Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sermon: "Christmas Is Just the Beginning"

Have you ever noticed that, after Christmas, you sometimes feel a bit deflated? We have all this energy and all this excitement and all this anticipation going into the Christmas season; we buy our presents, we put them under the tree, we get our families together, we organize parties.... and on December 26th, it feels like it's all over and done with. Christmas seems like an ending. But really, Christmas is just the beginning.

Last week, Rev. Vondran made some invaluable points. One that struck me was how Jesus reveals to us what God is like. Remember, Jesus is the Word made flesh. Christmas is nothing less than the celebration of God starting to dictate his Autobiography, not just in words on a page, but in and as a human life. Whoever catches a glimpse of Jesus has a window into the heart of the Father.

If the only glimpse we got was on that silent night, we'd understand far more about God than we ever would've without it. But the baby born in Bethlehem didn't stay in the manger. He grew up so we could see God in action on the human stage. Reading the Gospels, it seems like even just a week in his life would be biting off more than we could chew. But with The Story, we're zooming waaaaaaaaaaay out to get the God's-eye view of it all. Even in just the early days of his ministry, I see three broad lessons that Jesus gives us about God.

The first key lesson is that God identifies himself with God's people. When God thinks of us, he says, “These people are my people; they're with me, I'm with them, and we're sticking together.” The entire life of Jesus is a brand-new testament to that. Matthew especially wants us to see the life of Jesus as picking up on a whole bunch of themes from earlier chapters in The Story and weaving the threads together. When Herod's threats loom in the Holy Land, Jesus is taken into Egypt, just like Jacob's family at the end of Genesis. After Herod the Great dies, Jesus comes out of Egypt in a new exodus, back into the Holy Land.

Later we find Jesus at the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”. When it came to Jesus getting baptized, John the Baptist was every bit as confused as we are. I mean, the whole point of baptism seemed like it was a chance to turn away from your sins and start living a godly life. Baths are for the dirty – so why did the one and only clean man ask to go under? Well, if we had to go through it, Jesus didn't want to stand apart. He wanted to stand with us. That's just the kind of attitude God has. He doesn't hold himself apart from what we're going through. When we go through suffering and pain and tragedy in life, God wants us to be able to see as plain as day that he doesn't hold our bruised and battered hearts at arm's length. When we've rolled in the mud and we need to get wet, God's there in the river too. For us.

If he wanted to stand apart from messy human life, Jesus probably could've gotten away with skipping the river. He also could've skipped his forty days of wandering through the wilderness, which matched up with the forty years the Israelites lived as nomads in the Sinai. We go through our own wilderness times of temptation and trial on a regular basis. Jesus is God's loudest way of saying that he's with us in it all. If Jesus wanted to, he could have ended the contest with the devil pretty quickly. He could have said, “Satan, in case you've forgotten, I'm God, and I can't sin. To save us both some time, I command you to get lost.” But if he had, what lesson would there be for us? What hope for our struggles would we get out of seeing Jesus resist the devil in a way only God can?

Jesus deliberately chose not to go that route. Look at the way Jesus fights the devil off. Satan tells Jesus to satisfy his physical needs; Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:13. Satan tells Jesus to impress everyone with a self-centered miracle, and even twists scripture to do it; Jesus jabs back with Deuteronomy 6:16. Satan finally offers Jesus jurisdiction over the whole world in exchange for one quick act of outrageous sin; and Jesus sends him packing with Deuteronomy 6:13. There isn't a single thing Jesus said to Satan that we can't say, too. Jesus is God's way of showing us that we have exactly what we need. If we learn God's words that well and understand their spirit so we can guard against Bible-abuse, we're ready.

The second major lesson that Jesus teaches us about God is that God is eager to teach us one-on-one, no matter what level we're at. God will accept us and meet us wherever we are, though he won't be content to let us stay down there. Whatever our hang-ups, God has a message for each and every one of us, all of us in this sanctuary right now. There isn't one of us who could say, “God's word isn't for me”, and not be a liar. When we read about the start of Jesus' ministry, one catching story is about Jesus' secret visit from a bigshot Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a great rabbi. In Jesus' own words, he's a “teacher of Israel”. He's a top theologian, a knock-out preacher. If anyone has it all together, it's Nicodemus! But Jesus warns Nicodemus that he's on the verge of flunking out on the basics. Nicodemus is so clueless that on the first sentence out of Jesus' mouth, he gets lost!

See, what Jesus has to teach Nicodemus is that it doesn't matter who you are – you could be a down-and-out loner or an all-star rabbi – our old life isn't what makes God happy. Our family tree has its roots in bad soil. We need a new one, one that has roots not in a pedigree of human bodies, but only in the Spirit of God. We need to be born all over again, this time with God as our parent. Jesus tells him about how much God loves the world that rejects him. God loves God-haters so much that he sent the very best, his Son, to die. He sent his Son to be lifted up on the cross so that whoever looks at him in faith will be cured of sin. It's that look in faith that makes all the difference. Anyone who put all their eggs in Jesus' basket is in safe hands; those who'd rather hedge their bets are in for a rude awakening. Faith is the one thing that makes the difference between life for those who have it and condemnation for those who don't. Faith is inseparable from being born again. And that's exactly the message that Nicodemus needed to hear.

Later on, Jesus leads his disciples into a place they'd rather not be: Samaria, a region the Jews of his day went out of their way to avoid. The Jews couldn't stand the Samaritans. He sent his Jewish disciples off to buy some food in a Samaritan town while Jesus waited outside at a well – probably because if they stuck around, they'd just have gotten in the way. Jesus finds himself talking to a sexually broken Samaritan woman who may have felt like an outcast even among other Samaritans, let alone when talking to a Jewish rabbi. Jesus crosses all sorts of barriers to have a conversation with her. He reveals, bit by bit, that he knows exactly what sort of life she's lived – and he wants her to know that, no matter what worldly lines in the sand are drawn between them, he wants her to come to him and find a healing that lasts.

As she's working her way up to realizing that Jesus is the promised Savior, she comes to see that Jesus has a hotline with God. So she asks him to settle one of the controversies of the day. Everyone knows that for the one God, there can be only one valid temple. The Jews worship God at the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and reject all the others. But the Samaritans worship God at the temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria and reject the one in Jerusalem. Jesus tells her that it doesn't matter any more. Worship used to have to do with geography, because the temple was a place. But if our God is spirit, there's no reason why his temple has to be a place – and Jesus tells this Samaritan woman that from now on it won't be. The new temple isn't a place, it's a people – it's us!

Now it doesn't matter where we stand when we bring our offerings to God. It doesn't matter if we get together to worship God between these panels of stained glass and those panels. It doesn't matter if we worship God without so much as a shard of stained glass in sight. It can be in our homes, it can be in the park, it can be at the side of the road in a bad part of town. What matters is whether we're living out our worship as though we're really God's temple. We need to live like the temple where his Spirit of Truth dwells to bear its fruit in our lives. God calls us to worship as the temple where people can come to meet him – and when they meet him here in Christ, in our midst, then they can have the Spirit flowing through their lives like a raging river that never runs dry. And that message is exactly what the woman at the well needed to hear.

The woman went back into her village and spread the word. They invited Jesus in, and many of them learned for themselves who Jesus is. But the disciples were complaining... as usual. When they tried to distract Jesus with lunch, he told them that he had everything he needed right there already. They thought maybe Jesus got some take-out while they were grocery shopping. They didn't understand that food is nothing compared to carrying out God's mission. They were so bogged down in earthly things and earthly meanings that they were blind to what was most pressing of all.

You know, when I picture this conversation, I imagine Jesus grabbing Peter by the shoulders and shaking him. “Don't you see? Open your eyes! Open your eyes and look, look at that field of people! They're ripe for harvest for the kingdom!” That was where the heart of the Father was. The heart of the Father wasn't with what the disciples bought in town. The heart of the Father wasn't in staying on schedule to get out of Samaria. The heart of the Father was in rejoicing in the chance to share the gospel with people who were starving spiritually and were ready and willing for the meal of God's love to be served to their souls. No one shows the Father's heart like Jesus – and if Jesus went to such desperate lengths to reach the Samaritans, I wonder how we can ever look at the unsaved in Akron and Ephrata the same way again.

The third crucial lesson that the start of Jesus' ministry teaches us about God is that God values the humble faith of outcasts more than the self-satisfied morality of the 'in-crowd'. Early on in the Gospels, we get the sense that if there's one thing that the Pharisees and Jesus most definitely are not destined to see eye-to-eye on, it's how to treat people who don't have it all together. The Pharisees were convinced that they were on top of it. They were so proud not to be like, you know, those people. You know the ones I mean. The ones who feel afraid to darken church doors because they don't feel good enough.

Jesus didn't avoid them the way the Pharisees did. He did lunch with them. The Pharisees and others got upset when Jesus ate with – gasp! – 'tax collectors' and 'sinners'! Jesus fell in with bad crowds – on purpose. The Pharisees and their friends judged Jesus for it. How can this traveling teacher not know what kind of people these are? Hasn't he ever heard that bad company corrupts good morals? Doesn't this Jesus guy understand that he's setting a bad example? Clearly if this man is the sort of man who would spend his time with thieves and adulterers and traitors and prostitutes and terrorists, he isn't someone any self-respecting Pharisee would want his children around! But a main point of Jesus' life is that God is the sort of God who would spend his time with haters, with abusers, with bullies, and with the broken – and if we need any more proof, all we need is to remember that God somehow still wants anything to do with us.

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that when a doctor's at work, he doesn't surround himself with healthy people who don't want to see him. A doctor dives headfirst into the midst of the sick and the dying because they're the ones who need him and know it. The irony is that the Pharisees are worse off, because they're so proud of their own goodness that they can't see that their goodness 'falls short of the glory of God'. Even if the Pharisees came a few inches closer to God's standards, just a few, they fell miles away from God's values. And one of the greatest dangers for the church today is if we miss this. It's easy to give lip-service to grace and mercy. It's hard to live as someone who depends on it completely. A church that doesn't remind itself that they'd be miserable sinners without God's grace, a church that forgets that it's called for an active mission of grace to the hurting and the impure and the lost – that is a church in grave danger of becoming the neighborhood Pharisees' Association instead of the church that God wrenched out of Satan's hands through the priceless blood of his one and only Son.

Every natural inclination of our hearts is to be a Pharisee. But Jesus came to show us that that's not where God's heart is. If we believe the good news that God is really Christ-like, then we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about our methods in God's mission. We have to ask ourselves, if God isn't above identifying himself with the people, who are we to hold ourselves above the muck and the mire of the day-to-day lives of the lost? We have to ask ourselves, if God's teaching through Jesus is true, then do we really get what it means to trade in everything about who we are in order to get a completely new identity from God? We have to ask ourselves, if God is willing to have a bunch of rescued sinners serve as his holy temple, are we really being a temple where people can meet Christ and get healing? And we have to ask ourselves, if God's heart breaks and burns and chases down the hungry lost, then what's wrong with us when we put anything worldly, even good things, ahead of our God's all-consuming passion? Those are uncomfortable questions. They make me uncomfortable. I squirmed when I wrote them. I'll probably still squirm in a week, or in a month. But when we come to see that Jesus is the one who makes the heart of the Father known, even in the earliest days of his ministry, then we can't not know that every 'if' in those questions is a guaranteed fact. And we can't pretend that it doesn't have a drastic impact on who we are as the church. And that's just the start of Jesus' ministry! Over the next few Sundays, we have the awesome chance to explore what else Jesus can show us about the heart of God. Because Christmas was just the beginning of the new chapter in God's story.

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