Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Reflections

One of my favorite movies this time of year is the 1954 classic, "White Christmas." In the movie they yearn for snow in Vermont. Yesterday a Vermont quality snow storm struck us here in the heart of Oklahoma. Over 14" fell in the matter of a few hours. While this will seem rather unremarkable to our friends in northern climates, it triggered the governor of Oklahoma to declare a State of Emergency and to close the major highways and bi ways in our state. While we had planned to head out on a trip this morning, our family find ourselves housebound and sharing a quiet, but comfortable Christmas together. It seems sometimes in the hustle and bustle of Christmas we are tempted to so over schedule that we miss the important unplanned conversation and play that truly makes memories. I am celebrating that the snow has caused time to stand still and that we get to enjoy this unhurried day together.

One of the great gifts of Christmas this year was that my mother had our old home videos put on DVDs. Last night we watched two or three hours of our life when we first moved to Thailand and made our home there. It was great fun to see little Aaron and little Elizabeth again. We howled with laughter when we looked back on Beth and I wearing multicolored shirts that seemed appropriate at the time, but now look a bit silly. It was fun to look at the younger version of our family and to look back on the hopes and dreams we shared together. From this side of the story I can celebrate how many of those hopes and dreams have come to fruition in our lives. Beth and I wanted our life centered on ministry and to the Kingdom endeavors that would call people toward Jesus. We have served three different ministry roles in the last 15 years. Each was different, but each has given us the freedom to live out our call. I am thankful that I have the opportunity to serve as Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. I celebrate the fact that this congregation is as committed to be the hands and feet of Christ in our community and the world as their are to telling the Christ story. Beth and I also dreamed that our two children would grow into people of faith, of substance, and generosity. They have both found different paths to where they are in life, but I am filled with pride as I look at who they have become as people. While I remember them in their childhood with joy, I am truly thankful for this season when I get to walk beside them as they become adults.

While the time with family is precious, Christmas is ultimately about the coming of God among us that through this one named Jesus we could find forgiveness, redemption, life now, and life eternal. I am who I am because of what Jesus did for me that I might become a child of God. I join Simeon's joyful pronouncement found in Luke 2:30-32; "For my eyes have seen your Salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel." Today I celebrate God's great grace gift, Immanuel, God with us, Jesus the Christ.

Merry Christmas, Tom

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Presence John 1

This blog is the sermon text for yesterday's worship service at FBC OKC. What is your Christmas testimony?

On Thursday Doug Baker, the new editor of the Baptist Messenger, came by for a “get to know you” meeting. I had commented on a rather bold editorial he had written and we discovered we had some things in common. He came by so we could meet face to face and because he wanted to see this place that he had heard about his whole life. I cannot tell you how much fun I had showing him around. One of the thing I particular enjoyed was telling him about this pulpit and showing him where the hands of the previous pastors had worn the finish thin. Some of you may not know that about a year ago I had this pulpit brought back into this room from the Archives Room. It is my understanding that it may date back to when this sanctuary wad originally dedicated in 1912 – and perhaps even earlier. When I look at the worn places I think about the pastors that have stood here with their hands placed on each side. I think about their seasons of ministry and the sermons that must have been preached from here. There are days when I come into this room and put my hand where they put their hands and can image them thundering a message on the moral issue of the day or gently bringing a word of compassion in the moments when the church or the community needed healing. On a day like today I think about the fact that for one hundred and twenty years a pastor of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City has come to this church family the Sunday before Christmas to try to make the old Christmas story fresh again. On a day like today I join the ranks of those who have gone before me and bring you again to the Christmas story. As I do, like those who have come before me, I invite you to not let the Christmas story be so familiar, so routine, that its gravity – its impact – its importance – its power – is lost to us.

How do you take a well known story about the birth of Christ and help it live in the midst of the moment? How do you share the image of Immanuel, God with Us, and help make it fresh and vibrant? This is my fifth year leading us from our daily lives to the foot of the manger. As I look back over these first five Christmas’ together, we have come through the lenses of the prophet Isaiah, focusing on the grand fulfillment of God’s promise for redemption. We have looked at the Gospel of Mark’s account that is bare bones and like the rest of this text, “just the facts,” in a mad dash to make sure the early church had the core of the Jesus story. We have heard from the Gospel of Matthew, and his voice from the edges of culture, helping us to see that Jesus came for all, regardless of their pedigree. We have also heard from the Gospel of Luke, who fills in the blanks of the story and lets us come as a witness to the moment that changes everything. This year we hear from the Gospel of John. It is one of my favorite passages and has seasoned other sermons along the way. John is not worried about timelines or the details of the birth of Jesus. He wants us to see who Jesus is and understand what Jesus means for us and for the world. He wants everyone to be clear that the face of the babe born in the manger in Bethlehem was – and is – the face of God. John’s is not the gospel depicted by children wearing their father’s robes with towel tied carefully on so they can take part in a church nativity play. His is not the gospel of mooing cows and smiling donkeys. Rather than beginning with the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherd and the angels, John begins at the beginning.

John begins this way; Jn 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jn 1:2 He was with God in the beginning. Jn 1:3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. Jn 1:4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. John carries us to the birth of creation. He wants us to understand that the Jesus story is so intertwined with the God story that they are inseparable. John pushes us back to Genesis 1:1-3 where we hear 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. John puts Jesus in the middle of the creation story- as a part of the creation story. He draws us back to the moment when everything began – in the quite stirring of the Spirit and the grand creative act of God. The first act of God in creation brings the physical light of life, this second grand act brings spiritual life through God – life now and forever. From the first words John wants everyone to hear that Jesus is not just a prophet or a powerful teacher; Jesus was with God because Jesus is God. John wants to understand that the coming of Jesus is an act of God – God with us – of parallel significance to the birth of everything. In both moments God acts and history is changed. Both acts are acts that only God can do. In verse 14 he makes it absolutely clear. He says; Jn 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We could take some real time unraveling John’s use of the word “Word” to describe Jesus. I could try to wow you with a look at the Greek origins of the word and its place in the philosophical arguments of the day. But, the goal here is not to give you religious information worthy of a right answer in Biblical Trivia Pursuit, but rather for us to see and hear how this passage might touch us and change us. What is of value to see if that John claims the religious language of his hearers to help them try to understand the coming of the Christ. He begins where they are to help lead them to a meaningful understanding that in Jesus, God came to make the way back home for us. He reaches across history and people’s perception that God is far off and uninterested and plops God in the middle of us – God with us. John claims different words but echoes the words of the prophet and the other Gospel writers where we hear; 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us." (Matthew 1 referencing Isaiah 7) He begins where they are.

Yesterday Beth and I visited the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine Texas to see their Christmas decorations. The scale of the resort hotel and convention center is something to behold and their decorations are of the same scale. There are 10,000 ornaments of the tree. You can watch a bevy of toy trains moving through created communities and across suspension bridges on their small scale tracks. One of the trains even goes through one of the brightly decorated Christmas trees. There is a huge cowboy Santa, a massive dancing moose (or maybe he is just a really chunky reindeer), a life sized ginger bread house, and more. You can hardly turn around with seeing another image of Christmas. There was only one problem. Among all the Christmas images there was no room for anything that might call us toward the babe born in the manger. In the midst of all of the red, green, white, bulbs and babbles, the Christ story was lost. It should be no surprise. In our culture, like the one of John’s initial hearers, people do not know what to do with the story of God who came to dwell among us that we might have life. We need to learn from John and instead of expecting everyone to claim the religious language born in walls like these, but instead we need to find a way to speak with meaning into the culture where we find ourselves. In a word filled with images of Santa Claus and dancing snowmen, we have to find a way to point them to simple beyond the glitz and glimmer, to the story of God made flesh.

John understands and in just a handful of verses he leaps from the moment of creation to thirty years later at the moment of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. The God with us story is more than a babe; it is the lived out story of Jesus. 29-34 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, 'A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel." Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." For the gospel writer John and John the Baptist, the story is one of personal testimony. It is where the divine story and our story meet. It is where the Christmas story comes alive.

The prophet Isaiah claimed different names for the one promised one of God. In Isaiah 9:6 we hear; For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Each of these words strike deep within me – each speak to me and help me to see the Christmas story differently.
“Lamb of God,” the one who comes as a sacrifice for my sins.
“Son of God,” the one who is a part of the trinity of God.
“Wonderful Counselor,” the one who touches my wounded and broken heart and makes it whole again.
“Mighty God,” the one who is strong and powerful.
“Everlasting Father,” the one who was, and is, and every will be. The one that loves me and embraces me.
“Prince of Peace,” the one who is real peace in the midst of the chaos of our world.

The words from the prophet used emerged from the Hebrews story of their walk with God. John claims a different set of words, but again they emerge from his walk with God and from the vocabulary of those who would hear him. I am afraid that we have so wrapped the Christmas story in the religious language of the church that it is almost inaccessible to the people around us. Instead, for just a moment I want to ask you to think about what are the words you claim as you see the face of Jesus. How has the story of “God with us” shaped your life story? What is your Christmas testimony? How do you see what it means for God to be with you, loving you, forgiving you, and making you a child of God? In verses 12 and 13 I think we hear the testimony of the Gospel writer. Jn 1:12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— Jn 1:13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. God came in flesh, Jesus, who was with God at the beginning because Jesus was and is God – came that we might have a way to become the children of God. When there was nothing I could do to claim a real relationship with God, God showed up. God still shows up in my daily faith journey with Him. God made the way. It is an old story. Preachers have been telling it here for one hundred and twenty years – and in gathering of believers for over 2000 years. It is an old story, but it has become my story. This is my Christmas testimony. What is yours?