Surprised by an Angel… and the Call to Tell the Story!

Nearly everyone loves to hear a good story. Movies, novels, poems, and digital versions of it all, invite us to become a part of the action or the suspense, or the romance, or the journey. Most stories we read or watch or listen to come and go. They may touch us or speak a bit; but they are easily filed away somewhere dusty and hard to find. Some stories are grab our hearts and our imagination. We identify with the people or the crisis they face and how they survive.

Then, there is the story that comes along once in a lifetime. Not only does it capture our imagination – it changes our lives. We look back on this rare story, the characters and what they experienced, and we realize that what happened meets us right where we live, it changes how we see life, and that story redefines who and, more importantly, why we are.

That’s the story the sheepherders found themselves a part of over 2000 years ago on the hillside overlooking the town of Bethlehem. Luke 2:1-20 are the verses that, surprisingly, make up an assignment my high school teacher at NMBHS way back when had me memorize and recite (yes, that was another day.)

It’s the story of Joseph and his betrothed wife Mary, their trek to Bethlehem, the birth of God’s one and only son, Jesus, and a bunch of unwary sheepherders who became a part of the Story of stories.

1At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2(This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

This baby, who is both King and Savior, was born in perhaps the most available and approachable place in the town – in a stable around the corner from a hostel, just shouting distance from the streets of the town. God chose to send His Son, fully human and fully God, to be born where word would get out. And this prepared the town for what happened next. And, this is when the sheepherders are invited into the story.

8That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. 

The Good New story met the sheepherders right where they lived. And it began with the herders who drew the night watch. While their partners caught up on sleep, an angel appeared right in the middle of their conversations. And this angel had just come from the presence of the Father to bring the news about the Son. And the glory of God remained.

And they were terrified. They were used to fighting off wild animals or climbing down the cliffs to rescue a lamb. But, an angel! How many times in the Bible did God show up through His presence, through a vision, or through an angel’s visit – They were scared beyond words. And the answer: Don’t be scared! God met these sheepherders right where they lived.

  11 “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

If the angel’s visit was at first terrifying, the message that he brought was liberating. As good Jewish sheepherders, they heard this message through all they knew about Lord God of Israel.

  • Good news means freedom.
  • Messiah and Lord means salvation.
  • And if you throw in King David, they understood they would be God’s people again, under the rule of His King.

The message from the throne room of God through this single angel literally changed who they were. Sure, they remained sheepherders. But this Good News brought the promise of…

  • Peace that comes with freedom from the oppression of the enemy.
  • Hope that comes with the promised Messiah.
  • Celebrative Joy that comes with being together as God’s people ruled by His King.

And whether in response to the Good News being proclaimed on the hillside or in response to the faith and joy of the shepherds, the worship of the heavens broke through into the physical realm, and…

13Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

This was more than the sheepherders could contain and, by now they were all together on the hillside echoing the same rejoicing. They had to see it for themselves.

15When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

There in a stable for animals, the greatest expression of God’s love slept. The message propelled the shepherds to check it out for themselves and discover if the Good News was really the Good News. And it was. And it changed both who and why they were. They had to tell others and fanned out through the streets of the town telling anyone they saw that Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord and King was born – in a stable, just around the corner, right where anyone could find Him.

The Good News met the shepherd right where they lived, and the truth of the message of Christmas transformed who they were and became the reason for why they lived. God’s great Story intersected their story and surprised them and transformed them.

  • This Christmas – surprise you with His peace, His love, His joy, His hope. He is God near to us.
  • His Good news meets us where we do life.
  • He invites you to approach Him, come to him – with fears, with broken plans and promised, with empty and dead spots in our lives.
  • And he speaks to you right now – no fear except the awe of a Savior with unchangeable love, no loneliness or emptiness because he fills us and comes close, no dead spots because he brings life and mercy.

Welcome again to the Story. Praying it intersects your story frequently in 2020!

Some words are more important…

The polls are in and the top words banned in 2018 are fourteen overused words to avoid – included this year are “unpack”, “tons”, “drill-down”, and my favorite: “nothing-burger.” The number one vote-getter is “fake news.” Last year’s was “so” as in “I am so tired of lists.”

As we “off-board” last year and “on-board” 2018, it seems everyone is trying to put words to the year almost gone, maybe thinking what they might need to “walk back” or even “double down” on from the year –  and, or course, they “seeking traction” and are trying to “wrap their heads around” the coming months. I better stop now.

Some words are more important than others. Jesus came back to certain phrases to help us remember the important stuff. “Whoever has ears to hear, let him listen.” “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you” and it’s KJV companion, “Verily, verily, I say to unto you.” But, at the top of the list is ” The kingdom of heaven (or God) is like…”

Jesus would then attach to this phrase something totally, well, common. Relatable. A farmer, or a seed, or a net, or yeast, or a homeowner, or a wedding party.

My first thoughts about the “kingdom of heaven” is to look up, to the future, to eternity. And certainly eternity and heaven are within the stories Jesus told about the kingdom. But what we do here and now is kingdom stuff, too.

  • The kingdom of heaven is like the the woman who makes coffee for her friends so they can talk about Jesus around her table.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like the builder who hires and treats his workers with honor so they will see Jesus in his life.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like the the living room filled with people from different countries, languages, colors, and stories whose lives have been changed by the Savior.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like… (On 1/2/2018, let’s leave a blank and see how we can fill it in each day by inviting the common things in our life to connect and display the supernatural acts of God.)

Call it a “paradigm shift” or an “adjusted grid” – Perhaps 2018 is the year that I will ask how the common, the relatable things in my life, can show others what the kingdom of heaven is like.

For the King – Rick

P.S. My pastor and friend in Myrtle Beach, Tim Holt, has said more than once that the Kingdom is present when the King gets His way.

P.P.S. (List provided by Lake Superior State University – they’ve offered this list for decades! https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/12/31/2018-banned-words/993549001/)

Tough Crowd

Preachers and worship leaders can read a room, so I’m informed. We stand before the crowd and can tell if they are tracking with us, indifferent, or just don’t like us (not that the third option ever happens in church!) Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s house (read Luke 14) and the place was filled with an audience not-so-favorable toward him or the message of the Kingdom. My guess would be to not expect much from a dinner party crowd like this (maybe like going to a Hillary rally wearing a Feel the Bern tee.)

Jesus turned the Sunday dinner soiree into a masterful time of teaching – about not living for crowd approval (he was experienced with this,) about humility and the urge to seek honor from others (don’t take the box seat unless it’s offered), and about lifting up those who can’t improve one’s status or power (toss to pre-approved invitation list and bring in the hurting, blind and invisible.)

And, he healed a man with a visible case of renal failure (his arms and legs were swollen with fluid.) Jesus noted the man’s illness and asked the crowd if he should heal him, even though it was the Sabbath. (I’m sure the host was asking, “who let this guy in? Next time, screen for dropsy!)

Of course, the crowd of Pharisees refused to answer – and of course, Jesus healed him.

But the next exchange is what grabs me. Jesus addresses the room and  asked, “Who here doesn’t do some kind of work on Sunday? Fix a tire? Empty the trash? Rescue a cow? Really?”  Silence from the room. (Cue the crickets.) And they couldn’t answer.

Not “refused” or “chose not” to answer. They couldn’t. Their world view simply would not give space for a reasonable answer. They were so entitled to their Sabbath day, that they couldn’t answer. The rules that governed their Sabbath ruled out their ability to speak aloud what was true and made sense. That God desired healing on their holy-day couldn’t penetrate their dogma … or their faith.

What we’ve experienced, good and bad, and what we’ve clung to that seems culturally acceptable might be exactly what stops us from believing … and being healed.

Comedians can read an audience, too. I read that some entertainers choose to beg off shows at colleges – they say it’s too dangerous. What they say is always under scrutiny. And being recorded.

What a shame that dogma might stop the laughter. And everyone needs a good laugh.

 

Locating God

I grew up learning that God is “up” and you-know-who is “down.” The psalmist says the Lord rides on the clouds; he chooses to dwell in the mountains. The ancients in the Old Testament looked to the mountains to where God lived. In fact, ancient cultures looked to the mountains as the place of the gods. Mountains were awesome, insurmountable, and only God could reign over something so spectacularly frightful. Or God dwells in the highest heavens, the clouds, or the sky; again, insurmountable, unapproachable, and no one but God can be up there.

Social theorist Joseph Campbell asserts that all people and cultures develop myths to handle the unexplainable, especially the nature and location of God. The mountains, the highest hills, the clouds were all completely off limits to humans. No one dare go there! But now, the myths are debunked (we’ve climbed mountains, surpassed the clouds, entered space, seen the galaxies) and, therefore, the “myth of God” is finally put to rest.

The writers of the Old Testament got it right. Yes, God lives beyond where I would dare go without a guide — he resides inside me where contradictions often rule, every turn may reveal treachery, and each cave or corner, darkness. God chooses to live within those who trust, love, and serve Him, even though the mistiness of wrong choices and the faint odor of damaged goods lingers. The grandest expression of the location of God? “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The God of the clouds compressed to the locality of my inner self. He chooses to live here, inside me.

To the heights and depths,

Rick

Day One – Architect: Foundations, Spans, and Lanterns

Mark 1 – “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah…”

Of all the forms of art and kinds of artist, the one that gets to “play big” most often is the Architect. He may start with pen and charts (or CAD-CAM.) But, the medium of choice is often big…very Big! Space, acreage, height, square footage all call for a grand imagination and vision. No matter how large the vision is or how tall the building designed by the architect grows, one feature remains essential. The Foundation.

In 1418, the city of Florence, or more specific the guilds, commissioned through competition the design and building of what was to become the largest dome to ever top a basilica. The cathedral building itself had been rising slowly over more than a century at the site of a crumbling and much smaller 5th Century church. The foundation had been set 118 years previously.

Filippo Brunelleschi, a watchmaker and goldsmith, won the commission. He beat out a dozen other architect plans and set in motion the building of a structure that called for scaffolding, machines, and techniques never before invented.

No matter the project, the architect as artist works with the same basic elements: lines, angles, curves. Brunelleschi faced the enormous challenge of spanning 143 feet diameter with an octagonal dome that reached twenty-seven stories high.

But, building high wasn’t the problem; concrete walls can go higher. He needed to be able to go high and curve inward; the pressure straight down was complicated by the weight of 37,000 tons pushing outward.

He had to account for hoop stress. Like the pressure of two hands pushing an inflated balloon, each level he completed had to distribute the weight of the next level, or it would “balloon” outward. He needed all of the weight above to sit on a strong foundation.

Out of the Comfort Zone:

1 Try this for a fun application. Hand out decks of cards and have a competition to build the biggest “house of cards” using the most cards. Give awards for the tallest and the one with the most cards.

2 What have you built in your lifetime? What was the foundation like?

3. If you were to name one main thing in your personal or family life that needs a good foundation to support its weight, what would that be? What presses you in this area and causes “hoop stress?”

4. What kinds of elements make up your spiritual foundation? Is it deep? Is it deeper or wider? What reinforces it?

Keep building what no one else can – your extraordinary life of faith!

How Many Miracles?

When Jesus took the short-cut across water, He really didn’t expect the delay of a series of miracles. He planned to “pass them by” after a lengthy time of prayer, according to one of the Gospel writers (even though here Matthew says He came toward them.)

How many miracles surprise us in this passage: the miracle of Jesus walking on water (creating substance under his feet or creating a gravitational miracle, the miracle of faith for Peter to step out of the boat, then Peter’s miracle of walking on the water, and the subsequent repentance, forgiveness and rescue; and we can’t forget the calming of the storm.

Here are some “take-aways” I can walk away with, too:
1. Miracles happen when we are aligned on the same course with the God of miracles. The disciples were on course.
2. Miracles happen when we need miracles. They were on course, but they were struggling.
3. Miracles happen when we ask for one. Peter asked; Jesus answered. He could have said, don’t be an idiot, Peter, people don’t walk on water!
4. Miracles happen on His word. The firmness of the statement “Yes, come,” was the substance just under the waters that Peter walked on.
5. Miracles happen when we repent. The timeliest rescue is when we are going down for the last time.
6. Miracles happen in the midst of relationships. Does a miracle make a story if no one is around to share in it? Jesus got in the boat, and His Presence alone stopped the storm.

How many miracles does it take when I step out of the safety net around me? Let’s see – one so far, and looking for the next!

Staying on course,
Rick