Incarnation: Light of the World

I don’t like driving at night. I don’t trust my night vision. Especially on narrow country roads, I feel like I’m always driving over my headlights. I need just a little more light. So after dark I either stick to familiar roads, or I avoid getting out at all.

This is a major exception to my acceptance of an idea called “flashlight faith.” You know how a flashlight works. It casts a narrow beam of light for a limited distance. You can see only so far. To see farther ahead, you have to take another step ahead. The flashlight does not show your destination. It only shows the next steps you have to take to reach your destination.

That’s the kind of guidance God provides for us most of the time. God gives us direction one step at a time. We have to trust God one step at a time. And I do – but I’m still leery of country roads at night.

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The joyful Jewish thanksgiving festival known as sukkot falls in late September or early October. It’s also known as the Feast of Booths, because celebrants set up temporary booths in memory of the tents their ancestors lived in on the way to the Promised Land.

In the time of Jesus, the festival included an event called the Grand Illumination. Four candelabras more than 70 feet tall were erected in the Temple, and it was said that the light was so bright that it illuminated all of Jerusalem.

The light was a reminder of the pillar of fire that guided Israel through the desert. Now imagine Jesus standing in the Temple during the Grand Illumination and proclaiming: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

On this last Sunday of Advent, when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, we turn to one more title for Jesus: light of the world. He is the light we need to see ourselves as we truly are. In his light we can see the truth of our past, and our present, and our future. Only in his light can we understand where God is leading us, where we have strayed from the path, and how we can get back on track.

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Throughout scripture, light shining in the darkness is a symbol of God’s guidance. Remember the creation story in Genesis. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light (Genesis 1:3). God sees that the light is good, so God separates the light from the darkness. This implies that darkness was the primordial reality, and it was not good.

“The way of the wicked is like deep darkness,” a proverb says (Proverbs 4:19).

The poets of Israel give God thanks for redeeming them from such trouble. Psalm 107 says: “Some sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons, for they had rebelled against the word of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High. … Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder” (Psalm 107: 10-15).

The prophet Isaiah sees our human need for a savior and God’s timely response. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined. … For to us a child is born, to us a child is given, and the government shall be on his shoulder, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2, 6).

John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word. … In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

In Jesus, John says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

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It is no accident that Jesus comes to us this time of year. It is widely believed that the date of Christmas was stolen from the pagans. As I show in my book Keeping Christmas, this is not true at all. When they began to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, Christians had every right to believe that the date was correct.

Back then, December 25 was considered the Winter Solstice. The date of the solstice has moved forward four days our calendar drifts over time. Today we consider December 21 as the solstice. We also call it the first day of winter. To my mind, calling it that mutes the hope of the day, because the solstice is actually a day of hope.

The winter solstice occurs when the earth is at a particular point in its yearly circuit of the sun. On this day the sun shines the least number of hours and the night is the longest. But after the solstice, the sun begins to shine longer each day, and each night is shorter than the one before.

We may indeed be entering the deepest part of winter, but there is hope. After this, the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter! Light is coming into the world!

That is one of the reasons we will be offering a Blue Christmas worship time on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year.

It’s a recognition that long winter nights may be especially hard on those who have suffered the painful loss of a loved one. Especially in this season of joy, those whose joy is seasoned by sorrow may find it hard to celebrate. Blue Christmas reminds us that the light shines even in this darkness.

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“I am the light of the world!” Jesus declares. But he also says, to us, his followers: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

And we need to let that light shine. You don’t light a lamp and then cover it up. No, you put the lamp on a lampstand so its light can shine throughout the room. “In the same way,” Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).

The first letter of Peter says we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people – and we are called to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining in us, the first letter of John says. “Whoever claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light.” (1 John 2.8-10).

How are we the light of the world? We are the light when we reflect God’s light in acts of kindness and mercy and love.

Let me pass on a couple of timely stories from Martin Thielen, a retired United Methodist pastor.

Some time ago, in a suburb in Pennsylvania, there lived a Jewish family. Where other houses were decorated for Christmas, their house was decorated for Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the festival of lights, so they had a big menorah lighted in their front window.

One night they woke to the sound of shattering glass. Someone had smashed their window and destroyed the menorah. Their grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps, and they knew what the sound of broken glass meant. They covered the window and went away to speak with family about what had happened.

When they returned that night, they were surprised to see that in the front window of nearly every home in their neighborhood was a large, illuminated menorah.

The second story concerns a family in Little Rock, Arkansas. They had many decorations in their front yard, including an inflatable black Santa Claus. They got an anonymous letter telling them to get rid of the black Santa and go back to where they belonged.

When they shared their story on Facebook, black Santas started appearing throughout their neighborhood.

“We are God’s plan for changing the world.” That’s what Adam Hamilton says in his book Incarnation, the inspiration for this series of Advent messages.

There are many ways of changing the world. Each of us has a unique way to do it. I encourage you to find a way to change the world that best suits your talents and temperament. Then do it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

The prophet Isaiah says this: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, and the pointing finger and malicious talk, if you share your food with the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness …Your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8-10).

A simple act of goodness may not appear to do much to keep the darkness at bay, but it could ignite a flame of love. From simple acts grow larger acts, and movements and revolutions. A revolution of the heart starts with a tiny spark. Be the spark for others. Be the light for others, as Jesus is the light for you.

We are nearing the end of this Advent season. Christmas is only days away. Our celebration this year may be very different from others in recent years. However similar or dissimilar it is, are you ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth one more time? Is Jesus being reborn in you as you prepare for the day? Are you ready for the coming of Jesus?

I pray that you are, and that you have a very Merry Christmas!

This message was delivered online December 20, 2020 for Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.      

Incarnation: Emmanuel, God with us

Your life is good, until something goes way wrong. You’re injured, or flattened by a sudden illness. All the plans you made for a special event go up in smoke, and you don’t know where to begin to start over.

You do something terrible, or people think you did, and you can’t imagine how you’ll face anyone again. You lose confidence in yourself. You feel worthless, not needed by anyone, not wanted by anyone.

In these times, you feel desperately alone. You feel like there is no one you can turn to for help. In these times, what you need is the assurance that, in fact, you are not alone, because God is with you.

That’s what the name Emmanuel means. It means, “God is with us.” It’s one of the titles of Jesus that we are looking at during Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. To see how God is with us as Emmanuel today, and how God has been with others over the ages, we’re going on a trek through history. This is a bit roundabout, so stay with me.

We begin about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. The kingdom founded by King David has split. The Southern Kingdom, called Judah, has its capital in Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom, called Israel, has its capital in the city of Samaria. The two small kingdoms are constantly at each other’s throats, and they’re both threatened by the giant kingdom of Assyria.

Here’s a paraphrase of how the prophet Isaiah tells the story in the seventh chapter of the book that bears his name.

In the days when Ahaz was king of Judah, the king of Aram allied with the king of Israel to mount an attack Jerusalem. When word of the alliance got out, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake in the wind.

Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go to Ahaz and say to him, ‘Do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands. Their plot against you will not succeed. You must stand firm in faith.’ ”

Ahaz wavered, so Isaiah said: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God, any sign you like.”  But Ahaz, the pious fraud, said, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Then Isaiah said: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you must weary God as well? Whether you want it or not, the Lord will give you a sign. See, the young woman is with child. She will give birth to a son, and she will name him Emmanuel. By the time he eats solid food and knows how to refuse evil and choose good, the lands of these two kings whom you dread so much will be a desert” (Isaiah 7:1-16).

The first sign of Emmanuel is to Ahaz, king of Judah. Ahaz is afraid that an alliance of two kings against him spells doom. God offers him a sign that he has nothing to fear from them. The sign is the son of a young woman. Who is she? Probably the wife of Ahaz, or possibly Isaiah himself. Why name him Emmanuel? Because it’s a prophetic sign name. It means “God is with us.”

Isaiah is really into prophetic sign names. At least two of his sons bear them. One is named Shear-jashub. His name means “A remnant will return.” That’s apparently a reference to the future devastation of Israel by Assyria.

Another son is named Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Can you imagine his mother calling him home for dinner? His name means something like “swift to the spoils, swift to the prey.” Here’s the interesting part: When God tells Isaiah to give the boy that jawbreaker of a name, God says, “Before the boy knows how to say ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy,’ the spoil of Aram and Israel will be carried away by Assyria.”

That’s very similar to the sign of Emmanuel, isn’t it? God says that by the time Emmanuel is weaned, the threat that Ahaz fears so much will evaporate. And how does Ahaz react to the sign? Apparently he just shrugs and goes on his way. He is not remembered as one of the brighter lights among Old Testament kings.

One important thing to note here is that the story has no interest in, and says nothing about, the virginity or non-virginity of the mother. The Hebrew word means simply “young woman.” The prophecy assumes that she gets pregnant the usual way. The prophecy is about her son; it’s not about not her.

One more thing to note, before we move on, concerns the nature of prophecy. Biblical prophecy is not about predicting the future. A prophet does not gaze into God’s crystal ball to predict future events in any deterministic way. Rather, inspired by God, a prophet speaks a word “on target” to his time and situation. The prophet says, “This is what God thinks of current events, and this is what God is going to do about it.”

Prophets pronounce a word of judgment or a word of promise. God’s word to Ahaz was a promise that the threat he feared would evaporate. It’s a promise illustrated by the birth of a boy with a name that affirmed the promise: Emmanuel, God is with us.

Fast forward 800 years. Jesus has been dead 40 or 50 years, and the writer we know as Matthew is poring over the scriptures while piecing together the story of Jesus. He’s writing a gospel, and he’s looking for texts that show how Jesus fulfills God’s plans for Israel. But he has a story that has no parallel in the ancient texts.

The story is about a virgin named Mary, who is engaged to a man named Joseph. Before they come together as husband and wife, she gets pregnant. Joseph determines that he will not expose her to public disgrace, but will quietly dissolve the marriage agreement.

Then he has a dream. An angel of the Lord appears to him says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:18-21).

The Old Testament knows nothing of any virgin birth – at least not in the original Hebrew text. But in the relatively recent Greek translation known as the Septuagint, Matthew finds the solution to his problem. The Greek version of Isaiah chapter 7 reads like this: “Look, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son…”

It’s a bad translation. It’s so bad a translation it even gets the verb tenses wrong. Isaiah says the young woman is already pregnant; the Greek version says the virgin will become pregnant. Matthew surely knows this, but the prophecy fits his story too well to ignore. It implies something special about the manner of Jesus’ birth, but more importantly it foreshadows who Jesus is. Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is “God with us.”

So Matthew reports: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:24-25).

When Matthew says that Jesus’ birth “fulfills” the prophecy of Isaiah, he’s not saying that Isaiah predicted the birth of Jesus. He’s saying that an ancient prophecy of Isaiah finds new meaning in the birth of Jesus.

He’s saying, “Look, this is just like Isaiah – only better!” A child is conceived in Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. His name is Jesus, meaning “God saves.” In Jesus, the symbolic name Emmanuel becomes real because Jesus really is “God with us,” and he really will save us.

Again, let me say that Isaiah never predicted a virgin birth. If he had, he would have looked pretty silly when it didn’t happen when he said it would, and wouldn’t happen for another 750 years.

Matthew is reinterpreting an ancient prophecy to make it relevant to his time and situation. He does that a lot in his gospel. Time after time he says that something Jesus does “fulfills” a prophecy. It’s not that any prophet predicted that Jesus would do this. It’s that a prophet pronounced a promise from God, and Jesus fulfills that promise. Jesus gives the promise new meaning. Whatever the prophet’s saying meant in its original context, it finds new meaning in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Here’s another example from Matthew. After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph flee with the baby to Egypt, fearing the wrath of King Herod. When they hear that Herod has died, they make plans to return home. Matthew comments: “This was done to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ ” (Matthew 2:15)

That’s a reference to Hosea 11:1, where the prophet quotes God as saying: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It’s a reference to God liberating Israel from bondage in Egypt. It’s a reference to the past, not to any future event, and it’s certainly no prediction of the future. But Matthew quotes it, as if to say, “See, just as God once called Israel out of Egypt, now look: God is calling God’s son back home from Egypt.” Matthew quotes it to say, “Just as God was faithful once long ago, God again was faithful here.”

In the same way, we can appreciate stories of God’s faithfulness long ago, and be encouraged by them today. Whatever Isaiah’s prophecy meant in the time of Ahaz, Matthew found new meaning in the prophecy in the time of Jesus. And we today can continue to find new meaning in this and other ancient prophecies. We can find new signs of promise and hope in these words today.

After all, remember Jesus’ last promise to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew 28:20: “Remember, I am with you always.” That’s the promise of Emmanuel. Whatever our circumstance, God is with us, whatever our failing, whatever our need, God is with us.

Now we recognize that this promise is no panacea for everything that ails us. This is not a promise that God will bail us out of every jam or keep us from all harm. It is a promise that God is always there for us. And it does not seem that God intervenes directly in our lives. Most often, God works through other people. They are the angels in our lives.

I am thinking specifically now of a young man who is dear to me. He has had a recurring health problem. Just last week, through the intervention of one doctor, he will get to see another doctor, a specialist who may be able to help him. Surely, God is with him. No flutter of angel wings. No announcements from on high. Just one person doing what is best for another. Isn’t that the way God normally works in our lives? Isn’t that the way God is usually with us?

May you be comforted in knowing that whatever is wrong, God is there, one way or another. Amen.

This message was delivered on line December 13, 2020, for Edgerton United Methodist Church.      

Incarnation: He’s our Savior

You know that I rarely tell jokes. So today I’m going to start with a joke. Not only that, it’s one I’m sure you’ve heard before.

There’s a fellow who lives by a river, and one spring day there comes a huge rain, and the river keeps rising. A deputy in a Jeep pulls up to the house and says, “You’ve got to evacuate right now. Hop in.”

But the homeowner says, “No, thanks. I have faith that God will save me.”

Not much later, the water has risen high enough that he has to run upstairs to stay dry. Now a rescuer in a boat shows up and says, “You’ve got to evacuate now while you’ve got a chance.”

And the homeowner says, “I’ll be OK. I’m sure God will save me.”

Finally the water is so high that the man has to crawl up on his roof. He’s clinging to the chimney when a helicopter spots him and starts to lower a rope ladder. But he waves it off, yelling, “God will save me.”

The helicopter moves on, the water keeps rising, and the man is swept away and drowns. At the pearly gates, he complains to God:  “I had faith in you. Why didn’t you save me?”

God replies: “I sent you a Jeep and a boat and a helicopter. What more do you want?”

We all need a savior, don’t we? We can’t save ourselves, and much of the time we’re too blind to see and too stubborn to accept salvation when it’s offered to us.

This is the second week of Advent. Our guide to the season this year is Adam Hamilton’s book Incarnation. We can’t begin to fathom how God becomes human in Jesus, Adam says, so we’re exploring some of the reasons why God does it. We’re doing that by looking at some of the titles that scripture gives Jesus.

Last week we looked at Messiah and King. This week we’re exploring the title Savior.

Salvation is so important a concept that the New Testament mentions it 150 times. So it’s no accident that the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas was named Jesus – in Hebrew, Yeshua. The name means “God saves.”

That’s why Mary and Joseph are both told, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31). On the night of his birth, angels tell shepherds: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

The whole Christian witness may be summarized in 1 John 4:14: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be Savior of the world.”

Are you saved?” Ever been the target of that accusatory question?

I was in a supermarket one day when an earnest looking young man shoved his face very close to mine and asked, “Are you saved?”

He meant well, I suppose, but I wanted to say, “God save me from the likes of you.”

Another time, I was sitting in an airport restaurant with my family when another young man came flying by, slapping a yellow card on each table. It was this “Get out of hell free” card. That and a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee some places.

I am so sick of people selling Jesus as fire insurance. The great comedian Groucho Marx used to have a TV game show called “You Bet Your Life.” He’d tell contestants, “Say the secret word, and the duck will come down,” and you’ll win a prize. So many Christians today have turned salvation into a tawdry game show. “Say the magic prayer and the dove will come down,” and you win eternal salvation!

I cringe every time I see those signs on the highway: “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” Not, I hope, in the earthly hell created by some churches and their cheap chatter about salvation. It’s too important a thing to be belittled by such nonsense.

We are being saved from sin, of course. We’ve cheapened that word, too. We say, “That coconut cream pie was sinfully delicious.” Eating sugary pie may be bad for your health, but it’s not a sin. In the Bible, sin is frequently described as straying from the path or missing the mark.

Ever been hiking and got on the wrong trail? Sometimes it’s easy to find your way back. Sometimes you have to pray the sun doesn’t go down while you’re still lost. Not all paths lead to the same place. You need to be on the right path if you want to reach the right destination.

We’re all “prone to wander,” as the old hymn has it. It’s not that we want to, or are even conscious of wandering while we’re doing it, but suddenly we realize we’re not where we expected to be and not where we want to be. That’s knowledge of sin.

“Missing the mark” is another biblical description of sin. It’s comes from the world of archery. Ever sight down an arrow at the target and let fly and then wonder why the arrow didn’t go anywhere near where you were aiming? Same thing in golf. Here you are, ready to tee off, and there’s the flag at the pin way down there. Do you really think you can hit the ball close to it?

These colorful descriptions are meant to suggest how we get into sin, but don’t let them distract you from the seriousness of it. Sin is the human condition, and the condition is deadly. We use the word “sin” two ways. “Sin” singular refers to our state of being, a predisposition to do what’s wrong. “Sins” plural are those wrong acts. What makes them wrong? They reveal a lack of love. They harm others.

So you can define sin, if you like, as an inescapable tendency to do unloving things that harm others. We all do it all the time. James W. Moore wrote a book titled Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses. We all have great excuses, don’t we, but none of them is good enough.

Salvation from sin has several dimensions, and in the Bible the word “salvation” can have several meanings. It can mean healing. It can mean rescue. It can mean deliverance. It can mean forgiveness.

Salvation from sin means release from the guilt of it, though not necessarily of all its consequences. You may be forgiven for defrauding or stealing from someone, but you still may serve prison time for the deed.

Perhaps most importantly, salvation changes your relationship with God. When you sin, you feel guilty and you have no interest at all in communing with God. You feel alienated from God. You feel like there’s nothing you can do to regain God’s favor.

In fact, you never lost God’s favor. God may be momentarily disappointed in you, but God will never stop loving you. Salvation removes that barrier between you and God that was always there in your mind only. God saves you from the illusion that God hates you. God restores you to favor by reminding you that you were loved all along.

More than 50 years ago, Kansas City jeweler Barnett Helzberg started giving away little red buttons that said “I Am Loved.” It’s a wonderful way to remember the point of it all: You are loved. God loves you.

God loves you, and God wants to save you from whatever guilt is holding you down; whatever shame keeps you from stepping out of the darkness into the light; whatever hopelessness keeps you awake at night; whatever despair nags at you every moment; whatever sense of meaninglessness you have that tries to tell you, “You’re nothing – you’re worthless.”

It’s a lie! God loves you, God wants to forgive you, and God wants you to turn away from all the lies that hold you down and turn toward the salvation that God has for you.

Last week I said that Advent has three dimensions: past, present, and future. Salvation is similar. Salvation is not just a single act once upon a time in your life. Salvation is a dynamic, continuous action in your life. You are saved. You are being saved. You will be saved.

Saying “yes” to Jesus is a bit like saying “I do” at your wedding or a citizenship ceremony or a swearing-in for public office. You’re making a commitment, but you’ve got to live it out. You may be forgiven now, at this moment, but you’re going to need constant forgiveness from this point on.

Happily, as 1 John 1:9 tells us, we know that God is faithful and just, and if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and keep cleansing us anew.

Salvation is a daily growth in grace. You are not where you should be. You are not where you want to be. But you are being remade into what God created you to be, and one day you’ll look back with great satisfaction and say, “Thank you, Jesus, for saving me, again and again and again.”

Everyone loves to quote John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Don’t forget the next verse, John 3:17, which says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” but to save it.

Jesus saves our world by being born into it, accepting our limitations as his own, living here as one of us, taking a stand for us, and dying for us – but even more than that, being raised to new life for us and ascending to his Father’s side to forever be Emmanuel, God with us.

Or as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, quoting a hymn that already appears to be familiar to believers:

“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11

The name Jesus means “God saves,” and Jesus is our Savior. We meditate on that and other names for Jesus as we prepare during Advent for the coming of Jesus. We prepare to celebrate his birth on December 25, and his rebirth in our hearts every day, and one day his return to set all things right, to complete our salvation.

Jesus doesn’t need a Jeep or a boat or a helicopter. But don’t scoff if you’re in a tough spot and one comes by offering help, because one way or another, Jesus really wants to save you.


This message was delivered online December 6, 2020, to Edgerton Untied Methodist Church.