24 December 2005

Scandalous Night

The following is a dilogue sermon preached by Patrick Mead and Josh Graves. Italics are Patrick, normal font is Josh.

This is a hard day for me. People want me to be involved in a culture war and wear “Merry Christmas” on my sleeve. Christmas has become, in some ways, a political issue.

Others want me to preach against materialism; about how we have thrown away Jesus for a sale at the mall. Still others want me to throw the whole holiday away. It’s just a remnant of a pagan celebration, they say.

But I confess: I love the lights. I love the tinsel and the trees. I love the crowded stores and I love buying presents.

So what’s a Christmas loving, present buying, ornament hanging, eggnog drinking preacher to do?

How about: brace myself for reality. How about: approach the story of the birth of Christ the way it really was and see how that changes things.
Strip away the tinsel and the wrapping presents. No more elves, reindeer, and, I’m sorry, but Santa will have to go as well. Shopping malls are demolished, eggnog poured out—we’re stripping Christmas of its pomp and flair. This means there will be no credit card statements in January to fret over (now there’s good news). This also implies the pressure is off to buy that perfect gift.

Yes, we’re stripping Christmas. Please turn in your lists of things you “need” and exchange it for something much more meaningful. Turn off the cheesy Christmas music (not “Silent Night”…no, no—I’m talking about the Christmas music that isn’t really about anything at all).

In fact, while we’re at it. We’re going to tear down this church building. Yep, I’m sorry but the building has to go. “Why?” you ask. Well, we’re stripping Christmas for everything it has morphed into over the last several decades: buildings, possessions, sales, institutions, commercialization, deals and…well, anything that clouds the real scandal of the night when God chose to enter into the human drama.

Like a playwright, I can see God going over the script in his mind. “Ok, we’ve got all the characters in place: Mary, the young maiden, will play the role of unassuming hero. She will bear God into the world. I will choose the least likely person for the most significant role: woman, youth, uneducated, lower class—that’s should remove any doubt about the kind of people I work with. Now, for my next character, I need Joseph. Joseph will have to make good out of a messy situation. His name will be slandered and his reputation put in jeopardy. His fiancĂ© is pregnant and he’s not the father, at least he’s not the biological father. Ok this is shaping up to be a fine drama. Now, a couple of distant characters need to be brought into this action: Caesar and Herod. Caesar, the most powerful man in the entire world. Commander of a Nation that stretches from England to Africa, France to Arabia—the one whom all Roman citizens and subjects must confess, ‘Caesar is Lord.’ More dangerous than Caesar though will be Herod. Herod shall be an extension of Caesar. Yes, Jewish but much more concerned about his place in the Roman Empire than the covenant community that is Israel. Oh, these two political power players will have huge implications for the One who is about to enter into the world. And let’s throw in Zechariah and Elizabeth—yes they’ll experience a similar shock to Mary and Joseph only their gift will pave the way for the One. Add Simeon (the one person who will truly understand the scandal of divinity mixing with flesh) and the stage is set for the One to enter into to his own story.”

And they shall call him Yeshua, which means God will rescue and save you from the powers and principalities. And they shall call him Immanuel, which means God once roamed the earth in bodily form. And they shall call him son of David, demonstrating the faithfulness of God through many centuries. And they shall call him the Lion who rules over all things. And they shall call him the lamb that takes away the sin of the world. And they shall call him Messiah, which means he has been anointed to embody the Way of God in a broken world. And they shall call him Son of God because he is truly the one unique manifestation of God. And they shall call him Lord…because he is the author and perfector of our faith—in him all of creation is held together. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

Those are impressive titles are the not? Unfortunately, these titles do not emerge, or at least they do not begin to impact the early followers of Jesus until a few generations after his death and resurrection. The easy thing to is to make Jesus so divine in his earthly life that we render him an ancient superman of sorts.

But, don’t do this.

Here’s where I think the pagan part comes in. I love nativity scenes, but let’s be real: the real barn would have been dark, full of dust, motes of straw, blood, the smell of sweat from Mary – and Joseph, the stink of animals… When we remove all that and put white faces on Mary, Joseph and Jesus, put adoring, sweet looking angels around them and maybe a few shepherds… we have turned the story of the birth of Christ into some Nordic myth. We have the birth of Thor the Sincrusher, not the lamb of God.

That is just the beginning of the problem. If we have a sterile birth scene we lose the power of God at work in the middle of pain, fear, darkness, confusion, and… well, a very bad place. (Norman Rockwell gifts) God works in lives that look not even a little like a Norman Rockwell painting.

We tend to want to “pretty up” the stories in the Bible. We want to wipe the sweat off of Mary, hide all the blood, make the swaddling clothes white and clean, but…

The stories in Matthew and Luke do not allow us to do this. Let him be as human as he was created to be by His father. Allow him to have a sense of humor, to be angry with the religious leaders, to show his emotion in all its different colors. Please, allow Jesus to be a man. Let him develop as a man of intense faith. Don’t make him out to be the 12-year-old genius and wizard (as some of the Apocryphal works do)—Jesus, like you and I, is in process. Remember he doesn’t officially hit the public scene until he is about the age of 30.

This concept of a developing Christ might be strange to you, but remember what you read when we went through the gospels. Jesus is surprised by some people’s faith, he is angered, he cries. He is, in a word, human. And he has human parents.

And please allow his parents to speak a fresh word of encouragement this morning. In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the focal point—the one on whom all the angels and creation lean in asking, “What will he say? Will he say yes to God?” Will he believe the angel or will he chalk it up to bad Chinese food or stress at the office? What will this Joseph think? Will he allow his wife-to-be to endure shame, and gossip. “There’s goes Jesus—who’s his father anyway?” It is scary to think, that had Jesus been born today, he might be a candidate for abortion.

"In our own age of people who raise children without benefit of marriage, the issue of legitimacy sounds a bit quaint, but the heart of the story is much bigger and more profound than that. The heart of the story is about a just man who wakes up one day to find his life wrecked: his wife pregnant, his trust betrayed, his name ruined, his future revoked. It is about a righteous man who surveys a mess he has had absolutely nothing to do with and decides to believe that God is present in it…He claims the scandal and it gives it a name. He owns the mess—he legitimates it—and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born," (Barbara Brown Taylor in Gospel Medicine).

I’m really glad that Joseph didn’t do what many conservative Christians say they would do in any given situation, “Well, I’ll just do what the Bible tells me to do,” as if the Bible can just be mined for any situation without thought or interpretations. As one man reminded me this week, do we know what the Bible Joseph read instructed him to do in this situation? It instructed him to take the woman out “and stone her death in front of the people,” what about that (Deut. 22)? Joseph understood that the Scriptures must always be read through the heart and character of God. I’m glad he didn’t just read the Bible and do what it says. Aren’t you?

Don’t run from this or do the standard cop-out of “well, they didn’t have the Bible, but we do.” It isn’t that simple. Every life is new; a new story and a new opportunity for God to work mighty things in frightening ways in that life. THIS IS NEW. And so is your life.

Just as Josh did for this story – in every story you need to establish and name the characters who will play a part in the plot. And you have to find a hero. So, in this story, who is the star? Matthew and Luke have different opinions about this.

And as insistent as Matthew is about the centrality of Joseph in the birth story, Luke is equally insistent that Mary is in fact the lynch pin to this whole divine scandal. For Luke, this makes sense. Remember he’s writing a gospel in which everything is turned upside down and inside out. Reversals of class, education gender, religion—these are all the results of the in-breaking work of God through the prophet from Nazareth. Naturally, Mary is chosen in the starring role.

But if she is a star, she is a young star. Probably no older than 13, Mary would not be able to vote, drink wine at dinner—she wouldn’t even be able to sit in a high school classroom or go to the prom. Yet, God reaches into Mary’s world and says, “I think you are exactly the kind of person I’m looking for. You might feel overwhelmed and under-equipped. But Mary, I don’t call the qualified, I qualify the called.” [Please repeat and emphasize this, Josh]

And if she is a star, she is a hesitant star. Mary remains humble throughout the entire affair. She waits on the movement of God. She’s obedient—going and speaking every place and word she’s been instructed.

But, as alone as Mary is, she isn’t totally alone. Her life serves as a reminder of what it means to let God write the story of your life. In every story – including yours – you have to decide who the players are going to be. What allegiances will you make? Which ones will you avoid? Mary could have chosen Herod’s path: compromise Jewish teaching for a higher place in the culture. Our kids are tempted to do that almost every day in school. All they have to do is go along a little more with the culture and they will be more accepted, loved, and less alone.

Mary's allegiance was to the one true God. She did not bow down to any other lord, any other state, nor did she go along to get along with anyone or anything. She chose to walk with God even when that path was dark, uncertain and frightening.

It isn’t just Mary and Joseph, though. What about Jesus? What kind of hero was he?

What does the birth say about Jesus?

1. Humble.
2. Approachable.
3. Underdog.
4. Warrior.

The Bible is essentially about the movement and activity of God. It isn’t so much about our accomplishments and failings as it is about the steadfast goodness of the one who started this whole story. The writer and creator of the play decided to become a character in his own creation. We do not choose him, he initially chooses us.

But unless we respond to the work of God, the Kingdom is thwarted. As with Joseph and Mary, all of heaven is waiting to hear our response. Will we cower away and hide behind family responsibilities and perceived “morality?” Will we hide behind our fears and insecurity? Will we hide because we are more passionate about Herod and his agenda or the rule of Caesar than we are risking everything for the sake of the Gospel?

Mary could have hidden behind the “but I’m a good person” wall and done nothing with her life. She chose to be the obedient handmaiden of God.

And now the story comes to us and invites us in. God is moving no less now than then. The star that shone over Bethlehem wants to shine again; this time in your life. God wants to break into your story. And when He does, it will not look like a scrubbed and backlight nativity scene. Are you ready to say ‘yes’ anyway?

This Christmas, God is inviting you and I to birth his good news into a dark world. The angels are waiting for our answer and they promise to go with us should we choose to say, “yes.”

20 December 2005

When You Least Expect (part one)

This post (today's at www.mikecope.blogspot.com) reminded me of a story currently playing in my family.
George grew up in a difficult family. In fact, he rarely discusses his youth in any context. It's almost as if life begins at 17 in his mind.

George was a young boy when his father died in tragic accident; falling of the roof to his death in his early 30's. George spent time in the homes of many relatives until he was old enough to enlist in the Navy; to join the U.S. military efforts in Korea. George was only 17. He was so desperate to make a clean break, he forged his age (as did so many desperate and eager young men a half century ago).

It was in the Navy, that George's appetite for life came alive--alcohol, gambling and women--at least that's the way he describes it.

Once out of the Navy, George went to school to become an engineer. Highly intelligent and savvy, George was destined for a bright and secure future. One problem persisted--his love for alcohol grew to an "out of control" status. George would spend much time and money gambling and drinking. His late 20's and 30's were spent in the bars and casino's. His wife (Winnie) spent countless hours raising the children wondering if her husband could ever remove himself from the trappings of the bottle.

On one of Winnie's birthday's, 1978 to be exact, George came home wasted. The conversation went something like this.

"I can't take this anymore," Winnie pleaded. "I want you to leave this life you've carved out. Give me a wish George...just one wish, that's all I'm asking you. Can you at least do that?"

"Ok...I'm listening," stammered George.

"I want you to be sober for one day. Just one day, I want a husband who's not intoxicated."

Infuriated George left the room. Knowing the demand just placed on him, he retreated to the upstairs room. Looking himself in the bathrooom mirror he thought, "When's the last time I went a day without a drink? I don't know if I can do it?"

As George watched T.V. that night, he knew something had to change. "I was watching a movie about a woman who was an alcoholic...she couldn't see herself for who she really was."

It was in that moment that George saw himself for who he really was--a man broken with little direction and less light.

Since that day in the late 1970's George has not touched a bit of alcohol. In part two, I'll tell you the rest of the story; the story that is my grandpa George.

15 December 2005

The Gospel Broke Out in NY City

I just returned from a brief road trip with my twin brother (Jason) and my father (Phil). Though we do not spend as much time together as we should, these are the two closest men in my life. When I have relationship dilemma's, I go to them. When I have financial questions, I call Jason (he's a VP for commercial loans for a bank at the age of 26...you could say, we're a bit different). When I have other concerns, ideas, I usually bounce them off my dad. When I wanted to move to Texas to try coaching at the college level, my dad was the first person I called. These two men have been with me for a long time. They've seen all my sides, good and not so good.

The last two days of our trip was spent in New York city. I was not prepared for the sheer size and popluation of this country within a state.

We went to Ground Zero. I imagined what it would have been like to hear the screams, and chaos of that awful day in 2001. Smoke, fire, death--the smell overwhelms my imagination. The horror of this day is easily accessible as I stood outside the perimeter of the property. God be merciful to us.

We also ventured to Times Square (spent too much money trying to beat my brother in games at the ESPN ZONE), Rockefeller Center, and Central Park. New York is truly a city with a thousand personalities, and a million different ethnicities.

Perhaps, my favorite leg of the New York tour, was Liberty Island--more famous for housing the Statue of Liberty than its name. As we approached the dock to board the ferry (you pay to get to the island, then you pay to actually tour the statue...gotta love NYC) an older man stood in my path singing an old hymn. "My father...in my father's house...won't that be the day? Won't that be the day?"

In a city with several million people, the world's finest restaurant's, fashion mecca, center for much intellectual progress--I was captivated by this old man and his song.

Think of the insanity of his claim...a day when buildings, material posession, degrees, titles, homes, vehicles, attire--none of these things will we be able to hide behind.

I'm not of the escapist persuasion when it comes to the end of the world. In fact, I hate that phrase "the end of the world." My faith says that God created everything good and humankind in his own image. My faith says that although God made the world "the world is not the way God made it." My faith says that despite the broken, chaotic, and violent world we live in...God is on the move. He's up to something so great, even our greatest minds cannot concieve what that will be.

In the meantime, like the man standing on the dock in New York city, we wait. And we sing. We sing about something we cannot prove. We sing a song of light in a dark world.