Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

GOD’S INESCAPABLE NEARNESS

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Philippians 4:4-8
“Rejoice in the Lord always!”–v. 4

Christmas Eve Service

I. HOW NEAR IS GOD?

I want to suggest something so obvious, but so radical, that it seems silly for me to say it: God is always with us: God is everywhere: God can do all things. And if I can convince you that this is true, I want to show you through the Christmas Story that this omniscient, omnipresent God loves us too.

We wonder, I fear, that it is true–that God is real. That He is here among us. I mean, we can believe in the stock market, in the Pittsburgh Steelers (although that might be stretching it a bit!), in post-Christmas sales. But . . . can we believe that God is right here, right now, in our midst, right next to you . . . I hope, even, in our hearts . . . Can we believe this?

Statisticians tell us that almost 75% of us believe in miracles and more that that believe that there is a God. But how many of us live our lives as though God knew everything that we were doing, thinking, saying? I bet if we felt this way our actions and words would probably change!

I know that the generation of which Joseph and Mary were a part no doubt wondered if there was a God at all. That is, I fear, a perennial question. As he watched his people being persecuted by enemy armies, Gideon wondered where God had gone. David, as he grieved over the death of his son Absalom, wondered if God really cared. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, sincerely held that God was no longer present or concerned about the world that He had created; that He had placed the world in the universe as a clock and backed off to let things happen according to natural law. The great Colonial Awakening preacher Jonathan Edward shared genuine concern that God was still active in his world. Or, at least, he lamented that no one seemed to act like it!

The great English Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, when his cherished wife Joy Davidman died, wished that God was not so present! Listen to Lewis–remember this is a man who loved Jesus Christ with all his heart.

. . . where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims on you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain and what do you find? . . . Silence. . . There are no lights in the window.

Are there no lights in the window? Have you given up on God?

II. REASON TO HOPE

Surely the generation in our Gospel lesson had reason to give up, to lose hope. I mean, why not? When is the last time God had done anything for them? From their perspective, the hated Romans had subjected God’s people to unthinkable indignities . . . and no end in sight. Where was God? Where was the light?

This generation, as our own, echoing the words of C.S. Lewis, “Not that I am thinking that there is no God . . . the real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.” How is God doing in your book? Do you still believe in Him?

How near is God? As near as one born as we were born, albeit in a stable among most primitive conditions. As near as one who drinks a cup of wine and announces a new Way, a new Life, a new Hope. As near as one who died a horrible death on the cross–because He loved me. And then arose from the grave . . . He is here.

He came with singing angels, dirty shepherds, glowing Wise Men. He came to Mary and Joseph–hardly older than many of the children in this place. He came. He is. He lives. Perhaps tonight, my friends, you can discover again, for yourself, God’s inescapable nearness . . . As we light our candles together, rededicate yourself to His purposes. Amen.
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This homily was preached at First Presbyterian Church, Johnstown, PA, on Christmas Eve, 1993, by James P. Stobaugh. References include: A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis; Jonathan Edwards, by Ian Murray; my title is borrowed from a sermon preached by Edward Schweitzer entitled “God’s Inescapable Nearness.”

The Lay of the Land: Preparing This Generation to Be World Changers For Christ

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

We must prepare this generation to be different in meaningful ways. We must prepare this generation–like no other–to be in the work but not of the world. As Josh Harris loves to say, “American cannot take another Christian generation that just fits in.” The postChristian age is one dominated by anxiety, irrationalism and helplessness. In such a world, consciousness is adrift, unable to anchor itself to any universal ground of justice, truth or reason. Consciousness itself is thus “decentered”: no longer agent of action in the world, but a function through which impersonal forces pass and intersect [Patricia Waugh in Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, p. 45]. Let’s examine some modern trends.

The first is a pervasive and abiding concern about the future. To those of us who lived through the Cold War this seem ludicrous. But it is real and this generation is one of the most hopeless in history. Interestingly enough this hopelessness has made us rather sentimental. We have become very sentimental about the past. We have lost our way; lost our dreams.Dr. Harvey Cox: “We once had dreams and no technology to bring them to pass.” Now we have technology but no dreams! Even in our most creative creations it is more of the same: Star Wars are going after the same thing we want and still not finding it. Notice bar scene. The Star Wars phenomenon is so appealing because it is about the past; not about the future. Luke Skywalker is more like John Wayne than he is like Tom Cruse. To this hopeless generation history is not sacred; it is merely utilitarian. It is not didactic; it helps make them feel better. The modern psychologist B.F. Skinner, for instance, disdains history and gives mm’s to monkeys. We have no actions–only fate driving us. We are rudderless. The fact is we Christians know, however, that God is in absolute control of history. We need to teach our children to be tirelessly hopeful. We need to make sure that we are not mawkish! We can easily do so by speaking the Truth found in the Word of God in places of deception.

Next, there is a serious breakdown of community. The Christian teacher Oz Guinness says . . .It is now questionable whether America’s cultural order is capable of nourishing the freedom, responsibility, and civility that Americans require to sustain democracy. Modernity creates problems far deeper than drugs, etc. It creates a crisis of cultural authority in which America’s beliefs, ideals, and traditions are losing their compelling power in society. Sociologist Peter Berger says. . . One of the features of our modern day has been the loss of mediating institutions, so that we now have increasingly atomistic individuals and a powerful state, with no buffers in-between. The Christian homeschooler, therefore, must not merely talk the talk, he must walk the walk. We must create an alternative community of hope. We must sabotage the conspiracy of hopelessness and self-centeredness that is so pervasive in our nation.

In the Face of Danger

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

When Karen and I considered the Ku Klus Klan threat to my family in 1994, we seriously considered options open to us and decided that we would not allow anything to cause us to retreat. No, we wanted our children to see us stand firm under the protection of Almighty God. And we wanted to let them hear that no matter what others might do–over 200plus people attend the KKK rally–we would never give into evil. We wanted to model behavior that would show our kids that standing firm for what was right was more important than being safe.

The American Robert Frost, in his poem “West-Running Brook,” writes:

What does it think it’s doing running West
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you . . .

I shared this poem with my wife Karen when we were dating. Then, and now, I feel that it is a prophetic word for our lives–that God was calling us to be a West running brook–it it is the right direction to go–even it it is an East running world.

I am asking you this Christmas to take a stand for Christ. To show the world that you will not be intimidated, persuaded, or moved by what the “world” tells you is right–but you will only stand on the Word of God.

Come let us glorify the Lord a nd proclaim His name forever . . .Merry Christmas!

The Words of Isaiah

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

After the seas are all cross’d.
(as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work.
After the noble inventors,
after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Some people claim that Isaiah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. His career spanned the turbulent period from King Uziah’s death, about 740 B.C. to the end of Sennaacheribs siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Judah’s kings, especially timid and shaky Ahaz, persistently wanted to rely on political deals with foreign powers, usually Assyria or Egypt, to save the country. But Isaiah would not hear of it–”Tremble, you women who are at ease… (32:11a).”

Isaiah’s ministry began with the famous “call” in ch. 6 to which you are no doubt familiar. The theologian/writer Fred Buechner, taking substantial liberty with Scripture, paraphrases Isaiah’s call (in ch. 6) this way:

There were banks of candles flickering in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him , , as if it had alwa ys been there but was only now seen for what it was (like a face in the leaves of a tree or a bear among the stars), there was the Mystery Itself whose gown was the incense and the candles a dusting of gold at the hem. There were winged creatures shouting back and forth . . . and Isaiah responding, “O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. . . I am a goner . . .” And God said, “Go give the deaf Hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.” (–from Peculiar Treasures).

“That is what a prophet does,” Buechner ends. “And Isaiah went and did it.”

Listen with me to the words of Isaiah. They ring true for his generation and for ours. Enjoy Isaiah this Advent Season. Have a Blessed, wonderful Christmas season. Come, let us glorify the Lord and praise his name forever!

Thoughts on Advent

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Is Jesus Christ in our hearts as well as in our minds? Is He more than an inellectual exercise–is He our Lord?

Advent, then, to Wingfold, and to you and me, can be a reality check. What is real? What really matters? Look around . . . listen to the Advent/Christmas music. Watch the Christmas pageant. Make an Advent candle. Listen to sermons . . . watch the children’s faces during the children’s sermon. Yes, He is alive! Advent and Christmas move us beyond our intellect, beyond our mundane worlds and take us again to the manger and we again know that the Christian life is worth it, is real, it what we want to do. Join me again this year in the stable, at the manger, . . . and let us magnify the Lord together.

Christmas Message

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

It is Christmas time again and like an old, drafty but proud house this ancient institution tries its best to keep the metaphysical out of this august holiday. No Christmas music, no Christmas decorations. Nothing that remotely resembles the real reason for the season. Oh a jolly St. Nick or an effeminate reindeer is allowed. Of course. But no Baby Jesus. Of course.

But it can’t be stopped. Like a cold front transversing the land, the wind blows slowly, ever so slowly, but consistently against this old house, this public school. More and more wind comes through the old windows, created to keep out more overt but less ubiquitous intruders—like rain and snow. But the wind, the spirit, continues to blow. Until it is at gale force and nothing can stop it. Nothing. A smile on a child’s face as he hears a good word. A faint echo of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” waffles through the hall. A subversive Christian slips and says, “Merry Christmas!”

What is to be done? The doors are taped, the windows caulked, but it is to no avail. The spirit still comes. Christmas comes. Nothing can stop it. Until one day we all pause and smile and remember, even in this old house, even in this old godless place, called public education, we cannot help ourselves—we greet each other with “Merry Christmas!” Tentatively at first, and then with gusto. It is as if the Christ child is born anew into our hearts. Or rather the child in us is reborn. That Christmas memory, candlelight church service, the memory of Luke 2 competes with and then replaces the dark hopelessness of our age. And it wins. It always wins.

Like Deborah in Judges 5 we sign our songs of joy and of hope in a hopeless land. We dance, and praise the Lord together. And we experience life anew.

There are days when I wonder what happened to me—the presumptuous saint who saw himself influencing milllions, making millions, changing worlds and making new ones. In Jesus name. But here I am, a lowly English teacher in a public school this Christmas season. I am exiled from home and family, living in a little garage apartment. But as I examine the spectacle unfolding around me, I give God thanks. I thank him for the wind. Oh, no, it is more than a wind. It is storm!

I thank my Father for the storm that Jesus Christ our Lord brings, even to this secular place. I thank Him for Angelique, and Debbie, and Vincent. I thank him for Mary and Stephen. The Christian thinker Henri Nouwen, at the end of this life, observed that God’s touch makes all things “beloved.” He has touched the unsaved and the saved alike in this old institution. Yes He has touched my heart again. And in the backwaters of life I hold my candle high and I thank God for this time, this place, these people. And I call them, and I call myself, beloved. Merry Christmas!

Second Coming of Jesus Christ Part III

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

We all want to shout, like that waitress, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus! My world is too crazy and I am hurting too much!” But, the message of the Second Coming and the First Coming (Christmas), for that matter, is that no matter what happens on earth, it is all going to end in victory for Christ and those who belong to him. Period. The hope of the Second Coming is that, beyond all our doubts, he is afterall Lord of all, the king of kings.

The doctrine of the Second Coming reminds us always to look to the future, but not to forget the past. We are a pilgrim people on the move. Our faces are forever set toward the future. As we resolutely and confidently move forward, we should keep glancing back over our shoulders to see where we have come. We keep remembering and hoping, but it is hope that gives us light for the journey into the unknown.

We still look for the coming of Christ. It has the long look. It reminds us that our lives are intertwined with the misery we see around us, but that we are forever faced to the future. Someday, we will face our returning Lord. He will consummate history, offer some explanation, justification, for all this heartbreak we experience and see around us. The Second Coming promises a clarity that we do not now experience.
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Second Coming of Jesus Christ Part II

Monday, December 17th, 2007

And, likewise, the Second Coming has created problems throughout the centuries. Around 200 AD a Syrian bishop announced that Christ was about to begin His reign. So, the bishop led all of his people out into the desert to meet Christ at His return. They nearly died in the desert. John Wycliffe,t he great Bible translator, waited for Christ to return in his lifetime. In the 1800′s a group of believers sold everything, climbed up on houses, and waited for the Lord. Finally, they sheepishly came down (after many weeks).

Setting dates for the return of Christ has been especially embarrassing. The Adventist leaders in the last century calculated 1843. When that proved to be wrong, they tried 1844. The Jehovah Witnesses thought it would be 1914. Indeed, hardly a year goes by that some one, often in California “the land of fruit and nuts”, does not predict the Second Coming. Hal Lindsay, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, is sure that the end will occur in 1988.
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Second Coming of Jesus Christ

Friday, December 14th, 2007

The New Testament is literally riddled with references to Christ’s coming again. The matter is mentioned in over three hundred places. Obviously it was a basic to early Christian doctrine.

It is neither basic to my denomination’s tradition. And, I must admit, a sermon by yours truly on the Second Coming (Parousia) rarely enters my repertoire. Why is it then that in the mainline churches one seldom hears the subject mentioned? Sects, the cults, conservative groups almost never stop mentioning it. They hammer on it night and day; they make films concerning it; they write books about it–many of which are best sellers. They preach about it incessantly. But the rest of us stay away from it. While so much of the Christian world argues about being premellinialism verses post-mellinialism we are standing around yawning. We treat the Second Coming as though it were only for the religious fanatics who knock on doors. What bothers us about the Second Coming of Christ?
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GOD IS DOING A NEW THING

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

December 26, 1993

I. INTRODUCTION

What do we do when things go well? When things are so wonderful that we cannot even describe our joy? I have had innumerable joyful days–the happiest being my wedding day. Another happy day was the day Karen and I heard that the state of New Jersey had a little boy for us to adopt: Timothy. What made it special was the unexpectedness: one day we had two children and the next day we had three! In fact, our children have been so wonderful, and such stinkers! How could we possibly imagine what life would be like!

Such was the case with Isaiah’s people–they were finally going home. After three generations of Babylonian and then Persian captivity, they were going home. “. . . I am doing a new thing!” (v. 19).
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