Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

So that thou art no longer a bondservant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

The disadvantage to doing my Word for Today and Midweek Oasis in the manner I do is that I am often forced to write far in advance of the day about which Iím talking. In this case, it means writing about the first Sunday of Christmas and Holy Innocents before weíve even celebrated Christmas. It is particularly difficult to ponder the story of those babies in Bethlehem as we are treasuring the great gift of Godís Son. We donít want to face the horror when we are supposed to be celebrating.

Yet, it is good to look at this story now, even as we are buried under mountains of wrapping paper, stuffing ourselves full of delicious food and laughing with those we love. Because the story reminds us of those who are forgotten, those who can not control their circumstances, those who suffer at the hands of people who are looking out only for themselves.

Children do not understand what it means to have no money. Weíve all heard the joke about the blond who says, ďI canít be out of money, I still have checks left in my book.Ē Kids today see the world through new, modern eyes: they think money comes out of the machine. Iím sure many mothers have heard what I have heard, ďMom, if you donít have any money, letís just go to the ATM and get some.Ē They do not understand that Mommy has to have money in the bank to cover the request for cash at the machine.

The Holy Innocents were the children caught between Godís divine plan and Herodís very human one. Herod, the king of the Jews, heard the rumor that wise men were seeking a child, ďthat has been born king of the Jews.Ē Though he was an old man and he was just a puppet ruler of the Romans, he was afraid this new child king would take his throne away. So he called in the wise men to discover the place where the king was born. His priests told them of prophecies that the king would be born in Bethlehem, so he sent the wise men there. ďAs soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.Ē But Herod did not want to worship and God knew Herodís heart.

Many children experience difficulty in this life. Children have no power, no authority. They trust with innocence and faith that those who have charge of their well-being will care for their needs: emotional, physical and intellectual. Many caregivers arenít really concerned with the needs of the children; some are even cruel and violent. Too many children suffer from neglect, beatings and every kind of abuse. Children are starving while parents are satisfied. Children die every day because those who have the power and authority act out in selfish and self-centered ways. Things have not changed over the millennia, even in Jesusí day children suffered at the hands of adults who did not care if a child lived or died.

King Herod feared the birth of the baby Jesus because the stars and signs showed that He was born to be king of the Jews. Herod ordered the all the male children under two years old to be killed. Jesus was saved from this fate and rose to deliver the world out of the bondage of sin. We imagine bloody streets as thousands of children are slaughtered during this horrible event. The reality is that it was more likely just a dozen children, yet that does not make it any less horrid. One life taken out of greed and fear is one life too many. One child suffering for whatever reason is one child too many. We remember these children today and still grieve with those who lost children to one manís ambition.

Things arenít much different today. We still live in a time when children are being killed because of the fear and selfishness of others. Abortion, abuse and gangs are destroying innocent children every day. Some of these children die physically, but many die emotionally and spiritually. We are all selfish in some ways. Do any of our own actions affect the lives of those who are around us, whether they are children or adults? How does our selfishness, greed or violence harm the innocents who cross our path?

So, as we remember the Holy Innocents, let us also remember that there are still children who are suffering at the hands of those who will abuse their power and harm anyone that stands in their way. Let us also remember that the children are most often the innocent victims of circumstances so far beyond their control that there is no way they can understand them. Whether it is a family who has fallen on hard times or caregivers that do not care, the children are the ones who will suffer the most because they canít stand up for themselves.

One of the greatest responsibilities we have as parents is to give our children their names. I have to admit that I was not very intentional when I chose a name for my daughter, although it is a lovely and appropriate name. Some parents make such strange choices that even the courts have been involved in suits demanding name changes. Celebrities are especially guilty of choosing bizarre names for their babies, although the reason is uncertain to me. Do they want the attention? Do they really think those names will make the lives of their children happier or better? Donít they understand the suffering their children will face when they are forced into the world with ridiculous names?

In the scriptures names often mean something special. Children are born and given names that represent something about the character of their life. Isaac means, ďHe will laughĒ and he was given that name because his mother laughed when she heard that she would bear a son. Jacob means ďsupplanter or held by the heelĒ and we know why he has that name by the biblical record. He took the birthright from his brother.

However, God changed Jacobís name, something he often did when His peopleís purpose or circumstances changed. Jacob became Israel, which means ďGod wrestler.Ē Jacob contended with God and his name was changed to do define his new place in Godís plan. Abram became Abraham and Sara became Sarah because God added His Spirit (Ha) to their life and their names. Saul (responder) became Paul (humble) because Saul was humbled by Jesus on the road to Damascus and called to a totally different life in Godís kingdom. These names each have a purpose and the changes mean something in the story of the people to whom they were given.

The Jews had been exiled, but by Godís grace they were redeemed and returned to their homes in Jerusalem. The city that had been destroyed by war was restored to its glory. The song of praise in todayís passage is a cry of thanksgiving to God for remembering His people and saving them. This transformation is a great and wonderful gift, and God is glorified by it. The prophet says that he will not be silent; he says that he will shout Godís praises until the whole world sees what God has done for His people. Jerusalem will have a new name, no longer forsaken or desolate, God delights in her.

I donít expect my children will want to change their names, but our relationship with continue to change and grow as they get older. Victoria is off to college and her homecoming for the holidays has been wonderful. But things are different. Sheís more adult, more responsible. Sheís becoming her own person in so many ways. Zack, too, is changing. This means that we have to find new ways of dealing with one another. So far it is working, although many families have difficulty adjusting to the changes.

The Christmas season is a time for family. It is a time to gather together, for homecomings and remembering. Many people have been traveling to be with the people they love for the holidays. Some will drive, others will fly and some will even take trains or busses to those destinations. While there, they will share good food and conversation. Presents will be swapped and toasts made. Daughters home from college will help make cookies and sons will help Dad with the lights. Families with children will share old traditions and create some new ones.

It is a time when relationships are put to the test. Unfortunately, for some families the pressure of holiday gatherings is too much to bear. Old grudges bubble to the top and bitter rivalries explode. Those who are afraid that they have not lived up to the expectations of their family may approach the gathering with resentment. Others may use the time to place greater burdens on those from whom they desire more. Those relationships are strained and the people will have a difficult time experiencing peace on earth while they carry the weight of the brokenness.

God is like a Father. We are His family. Paulís letter to the Galatians makes us wonder about our relationship with Him. How affectionate is your relationship with God? Is He like a family member with whom you might sit around the dinner table sharing memories of your childhood? Or is the relationship strained and uncomfortable? It is interesting that the scripture for today looks at this relationship through the eyes of slavery. We were once slaves to sin, but now are set free to be sons of God. Yet, we tend to hold on to our sins. We are slaves to those things that keep us from knowing and loving God fully and freely. The same thing happens with our earthly families.

Christ came, born of a woman: as human as you and I. But He is something much more. He is the Son of the Living God, as fully divine as He is human. He came to make us sons, setting free those who are burdened by the Law and opening the door so that we might also be adopted. The Kingdom of God belongs to us, we are His heirs. And as heirs we are called to be more than children. We have been adopted to live and laugh and love in that Kingdom for Godís glory. We live in an incredible promise.

Every ten minutes on our television sets, we are bombarded by promises. ďBuy our product and you will have the happiest kids, the whitest teeth, or the cleanest clothing. Our product provides the fastest connection, the most reliable service or the cheapest price. With our product, you will be more popular, more beautiful or more intelligent.Ē A promise is defined in Webster's as ďan assurance that one will or will not do something.Ē Companies around the world recognize the incredible power of a promise to today's consumers. They spend billions of dollars producing and airing commercials that will attract the greatest number of people to their product. Unfortunately, these promises often go unfulfilled.

The scriptures are filled with promises, many of which were promises that pointed toward the Messiah. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, which came true in Jesus. David was promised that his throne would last forever, which came true in Jesus. The book of Isaiah the prophet is filled with promises fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the culmination of Godís promises. God spoke specific promises to the family of Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were given John, the one who would make way for Jesus. Mary and Joseph were promised the incredible gift of a baby who would truly change the world. Two others were made promises: Simeon and Anna.

Simeon was a righteous and devout man who had the Holy Spirit on him. We do not know his age, but he is portrayed as an older man, white haired and wise in appearance. God made him a promise: that he would see the salvation of Israel before he died. One day a couple with a young boy came into the temple to dedicate their son. Simeon saw the boy and knew God had fulfilled his promise. He praised God and said, ďLord, you now dismiss your servant in peace.Ē Simeonís purpose was to see the Light, which is Christ, and once he saw Jesus he could rest in peace. We do not know what happened to Simeon after that day. I have always assumed he died immediately, but it really does not matter. Here we see the fulfillment of yet another promise.

Perhaps in a way Simeon did die that day. The nation of Israel had certain expectations about the type of Messiah that would come to save them. Simeon was in the temple that day, not because he was waiting for the Messiah but because the Holy Spirit led him there. Imagine his thoughts when he realized he was seeing the salvation of God in the flesh of a poor infant child. Could the Messiah, the king of Israel that will bring salvation to the Jews, really be found in such a humble being? What were his expectations of the promise? Did he believe with unwavering doubt or did he go forth with the same question we have heard throughout the birth story? ďHow can this be?Ē

Anna also knew Godís promises. She never left the temple, spending all her days and nights worshipping and praying. When she saw Mary and Josephís child, she praised God and told everyone who was waiting for the fulfillment of Godís promises that she had seen the Redeemer. How many did she tell? Why werenít there more people who knew that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting?

Why did the Jews doubt when Jesus appeared thirty years later? Anna shared the good news, and the shepherds share the good news. Perhaps people have not changed that much over these many years. Though we are inundated by promises on the television and other media, I wonder if we are all that different from them when we doubt a promise will be fulfilled. People are people, after all, and we donít believe without proof. And we put our own expectations on those promises. Jesus didnít seem like much of a Messiah, especially as a baby lying in a manger. Thankfully some people had faith and shared their stories. We, amidst our doubt and uncertainty, believe that God has, and does, fulfill all His promises.

I suppose thatís why it is so hard to hear the story of the Holy Innocents. If God is in control, how could He allow such suffering to occur? We ask the same question about all the tragedies in our world. I suppose we even ask that question when the tragedies happen to us. Why is there suffering? What does it accomplish? Why does God allow human greed and fear to destroy so much human life? These are not questions to which there is an easy answer. For those suffering now, the answers seem callous and petty. But God is in control. He has a purpose. And He is faithful to His promises, especially to those who suffer.

ďAnd he hath lifted up the horn of his people,Ē the psalmist writes. God spoke and salvation is assured for all Godís people. Everything we have, everything we experience, comes because God is in control of the story. This could be a frightening thing for some who do not realize that whether our circumstances are good or bad at this moment, God has our best interests at heart. Whatever happens, God will make it good for those who love Him. We have been given a special name: child of God. As children we have been made heirs to a kingdom, a kingdom that promises peace and joy to those who believe. We can live in fear, or we can go forth, trusting in Godís goodness and mercy, knowing that He is faithful. As heirs it is our responsibility to go and touch those who are suffering, to make the world better for them, to change their names by telling them the Gospel story that makes them children of God. Suffering will not end. Tragedies will happen every day. But God is with us through it all, bringing us through it into His peace.

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