Going In The Wrong Direction

“I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.” (I Corinthians 3:2)

“Turn right”  “Turn left” “You’re destination is on the right”.   No doubt about it, having a turn by turn GPS on my phone is a great feature.  It’s come in handy as I’ve negotiated my way around a new town in a new appointment.  It’s helped me in the inner city to get to where I need to go.  I’ve even changed the voice on my phone so that the voice has a British accent. It makes me feel classy, although I must resist driving on the wrong side of the road.

But it’s not fool proof. As I’ve gotten more used to my new community, I’ve come to question the phone’s sense of direction. At times it will suggest a route that is convoluted and seems out of the way. And so there are times even when it makes a strong (as strong as it can be in polite British) reccomendation , that I ignore it and go my own route.

I’m also, as hard as it might be to believe, not always fool proof either. Even with the GPS I miss a turn here and here and have to find my way back.

In both cases the response of my GPS is the same. It begins to say “reroute, reroute”  or “Rereouting to destitnion”. This is it’s way of warning me I have missed a turn or am in danger, in it’s opinion, of going the wrong way and it’s trying to get me back on track. It wants me to go in the proper direction.

If we were to become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit and truly listen I wonder if we might not hear the same thing. “Reroute, reroute, you’re headed in the wrong direction.”?  When I speak of the church, I’m thinking specifically of the United Methodist Church in the United States. But I think there is a parallel in our local churches and in our own hearts as well.

“Reroute, you’re headed in the wrong direction.”  There can be little doubt this is the cry of the Holy Spirit in the church. We are headed in the wrong direction. We continue to lose members as a denomination in the US at alarming rates. Even the Pollyannas among us can agree we’ve reached a crisis stage in the Western Jurisdiction, and we are headed that way in the North Eastern Jurisdiction as well.

Thankfully we have no lack of suggestions. We need to “rethink” church. We need to become more socially active, we need to push only justice issues, we need to change to appease the millenialls, we need better growth strategies.  We need to create a third way at General Conference. None of which have worked. All the time the Holy Spirit whispers to us “Reroute”.

The simple truth is none of these things, by themselves will change the church. Oh, they are all good. But they aren’t the panacea for our ills.  The issue is not about going outward, or inward. We need to go deeper.

The problem with the church (and I’m including myself in this) is that God’s call for us it to go deeper in our faith first. The Great Commission of Jesus at the end of Matthew is to “go to the ends of the earth and make disciples”.  (Matthew 28: 16-20) Disciples. Not new members, not social workers, not rethinkers. But disciples. Followers of Jesus. And not just new believers. But to create a group of people whose greatest desire is to go deeper in their intimacy with Jesus Christ.

Paul knew this. This is why he vents his frustration with the Corinthians in our scripture. Notice he doesn’t complain that they aren’t engaging in an “each one reach one” Strategy. Or they aren’t working hard enough to deal with societal ills.  What Paul says is, “My desire is to make disciples, to help you mature spiritually and get to the real meat. But you are all spiritual babies perfectly happy on the bottle.”  Or as Amy Grant put it:

 

But look at what happens when people are willing to go deeper: The church is added to daily. The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the imprisoned are visited and set free. The millennials flock to the church. Sure, they are first millennial millennials, but there’s no real difference. God blesses and uses the church that is willing to go deeper.

God blesses Christians willing to go deeper as well. As we head into a New year, this has become my desire. Not to grow out  or do more, or accomplish more as a pastor, or as a Christian. My desire is simply to go deeper. That’s my destination, that is where I will find blessing. Where are you going?

 

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6-7 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel. (Luke 2:7 The Message)

 

I chose to use Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible,  known popularly as “The Message’,  for today’s Scripture lesson.  I have a bit of a love/hate reltionship with this translation. It’s very readable. Anything that invites people to read their Bibles is a good thing. Yes, Peterson often gets a bit cute  with his translations at times that seems a bit distracting.

Take for  instance his translation of the Inn to “There was no room in the hostel”. Really?  Hostel? I have a picture of Joseph and Mary with their backpacks arguing with Deiter the hostel manager if he can wedge them in next to the youth from Sweden.

Be it an Inn, a Hostel, or the Bethlehem Motel 6  “We’ll leave the light on for you.  Shoot The Light was even born here!”  (major miss for a marketing ploy), the point is they had no room.  Mary and Joseph are in the stable for the birth of Jesus.

Do you ever wonder about the Inn keeper?  I do.  I think we unfairly see him as a Hotel version of the Soup Nazi yelling “No room for You” before he slams the door. But that’s probably not the case. He did the best he could given the conditions. The Stable and the manger weren’t optimal, but it was the best he could do. At least he didn’t turn them away.

But here’s what I wonder. I wonder if the Inn Keeper ever went down to check on them? It very well could be that Mary went into labor after they settled into the straw for the night.  He might not have known that Mary went into labor.

Running an Inn that is full of people is no easy task. He might have been up all night trying to take care of the seemingly never ending needs of all the people. Or he may have slept through it. It had been a long day, and if there were enough staff to watch over everything after everyone settled down for the night, he may have closed his eyes at the end of a very long day.

Think about that for a moment. Just over the hill, in a stable, the most incredible event has taken place. A virgin has conceived a child. Just over the hill angels blow their trumpets. The shepherds gather in wonder at what has happened. God has entered the world as a human being. The eternal word made flesh. The Light of the world has been born. The Messiah the hope of all the world. Jesus.  And the Inn keeper remains, perhaps, blissfully unaware of what is happening outside his door.

When we get to this time of year it’s easy to give way to the Inn keeper in all of us. There is so much to do. So many people to care for. So many tasks. And most of them aren’t selfish tasks. We are doing things for other people. Sometimes we just wear ourselves down, we lull ourselves into a routine habit. And we too, like the Inn Keeper, can miss the miracle of the birth of Jesus.

Jesus is still doing miracles. The Birth of Jesus is still changing lives two thousand years later.  He still matters.  Let’s not miss the miracle of Christmas. We all have a choice this year. We can choose to be like the Inn keeper and miss Jesus all together. Or we can be like the shepherds. We can choose to hear the proclimation of the angels. We can gather and kneel beside the manger and gaze in wonder. Inn Keeper or shepherd? Who are you?

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

 

Ready or Not Here He Comes

“6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:6-7 NIV)

Since I grew up on Christmas specials, I have a hard time reading this verse without hearing it in the voice of one of the great theologians/philosophers of our time. So without further ado:

Good old Linus, still getting it right all these years. Jesus. Beyond the presents, trees, lights and food, Christmas is about Jesus.  But of course I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Oh we might get distracted every now and then, but we get the premise. Christmas is about Jesus.

Yet I don’t know about you, but this year it’s been a little more difficult in getting into the Christmas spirit. And I finally figured out why. It’s the weather.  I’m in Ohio, known for her inability to stay within a consistent weather pattern. But even for us this has been an unpredictable winter.

Yesterday, the third Sunday of Advent we hit record high temperatures in the low 70’s.   The day before I drove around with my window down and  sat on the front porch in my shirt sleeves. Usually by this point we’ve had one or two snows and some bitterly cold temperatures. This year it’s more like this

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’m not a winter person. I can live without polar temperatures, ice and shoveling driveways and sidewalks.  I do like a white Christmas though. For me the perfect snow would begin to fall as we leave the late Christmas Eve service, cover the world in a pure white blanket on Christmas Morning and be gone a few days later.

But this year I have to admit, as much as I enjoy warm weather, the mild temperatures have thrown me off. I’m not near ready yet for Christmas.   Funny thing about Christmas though, it doesn’t seem to care if I’m ready or not.  If I don’t get every present wrapped every decoration up, if it never snows again Christmas is coming.  You can’t stop it.

That’s why I don’t get too bent out of shape over the “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” thing.  Whether you wish to say Christmas or not, it’s coming. Try as we might to bury it under bad attitudes, complaining about long lines, giving Scrooge a good run for his money, we can’t stop Christmas. Like that other sage, the Grinch discovered Christmas can’t be stopped no matter how hard you try.

There is something Holy, and ultimately transformational about that isn’t there?  The world wrapped in sin and “nature’s night”  so unready it didn’t even have a bed prepared for the King of Kings couldn’t stop Jesus from coming into the world. At our most unaware, unready moment Jesus came and the power of sin and evil was broken. Joseph and Mary, the Inn keeper, the shepherds, none of them were ready for the birth of the Son of God. But He came anyway and changed all their lives.

Maybe you’re not ready for Christmas either. Oh I don’t mean having the cookies ready and the tree decorated. I mean you. Try as we might to make Advent a time of preparation, sometimes we miss it. Our sins, our self centeredness keep us from being ready.  A loss in our lives can do the same thing. So can a hard heart.

I want you to know that ready or not, Jesus is coming. That’s love and grace. Even when you’re not ready, maybe at your lowest point Jesus still comes to you. His love and hope, His very presence can be born  in us again.

So even if you’re not ready, open your heart to the truth of this season. Jesus loves you. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords has arrived just for you. Let Him in and be transformed by HIs love.

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

In The Background

“When Joseph awomke from sleep, he dd as the angel of the Lord commanded..” (Matthew 1:24)

Last week our church had a nativity festival as we celebrated the opening of our walk through Nativity.  It’s amazing how varied figurations on a simple theme one can have.  We had home made ones, Hummel figurines, Some very life like, some not so much.  All beautiful and meaningful.

We hadn’t unpacked our nativity sets yet (we have several) but if we had I know which one I would bring.  It’s by far our most simple, yet to me most meaningful of our nativities.  It’s two simple wood carvings, well three if you count the sheep.  Mary is kneeling and Joseph has swept up Jesus and is holding Him high in his arms.

It’s a simple set to be sure.  The faces aren’t even carved into them. Yet it’s my favorite for two reasons. One is that it  shows the joy that Joseph and Mary must have had in the birth of Jesus. Yes, in less than perfect circumstances. Yes the Virgin birth is hard to explain and will follow them.  Despite all of this, they  were holding their baby. Their little boy. A miracle, whose importance even they hadn’t come to grasp yet.

But the other reason why I love this nativity is it puts Joseph in the middle of the action. We tend to forget about Joseph. He says nothing in the Gospel  tellings of the incarnation.  He has no Magnificat.  No cousin to rejoice with, as Mary does.  Even in our nativity scenes Mary is front and center with the baby, but Jospeh stays in the background or off to one side. Probably many first time fathers know all about being in that position.

Yet I love Joseph.  Think about Jospeh’s role. He is asked to be the earthly father of  Jesus. The Son of God.  It will be up to Joseph to teach  Jesus what it means to be a man. The first images of His Heavenly Father will come though the rough hewn hands of the carpenter asked to watch over Him.

Jesus will learn about hard work, honesty and integrity from Jospeh. Jospeh will teach him how to stand up for himself, while not resorting to violence.  He will teach Jesus about strength as much as His mother will teach Him about tenderness.

Jospeh will do all of this knowing that in the end Jesus Belongs to His Heavenly Father. Joseph will do it all not out of duty, but becuase he loves Mary and he loves Jesus.  And He does it all behind the scenes. Quiet, behnd the scenes Joseph. But without HIm  what would happen to Jesus?

Jospeh’s story reminds us that our purpose in life need not always be in the spot light.  Our purpose isn’t always filled with glitz and glamor. For some of us, we are called to be Joseph. We find our heroism not in fighting fires or capturing a major villan.  No, our heroic moments come in going to work when we don’t want to. Taking the extra time to scrap off the window of the car your daughter will drive to school that day so she won’t have to. Walking the dog at night  so your kids don’t have to go out in the dark.

It’s the heroism that comes from sitting through the same school play for the third or fourth time because your child is in it. Going to the concert where thirty children play the Recorder, badly. But you applaud because your child, or grandchild is playing. It’s  a heroism that comes from playing a game even when your team is on, reading Green Eggs and Ham for the 5ooth time and still doing the voices.

Its a heroism that comes from teaching your kids to drive, keeping everyone quiet at breakfast so your wife can get some extra sleep.  Cheering your son when he gets a hit, or strikes out. Holding your daughter when she has her heart broken for the first time.

It’s the heroism that comes from those “Josephs” that have no children, but still take time to lovingly quietly encourage their students, the teens at church or their neighbors, being an example of love and grace.

Its the hero who kneels with his spouse and prays for their family. The hero who gets everyone up for church, even when mom doesn’t feel well.  Who lets their kids see them read their Bible.  The hero who gently teaches them about Jesus in a hundred small ways every day.

I’m thankful for Mary and her faithfulness. But in this holy season, let’s give Joseph that quiet hero in the background some love as well. And while wer’e at it let’s be thankful for the Jospehs in our lives. And perhaps try to be a better Joseph to those in our care.

 

In Christ,

 

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><