Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas with the Grinch

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, Please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
Whatever the reason,
His heart or his shoes,
he stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos,

            Christmas seems to always include a Grinch. There is always someone who just doesn't get caught up in the season. The decorations are offensive to their eyes. The music annoys them. They feel busier than they want to be. There are more people in the stores. There is no parking. The streets are slippery.  And, they are resentful at the social pressure to conform to the season.  In response to "Merry Christmas" inwardly they "Bah Humbug".
            Of course some of us have good reasons to not be in the Christmas spirit. For some of you Christmas brings with it an empty chair where a loved one sat. That's not really Grinchiness though. Grinchiness is really about the belief that Christmas is a sham.             
            In the Bible we meet Grinches too. No doubt Mary faced many Grinches as her belly grew and she was not yet married. Grinches are not likely to believe stories about angels and a miraculous pregnancy coming from a teenage girl. Likely Grinches looked down on Joseph who accepted a pregnant Mary as his future wife.  The Roman officials who forced a man and his pregnant wife to travel 155km on foot to complete a census were definitely Grinches. Perhaps the couple faced Grinches as they sought a place to stay in Bethlehem after such a long journey. The Grinchy King Herod learned from the visiting Wise Men that a child had been born who would become the king of the Jews. Not wanting to hand over his throne to a better king, the paranoid Herod took action to kill the child- the expected Messiah.   
            We have our own inner Grinches as well. Our inner Grinches tell us the whole Nativity story is just wishful thinking and fairy tales. Our inner Grinches have a hard time believing that this story (or something like it) happened in history. Our inner Grinches wonder if God even exists, and believing that God somehow became human is just a step too far. Our inner Grinches wonder how we can possibly be expected to believe this stuff.
            The Grinch thinks that if all the presents and sparkly decorations were taken away that Christmas would be shown for the fraud that it is. If the shiny wrapping paper was taken off and the elaborate bow was removed all that would be found is an empty box.           In Dr. Seuss' tale, the Grinch does just that. He dresses like Santa and sneaks into the Whos houses and steals their presents. He takes away the decorations. He takes away the food for the feast. He even takes away their Christmas trees. "On their walls he left nothing but hooks and some wire. And the one speck of food/ that he left in the house/ was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse." The Grinch expects a wail to arise from the town as the Whos wake up and realize that their Christmas has been stolen. He expects that they will feel an emptiness that matches his own inner emptiness.  
            The Grinches think that if all the presents and Christmas trees and twinkling lights were taken away, we would be left with a cold empty reality. The Grinches think that if all the sparkling lights and decorations were taken away we wouldn't really have anything left to celebrate. ... And that is a challenge to us. If it was all taken away from us, would we have anything left to celebrate?
            When the Grinch finished his night and had stolen everything he could from the Who's houses in Who-ville he waited outside of town to hear the fruit of his labour.  The Whos  are put to the test. Is Christmas all about presents?- as the Grinch assumes. ... The Grinch listens in anticipation...  and then he hears something, ... "But the sound wasn't sad!/ Why, this sound sounded merry!/ It couldn't be so!/ But it WAS merry! Very! ... Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,/ Was singing! Without any presents at all!/ He HADN"T stopped Christmas from coming!/ IT CAME!/ Somehow or other, it came just the same!"
            The Grinch believed that the decorations were not really decorating anything. ... The wrapping paper and bow, however, were not decorating an empty box. There was something inside. There was something to sing about. When all the decorations and food and presents were taken away there was still something to celebrate. The Grinch found the Whos singing. Inside that box that the Grinch thought was empty was a person and a story. 
            Inside the box was the story of Jesus' birth. Over 2000 years ago a baby was born. In some ways he was a very ordinary baby. He was human. He dirtied his diapers. He cried. He was fed. He needed protection. He needed the warmth and love of his parents. He wasn't even a very special human, by some standards. He was born where there was no room for him. He was born where there was no crib, so he was laid in a feeding trough for animals. He was not rich. He was not born in a palace. His parents weren't famous.
            The baby was a very real and ordinary human being, but he was also a very extraordinary baby. Accompanying his birth there are stories of angels, and prophecies coming true. No matter who you are and what you believe you cannot deny that this child had a tremendous impact on the world. The very way we measure time points to his birth. We are in the two-thousand-and-eleventh year of our Lord- A.D.- Ano Dominae (in the Latin). Jesus' teachings and followers have impacted the world and changed it. So, yes, this child is also extraordinary. That is something you have to admit whether you are a follower of his or not.  
            Jesus was a mixture of the humble and low, and the lofty and sublime. His mother was an ordinary Jewish girl, but she was still a virgin when she became pregnant with him. He was laid in an animal's feeding trough, but had the blood of the ancient King David running through his veins. He was visited by rough and tumble shepherds, but his birth was announced by angels. He was both ordinary and extraordinary.  And even more paradoxical  in Jesus the human and the divine overlapped in some amazing and mysterious way.
            So why would the Whos sing over this? Why are we gathered here tonight? Why are we singing? ... There are plenty of stories about human beings reaching toward the divine. They think that if they go up the right mountain they might have the chance to see that higher and more glorious place- they might experience the divine.  They think, perhaps if they use the right prayer or meditation they might be able to achieve the experience of heavenly reality. If they weave the right spell, or if they are good enough, or think the right thoughts, then they might be able to have an experience of heaven.
            Christmas, however,  isn't about our reaching for God. Christmas is about the exact opposite. Christmas is about God reaching out to us. Christmas is about God coming to us as a baby. And miraculously, and mysteriously, to know this baby is to know God. Christmas isn't about us reaching out to God through special ceremonies, on special days, with special potions, or special meditations or prayers. Christmas isn't about our reaching at all. Christmas is about God's reaching out to us. Christmas is about God writing himself into the story of humanity. It is about God writing himself into our story. God did this freely as an act of love. God gave us himself- that is the ultimate Christmas gift. That is what is inside the box that the Grinch thought was empty. That is what is worth celebrating even when all the decorations have been taken away. That is what the Whos sing about.  
            And this amazing gift wasn't just given to kings (though it is for them as well). The angels announce that "a saviour has been born to you." It's not just that Jesus has been born. He has been born "to you", or "for you" and this is "good news of great joy that will be for all the people". He has been born for you.  This gift wasn't just meant to be boxed up and taken out once a year. This gift was given to ordinary shepherds during an ordinary work-night. Jesus is a gift for our very ordinary daily lives. He is a gift that makes our ordinary lives extra-ordinary. He invites us to enter into his life, to have a relationship with him, and in that way we become a part of His story which has no beginning and no ending. In His story it is not the Grinches with the most money who are the main actors. It is not the Grinches with the biggest bombs, or nicest cars, or most beautiful faces, or most friends on facebook who play the big parts. The big characters in His story can be played by: a baby in an animal's feeding trough, his simple parents, and shepherds. The big characters are ordinary people who were drawn into an extraordinary story. Their lives are infused with eternal meaning. And that is his invitation to us. That invitation is his Christmas gift to us.
            That is what the Whos were singing about. If all the presents are taken away- If all the decorations are stolen- If our Christmas goodies disappear- we still have a reason to sing. We still have a reason to celebrate. God has come to us.
            If we listen closely with the shepherds tonight we might hear the angels' song. As that song penetrates into our hearts and we get wrapped up in Jesus' life and story we will find that, no matter how ordinary we feel, our small hearts grow three sizes, and our lives are infused with meaning and power to transform the world. As our stories gets wrapped up in his we find ourselves invited into an eternal adventure.   

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

escaping the messy world- Malachi 3

Second Sunday in Advent-

Malachi 3:1-4

3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 3:1-6
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" [written to exiles in babylon?]


There is a movie called “Into the Wild”. It's a book too, but I haven't read it. It is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless. When he was 22, he graduated from college, and then walked away from his privileged life and disappeared. His friends and family couldn't find him. He burned his identification. He disposed of his car. He burned all the money in his wallet, and gave his savings of over $20,000 to charity.
 While on the road he spends his days hitchhiking and taking odd jobs. As the movie unfolds we learn that Christopher is running away from a life of lies. He learns that his parents lied about how they met. His parents met in an adulterous relationship. His father left his wife to marry his mistress, who was Christopher’s mother. He learns that he has siblings that he has never met. He becomes suspicious of society in general. In his view it seemed to be a complex arrangement of lies and illusion. He was suspicious of consumerism and refused to buy into "the World's" idea of success. He eventually gets sick of it all and wants to run away into the wild. He wants to escape the sinful world. He wants to abandon the lies, and so in 1992 he heads for Alaska to live in the wild. He wants to live alone, off the land, in some pure state, away from the polluted, self-deluded, and sinful world.
            He is one in a long line of people who have sought to escape the world and all its trappings; its seemingly pointless politics; its web of lies and false relationships; and its unending complexity. They have sought to escape the lax morals and blatant cruelty; people abusing children; commercials saying you need this thing to be successful, or beautiful, or desirable, or cool, or happy. 
            The prophet Malachi had his own mess he was living in.  Malachi saw the corruption of those who were supposed to be moral and spiritual leaders of the community. They were pitiful examples and the people didn't seem any better.  The priests led the people in half-hearted worship. The people offered God their leftovers rather than their best.  The people and their leaders saw God as a burden. They did not come to God as their great king.  Through Malachi, God says that it would be better for them to stay home rather than come to worship in such a way.  Malachi didn't just see corruption when it came to worship, he saw injustice, arrogance and wickedness everywhere, not just in worship. To Malachi, his culture seemed like a mess. I can imagine Malachi wanting to run off into the wild.       
I can relate to the desire to escape into the wild sometimes. The problems of the world are just too big. I sometimes want to run away to a place in nature, untouched where there are no people, where I can live in peace and simplicity. There maybe the problems can be dealt with. At least there you can get your head around the problems. What do I eat today? How do I keep warm? Where can I find water? No more worries about mortgages. No more worries about student debt, or taxes, or the car breaking down, or selling a house, or politics, or messed-up families, or the destruction of the forests, or the failing health care system, or terrorism, or Iran having nuclear weapons. I can relate to the desire to escape all that. Just the wild and me. It’s simple. It’s understandable.
The desert Fathers and Mothers did exactly that. When the world seemed corrupt and the spiritual communities seemed to be watered down they fled into the wild, where they could worship and live in purity and holiness. The problem for the desert Fathers and Mothers was that when they fled they quickly found out that they haven’t really escaped. They soon realize that they have brought the “World” with them. The brokenness followed them. it followed them because it was rooted in their own hearts.  
In the true story of Christopher McCandless, in 1992 he finds his way into the wilderness of Alaska, just as he hoped. He escapes into the wild. He finds an old abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere that had been at some point used as a makeshift hunting cabin. He soon discovers, however, that he is not in harmony with nature. He shoots a moose, but fails to preserve the meat properly before it is filled with flies and maggots. He uses a field guide to forge for food, but ends up poisoning himself by gathering the wrong plant. He attempts to flee the wild and return to society, but a river that had been a little more than a creek when he arrived was now a raging torrent. Instead of discovering true happiness secluded in the wild away from all the world's problem's, he discovers that happiness is only meaningful if its shared. The brokenness and disorder of the world followed Christopher into the wild. His body, along with his journals were, discovered two weeks after his death.
Those who attempt to escape the brokenness, chaos, and sin of this world find that it follows them. When the London Times Newspaper invited a number of authors to write articles answering the question “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton replied. “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton”. We cannot escape the corruption of the world because it has crept into us. We bring it with us wherever we go.
It has become fashionable to underplay this. We’re all just human, we say. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. ... And it’s true. ... However, there are consequences. Take a lie, for example. Or, even just a broken promise. Everyone has made a promise with the best intentions, but have been unable to keep it. We get busy, or we just plain forget. Think about what that does to the world. … People become a little less trusting. The world becomes a little more suspicious. Our word becomes devalued. When our word is devalued we need some sort of system to make us keep our promise. Soon our “Yes” or “No” is no longer good enough. We have to promise by signing on the dotted line with witnesses signing under us, and agreeing to consequences that will then motivate us to keep our word. Take any little seemingly meaningless sin and multiply it across the world- Everyone committing “little” sins here and there everyday all over the world, and we are left with a very broken world.
When we say “nobody’s perfect” to justify our mistakes and not feel bad about them or do anything about them we are justifying our contribution to the mess of the world.  Are we going to make mistakes? yes. ...  But, we must take the consequences of those mistakes seriously. We must own the fact that we make the world a worse place, because of our failings. We have to own it personally. With G.K. Chesterton we have to recognize that the problem with the world is me. ... This doesn’t mean we go around with long sad faces feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s hardly the point. The point is that God wants to change it. God doesn't want it to be this way, and really... neither do we. We accept the mess because we aren't quite sure what to do about it. We all deal with sin in our lives, and if you can't pinpoint it then your sin in probably pride or vanity. We all wrestle with something that contributes to the mess of the world. We just don't know how to fix it in ourselves, let alone in anyone else. We'd like to be able to fix it, but we don't know how, so we just learn to accept it rather than stress out about it.
When Malachi's people were crying out to God, asking him when he will fix the world, God replied through the prophet,
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. ... Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness" Mal 3:1-4 

            There will be a messenger who will prepare the way for God, but it won't go as expected. Most of us want to put the problems with the world "out there" somewhere. The world is a mess because other people have made it that way. It's someone else's problem. We want God to fix those other people. But, of course the truth is that "the problem with the world" is in each and every one of us. And so the prophet says, "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?". When God comes to deal with the world's problems He will deal with each and every one of us.
            Then the prophet gives us two actions. Refining and cleaning. Both are images where something valuable is recovered. You clean your car. You refine gold that has impurities. The positive and hopeful part of the prophet's message is that God sees us as worth cleaning and worth refining. You don't clean garbage. You don't refine manure. We are worth cleaning. We are worth refining. But, this is also an invasive process. This requires deep cleaning soap. This requires fire that will melt us down right to the core, not just along the edges. If God is going to deal with us He has to get deep down into our heart. God can't just deal with our outward actions. It won't work that way. Our actions are an out-flowing of our hearts. Without a change in our hearts our actions will continue to reflect the brokenness that is there.  The gold has to be purified right down to the centre. It has to be completely melted down to be purified.
            The messenger to announce the coming of this purifying God has come. We are told that John the Baptist was in the wilderness near the Jordan River and had the words of Isaiah and Malachi on his lips. He came to prepare, and to call people to change. He was washing people in baptism, and saying another will come with a refiner's fire. Malachi said the messenger would prepare the way for God, and John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus.                Repent, clean, baptize, refine, prepare- these are words we are given during the Season of Advent. They are primarily God's words. God cleans us, Baptism is a sacramental gift from God, God's fire refines us. Even repentance is something God does inside us.  Of course there is a cooperative element in this. God wants us to want to be changed, cleansed, baptized, refined, and prepared. These are words that make us a bit uncomfortable. What does refining feel like? Does it hurt? What if we aren't ready to let go of something God wants to burn away in the refining fire?      
            Aside from the anxiety these words can provoke in us, these words are also hopeful- Repent, clean, baptize, refine, prepare. These are hopeful words because they point to the fact that we can be changed, and the world can be made a better place. Where it feels impossible for us, it is possible with God. We can be made ready for God’s coming. We can have our minds and hearts changed. If God is going to rule the world, he has to rule our hearts first.
            C.S. Lewis says that we let Jesus into our lives often because there is something wrong or something missing. He's like a houseguest we invite in because he's a bit of a handyman. We have a leaky faucet and the sink won't drain right. We would like a garden door put in the back. So we're happy to have Jesus staying with us. We're happy to have those little fix-it jobs done finally. ... But soon we recognize that he's mucking about with things we never really wanted fixed. He's knocking down walls and putting making additions to the house. he's tearing up the back yard and putting in a garden and water fountains and it all makes us nervous because we weren't sure this was what we were looking for when we let him in. It makes us uncomfortable. We can resist, but if we're going to really have Jesus in our house he won't stop until our house matches his plans. That fixing begins when we invite Jesus in, but it will only be completed when Jesus finally comes to set the world right.
            As Jesus works on us we become people who are in tune with God's compassion and love.  He will fill you with God Himself. He will not only wipe the slate clean. He will give you the strength to live as people of God’s kingdom. He will not only forgive and wipe away your sins. He will empower you and use you to change the world for the better, and it's all happening right now. He is making it so that God is living in you and changing the world through you. And that means that you are becoming one of those places where God is breaking into the world. And that is how God is dealing with the mess we are in. Not by imposing his will on us, but by working with us on our hearts- Refining us, cleaning us. And the end result is good.  
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