Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Will The Real Grinch Please Stand Up?

This time I offer an Advent sermon I preached last year. While the content is mine, I am indebted to the person whose name escapes me who gave me the idea in the first place. The sermon is based on matthew's account of the magi's visit to the holy family in Matthew chapter 2. It may help to read the scripture before delving into the rest of this blog.

Merry Christmas!

Will The Real Grinch Please Stand Up?

Not too long ago I admitted to my family that I think was turning into a kind of Scrooge. Not that I don’t like Christmas or giving presents or feasting and the obligatory post-feast nap. But, I am not really into decorating the house anymore, or throwing ornaments on our fake tree, or climbing up on the roof to string lights. That just doesn’t put me in the Christmas mood anymore.

When I was a kid, things were much different. From December first my excitement got ratcheted up in anticipation of how many presents under the tree would have my name on them. Each year we had one of those Advent calendars – the kind where each day you would open up a window to see a picture beneath and you were supposed to anticipate celebrating Christ’s birth. In truth, I was celebrating one more day closer to when I would get presents!

Along with that Advent calendar we had an Advent wreath that we would light every Sunday night as we marked the Sundays until – I got presents!

I also had to watch three shows on TV or it just wasn’t Christmas: The Charlie Brown Christmas special, A Christmas Carol (I like the George C Scott version the best), and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. All three, I think, contain an element of the gospel – but I didn’t care then, I just knew these were cool Christmas shows.

This morning I am going to ask us to look at our Scripture lesson through the lens of Doctor Seuss and see if we can’t spot the real Grinch who stole Christmas – the Grinch who keeps us away from the manger.

There are three sets of folks to whom we might point as the main suspects for the Grinch: Herod, The Magi and the Chief Priests and Scribes. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Herod was the Roman governor of Judea at the time Jesus was born. Herod was an interesting character. On one side of the coin Herod was a helpful leader. Though he imposed heavy taxes on the people, there were times when Herod repealed the taxes and once even sold some of his personal possessions to buy grain for the people during a famine. Herod is credited with some outstanding architectural feats in his time; including re-building the Temple at Jerusalem. For these and many other deeds Herod became known as Herod the Great. One the other side of the coin, Herod was a jealous and paranoid ruler. Herod was suspicious of anyone who might look like they had designs on his throne. And, it seemed as if anyone looked at him cross-eyed he would have them killed. On that list were not only political rivals but family as well including his wife, a few sons and several of his in-laws. Someone in Jerusalem once remarked that it you had a better life expectancy if you were Herod’s pig than his son. As he neared his death, Herod was so unpopular with the people that he ordered that on the day of his death all of the Jewish leaders would be rounded up and killed so that the people would mourn on the day of Herod’s death rather than celebrate.

There is no written historical evidence uncovered thus far to prove that Herod actually ordered the slaughter of the innocents as Matthew describes later in the text. But it is certainly not outside of Herod’s character to order children murdered.

When the magi come to Herod and ask where they can find the new born king of the Jews, Herod feigns interest and asks them to find the child and tell him where to go so that he may worship Jesus. Herod, of course, has no interest in going near the manger. Herod’s only interest is himself – he looks out for number one.

You know, sometimes looking out for number one keeps us from seeking Christ. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

The magi are another prime suspect for the Grinch in the story. The magi are astronomers from the area of Iraq – probably Baghdad. They see a star rise in the night sky and by pouring over scrolls and consulting symbols decide that this star means the birth of a new king of Israel. Now, tradition says there were three wise men because they brought three gifts. Someone once imagined what it would be like if they were wise women instead of wise men: they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver he baby, clean the stable, make a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be peace on earth.

The magi see a star rise in the western sky and wondered what it meant. They had a guess, but they really didn’t know for sure. So, they make a nearly two-year journey to check out their theory. Truly they were seekers of truth. But, they went to the wrong place to find it. They went to Jerusalem. Now, that made sense: if you think you are looking for a king, you go to the capitol of the kingdom. But, Jesus wasn’t that kind of king.

How many times do we think we know who Jesus is, or who Jesus ought to be and so we look in the wrong places to find him? But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Finally, we have the chief priests and the scribes. These were guys who were well educated in the details and nuances of the Scriptures. It was their life-long passion and pursuit to know the Bible inside and out. I imagine that may have given them a sort of spiritual arrogance. When Herod asks them where the Messiah was to be born, the chief priests and scribes didn’t even bat an eye; “In Bethlehem.” They said. And, they even quoted Herod that obscure verse from Micah. Now, here were guys who knew the Scriptures, but didn’t care enough to go beyond them. They thought their intellect would get them through as if there was a written exam to get to heaven. I know people like that. They know the Bible backwards and forwards but they don’t know God; they don’t care to seek the one to whom the Scriptures point and they think that since they have all the Scriptural answers that they can keep the manger at arms length. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

So, we have Herod who killed the children around Bethlehem. Is he the Grinch? Does he steal Christmas? He would be my prime suspect, but no, Herod doesn’t steal Christmas. How about the magi? They thought they knew where to find truth, but they went to the wrong place. Did they steal Christmas? No. While thy may have been unwitting accomplices in the murder of the innocents, they did eventually make it to the manger and we’ll leave it up to them and God whether they found a king or a savior. So, how about the chief priests and scribes; are they the Grinch? Well, they may have been arrogant and apathetic, but they didn’t steal Christmas. They didn’t care enough to make the short journey to Bethlehem to take anything.

So who is the Grinch? May I suggest that the only person who can steal Christmas is us and the only people we can steal it from is ourselves? We can steal Christmas away from ourselves when we are focused only on ourselves and our wants and our desires and our agenda. We can steal Christmas away from ourselves when we want Jesus to be something that Jesus is not and so we look for Jesus in all the wrong places or through all the wrong practices. We can steal Christmas away from ourselves when we let our intellectual arrogance get in the way of caring enough to seek Jesus or when we allow our knowledge of the Bible to keep God at arm’s length.

There are lots of other things that we allow to keep us away from Christ: doubts, bitterness, hurt, resentment and ignorance. Is there something keeping you away Christ? I want to encourage you to set that aside, even if it is just for a day, and come to the manger and be embraced by the God who came to the world for you.

Please don’t spend this Christmas away from the manger.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Line We Don't Want Crossed

There is an imaginary line we tend to draw around the calendar
encircling the time from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day.

There are certain things we think ought not to cross over that line into our lives during that time:
troubled marriage,
job loss,

I thought about that the day before Thanksgiving. I was stopped along the side of Main Street watching a funeral procession go by. I thought how sad it was that this family will, for some years, remember Thanksgiving as the time when a loved on died.

It was also the day my friend and colleague, the Reverend Doctor Ken Christler was laid to rest.

Ken was not much older than I am. He was on a ladder and fell on his head on the pavement. He was in a coma for several days before he died and was buried the day before Thanksgiving.

For admittedly selfish reasons I couldn't bring myself to attend his funeral.

I am still trying to sort out Ken's death. The language that "God allowed this to happen" isn't palatable to me. (Neither, of course, is the language that God caused this to happen.)

I am not looking for a purpose in Ken's death.

I am really not sure right now what I am looking for.

I feel terrible for Ken's wife and kids and siblings. They will, for several years, remember Thanksgiving as the time when Ken died.

Collectively, I think we all feel bad when tragedy strikes "during the holidays."

Sad stuff shouldn't cross that line into what is supposed to be a joy-filled time.


Sad stuff DOES happen...ALL the time.

Tragedy does not consult a calendar.

Cancer and depression, unemployment and economic crises, marital problems and even death do not keep their distance during the holidays.


neither does God.

My favorite Biblical nickname for Jesus is "Immanuel" - which means, "God with us." To me, that is much more than a statement of the incarnation. It tells me that God is not afraid of the sad stuff that seems to cling to our lives. It tells me that God is with us during those sad and tragic times - even when they cross the imaginary line into the holidays.

In fact, Jesus was born into a world where tremendous tragedies were occurring on a regular basis. Could those tragedies be part of the "fullness of time" in which Jesus came? (see Galatians 4:4)

That Jesus is God with us doesn't change the fact that people lose their jobs, or get cancer, or divorce, or die - during the holidays or any other day.

It doesn't change the circumstances, but it can change my perspective and my response. And, it does give me hope and some sense of comfort and peace.

And that's what I will cling to while I am trying to sort out Ken's death.

That's what I will cling to even if I don't sort out Ken's death.

That's what I will cling to every time death and other sad stuff crosses the line into life

- mine or anyone else's