The Emperor and the Baby


(preached at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 21 Dec 2008 )

 Luke 2:1-20 

            Have any of you ever been to a house warming party?  The year I turned thirteen years old, my mom and dad built a new house on our farm.  And as was the custom in our community, there was a huge house warming party after the house was complete.  Early that evening, one of my dad’s friends calls me over and he slyly slips me an object hidden in his hand.  He winks at me and he says, “Have some fun with this!”  I look in my hand and there is a counterfeit ice cube.  It is a piece of plastic made to look like an ice cube and encased in the centre of the phony ice cube is a fly.  I am not sure if the fly was counterfeit or real.


            And so what I did for the rest of the night was mosey up beside a table of card players and when they weren’t looking, I would drop the counterfeit ice cube into their drink.  I had a lot of fun with that plastic ice cube.  But eventually the party-goers caught on to me, and my days as a dispenser of counterfeit ice cubes came to an end.


            And maybe it is just as well.  For though one can have some fun with a fake ice cube at a party, when life gets serious, it is essential to know the difference between what is fake and what is real.  Counterfeit goods are a serious problem in the global economy, adding up to $500 billion a year or 7% of all world-wide trade.  As the range of counterfeit products expands beyond money, Rolex watches and high-end running shoes to include products which can produce catastrophic results when they fail such as electronics, pharmaceutical drugs and automotive replacement parts, it would not be overstating the case to say that choosing a counterfeit product over the real one can mean the difference between death and life.


            In our Gospel reading for today, there is mention of two people that compete for the attention, affection and loyalty of the human race.  First, we are introduced to Caesar Augustus.  1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. (Luke 2:1-3)  In that time, Caesar Augustus was the richest and most powerful man in the world.  He ruled over the Roman Empire for 41 years, from 27 BC to AD 14. He was worshipped as a god in some parts of the Empire, and there would be special proclamations made on Augustus’s birthday which described the many benefits that have come about because of his birth.  One such proclamation reads as follows:  “Providence… has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero’s soul for the benefit of mankind.  A Saviour for us and our descendants, he will make wars to cease and order all things well.  The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams.”   Does this sound familiar to anyone besides me?  Caesar is being described as a Saviour whose birth will result in many blessings for the people, including peace.


            Later on in our reading from Luke, chapter 2, we are introduced to a baby named Jesus. This baby is helpless and poor.  His mother is just a teenager, probably 13 or 14.  She has had to endure being ostracized and gossiped about by former friends and neighbours for becoming pregnant before she was married.  There was speculation about who was the real father of her baby. This baby does not reside in a palace of marble.  He was born in a cave used as an animal shelter.  He is not the commander of legions of soldiers.  He does not have any servants standing by to meet his needs.  And yet there is a proclamation made at his birth. The Bible tells us:   8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

    13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

    14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
       and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests
.” 
Luke 2:8-14 

 And this tiny helpless baby is also proclaimed to be a Saviour whose birth brings about many blessings for the people, including peace.  So who is the counterfeit Saviour and who is the real Saviour?  Is it the emperor the real Saviour?  Or is it the baby?


There are some words which lose something significant when they are translated and “peace” is one such word.  Years of war had plagued the Roman Empire, but with his victories over his competitors, Augustus brought about a lasting peace.  The Pax Romana, the Roman peace, not only meant an end to war.  It also meant increased safety and security.  It was safe to travel on the roads.  Criminals were punished quickly and severely.  The rule of law was enforced by the power of the Roman sword and its punishments were carried out by the cruelty of the Roman cross.


But the Hebrew world had a much bigger understanding of what peace really was.  The Hebrew word shalom  means “peace” but it is peace in the sense of wholeness.  And this is wholeness applied in four important areas of life:  in one’s relationship with God, in one’s relationships with others; in one’s relation with the natural world; and in one’s relationship with oneself.  This wholeness is a result of living in sync with the will of God.  It means well-being in all aspects of life.  It is opposed to evil of any kind.  And this wholeness is the gift of God.  And we humans beings used to have this peace.  But we lost it.  


But now a Saviour is going to bring shalom peace and wholeness back to us.  A Saviour is going to bridge that gap between us and God.  A Saviour is going to soften our hearts with his love and forgiveness so that we can love and forgive others.  A Saviour is going to help us to see the world around us a wonderful home created for us by God, a home that needs our care and attention so that it can continue to be a healthy home for humans.  A Saviour is going to give us new eyes to see ourselves the way that God sees us:  as a much-loved, forgiven child of God.  The real Saviour is Jesus.  It was Jesus, not Caesar Augustus, who died on the cross for the sins of the whole world.  It is Jesus, not Caesar, who gives us wholeness and healing in all aspects of our lives.  It is Jesus, not Caesar who gives us the peace that surpasses all understanding.  And it was that peace which we cannot fully understand that the angels sang about, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:8-14 


And so, during this Christmas season, I encourage you to keep your focus on the baby in the manger.  Our human minds tell us to go for the biggest and the best.  Look for the most great and glorious and that’s where the Saviour is sure to be.  But God doesn’t work like we work.  God doesn’t think like we think.  In our second reading for today, the Bible tells us, 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Corinthians 1:28-29 TNIV) The Saviour of the world who brings peace to our troubled hearts is not the emperor, it’s the baby. And this Christmas celebration that we all look forward to for 11 and ½ months of the year is not about the presents and the tree and the lights and the decorations and the parties and the food.  All those things are like Caesar Augustus—they look good and they are appealing to our eyes and our hearts—but as soon as we allow them to become the most important thing in our lives, they become counterfeit Saviours who are unable to deliver the true peace that God wants to give us.  The weak, helpless baby in the manger is the true Saviour of the world.  God is in that manger and God worked through the weakness and the helplessness of our humanity to rescue us from all the brokenness in our world, in our neighbourhood, in our homes and in our hearts. 

God works through weakness.  And that brings me great comfort.  Because that means that God can work in and through me.  I am very well acquainted with the areas in my life in which I fall short.  I know the darkness that exists in the corner of my soul because it is never very far away from me.  And yet there is this Jesus.  Even though he was strong, he became weak for my sake.  Even though he was rich, he became poor to help me.  He loves me and he forgives me.  He gives me strength when I am weak. He gives me courage when I am scared.  When I mess up, it is Jesus that assures me that I am forgiven, it is Jesus that encourages me to get up and start all over again and try to make things right in my relationships with the people around me.  Jesus loves me.  And that’s what gives me peace.  And Jesus loves you too, and he wants to give you that peace too!


       So let us embrace what is real.  Let us all follow Jesus and let him be the Lord of our lives.  Let’s trust Jesus with all that we are and all that we have.  And let us be messengers of the shalom peace that only Jesus can give.  He will work through the reality of our weakness and brokenness to share that message of true peace with the whole world.  Amen.


My Grandma


Last summer my relatives on my mom’s side of the family got together to celebrate my grandma’s 85th birthday.  Prior to the event, my mom told me that my grandma had asked if I would preach a sermon at her birthday celebration.  I usually try to relax and visit at events like this, but because my grandma asked, I preached a sermon.  My grandma and I live far from each other and this was a rare chance for her to hear a message from her grandson.  

Now my grandma is very ill.  I don’t know how much more time she will have in this world, but it is probably measured in days, weeks or months instead of years.  It is hard.  And yet, at the same time, my family and I have the assurance that, because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection on our behalf, life with Jesus does not end with our last breath here.  Our bodies are laid in the ground, but our soul is alive and safe with Jesus.  And one day in the future, Jesus will transform our bodies, raise them from the ground and reunite our body and soul together so that we will be fully human, fully alive and living in God’s presence as he always intended us to be.  And so as the end of life in this world is approaching for my grandma (as it is for us all), I know that there is the promise of something more and better for her in the life to come.

Different people have asked me from time to time, ‘how do people live without having that hope?’  I don’t know the answer.  I only know that such a hope is real and available to everyone free of charge through Jesus.  He only asks that we trust in him for eternal life and it is ours.  Thank you, Jesus!

I am so thankful that I fulfilled my grandma’s request last summer.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Peace


One of my New Year’s Resolutions has been to not worry.  But that is easy to say and hard to do.  So I have been making a conscious decision several times each day that I will not worry, and it has made an amazing difference in my life. Before this, I was not aware of how so much of my life was driven by fear and worry:  How I relate to others, my purchasing decisions, how I work, and how I live.  Now I am finding that I spend less, my relationships are more positive, and challenging situations are resulting in significantly better outcomes.  It’s a better way to live.

But I don’t think that one can really do this on their own.  There are a lot of things that are unknown to us, like the future. There are a lot of things that are beyond our control, like what other people will say, think or do and and events that seem to happen ‘out of the blue’ (i.e. the current economic downturn).  We actually control very little of what happens in our lives.  And so we need to trust in someone else to take care of all those things over which we have no control.  And that’s where Jesus comes in.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he said.  “Trust in God, trust also in me.”  (cf. John 14:1)  It is only because of Jesus that I can say, “I am not going to worry about that,” whatever “that” is.  He is the one who helps me do that.  He is the one who looks after all of my tomorrows.  He is the one bridges the gap between what I need and what I can do.  Jesus is the one who does it all.  He is the Prince of Peace.  It isn’t just a saying.  It’s true.  Try asking Jesus to help you to not worry and see if it makes a difference in your life.

 

[Jesus said,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

Marriage Matters


(preached June 22, 2008 at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC)

Ephesians 5:21-33 

Today, I invite you to reflect with me for a few moments on the topic of marriage. And perhaps we can begin by hearing what kids think about marriage. When asked the question, What exactly is marriage?  Eric, age 6 replied: “Marriage is when you get to keep your girl and don’t have to give her back to her parents.”

How does a person decide whom to marry?  Kelly, age 9 said:  “You flip a nickel, and heads means you stay with him and tails means you try the next one.” When is it okay to kiss someone? Kally, age 9 says:  “You should never kiss a girl unless you have enough bucks to buy her a ring and her own VCR, ‘cause she’ll want to have videos of the wedding.”

And what are some surefire ways to make a person fall in love with you?  Camille, age 9 tells us:  “Shake your hips and hope for the best.”

Marriage is important to all of us, whether we are married or not, because healthy marriages are the foundation for healthy families and healthy families are the basis for a healthy society. Second, marriage is important to all of us because the same principles that make for a healthy relationship in a marriage, make for a healthy relationship outside of marriage with our other family members and our friends. And third, marriage is important for all of us because marriage, the most intimate of human relationships, is the word picture that God uses to describe his relationship with us. Marriage matters, whether we are married or not. And because marriage matters, then it also matters what you and I think about marriage. So what are some of your thoughts about marriage?

When I was single, I had some great ideas about marriage. I thought marriage was a 50/50 proposition. I’ll do my 50% and if my wife does her 50% then we will meet in the middle and everything will work out fine. Another idea I had before I was married was this: that even though my fiancée Susan was graduating from university to become a teacher, I thought that she should stay home after our wedding day and that we should start our family right away. And during our extensive premarriage counselling sessions, I was told by the counsellor that I needed to decide if I wanted to have my ideas about marriage or if I wanted to marry Susan.

God also has some ideas about marriage. And because he made us and because he knows all things, God’s ideas for marriage are much better than ours. And in our second lesson today, God calls husbands and wives to respond to Jesus’ selfless, sacrificial love for them with a selfless, sacrificial love for each other.  21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:21 That is the kind of love that is needed to make a marriage work. That is the kind of love that is needed to make a marriage thrive and be strong. God calls husbands and wives to mutually submit to one another. And for a picture of what mutual submission looks like in a marriage, God points us to the relationship that Jesus has with the Christian Church. And God calls husbands to model one side of that relationship and he calls wives to model the other.

God calls wives to relate to their husbands like the Church relates to Jesus. This passage tells us,   22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24) Just as we voluntarily give in to Jesus and give him our honor, love and respect, so also wives are to voluntarily give in to their husbands and give them their honor, love and respect. Now this sounds outrageous to our 21st Century ears, but I think that the problem is that we tend to stop reading the Bible at this point and we think that the Bible is giving husbands justification to rule over and dominate their wives. This understanding does violence to the intended meaning of this passage of Scripture because it continues with a description of how husbands are to submit to their wives.

It says, 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 (Ephesians 5:25-32)

A husband is to relate to his wife in the same way that Jesus Christ relates to the Church. And how did Jesus relate to the Church? He loves her so much that he willingly gave up his life for her, dying the most excruciating death possible so that she might become cleansed and transformed into his holy, pure, beautiful and radiant bride. That is how husbands are to submit to their wives. They are to love them and give up their lives for them.

So where do we go from here? Our tendency is to fall back on some quid pro quo kind of negotiating as we move towards mutually submitting to each other. For example we might say, “Oh, I will move from 50% submission to 60% submission if I can see that you are doing the same in your submission to me.” Or maybe you have a spouse who is not willing to reciprocate with any submission of their own towards you. What do you do then?  Remember what Jesus has done for you. He willingly laid down his life for you. No one took it from him. None of us asked Jesus to do that for us. None of us deserve having Jesus do that for us. Jesus voluntarily laid down his life for you because he loves you. His death paid the penalty for all the things that we have done wrong in all of our relationships, all of the times when we have been stubborn and self-centred and hurtful towards others. Jesus forgives us, he cleanses us, he purifies us, he heals us, and he transforms us. As he fills us with his love, he changes us from a people who always ask, “What’s in it for me?” into a people who ask, “How can I help this other person? How can I serve this other person? How can I give up my life for my wife? How can I submit to my husband and respect him? And just as Jesus acted first with no guarantee of a reciprocal response from us, so with Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we are able to act first in our submission to our spouse, with no guarantee of a receiving submission in response from them.

The marriage that I have with Susan is not a perfect marriage, but it is a very good marriage. And the reason that I am so blessed to enjoy such a wonderful marriage is due, first of all, of course, to God. And secondly, it is because of Susan. In the early years of our marriage, Susan and I would have a lot of arguments, and there was even a time when she was seriously considering leaving me. But as Susan studied this passage of Scripture from Ephesians, she realized that God was calling her to submit to me. It was not something that she wanted to do. It went totally against her nature and all that she had been taught as she grew up. And yet the harsh reality of God’s Word was before her, confronting her. And so with the help of the Holy Spirit, she made an intentional, dedicated effort to submit to her husband, not because I was such a great person, but because Jesus is such a great Saviour. And because Susan did the difficult thing that Jesus was calling her to do, it transformed our marriage, and it transformed me. And I began to grow in my understanding of what God was calling me to do as a husband to Susan. I began to ask myself if I really would be willing to die for Susan and I knew that God was calling me to answer with an unconditional “Yes!” And because I so quickly and easily get off-track, I need to ask myself that question every day. God has richly blessed Susan and me in our marriage relationship, and one of the ways that he has blessed us is to help both of us to grow in the way that we mutually submit to each other. And our marriage keeps getting better and better as a result.

And so I would like to challenge those of you who are married to submit to your spouse in the way that God is calling you to do. It goes against our nature, and it goes against what the world tells us. But submission is essential to God’s plan for marriage and submission was how Jesus lived and loved. And it was through being submissive that Jesus saved us. Jesus loves you. Jesus is with you and he will keep you safe forever with him. And so let us submit our lives to Jesus and let us follow him in submitting our lives to others. Amen.


God’s New Beginning for Us


I live in an area surrounded by mountains and this time of year, with all of the snow and rain and alternating cold and warm temperatures, the avalanche danger is very high. If you are boarding, skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling in the back country, there is a serious risk that you could be buried by a mountain of snow tumbling down upon you.
And something much like an avalanche happens every day in the lives of people all over the world. Perhaps it is an avalanche of grief and loss that buries us when we lose someone who is very precious to us. Maybe it is an avalanche of guilt or shame that overwhelms us. Maybe something bad has happened as a result of what we have said or done and we feel awful inside. Or maybe the avalanche tumbling down towards us is death itself. And whatever avalanche overtakes us, we can become buried so deeply by it that we cannot dig ourselves out and our buddies cannot dig us out either.
But there is someone who can rescue us from what threatens to overwhelm us. Last month we celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. And the significance of Christmas does not lie in the presents and the decorations and the festive meals. The real significance of Christmas is that God has come into this world to rescue us from our own avalanche of sin, brokenness and death and to give us a life with him that will last forever.
The baby in the manger became the Saviour of the world by living a perfect human life for us, suffering on the cross to pay for the sins of the whole world, and dying one death for all of humanity. And on the third day after he was buried, Jesus rose again from the dead. His rising from the dead is a proclamation to anyone who will listen that everything has now changed. The whole order of things is now different. In the past, human beings did not rise from the dead. But this one did. And through him a whole new order of existence, a new creation, has now opened up for all people through Jesus. That new creation begins with Jesus and it carries on into the future forever. It will not end when this world comes to an end. When that time comes, God has another new beginning for us. The Message puts it this way:
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” (Revelation 21:1-5 The Message)
And the most beautiful part of all this is that Jesus invites us into the New Creation. He invites us to trust him to raise us from the dead like he was raised from the dead so we live without fear of death as a result. Jesus invites us to trust in him for forgiveness and to live without guilt and shame as a result. He invites us to trust in our heavenly Father to provide what we need and to live without worry or fear as a result. He invites us to trust in the Holy Spirit for the strength and encouragement that we will need both today and in the future and to live with confidence as a result. This new creation is not just about the future. Because of Jesus we can live in that New Creation right now. And Jesus gives it all to us as a free gift because he loves us.
The question for you and for me is this: How are we going to respond to what Jesus has done for us? How will we live now that Jesus has given us this new beginning? You see our challenge, as individuals, is to live as though we really believe this new beginning is true. What would it be like if we didn’t worry? What would it be like if we weren’t plagued by guilt or shame? What would it be like if we had no fear, even of death? I think that most of us would say, myself included, that that would be a far different existence than what I am living now. And yet, that is what Jesus is offering to us. Those things are his Christmas gift to us. Why don’t we all make a New Year’s Resolution that says “In 2009, I will, with God’s help, trust in Jesus in every aspect of my life and live in his New Creation.”
The stakes are too high for us to go into this year without a clear idea of what we intend to achieve. When a snow avalanche threatens to overwhelm someone, it is a matter of life and death. When a spiritual avalanche threatens to overwhelm someone, it is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. And Jesus is the only one who can dig us out. So let us trust in him. He will not let us down.  Amen.