December 15, 2011

Changing the World

Merry Christmas!  Let me say how rare and good it is for us to be gathered and celebrating the birth of our Savior on the actual day set aside for the celebration.  What a good reminder this is for us to spend a few minutes together in worship this morning and away from the commercial hubbub and gleeful gluttony that is almost certainly filling out the rest of our days.  This is the morning we celebrate the beginning of our salvation.  In preparation for this morning we have spent the previous three weeks taking about how to have a lifestyle ready for this very day: an Advent-ready lifestyle.  Three weeks ago we took a look at the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.  Once we got over the shock of the details of the story we encountered a call to embrace reality when we are faced with it.  After all, reality is defined by God and if we are living apart from it there is no way we’ll be ready to receive the coming Christ.  Two weeks ago we talked through the story of Rahab and the Israelite Spies.  This was another risqué story, but the real feature here was the gentle reminder that sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.  The kingdom has to come before everything else in this life and if we miss that, we miss the whole thing.  Finally, last week we worked our way through the story of David and Bathsheba.  Here we were encouraged to make sure we are in the right place in life and to avoid letting ourselves drift from that place.  Because, when we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.

In the process of learning some ways we can make sure we are prepared for our soon-coming Savior and Lord, we have been reminded that He came first not for the best and the brightest, but for the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools; the common people who go through life and never experience five minutes of fame, let alone fifteen; the people who try their hardest to do the right thing and live in such a way as to honor God, but who are constantly beset by their own brokenness; the folks who get up and go to work and earn a living to make their way through this life and if they’re lucky, to help someone else do the same thing.  The Christmas story in detail truly is a fanfare for the common man.

Now, when I started this series I mentioned the fact that there are a few folks out there for whom the Christmas story itself (that would be Luke 2, not the terrible movie by the same name) is not something that’s really anticipated at this time of year.  I’ve been there.  Growing up I heard the Luke 2 Christmas story so many times in the days leading up to Christmas that I didn’t really care about hearing it again on Christmas.  And so, in this series, we have looked at three stories so far from removed from it that few would associate them with Christmas at all.  But this morning, I can’t help it.  We’re going to take a look at the Christmas story.  On this morning it just wouldn’t seem right if we didn’t.  Now, maybe that’s me doing what it takes to feel Christmassy, but that’s one of the perks of wearing the microphone.  But, as with the other stories we have looked at in this series, this one’s about more than meets the eye.  Luke wasn’t writing only for the purpose of telling his readers how Jesus was born.  As understated as the actual account of Jesus’ birth is, I would go so far as to argue that the birth isn’t the main feature.  In fact, the story doesn’t really end at verse 20 with the shepherds waking up the neighborhood with their shouts of the newborn Savior.  The story actually runs all the way to the end of chapter 2.  And when we arrive there, we discover the secret for moving forward with life after Advent has happened.  Once the presents are opened and the decorations are down and the January depression has set in, what do we actually do with the Advent-ready lifestyle we’ve spent a month preparing?  The secret is this: we change the world.  After His own Advent, Jesus set about changing the world.  He didn’t do it through the glamorous and flashy.  He did it through means that were entirely common in His world. They were so common that most folks had trouble accepting the change.  Through the full Christmas story we find out how.

First this: Jesus was born.  Hear these words well as I read from the same passage in Luke 2 you heard a little while ago: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Now, if you were going to tell the story of the birth of God, the entrance of the Creator of the World into His creation, how would you do it?  Well, for starters I would probably use more than 104 words.  I would also add some more flash and pomp and circumstances.  I would want to make it very clear by choice of words and the flamboyance of the words I used that this was the entrance of God into the world we were talking about.  But that’s not what we find.  Certainly Jesus’ conception was miraculous.  Luke makes that abundantly clear in the first chapter of his Gospel.  But his birth.  He was born just like every other baby in the world was born.  I encountered one commentator this past week who even put forth the idea that there was probably a midwife there to help Mary with the delivery since that was a very common thing for a woman’s first baby.  Furthermore, since the birth apparently happened at night, a time when ambient noises are softer than they are during the day, and since natural childbirth isn’t really a quiet exercise, and houses then weren’t really soundproof, I suspect Mary woke up the neighbors who quickly offered their congratulations before heading back to bed with promises of a visit in the morning.  This was all entirely common.  The original season of Advent ended in the most ordinary of ways.  And it was in the midst of this ordinary, common birth, that the world changed.

The change happened, however, not at the site of the birth, but on the outskirts of the town in the hills where shepherds were pasturing their flocks on the warm spring night.  It happened to folks were living an Advent-ready lifestyle.  If anyone was in the place to embrace reality, choose the kingdom before their culture, and be in their place it was the culturally despised, ceremonially unclean, publically ignored shepherds.  The Angel of the Lord appeared to this most unlikely of groups and announced the birth of the Messiah.  This announcement was bolstered by the entire heavenly chorus singing praises to God.  This experience had to be beyond anything they could have imagined or understood.  But when the Angel of the Lord with the chorus of heaven tell you to go find a baby lying in a manger you don’t dawdle.  You go.  And so they did.  They went, saw, received the blessing, and started telling the world that God had moved into the neighborhood.  Because God used the common to change the world, though, few, if any, listened.  Instead, Jesus’ life rolled on in much the same way as every other Jewish boy His age.

When He was eight days old, as was the custom, He was circumcised and officially given the name Jesus—a common name of that day proclaiming God’s coming redemption.  In fact it is still a common name today.  Except instead of using the Greek version we stick with the Hebrew version—Joshua—to sound less presumptuous.   When He was forty days old His parents obediently went to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and purification and substitution proper for a firstborn son.  But again, there in the midst of the common, the world changed.  There were two Advent-ready saints in the Temple on that day.  An old man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna.  Both were Spirit-led God followers who were so tuned in to who God was and what He wanted that they were able to easily recognize Him when they saw Him regardless of the particular form He took.  The world changed as the news of the arrival of the Messiah began spreading throughout the Temple complex.  Perhaps only a few listened, but those who did surely began preparing themselves—another period of Advent—for when He would act to restore Israel.  The world was changing everywhere the Christ child went.

As extraordinary as these events were though, we don’t know of anything else like them happening for a long, long time.  The next encounter with the young Savior Luke gives us is twelve years later.  Jesus’ parents have been faithfully observing the Law day in and day out and it is time for their customary annual trip to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast.  As with the first two parts of Jesus’ birth narrative, this story may be entertaining, but it’s hardly uncommon.  Let me start reading at v. 41: “Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.   And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem.  His parents did not know it.”  Now, as a parent, that sends up all kinds of red flags for me.  We took the boys to Busch Gardens last weekend.  It felt like we were walking around Disney in June.  All afternoon and evening I kept a sharp, sharp eye on Noah.  Particularly when he wasn’t in his stroller.  He wasn’t going anywhere that I didn’t know about.  During some vacation we took growing up, my sister and I (okay, it was my idea), thought it would be funny to hide from my parents just after we arrived at some one-night-stay hotel.  We popped out just before they got the National Guard on the phone.  Mary and Joseph left Jesus behind at twelve in the biggest city any of them would ever visit.  This could have been the basis for a movie: Home Alone: Lost in Jerusalem.  The text here is often read pretty dryly, but imagine you’ve traveled on foot to Washington, D. C. and discovered a full day after you started for home that you had left your child behind.  Got it?  Now hear the rest of the story: “…but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.  After three days [and can you imagine how much they slept during those days?] they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. …And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.”  Let me pause quickly to note that the Greek word translated “astonished” carries the sense of someone being knocked out of their senses.  That to say: astonished may not quite fully cover their emotion here as you might be able to imagine.  Continuing: “And his mother said to him, [if you ever disappear on us like that again I’ll ring your neck, son of God or not…okay, she didn’t actually say that, but I’ll bet she was thinking it] ‘Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’”  While I’m betting the interchange was a bit more heated than a 2,000-year-old text can really convey, I’ll let you fill in the blanks of this conversation.

Again, this is an entertaining story (with the aid of distance), but it’s a common one.  Even Jesus’ response, while pointing in the direction of His remarkable self-understanding, is common.  This past Sunday evening I had been carrying Noah around the Fellowship Hall and put him down with both Lisa and her mom standing next to me for a second to pick up Josiah.  By the time I had Josiah in my arms, Noah was gone.  A quick and not so calm search revealed that he had gone to find Pat and was helping her get her stuff ready for the Cantata.  The look in his eyes when I tried to explain (in vain to a three-year-old) that he can’t run off like that (which was really my fault since I stopped watching him) communicated something along the lines of Jesus’ response to His parents: “Why were you looking for me, Dad?  Didn’t you know I would be with Grandma Pat helping her get ready?”  I suspect every parent in this room has experienced something like this.  It’s common.  Jesus’ life prior to beginning His ministry was almost entirely common.  And yet, in just a couple of chapters we find Jesus changing the world forever.  So how’d it happen?

We find the answer to this question and the secret for us how to take our Advent-ready lifestyle from today forward in the final verse of the chapter: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”  After all the commonality of His birth and childhood, after the in-breakings of God in the midst of these common moments, Jesus still had to grow and develop just like everyone else does before He would be ready to take on His real mission.  And the path Jesus took from His birth to become the man who would change the world was one of growing in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and man.  Now, the word stature can also be translated “years” so essentially what that part is saying is that Jesus got older.  We all have that down.  In spite of all the anti-aging products out there we all keep getting older every year until we die.  The first and the last things on that list, however, are a bit more notable.  There aren’t many who really make growing in wisdom and in favor with God and man (which is the definition of righteousness) a part of their lives.  Oh we might learn more and better how the world works as we grow older, but this isn’t wisdom, Biblically defined.  It’s shrewdness.   Biblically defined, wisdom is knowledge of God.  Real wisdom is knowing who God is and living in light of this.  If we’re not living it, then we don’t really know it.  The other side of this, favor with God and man, or righteousness, is essentially doing what God wants.  Putting all of this together, then, when the first season of Advent had ended and Jesus was born into this world, He grew to become a world changer by knowing who God is and doing what God wants.

The same should apply to our own lives.  Once we have incorporated an Advent-ready lifestyle into our lives, the question for many becomes: what to do next?  Advent is a season of waiting.  We instinctively know that we are looking forward to something.  Anticipation builds for an entire month; really much longer than that if you run your clock according to retail times.  And then…a few presents that might hold our interest for a month or two underneath a tree that in a few days will either be on the wood pile or packed away in a box until next season.  Talk about a letdown.  No wonder people get the winter blues.  So how do we avoid this?  By focusing our sights on something bigger and more lasting than more stuff.  We set our sights, as Jesus did, on changing the world.  Think about that first Advent.  It came with several hundreds of years worth of anticipation.  And then…a baby who took thirty years to do anything of lasting significance.  Without this greater focus, that first Advent would have amounted to about as much as most of yours have.  But how do we become world changers?  The same way Jesus did.  We grow every day from this day forward to know more who God is and do more of what God wants.  We become world changers by knowing who God is and doing what God wants.  We become world changers by knowing who God is and doing what God wants.

This, then, is the final call of Advent.  Advent can only have power in the lives of those who are ready to experience it.  Like the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna, we must live lives marked by a willingness to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ whenever and wherever we encounter it.  We must embrace that truth every single day because of our tendency to walk away from it.  We must also hold lightly to this world, focusing our sights instead on God’s lasting kingdom.  We must be ready to turn on this world in order to be a part of God’s.  And we must work to stay in the right place.  For some folks here this means learning where this place is.  But once we’ve found it, once we’ve found the place God designed us for, we’ve got to stay in it.  Because when we’re not where we should be, hard times are a heartbeat away.  With this lifestyle in place, though, let us not settle for something whose meaning can only be this-worldly.  Let us set our sights on something that will last.  Let us strive to become world changers.  We become world changers by knowing who God is and doing what God wants.  And let me tell you: this is who we are as a church.  We are a place of belonging fully to God by virtue of our Advent-ready lifestyles, learning who God is, and serving by doing what God wants.  Whether you’ve been here for a few months, a few years, or your entire lives, if you will get on board with what God is doing here, you will become a world changer.  It’ll start with this community and move outward from there to the ends of the earth.  We become world changers by knowing who God is and doing what God wants.  May you take your Advent-ready lifestyle and go into 2012 and change the world.

Now, we are going to end our service today with one of the two major elements of our faith tradition: the Lord’s Supper.  In this we are reminded that Jesus did change the world.  He went forward from the fulfillment of His Advent and accomplished His mission.  As a man He came to know perfectly who God is and did to the utmost what God wanted.  His path of knowledgeable obedience led Him to a cross where because He was without sin He was able to, by the grace of God, take upon His shoulders the sins of the entire world.  All the sins that have ever or will ever be committed He took on Himself and paid the price for them.  This price, of course, was His life.  The babe who was born in such peace and obscurity finished His life in front of a loud, jeering crowd, a victim of the Pax Romana.  With the breaking of His body and the spilling of His blood, however, He accomplished world change.  He knew from the words of the Law that a perfect sacrifice was necessary to accomplish the forgiveness of sins.  He knew that He was this sacrifice.  He was God in human flesh and was without sin.  As a result, He carried out to completion the plans of God.  He did what God wanted.  When this happened, the wrath of God against sin was satisfied.  The justice of God over sin was fulfilled.  In their place was a new covenant of grace, signed and sealed by the very blood of His eternal Son.  We are reminded of all this in the bread and in the juice.  And if you are partakers of this knowledge and the actions that go along with them, if you have given your life into the hands of Jesus Christ, if you are living in such a way as to experience the power of Advent, and are ready to change the world, this small meal is for you.  It may not be of a comparable size to what’s coming next for you—a fact the chefs in the room will undoubtedly appreciate—but its symbolic weight is far more.  Eat and drink this meal as your hearts are prepared and as you do, take a moment to give praise to our great God and Father for sending His only begotten Son into the world in order that none have to die but through belief in Him can have eternal life.  Thank His for the power of Advent and the Spirit-empowered ability to experience it.  Ask Him for the grace to go forward from this morning to change the world.  As I open us in prayer the deacons are going to come and serve you, and we will close our time together this morning in worship of the newborn king.