Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shepherds Watch by Night

Luke 2:1-20

When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of favorite parts. Mary and Joseph are, of course, the prime parts. Then there’s the magi. They get to wear fancy robes bring gifts to the baby Jesus and meet with Herod. Angels don’t rank with wise men, but at least they have more star power than shepherds, who get to wear bathrobes and towels on their heads. No crowns and no wings. No gifts and no songs. Instead of singing about the good news in the skies, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs. There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important.

You might notice that this telling of the birth story doesn’t have any wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them. That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda. Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would need some staring roles. But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power.

Although David was called the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds were really outcasts. They were dirty, smelly, rough and tumble men. This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play – except maybe Pigpen and he’s specially equipped for the role! On this particular night, however, their boredom is broken by a great light in the sky and a heavenly song. The good news comes first to this little group of shepherds. They get to hear the good news that the savior, Christ the Lord, is born in the city of David.

When we think about important births, we don’t expect that shepherds will be the first to hear the news or even that shepherds will be the first to share the news. Of course, no one would have expected that the savior would be born in a feeding trough. But that’s the story that Luke tells.

As unlikely as this story is, there’s a message for us in it. It’s a message about the kind of God we’ve come to worship tonight. This morning we heard Mary sing of God’s "preferential option for the poor" and about God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty. Now we discover that God is calling shepherds to proclaim this good news to the world.

If it were up to me, and it isn’t, I’d have turned to Larry King, Anderson Cooper, or maybe Neil Cavuto to tell this story. If I was God and I was going to reveal myself to the world, I’d come from the sky riding on a chariot, resplendent in glory, and surrounded by the host of heaven. That would be more impressive, but that’s not Luke’s story. Instead, Emmanuel is born in a manger, surrounded by animals, and a few dirty smelly shepherds. Yes, there are angels singing, but they sing to the shepherds and not to Mary and Joseph or even Herod.

I enjoy a really joyous Christmas, just like everyone else. The more decorations the better. I even dress up for the occasion in a robe and a stole. No shepherd’s cloak for me. Luke’s choice of shepherds to star in this story, however, fits his broader message. As I said this morning, Luke tells us how Jesus went to the synagogue one day and turned to Isaiah. When he read that God’s good news must be proclaimed to the poor, the lame, the imprisoned, and the marginalized, he said to the synagogue: this is my calling. The only time Jesus got to visit Herod or Pilate, he was on trial for subversion. Jesus didn’t take up residence in the Temple, but instead he preached from the hill tops and boats. He hung out with a rough crowd of Galilean fishermen, reviled tax collectors, and most shocking of all, with women.

This Christmas, as we gather around our trees and open our presents, let’s remember whom we’ve come to honor. It’s not the king of glory, but the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. Remember too that this is only the beginning of the story. We must not leave Jesus in the manger, lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and we forget his purpose in coming.

In a few moments we’ll gather at the Lord’s Table. This Table stands as a reminder that although the journey begins in a stable it must go through a cross. There is no glory, it would seem, without first sharing in suffering. The end result, however, is a transformed life and a transformed world. And so, may the Spirit of Christmas move in our hearts, making us all new persons. Merry Christmas!

Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Christmas Eve, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

GOOD NEWS FOR THE HUMBLE

Luke 1:39-55

Athletes, rock stars, and actors make the big bucks. When Alex Rodriguez signed a ten-year 252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers five years ago, baseball fans were scandalized. No one has yet topped his contract, but they’re getting closer every year. Still, if you think that’s big, entertainers make even more. Don’t you find that kind of money hard to grasp? I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to spend that much money. Though it sure would buy a lot of books and the rooms and bookcases to put them in.

Although money isn’t everything, it does tell us what we value most. If athletes and entertainers are worth millions, then why are teachers, nurses, fire fighters, and police officers paid so little? Isn’t what they do more important to our daily lives?

Now that we’ve reached the end of our Advent journey, we’re ready to hear the Christmas message. But the real message of Christmas is quite different from the one our culture tells. Surprisingly enough, Christmas isn’t about raking in as many gifts as possible or making the biggest profit. Instead, it’s about grace, compassion, and humility. Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). And to make sure we understand this truth, God chose an insignificant girl from Galilee to be the instrument of God’s redeeming grace.

THE CONTEXT: THE ANNUNCIATION

When Mary told Elizabeth about her pregnancy, she broke into song. That might not be totally surprising, but her song isn’t what we’d expect to come from an expectant mother, especially one who is living under a cloud of suspicion. Fred Craddock writes that:

She sees God's grace and goodness toward her as but a single instance of the way of God in the world. God blesses the poor and oppressed and hungry; and in the final eschatological reversal, God will bring down the proud and rich oppressors and exalt those who have been disenfranchised, disregarded, and dismissed.1

If we look at the world through Mary's eyes, then we’ll begin to see things the way God sees them. In her song, Mary declares that God will exalt the poor and the oppressed and God will bring down the rich and the proud.

GOD'S VIEW OF THE RICH AND THE PROUD

According Mary, God acts contrary to our expectations. We expect God to be on the side of the winners. Isn’t that what the winning quarterback at the Super Bowl always says? "I want to thank God for helping us win!" And why is "In God We Trust," our national motto? Isn’t it because we believe that God is on the side of the winners and we want to be winners too? Yes, and if God is a winner, then obviously Jesus must be a winner.

Philip Yancey says that some of the most interesting views of Jesus come from athletes. They like to imagine Jesus being the biggest winner of all. One former NFL lineman gives us this baffling picture of Jesus:

Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game . . . If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot six-inch 260 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.2

Yes, Jesus must be a "manly man." But Mary, the mother of Jesus, paints a very different picture in her song. God, she declares, is the one who has "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant."

There is strength in the arm of the Lord, but it’s a strength that scatters the rich and the powerful. God brings them down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly and the meek. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, sang a very similar song:

The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (I Sam. 2:7-8).


By choosing Mary, God chose from among the poor the person who would bear "Emmanuel," "God With Us." God could have chosen a daughter of Herod or Caesar for this purpose, but God didn't. God could have broadcast the message from the roof tops, but God didn't. Jesus didn’t come into the world with all the trappings of power and wealth; instead he was born into poverty and insignificance. Perhaps this is the real scandal of the Christian faith!

GOD'S VIEW OF THE POOR AND POWERLESS

Mary sings about what theologians call "God's preferential option for the poor." This doesn't mean that poverty is God's ideal, but it does mean that God is especially concerned about people who live on the margins of society. Yes, God is concerned about the ones who so often fall through the cracks and are ignored by the powerful. Remember that on the day the savior was born shepherds and not kings attended to him. As an adult, Jesus ministered to the same kinds of people – fishermen, tax collectors, women of ill repute, the sick and the despised. The only time he had an audience with the movers and shakers, they we’re deciding how best to get rid of him. As Luke writes later in his Gospel Jesus defined his ministry in these words of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19).


This is the message that caused Mary to "magnify the Lord."

Tonight we’ll return to this sanctuary to celebrate the birth of our savior. We’ll sing the songs of Christmas and we’ll share in the Lord’s meal. And as we celebrate Christmas at the Table we’ll remember the Lord who reconciles us to God and to one another by making all things new (2 Cor. 5:17). If we’re going to truly understand the message of Christmas, then we must understand what Mary understood. God has chosen to turn the world upside down so that everything might become new, and God has revealed himself in this Jesus who is born in a stable.

1. Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year C, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 22.

2.Norm Evans quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Thought I Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 19.


Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
4th Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

TIME FOR A BATH

Malachi 3:1-4


If you’re planning to have people over during the holidays, you have to get the house ready, which means doing the winter cleaning. Dusting, mopping, vacuuming, and polishing, cleaning the bathrooms and washing the table cloths. Of course, you’ll have to prepare the food, unless you decide to save time and hire a caterer. And once you get all that done, you have to get yourself ready. After all, a good host has to be properly bathed and clothed. To start with you might take a trip to Nordstrom's or maybe Ross to get just the right outfit. Then there’s the hair, always the hair. It has to be cut, curled, and colored! And when everything else is ready, you can go take a shower, because a good host wants to be clean and refreshed. At least that’s what you have to do if you want to throw a successful high society Christmas party.

PREPARE THE WAY!!

This is the second Sunday in Advent, and Advent is a season of preparation. During this season we get ready for Christmas. Now, Malachi, which is the last book in the Old Testament, tells of a messenger who will clear a path and get things ready for the Lord’s appearance in the Temple. We don’t know anything about this prophet except that he lived sometime in the fourth century BC when Judah was under Persian rule. The prophet’s name means "My Messenger" and his message comes in the form of a question: "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" When the question is put that way, what can you say except: Is anybody really ready to stand before the Lord? The answer, surprisingly, is yes, but you have to get ready first.

THE REFINERS FIRE

If the President of the United States were to visit your home, what would you do? Would you be ready when he knocks on your door? Well, of course you'd be ready, after all, the President of the United States doesn't drop in unexpectedly. The Secret Service is going to make sure you’re ready. After all, the President isn’t just anyone, the President is the leader of the Free World. So, you want to be at your best.

If God is going to pay a visit, don’t you want to be just as ready? The good news is this: God has given us fair warning of his visitation. The messenger even tells how we can get ready. The Lord, Malachi says, is like "a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness." (Mal. 3:2b-3). Amazingly we can get ready simply by being in God’s presence, which is like the refiner's fire that removes the impurities from gold and silver ore. So by being in God’s presence we are transformed into God’s righteousness.

We live in a very casual society, which is okay, except that sometimes we take our casualness too far. We can become too nonchalant and not take life seriously enough. For instance, if I go to a funeral or a wedding in jeans and a tee-shirt, am I properly dressed? I’d say no, but of course, that’ just me!

So what’s the proper attire for coming into the Lord’s presence? White robes? A tuxedo for the men and an evening gown for the women? I don’t think God is all that concerned about what we wear, but God is definitely concerned about what goes on inside of us. And that’s the message of the prophet, God is here to transform us into a new person.

THE MESSENGER REVEALED

So, am I ready? And I don’t mean: am I ready for Christmas? John the Baptist heard God calling out to him while he was living in the wilderness. John responded by going out and preaching the baptism of repentance. Now he might have looked and sounded a bit crazy, and if you had seen him down at the Jordan River, you’d think he was a bit off his rocker. After all, he wore animal skins and ate locusts. But John’s message, like Malachi’s, was a warning that told the people to get ready for the Lord’s coming. John said: Take a bath and wash away the impurities of your life.

When I look inside myself, I see much that needs to be washed away, things that need to face the refiner's fire and the fuller’s soap. I see the covetousness and the lust, the impatience and the anger. If we’re honest, all of us can say the same thing

Luke turned to Isaiah who told of one who would make the paths straight so that "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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Is. 40, Luke 3:4-6). I love the mountains and the hills, but the path through them isn’t straight. It’s crooked and windy, full of barriers that must be traversed. But, when the messenger comes, he will prepare a path that looks something like I-70 as it heads across western Kansas. That highway is as straight as an arrow. Whether you’re looking back or looking forward, that road moves straight to the horizon. There are no barriers, no blockages. It’s a strange sensation to drive across the plains, but this is the highway the Lord will take, only it’s internal one. If we’re going to fully enjoy the blessings of God, the blockages and the impurities must be removed.

The gospel message is one of grace. God takes us where we’re at and loves us, but God doesn’t leave us where he finds us. As we experience God’s presence, we are transformed. All that brokenness that’s inside us is healed and we become a new person. In baptism, God’s cleansing grace washes as clean and we are readied to walk with God. Now, this process, which begins in baptism, continues throughout our lives. Every day we experience God’s refining fire and like the phoenix we are reborn.

The message of Christmas is that God will be revealed in a baby born in Bethlehem’s manger. The question is, are we ready to meet that babe who is the incarnation of our creator? The answer is yes. If we let the Spirit of God transform us, we’ll be ready for Christmas and the revealing of God’s holiness and righteousness in that babe born in Bethlehem.

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
2nd Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

WATCHING FOR SIGNS

Luke 21:25-36

What signs tell you that Christmas is getting close? Is it the ads in the papers, in your mail boxes, and on TV? Is it the decorations that go up in the malls and in the stores days even months before Thanksgiving? Maybe it’s the Salvation Army ringer in front of Walmart, or, perhaps it’s the Christmas music we hear in the background wherever we go. Children are very good at recognizing the signs. Sometimes that means they even behave better, knowing that Santa might be watching. If you look around the sanctuary there are signs that Christmas is getting close, but it’s not here yet.

There’s another sign present in the sanctuary. It’s the Advent wreath. We’ve already lit one candle this morning. This wreath is the sign that tells us to begin getting ready for the revelation of God’s presence in our midst. The Advent wreath points us into the future. It reminds us that God won’t be found in the past. No, God is found in the future, calling us forward so that we might experience the fulness of God’s kingdom.

Douglas MacArthur told the people of the Philippines: "I shall return." That promise might sound like arrogant bravado, and many who heard those words probably discounted them, believing that their destiny lay elsewhere. But others held out hope for liberation in the future, eventually MacArthur did return to liberate the Philippines from Japanese rule. In a more cosmic setting, Jesus has promised to return and liberate us from our own states of bondage.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

This morning’s text looks more like a George Lucas screenplay than a Christmas text. As you hear these words of Jesus, your mind might drift off to a Death Star or maybe a giant asteroid that’s on a collision course with earth. The strangeness of this text may be a bit off putting, since it sounds more like science fiction than religious narrative. We call this apocalyptic language. It’s kind of foreign to us, but the point shouldn’t be missed. The future is in God's hands!

The first advent took place in a humble stable in a humble town in a backwater nation, but Jesus says that the second advent will be much different. While we must beware of the fanciful interpretations found in best-selling novels, movies, and prophecy guidebooks, we mustn’t lose sight of Jesus' promise that God is in charge. We may experience times of distress, but God is present and active and God will bring things to an equitable resolution. God has heard the cries of the people and the Redeemer will come and bring the fullness of God’s reign.

OUR REDEMPTION DRAWS NEAR

It’s easy to get caught up in the signs, but they’re not the point. So, instead, pay attention to what the signs point to. As Jesus tells it, when you see these things happening, you’ll know that something big is about to happen. But, don’t be afraid, because the redeemer draws near and God will reign over all. The prophets often spoke of a time of peace, a time when lamb and lion would lie down together, but as we all know, life is rarely peaceful. There are wars and rumors of wars. Two generations of children grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. While that threat, is diminished, it remains with us. Then there’s terrorism and the threat of global warming. Each evening we check the news and discover that the bad news outweighs the good. It’s easy to get discouraged, but we hold on to the promise of redemption.

Science fiction stories are often frightening. The future they envision is anything but hopeful, with nuclear war or an invasion from outer space being a common theme. Remember War of the Worlds? Star Trek offers a hopeful vision of the future, but part of the back story is a time of war and destruction. The first set of signs is meant to get our attention by reminding us that difficult times often come before the good times. The promise of the fig tree, however, is different. It’s a sign of peace and prosperity. The prophet Micah spoke of a time when God would rule and the people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. When this happens, people will sit under their "own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Mic. 4:3-4). Jesus says to his disciples: look at the fig tree and when you see the leaves sprouting, you’ll know that summer is near. Summer is the season of peace, but this peace won’t come from human efforts, it comes from God.

BE ALERT

This passage is meant to be a word of hope in difficult times. When difficult times come, Jesus says, watch for the signs, because there will be signs that God’s reign is near. What Jesus is saying here sounds something like the Boy Scout motto – Be Prepared. Be awake and alert.

I don’t believe Jesus wants us to read prophecy books and start making charts of wars, storms, and earthquakes. No, what he is saying is quite simple. Look around and watch for signs that God is at work. Some of those signs may be dramatic, like omens in the sky, but they could just as easily be like the leafing of a fig tree in Spring. The point is to be watching so that when the Lord returns for us, we’re not busy doing things we shouldn’t be doing.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent is a season of preparation and watchfulness. We need this admonition, because the Christmas season can easily overwhelm us. We can easily miss the point of Christmas if we get caught up in the hullabaloo of the season. Parties, presents, and travel plans, can distract us from the true message of Christmas, and so Jesus says keep watch, be on the alert, because God is at work. This is a word not just for December, but for every season of the year. Our hope lies in front of us. You won’t find your redemption in the past. The past is over, but the future is full of promise.

So, celebrate the season with joy, but make sure to be alert to what God is doing in your midst. Pay attention to the signs, especially the fig tree, which is a sign of hope and peace. That’s our future!

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
By Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
1st Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2006