that Christ alone saves sinners. Out of such faith good works come. Sanctification happens. The good works come out of the spontaneity, the freedom, the “hilaritas“ of faith. They come out of love and the hope that begin to dawn when one realizes the unconditionality of grace, when the old self dies. Gerhard Forde "Justification and Sanctification" 11th Locus: Christian Life Vol. 2 Christian Dogmatics ed. Braaten C., Jenson R. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) p438-439
Freedom in Christ starts always in faith. Faith that God's Word is for us because of what Jesus has done. Faith that the Cross is for us us becuase of what Jesus has done. Faith that new life is for us because of what Jesus has done.

Thanks for the freedom

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day 2012 vote for your neighbor

It's election day in the United States of America. 
It's a day of honor and privilege for all citizens in our republic.  It's also the beautiful day when billions spent on advertising on television, internet, radio, print ads, bill boards, and phone calls comes to a blessed end.  And it's a day to remember our neighbors.
Christians are called to honor God first in their lives and God calls on us to honor our neighbor's lives and well being as we honor our own.   Election day is no different for Jesus followers. When we vote we vote for our neighbor's good as much as our own.
Jesus called his first followers to do onto others as they would have done onto themselves.  His direction to honor neighbors and look out for their well being isn't novel.  Jesus joined the great line of ancient Hebrew prophets who called on God's people Israel to honor God with lives of simple worship--lives in which the poor--specifically widows, orphans, and aliens in the midst of the nation--who were cared for by the people.
It's a day to look ahead as much as behind.  The good thing about our republic is that we are moving into the future together.  Even through great struggles like economic depression and natural disasters we have moved forward for nearly 225 years as a republic.  Some say there is too much resistence in our age--but looking back at the incredible resistance of the civil war in the 1860s and civil rights struggle in the 1960s it's clear that our republic is moving into the future together as imperfect as ever. 
So go and vote--vote for what's good for you and for your neighbor.
Pax, John
publish simultaneously at http://unlikelyj.tumblr.com/post/35124234741/election-day-2012-vote-for-your-neighbor