Monday, December 12, 2011

An Invitation to the Party

After the angel's announcement to Mary that she would bear the Christ child, Luke records her Psalm-like song of praise: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior..." (Luke 1:46ff.).  Mary celebrates with all of heaven because she has just been invited to be part of the greatest miracle in history.  Now it's quite a steep descent from this majestic song of praise to a certain half-baked prayer in the comedy, Christmas Vacation, but I'm going to go there anyway...

If you've seen the movie, you'll recall that Chevy Chase plays the part of the goofy dad, Clark Griswald and that in one memorable scene Clark and his extended family are gathered around the table for a holiday feast. There are beautiful red and green Christmas decorations on the dining table, and everyone is dressed in their holiday best. Clark stands at one end of the table smiling as he carves a golden brown turkey. He looks at his family, drinking in the joy of the moment; then taps his knife against a crystal glass as he calls the family to attention: “Since this is Aunt Bethany’s 80th Christmas, I think she should lead us in the saying of grace.”

"What did he say?" Aunt Bethany replies, a little hard of hearing. 
"He wants you to say grace!"  her husband shouts. 
"Grace?  She's been dead for twenty years."  
"He wants you to say the blessing!"  
"Oh," says Aunt Bethany as she bows her head and folds her hands. 
One thing is clear as they awkwardly prepare themselves, no one at this table is comfortable with the "religious" nature of the big moment.  Then Aunt Bethany closes her eyes and begins in a reverent tone….“I pledge allegiance to the flag....”  Clark registers a dumbfounded look as everyone else joins in, “...of the United States of America.” 

It's a funny scene...and a sad one!  The one ray of hope for me was Clark's dumbfounded look of amazement! Because he really did want to say a prayer at that meal...and bring at least a measure of holiness to their celebration.  Clark is not alone either, because despite all the craziness of this holiday, I believe millions do still long to celebrate it in a holy and joyous way.  Here are 3 things to consider as you do…

First, God has created in us a longing to celebrate…I’m not here to put a wet towel on parties and gift giving and joyous laugh out loud gatherings at Christmas time.  Oh no!  Genesis tells us that God saw what he created and called it “good!”  He filled this world with life, and with human beings who have a unique ability both to bless the creation and to love the Creator. But the Bible says this love relationship for which we were created was tragically broken by our sin & shame.  We all long to recover the joy we were made for…

That’s why the Scriptures are filled with the promise of a new celebration.  In Deuteronomy, God actually requires that his people set aside 10% of their wealth just to celebrate: Deut. 14: 22-29 says that  In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always….you and your household rejoicing together.”  Imagine, 10% just for a party!  Where is God’s sense of fiscal common sense?  Where is his sense of priorities?! You may be wondering what that party was all about.  Deuteronomy tells us clearly: it was because of God’s blessings, his steadfast love recounted from one generation to the next, that his people would feast and celebrate together. 

The Hebrew Scriptures also speak of a very special year of celebration…a year of Sabbath rest on the year following seven, seven year cycles: the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee.  Now get this!  On the fiftieth year of Jubilee all debts were to be canceled, all land was to be returned to its original owners, and those who were in prison (who were primarily debtors not criminals) were to be set free (Lev. 25: 8-12)! The Jubilee year was especially good news for the poor and disadvantaged.  Imagine how college graduates would react if the UC Regents suddenly announced that next year was a Jubilee year and that tuition would be cut in half, or imagine that all your education loans were suddenly canceled, or that your credit card company reduced your debt to zero. If you're having difficulty imagining're not alone, because so far as biblical scholars have been able to ascertain, the Israelites couldn't imagine it either: the Year of Jubilee was never celebrated!  The good news is that, though the people forgot to honor the Jubilee, God never did….

In fact, with the Messiah's arrival, the jubilee celebration has already begun. When the angel tells Mary that she will bear the Messiah, she sings a song of celebration and Jubilee, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the callously rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors(Luke 1: 46-55). 

Fast forward to Jesus’ thirtieth year when he opens the scroll of Isaiah in his home town synagogue in Nazareth, and reads these words: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….’ Then he announces, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4: 18ff.). In other words, the Jubilee has just begun!  How then should we celebrate at our Lord’s birthday party?   

Celebrate Joyously. Mary sang, the angels rejoiced …and Jesus proclaimed good news! Did you know that Jesus’ disciples were actually criticized for not living a more austere life; for not fasting more like the Pharisees:  They said to Jesus, "John's disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” (Luke 5: 33-35).  In other words, if you think that parties are the exclusive domain of the fraternity house or the Friday afternoon office, or the tailgate, or the bar room, think again.  God’s people are the ones who should be celebrating!

To know Me and to welcome My coming, is to celebrate like you would at your own wedding (Mind you, Jesus was not talking about a modern wedding that lasts a few hours before the couple departs for their honeymoon, but a Middle Eastern wedding, an epic week long party with family and friends)!  Now at my wedding we danced…we ate good food…we laughed, we cried a little, we spent time with friends…but we worshiped and prayed too!  I’ll never forget that day. Every time we gather together it should be a celebration of Christ’s work in us.  So celebrate joyously; and then…

Celebrate Reverently.  Holiday is a contraction of “Holy Day.”  It's time to recover the legacy of holy celebration.   Mary’s song of celebration is surprisingly outward focused in a “counter cultural” kind of way.  It’s hard to imagine Mary on a 12am shopping spree.  But I can imagine Mary getting excited about…
  • Sharing a gift of food or hospitality with a neighbor…or inviting someone to dinner for the holidays…or blessing someone who is in need; or serving someone who serves you…like your mailman or gardener or your child’s teacher? 
  • Celebrating reverently doesn’t mean you can’t attend secular office parties or neighborhood holiday gatherings …it means being an authentic joy-filled witness to Christ, his words and ways, in the midst of those annual events. 
  • We’re not called to be solemn faced party poopers…we should act like those who know Jesus, the Reason for the celebration, and the Life of the Party.
So celebrate reverently…and Celebrate Hopefully. Mary’s life was hard, yet she praised God with hope.  Does my life have to be a Christmas postcard in order for me to celebrate this Season?  I saw a Christmas card the other day that said, “Joy to the World…blah blah blah blah!”  That’s so sad but so typical of the cynicism of our age. Celebration is not what we do after all our problems have disappeared.  It’s God’s gift to us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations – a foretaste of the future God has in store for us; and we are to grab hold of it with all our might!!  To his disciples Jesus says: You have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).  Regardless of what you are going through, Jesus gives us reason to hope…

When I was serving as an assistant chaplain at Trenton State Prison, a dreary maximum security facility, an inmate by the name of "Mike" once said to me, “Even sitting here in [prison], my life is better than it ever was before.  How can I say that?  I can say that because today God is my life.  Sitting here I have everything that I was searching for during all those years of using drugs, and much more.  The peace and love that I have today since I let Christ into my life is beyond compare.”  I hasten to add that Mike fully accepted responsibility for the actions that got him into prison, and wrote this testimony down for me without asking anything in return.  The hope of Christ's coming brings hope in the most hopeless situations.

God created us for celebration, and Christ’s coming was and is a time for celebration…but what we need to know more than anything today is that...the invitations have been sent; and he is awaiting our response.  Every “party” has a guest list.  Some are invited, others are not.  We had a great Thanksgiving Dinner at our home this year…we invited lots of family and many friends.  We wish we could have invited more, but we only had so much room.  Jesus says that the kingdom of God is a party to which all are invited; and there’s plenty of room for everyone who wants to come (Luke 14: 15-23).  

Hear afresh, the words of Rev. 3:20: “Behold I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” (cf. Romans 10:13). Why settle for a Christmas vacation, when you could be part of a never-ending Kingdom celebration?   

Gracious God, I thank you for inviting me to join you in a new season, a season of renewed hope, a season of celebration, a season of joy which was inaugurated in the coming of your Son!  Please forgive me for the sin and pride which only brings sorrow and sadness.  I now turn from everything I know is wrong, from anything that could separate me from you and the joy of your fellowship.  Thank you for coming to this broken world in Jesus who is Immanuel, God with Us.  Thank you for living as light in the darkness, for bearing my sins on the cross so that I could be forgiven and set free.  Now where there is sorrow, may I sow joy; where there is hatred, may I sow love; where there is sickness, healing; where there is cruelty, kindness; where there is fear, faith; where there is death, life.  By your Holy Spirit, I now join in the celebration of your expanding rule and reign through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   

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