Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 18, 2016
Genesis 12:1-3, Matthew 1:1-17
It is for me a haunting kind of picture. It is black and white, taken sometime around the turn of the last century. In it are multiple children, all dressed in threadbare clothes, loosely gathered around a young woman, hair bedraggled, cooking on an outdoor fire with an old cast-iron skillet. The children are all barefoot and the home, if you can call it that, behind them, is no more than loose boards on a frame. The woman in this picture is my great-grandmother. One of the young boys, my grandfather. The setting is rural Louisiana where that part of my family is from. The background is that my great-grandmother was an itinerant school teacher. She would walk, with her five children, from community to community, seeing if the people had a small house, or shack, some money and a willingness to pay her to teach their children in the local one room school house. Often her pay was no more than enough food to keep her children fed. Then she had to take on her sister and her sisters children as well. But the one question to which I could never get an answer was why was the woman, who was married to a doctor, struggling to put food on the table. My grandfather would not say. All he would ever allow was that there was “a series of unfortunate incidents” that had caused his mother to flee. It is not hard for us to read between the lines and sense that those unfortunate incidents probably included abuse. Somehow this was the messy part of our family’s past that no one wanted to reveal.
I wonder if that’s how Mary and Joseph felt when people read this opening part of Matthew; because it shows just how messy their family was. That they would prefer that people just refer to much of it as a series of unfortunate incidents. I realize that for many of us when we listen to this genealogy of Jesus all we hear is the Charlie Brown, wah wah, wah, wah; names, names, names, names. But what we should be hearing is just how messy and scandalous Jesus’ background really is. First we have Tamar, who when her husband dies, dresses as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law so she can have the child she deserves. Next we have Rahab, who was a prostitute who protects two spies in exchange for her life. Then we have Ruth, who was a foreigner who offers herself to an older man on the advice of her mother-in-law. Then we have Manasseh who was probably the worst king in all of the history of Judah. He worshipped other gods and put their statues in the Temple. And he killed anyone who opposed him. This is one messy family. It certainly does not seem like a fitting family for Jesus of Nazareth, the one true messiah. But there it is. Almost as good as having to choose death or Texas.
What is interesting about this messy family story is that the church tried to fix it so that it was not a story often retold in all its messiness. The church tried to fix it with Mary and then with Joseph. It tried to fix it with Mary by essentially lifting her out of any connection with all those people…and by lifting her out then Jesus would also be lifted out. The church did this by adopting two doctrines. The first was that of the Immaculate Conception, not to be confused, football fans, with the immaculate reception. The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that when Mary the mother of Jesus was conceived, the Holy Spirit protected her from the stain of the original sin. Thus she was born pure and holy. The second doctrine was that of eternal virginity, which declared that she was a virgin at conception, birth, and forever. The only problem with both of these once again is the Biblical story itself. Mary, while being an amazing young woman, was still just that, an amazing young woman, living with a messy family. She and Joseph would go on to have other children and she would not completely understand Jesus’ mission. Even going so far as to once try to corral him and bring him back home.
The church tried to remove Joseph from the messiness by having him declared to be a saint. Though he is not credited with any miracles, he is spoken of as the protector of the redeemer, as the one who protected Mary from condemnation because she was pregnant and unwed. He is also seen as the one through whom Jesus’ Davidic lineage comes. In addition, we might assume he was a very patient husband since Mary was an eternal virgin. Yet even with all of that, he is the one who carries the lineage of Abraham who twice gave away his wife to protect himself; of King David who broke half of the Ten Commandments including adultery, stealing, murder, coveting and lying; and King Solomon who worshipped other gods and essentially set the kingdom on the road to ruin. In a sense then there is no escaping the messy family from which either Mary or Joseph come from. So what then? What are we to do with these messy stories?
The answer I would offer is this. We are to see this messy family story as the story God always intended to tell. For you see, God always planned that the salvation of the world would come through a messy family and not from a perfect pair of partners. Let me explain. When we read the Genesis text from this morning, we hear Abraham being promised (and all of you who have been in the Two Year Bible Trek class can say this with me) land, seed and blessing if he is faithful. He was promised a place, progeny, and prosperity. But more importantly for our purposes he was told that all of the nations would be blessed through him and through his family. In other words, Abraham was never promised that everything would be perfect, or that he would be perfect. Instead he was promised that if he were faithful to God, things would go well for him and for the world. His was to be the messy human family through which the redeemer of the world would arrive. And this is the story that is told in genealogy at the beginning of Matthew. That God had fulfilled God’s promise to save the world through the very messiness of Abraham’s family. That, in a sense, regardless of how messy things got, God was still faithful and God’s plan was still at work.
My hope this morning is that this concept that God saves the world through a messy family will come as good news to you. I hope it is good news for two reasons. First, it is that God can still be at work in our very messy world; that God does not require practically perfect people to make this world look more and more like God’s kingdom. Second, I hope it comes as good news because it says that God can use you and me, even when we and our families are messy. And this is important because we are those who have been called to bless the world, because we are part of the messy family of Abraham. By committing ourselves to following Jesus we are adopted into Abraham’s family; adopted in so that we can be blessed and that we can be a blessing to the world. So that we can continue to make a positive difference for men and women both here and around the world.
My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I blessing the world? How in all the messiness of life and family, am I being a blessing to those near and far?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 11, 2016
Micah 5:2-5a, Matthew 2:1-18
I want to begin this morning with some tweets. “Our house and are fall to the army. We are trapped under bombs that didn’t stop last night.” “Hello friends, how are you. I am fine. I am getting better without medicine with too much bombing.” “I miss you. Under attack. Nowhere to go, every minute feels like death. Pray for us. Goodbye.” These are tweets from Bana Alabed, a seven-year-old girl trapped with her family in Eastern Aleppo. People have been following her tweets which not only record her daily struggle but show pictures of the horrific damage in her neighborhood. In some ways she is one of the few people inside Aleppo who has managed to personalize the tragedy of that years-old conflict that has killed more than 600,000 men, women and children. I don’t offer you these tweets this morning in an attempt to spoil your pre-Christmas celebrations, but I offer them as a reminder that these would have been the tweets coming out of Bethlehem. “Herod’s forces on their way. No place to hide.” “Infants and young children singled out. Parents weeping.” “Bethlehem will never be the same. Pray for us.”
There are some things in this world that never change…and leaders like Assad and Herod, leaders who will do anything, kill anyone, to maintain power are one of those never changing things. For those of you unfamiliar with Herod, he was the client king of Judea when Jesus was born. He was a client of Rome, who had installed him in power and given him almost unlimited freedom to kill anyone whom he thought threatened him. He killed his own people when they protested. He killed his wife and two of his sons whom he thought might be trying to unseat him. And so in our story this morning, his seeking to destroy the Christ-child, was completely in character for him, even though from the outside, this claim of a savior-king being born in Bethlehem, appeared to be bit of false news. It would have seemed that way because Bethlehem was a tiny, one-blinking-light kind of town. Nothing much to it. Yet Herod could take no chances. He had to kill the children.
This event raises for me one key question, which is, why did Jesus do it? Why did Jesus engage in this risky business of entering into the world as a vulnerable infant, risking all of God’s work in the world? I realize that this language of Jesus choosing to come into the world may seem a bit odd. Normally we think of God sending the son. Yet the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi, tells us that Jesus did not count the power of his divinity as something to be greedily grasped and held on to, but instead Jesus willingly gave it up and became one of us. In other words, Jesus could have decided that the risks weren’t worth it. That it was too great a risk to be born as a child, in a small rural town, at a time when someone like Herod would probably seek him out in an effort to destroy him. And yet he didn’t. This is what Jesus chose. So why? The answer I want to offer you this morning is this. That Jesus engaged in the risky business of coming into the world as a vulnerable child in order to engage in the risky business of loving the world such that one day God’s peace might be made real. Let me explain.
This book (the Bible) offers us God’s plan for the world. And God’s plan for the world was for peace; not merely a lack of war, but true peace. The kind of peace that brings about the Star Trek world we talked about last week. That world in which everyone has enough. In which there is no fear, racism, sexism or homophobia. That world in which every child can reach old age. This was and is the kind of world that the scriptures offer to us as God’s end game. We see this in the passage from the prophet Micah, where he echoes the words of almost every other prophet. “And he (the messiah) shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” Can you sense the peacefulness and abundance that this passage offers? It lets us breathe deeply. Yet what I want to offer to you is that this kind of peace can never be created by power alone; the kind of power wielded by Assad and Herod. I say that because we live in the nation with the greatest economy the world has ever seen; with the greatest military the world has ever seen. And yet we are afraid. We have no peace. The only thing that can bring this peace is love.
For you see that if Jesus came into the world like Robo-Cop, or Robo-Messiah, dressed for war to defeat the enemies of God’s people, nothing would have changed, except those in charge. Instead Jesus understood that love was the great healer. For it is in love that barriers are broken down. It is in love that forgiveness is found. It is in love that people share their lives with one another. It is in love that many become one. It is in love that peace is found. And this kind of love, that heals, forgives, reconciles and connects is vulnerable love. For that my friends, is what true love is. True love is always vulnerable because it opens itself to the other. It opens itself to being hurt. It opens itself to loss. It opens itself to pain. But only in being open and vulnerable can love be healing and transforming. And it is this kind of vulnerable love that Jesus offered to the world. It was the kind of love that risked Herod’s wrath. It was the kind of love that risked being rejected by hometown friends. It was the kind of love that risked being betrayed by his closest friends. It was the kind of love that risked being arrested, tried and crucified. This was the risky business in which Jesus chose to engage; the risky business of coming into the world as a vulnerable child two thousands years ago.
And my friends, this is the same risky business in which Jesus still engages. He still loves us. He loves our children that we baptized this morning. He loves us regardless of who we are and how we act. He risks us forgetting about him and ignoring him. Yet he still loves. He still offers his love to us and to the world, that we might become people who find peace and build peace. My challenge then for you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I engaging in the risky business of loving others, in such a way that I am creating peace in all that I say and do?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 1:26-38
It seemed like it would never arrive. Every day I would rush home from school and look at the pile of mail to see if it had come. And day after day it never arrived, until, as if by some miracle, there it was; the Sears’ Wish Book. The Wish Book was not your usual Sears’ catalogue filled with the usual stuff. No, this was a child’s Christmas playground filled with toys galore. It allowed me to dream of being in a plastic Fort Apache (OK, I know, it isn’t politically correct but it was the early 60s) or World War II. But more important than the toys was what the Wish Book represented. It represented that Christmas was coming. For those of you who have lived in the north with changing seasons, snow falls, and the like, this may seem a bit odd. But I grew up in Houston where the only change in the fall to winter was going from very hot to less hot. There were no sleigh rides or jingling bells. So the Wish Book then was that annual marker that Christmas was about to arrive.
In some ways I think that the passages that we read this morning are the sort of church markers that Christmas is upon us. Whenever we read about a son being given, or about Mary being honored by the gift of her messianic child, we know that Christmas is coming. We know that one more time, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Yet, when we see these passages in this way, as Advent road signs, saying Christmas is just ahead, we miss the impact that these words originally held. They were not annual reminders. They were the ending of one era and the beginning of another. They were the shutting of the door on a horrific past and opening a door to a bright and amazing future. For Isaiah it was a declaration that God was acting to defeat Judah’s enemies and turn a time of war, bloodshed, darkness, and fear into a time of peace and prosperity. For Mary, the angel Gabriel’s declaration was one that signaled the end of Israel’s captivity to the Romans and Greeks and the beginning of the golden age of the Kingdom of God. These were at one time, world changing endings and beginnings.
In a sense what was ending was the way things had always been; war, bloodshed, violence, oppression, poverty and pain. What was beginning, was what my wife Cindy calls a Star Trek world. What she means by that is that in the Star Trek world, the earth has become a place of peace and prosperity. Everyone has enough. There is no money because if you need something it is provided. There is no more war because people understand that creating is better than destroying. This was the kind of world they would encounter through the open door of God’s action. The question for us this morning becomes this then, what do we do with these endings and beginnings. What do we do with the fact that this Star Trek world, this God’s Kingdom world has not arrived? What do we do if we are to honor the understandings of Isaiah and Mary, understandings of one epoch ending and another beginning? What do we do to be not simply pass by these stories as markers of a coming Christmas? I think are two things we need to do.
First, we need to believe that such a world is possible and underway; though it may not be possible to see it complete in our lifetimes or even in our children’s or grandchildren’s life times, we need to believe that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something fundamental changed in the universe that what was once unthinkable, a world of peace and reconciliation, is a possibility. I realize that in the current situation in which we find ourselves as a nation and as a planet, this may seem unrealistic. Yet that possibility of God’s Kingdom world is at the heart of our message to the world. This is the message that we follow the Prince of Peace, that we follow the one who makes the impossible possible. We follow the one whose life makes possible a radically renewed world in which peace is a reality.
The second thing that we need to do is to live this reality. What I mean by that is that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, as members of Everybody’s Church are called to live the reality of this new world as best we can. And if there is ever a time when we need to live into this new reality it is now. It is now because, as I have said before, this election has caused us to think, say and do things we have never done before. It has caused us to be judgmental about others because of who they voted for as if a single vote defines the essence of a person. It has caused us to see the world in terms of black and white; one candidate (you take your pick) is Darth Vader and the other Obi-Wan Kenobi. It has caused us to break old friendships and unfriend people on Facebook…though not spending so much time on Facebook might not be such a bad thing. It has caused us to be angry all the time. It is as if the old reality never left and the new reality never arrived. But it has arrived. So now we are to live into it. We are to live into it by seeing everyone through the eyes of love. We are to be those who work for the reconciliation of the world, and of our friends and family. We are to be those who demonstrate that people of diverse political, theological and cultural beliefs can be one Christ-centered community. We are to offer the world a glimpse of this new reality by being Everybody’s Church where Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Michigan and Michigan State, and even Ohio State fans can live and work and love the world together.
My challenge then for us all, and I mean us, including me, is to ask ourselves, how am I living this new reality among my friends, neighbors and even the strangers I meet?