Saturday, December 24, 2022

Christmas Eve 2022

Luke 2.8-20

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and
they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to people whom he favors.”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks on the eve of the Nativity. When the angel appeared, the shepherds got pretty shook up, terrified, actually, when the glory of the Lord shone around them. 

Nowadays we don’t associate terror with the appearance of God. Terror is something in horror movies. Or terror might be brought about by disaster and impending doom. But God – terror? How can that be?

Maybe the shepherds were terrified at God’s glory not because God is terrible, but because God was about to change things. When they were surrounded by God’s glory and saw the angel, the shepherds knew they were going to be thrown out of their comfort box and yanked into a new thing. They didn’t know what it was, not yet. But they did know that God was doing something big, and it terrified them. 

We usually get all warm and fuzzy about the stories of Jesus’ birth, making them into a big, “Aaahh” moment. But consider for a moment that Jesus’ birth was also an occasion for terror. When the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, it revealed them more clearly than the brightest spotlight. There they were for God to see, just as they really were. And it terrified them because they knew that before God all secrets are revealed, and nothing is hidden.

A healthy sense of fear and trembling would be a good thing for us as we consider the nativity. For while it is true that Jesus came into the world to save the world, it’s also true that now we have no excuse before God. When God has put on flesh and walked and lived and slept and spoken and died and lived again, right among us – then we cannot claim we didn’t know God or weren’t aware of what God wanted. If we stopped and thought really hard about Jesus Christ lying in the manger, it would scare us half to death. We would be terrified.

But not for long! Jesus came in love, not in threat. So it’s good to hear the first words of the angel announcing Jesus’ birth: “Do not be afraid.” God is not remote, God is here. That really is good news of great joy.

When the heavenly chorus had gone, the shepherds looked at one another in astonishment and said, “Let’s go!” And off they went to Bethlehem to see the thing which had happened, which the Lord had told them about.

It is the last moment their lives will be the same as before. The door of history is swinging wide, and the shepherds are the hinge. 

They found Mary and Joseph and the baby, lying in the manger, just as the angels had said. We have no idea what transpired during their visit. The story leaps directly to the moment afterward. The shepherds left the manger and went around town, telling everyone what they had heard and seen. 

It reminds me of a young girl whose parents took her out west. One of their stops was the Meteor Crater in Arizona. The girl stood open-mouthed before the great crater, a mile across, a thousand feet deep. Then she exclaimed, “Something must have happened here!”

That’s how it was with the first evangelists, those shepherds who ran around town. They had seen something amazing and enormous in its implications: the wonder of their savior born. So they ran through the dark streets, shouting, “Something happened here!” 

Everyone who heard the news was amazed. Maybe they were amazed that a bunch of shepherds would be running around town shouting about God rather than out in the fields with their sheep. Maybe they were amazed that an angelic singing group had given a private performance that night. They could have been amazed that a little baby could be a savior for the people.

I think they were amazed at the fervor of the shepherds in proclaiming the good news. Something shook the shepherds out of their ordinary religious complacency. It lit a fuse under them to become evangelistic fireballs. What dull lives shepherds led, yet here they were, all excited about a new thing God had done and what it signified.

The story is told of a fifth-grade child who was terribly burned in an accident. The doctors said the boy would be hospitalized for many weeks. After the boy was taken out of the critical-care unit, one of the fifth grade teachers packed up his school books and homework assignments and visited him in the hospital. Two days later the burn ward’s chief nurse called her. “What did you say to Christopher?” the nurse demanded. The teacher started to apologize but the nurse interrupted. “You don’t understand,” she said. “We have been very worried about Chris’ will to live. He was in such despair that we thought he had given up. But now his whole attitude has changed. His spirits are high, he’s taking the treatments and doing much better. I asked him what was different. He said, ‘They wouldn’t send books and homework to a dying boy, would they?’”

When the angels serenaded the shepherds, and when the shepherds saw the infant savior, they suddenly realized that God wouldn’t do this wonderful thing for a people he had written off. The human race is not terminal. God would not send God’s own son to heal humanity if humanity was incurable. So the townspeople were amazed at the transformation of the shepherds and the new life in them. “Let’s go!” exclaimed the shepherds, and off they went to tell everyone of the new hope and salvation found in the manger.

The shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. The shepherds went back to work different people because of what they had seen and heard.

It’s easy to overlook that Luke ends the shepherds’ story with the reminder that they saw and heard things which were as they had been told. When our Christmas season is over and we have returned to our usual routines, we need to remember that the gospel we have and the salvation we are given is just that which we have been told. The grace of God isn’t mysterious and incomprehensible—it is just as we have been told in God’s Word. A savior was born in Bethlehem almost two thousand years ago, just as we have been told. 

Like the shepherds, we will soon live in a world when the memory of Christmas is overcome by other events. The shepherds’ sheep still got sick or attacked by wolves. Our cars will still break down and we’ll still have bills to pay. On the outside, everything seems the same. But something big has happened, and now our lives are different. God is with us and the future looks good!

The glory of the Lord has shone around us, and through our doubts and fears there is a voice: “Fear not, for behold, there are glad tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a savior!”

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Second Sunday of Advent - Shall we look for another?

John the Baptist was Jesus' cousin and a prophet who pointed the way to the Messiah. He baptized Jesus and told two of his own disciples to leave him and follow Jesus instead. John spoke loudly and often against the corruption of the ruling classes of Judea, especially King Herod Antipas. John denounced Herod vigorously when Herod married a woman who had divorced his brother. So, Herod had John arrested and thrown into the dungeon of his fortress. 

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11, records,    

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

John must have known he would not leave Herod’s fortress alive. With that fate before him, John began to doubt whether Jesus really was the one whom he had prophesied. John had expected the Messiah come in awesome power, but he also expected to live to see it. So John sent a couple of his own followers to ask Jesus whether he really was the one whom John expected. Was Jesus really the Messiah? 

John the Baptist had prophesied the Messiah, saying he was near at hand. He described the Messiah in fearful terms. The Messiah, said John, would have a winnowing fork in his hands and would burn the wicked with fire. It's not clear from the Gospel whether John thought he was talking specifically about Jesus at the time, but by the time Jesus came to John to be baptized, John had concluded that Jesus was the one. 

But Jesus didn't do what John thought the Messiah should do. Like almost everyone else in Judea, John thought that the Messiah would be a political activist who would restore the throne of the Jewish kingdom to its rightful occupant, a descendant of David, and who would finally lead the land to be free of its Roman occupiers. Jesus didn’t do that, did not even try to do that. And so John came to wonder whether Jesus was the Messiah after all.

For a moment we shall leave the story suspended there, suspended just as John’s certainty was suspended, awaiting resolution, awaiting an answer from Jesus. Was Jesus the one who was to come, or was the Savior someone else? That’s not only John’s question. It is also ours, too, and in this postmodern, post-Christian world it is more urgent than ever.

I confess some sympathy for John. I have had more than a few occasions in my life when I not so much believed as merely hoped that Jesus of Nazareth was God Incarnate. And from simply hoping Jesus is Lord to suspecting he is not, is a short trip. Like you, perhaps, I am sometimes filled with religious tendencies rather than Christian convictions

"In the semantics of the church," wrote Methodist Bishop Joe Pennel, "doubt has been a negative word. It is rarely used in a favorable way. Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church."

Bishop Pennel continued, 

Beneath the skins of many of you there is planted the seed of honest doubt. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief."

Doubts can come quite reasonably. After all, if Jesus came to redeem the world, why does the world still seem so far from redemption? If Jesus was victorious over sin, why are we still so filled with sin? If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, why does the path ahead seem unclear, why does the world still thrive on lies and deceptions, and why do daily headlines report events that would have made even the ancients quake in horror? 

Like John the Baptist, we can easily, and not unreasonably, experience a dark night of the soul when our hopes, dreams, or expectations of God's work in the world or our lives are unmet.

There is a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which Kevin Costner, playing Ray Kinsella, speaks to an elderly, former pro baseball player nicknamed Archie Graham, played by Burt Lancaster. Graham's only playing time had been fifty years earlier. With his team leading, Graham was sent to left field in the top of the ninth inning of the last game of the season. The other team hit three outs to the infield and the season was over. The next day Graham was sent to the minors. He left baseball and became a doctor, spending the rest of his life in medical practice in his hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota. 

Perhaps one reason John doubted Jesus was that it had seemed to him the promise of the Messiah's advent had been this close. And then, perhaps, the promise seemed to brush past him like a stranger in a crowd. But John was not quite willing to let go of his hope that Jesus was the promised one, so he sent messengers to ask Jesus point blank whether he was the one. 

4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

John must have wanted a direct answer to a direct question: Are you the Messiah, Jesus? Yes or no! But Jesus didn't comply, even for one he esteemed so highly as John. Instead, he simply answered, here is what I am doing. Now make up your own mind.

Isaiah had prophesied of the Messiah, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy." All the signs Jesus mentioned had long been understood by the Jews as signs of the Messiah. Jesus' answer must have made John confront his own expectations of the Messiah and perhaps realize that there was more to the way God would work for the world's salvation than the narrow way John had expected. 

The Gospels do not record whether John came fully to believe in Jesus again. But Jesus believed in John and defended John's work to the crowds nearby. Jesus affirmed that John had prophesied the Messiah even if he wasn’t sure it was Jesus. Like John, though, the people would have to make up their minds about Jesus. John was executed at Herod's command not long afterward, which caused Jesus much distress. 

Challenges to faith sometimes arise from unmet expectations or shattered circumstances. The pressures of events and the ways of the world bear down on us and others and can force honest minds to ask, "Is there really a God who knows and cares? Is this God active in the life of the world? In my own life? Is Jesus the definitive revelation of that God, or should I look elsewhere for answers to ultimate questions?"

Before we let our doubts become unbelief, we would do well to remember that one lesson from John's story is that the advent of the Messiah among us was not to fulfill our expectations. Jesus carried out the will of God in ways we can grasp only incompletely. 

Nonetheless, Jesus is indeed the Messiah. As the promised one, he transforms our expectations as he fulfills them. To say that Jesus is the Messiah not only says something about Jesus, it transforms the meaning of Messiah as well. Faith does not grow from testing Jesus against our criteria to see if he measures up. It grows from testing ourselves against the Messiah so that by his grace we may become more fully the body of Christ in the world.

"Life," goes an old saying, "is what happens while you're making other plans and dreaming other dreams." Most of could recount a litany of broken dreams, of plans never carried out, expectations never met, and goals not reached. Some of us came this close to attaining them and then watched them brush past us like strangers in a crowd. Maybe we thought there would be other days, not knowing there would be no other days. A tragedy? I don't know. 

But what if you had never become a disciple of Jesus Christ? That would have been a tragedy.

But we are disciples, and the world asks us what John asked Jesus, “Are you, the church, that which God promised was to come, or should we expect something else?” 

We are called as a church to point a greater reality, to provide a way to the ultimate meaning of things. The pressure of events and the ways of the world bear down on us all and sometimes force honest minds to ask, “Is there really a God who knows and cares? Is this God active in the life of the world? In my own life? Is Christ the definitive revelation of that God, and can I find Christ in this church?” 

It is by us, the Church, that the work of Christ is done. It is for us to give the spiritually blinded their sight, the morally crippled their wholeness, the sick of soul their wellness. It is by us that those deaf to God shall praise him and those dead to life shall be reborn. Let us bring to the poverty of life the Good News that shall be to all people: unto us and all the world was born in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord!

For to ask whether Jesus is the one in whom God is definitively revealed and in whom God acted for the world’s salvation is to ask what human existence is all about. The Gospel message included a cross for Jesus and an executioner's sword for John. But we who affirm that God is present with his people in the person and work of Jesus called the Messiah, know that neither we nor the world need look for another.

Let us pray:

Gracious and redeeming God, we confess our moments of doubt, yet in our confessing know that you accept them as part of the walk of faith. For it is not doubt you judge but dismissal. We pray therefore that we will bear the name of our Lord in service to your kingdom, even though we often perceive your purposes dimly. Fill us anew, O God, with the conviction that in you alone is the salvation of the world. Shape us anew, O Christ, into your body in this time and place that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by the blood you shed for our redemption. Lead us strongly, O Holy Spirit, to paths of righteousness for your sake, that through us our community may be assured that in Christ is found salvation, and that we, your Church, live and witness so truly so that there is no need to look for another. In the name of that Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we let our cry come unto you. Amen.

A Salute to Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara
The Order of Saint Barbara is an international brotherhood of serving and former artillerymen who are members therein. I am gratified to have been inducted into the Order by Maj. Gen. Richard Graves, then commanding general, 3d Armored Division, in 1984.

Barbara, a Christian woman in a pagan family, was martyred in the third century after extensive torture to compel her to renounce her faith. Finally, her own father beheaded her. However, he was struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flame. This happened on Dec. 4, which is why her festival day is today.

These circumstances caused her to become the patron saint of anyone who works with fire or fire-producing implements, such as miners, firefighters and anyone who works with explosives. Hence, she is the patron saint of artillerymen around the world.

A salute to all members of the Order!

You know, this kind of salute: 

As related by fellow artilleryman Ron Grantham:

According to legend, our patron saint was the beautiful daughter of Dioscorus, a nobleman of the Roman Empire, believed to have lived in Nicomedia in Asia Minor in the third or fourth century, A.O. Because of her singular beauty and fearful that she be demanded in marriage and taken away from him, and also to limit Barbara's exposure to Christianity and encourage her development as a zealous pagan, her father kept her shut up in a tower. But even such incarceration could not keep the young woman from becoming a Christian. From her window, she looked out upon the surrounding countryside and marveled at the living things. She concluded they all must be part of a master plan and the idols of wood and stone her parents worshipped had to be condemned as false. She received instruction in Christianity and was baptized.

Shortly before embarking on a journey, he commissioned a sumptuous bathhouse to be built for her, approving the design before he left. The bathhouse was to be lighted by only two windows. In token of her faith, while her father was away, she had another window pierced in the tower, making three, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. On his return, Dioscorus asked why she had made this change, and Barbara acknowledged her conversion. Despite his threats, she refused to renounce Christianity. 

Dioscorus flew into a rage and dragged her before the local prefect who ordered her death. The evil Dioscorus tortured his daughter, then took her to a high mountain, where he beheaded her. Afterward, as he descended the mountain, he was caught in a sudden violent storm, struck down and consumed by lightning. Only his scorched sword remained as a reminder of God's vengeance.

As a logical consequence, Barbara came to be regarded as the sainted patroness of those in danger from thunderstorms, fire, explosions that is to say, sudden death. Given the questionable reliability of early cannon misfires, muzzle bursts and exploding weapons were not uncommon -it is easy to see why our predecessors sought the protection of Saint Barbara. She has protected us well ever since.

Saint Barbara was venerated as early as the seventh century. She has been popular in the East and West since that time. Legendary acts of her martyrdom were inserted in the collection of Symeon Metaphrastes and by the authors, Ado and Usuard, of the enlarged martyrologies composed during the ninth century in Western Europe.

G.K. Chesterton celebrates her in the poem, The Ballad of Saint Barbara. Patroness of artillerymen, Saint Barbara was venerated as one of the fourteen Holy Helpers. An occurrence of the year 1448 did much to further the spread of the veneration of the saint. A man named Henry Kock was nearly burned to death in a fire at Gorkum. He called upon Saint Barbara who aided him to escape from the burning house and kept him alive until he could receive the last sacraments.

Saint Barbara is usually represented standing by a tower with three windows, carrying a palm of a martyr in her hand. She is often viewed standing by cannon or holding a chalice and sacramental wafer.

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...