Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Charlie Brown Christmas ~ A Rocky Start

So the weeks leading up to Christmas is this kind of crazy, stress filled whirlwind that culminates on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or Boxing Day, or whenever we celebrate with family and friends, and then we settle back into a more normal routine and get ready for the New Year.  We might think this mirrors the story of Jesus and that after the crazy, stress filled whirlwind of a trip to Bethlehem, a crowded inn, a noisy stable, a smelly manger and the strange visit of the shepherds who talked about hearing the songs of angels that it got back to a more normal routine for Mary and Joseph.  But that is not what happened.  In fact, what happens next reminds me of a scene from a Charlie Brown Christmas Special, but not the one you might be thinking of.

In 1992 Charles Schultz and Bill Melendez came out with another special called, It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown and I’ll be honest, it doesn’t have the same charm and power as the first one, but the opening scene of the special looks like the first few years of life for Mary, Joseph and their baby, Jesus.

This clip hits home for me, and I do mean hit.  At my Grandmother’s house there was a steep little hill in her back yard that looked just perfect for sledding.  I couldn’t figure out why none my sisters were going down it but opting to go down much more gentle slope farther away.  So went to the top of that little hill and got read to go.  The plan was solid – and about 5 seconds into the ride I realized why no one else was sledding there.  The house was about 20 feet away and I had no way to stop.  For Linus, everything looked good too and the plan was solid.  Climb in the box and sled smoothly down the hill what could go wrong?  The same for Jesus and his family.  He arrived and all the craziness is over and everything was going fairly well, in fact, they had even been visited by some Magi who gave them gold, frankincense and myrrh – so everything looked good until the night that Joseph had a dream.  Matthew 2:13-16.

Suddenly they are off to a Rocky Start.  I’m sure Mary and Joseph’s plan had been to return home and raise their child, the Son of God, among family and friends, not flee to Egypt and live with strangers.  And think about it, the prophets said that their child was the prince of peace and yet as an innocent baby he is being threatened and attacked by one of the most ruthless rulers Judea had ever know.  Herod was the worldly king of the Jewish people and he was known as a power-hungry man who would do anything necessary to keep his hands on the throne.  When Herod first became king he assassinated most of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling body of the Jewish people.  He murdered is wife and mother and even three of his own sons in order to make sure he maintain control and that there would never be any other heirs to his throne.  So when some Magi told him that a new king had been born, Herod thought nothing of finding this king and having him killed.  So Herod ordered the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem.  Matthew 2:16-18.

So it was a rocky start for Mary and Joseph as they fled to Egypt but what we need to remember is that even though things weren’t at all what they expected, God was still at work.  God knew what Herod was going to do which is why he didn’t send the Magi back to Herod after they visited Jesus.  By warning them to go home a different way it gave Mary and Joseph a head start in their escape.  So while Mary and Joseph couldn’t see it – God was at work during this rocky beginning.  At just the right moment an angel came to warn them to get out of Bethlehem and because God had sent the Magi to Jesus Mary and Joseph now had some gold to help them n their journey.  God is always at work and God always has a plan even when we cannot see it.

As we enter into this New Year we need to remember that there are going to be unexpected and difficult moments in life and yet there is nothing unexpected to God.  God knows what is going to take place and God is already working on a plan for us to make it through.  God was not only telling Mary and Joseph that they needed to run – but he was preparing all the places that would take them in.  That we don’t know what happened during their flight to Egypt tells me that things at this point went a little more smoothly and that’s because God had already made a way.  The end of the story is that Herod died and Joseph was told in another dream that it was now safe for him and his family to return so they went back to Nazareth.  God was at work even if Mary and Joseph didn’t see it and God is at work in us even when we don’t see it.

Another truth of this story is how God takes what we might think is insignificant and uses it for something amazing.  What was it that led the Magi to search for the new king?  A star – something we see thousands of every night.  And what told the Joseph he should flee Bethlehem and then return home?  A dream – something we do often, sometimes every night.  God takes seemingly simple and insignificant things and uses them for something amazing but only if we are willing to look and listen.  The Magi were looking at the stars which is why they saw something new and checked it out.  Joseph must have been listening to his dreams – and why not, he was also told in a dream that Jesus was going to be the son of God.  If God was going to start speaking to me in dreams like that, I would listen too.  So they were in tune with the simple ordinary aspects of life and through them God did amazing things.

This New Year we need to pay attention to the simple and ordinary things of life and look for God to use them in amazing ways.  Maybe it will come through our routines at work, or through our dedication and commitment in worship, maybe it will come during times of prayer or praise or even play – but if we know God is always working in us then we need to watch and wait for him to appear.  Too many times we look to God to give us some kind of spectacular sign when what we really need to do is pay attention to the simple things God does every day.

Next month we start a new series called 5 things God uses to grow our faith and the truth is that these 5 things are simple.  God uses teaching, relationships, our spiritual disciplines and ministry and the circumstances of our lives to lead us and grow us.  The question is will we look for God in these simple things and learn how to use them to grow daily.
So it was a rocky start for Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  They were persecuted and forced from their home.  They listened to God, trusted what He said and set off to Egypt, becoming refugees.  Who would have thought that a series on Charlie Brown would lead us to Matthew 2 and the story of Mary and Joseph facing a rocky start to their life as a family?  Who would have thought that Charlie Brown and Linus trying to sled down a hill in a box would lead us to one of the most difficult issue facing our world today and one of the most divisive issues facing our country?  While we may not have seen this coming, God did because God is always at work in our lives and God is always leading us where He wants us to go, so here we are today, face to face with the refugee crisis facing our world.

Let me share start by saying I am honored and greatly blessed to be part of a congregation that despite what we may think and believe politically we can come together to make a statement on Christmas Eve that we need to reach out to Jesus.  That we did not shy away from the desperate struggle of refugees around the world to survive because of our current political circumstances is a sign of the strength of faith and courage this church has.  When I told some of my friends and colleagues that we were giving our Christmas Eve offering to the Global Refugee Crisis through UMCOR, what I heard most often was – wow.  That’s something.   And you are something for being willing to see the real human need in the midst of the all the political talk on both sides.

This is not an easy issue for us to work through as a nation.  We need to ensure the safety and security of our communities and yet we can’t forget our call to care for those in need.  We face the same thing here in the church; while we are open to all people we also have to work to ensure the safety and security of our children.  We also cannot forget that many refugees in the world today are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  There are Christian around the world who have been forced out of their homes because of their faith and they need our support and prayers.  Even among the surge of refugees from Syria there are Christians whose families and faith communities date back to the times of the Bible.  And think about the added struggle for them, they are not only fleeing their homes but travelling among the other refugees can be dangerous for them because of their faith and so they are often in even greater danger and face greater needs.  While we struggle with the political crisis of refugees, let’s always remember that in many cases, no matter who they are, they are our brothers and sisters and we need hear the call of God to care for those in need.

And think about this, as Christians, we are all refugees living in a foreign land because this world is not our home – our home is the kingdom of God.  I don’t just mean heaven when we die, I mean we are to live in this world today as if we were citizens of God’s kingdom.  In one of Jesus final prayers he prayed for the disciples and for the church, he said, I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  We are sent by God into the world but we are not to be of this world which means we are not to let the values and priorities of the world shape or lives.  

So we need a kind of refugee mindset as we move into the New Year and there are two things that can help with this.  First: keep your eyes, minds and hearts focused on the Kingdom of God.  The Apostle Paul tells us that we can do this by only thinking about that things that are Godly.  Philippians 4:8.  We have to look to the things of God and not the things of this world and we need to allow God’s values and priorities shape us.  Just as most refugees want to go home and so keep their eyes and hearts fixed there, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who shows us what it looks like to be a citizen of God’s kingdom.

The second thing we need to do to be refugees moving toward God’s kingdom is to be willing to leave everything behind.  One thing all refugees have in common is that they have to leave everything behind.  They not only leave homes, clothes and all their possessions, they leave behind their identity and livelihood.  While they may have had good jobs or been talented craftsmen in their home countries, they have to leave all that behind in order to find life.  Jesus said the very same thing to those that wanted to follow him.  They had to be willing to leave everything behind.  Jesus said that whoever loses their life for me will find it.  To follow Jesus means we have to leave this world and at times our own hopes and dreams behind..

Whether the new year begins with a Rock Start or those challenges come in the weeks and months to come, what we can be sure of is that God is at work in our lives and we can find God working if we will look for him in the simple ordinary events of daily life.  As we move on toward on our home in the Kingdom of God, let us trust God to provide for us and give us the strength and faith and courage to persevere.

Next Steps
A Rocky Start

1. Read the story of all that Mary and Joseph faced after Jesus was born ~ Matthew 2.  Identify all the ways God was at work even though Mary and Joseph may not have seen it.

2. God worked through stars and dreams – things we might take for granted and seem insignificant.  What simple things might God use in your life during 2016 to speak to you?  What one thing can you do to help pay more attention to these things?

3. Resolve to be in worship during the month of January to learn about the 5 Things God Will Use To Grow Your Faith.
spiritual disciplines

4. How does Jesus spending His young life as a refugee shape your thinking about the current refugee crisis facing our world?  How does it shape your political thoughts as we wrestle with this as a country?

5. We are refugees living in a foreign land because our home is the Kingdom of God.  To keep a refugee mindset in the coming year we need to:
Keep our eyes, minds and hearts focused on the Kingdom God.  Read Philippians 4:8.
Leave everything behind.  What do you need to leave behind as you move into this new year?