Thursday, December 11, 2008

Preparing for Christmas

(Read Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8)

The Christmas season requires a great deal of preparation. I’m sure most of you have already begun preparing for Christmas in some ways. Have you bought your tree? Decorated your house and yard? Do you have plans on your calendar for dinners and parties and church services? Have you started buying and wrapping Christmas presents?

Americans spend an immense amount of resources- time, energy, thought and money- on getting ready for this most sacred and precious time of the year. We devote so much of ourselves to this season because it means so much to us. Even for Christians who don’t go to church, Christmas represents a time of love and giving, a time of peace and togetherness. Christmas has a magical feel to it; it is a time when love and laughter, family and friendship are the priority. Christmas is a time of hope and celebration.

While preparing our homes is a very important part of Christmas, it is sad that many people spend more time preparing their homes than their hearts. External Christmas decorations are not a substitute for interior Christmas preparations.

Because what we are actually preparing for this Advent season is not the parties and presents. What we are actually meant to be preparing for is the coming of our Savior into the world. Jesus. Emmanuel. God coming to be with us. Now that is something to get ready for!

Today’s Scriptures call out to us to “Prepare for God’s arrival!” God deserves roads that are straight and smooth so that there is a highway fit for God’s travel as he comes towards us. The valleys must be filled and the hills leveled off; the rocks need to be cleared out of the way so that when God comes among us his “bright glory will shine and everyone will see it.”

John the Baptist called us to repent of our sins to prepare the way of the Lord. Today, I just want to talk about one sin that we need to turn away from so that we can be ready, so that are hearts will be prepared for the miracle of Jesus when he is born.

The sin we most need to repent of at this time of the year is our doubt, our despair, our hopelessness. I know that life is hard. These are difficult times for you, for me, and for people around the world. Life as we know it on earth is not what God intends for his creation. People are sick and suffering, hungry and oppressed, worried and depressed.

But every Christmas, we celebrate that God is doing something about all the problems. God is taking action by sending us his son.

You may be disillusioned, and perhaps you have given up dreaming of the life that God wants for his people, but its time to turn your minds around and hope once again. Now is the time for hope.

Isaiah prophisized that God is coming. Isaiah says, “God, the Master, comes in power, ready to go into action. He is going to pay back his enemies and reward those who have loved him. Like a Shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering [you,] his lambs in his arms” (Isaiah 40: 10-11). God is coming to help us, to heal our suffering and change the way the world is. John the Baptist says about Jesus, “The star in this drama will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life (meaning a life in committed to God and one lived in God’s eternal realm). [Jesus’] baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.” That means a new way of life for you is on its way.

And not just for you. The Savior is coming to restore the fortunes of all people. God is coming to forgive, transform and bring peace.

You know, I had temporarily forgotten the importance of forgiveness until I read this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a book about the Iranian revolution, which happened in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Before the revolution, women did not have to wear veils. They could associate with men other than men in their family. They could dance and listen to music. But after the revolution, all those freedoms were taken away. Morality squads walked about the streets, making sure that no piece of hair was seen on a woman’s head, making sure that women were escorted around town, making sure that they did not laugh too loudly. Not only were many freedoms taken away from the people of Iran, but punishment was very severe. You could easily be killed just for saying something against the government. Or teaching a book that was banned. The morality squads would literally come into their houses and go through their personal belongings, making sure they did not have the wrong books or the wrong music or the wrong videos, and if they did, they would confiscate them, and maybe also imprison them. When members of the revolution were asked to defend the executions taking place, they said that people deserved to be punished for their sins.

It’s easy to take forgiveness for granted when you live amongst people who are forgiving. But when your every move is watched and judged and there is no forgiveness – you can literally be killed in Iran for actions we wouldn't think twice about doing in the US -- than you remember just how important forgiveness is.

When Emmanuel comes, he promises to forgive us. He promises to rid the world of oppression and slavery. He promises to rid the world of hate and war. As psalm 85 says, when God comes to the earth, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (v.10)

Hope

This Christmas season, we are waiting for the change that only God can bring.

Times have been difficult lately for so many people throughout the world, but we cannot grow skeptical. Especially not now at Christmas time. The sin that we must give up so that we can be ready for Jesus when he is born is the sin of doubt.

Believe. Believe like you have never been disappointed. Believe like a child who has not lost his/her innocence. In belief there is power. In Jesus Christ, there is power - the power of God to transform your life and the life of all people. This world will be different when God is done working here.

How can you prepare this Advent?

Spend time with God. Relax in God’s presence, and know the peace he brings.

Get in touch with your spirit, which is God’s Spirit in you. And set your mind on hoping for a new reality, for the end of suffering and the continuation of dreams being fulfilled.

In addition to making a Christmas list of material possessions, make a Christmas list of what you hope Emmanuel will come into the world and do.

Remember, the Triune God is a God of action. While we enjoy our parties and presents, God will be very busy loving, healing, comforting, listening, speaking, orchestrating, providing, responding, growing, restoring, and coming to the rescue of us, God’s children. God is not static and remote; God is dynamic and moving among us, tirelessly working to transform our lives and redeem the world.

So make a list of what you hope Emmanuel will do when he comes.

Include the world in your list. Whatever issues are important to you, put them on your hope list. I have included the end of oppression for the women of Iran.

Include your family and neighbors in your list. I have included the health and vitality of this congregation and the wellbeing of my family.

Include yourself in your list. I hope to live out my calling, and I trust God to lead me to fulfillment.

What will you put on your list of hope as Jesus comes into the world to save it?

All the preparations that we do this Christmas season, while done with goodwill and love in our hearts, are small in comparison to what God is preparing to do for us this Christmas. God is sending us our Savior, the only one who can set things right; the only one who can heal us and transform us from the inside out.

We all spend a great deal of effort preparing for Christmas on a worldly level, but what we also really need to do is prepare for Christmas on a spiritual level. And we can do so by renewing our hope in what God will do.

What we are preparing ourselves for this Advent season is God’s miracles because they are coming!

The Spiritual Practice of Submission

(Read Ephesians 5:21-25,28 and 6:1-9 and Mark 8:31-38)

The purpose of the spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices, as I prefer to call them, is freedom, our spirit's liberation. The purpose of confession is freedom. The purpose of worship is freedom. And today, we will talk about the spiritual practice of submission or surrender (I will use the two words interchangeably), the purpose of which is freedom.

For clarity's sake, it's most helpful to think of submission in two different ways, although these two ways often interconnect. First, there is submission to God, and second, there is submission to other people.

Surrendering to God

On Friday night, I was priviledged to host about 20 teenage girls in a sleepover at the church in Esopus. Each young woman present was a dynamic person with her own ways of being and a unique spirit. Each girl ranged in her confidence level, but one topic surfaced as universal to all of their experiences. They all had a lot of worry and felt a great deal of pressure.

It was interesting and a bit sad to see how much the girls worried about life. They were concerned about their peers' opinions of them. They were stressed out trying to live up to their parents expectations of them. They were concerned about their futures. It seemed like they each felt that their happiness, wellbeing and future success was completely up to them.

Teenage girls are not the only people who feel immense pressure and responsibility. Children can feel it too. Adults certainly feel it.

I know that I have struggled with similar issues, not only in my adolescence, but even now. I had a very powerful experience last Tuesday during a Taize service. Actually, it began before that. As you may have noticed, today's prayer of confession is the same as last week's. That is because I was so impacted by this simple prayer that I felt compelelled for us all to pray it again. The words that popped out at me and spoke to me were: that God does not judge us by the perfection of our actions but by our willingness to live by faith.

Praying those words, I was struck by how unwilling I had become to live by faith. How I no longer trusted in God's plan, and how resonsiible I felt for the outcome of so many situation in my life and even in other people's lives. During the time of silence in the Taize service, I pondered these things. It all started because I was worrying about the turnout at the service, how many people showed up. Then, I started to worry about the kind of experience those present would have at the service. God cut into my thinking right then and there, reminding me that I was not able to make anyone have a spiritual experience. That is the Spirit's job.

Instead of thinking of ways I could have done more or acted more perfectly in order to make the service a "success," I surrendered the results to God. I couldn't worry if only 1/2 the people as expected had shown up. Or if the people there were going to have a meaningful worship experience. I had to surrender the worry, the pressure and the feelings of responsibility to God.

Most of us feel responsible for making the outcome of something a success. We feel responsible for our families' security. We feel responsibile for individual members' of our families' happiness. We feel responsible for the direction of our careers. We feel responsible for various things that go on at our church. To some degree this is normal and necessary because in many ways we are responsible.

But all we can do in any of these situations is our best. The results are up to God. How many of us are suffering because we are carrying God's job on our shoulders?

The spiritual practice of submission to God requires us to loosen our grip, to stop being so controling, to give up our agenda. We have to let life unfold naturally, organically, instead of trying to force it.

Submission to God is an act of faith. We have to trust that if we do what we can and if we follow our hearts, God will make everything as it should be.

The freedom that we find when we submit to God is freedom from having such heavy burdens of responsibility and worry.

Know this: this is God's world. God has a plan. Just be yourself. Remain loving and grateful and humble, and the Spirit will take care of the rest.

Surrendering to one another

Have you ever been out on a double date or spending time with another couple, and they get into a big fight right in front of you? It's awkward. It's also painful to witness because you see the two people attacking each other and blaming each other when you know deep down that what they should be doing is loving each other.

All unnecessary arguing and fighting stems from an inability of us to surrender to one another. We push each other around trying to get our own ways or prove our own points, and all this does is damage relationships and damage hearts. Why is it that so many people insist on doing it their way, when their way is hurtful and causing other people to feel alienated?

"The most radical social teaching of Jesus was his total reversal of the contemporary notion of greatness. Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all. Power is discovered in sumbission. The foremost symbol of this radical servanthood is the cross. 'He [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross' (Phil 2:8)" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 115). Christ taught the importance of submitting to one another in how he lived and died. He said that it is better to give in to another for the sake of love than to strike out against another to get your own way.

Submission to one another is an act of self-denial. When we practice self-denial, we quickly realize that our happiness is not dependent on getting our own way. We also quickly realize how much peace and harmony we contribute to the world when we honor other people by letting them make decisions, by letting them do it how they want to do it.

Jesus said, "If any want to beocme my followers, let them deny theselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:34-5). These are hard words for many of us to hear. We would rather be self-fulfilled than self-denying, and we falsely believe that to deny the self is a rejection of our individuality and personhood. But it's not. When we give our lives up for Christ and for the way of love, when we lose what we think we are all about, that is when God gives us a new life that is so much more alive and real and deep and free. You might look the same on the outside, but on the inside, you are a whole different person, and therefore, you act differently.

The freedom that we find in sumbitting to one another "is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 111).

It's not worth it. People that hang on to such anger die young and don't live fully while they are alive. And most of the things we fight about are not nearly as important issues as we make them out to be. It becomes a matter of ego and pride. Friendships break apart, lovers break apart, families break apart, churches break apart. All "because people do not have the freedom to give in to each other" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 111).

Limits

"The limits of the Discipline of submission are.. the points at which it becomes destructive. It then becomes a denial of the law of love as taught by Jesus and is an affront to genuine biblical sumbission" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 120). Unfortunately, many lives have been destroyed or harmed in the name of submission. Some people read Ephesians 5, and use that text to rationalize the subordination of women, children and slaves. But if one reads that text correctly, it is calling for mutual relationships of self-giving between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between masters and slaves. Each half is called to surrender to the other half.

In the days of the Bible, women, children and slaves were dirt; they barely had any rights or respect. If anything, what Ephesians 5 does is give women, children and slaves a place in society where they are to be respected, honored, treated with dignity, listened to.

Whenever submission is used in an abusive manner, it's no longer a Christian spiritual practice. No one is being asked or told to surrender to abuse.

Conclusion

That's because this practice, like all spiritual practices, is designed to set us free and bring us to a place of unity and harmony.

When we surrender to God, we free ourselves from the burdens of worry and responsibility. We rely on our faith to give us direction, and we rely on God to give us victory.

When we surrender to one another, we free ourselves from arguing and always having to get our own way. We hand our very lives over to Jesus, and in doing so, we receive true, eternal and abundant life.

So don't be afraid to let go and let God. Give it up. Surrender control. This is God's desire. It's for our own good- both yours and mine.