Sunday, January 2, 2011

Second Sunday of Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:13-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.

When I was in high school, I was waiting for a bus to take me to band camp. It was an August morning, pleasant but with the threat of rain. Generally when it begins to rain, the rain comes slowly: first a few drops, then a few more, until it is steadily raining. The rain stops the same way. There is no particular moment when it goes from dry to wet or wet to dry. However, on this particular day, the rain came suddenly. The downpour was so immediate that I could actually see the edge of the shower as it moved down the street to me. I had no where to go, and I knew that I was going to get soaked as soon as it hit.

We were at my sister's house for Thanksgiving, hanging out in the back yard by the smoker. The weather was pleasantly warm, with a slight breeze blowing. All of a sudden, a stronger breeze kicked up the leaves on the ground and within seconds the temperature dropped thirty degrees. This is no exaggeration: one minute I was warm, the next minute I was freezing.

Those in tornado alley have probably experienced this phenomenon of sudden changes in weather. Storm clouds might be lingering on the horizon, but there's no way to predict whether or not a tornado will form or where it will go. Hurricanes can move in an orderly fashion and then suddenly change course. Lightning can strike anywhere. It only takes one degree in temperature to change a wet road into an icy road. A few minutes of blizzard-like conditions can change the landscape and hide a road.

We have tried to control the weather, or at least predict it, but most of the time the weathermen can only make an educated guess about what will happen. They certainly can not predict when a sudden downpour will fall in a specific place or the very minute the temperature will drop. Despite their sophisticated equipment and computer programs, they still get some things wrong.

It has been suggested that the world runs on its own, that one day a long time ago some divine spark or 'Creator' set into motion a machine that runs on its own, revolve through space and time on its own without any continued help. To them, the world needs no higher guiding power to get through day to day. To these folk there is no such thing as a personal God. To them God is simply the beginning and a distant power beyond our knowledge and ability to understand. Yet, in the passage from Psalm, we see that God is not only interested in what happens in this world, but that it happens by His word. The snow falls and melts, the wind blows and the rain falls because God makes it happen. He can cause a rainstorm to burst forth at a moment notice or the temperature to drop suddenly.

Not that I think God caused me to get wet or freeze on purpose, for some grand purpose that is beyond my understanding. Yet, there are those who do believe that God can't possibly be active in a world where there continues to be hate and injustice, pain and suffering. The only way they can juxtapose the idea of a loving God with an ugly world is to separate Him from that world. To them, He has to be distant, and we left on our own. How do we accept that God has had a hand in all this? How do we accept that God could have stopped the rain or the cold, but allowed it to affect me? There is no easy answer to these questions.

I'm not sure the other extreme is any better: the theology that makes God our private genie. For too many, God is like a pop machine, all you have to do is put in your prayers and out pops His answer. They pray with the demanding voice of a two year old, "gimme this and gimme that" not considering whether or not those demands are within God's will. When they don't get what they want, they lose faith, turn away from God, and insist that He can't possibly exist because He hasn't done what they expect. "What God? I'm still sick, poor, and oppressed."

I suppose the scriptures give us an image of this kind of God. The Jews certainly took advantage of Him throughout the generations. He promised them the world, gave them guidance and protection. He took them out of Egypt, gave them the Promised Land. He fed them in the wilderness and met their every need. He built them into a great nation, gave them a king when they asked and kept their enemies at bay. They only had to ask and God relented of any ill will toward His people, holding on to them as His own through their unfaithfulness.

The psalmist admits that God belongs to Israel. “He showeth his word unto Jacob, His statutes and his ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; And as for his ordinances, they have not known them. Praise ye Jehovah.” He has done great things for Israel but not for the other nations. Jeremiah also speaks this message that Israel is special to God. “For thus saith Jehovah, Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout for the chief of the nations: publish ye, praise ye, and say, O Jehovah, save thy people, the remnant of Israel.”

This does not mean that God can be viewed as a genie, available for anyone's whim. He was speaking in these texts to a people who were in the midst of suffering, giving promises for their salvation. God may allow hate and injustice, pain and suffering, but He is never far from those who are in the midst of it. He is there to offer hope and reconciliation. He is there to overcome the world and lift His people out of the muck.

What we need to remember is that what we perceive to be evil is often just a way through which we are brought into God's heart. God does not bring upon us the suffering that we experience, but sometimes He steps back and allows us to experience the consequences of our own failure to live according to His Word. Though He is always near, we turn our backs on Him. That's what happened to the Jews. They knew God, they had His Word, but they turned to the nations and to other gods for their protection. They left their God for false gods who could not accomplish the works of His hands. Sometimes, for the sake of His people, God allows them to be cast into exile so that they'll look to Him again. This does not mean that God is far off or unconcerned with His people. This does not mean He is a God who causes pain and suffering. Sometimes the lessons we learn in times of trouble are the ones that make the greatest impact on our lives.

I love how we are looking at these texts as we enter into a new year. What better time, as we are making New Year's resolutions, for us to consider God's place in the midst of it all. When we are making those choices, have we asked what God thinks? What were our failures in the previous year? Did God have to step back so that we might see Him more clearly? Did He let the rain fall on our heads or the cold winds to blow so that we might consider how we have failed Him? Is He showing us the way to turn again into His hands and His heart?

He is not a cruel God who plays with us or a God who allows suffering for the sake of evil. He is a loving God that enters into our lives and provides everything we need, including the kick in the pants we often need to keep our eyes on Him. He is a personal God, so personal that He was born into this world, laid in a manger and sent to the cross for our sakes. He has taken upon Himself the suffering that we richly deserve, so that we might have the life for which we are not worthy. God's promises reach far beyond our troubles, and He is never far away, even when it seems like He's just a divine spark that set the world into motion.

In the beginning God spoke and there was light. The light was not the sun or the stars, but that light was the Christ who was before everything. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” He became one of us, one with His creation to restore and redeem us to Himself. This is not a God that started the world revolving and then went to Tahiti on vacation. This is a God who dwells among His people with whom we can have an intimate and personal relationship.

The incarnation was not just about salvation, but it was about the revealing of God’s fullness to the world. Unfortunately, many who lived in Jesus' day missed Him. They didn't see that He was who He claimed to be. They were blind to the reality of God incarnate. Those who did see and did believe were given the most incredible gift. “But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Nothing is new under the sun. There are still those who can't see Him. They have rejected the reality of God's presence in this world He created, or they see Him only as they choose to see Him. They do not accept Him as He fully is, God Almighty. We want to pick and choose only the parts of God that suit us. We want a God who loves who we want Him to love and who does what we want Him to do. If a characterization does not fit our expectations, we reject it. But we should never forget that God does not fit into the little boxes we create to hold Him. He didn't fit into the expectations of His people Israel, and He won't fit ours.

That's a good thing, because if God could be limited by our will and purpose, then He could be limited by our neighbor's! Would we really want that co-worker at our job to have control of God's grace? Would we want our ex-boyfriends to determine our salvation? Would we want our in-laws to grant us the things we need? If not our neighbors, then why would we think it is possible or sensible for us to be in control?

How much better is it that God can cause the rain to fall and the sun to shine with just a word? How much better is it that God can stand back for a moment so that we can see Him in His fullness and believe? How much better is it that God's hand is in the midst of everything, including our hate and injustice, pain and suffering, so that we might be transformed into people who will join Him in the work of salvation in the world?

We were chosen and included into the inheritance of God’s great blessings when we heard the Word and believed. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and by the promise. This seal is not one which can be removed. It is God’s hand on our life, His hand which will not allow us to be lost. We might face pain and suffering, but we can go through our difficulties with the knowledge that God is not far off, but rather He is in our midst granting us blessings we would never have thought to seek. He is indeed a gracious God, giving us faith, hope and life. This gracious God has been revealed in the life of the Christ who was born in a stable and laid in a manger and His promises were fulfilled in the death of Christ on the cross.

So, how does this Word transform us today? How will we enter into the new year differently? How will we experience God in the midst of the muck of this world? Will we treat Him like a pop machine, putting in our prayers and expecting specific answers? Will we hide Him into some box, and let Him out only when we think the time is right? Will we push Him out into some distance corner of space and praise Him only for what He did in the beginning of time? Do we see Him as the God who has come for us and for our neighbors? Will we keep Him to ourselves, or share Him with the world? Are we willing to see Him in the good times as well as the bad, in the hearts of our friends and in the faces of our enemies? Are we ready to be changed by all our experiences as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of our personal God?

Even when the rain falls out of nowhere or the temperature drops suddenly, God is with us. Let us turn to Him, to follow His Word and experience His grace each day of this new year.

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