Saturday, December 25, 2010

Simeon and the Second Christmas Carol

It's a beautiful Christmas morning in Minnesota...God's country. (I've listened to the news, and as I understand it, we broke our record for a December snowfall this year.) I'm sitting here feeling rather relaxed, with my nice warm cup of coffee. I'm remembering last night with my family, and how good it felt for all of us to be together.

Obviously, everything Christmas is on my mind. But not in the way that I think most people in the U.S. think about Christmas. I'm thinking back to last Sunday when Pastor Scott was preaching in Luke 2.

Christmas is odd enough when you really dig into it. There are only two accounts of it in the bible. Two different versions, with two different perspectives dealing with the same occurrence. And then you throw in all of the secular cultural baggage that has high-jacked Christmas. Odd stuff indeed.

No one really knows what date Jesus was born on. The early Mediaeval church chose December 25th as a way to witness to the pagans of northern Europe because it coincided with the winter solstice. (The Christmas tree is an evergreen, which symbolizes eternal life.) Still, I think that most folks get the basic idea...even if it is often lost in the rush to maximize credit card debt.

On whatever date Jesus was actually born, the story doesn't end there. It goes on, even though it is so easily lost.

Over a month after Jesus was born, his folks had to take him up to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice of purification in the temple. I've been thinking a lot about what happened when they did this.

"Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous & devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ (Messiah). Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
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 glory to your people Israel.

The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: This child is destined to cause the falling & rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many heart will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."
Luke 2:25-35

You could meditate on that passage for a long, long time, because it is heavy with massive implications. But I'll save that for some other day.

"Religion" makes a lot of sense. Religion is humanities' attempt to reach God. It is under our control. We get to call the shots and be the boss. Religion is also the enemy of the gospel, and doomed to fail. But it explains a great deal as to why Christmas is the way that it is.

"Religion" is people making sacrifices to the great pagan deities of Macy's, Target, Best Buy and Bank of America. "Religion" is pastors & preachers in fancy robes on the T.V. telling you how to vote to please God, what books you can't read, movies you can't see, and telling you to give them money so that God will make you rich. "Religion" is confusing America, or any other "Kingdom of Man," with actually being the "Kingdom of God" and putting cute & empty sayings like "In gOD we trust" on the sacrifices we offer. "Religion" is "God in a Box" stuffed down deep so that we can control him like a genie.

It makes a lot of sense, because we get to create God in our image.

And then there is Jesus and his way, his kingdom...or what is often referred to as Christianity. (I still have a hard time with the word "Christianity" due to all of the negative images that pop up when you use that term. Still...)

The way of Jesus really doesn't make much sense at all. An unwed teen mom gives birth to a baby boy and sets him in a feed trough? God takes on human form and introduces himself in that manner? A helpless baby needing breast-milk just to survive, and filling his diaper...or what ever they used way back then?

When Jesus showed up on the scene, his very entrance is very resistant to the norms of the kingdoms of that day...and he still is. No grand entrance with bands and parades. No mighty armies conquering everything in it's path in his name. No uniforms, crowns, or fireworks. No. Just after-birth, blood, sweat and the smell of animals and their feces. And as this boy grows up, he proceeds to give himself away at every turn, until the only thing left to give is his very life. A God isn't supposed to do that, you know. That doesn't make mush sense at all if you are going to be the King of kings.

Jesus is still resistant to what people think "Religion" ought to be. You don't need to be religious to follow Jesus. In fact, doing so is a really bad idea. There are no hoops to jump through to please God and become acceptable to fact, you can't become acceptable to God through your own efforts. So maybe this year, stop trying so hard to please whatever gods you bow down to. (You might not call them gods, but you still treat certain things that way and your actions betray you.) Instead, just recognize yourself for what you are...a fallen, broken, flawed human. Embrace that. Cease your striving and just embrace the grace that God extends to you thanks to everything he accomplished when he gave himself away.

I wont kid you that everything is hunky-dory after that. But I can promise you that it will be an adventure you wont regret. Think of it as the gift that keeps on giving.

One day, along time ago, a very old man is in the temple and he sees. He sees a couple with a baby. The Spirit promised him that this day would come, and now it is here. And that old man sings the second Christmas Carol ever heard because he knows what this is really all about. It isn't about money, power, expensive presents and an "Americanized" faith, stripped of it's majesty & mystery. It is about hope and salvation for both Jews and Gentiles, God keeping his word, and this very God drawing near to a humanity who are such a mess that they can't even walk straight. Simeon recognizes God.

"Because God loved the world, he demonstrated it in this way; he gave his one & only son, that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did NOT send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."
John 3:16 & 17

That's what Simeon saw on that day long, long ago. No wonder he burst out singing.

"The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into our neighborhood."
John 1:14 (The Message)

Happy Christmas


Friday, December 17, 2010

Jingle Dog and other Christmas songs.

I jut got back from my folks place. I've been making trips to drop off the various presents that I have been wrapping. It would appear that I might be overdoing it as usual.

I don't know why, but I really do enjoy wrapping gifts. I can't say that I am all that talented in most areas of life. However, it would appear that I do have a knack for wrapping things. I can make a box of dead squirrels look awesome. (Perhaps I shouldn't have written that, because if my Dad reads this he'll know what he's getting on Christmas Eve.)

Anyway, one of the funnier things about Christmas for our family is how much the dog gets into it. Seriously, Rika absolutely loves Christmas. She has more fun than the rest of us combined. She even knows which packages are hers. She will go up to them during the day and sniff at them. When it comes time to open them, she pretty much freaks out. She also has the amusing habit of trying to stuff her mouth with as much wrapping paper as possible, and then prancing around the living room showing off for everyone.

Perhaps I should have gotten a prescription of Ritalin for her.

Well, my sister & I went out on a big hunt yesterday for presents. Honestly, we don't really spend all that much. But we both try to find one gift of significance for each family member. The rest are just fun odds & ends...which are then wrapped up in an incredibly awesome manner by me.

Needless to say, there is a huge load of various christmas carols being played where ever you go. Most of the songs are incredibly annoying. However, we had lunch at Ikea, and they were playing some of the strangest christmas tunes I'd ever heard. That was actually rather refreshing. That got me thinking. (Always a danger in that.)

I felt like posting something today. But since I have to head to work in less than an hour, I thought I would sort of cheat. The following are some of my favorite Christmas tunes, along with commentary by yours truly. Enjoy. (And if you're lucky, at least one of them will get lodged in your brain like a Yuletide sliver.)

First up, Sarah McLachlan

Oddly enough, of all of the "Secular" christmas tunes out there, I really think that this one could easily be sung in church. For a Believer, the war really is over. Jesus won. It's as simple as that.

Strange, but this song has been stuck in my head for over a day now. I was singing it at work last night. Also, if you check it out on YouTube, you will see that John Lennon's tune has been re-recorded by more folks than almost any other christmas song. The Three Tenors even have a version out there. (Weird!)

Back after Rattle & Hum came out, I sort of thought that U2 had forgotten how to Rock n' Roll. Turns out I was wrong...thankfully.

Next up, the Ronnettes. The video is actually quite horrible. However, the song is great. Back in 63', crazy Phil Spector produced the album, "A Christmas Gift for You." It's still a classic, and the Wall of Sound is always excellent.

And now for a flashback to my childhood. I think that this is proof that the Brits will always be better at music than most Americans. (Sorry, but that's just a fact.) Sad to say, the message is still relevant.

Early on, back when 60s Rock was getting mixed with "Progressive" music, Jethro Tull came out with an interesting take on the christmas story. I've always loved this neo-medieval style. (The message is a good one, too.)

Finally, every year David Letterman has Darlene Love on to sing her hit from that Phil Spector album I mentioned earlier. You get can mighty cynical about the season. You can get hugely annoyed by the horrible music and rampant consumerism that is in your face...and entertain thoughts on all of the people who really ought to get nothing but lumps of coal this year. However, unless you are a heartless, puppy & bunny eating, card-carrying member of the communist party, there is no way that you can't get a smile on your face and enjoy this song. (That's a fact, kids.)

Merry Christmas


Monday, December 13, 2010

1 Timothy & Advent thoughts.

Immanuel. Imm - Anu - El = "With us God."

The Hebrew language flip-flops nouns & verbs, so for those of us who speak English, we translate Immanuel as "God with us." Works either way. God IS with us. God is FOR us.

I was thinking about church yesterday as I was getting ready to write this. I went back into the Gospel of Luke to look some stuff up and noticed something I hadn't thought of before. It has to do with how much God actually likes us. (So I would like the following to be a nice, big, painful poke in the eye to all who believe that God hates sinners...because you will need to find a different version of the Bible to prove that nonsense.)

When Gabriel visits this young, unmarried teen girl named Mary to tell her that she will give birth to the promised Messiah, twice he tells her that she has found "Favor" in God's eyes. Later in Bethlehem, when the shepherds are sung to by heaven's choir, the lyrics include "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

I'm not a scholar. At best, I am just a layman. But it seems to me that unless you embrace the idea of "Works" as a way to gain God's favor, then it seems to me that God really likes/favors/LOVES people...even when they/we/I are in full-tilt rebellion and sin. And because God is proactive, while we are depraved, he starts the ball rolling.

Because of our fallen nature, we turn our backs and run from him. So what does God do? He pursues us. He draws near to us. He comes along side us. Immanuel. "God WITH us."

If you pay attention to Scripture, you will see that YHWH does that a lot.

So anyway, yesterday at Living Waters, Pastor Scott preached a sermon called "Christmas Deliveries," using 1 Timothy 1:15-17. Paul is writing to his buddy Tim, and he sums up rather neatly what exactly Jesus came to do.

"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: The Messiah Jesus, came into the world to save sinners - of which I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, the Messiah Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen."

I think that parallels nicely with John 3:17; "For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

Jesus' purpose for coming here = To save sinners. To show mercy. To give eternal life.

How's all that for a Christmas gift?

The question remains as to wether or not individuals will actually open the present that God offers them? It would certainly be a pity for those who choose not to.

Yesterday the children of Living Waters put on their Christmas show for us. Jana, who runs the children's ministries, rocked the house. The kids were great.

They came back up at the end of the service and sang us out. One of the songs that was chosen was My Deliverer by Rich Mullins and the Ragamuffin Band. It never really occurred to me before, but that song really ought to be included in the traditional Christmas Canon of songs that are sung during the holidays. It makes perfect sense if you listen to the lyrics.

Once again, the video is pretty lame, but the message is spot on. Enjoy

Peace & Merry Christmas.


P.S. Here is another song by Rich Mullins. What I would recommend is that you pay close attention to what Rich says before the song begins. I found it to be very intriguing. "If you want a religion that makes sense, I suggest something other than Christianity. But if you want a religion that makes life, then I think this is the one."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Advent of Justin Bieber as a Chewy Toy...with a moral to the story.

This post might seem a bit odd at first. Not that there is anything new about that coming from me. However, please do watch the video at the end of this piece. This all may make more sense then.

This past Friday was "Black Friday." The day in which the average retailer hopes to turn a profit after selling stuff all year.

I didn't go to the malls to buy anything. I did, however, go to one place just to watch everyone else going crazy. I have a sadistic streak in me that must be satisfied I suppose. So I went to a local shopping center and watched the suffering of others. It was least to me.

Americans are addicted to commercialism. Our nation's economy depends upon people going out and buying things we don't really need. It's a strange situation to find yourself in. It's not as if we are lacking for food, clothing or comfort. But that kid working at American Eagle needs you to buy another sweatshirt so they can pay for their college.

I have no answer for how we can get out of this.

I need to see that movie.

I like to give presents. I really do. However, I am trying very hard to give gifts that have a good deal of significance to them. It's pretty easy to spend a lot of money on something that is nice, but will easily be forgotten in short order. So I like to make things to give to people. I created 5 varieties of salsa over the summer that I will package up and give to my friends and family. It's practical and tasty...and will be remembered.

When I give out Christmas cards, they are either gross & mildly obscene, or they deal with Hannukah, Kwanza and Tet. Again, my stuff will be remembered for quite some time.

My dog thoroughly enjoys Christmas. She loves the wrapping paper because it makes an excellent chewy toy. (It's funny, but messy.) She goes nuts opening her gifts, and the whole family enjoys the spectacle.

This year, I decided to be truly goofy. I purchased for the dog a Justin Beiber doll. I thought that the site of the dog chewing the snot out of that thing would be rather amusing, and would make for great pictures on FaceBook. As it turns out, I was correct.

I had to take the little Bieber doll out of the plastic package so that the dog would be able to open in properly and not choke on the accessories. In the process, my weird brain decided to have some fun. The following is a story book of sorts. 18 photos that tell a Christmas tale for the whole family. Enjoy!

Little Bieber has a new home, and he was very, very happy. "I'mma tell you one time. Please take me out of this package so I can play with you," he said.

"I will help you decorate your house for Christmas," said little Bieber.

So little Bieber climbed the ladder to put up the big, green light above the garage. "This is difficult for me because I am so tiny," said he.

After he installed the pretty light, little Bieber put the top back on the lamp. "There will now be one less lonely lamp," said he.

Oops! Little Bieber slipped off the light and missed the ladder. "Baby, baby, NO!" cried little Bieber.

Little Bieber was in a pickle. Because he was a tiny, little midget, he could not get back to the ladder. "I know I said I will never let you go, but I must do so and jump to the pavement from here," said little Bieber.

Oops! Poor little Bieber fell right onto the mouse traps that mean old Joey had strewn about the garage floor. "Ow, ow, ow!" squealed little Bieber. "I will never make it to puberty at this rate."

Little Bieber freed himself from the mouse traps and sulked back into the house. "I need an Usher to open these doors for me," said little Bieber.

Little Bieber was very sad as he climbed the stairs.

Little Bieber sat at the top of the stairs and cried. "Boo-Hoo," he sniffed. "I only wanted to help make Christmas special before the dog starts chewing on me."

Then along came Smeagol who asked, "What's Christmas, Precious?!?!"

Little Bieber said, "It's when Jesus gave birth to Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. It's a tradition to go deep into debt to buy items that will be quickly forgotten, and give them to people that you often can barely tolerate in a vain attempt to win their affection."

"Okie dokie," said Smeagol to little Bieber. "I will give you this microphone as a present. Then you can sing to me for my present."

Little Bieber went into the bathroom and cleaned himself up for his big performance for Smeagol. "Now I will be one less lonely girl," said little Bieber.

So little Bieber sang and sang and sang all night long. Mostly he covered ballads by Marty Robbins and Hank Williams.

Smeagol was mildly disappointed that little Bieber did not sing the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' opera "Lakme." However, he thoroughly enjoyed the fan magazine that he purchased at the concession stand. "My precious!" said Smeagol as he perused the weighty tome of literature.

Little Bieber's performance at the Bloomington "Fish" Bowl was a big success. (The guppies were very happy too.)

After the show, Smeagol helped little Bieber put up a Christmas tree. "This will be the best Christmas EVER!" squealed little Bieber.

"I am glad that we are friends," said Smeagol to little Bieber. "I have another friend in Mordor that I would like you to meet."

"Oh BOY! This really IS the best Christmas ever," said little Bieber as they both walked off, hand in hand, to the Black Gate together.

And may all your Christmases be just as merry.

The irony of the above story is that I really do not need to comment upon it at all. Look around yourself the next time you're at the mall, watching TV commercials, listening to the Christmas ads on the radio. You understand instinctively the absurdity of the above story in relation to what Christmas is really supposed to be about. You could be an islamic covert to atheism and still get the point.

So as a counter point, I give you Rick McKinley.

God gave himself as a gift. Give yourself away. Spend less. Worship more.

It's just a thought.