About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

2012-12-24 Christmas Eve
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

...and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. - Luke 2:7

Everybody who's heard the Christmas story has their own unique vision of how it looked. I'm sure mine came from 1960's claymation TV specials. Or maybe Sunday School flannelgraphs.

If you don't know what a flannelgraph is, I'm so sorry. Imagine PowerPoint, with magic fabric cut-outs.

I always pictured a British inn, made of stone and covered in vines and moss. And a grumpy old innkeeper leaning out an upstairs window, shouting, "Go 'way, 'ew blinkin' 'umbugs!" Because, that's how all British people talk.

However the inn looked, the point is that Mary and Joseph ended up somewhere way less comfortable, in a place not fit for human residence. There was no cradle, so she placed the Baby Jesus in the animals' feeding trough, the manger.

The world had no place for Mary and Joseph and Jesus. So, God found a way.


The Gospel of John says it like this,

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Do you ever think about what this and the story from Luke are saying? Because it's really, really shocking. The world had no place for God. The world didn't recognize God. The world refused God.

But God found a way.

A lot of people say the reason the world's so messed up today, the reason our country's in such a fix, is because we've turned away from God. That's what they say.

But the Bible says, God finds a way.

You might be here tonight under duress. You might be here because you want to make your mom happy. And, speaking for all the moms, good. You might not be so sure about all this God and Jesus stuff. You might say you just don't have room for God. That's what you say.

The Bible says, God finds a way.


Have you ever been in a situation where there's no room for you? Maybe a school cafeteria. That's everybody's nightmare. There's the cool table. There's the Hobbit table. There's the Manga-Goth table. You don't need a sorting hat to know where you fit in. Or not. "Sorry, loser. Maybe there's room for you at the "Glee" table."

Same thing when we grow up. Artists go to artist parties. Accountants go to accountant parties. (Woohoo.) Psychologists go to both parties and stand outside making video. ("Here we see the primitive ritual dance of the Copyright Lawyer.") We divide. Is there room? Depends on who you are. That's what society says.

The Bible says... well, let's get to that in a minute.

How do you make room for God?

A lot of people say by setting time each day for prayer and study. Maybe by meditating or yoga. You might make room for God by listening to music. Or exercising. Walking in the woods by yourself. And those are all good. They're great practices. You need to practice making room for God. That's why God sent John the Baptist. That's why the church has Advent. To tell everybody to get ready, to practice up, because Jesus is coming.

But there's a difference between practice and the real thing.

The real game comes and it's time to put the practice aside and get down and dirty. Enough theory; it's time to get down-to-earth. That's what Christmas is, after all. I mean, think about it. Christmas is God getting really, really down-to-earth. And it's an earthy earth. In a stable. In a manger. In a place for people who have no place.

In the Bible, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about when we really, really make room for God. And in the story, the people of the world were shocked and surprised. Because they thought they were doing something else.

It says,

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

It says,

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

The Bible says, if you really, really want to make room for God, then make room. Make room. For everybody.

Feed everybody. Care for everybody. Welcome everybody. Clothe everybody. Visit everybody. Even the most down. Even the most filthy. Make room. For everybody.

The Bible says, if you want to make room for God, make room. For everybody.

But even if you don't think you can do that. Even if you don't want to do that. Even if you say, "Sorry, Loser, there's no room at this table," God. Finds. A. Way.


I am so excited about what you're going to do tonight, in giving to the offering for the Volunteer Ministry Center. I think it's moving beyond practicing your faith to actually doing what Jesus tells us.

There are Marys and Josephs on the streets of this city, who have no place to stay tonight. I have no doubt that some of the Marys are great with child. I have no doubt that some of the Josephs are wondering, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?" I have no doubt that there are children who are shivering, whose tummies are rumbling because it's cold, and they're hungry.

As much as we give to the least of them, we're giving to Jesus. We're moving beyond getting ready for Jesus, and we're making room for him.

When that plate comes around tonight, I hope Lake Hills... I hope the lake will flood in generosity, and the hills will unleash an avalanche of hope.

Now, the skeptic among you might say, but even so, it's such a small thing. We can't solve all the problems.

That's what you say.

But God finds a way.


And one more thing, and this is important, too. Really important.

There's a table here tonight. It's not your table. It's Christ's table. We're going to share a piece of bread and a drink from a cup.

It's Jesus' table, and you know what? Jesus says, "Everyone's invited." Every one. Everyone. It doesn't matter who you are, how high society or how low brow you are. It doesn't even matter if you're a saint, or if you're not sure why you're here in the first place. There's room for you. There's room for your faith. There's room for your doubt. There's room for your parts in-between. There's room.

Everyone's. Invited. Everyone.


Oh, and one more thing. (Never believe a preacher who says, "And one more thing." )

Have a very - merry - and blessed Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Journey: The Manger

2012-12-23 The Journey - The Manger
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:8-20
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
James McTyre (loosely based upon Adam Hamilton's The Journey)

Micah 5:2-5a
The Ruler from Bethlehem

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
 who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
 one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
 from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
 when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
 to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
 in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
 to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 2:8-20
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest heaven,
 and on earth peace among those whom he favours!'
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.' So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Today's the last message in a 4-part series called, "The Journey." It's loosely based on Adam Hamilton's very good book by the same name. If this is your first Sunday to hear anything from the series, sorry. Your "journey" is going to end almost as soon as it begins.

Which can be pretty nice. Today is Christmas Eve Eve. Some of you have made journeys to get here. You came from the East, or one of the other directions, to come back home for Christmas. (Good to see you. You know, you could call more often.) Or you may be getting ready to take a journey. This is your sweet hour of prayer before you leave.

People say, "The journey's more important than the destination." Not if you have small children. Not 48 hours before Christmas. Not when you're heading to the airport. You want the journey to be over, before it begins. You want out of the car. You want off the plane. You want to be at the destination.

Last week we talked about how Joseph and Mary made the 10-day walking-slash-luxury-model-donkey journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she was 9 months pregnant. I hope no one told her, "The journey's more important than the destination." Because even a Blessed Virgin has a breaking point. Safe to say, no one wanted the journey to be over before it began more than Mary.

Those people who say, "The journey's more important than the destination." (?) You know why they say that? They booked their reservations online.

"I'm sorry, honey. It looked so much better on the website."


So Mary takes a journey she couldn't have wanted to a destination no one would choose. She gives birth, and watches as the midwife lays the child in... the feeding trough. That's what a manger is. A feeding trough. This child angels told her about. This child Joseph dreamed about. This child Israel has prayed about. Gets to spend his first night, in a feeding trough? You know what they put in those things? You know who eats out of those? The child born of the Holy Spirit, the Son of God, the Lord of Lords - his first destination is, the feeding trough? Seriously?

A very dear friend, who has a few years on me gave me this gem of wisdom. "Life," he says, "Life is a series of adjustments." That is so true. You have to adjust. You have to improvise. That's real life. Because in real life, the journey, even the journey of your dreams, so often leads you to a destination that's never quite like the one in the brochures.

Mary and Joseph got sent on a journey by God. By GOD.

And not only did they have no room at the inn, they had no respectable place to lay their newborn son. God gives them this miracle, but then leaves them to improvise where they're going to lay his sweet head.

And so it begins. Jesus Christ, Messiah, God Emmanuel's first destination: the manger.


Friends of ours collect Nativity sets. One of their favorites has seen the years. There are only two Wise Men. Because one of them - got lost. Somewhere Wise Man #3's still on the journey. Unless he was eaten by the Basset Hound.

You can have a Nativity without all the pieces. But you've gotta have a Baby Jesus. Otherwise, it's just a farm scene. And you've gotta have a manger. All Nativity sets have a manger. A little wooden manger with the legs crossed in "X"s at each end.

But that's probably not right. When he was writing his book, Hamilton consulted some manger experts. Mangers in Bethlehem weren't hand-crafted wood, like we see them. Why not? Because farm animals have hideous table manners. A quaint little wooden manger? The first supper would be its last supper. A flimsy wooden manger's going to get knocked over, smashed up, and gnawed on. Eaten, if you have goats.

We talked a couple of weeks ago how most of the homes in Nazareth were carved out of limestone caves. Mangers, like many homes, were carved out of large pieces of stone. A stone manger stays put. A stone manger can't be pushed around. It may not have been stylish, but Baby Jesus was probably in the most rock-solid safe place in the house.

Stone is strong. Stone protects. The Israelites called God the "rock" of their salvation. "Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee." Rocks are safety. Israelites used rocks to mark their places of worship, to set boundaries, to preserve their wells of life-giving water. Rocks don't need operating instructions. Rocks are simple. Rocks are practical.

Like the manger.


Animals seem to understand when people need extra care. We have dogs. And while our dogs can be slightly demanding - especially Bear, the Yorkie - who knows the universe revolves around him - animals have a special sense for when people are vulnerable and need care. Even cats. Anyone who's ever sat on a couch with a cat on one side and a box of Kleenex on the other knows even cats sense when somebody needs a hug.

Mark Twain said, "The more I know about people, the more I like my dog." It's kind of interesting, then, that the first bed of God in human form is the manger. It's also deeply and poetically symbolic that Jesus is placed where even the lowliest creatures of God can be fed.

Throughout the Bible, God calls humanity to feed their hearts and souls, and Jesus becomes the final, spiritual nourishment.

In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses tells the people, "One does not live by bread alone."

In Isaiah 55:2, the prophet asks, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"

In John 6:36, Jesus says, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'

And then, at the Last Supper, in Luke 22:19, Jesus breaks bread and says to his disciples, "This is my body, broken for you. Do this, in remembrance of me."

Jesus is spiritual food for even the lowliest, most beat-up souls. God cares for all creatures. Even people. Not only did the animals come to the manger, so did the lowliest, most beat-up, smelliest souls: Shepherds.


Nativity sets always have kings, magi, or wise men - whatever your translation calls them. But according to the Bible, that's not quite right. The PhD's didn't get there until way after Christmas. Now, we have PhD's here today, so, no comment.

The first visitors who saw the Baby Jesus weren't wise men; they were shepherds. In Luke 2:12, the angel announces to the shepherds, "This will be a sign unto you: you shall find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

The shepherds thought, "Really? A manger? This is our kind of king."

But that shouldn't be too surprising. If you look way back in the Old Testament, when God was looking for a king, God chose the shepherd boy, David. David the littlest in his family, who tended sheep and sang with his harp.

When Jesus grows up, he never calls himself a king, never calls himself wise. Jesus describes himself as "the good shepherd," who lays down his life for the sheep.

The Bible is filled with shepherds. It's obviously very important. But I was still curious to see if you could be both a wise man and a shepherd. So, I Googled shepherd and PhD. First place to pop up? Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I'm thinking, yes! Their football team? The Rams. Paydirt!

According to their website, quote, "The University offers... degrees in a wide range of fields, encompassing the liberal arts, business administration, teacher education, the social and natural sciences, and other career-oriented areas."

But if you search Shepherd University in Shepherdstown's catalog? Not one single class in shepherding. I think that's false advertising.

Next, I found the Shepherd School of Music. I'm thinking, this sounds like where King David would have gone. It's part of Rice University. Shepherds, music, rice. They even have an Associate Professor of Harp. But noooo, says their rather rude receptionist. The Shepherd School has no classes in shepherding.

Apparently, you can't get a fancy shepherd diploma, even if you want one. You don't need to be a wise man. Shepherds will let anybody in. You can be the lowliest, lowest of society's low. You can be an outcast. Just one step above the animals. These were the people ranked #1 among those who got to see and worship Baby Jesus. Apparently, if you want to worship Jesus, the line forms right behind where it usually ends.

The journey's ending and its beginning get swapped.

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus speaks for angels as he speaks to each one of us.

28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Take a deep breath.
Look into your heart.
If you feel a bit sheepish, good news!
You're journey's about to start.


Jesus is simple, spiritual food for people who are simply spiritual. If you want a peek inside the manger, you don't have to be wise. You don't have to be big and strong. You don't have to follow all Ten Commandments every day of the week. Nobody does, so stop pretending like you are and like you do. Stop pretending to be more cool and together than you are. Stop looking down on people who aren't close to your status. Because you know what? They're already long strides ahead of you.

If you want a peek inside the manger, you've gotta be a shepherd. If you want a peek inside the manger, put down your defenses and confess what you really are.
And what are you? You're hungry. You're thirsty. You're hungering and thirsting for righteousness. You're searching for the living water. You're hunting for the bread of life that fills you up and takes the emptiness away.

If you want a peek inside the manger, confess that you're broken. We all are. We're all broken. That's why God came to earth - to heal us, to care for us, to feed our souls through the vulnerable, innocent little child, away in a manger, asleep on the hay. Not some brilliant, wise king. An infant holy, an infant lowly.

If you really, really, really want to start a journey with Jesus, you have to end the journeys that are getting you nowhere. Break the infinite loop of bingeing on that which does not satisfy. Make the frantic, empty searching end before it begins.

Peek inside that manger. Start your journey there.

"Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask thee to stay,
Close by me forever,
and love me, I pray."

Wherever I go, wherever we go, Lord Jesus, be our journeys' end, before we begin.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

From Nazareth to Bethlehem - A Journey Together

2012-12-16 The Journey - From Nazareth to Bethlehem
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
James McTyre (loosely based upon Adam Hamilton's The Journey)

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

A Song of Celebration

14 Everyone in Jerusalem and Judah,
celebrate and shout
   with all your heart!
15 Zion, your punishment is over.
The Lord has forced your enemies
   to turn and retreat.
Your Lord is King of Israel
   and stands at your side;
you don't have to worry
   about any more troubles.
16 Jerusalem, the time is coming,
   when it will be said to you:
"Don't be discouraged
   or grow weak from fear!
17 The Lord your God
wins victory after victory
   and is always with you.
He celebrates and sings
   because of you,
and he will refresh your life
   with his love."[a]

The Lord's Promise to His People

18 The Lord has promised:
Your sorrow has ended,
   and you can celebrate.[b]
19 I will punish those
   who mistreat you.
I will bring together the lame
   and the outcasts,
then they will be praised,
instead of despised,
   in every country on earth.
20 I will lead you home,
   and with your own eyes
you will see me bless you
   with all you once owned.
Then you will be famous
   everywhere on this earth.
I, the Lord, have spoken!

The Birth of Jesus

2 About that time Emperor Augustus gave orders for the names of all the people to be listed in record books. 2 These first records were made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 Everyone had to go to their own hometown to be listed. 4 So Joseph had to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to Bethlehem in Judea. Long ago Bethlehem had been King David's hometown, and Joseph went there because he was from David's family.
5 Mary was engaged to Joseph and traveled with him to Bethlehem. She was soon going to have a baby, 6 and while they were there, 7 she gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn.


So, we're in a series called, "The Journey." It's loosely based on Adam Hamilton's very good book by the same name. I would encourage you to read the book or its devotional companion, and I mean that in a way that might keep him from suing me.

("That's not what my book says!"
Good thing God doesn't do that.)

We also have a Sunday School class going in tandem with the messages in worship. So to avoid duplication, I tend to veer down some roads less traveled. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Do you ever do that? You set out on a journey and you end up somewhere completely off the map? You're standing in the kitchen for no apparent reason? Holding a lamp and a box of cat treats. And you don't even own a cat. And you tell yourself, "I know I came in here for a reason." Of course you did.

We're doing this series called, "The Journey." A journey is purposeful. A journey has a reason for showing up at Point B. If there were no reason, it wouldn't be a journey. It would be wandering around the building. It would be getting in the car and driving until you hit the Atlantic Ocean. And then swimming. Not that any of us have ever felt like doing that. That's not a journey; that's a low-speed escape.

What the church calls Advent and the rest of the world calls The Christmas Shopping Season is a journey. And it's not a journey to Wal-Mart or to Grandmother's house we go. Advent's a journey of faith. It's a journey of hope, peace, joy, and love. That's why we light those candles every week. To guide our way. To remind us that we're not wandering aimlessly. We're intentionally moving to Point B. We're heading toward that tall candle in the middle of everything.

(During the Children's Sermon a couple of years ago, I asked, "What do we call that tall, white candle in the middle?" One little guy shouts out, "The Santa Candle!"

It's the Christ Candle. And you made Baby Jesus cry.)

We're on a journey to Christmas. We're on a journey TO Christmas. But most of the time, we talk about it the opposite way. Christmas is coming. It's coming fast. It's coming at us. It's coming at YOU.

Did you ever think about how much of our language is about escaping, avoiding... the rush, the traffic, the stress, the anxiety of Christmas? And it's very violent. "Beat" the rush. We got "tied up" at the Mall. Dad was "detained" by Security. (That didn't really happen.) We don't talk like Christmas is a journey. It's an oncoming collision.

Christmas is a journey. Everybody smiles and nods at the preacher when we say things like that. It sounds so nice at church. But when you're in line at Honey Baked Ham, that journey's not moving anywhere.

When you're a kid, you know the destination. You know  the payoff if you watch out, don't cry, and don't pout. But when we get older we wonder, is it all really worth it? I mean, what's the point of racing down the same old road, every same old year? If it's really a journey, where's it getting us? I mean, are we really sure we want to take it?


Mary and Joseph didn't want to take that journey, either.

Mary didn't want that journey. Mary was nine months pregnant. Way beyond when your doctor says, "I don't want you traveling anywhere." Will they even let you ON an airplane if you're nine months pregnant? Not unless you bring your own obstetrician. How 'bout a... donkey ride... through the West Bank? ("Oh. I may have to consult my medical books on that one.") Mary did not want that journey.

Joseph didn't want that journey. The occupying Roman government was trying to avoid a fiscal cliff. So everybody had to go back to their hometown to be "enrolled." That's a nice word for being conscripted into extortion. Can you imagine all the caravans of happy campers on their way to sign up for more taxes? You think Kingston Pike is depressing.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a 10-day journey on foot. The scenic valleys of olive trees turn to craggy cliffs of Mordor. And those turn to what Bibles call, "wilderness," but was really more like Death Valley. The Bible doesn't say what they penalty was for not showing up. But it had to be pretty severe to motivate Joseph (and Mary) along this route, at this time. I can't imagine a more joy-LESS journey.

Joseph did not want that journey. Mary did not want that journey. No one along the route from Nazareth to Bethlehem wanted to take that journey.


Some of you here today. Some of you joining us from home. Some of you are on very uncomfortable journeys. The energy it takes just to get out of bed and to put one foot in front of the other puts the rest of us to shame. Physically, you're on a hard journey. Or maybe emotionally, you're on a hard journey. You wonder why you stay on the road when it doesn't look like the scenery's ever going to change.

You're walking with Mary. You're walking with Joseph.

Some of you here today. Some of you at home. You're carrying a heavy heart. You're quietly dragging the weight of absences. You're painfully aware of distance. You're wondering if there even is a Point B, if there even IS a goal, an end. You wonder why the road doesn't turn. You're doubting it ever will.

You're walking with Mary. You're walking with Joseph.

And who were they walking with?

What the Bible doesn't tell us in this short passage is that Mary and Joseph were walking a road called, "The Way of the Patriarchs." You see, this was a road that had been traveled throughout sixteen hundred years of Bible history.

The road from Nazareth to Bethlehem led through the place where God appeared to Abraham, and promised to give the land to his descendants. It led through the place where Jacob used a rock for pillow, and dreamed of seeing angels ascending and descending from heaven. It was the place where Joseph of the Coat of Many Colors was buried after his bones were brought back from Egypt. Where Joshua set up the Tent of Meeting and the ark of the covenant. This was the land where the prophets Samuel, and Elijah, and Elisha preached. Mary and Joseph walked where the armies of Babylon marched as they invaded Jerusalem and marched its people into captivity. And Mary and Joseph walked where the exiles returned, singing praises unto Zion, when the exile was over.#

Mary and Joseph walked in the footsteps of the fathers and mothers of faith. And in a sense, they walked with them. Mary and Joseph, and all the history of faith, walked that journey. Together.

You see, that's the thing about journeys. We can get so absorbed in watching our one foot move in front of the other that we forget. We forget that there are people ahead of us. We forget there are people behind us. Even if we don't know them, they're on the same road. We can get so absorbed in our journeys that we think we're the first ones, the only ones, who've ever taken these steps. We forget to look up from the path. We forget to look around.

And sometimes, we even stop looking ahead. Sometimes we forget why we ever got on the road in the first place.

You could think of God's book, the Bible, as a collection of people going from one place to another. A lot of the time, maybe even most of the time, they weren't on a road they'd have chosen. There's that wonderful line from the Bible that says God will make the crooked paths straight.

Luke 3:5 says, Every valley shall be filled,
  and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
  and the rough ways made smooth

You know who said that? John the Baptist. You know what his sole purpose was? Getting everybody ready... for Christ.

God knows we can't see around the corners. God knows we're walking paths we didn't choose. God knows we end up taking journeys we might not even want to be on. Wondering, how in the world did I get here?

We're walking with Mary. We're walking with Joseph. We're walking with a whole Bible full of people.

But even more, we're walking with a whole church full of people. And even though it may seem so hard, so far away, there is a Bethlehem.


We are "A Church in the Community, Serving the Community of God."

The community that is our nation is sharing a deep and very dark grief. Friday, the gunman in Newtown, Connecticut broke our nation's heart. One man's act of inhumanity has sent all our communities down a journey we do not want to take. But I believe it's a journey we, collectively, as a nation, must take.

Almost immediately, on Friday, people took to the media to proclaim, "See, I told you so." It's because of this. It's because of that. It's as if all the people with all the answers had been waiting for this moment for their unique wisdom to shine. Opinions are like noses. And you can stick your nose up in the air and into other people's business. Or you can bury it in your hands, and let your tears flow around it.

This is not the time for quick, arrogant arguments. This is the time for our national community to come together. This is the time for all our communities in the community to confess that something is broken in our nation. But for the sake of all our communities, we're going walk together to fix it. This is time to confess and to promise one another that we're not sure where this road is going to lead us, but for the love of God and neighbor, we're going to walk it together.

It's a long, difficult journey to Bethlehem. The good news of Christ is born, but after people who are suffering, laboring, go far out of their way for each other.

If you look around this room, we've got all the ingredients for a community. We've got stay-at-home parents. We've got teachers. We've got nurses. We've got doctors. We've got police officers. We've got home-builders, and home sellers. Counselors and lawyers and bankers.

And we've got kids. Lots and lots of beautiful kids.

It's time. It's time for all of us to lower our hopes that someone else will fix our communities for us, and raise our expectations, that we will strengthen them ourselves. It's time we raise our expectations in ourselves, raise our expectations of our abilities in our community.

For Mary and Joseph, salvation started with a problem. And a totally unrelated national problem sent them, and a whole lot of other people, on a journey they didn't want to take, but did.

And what came out of that journey?

A child.

A child born in Bethlehem. Who out of darkness brought the light of life, the light of the world. And the darkness could not overcome it. The light of Christ shines even now, wherever there is hope, wherever there is peace, wherever there is joy, wherever there is love.

Let us all make a confession and a promise that from this day forward, we will carry that light for the good of everyone in the community of God. Wherever it takes us. However long it takes.

To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Prayers for today's tragedy in Connecticut

In our church, we have so many children, so many parents, so many teachers, school leaders, police officers, nurses, doctors, and other helpers. 

But no matter our role in the community, all of us are touched and all of us are shaken by the tragedy of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Danbury, CT. Let us come together as a church and as families to hold each other close, whether near or far, in body and in spirit.

We rely so much on scripture's words, when our own fail:

Jeremiah 31:15

New International Version (NIV)

15 This is what the Lord says:

"A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more."

May God wipe away the tears of those who mourn today. May our prayers help heal their spirits. May God protect our hearts and minds as we struggle to understand that which has no understanding.

Dr. Brenae Brown, whose work I greatly admire and have quoted in sermons, has published a list of recommended resources for talking to children. Her blog address is:


She closes her article by quoting this statement from Mr. Rogers:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

No matter how experienced the helpers, their lives will be changed today. Thank them. Pray for them. 


Saturday, December 01, 2012

Joseph of Bethlehem

2012-12-02 The Journey: Joseph of Bethlehem

Matthew 1:18-24:  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

  and they shall name him Emmanuel',

which means, 'God is with us.' When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife....


Last Sunday, we started a series called, "The Journey."

It's based very loosely on Adam Hamilton's very good book by the same name.

Last week we talked about Mary of Nazareth, about the hope that's the only thing left when you're at the bottom of a deep hole and can't find your way out.

Today, I want to talk - very briefly - about Joseph.

I know, it's not fair to Joseph not to give him equal time.

But look.

The children were singing.

The chimes were ringing.

And we baptized a baby.

It's like the universe is conspiring to show the preacher how unnecessary he is.

Which is not completely unlike Joseph of Bethlehem's situation.

You see, if you read the Bible carefully, you see that Joseph's greatest contribution to the birth of Jesus wasn't what he did.

Joseph's greatest contribution to the birth of Jesus was what he DIDN'T do.

What DIDN'T Joseph do?

A lot.

And because of what he chose not to do, Joseph became a critical part of God's plan.


Mary - by the way - lived in completely different city, that being Nazareth - had been promised to Joseph, maybe at birth.

This was not Hollywood where Joseph stood under her window with a boom box.

This was pre-modern Palestine, where parents arranged marriages for economic benefit.

Fast forward to early middle-age for Joseph and Mary, which probably was around age 13 or 14, and our story takes form.

The Bible says it very succinctly:

When his mother Mary had been engaged (actually, betrothed, promised, legally contracted) to Joseph, but before they "lived together" (church talk), she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.


Joseph had some options.

First was dragging Mary before the city fathers, the priest,

and declaring that she had broken the law,

nullified the family's contract,

and potentially committed the gravest sin of all,

which was deceitfully breaking the family line of begats which stretched all the way back to Father Abraham in the book of Genesis.

The death penalty would have been invoked and with no hope for a governor's pardon, Mary would have been stoned to death, asap.

That was option #1.

It wasn't a good idea, but it was the law.

Had Joseph been vindictive, had he been a hardliner about following the rules, no one would have raised an eyebrow.

Joseph's second option was the one he decided on, which the Bible describes.

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Which means a financial settlement.

Mary's family returns the cattle or sheep they had received for her.

Like a refund for defective product.

Mary is given back to her family and is still disgraced, just more privately.

While option #2 still seems very cold, it beats the other choice.

Decisions, decisions.

Choices and plans.

You know the old saying: If you want to make God laugh, make plans.

The Bible tells us so in the next verses.

But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

  and they shall name him Emmanuel',

which means, 'God is with us.' When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him...


Option #3.

A third way.

Now why didn't Joseph think of that?

Probably because you just didn't do that, if you were a righteous man.

You know, a lot of people wonder about Joseph.

You know how many words he says in all the Bible?


Not one.

You know what they call an actor who has no speaking parts?

An extra.

You know how many times Joseph is even mentioned in the Bible as being alive?


Here, and again when Jesus is twelve and gets left home alone at the temple.

Some people think Joseph was very old, which would have made him, 30, maybe 40.

They think he was more of a grandfather to Jesus.

Some people think Joseph must have died while Jesus was young.

We don't know.

We think he was some sort of craftsman - a carpenter or a stonemason depending on your translation.

But we don't know.

We know more about Joseph by what he wasn't.

We know more about Joseph from what he didn't do.

Joseph could have invoked the strong arm of the law.

He didn't.

Joseph could have returned Mary for a refund.

He didn't.

Joseph might have been a famous leader, a noble, a minor celebrity.

He wasn't.

Joseph could have said at least something worth writing down in the Bible, a "Hallelujah" or a "Thank you, Lord."

He didn't.

Joseph became more a part of God's plan for your salvation by what he didn't do, than by what he did.

Joseph had all these viable options.

But he chose none of them.

The Bible's only mention of Joseph doing anything worth mentioning at all, was that, one lonely night, he listened to an angel, that appeared to him in a dream.


Yeah. Seriously.

Joseph listened.

Joseph showed up.

And that was enough.


The words of the angel sum it up.

Listen again to what the Bible says:

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid...

Do not be afraid.

Turn that around the other way, and it says, for all of his didn'ts, Joseph DID have one thing.

Joseph had courage.

Joseph had the courage NOT to do any of the things he could have.

Joseph had the courage TO do the one thing that made all the difference.

Joseph didn't send Mary away.

Joseph didn't run away.

Joseph showed up.

Back before Woody Allen married his stepdaughter, he had that wonderful, brilliant saying.

"Eighty percent of life is showing up."

Think of all the situations you've been in that you didn't want to be in.

Think of all the times you might have run away, or blamed someone else, or been vindictive, or exerted your God-given rights... and you didn't.

You, my friend, were courageous.

You might say, "Me? Courage? No way."

"I was just doing my job."

"I was just being there for my kid."

"I just asked the doctor a question."

"I just bought the guy some socks and boots."

(Did you see that video of the police officer in New York?)

You might say, "That's not courageous."

If it wasn't courageous, everybody would do it.

If you thought it was courage, it wouldn't be courage; it would just be showing off.

It's not showing off at all.

It's showing up.

It's listening to a third way that by the grace of God, turned out to be the grace of God.

Not because of your plans.

But because you didn't let your plans get in the way of God's Holy Spirit.

Like Joseph didn't.


Christmas season is the time for so many plans.

People really get freaked out over the idea that they might mess something up, and Christmas will be cancelled for the first time ever, because of what YOU did.

Trust me on this one.

Trust Joseph on this one.

Christmas will come.

Sometimes you've just gotta have the courage to let it.

And that will be your salvation.