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I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas from the Apostle Paul's perspective

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, and consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Philippians 2. 1-2

When the Apostle Paul talks about Christmas, he talks about it in terms of “joy.”  When Paul considers the wonder of Christ, the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and the awesome power of God, he hopes to receive joy. The gift of Christmas, the one the people of Philippi can deliver, is the gift of joy.

So joy is our Christmas expectation. But joy is such an elusive gift. It runs away when angry words replace understanding and compassion when the Christmas tree falls down. Joy escapes out the back door when sighs and exasperations come before smiles and good cheer. Joy also doesn’t bother to even come out if the fakeness and absent-minded cheeriness of the season becomes the only reason to celebrate the birth of Christ. There is no joy in fakery.

Joy blossoms in the wake of patience. Joy shines bright under the lights of love and peace. Joy becomes complete when people reach hand-in-hand across barriers that separate us. Joy rejoices in people for whom faith, hope, and love are the gifts of Christmas.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Philippians 2. 3-4

Paul puts an interesting twist on Christmas. He wants us to regard other people as better than us. Do you see a lot of people doing that these days? (Do you see ANYONE doing that these days?) Christmas is all about thinking other people are better than you.

We don’t do that very well. Why not? Why do most people think they are better than others? What can Christmas teach us about ourselves? What can we learn from a manger?

Let me put it this way: what did you do to get God to be born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago? Were you even around? I’m guessing most of us had little to do with that event. Yet—God gives the baby Jesus to us every day, every moment of our lives. And we do nothing to make it happen.

The hardest part of Christmas is learning to receive gifts, not give gifts. Anyone can give a gift…few know how to receive them. To receive a gift in humility as Paul suggests is the hardest part of being a human. Everything else is second place.                                           

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who—though he was in the form of God—did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and 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. Philippians 2. 5-8

I like how Paul understands Christmas from the perspective of Jesus; as if, Jesus, in the manger looks at his tiny hands and feet and says “Who saw this one coming?” He “found” himself in human form? Sort of like I looked in the mirror one day and found I was old. Well, this can’t be good…

Christmas is all about those unexpected discoveries. And Jesus, probably no more or less than Mary, Joseph, the angels, the donkey, and the cattle, got an unexpected discovery as well. He can die. But would he?
For Paul, the great gift of Christmas is not that Jesus is born, but rather that he accepts his birth and the death that is part and parcel of such a thing. This Christmas is about accepting the unacceptable, both for Jesus the Christ, and us the humans. Can we accept that we are accepted? Can we humans—finding ourselves in human form on a quite regular basis—accept that? It does mean accepting we will die…and maybe that’s the rub we have—and as Paul notes, Jesus didn’t.  

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 confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phillipians 2. 9-11


Here’s what we’ve all been waiting for—Jesus Christ is Lord! (Wait. What? I wanted a Lexus.) The day has arrived where we celebrate that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. Even “under” the earth, wherever that is.
It’s tough to make Jesus part of the season. There’s so many other things to do. So many people to see. Gifts to share. Eggnog to drink. Cookies to eat. Maybe we can squeeze Jesus in right before dinner of Christmas Eve?

Even as a pastor, Jesus can sometimes be pushed aside in our rush to “get things ready.” (As an aside, my birthday is in Advent, and as a kid sharing this season with Jesus and Santa Claus led for interesting gifts from relatives who had forgotten that fact. I once got a razor. I was six.) But Jesus Christ is Lord whether we remember that or not…talk about a gift!

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation in fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians. 2.12-13

Happy New Year!        

Paul ends his reflection on Christmas with a great new life resolution—fear and trembling! That is that now that we have been blessed with the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives we are now set free to live as people. Real humans (found in human form); filled with hope and joy (make my joy complete); and trusting in God rather than ourselves (look not to your own interests).

So what? So God has done this marvelous thing, big deal? There are no easy answers to how Christ Jesus is Lord of your life. Some of your choices will be good, some…not so much. Sometimes good things will happen, sometimes evil will win. Everything is penultimate. (Thank you, Bonhoeffer.)

So as we approach the New Year, it might be well to remember that our lives are lived in fear and trembling, not because we are afraid, but because there is nothing else to go on as we live from the freedom of the cross.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

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