Monday, December 21, 2009

Peace from Another World

What is peace? Is it simply the absence of commotion...a little peace and quiet? Is it the serenity and calm we feel beside a warm fireplace on a winter's night? Is it the declaration of a cease fire between two warring enemies, or the terms dictated by a conquering nation? Is it a sign we make with our hand to express our hopes for the world? Is peace real or just an ideal?

On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angels declare good news of the Savior's birth to lowly shepherds, shouting “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2: 14). I want to consider the nature of this peace they proclaimed because the word shalom (the Hebrew word for peace) is not just the absence of conflict, or a warm cozy feeling. Like the three vertical lines in its first letter, the letter shin (resembling the English letter w ) it represents wholeness in three dimensions: wholeness of relationship with God, with others, and with the earth. For followers of Y'shua (Jesus), shalom is a world-invading, world-shaping reality made real and personal in the Messiah.

“Peace on earth” describes tbe One who came to us in humility and weakness. Shalom is more than a word, it’s a person who came from heaven to earth; who came from the highest place to the lowest place. Peace had to come to this earth…because real peace is not of this earth. Real peace on earth is by definition an alien invasion - from beyond the stars of heaven to the dust of the earth. It's Emmanuel (God-With-Us) who came down. God came down to walk with us in the garden. God came down to speak with Moses in the burning bush. And God came down when the Son of God was born in Bethlehem’s stable to bring us his peace. People demonstrate for peace, they work for peace, they even fight for peace, but true lasting peace, shalom, does not orginate from the earth or its indigenous is the fruit of a relationship with the Living God through Christ the Prince of Peace.

Now some have understandably asked: if Christ led 'the peace invasion,' why was the world not reduced to instantaneous peace upon his arrival? Good question. The obvious answer is that Christ came into this world as a tiny baby; weak and totally dependent upon others for survival. He came in humility, not with a sword. His power (revealed in the humility of a tiny baby, in his selfless life, and his atoning death) reminds us that lasting peace does not come by force. Certainly, if God wanted to force this world to be “peaceful," if he wanted to eliminate war and its causes, compel nations to work together on reducing greenhouse gases, feed the starving in Africa, eliminate human trafficking, or eliminate any number of problems, God could do so at any time he wanted – and many expected the Messiah to do just that. But God’s sovereign will seems to be that we freely love him, and freely love each other – which is the only way that true shalom is really possible.

“Peace on earth” is the promise of God’s inevitable triumph over evil. When the heavenly host (lit. "an army of heaven") declare “Glory to God and peace on earth” with the coming of the Messiah; they do so not as those presuming victory before the battle has been won; but as those who have been told the outcome. The angels give a victory shout because they know how the story is going to end. They know that the birth of the King means the evil one has already lost. They know that at the cost of his own life this tiny baby would show us how to live as God’s people; bear our sins on the cross, and rise from the dead in victory.

Of course, when Christians speak of the victory which Jesus has brought to us in his life, death, and resurrection…it’s not surprising that there are skeptics. What can one person do…let alone a baby born in a hillside cave, to usher in world peace? I read about a Palestinian baby a few years ago, who was found abandoned at birth in a roadside heap of trash. She was rescued by Palestinian doctors, cared by a group of nuns in Bethlehem and had her heart repaired by an Israeli surgeon. Palestinian doctors noticed she was turning blue and losing weight, and the baby was taken to a Jerusalem hospital. “She was skin and bone and that’s it,” said Israeli doctor Eli Milgalter, who operated on the baby’s heart on January 24th. The nuns raised nearly $11,000 to pay for the hospital costs, and Milgalter performed the surgery without accepting payment. She has made a full recovery, doctors said.” The article mentions that “the baby has become a rare example of the region’s usually fractured and clashing peoples working together to save a life.” And her name? Salaam: the Arabic version of Shalom, which means safe, secure, and forgiven[Citation: “‘Peace Baby’ Touches Mideast Enemies,” Associated Press (2-25-02)]. When people scoff at what one man or woman can possibly do, I remember what one Peace Child did…. which brings me to my last observation about the angels' announcement of peace.

“Peace on earth” is the sign of those who receive Christ personally. The angels cry of peace on earth “among those whom he favors” means God’s shalom, his wholeness, is given to those whom he chooses. How do we know that we are favored? First, we have welcomed the message of the Savior and received him personally. Secondly, we find that we have a passion for making peace, for bringing shalom, and wholeness to this broken world one person at a time. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). Sadly, there has been much done in the name of Christ which has not contributed to shalom on earth...actions which must certainly grieve God's heart (e.g., The French Inquisition, twisting Scripture to justify slavery in America, or the German national church's weakness in the face of Hitler). There have been, however, many examples over the centuries of those who have carried on the work of shalom as Christ's followers.
  • In the ancient world, infanticide was not only legal, it was commonly held that sacrificing one’s own children could be an act of beauty. It was the early Christian church that ultimately brought an end to this terrible practice.
  • In the ancient world, women were considered the property of their husbands; somewhere between slaves and freedmen. Yet Jesus warned against the mistreatment of women, he elevated them as full members of society, and had many women among his original followers.
  • In the first century church of Rome, we know that Jews and Greeks, slaves and freedmen worshiped together as equals before Christ. While it is true that many Christians did own slaves over the course of history, it was finally Christians like William Wilberforce who turned the tide against the international slave trade. Indeed, two thirds of the abolitionists in 1835 were Christians.
  • I continue to be struck by the story of Gary Haugen, president of IJM, whose life was changed when as a gov’t worker, he was sent to Rwanda following the war between Hutus and Tutsis that led to the deaths of millions. As a result he dedicated his life to rescuing the most vulnerable members of society from slavery and violent oppression. In a speech delivered to the White House, one of his co-workers said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized everyday, our work will always be about the one….The one girl deceived…The one girl needing a rescuer To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us.” (Cited in Terrify No More, by Gary Haugen). Let me say it again: Those who know Christ personally have a passion for making peace, for bringing shalom, and wholeness to this broken world one person at a time.

This is Christmas, and I’ve been talking about the gift of peace, of the shalom that Christ came to bring us. But I want to impress upon you that this gift of peace is more than a simple cry to be more socially engaged in the problems of this world. We should be, but it's going to take a lot more than that. Real peace requires, as I said earlier, an alien invasion. We need a Peace from beyond this world, a supernatural Spirit to guide and redirect our thoughts toward Christ-like ends…which is why I want to end this Christmas meditation on "peace" by telling you about the Kohanim blessing....

For those of you who are not Trek fans, you may or may not be familiar with the Vulcan greeting (Live long and prosper!) and its hand sign. It was invented by Leonard Nimoy based upon the Kohane blessing that he witnessed in the synagogue of his youth. The Kohanim are the genealogical descendents of the original priests who served in the Jerusalem temple. A remnant of the Temple service lives on in what’s called the Kohane blessing. Now worshippers are not supposed to look at the priest as he is performing the blessing (some children believe they will go blind or something bad will happen to them if they do); but Leonard snuck a peak and what he saw was two hands formed together to make the Hebrew letter shin – and this is important: Because shin is the first letter in the word “shaddai” (Almighty God) and “shalom” (peace). Nimoy later modified this into a single hand gesture. Here is the blessing:

The LORD bless you, and keep you:
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace.
That blessing, like the words of the heavenly host, bring Shaddai and shalom together: it reminds us that there is no shalom on earth without Shaddai; that “PEACE on earth” grows as we give “glory to GOD” for the Son he sent to save us…the Savior who is Christ the Lord. And so we pray not only for peace on earth...but that the Prince of Peace might truly reign in the people of the earth.

Jesus, I admit that I have longed for peace in my life, but avoided the things that would make for peace. Please cleanse and forgive me. I know that only by your grace can I turn from the darkness of my anger, resentment, selfishness, and pride. I therefore kneel before your humble manger, in the shadow of the cross where you died to make me whole, and pray…
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Prince of Peace, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
[A Prayer for Peace (adapted from The Prayer of St. Francis)]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Joy from Another World

We are the generation of extreme realism...not easily lured into 'over the top' displays of joyous enthusiasm. Sarcasm and cynicism are more acceptable than the genuinely positive affirmation. The Bible, on the other hand, rings with joy - from God's "very good" creation (Gen. 1: 31) to the Psalms of David which speak again and again of the "joy of the Lord" Jesus himself whom Luke says was "full of joy through the Holy Spirit" (Luke 10:21/NIV). Listen to the twisted observations of Uncle Screwtape, a senior devil imagined by C. S. Lewis: “[Joy and laughter do] us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of hell” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 50)!

Hanging in my childhood home was a quote from the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I want a good reason to believe that. Don't you? I'm guessing that the most cynical person reading this, if he or she was honest, longs to be truly happy; wants to believe that there is a reason in this world (or out of this world) to be authentically joyful. That's why I'm so fascinated with the story of Gabriel's announcement to Mary in Luke 1: 26ff. where the angel brings to Mary and to us, news of great joy… a real, lasting joy that can not be taken away from us.

True Joy is the Savior who understands our deepest fears. "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you....Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God!" (Luke 1:28, 30/NIV). The first word that Gabriel speaks to Mary is variously translated as "Greetings!" "Hail!" or even "Good Morning!" but literally means "JOY to you!" The reason for this joyous greeting is what Gabriel is about to explain.

You are "highly favored" Gabriel says or in the older translations, "full of grace." Many Catholic Christians grew up saying the rosary prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” I wonder how many people suppose that “full of grace” refers to something innate within Mary, that it describes her “gracious personality’ or her gentleness. Yet what Gabriel literally says is, “Joy to you, RECIPIENT OF GRACE, the Lord is with you.” To paraphrase: "Be filled with joy - not fear - because you are “favored” (NRSV) by God, a recipient of his grace, his ‘undeserved favor’. God has chosen you not because of anything you have done but because he loves you." Unlike the world of sport where being “favored” refers to a statistical advantage that one team may have over another based on recent performance…a status that can change with the wind; Mary was “highly favored” not because of past performance, but God’s unchanging love for her. Hear this: to live in constant need of having to prove yourself worthy of God’s love or anyone’s love (for that matter) is to live in fear. True joy flows from the knowledge that you are loved absolutely, and without reservation, despite your faults and imperfections. The happiness of this world rises and falls with our circumstances, but the joy that Gabriel speaks of cannot be taken from us. That’s because the Joy that is beyond this world is more than an emotion…it’s a Person, the LORD who is with us. He is joy itself. As the Psalmist declares, true joy is found “in God MY JOY and my delight” (Psalm 43: 4/ NIV).

True Joy is the Savior who answers our deepest questions. We’re told in Luke 1:29 that Mary "pondered" the angel’s greeting. The word lit. means to dialogue with one’s self (to reason or debate). It means that Mary was not passive about the angel's words: she carefully weighed the implications of what he was saying. Many people assume that to have a religious experience, to know God’s joy one must disconnect the intellect. But the testimony of Scripture from 'pondering Mary' to 'doubting Thomas' is that God honors our questions and our doubts. It may sound strange to hear a pastor say this…but I’m a strong believer in doubt. Doubt has been the catalyst for some of my most significant spiritual growth as a Christian -- especially in my college years. If God had demanded passive acceptance from Mary this story would have ended with the angels explanation in v. 33 and a quick “Good-bye!” But Mary’s blunt question is honored: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Mary too, was a realist. Larry King was once asked by a caller: “If you could select any one person across all of history to interview, who would it be?” King's answer was that he would like to interview Jesus Christ. When the questioner followed with, “And what would you like to ask him?” King replied, “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me" (Just Thinking, RZIM, Winter 1998). As a Jew, I'm sure he was quite serious. What evidence is there for the history defining virgin birth?

Gabriel says that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you" - not a very satisfying answer for the scientists among us. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that both Matthew & Luke agree there was something very different about Jesus’ birth, that although Joseph was the legal father, he was not the biological father, and that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mark calls Jesus “the carpenter, the son of Mary.” Paul says he is “born of a woman.” again with no mention of Joseph (Gal. 4:4); and most non-Muslims are surprised to learn that the Koran calls him, “Jesus the Son of Mary” and esteems him as “the virgin’s son,” conceived by the work of God. Of course there is no way to prove the virgin birth by direct observation (for obvious reasons)…what we can directly observe is any number of the countless millions who testify to a virgin birth in their own hearts; that the same Holy Spirit who brought Jesus into Mary has brought Jesus into them, that he lives in them; speaks to them, guides them, and continues to fill them with his joy and peace.

Along these lines noted geneticist Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome project spoke in a CNN interview of the extraordinary influence of Jesus Christ upon his life, "a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus" ( True joy comes to those who understand that the answer to our deepest questions is not just a proposition, but an extraordinary Person…Jesus himself.

Finally, true Joy is the Savior who has revealed our deepest purpose. “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…..[and then later in her prayer she declares] My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed’” (Luke 1:38, 47-48). What I love about Mary’s response to Gabriel’s message is first, her joy simply in being used by God for his purpose. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor…on me!” True joy comes to those who recognize that God has called them (personally, individually) to be his servants and followers.

The second thing I love about Mary’s response is that she understands God’s mission will extend far beyond her own years on earth. It’s not just about her. She knows that God is not only calling her to be a servant in her place and time…but through the power of the Savior, to bless the generations that follow her. Jesus is God’s gift to every generation. Doug Coupland, the postmodern literary icon who coined the term Gen X, once disclosed the quest of his generation and every generation: “Now—here is my secret. I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love" (Douglas Coupland, Life After God, Washington Square Press, NY, 1994, p. 359). Mary speaks for every new generation of Christ’s followers when she admits this need for direction and turns to the one in whom life's purpose is found, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. May it be with me according to your word.”

One of the most beloved songs of Christmas is Joy to the World, lyrics by Isaac Watts. Ironcially, Watts never intended this to be a Christmas Song. It’s based upon Psalm 98…a Song of God’s faithful deliverance, but Watts saw in this Psalm a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. Some may cynically wonder whether anyone who wrote a song like “Joy to the World!” could know anything about suffering or loneliness. In fact, we know that Watts had frequent health problems during his life; and that he knew the pain of heartbreak. When Elizabeth Singer heard his music, she began a correspondence with Isaac and proposed marriage through the mail. Taken with her adoration, he accepted, but when she raced to Isaac’s side, rather than cementing a life-long love, she was unenthused with Watt’s “shallow face, hooked nose, prominent cheek bones and death-like palor" and told told him so before returning home! It broke his heart, but he poured himself even more into his writing! (Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, p. 101). Joy, as Watts discovered, was not dependent upon circumstances or crushed by life’s disappointments. Joy comes from the deep seated conviction that the love of God revealed through his Son is the most dependable thing in this world…

Isaac Watts said this in his final days: “If God should raise me up again, and use me to save a soul -- that will be worth living for. If He has no more service for me [here], I can say, through grace, I am ready; I could without alarm if God please, lay back my head on my pillow and die this afternoon or night. My sins are all pardoned through the Blood of Christ.” ( Friends, my joy is not dependent on my situation or anything else in this world, it’s anchored in the unshakeable reality of Jesus the Christ; the One who understands my deepest fears, answers my deepest questions, and has revealed my deepest purpose. It's not just a word for Mary anymore: “Joy to you!” Gabriel says, and “Joy to the World…the Lord is come!”

Dear Jesus, the Child of promise who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, the invisible God made visible, the Son of God, Savior and Messiah, you are the source of true Joy; in whom my fears are conquered, my questions are answered, and my purpose revealed. I admit that I have sinned against God and others, and have sought happiness in things that do not and cannot satisfy. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything I know is wrong; and from all that might seek to dilute your power in my life. Thank you for showing me how to truly live as God intended; for offering up your life for me on the cross, and removing from me the curse of my sins. Thank you for your victory over death when you rose again! I receive you now as my Sovereign Lord and Savior to cleanse and renew me. I receive you into my heart as Lord to rule in and through me. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit so that I may serve you joyfully and faithfully, in fellowship with your other disciples, forever! Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Love That's Out of this World

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1: 18-21).

Is there intelligent life beyond our world? The late cosmologist Carl Sagan pondered, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people” (Carl Sagan, "A Gift for Vividness," Time, Oct. 20, 1980, p. 61). Sagan believed our place in the cosmos was insignificant; and he wrote elsewhere that the only way to take away the loneliness of our meaningless existence, would be to find other lonely beings in the universe like ourselves.

As I said last week, I see no reason to deny that there may be other forms of intelligent physical life in the universe; but as a Christian I already know that there are other forms of intelligent spiritual life in the universe (as the angel sent to Joseph testifies); and that beyond all of this is the mind and purpose of the Creator who sent an emissary to explain to a frightened fiancé the lengths He was about to go to show his love for us....

Take the fact that to show his love, Joseph is told that God would become like us. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit says the angel. Paul speaks of Christ "who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2: 6-7). It has been the confession of Christ’s followers for 2000 years that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…that in his love, his forgiveness, his kindness, his teaching and miracles, and above all his death and resurrection, he showed that he was and is the invisible God made visible. Jesus was from the Holy Spirit because he couldn’t have been from anywhere else!

But having said this, let’s not forget the other part of the angel’s message: that this Child was conceived; that he was from heaven but he was also human; further out than the outermost limits of the most distant galaxy, but as close as a baby held in his mother's arms. When the Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, it was God’s personal tribute to the miracle of human life, the dignity of human life, the value of human life from conception to life’s final breath.

In the first century infant mortality was 90%. Just to make it to your first birthday was considered a reason to celebrate. So Jesus’ birth reminds us that every life is precious to God…from the life of an unborn baby to the lives of those dying because of poverty and disease…or endless cycles of war and violence. It also reminds us that we do not have a Savior who is unable to relate to our weaknesses…but who became like us; that he might share God’s love face to face and with a full understanding of our weaknesses, fears, and failures.

The second thing Joseph learned from the angel was that to show his love, God (in Christ) would give his life for us. “You are to name him Y’shua for he will save his people from their sins” (21). Y’shua (Jesus) means “God is our Savior!” There are all kinds of debates about what humanity’s real problem is…global warming…economic instability… religious extremism, AIDS or cancer. But deep down, we know that the real ‘pandemic’ is human pride and selfishness. We have a sin problem above all, that needs to be addressed; a problem that separates us from God and and wrecks havoc on our relationships with each other...and with the creation.

Notice that the angel says Jesus will come to save his people from their sins, not from other people’s sins. Most of us have entertained the thought that life for us would improve markedly if that troublesome neighbor, nasty co-worker or difficlt family member would get straightened out. It’s always easier to contemplate the sins of others rather than our own…whether its Tiger Woods’ marital problems or that brazen couple who recently crashed a State Dinner at the White House. But despite my fascination with other people’s sins, Jesus came to save me from my own first, from the darkness that is in me. In a recent interview with the ABC news show 20/20, comedian Chris Brown said he was blindsided by his own brutal assalt of former girl friend Rihanna last February. “I never had problems with anger" Brown asserted. "No domestic violence with any of my past girl friends or altercations. I was never that kind of person…it was like, ‘How can I be that kind of person?’"

How, indeed...and yet the word of God says we are all “that kind of person”, that we are all capable of doing evil given the right conditions and situation; that we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). This week, what may be the last Nazi war crimes trial in Germany began. A former SS guard was tried for his participation in the extermination of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp. How can we make sense of this human capacity to do evil? I have no easy answer…but as a Christian I can say this. My God did not avoid the pain and suffering of this world, but took the sin and evil of this world upon himself when he was crucified on a Roman cross. He was the innocent One who willingly bore the penalty for our guilty past. And when he died and rose from the dead, he proved that there is no place (no matter how dark or hopeless) that God is not willing to go to reach us.

The last word of God’s messenger to Joseph is a citation from the prophet Isaiah which the Messiah’s birth is about to fulfill: "Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’ (22-23). Several years ago, during a visit to Cairo, I was eating at a KFC of all places… seeing a horse-drawn wagon and a man, sifting through the garbage. Where was he going and where did he live, I wondered. I soon found out. It was a blistering August afternoon when I was taken to a garbage collection village in the outskirts of Cairo. I’ll never forget the sight of a five year old girl who suddenly appeared out of nowhere to smile at me. I thought to myself: this is the only world she will ever know; the only reality she will ever experience…IF NOT FOR LOVE. Because for love of Jesus, in the midst of that filthy dump where human beings lived off the garbage of the city, Christian men and women were building a church and doing life-saving mission. I remember the cool and even refreshing smell of wet mortar and cement inside the church and the sacrificial work that was being done by God’s people among these untouchables. Men and women, here is a picture of the incarnation, and the love behind it. Jesus moved from the glory of the Father’s presence, into our filthy neighborhood in order to show us that he is and continues to be “Emmanuel” – God with us

The angel’s message from beyond our world is that Christ became like us, to give his life for us and that he promised always to be with us. In other words, we’re not the insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in some forgotten corner of the universe that Sagan described. We're the visited planet that God came to save through his Son. For, in the words of John 3:16, God so loved this insignificant world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life! Now that's a love that's truly out of this world.