Mary’s Magnificat: “His mercy is for those who fear Him”

mary croppedThis weekend, I preached on Mary’s Magnificat (audio, Luke 1:46-55) at our church in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut. The title of my sermon was “His mercy is for those who fear Him,” which is a line in the middle of Mary’s song. The reason that we live in an unsafe world is because people don’t fear God. There are a lot of other systemic and cultural factors at play to be sure, but I still think that fundamental theological statement holds true. Now I mean something very specific by “fearing God,” as those of you who have been following my trail are aware. It is not that we ought to be afraid of God, because when dread is the motivation for behavior, people do good only begrudgingly and with mediocrity. It is rather the fear that is awe and wonder at God’s majesty that builds sanctuaries of people who can speak the truth in love to one another and thus live in safety. And it is when we live in this awe and wonder that we discover the depths of God’s mercy and make it our lives’ work to help spread the reign of this mercy. That is how I interpret Mary’s statement that His mercy is for those who fear Him. Mary’s Magnificat shows us the path into the holy fear that discovers mercy. Here are the points I made in my sermon as my interpretation of the clues in Mary’s words. Continue reading

Mary: God-bearer

Sermon preached at LifeSign, Burke UMC on 12/17/11
Text: Luke 1:26-38

“Mr. Guyton,” she said, “I’m pregnant.” Sadie was one of my best students. I had been impressed enough by her writing in my 10th grade English class that I recommended she join our school newspaper staff, which she did and continued to excel so I promoted her to an editor position and was grooming her to be our next editor-in-chief. The high school where I taught didn’t send many graduates off to college, but Sadie was unusually bright, so I had held high hopes for her future. Continue reading

“I am not the messiah!”

So how many of you know something about John the Baptist? If you had to describe him in one word, what would it be? What about humble? Well it’s not the first word that comes to my mind either. Some of you know that Pastor Larry and I try to preach on the same passage each week. So when Pastor Larry told me the topic for this week was humility and the model for humility was John the Baptist, I was perplexed. John the Baptist was loud and rude and judgmental. He was a fire and brimstone sidewalk preacher. Continue reading

Waiting on God’s revolution (2 Peter 3)

Sermon preached at Lifesign, Burke UMC 12/3/2011
Text: 2 Peter 3:8-15

Have you ever wanted to hit the reset button on life? I remember the original Nintendo had two buttons: power on the left and reset on the right. And whenever my friends would talk too much smack about beating me at a game, I could always hit the reset button so that the score would disappear and we would start over from scratch. I’ve had a similar feeling in adult life whenever my wife and I clean house together and the hopelessness of our clutter makes me want to hit reset. I say, “Honey, can we just burn the whole thing down, collect the insurance, and start over?” (She doesn’t think it’s funny.) Continue reading

When the unclean come clean

Sermon preached at Burke UMC 11/26-27/2011
Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

David Lahti, a British biologist, wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper this week asking “Why does religion keep telling us we’re bad?” Lahti argues that humans have evolved into a relatively “cooperative, sympathetic, even loving species.” He gives the example of an airplane flight, saying that in comparison to other hominids, like gorillas or orangutans, it’s remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit together with fertile females in an enclosed space for seven hours without a fight breaking out. A couple of the online comments in response to Lahti’s article are worth relating. One of them said, “You ever been to a night-club, Mr. Lahti?” And right below it: “What about Black Friday?” Continue reading

The Outsider King (Christmas Eve sermon)

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2010

So how many of you participated in some way in the Hypothermia project last week? Raise your hands! For those of you who were unaware, our church was a temporary shelter for a week for homeless people living in Fairfax County. I grumbled a little bit about the timing since Christmas is such a busy time already. But you know, I thought about it and it’s actually very appropriate for us to spend time with homeless people at Christmas. Because the savior king whose birth we celebrate on Christmas was born homeless. If Mary and Joseph had been passing through Fairfax County with no place to stay, rather than Bethlehem, then Jesus might have been born in a sleeping bag in our Fellowship Hall!

As it was, the best place that Mary and Joseph could find was a barn where their newborn child spent his first few hours in a manger. Now who knows what a manger is? It’s a place where animals eat. So how clean do you think a manger would be? Do animals use forks and spoons or wipe their faces with napkins? Of course not.  Furthermore, has anyone here been in a barn before? How does it smell in a place like that? Pretty smelly, right? Because animals are kind of smelly.

Jesus was born in a smelly, dirty kind of place, very different from the sterile hospital rooms where most of us were born. I don’t mean to ruin Christmas by making these observations. It’s just that when we think about Jesus’ birth, we usually picture the cute nativity scenes on Christmas cards instead of a messy, dirty barn.  We’ve got a thick layer of “cuteness” that fogs up our view of the Christmas story, which is understandable because Christmas has become a holiday that’s mostly about taking pictures of our kids. But we have to look past the “cuteness” of Christmas to ask a very important question: what kind of God would let His Son be born in a barn?

It’s not just a smart-alecky question. God reveals the kind of God that He is through how He acts in history. The God who sent His Son to be born in a barn is the same God who, out of all the peoples of the ancient world, chose as His people a group of slaves in Egypt who had descended from an otherwise unremarkable nomad named Abraham. There were many greater nations than this small band of slaves called the Israelites, but God decided to pick these slaves as His people and deliver them from slavery. So this little band of freed slaves wandered across the desert and founded a tiny nation on at the intersection of the Eurasian and African continents, right in the crosshairs of all the great ancient empires: Egyptians to the southwest, Hittites to the north, Assyrians to the northeast, and Babylonians to the east. Somehow God kept His people together and they managed to hold onto their sliver of land for a few centuries before being conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. Once they were conquered, some of their prophets began to speak of a savior who would rise up from among these exiled descendents of freed slaves, a savior who wouldn’t just deliver His own people, but all the nations of the world.

Many centuries and empires later, much of the ancient world was under the rule of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, a very powerful man who could issue a census decree and force millions of people to pack their bags and journey hundreds of miles to their hometowns to be counted, just so they could be  taxed. The reason that Joseph and Mary didn’t have a place to stay in Bethlehem was because they and thousands of other people had been forced to follow Augustus’ decree. And yet Mary had a king in her womb waiting to be born, a king whose importance would supersede the power of even the mighty emperor Augustus, a king who was born and laid in a feeding trough where donkeys slurped up their hay.

So why was this king born in a barn and not a palace? Why was his mama a Jewish teenager and not a Roman princess or an Egyptian queen? God could have forced a whole empire of people to worship Jesus if He had made Him a Roman emperor. But he didn’t. Instead, God chose to have His Son enter the world as an outsider, a baby who was born in a barn because there was no room for Him anywhere else. And the good news that God shows us from the manger where His Son lay is that He is the God of the people who the world doesn’t have room for.

Because Jesus was born an outsider, He can draw us out of the world we live in and into a kingdom of outsiders. The first people to hear about Jesus’ birth were outsiders on the fringe of society – shepherds who were literally homeless, spending their nights out in the open fields with their sheep. And the disciples that Jesus would recruit to follow him were a bunch of nobodies –fishermen and tax collectors. They wandered around from town to town, homeless, a lot like the throng of homeless people who journey from church to church throughout the season of the Hypothermia program. Now let me ask a tough question: what church today would nominate as its leaders people like the shepherds who were called to be the first evangelists of the baby Jesus’ birth, or the fishermen who Jesus called as his first disciples? What church today would take shepherds and fishermen seriously or, for that matter, poor, homeless kids who are born into animal feeding troughs?  Well, probably not many.

Now if our king was born in a manger, then how are we called to live as subjects of His kingdom? I think we’re living in the kingdom when we step outside of the walls created by the world, when our mission experiences bring us close enough to those whom we’re serving that they become our brothers and sisters rather than people we look down on in our heads because they need someone else’s help. We’re living in the kingdom when the purpose of getting a college education is not to attain some sort of social respectability but to search for the unique role in Christ’s body to which God has called each of us. We’re living in the kingdom when Jesus is truly Lord over our time and we’re no longer owned by the anxieties of school, careers, competitive parenting, and whatever else the world tells us to worry about.

Do you live in this outsider kingdom established by the baby king who comes to us in a dirty, smelly manger to save us from the isolation of our clean respectability? That’s where I want to live, but I still belong very much to the world that can’t understand how anybody important could come to us in a feeding trough. But the good news is that this Christmas we have an opportunity to try again. Our all-gracious God invites us again to step out of the world and give ourselves more completely to the kingdom of Christ. So let’s take God up on this invitation. Let’s get out of our comfort zone, which really isn’t very comfortable but a restless place to live; let’s go to the manger and all the other dirty, smelly places where we really meet Jesus; and let’s live in His kingdom forever.

Joseph: A Different Kind of Righteous

Sermon for Advent, 12/18/2010
Text: Matthew 1:12-25

Joseph was a righteous man. The word “righteous” has gotten a bad rap in our day, because righteous and self-righteous have come to mean the same thing. Our world has reduced morality to a set of either-ors. Either you stand up for what’s right and you’re a merciless judge of others, or you’re an easy-going person who doesn’t have any moral convictions. Either you see the world in black and white terms that anybody ought to understand or you see gray everywhere and feel like we need a doctor of philosophy to sort it all out. Joseph didn’t live in our world of either-or. He was a different kind of righteous, a kind you don’t find often anymore.

Some of you might say it was easy for Joseph to be righteous. He had an angel of the Lord come to him in a dream to tell him what to do. So what do we do now that Michael Landon’s no longer with us and even Touched by an Angel is off the air? If someone with wings and a halo came and told me what to do, it wouldn’t be that hard to obey. But we have to look a little more closely at Joseph’s story, because Joseph decides to be righteous before the angel comes to visit.

Now if Joseph was a righteous, devout Jew, he would have known that Leviticus 20:10 says very clearly that the punishment for adultery is stoning. And if Joseph had been one to stone first and ask questions later, then he would have had Mary put to death before any angel had a chance to get a word in edgewise. But because Joseph started in a place of mercy, he was able to hear God’s word and follow it with integrity. We may not have dreams of angels, but we can follow the basic model of Joseph’s righteousness – if we start with mercy, we will be able to hear God speak and then obey His command.

It’s very important to recognize that Joseph did not know Mary was innocent when he decided to treat her with mercy. When he found out Mary was pregnant, Joseph wasn’t going to move forward with their marriage as though nothing had happened, but he also wasn’t willing to turn Mary into the authorities. Maybe he sensed that there was more to the story than what it seemed. Perhaps Mary told him that she’d had a visit from an angel herself. The Bible doesn’t say. All that we know is that Joseph refused to rush to judgment.

Joseph almost ended his engagement to Mary, but he was also willing to break the law of the Torah so that Mary’s life would be spared. To Joseph, righteousness meant more than just following the rules and making sure that people get what they deserve. Joseph’s different kind of righteousness meant seeking after the heart of a God who tells us in the Bible that His ways are not like our ways, because He is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Joseph did not yet know the full depths of mercy that God would reveal through the baby who would come into the world because Joseph refused to have His mother stoned for adultery. But the life and death and resurrection of the savior child who was soon to be born would create a kingdom of mercy for which Joseph’s act of mercy was only a foreshadow.

Mercy is what it’s all about, folks. It’s what the Word of God became flesh to instill in us. Jesus did not die for our sins so that we could go around criticizing other people for their sins. He died to show us God’s mercy so we would show each other mercy. And we live in a world without mercy, a nation of bloggers and soap-box-jumping ranters and ravers who know exactly what’s wrong with other people and consider it their divine mandate to broadcast their opinions to the world. I know because I’ve been one of them and I’m still learning how not to be. As long as we’re spouting off, as long as we feel sure that we know how it is, God could send a whole hallelujah chorus of angels to change our minds and we wouldn’t hear them. Instead, we’d spin their hallelujahs into praise for our own ideas.

But Joseph didn’t live in the world that we’ve created today. Because Joseph was humble and merciful, his heart was open enough to receive God’s word when the angel came into his dream. He knew somehow that he hadn’t gotten all the facts, so he waited patiently, and God honored his patience by showing him the truth. What was not possible had in fact happened. This amazingly virtuous woman he had fallen in love with had not cheated on him. Mary really was still a virgin and somehow Joseph was going to be the step-dad of the savior of the humanity.

Now we can say that God doesn’t send angels to people anymore, but how do we know? Maybe we haven’t been listening. The word “angel” is transliterated from the Greek word angelos, and all that means is “messenger.” God speaks His message of love to us through every means that God can. God has sent us many messengers; many of you in this very room have been God’s messengers to me because God has spoken through you.

There are two types of messengers that Jesus especially calls our attention to. He says in Mark 9, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.” And in Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.” Jesus is saying that if we want to meet Him, if we want to seek His face, if we want to hear His word, then we would do best to look for Him in the company of children and anybody who needs our help.

What do we learn from hanging out with children and helping other people? We learn mercy; we learn patience; we learn to listen without jumping to conclusions too quickly. And using these gifts that we receive, we are able to listen for the still, small voice of God. Now please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Children say plenty of nonsense and sometimes you get cussed out by people you’re trying to help. But if you receive it all in mercy, knowing the mercy that God has given you, then God will speak to you through whatever you experience.

And when your heart has been opened enough by mercy to receive God’s word, then it’s easier to submit yourself to God’s will. By following God’s command to take Mary as his wife and perform the definitive ritual of naming the boy Jesus, which legally made him Jesus’ father, Joseph essentially gave himself a shotgun wedding and implicitly confessed to a sin that he didn’t commit to smooth out the story for a community that would not have understood a virgin birth. Joseph was willing to receive public dishonor for acting in secret with true honor. This was truly a different kind of righteousness. And because Joseph obeyed God, Jesus was not only the Son of God but the son of Joseph’s ancestor David also, which legitimated his claim to Israel’s throne. Even though Jesus didn’t have a human father, nobody needed to know that Joseph wasn’t his daddy, not till much later.

Yet, as much of a hero as Joseph was, I don’t think it takes a superhuman amount of character to follow his model. We just need a little mercy. And in fact, we’ve got a leg up on Joseph because we know the mercy that his stepson Jesus would later show us in dying for our sins. What makes us resistant to obeying God’s will is when we think we’ve got the world all figured out, when we’ve got our own agenda, when it’s more important for us to look like we’re right than to actually do something that’s righteous but impossible to explain to a world that can’t understand. People who live under God’s mercy don’t have an agenda; they’re not trying to prove their worth to anybody because God has proven His unconditional love to them. And that’s why they can do what God tells them. God doesn’t beat us down into a sulky, begrudging obedience. God wins us through His mercy so that we will not just do what God says but want what God wants, which is what makes us able to hear and obey Him at all, still, small voice that He is.

When mercy reigns in your heart like it reigned in Joseph’s heart, then you too will hear God speak through the many messengers that He sends you, and you too will want to follow the command of the God who loves you, even if it means risking the world’s dishonor just as Joseph faced dishonor in claiming a son that wasn’t his and just as Jesus suffered the greatest dishonor of all so that we might know God’s mercy. Don’t let the world tell you what is and isn’t righteous. Be like Joseph; start with mercy and be a different kind of righteous.

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Sermon for Advent, 12/4/2010
Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Let me just be honest. John the Baptist frustrates me a little bit. He’s like the crazy uncle you invite to your Christmas party since he’s good for some laughs, and he ends up going on an awkward, angry rant that makes everybody leave. Instead of telling stories about his adventures in the desert eating locusts and honey, John calls the guests a “brood of vipers” and says that God is ready to cut them down with an ax if they don’t have “fruits worthy of repentance.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been putting in long hours this fall, so John’s prickly speech feels like getting kicked in the stomach after running a marathon. What do we do with John the Baptist? According to Isaiah, he’s supposed to be the voice in the desert who prepares the way of the Lord. So how do these words of his prepare our hearts for our savior King to be born in Bethlehem?

Preparing the way of the Lord means that something’s got to get cleared out of the way for God to come through. It seems like that’s what all this talk of axes chopping down trees and winnowing forks separating wheat from chaff is about. Highways don’t just fall down out of the sky and roll out across the earth like a red carpet; somebody’s got to bulldoze some land and blow up a few mountains to prepare the way for a road to come through.

I had first-hand experience with this once on a smaller scale. 10 years ago I spent the summer in a little village called Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Chiapas in southeast Mexico. One day the town gathered to clear brush out of a meadow so they could walk through it. The way they swung their machetes looked so natural and effortless. So I asked for a machete and starting trying to cut with it but it was quickly confiscated. They said, “No sirve, gringo. You’re going to cut your legs off with that thing.” I begged and pleaded until they gave it back, and it only took about 15 minutes for me to get a nice fat blister on the inside of my thumb. Life is brutal in a world without bulldozers where you have to blaze trails by hand.

So I wonder if preparing the way of the Lord is the same kind of vigorous labor on a spiritual level. Do we need to have achy muscles and blisters all over our hands to feel like we’re doing enough to build God a highway? John the Baptist says that the trees that don’t bear fruit need to get cut so that God can come through. Well, what counts as fruit? And what needs to get cleared away? Our interpretation of John’s words hinges upon how we answer these questions. Let me share one way of reading this that is natural to pastors like me who are always trying to get more people here and get the people who are here more involved. What needs to get cleared away is whatever creates scheduling conflicts in other peoples’ lives that keep them from all the things that we want them to do for God’s church. And the fruit is whatever those wildly successful mega-churches do that causes them to grow bigger just as many Methodist churches get smaller.

These past few weeks we’ve been very involved in outreach. We went out to the VRE station at 6 in the morning to hand out hot chocolate the week of Thanksgiving. This morning we hit the neighborhoods around here with door-hangers about everything that Burke UMC is doing for Advent. Several evenings this past week, I flipped through our church phone directory and called anybody whose face I hadn’t seen in worship to invite them to come out to our Advent activities. Does preparing the way of the Lord mean spending more hours doing church work and clearing out the rest of our busy schedules? Maybe it does, but I’m not sure, because putting in longer hours doing church work hasn’t made me more excited about the coming of the Messiah. How is it that we can spend more and more time doing church work but still not feel like we’re spending any time with God? Why do we long for Christmas to be over and done with already rather than savoring the excitement of the birth of our savior?

Maybe the fruit God is looking for is something different than achievements. And maybe the dead plants that need to get cleared away are not so much our scheduling conflicts but our unhealthy attitudes about our achievements. The Pharisees that John attacks in his speech were not slackers. They spent all their time trying to be perfect according to their stringent interpretation of God’s law. If anybody had fruit in their lives, it would have been the Pharisees. If they were around today, they would be the rock star church people who have time for three Bible studies a week and two mission projects and sing in the choir and serve on four different committees. So why did John the Baptist attack them so viciously and suggest that their fruit was unworthy?

John says to bear fruit that is “worthy of” or “fitting for” repentance. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia. It’s a combination of two Greek words – meta, which means “after” or “beyond” and noeō, which means to “think” or “perceive.” We oversimplify the concept of repentance in English when we say that it means proving we’re sorry by fixing our mistakes. Metanoia is not necessarily tied to a specific sin or mistake. It just means that something has happened to completely change our hearts and compel us to perceive our lives much more deeply than how we saw it before. The fruit of which John speaks is not so much evidence of doing a lot as it is a changed way of being. John is telling us to show with our attitudes that our hearts have really been moved. And if we want to be moved by God, then we have to stop moving first.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached that “true religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness. For it is not only ‘righteousness,’ but also ‘peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’… This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled… ‘the kingdom of God’ [or]… ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ It is termed ‘the kingdom of God,’ because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. [When God] sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ It is called ‘the kingdom of heaven’ because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.”

The four candles of Advent stand for hope, peace, joy, and love. When we open our souls to the reign of God, these are the fruits that it yields. As Wesley said, heaven opens up inside of us. We cannot “work on” having hope, peace, joy, and love; these fruits are gifts of God and the only thing for us to do is receive them graciously. God doesn’t want our achievements; He just wants us; and He wants us to experience the hope, peace, joy, and love that abound naturally from living in complete trust of Him. When we don’t trust God, then all of our efforts to serve Him and bring glory to His kingdom become like barren trees that we need God to be merciful enough to cut down. What are the barren trees in your lives? I’ve been worrying so much about proving myself as a pastor that I forgot to be a vessel of the One whose plan completely exceeds our understanding. The garden of my heart is so cluttered with dead plants that there’s no room for a manger in which a baby king can be born. I need for God to cut off the dead branches and toss my soul around with His winnowing fork until all the chaff has been shaken out from the wheat.

Preparing the way of the Lord is not a backbreaking act of labor for us to do; it is what God does for Himself in our hearts if we trust Him enough to let Him. And so the real question this Advent season is not “How are you getting ready for Christmas?” We should be asking ourselves instead how we have opened our hearts to the reign of God so that the hope, peace, joy, and love that only God can give will be what we feel as we wait by the manger for the birth of our King.