“On Earth, Peace” – a Homily for Christmas Eve

Preached at the Upper Room on Christmas Eve, 2013.

Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace among those on whom his favor rests. 

We likely are well familiar with these words the angels speak to the Shepherds. When we read them, we may associate them with the voice of a pastor reading them in a church we attended, or with a choir singing them in a performance of Handel’s Messiah, or with the voice of Linus reciting them in the Peanuts Christmas special. 

They sound like words of worship – “Glory to God in the highest.”

And they sound like a nice greeting for angels to give to shepherds – “On earth, peace among those on whom his favor rests.” Peace (Shalom in Hebrew) was a common greeting in Israel. It still is. And so these words the angels speak sound typical. Like words of a nice greeting or well wishes. Not much different from saying “good morning” or “have a nice day” to a friend.

On earth, peace among those on whom his favor rests.

However, even this early in Luke’s story of Jesus (we’re only in chapter 2), we’ve learned that words spoken by angels have an uncanny propensity for becoming completely true.

Already an angel has promised Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. And now an angel has told shepherds that the Christ is born – news confirmed to be true by the time we finished reading our Scripture passage tonight. 

If angels say that there is peace on earth among those favored by God, we should probably expect it to be completely true. Not just a nice wish. Not just figuratively true. Not just ‘inner peace.’ But complete, 100% real peace on earth.

And that peace lives and abides among the favored people of God.

This afternoon, as I was finishing work on this sermon, I was sitting in the 61B cafe, where Chris works. Chris had actually just left and a new barista started her shift. Chris had been playing WYEP (91.3) on the radio, and the new barista turned it off. (I was disappointed because the DJ had just said they were going to play the Chipmunks Christmas song.) But then I was delighted by what I heard. Words and melody that were very familiar to me – the sound of a child singing, Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed…” 

I immediately knew that the barista was playing a recording of the annual Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings college.

I love that every year Kings College begins their Nine Lessons and Carols with a child singing Once in Royal David’s City. It bears witness to the fact that the coming of the Son of God, and the coming of peace on earth starts small. And it was striking that in a relatively busy cafe, where a number of people were sitting at tables doing their work, and others were ordering coffee, the message of good news of great joy once heralded by angels was piercing through the air.

I began to think to myself, “How many times is it possible for a hymn of praise to be played in a public, “secular” coffee shop?” The reality is Christmas is one of the few times it’s possible.

I then began to think about all that the Jesus’ birth makes possible.

The story of Jesus’s birth shows us that seeing angels, and experiencing the glory of the Lord shining around you, is just as likely to happen at your job (even a menial job that most people don’t want, like shepherding) as it is to happen in a church.

The story of Jesus’ birth shows us that the work of angels is also our work. Just as the angels proclaimed good news of great joy to the shepherds and then praised God saying “glory to God.” So too the shepherds made known the saying that had been told them, and returned to their homes glorifying and praising God.

The story of Jesus’ birth shows us that the savior of the world is approachable, relatable, and for us. The sign that the angels give to the shepherds, that they will find the baby Jesus “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” is considerably unremarkable. Wrapping a baby in swaddling clothes was the common practice in rural villages. And despite how out of the ordinary it sounds to us, in ancient Israel mangers were kept in the family room of a home, and always doubled as cribs. The point is this: The shepherds are told that the savior of the world is born, and will be found in a context that for them was entirely familiar and approachable. Imagine how difficult or intimidating it would be for the shepherds to visit Jesus if he were born in some exceptional way. If Jesus were born in a royal palace, he would have been inaccessible to shepherds and others on the lower rungs of society. But being wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger means that Jesus is accessible to all.

The story of Jesus’ birth tells us that peace on earth is possible and begins with the favored people of God; with us. We live in a world that is longing for peace. And a life of genuinely following Jesus, begets peace, and that is good news of great joy.

This year, on Facebook, the number one most posted-about topic around the world was Pope Francis. People found joy in the fact that the Pope was leading the church’s leadership to greater simplicity. People found joy when he invited a boy with down syndrom to ride with him in the Pope mobile. People found joy when he embraced and kissed a man with a genetic disorder. People found joy when he had a Maundy Thursday footwashing service in a youth prison where he washed the feet of teenage prisoners. People found joy when he invited homeless men to join his birthday dinner celebration. And recently the media discovered evidence that Pope Francis might be sneaking out of the Vatican at night and personally giving money to the homeless and poor.

All that Pope Francis is doing are the things any follower of Jesus is supposed to do. And the world is receiving it as good news. That’s not to say that if and when we follow Jesus, we’ll make the news or be a buzz topic on social media. We’re not high-profile, public figures whom the world is watching. But it does show that any who do see us following Jesus will be seeing good news of great joy when we live a life of following Jesus. The coming of Jesus really is good news of great joy for all the people. And good news of great joy begets peace.

Friends, Christ is born this day. Let us join the angels and shepherds in glorying and praising God. And let us with the shepherds and the whole Church, tell and do all that we have seen and heard of our savior. For peace on earth has come. And it abides in us , for we are the favored people of God. 

Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased.
Amen.

 

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15 Authors

This started as a Facebook meme. The “rules” were to make a list of 15 authors who have influenced you. The Facebook note I wrote just had the list of names, but I thought it would be fun to write an “expanded version” with some explanation about why I chose them and how they’ve influenced me.

This list was off the top of my head, and as a consequence, I think it’s a bit biased toward authors I’ve read more recently. The list might be a bit different if I made it while staring at my bookshelf. Even now, I”m realizing I should have included Jurgen Moltmann, GK Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe Paul Louis Metzger. But I also don’t know who would be removed from the present list to make room for them. At any rate, here it is:

1. St. Luke – OK,  I know that a pastor picking an author of Scripture as a writer who’s influenced him is about as cliché as a beauty queen using the phrase “world peace.” But the Bible is the one book I read from everyday, so it would seem almost dishonest not to include at least one of Scripture’s authors. Since the ‘rules’ limited me to 15 authors, I decided only to include one writer of Scripture. I chose Luke (who wrote Luke and Acts) because I’ve been very struck in recent years by how he portrays both Jesus and the Church in very similar ways.

2. St. Augustine – It’s rare that I read a book more than once. I’ve read The Confessions three times – first in college, then in my first year of seminary, and most recently in my first year as a pastor. I suspect I may read it again after another major life transition. Reading Augustine’s meditations on his past inspired me to do the same, and enabled me to see God’s presence in my life in ways I hadn’t before.

3. Gerard Manley Hopkins – Hopkins was a poet and a Jesuit priest. He struggled for quite a while about whether he was to pursue the priesthood or poetry. Finally, a friend said to him in a letter, “one vocation doesn’t cancel out the other.” In other words, Hopkins wasn’t to be just a priest or a poet, but a priest who writes poetry. The result was a priest with the creativity of a poet, and poetry with the faith and discipline of the priesthood. Hopkins’ own life example has taught me about doing ministry as a whole person, and that interests that I have “outside” of ministry are, in fact, a part of my vocation as a pastor.

4. Michael Frost and Alan HirschThe Shaping of Things to Come was, as I recall, the first book I read after seminary, and the first book The Upper Room’s initial leadership team read together. Their teaching about what it means to be “missional” has deeply influenced my work and the culture of the church that I’m planting.

5. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp – Their book, I Once Was Lost, is possibly the best book on evangelism that I’ve read, and is influencing the InterVarsity end of my ministry in big ways.

6. Neil Postman – I read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in college. It introduced me to the concept of unintended consequences, and that all that we call “progress” (television, internet, cell phones, etc.) can also cause just as much regress.

7. NT Wright – Wright makes the list in part because of how many books of his I’ve read (and probably will read in the future). More significantly, he’s introduced me to interpretations of the New Testament that, while faithful, are also outside of the box of what I’ve been taught in the past.

8. CS LewisMere Christianity was the book that helped me answer more clearly the question of why I believe. It probably aided my intellectual conversion more than any other book apart from the Bible.

9. Phillip Yancey – Like Wright, Yancey makes the list because of number of books I’ve read from him. Most of them were in college. It’s been a while, and I’m not sure if I would enjoy his stuff now as much as I did then. Nevertheless, it certainly shaped me in big ways.

10. John Calvin – For a Presbyterian, this is almost as cliché as including the Bible. But, I spent a good deal of time in the Institutes while in college, and then even more time in seminary. Reading them helped me better understand my own tradition.

11. Karl Barth – I was first introduced to Barth in college. We didn’t actually read Barth. We read about him, and listened to our professor talk about him. People in the class questioned his salvation. (Gotta love Grove City…) I finally read him for myself in seminary, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would doubt his faith. Most of what I’ve read from Barth has had to do with sanctification/holiness and mission. He’s had a great deal of influence on my thinking of both.

12. John Webster – I read Webster’s book Holiness in seminary. More than any other book, it made me realize how important the role of the Church is in one’s spiritual growth. Reading this book is what first made me think about a PhD that would focus on ecclesiology.

13. Anton Chekhov – Since I minored in theatre in college, I needed to include at least a couple of playwrights on this list. I enjoyed reading several of Chekhov’s dramas. But I really like his one-act comedies. I directed The Boar for one of the One Act Festivals at Grove City, and still have fond memories of that.

14. William Shakespeare – I remember struggling with Shakespeare in high school. We did several projects/workshops in our high school drama class of several Shakespeare scenes, and I felt completely lost as to what was going on. Finally in college, I presented a scene from the Taming of the Shrew for my Oral Interpretation class. It was the first time I actually understood Shakespeare, and it felt like a small victory.

15. Albert Hsu – Hsu’s Singles at the Crossroads has helped me understand my being single and place it within a sense of God’s purposes. It helped me to see how the church and our culture are both biased against singleness, but more importantly, it helped me see singleness as a gift to appreciated as much as marriage.

Are We All Called to Be Fishers of Men?

I’m writing this from Madison, WI, where I”m spending 10 days in orientation for my Graduate and Faculty Ministry work with InterVarsity. We began the orientation talking about calling, and we studied the call of Jesus’ first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Something that the group immediately noticed is that Jesus approaches and calls Simon Peter, James and John at their place of work: catching fish.

What’s also interesting is that Jesus not only approaches them there, but calls them in such a way that he speaks directly into their job. After the miraculously large catch of fish, Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching men.” This comes to fulfillment in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Peter preaches the gospel and a “catch” of 3,000 repent and are baptized.

Previously, I had always thought of the call from Jesus to be “catching men”  as a universal call to all of Christ’s followers. (I also always felt a bit of guilt for not converting 3,000…) I’m now thinking though, “that catching men” was a call uniquely given to the first disciples. Most of us aren’t fishermen, and consequently, most of us have never seen 3,000 people come to faith at once.

We do, however, all have particular work that Christ speaks into. For instance, my Dad is an auto mechanic. Would Christ come to my Dad and tell him to be a ‘fisher of men,’ or would he rather say, ‘from now on you’ll be a mechanic of men.”? Thinking about my Dad’s service to church, this actually makes a lot of sense. My dad has never preached the gospel to 3,000 and seen them convert, but he has served as a Stephen’s minister, a ministry designed to meet people individually in their brokenness. Granted, my Dad doesn’t “fix” people in this ministry, he merely walks along side them, but a ministry like this fits the mindset of a mechanic much more than a ministry of mass evangelism.

As one who does ministry in the academy, I also wonder: In what manner does Christ’s call speak directly into the work of those in the academy? How does the work of a teaching professor or research professor influence their ministry in the Church and on campus?

Christ doesn’t only call at the lakeside. Christ calls in the classroom, in the lab, and in the office. He calls in the home, in the studio, and in our neigbhorhood. He calls us all with the universal command to follow, but also calls each of us to particularly ministry for which we are uniquely suited. Will we listen and obey?

Incarnational Ministry as Submissive Defiance

This evening at Upper Room, I’m preaching a sermon on Luke 2:41-52, the story of the boy Jesus in the temple. What struck me most about this text is how the incarnate Jesus interacts with his surrounding culture of religious institution and his family.

Firstly, Jesus is in some ways defiant to the culture. Jesus in the temple does not act like your typical 12 year old boy. Most 12 year olds don’t impress religious experts. He defies the expectations of the religious institution and remains in the temple even after the Passover feast has ended and everyone else goes home. He defies his parents and does not leave with them so that he can be “about his Father’s matters.”

Yet, Jesus is also submissive. When his parents find him, he submits to them and his role as their child. It seems to me that the text implies that Jesus was in some way punished by his parents for remaining behind. In other words, even though he was defiant, Jesus accepted the consequences of that defiance.

This is the pattern the church takes in Acts. Consider the example of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. Peter and John’s testimony before them is this: “You must judge whether in God’s sight it is right to listen to you rather than God, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” In other words, Peter and John won’t stop preaching the gospel, regardless of how unpopular the message is. Yet, they also submit themselves to the consequences of that defiance as their culture dictates. They leave the judgment to the Sanhedrin.

I think one of the problems of post-Christendom churches is that they have forgotten this pattern of “submissive defiance.” As the Church loses it’s place in the center of culture, some churches have refused to be submissive to the culture, and attempt to assert their “rights” or whatever cultural influence they have left. Consider my previous post on the Focus on the Family Action statement regarding Obama’s election as an example. To what extent are such statements, largely coming from the right wing side of the church, nothing more than failed attempts to assert a power and influence the now-marginalized church does not have?

On the other side of the coin, there are churches that have lost their sense of cultural defiance. These churches have become so used to being at the center of the culture that they are willing, it seems, to go wherever the culture goes to remain in their place of privilege. Consider churches that have given in to “every wind of false doctrine” with regard to biblical standards of sexuality, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s Lordship.

For the church to be faithful in the 21st century, it needs to recover this sense of “submissive defiance” that we find in Jesus’ incarnation and in the pattern of the Acts church. It means being relentless in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the holiness of God, even when that message is an unpopular one. It also means submitting to the surrounding culture’s reaction to that message, even when that means being pushed to the margins of the society.

The Lord is a Warrior

When I was a kid, I used to love watching WWF wrestling. One of my favorite wrestlers to watch was this guy…

… the Ultimate Warrior. He was always one of the toughest “good guys” there was. Every now and then one of the “bad guys” would start to beat him up, but then all of sudden, just when you thought it was all over, the Ultimate Warrior would start shaking the ring ropes and would “miraculously” get his strength back. Then it really was over, the Ultimate Warrior would go crazy and destroy everyone in his path.

Strangely enough, I was reminded of the Ultimate Warrior this past week when reading my Bible. (Go ahead and laugh… I am.) I’ve been reading Judges, and this past week took me through the stories of Samson. Samson seems to “go crazy” twice in chapter 14. First, he’s approached by a lion, you’d think the lion would destroy Samson, but nope, Samson tears apart the lion with his bare hands. Then again at the end of the chapter, Samson strikes down thirty men of Ashkelon when they cheated at solving his riddle. Samson was destroying everything in his path… and he didn’t even have ring ropes to shake.

Here’s the part that really surprises me, in both instances, with the lion and with the men of Ashkelon, what prompts Samson to do all this is that “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him.” (See vv.  and 19). Huh? When I think of the Holy Spirit coming upon someone, I usually think of Jesus’ words (quoting Isaiah) in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” See, I can understand the Holy Spirit coming upon someone to preach the gospel. Sometimes, I’ll even think of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon people and causing them to speak in tongues. (Not often, of course. I am Presbyterian after all.) But the Spirit of the Lord coming upon someone and causing them to destroy a lion, or 30 of the person’s enemies?

I suppose this is a good reminder of the “wildness of God.” C.S. Lewis’ oft-quoted line about Aslan is true: he’s not a tame lion. God is not tame. There’s a wildness to God the Holy Spirit. We cannot tame Him, despite our best efforts. Maybe when we pray for the Holy Spirit to come, we should be more careful, we might actually wake him.

The Mischievous, Scandalous Spirit

I think God sometimes puts a passage of Scripture in our path to drive home to us something he wants us to learn. God did that with me over the course of this week, and I suspect He was doing it with others too. Three times this week, the story of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth from Luke 4 was read in worship. The story was first read on Wednesday in chapel. Ironically, its appearance on this day was an “accident.” Dr. Purves, the liturgist for the day, was given the order of service, which contained a typo. He was supposed to read from Luke 24, this Sunday’s lectionary reading, but thanks to the typo, we heard Luke 4. The next day was ESF chapel, and we used the same text as the basis for our drama and sermon. Then again tonight for the Metro Urban Institute’s Intensive Weekend, the preacher’s sermon was based on this text. Three days in a row the story of Jesus reading from the scroll in Isaiah in his hometown was read in worship at PTS. The leaders of the three services had no interaction with one another, and the text doesn’t appear in either the daily lectionary for this week or in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday. Is this just a coincidence, or is the Holy Spirit up to some mischief?

As I’ve reflected on this passage of Scripture over the past three days, what’s struck me the most is how easy we try to make this teaching of Jesus. The people of Nazareth wanted to kill Jesus by the end of this story because they were so enraged at the thought of Syrians receiving benefits from the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In ESF chapel, no one wanted to throw us out (even if we staged a fake “mob”) when we said that this teaching of Jesus implies a concern for all the nations of the world. Tonight at the MUI worship, no one wanted to kick out the preacher who said that this teaching applied to the poor and oppressed of our cities. In fact, we gave the preacher a standing ovation. Is our lack of anger at this teaching simply because we’re so much like Jesus? Do we really get this more than the first hearers of it in Nazareth? I’m afraid not. It’s pretty easy for a bunch of mission-minded evangelicals to apply this text to global Christianity. It’s also easy for a group of urban pastors and lay leaders to apply this text to the oppressed in their own city.

This isn’t to say that the text doesn’t apply to these groups; it does. BUT, the text is just as much a call to the reader to move beyond the box of their own concerns. As an evangelical in America, I can’t help but wonder who this text is reminding me of. Illegal immigrants maybe? Terrorists? I’m not certain. All I know is that until I start to get a bit angry at what Jesus is trying to teach me here, I probably haven’t figured it out.