Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's All Joy (Philppians 4:4-7)

I’ve suggested that Jesus’ infancy can teach us several things we need to know about the gospel. While we don’t know any ways to start people other than by having babies, we know he could have arrived in any manner he wanted.

That makes me think he had a purpose in his infancy as well. And I think that purpose is related somehow to the experiences that are common to people when babies show up.

And what does Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi have to do with that? Well, look at the subject matter: Joy! Although he writes from prison, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. Throughout the letter, he mentions his own joy as well.

The angels told the shepherds they had good news of great joy. Well, babies bring joy. We anticipate their arrival with joy. We welcome their arrival with joy, and we often talk about the joy of the new life that is now with us in the flesh. Joy is an inescapable quality of babies.

Here, of course, is the part where you who have children laugh at me for my naivet̩. Babies are hard work! Babies want fed at unreasonable hours! Babies expect a level of personal service Рespecially in matters of hygiene Рnot given to even the most exalted rulers!

Nope, I’m standing by what I said, because I didn’t say that happiness was an inescapable quality of babies. I said joy was. I believe those two words describe two different things, which we sometimes get confused.

Think of how we usually talk about happiness. Something makes us happy, or doesn’t make us happy. We do use other words sometimes, but mostly we think of happiness as a kind of reaction to things that go on around us.

Go back to babies – what makes them happy? They’re full, they’re clean, they’re warm and they’re asleep. What they don’t know is that within a few hours, one or more of those conditions will change and the change will make them very unhappy. As well as everyone around them.

For us, it’s not that different, even if the things that make us happy or unhappy change as we age (Full, clean, warm and asleep still work well for me, though).

Our feelings of happiness or unhappiness grow from a reaction we have to something outside us. Even though most grown-ups have more control over their reactions than most babies, the reactions themselves don’t go away. We just learn to manage them better.

But we usually use different words to describe how joy comes to us. Something or someone gives us or brings us joy. We don’t respond or react as much as we receive.

And if we truly do receive joy, then it becomes part of us. It’s not outside us anymore, it’s part of who we are.

Ask parents who watch their child do something that makes them proud, like stand up for what they believe in, or achieve something big, or take a stand to protect someone else. Ask them if those moments are worth all the dirty diapers, broken curfews and messy rooms that never seem to get clean. Of course, they’re likely to answer. Those things came and went, but the good man or good woman my child has become or is becoming will be something that lasts.

Theologically speaking, I imagine Paul would have been happier if he had shared the gospel with his Roman jailors from the other side of the bars. But his joy remained either way, didn’t it? As I see it, only something he had brought inside him could have made him joyful no matter what the circumstances were outside him.

If the gospel teaches us anything, it teaches us that God accepts us despite our outward circumstances. God accepts us in spite of how much we may feel we’ve messed up. And even continuing to mess up doesn’t change his acceptance of us.

God’s acceptance of us – what we call being saved by grace – becomes the root and ground of our lives. We don’t define ourselves by our own standards anymore, but by his. He has the first, last and only word in saying who and what we really are – not anything that goes on around us.

That probably qualifies it as joyful news.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

It's Not About You (Luke 3:1-6)

Sorry about the extra delay -- fine case of the sniffling crud this week.

OK, so why a baby?

We know that the main point of Jesus’ life and work was his message of God’s love for people, as well as his sacrifice and resurrection. So why did he show up as a baby?

After all, there’s a lot of risks in being a baby. You break easy. Your cheeks are always red from getting pinched. Grandparents fight over you. That’s a whole lot of risk for the one person alone who could bring about the salvation of humanity.

So why do it? Of course, there’s the obvious reason – so far, nobody’s been able to come up with a way to make human beings that doesn’t start with babies. They’re the essential first step.

But we know Jesus did a lot of things differently than they were ordinarily done. He healed people in unusual ways – if you don’t think so, go wipe some mud on the eyes of a blind person and see what happens to you. He taught an unusual message, and he won our salvation by the unusual method of getting himself killed.

So he could have just showed up, preaching and teaching. After all, that’s the way Mark tells the story. No manger, no wise men, no shepherds; just a baptism and bang! we’re on our way. But Matthew and Luke tell us about that birth, and Luke even throws in a story about an adolescent Jesus.

That makes me think the baby-hood of the Messiah is important. There’s some reason Jesus was a baby, and something I think I’m supposed to learn from it.
Wonder what it is.

I’m kind of at a disadvantage. I don’t remember being a baby, and I deal with them with the slightly mystified reaction all child-challenged people have. But I think I’ve observed a few things that might give me a clue about a possible lesson Jesus’ infancy can teach us.

In listening to my friends talk, I think I know one thing a baby teaches almost right away. Maybe the most important lesson, at least in terms of figuring out the rest of them. Here it is: It’s not about you.

Think on it with me. The arrival of a baby says to those who already live in that space, “It’s not about you.” Because if it was about you, then you would just tell Junior to roll over and wait for the alarm to go off and he could get breakfast then. If it was about you, then someone could clean up her own darn digestive processes. But obviously, it’s not about you.

In fact, pretty much nothing is about you when you have a baby around. And our culture has a very, very hard time with the idea that it’s not about us. So, I think, does our human nature.

Yet the very method God chose to bring about our salvation is mediated in this package that blows up our self-centeredness. When I think about it, I kind of have to admit that the message of salvation itself has that same idea as well.

On the one hand, this idea reins us in. We want to do this, or we want to do that. We want these things, but we learn that getting our way may harm someone else. We may not care and go ahead with what we want, unless we have something that tells us, “It’s not about you.”

On the other, it’s freedom. We approach our creator full of awareness of how badly we’ve failed him, of how badly we’ve overstepped what he designed for us and how much damage we’ve done to the rest of his creation. How can you forgive us, we ask? We did some awful things and a lot of the damage we brought can’t be fixed.

And the message from the Lord is the same message new parents hear from their baby: It’s not about you. It’s about me.

And in the Lord's case, that’s some good news indeed.