Friday, December 25, 2015

The Ultimate Christmas Party

'Tis the season for celebrations and parties! If you were planning the party of the century -- make that many centuries -- who would you invite?

MTV has a "reality" show, "My Super Sweet Sixteen." In this over-the-top commentary on American priorities, hip-hop royalty, Silicon Valley moguls, the NYC elite and others indulge their sweet and not-so-sweet sixteen year celebrants for the sake of the cameras. Presents, party favors, entertainment -- well, let's just say they are a far cry from the house bands that croaked and twanged their way through the most lavish birthday parties in my day. Extravagant. Obscenely so. And, of course, only the A-listers get an invite.

Sunday morning our pastor set my mind to daydreaming with a comment he made in his sermon. Honestly, I don't remember the comment. And, sadly, once my thoughts got to meandering, there's a good bit of his sermon I missed. But, I started thinking about "the first Christmas party." There were no sequined dancers or boa-draped starlets. No DJ or glowsticks. The crowds did not part as Jesus arrived, waving from the moonroof of a stretch limousine. As far as we know, not a single gift was exchanged that night. But one was given, and we have paused to remember that night each year, for two thousand years. Why?

The nature of the gift. In the most simplistic of answers, this Babe came to die that others might live. Of course, His life taught us about love and charity, grace and faithfulness righteous anger and holy living. But this Holy Child was God Himself, sent that He might be with us, that He might pay the ultimate price for us, that He might remain in us, and one day welcome us into His heavenly kingdom. He came to us, born out of the love and wonder of an awesome and skillful God -- His love for all of us.

The "original" guest list. Present that night were ordinary, and some less than ordinary people. Mary, a young bride, a virgin, and of humble situation. Joseph. We assume he was older, but had he expected this kind of drama when he'd entered into the marriage agreement with Mary's father? (Somehow we tend to forget Joseph was as "called" on this holy journey as Mary.) Shepherds, night watchmen for a bunch of dumb, dirty sheep; men who did not have access to proper bathroom facilities or even a roof over their heads. Livestock. Whether you prefer the image of a stable out back a crowded inn, or the first floor of a home, where animals were kept to warm those sleeping above, in all likelihood animals were present. (If not initially, quite possible the shepherds arrived with a few; shepherds usually kept the most immature and weakest of the flock close by them for safety and care.) Somehow, I can't imagine folks inviting some chickens or mules to their child's first birthday party, much less the delivery room. But this guest list was a who's who of the humble and the faithful; willing and obedient in their attendance to the One True King.

The recipients of the gift. You and me. That's right, at this party, guests receive the gifts! Perpetually! I can't speak for you, but I know how undeserving I am of this gift. Years ago my life was a mess, and I was tired of riding the roller coaster; clawing myself out of the pits only to find myself there again. I gave all my burdens to God and asked Him to help me fall in love with Him. Before I knew it, Scott had come along, bringing with him three wonderful children. The house in which I'd been living began to look like a home. I became more preoccupied with thinking of others rather than worrying about what others thought of me. I was so grateful for the many blessings and positive changes in my life, I had no choice but to acknowledge God, the Giver of all good gifts! For the first time in a long time I was actually excited about living; I had simply wanted to get on some steady ground, to be in love with God the way I knew He wanted me; but this? This was far more than I ever expected or earned. It could only be God. But that's the way He works. His gifts are unmerited, unearned, undeserved, and far greater than anything we can typically understand or desire. Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, we are all invited to become recipients of His Christmas Gift. And like the presents that sit beneath the Christmas tree, waiting to be opened, enjoyed, and employed with all the zeal we have within us, so is the Gift of the Child King to each of us.

I urge you to "open" His Gift this Christmas. Call on Him; ask Him to help you fall in love with Him. Get ahold of a Bible. Find a church. His is the gift that keeps on giving. Id love to see you at the party next year!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent: A Time for Faithfulness

Once a year -- during our busiest season -- my job requires me to work on Sunday. This past Sunday was the day. When my supervisor came to me last week and mentioned it, those who overheard immediately began to interject. "What about church?! You can't miss church." "You know Judi doesn't work on Sunday! She's religious!" I catch a bit of flack for being "the Bible-banger" at work. Most of it is in good fun, and I don't mind at all. But when the objections started the other day, I explained, "If I was religious, I would have a problem working on Sunday; but I'm not." Sadly, a bustling UPS office at Christmas affords me no opportunity to explain my statement; on "quiet" days, we get about a thirty second interval between phone calls. But my statement was made; the explanation would have to wait until another time.

The truth is, the shift for which I was scheduled started well before our worship service starts; I knew I'd have enough time to get there and, trust me, I would not have missed church for work. Secondly, had I refused "for religious reasons," I would have been given some other horrible shift to work that would have taken me from anything else I'd rather be doing. Third, I am not religious. My relationship with Jesus doesn't require me to keep rules like "Stand up when the congregation is standing;" "Give up something for Lent;" "Do no work on Sunday." God has showered me with unspeakable grace; He has transformed my heart, and out of that flows a desire to honor Him, serve Him and remain holy. Religion turns that design completely around; religion observes rules and rites in an effort to be holy and show yourself worthy to God. Religion is futile.

In Luke 2:21-24, Luke records Joseph and Mary's keeping of Jewish law: the circumcision of Jesus, recognition of Mary's time of purification, and the presentation at the temple of their firstborn son. Circumcision and purification were rites required of God's people in Mosaic Law. Setting apart of the firstborn (a ceremony known today as Pidyon Ha'ben) was also required in the Old Testament. Joseph and Mary held in their arms the Son of the Living God, a Redeemer sent to earth to buy each one of us back from sin and death at the cost of His life. The Child they held was the ultimate Sacrifice, and eradicated the need for us to sacrifice. He was Grace incarnate, and bestowed upon all of us the privilege of adoption into God's family without the rules and observations the people of Israel had been accustomed to upholding. Because of Jesus we are no longer bound by religion. Maybe there's a certain irony in these two people chosen by God for such an honor, being obligated to observe God's Law because the baby they held had not yet died. Maybe it's just faith.

The problem with religion isn't the "stuff": rules, restrictions, memorizations, ceremonies. The problem with religion is observance without attitude. I don't believe Joseph and Mary obeyed God's Law because they feared divine retribution; they didn't follow the rules because "good people" do that sort of thing. Would God have chosen a couple like that? I believe God chose them because they loved Him. They were willing, and humble, and faithful. Their hearts were as consecrated to God as they wished their son to be. (Now that is ironic.) Though they did not see the whole picture, it is clear Joseph and Mary knew they held in their arms a King, the Savior of the people of Israel. Were they tempted to ignore the rules that applied to others, the "common people"? Did they ever have the urge to forego a sacrifice they probably could not afford, on the grounds they would one day surrender their son to the whole of Israel? Maybe, but nevertheless, they remained faithful.

This Advent may come at a time when your income is failing -- or may already have failed -- or your family is fighting, or your health is not so good, or you've found yourself so sad and alone you can't stand the thought of one more carol. All those traditions that draw us into feeling like we just never measure up? All those obligations, religious or otherwise? Leave them at God's throne. Make this Advent a time to surrender in prayer before the King of Kings, let His Word speak to you, seek only His will for your life, and be faithful to it.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent: A Time to Defy Convention!

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton gave birth to their second child in 2015, a little girl. I'm no "royal watcher," but you couldn't miss the pomp and circumstance associated with this small baby's appearance. Thanks to the internet and celebrity voyeurs, you can know Princess Charlotte's exact weight, length, time of birth -- even if poor Kate had an epidural or not. (She didn't -- Showoff!) From Kate's perfectly coiffed hair and the littlest Mountbatten-Windsor's top of the line layette, from royal midwives to a designer nursery, theirs is a picture-perfect nativity scene. And, really, who would expect anything less? But this infant, who is fourth in line for the throne of England, had a much more ostentatious birth than One first in line as King of Kings. In fact, the entire Christmas story is rife with the unexpected.

First, there was Mary. Based on custom, scholars speculate she was a young teenager. In order to adequately communicate my point, I'm going to need you to do something. Take a moment, look in on your 14-year old as she is allegedly studying. Go ahead. Don't worry, she won't hear you: her iPod volume is at an unhealthy level, and she's on her phone. What did you see? Well, if she's anything like most teenage daughters, you sort of have to shoulder the door open a bit because, no doubt, there are clean clothes rolled up in a ball in front of it. (She figured she'd just try putting a couple of outfits together so she wouldn't be distracted from studying by worrying about what she was wearing to the movies on Friday. And she wouldn't dare take the time to rehang or refold them -- she's got studying to do, after all.) Once you successfully open the door a crack, you'll undoubtedly see her feet moving like one of those inflatable flailing arm men at the car wash , her butt bopping up and down, and her hair and her head moving opposite one another. You'll wonder for a second how she does that without dislocating something. But then it will dawn on you: she is about the same age as Mary was when she was called to mother the Son of the Most High. Where did you go wrong?

We often have this idea that Mary was exceptional. Portraits and crèches depict Mary as this saintly, dignified woman. While it's true our culture is much different and times have changed, one only has to look in the rest of the Bible to know God so rarely chooses the ones that "have it all together." Mary was given a great honor, but could there have been someone who appeared more qualified? Perhaps. But 1Samuel 16:7 tells us God's criteria is much different. God looks at the heart. Judging by Mary's response to the angel's announcement, Mary's greatest qualification was a humble and willing heart.

Then there was Anna. There are three little verses in Luke 2 that are her legacy -- what an inspirational one it is! Anna was married for seven years, and a widow for eighty-four. Do the math. If we assume, like Mary, she was married as an early teen, that makes this woman about 104! And widowed before her mid-twenties! She could have remarried; Levitical Law provided for the support of widows through remarriage. Instead, she served God "night and day," never leaving the temple. She was a prayer warrior. She fasted, which, for a woman in her hundreds, is no small feat; but the true prayer warrior knows, fasting is the secret weapon, the A-bomb. This woman was committed to her commitment! And her mind was sharp. Others missed the Messiah; even as they cried out, "Crucify him!" Not Anna. She'd awaited the hour, and was present and prepared when it came. But for her, it wasn't a final blessing, her "Oh-I-can-die-now moment;" Anna continued working. She "spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." Anna's life did not end in some spectacular public swan song. It ended with Anna rising each day to serve her Lord as she had everyday before, though now with the incarnation of the Babe King before her eyes. A woman given such an honor; yet humble, faithful, tireless and purposeful enough to get right back to work with renewed verve.

A virgin gives birth. A baby King is wrapped in rags for warmth. Angels proclaim the Messiah's arrival to shepherds rather than the spiritual elite. A centenarian widow sends out birth announcements for God's One and Only Son. Unconventional in every way. And He is still defying convention. Will you surrender your heart to be changed by Him? Will you be a humble and willing vessel? How will God use you to turn this Christmas upside down?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent: A Time of Preparation

One of my favorite movies is "A Knight's Tale." Paul Bettany plays a comedic Geoffrey Chaucer, heralding squire William Thatcher as "Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein," and aiding him in his impersonation of a noble. Thatcher's abilities as a jouster (?) earn him the prize, and the girl, of course, but "Chaucer's" heraldry is epic. His embellishment, his seduction, his artistry with words never ceases to leave me captivated.

From conception, John the Baptist was chosen by God to proclaim the arrival of Jesus, the long awaited Messiah. What an honor! What a responsibility! While reading the account of Christ's birth in Luke 2, I couldn't help but notice the attention and placement allotted the account of John's birth in Luke 1. Given the nature of his calling, it's no wonder. And the parallels in the two births is equally striking.

Both were miraculously conceived: one, because of his mother's advanced age; one, because of His mother's virginity. Both sons were an answer to prayer: one, the prayers of his parents; one, the prayers of the entire Israelite people. Both were announced by an angel. Both firstborn sons were circumcised and presented at the temple; and the account of John's circumcision is just as noteworthy as Jesus'. Though John never hesitated to speak of his own unworthiness, Jesus said of him, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist." (Matthew 11:11a)

In the culture of ancient Israel, barrenness was a terrible stigma and humiliation, the reprieve of which was an indication of tremendous blessing. John was such a gift to Zacharias and Elizabeth, and a harbinger to the Greatest Gift to come!

Both John the Baptist and Jesus spent time in a place known for its harsh characteristics and challenging situations: the wilderness. For those who have been there, the wilderness may be a place of testing and trial, but it is a place of strengthening and training. When all else is taken from us; when we are alone with the Lord in a difficult place, we find He is all we need, and we are drawn closer to Him in fellowship. John spent years in the wilderness, separated from the world in which he was born, allied only with his Heavenly Father and learning directly from Him how to be a herald for the One True King.

Since ancient days, heralds were appointed to announce the coming of a king well in advance of his arrival, that the people might prepare themselves and their town for the exceptional events that would accompany the royal's visit. The people of Israel had been promised a Savior; their prophets had been quiet for hundreds of years; and they were under terrible persecution by the Roman Empire. They were certain the time of their redemption was nigh. But John, the herald selected by God to announce the arrival of the King of Kings brought them an unexpected message: a message that called for them not to prepare open celebrations, but to quietly prepare their hearts for this King; a message not about gamely taking up arms in war against Rome, but taking up the humble tasks of self-examination and repentance in a spiritual war. God's herald directed the eyes of Israel to One who would redeem much more than their mortal lives; this was a plan for the ages, and John was its messenger!

Every word he said about Jesus was true. He did not gild the lily; there was no obsequiousness or bombastic elocution. His speech was not colored by his own opinions or agendas. He never made himself any more than one who humbly served a worthy King. May I be such a herald! And may we all use this time to prepare our hearts for the One who daily wants to unfold before us the plan He so lovingly designed for each of us. May we prepare in our hearts a place worthy of a righteous and holy King.