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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Some New Thoughts on an Old Story



It is Thanksgiving weekend, and I certainly have much for which to be thankful.  But for the past two weeks I’ve been looking beyond Thanksgiving…to Advent.

I’ve preached tons of sermons over the years, but – until two years ago – I never was the primary pulpit minister.  As a result, I seldom had to present a holiday message.  Many of my colleagues in ministry have shared the opinion that “holiday preaching” is one of the most challenging tasks in all of ministry.  And now I tend to agree with them.

Why?  Because it is extremely difficult to preach about Easter and Christmas, year after year, and keep the message fresh.  These holidays define our faith in essential ways, yet the core story is contained in just a few Bible passages.  People enjoy revisiting these familiar stories, but – at the same time – no one wants them to become stale.

Some pastors I know simply give up, and refuse to preach holiday messages at all.  They create some other kind of sermon series – working their way through a relevant topic or a Bible book – and stick with that series right through the holiday.   I did that (sort of) two years ago, during my first Christmas at Garden Way, preaching just one seasonal sermon on the Sunday before Christmas.  And even that one message fit neatly into the larger (non-Advent) series I was preaching. 

I certainly understand the motivation for avoiding the annual holiday sermon series.  However, I’m not sure this is the best approach, for me or for the church.  It’s certainly easier on me as the preacher, but then the entire church (which includes me, by the way) misses out on the message and the meaning of the season.  And we all lose some of the spiritual rhythm of life that comes from taking time to step back and re-visit the foundational message of Advent: the arrival of God in human form.   

It is an amazing story…a life-changing story…that we cannot take for granted. 

So last year I preached a multi-week series that worked through most of the core Christmas passages.  It was delightful to do so for the first time, but then this year – as Christmas was approaching – I found myself in a quandary.  How should I attempt to “re-preach” some or all of these passages? 

One of the beauties of the internet is that sermon research is amazingly easy, so I’ve been perusing various websites in search of ideas for the Christmas season.  And I’ve discovered that other ministers – facing this same challenge - have come up with some wonderfully creative ways to proclaim the Advent message anew.

I have no desire to preach another pastor’s message, so I was not looking for sermons…I was looking for sermon topics.  I was hoping for a creative spark that would give me an idea for a fresh way to approach the familiar Christmas texts. 

My search was, to a certain extent, futile.  I did not have that “eureka” moment when I was hit by a flash of insight.  However, this search did get me thinking creatively about the Advent message.  In particular, I started to think more specifically about the people involved in the story.  About the ups and downs of their lives, particularly in the months and weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus.

And it struck me that far too often, I have approached Christmas as a bit of warm, comforting history.  As an ancient tradition, over which my family has laid its own traditions.  But to a certain extent, this has caused me to lose sight of the biblical story of Christmas.  I was forgetting that God intervened in the lives of specific people – people like Zechariah & Elizabeth; Joseph & Mary - at a specific moment in history. 

These individuals were not static characters in a play.  They were not “tools” to be used by God to accomplish His purposes.  They were real people, with real struggles and real challenges.  And because of His great love for His children, God did not just accomplish His purposes through them, He showed up to do something significant for them. 

All of this was churning around in my head, so I spent several days pondering…and praying… and reading (and re-reading) the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke.  And slowly, a theme began to emerge.  Slowly some ideas crystallized.  And ultimately the Lord enabled me to discover a new way to present Advent to the church this year.    

So in December, I will present five messages that wrestle with the question, “When Does God Show up?”  Here’s how I described this series to the church:

“Christmas is about God’s arrival in human form; that defining moment in history when Jesus came to live among us.  The Christmas season reminds us that God showed up in an amazing way to display His wisdom, His power, and His love for people. 

In this series of messages, we will explore the lives of some familiar characters in the Christmas story and see how God made His presence known before the birth of Jesus.  Speaking through angels and dreams, God showed up – in critical moments – to meet the heart-felt needs of His children.  And through Jesus, God still shows up to meet our needs today.” 

God shows up… 

When We’re Disillusioned (Luke 1:5-25)
The story of Zechariah & Elizabeth as they desperately wait to become parents


When We Least Expect (Luke 1:26-38)
The story of Mary and the angel’s announcement of her impending pregnancy


When We’re Confused (Matthew 1:18-25)The story of Joseph after he learns of Mary’s pregnancy

When Life is Hard (Luke 2:1-7)
The story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the manger


Postscript:  Do We Sincerely Want God to Show Up? (Matthew 2:1-12)
The contrasting stories…and contrasting purposes…of Herod and The Wise Men
 

I’ve not yet written these messages, but I’m intrigued with this fresh perspective on Advent.  Just pondering these themes is building within me a sense of anticipation for the month of December.  I’m excited to see what God will say to me as I begin to craft these messages next week.

So I’m trusting that the preparation and presentation of these sermons will be a transforming experience for all of us.

I’m trusting that God will show up in our midst.

And I'm trusting that when God does show up, He will do so in an intensely personal way...desiring to work through us and in us...just as he did for our ancestors in the faith, during that very first Christmas season.

- Bruce

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Absence of a "Post-Vacation Letdown"



As we pass our 2nd anniversary here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible change that has taken place in our lives.  We are in a new place, making new friends, participating in a new church, living in a house unlike anything we ever have experienced, and we are learning a new rhythm of life. 

How can anyone summarize all of this?

For me, the most succinct way to distill all of this down is captured in the title of this post:  “The Absence of a Post-Vacation Letdown’”.

Here is what I mean. 

By God’s grace, we live in a place of beauty.  It is green here all year round.  It is a place where we can work hard and be frenetic if we want…but it is a place where we easily can step back from perpetual busyness and experience peace.  And tranquility.  And silence.  We live in a country setting in the heart of town.  We can be outside of town in mere minutes.    

And it is green.  Oh, so green.

We have learned that for us, the green of God’s creation is life-giving.

Our life in Southern California was comfortable and familiar.  It was home; the place of our birth; the place where we raised our family.  It was a place of rich, long-standing friendships; people that we now miss intensely.  We lived in the center of an entertainment mecca, where there always was something to do.  But it was expensive and crowded…and it was green for only a few months of the year.

Getting established here has kept us busy, so our times away have been few.  Other than an overnight trip here or there, we had not taken a real vacation until we spent a few days camping in the mountains this past summer.  We were about 75 miles from home, and it felt as if we were in a different world.  And after a few days of kayaking, driving through parts of the Cascades, and taking long walks with our dog, we felt completely relaxed and at ease. 

In the past, on the last morning of a trip, I would find myself getting anxious about the return home.  I would be regretting the end of vacation and the return to our frenetic (though fruitful) life.  I would be planning our departure times to try to miss the worst of the LA-area traffic.  I knew that we would be coming home to summer weather that was hot and dry; that we would be driving past hills that were brown; that inevitably – despite my best planning – at some point we would be sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-5 or I-10 or I-15. 

In other words, coming home after a vacation was a real let-down. 

And all that changed this past summer.  As we packed up the RV and drove back into town, we passed from the green of the Cascades to the green of the Valley.  We traveled from one kind of beauty to another kind of beauty.  We left a place of vacation rest and returned to a home that also is a place of rest.

There simply was no post-vacation letdown. 

This was a transforming experience; another unexpected blessing of our move to this place.  Another reminder that the Heavenly Father knows what is best for each of His children…and He knew this place would be the best for us. 

In this place of beauty, where creation is green and lush, God is allowing us to find some space and to experience life in a whole new way. 

We are busy and productive, and we are at peace…whether away or at home. 

-      Bruce