Glory to God!

Luke 2:1-14
John Alden Tagliarini
December 25, 2016

“‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’” (Luke 2:14).
Luke described the birth of Jesus with praises to God.  He painted the scene leading up to and including the manger.  Then Luke took us to the fields to introduce us to the shepherds and the angels.
In the final words of our text this morning, God received the praise of angels.  They celebrated that Jesus entered history to save us.  That’s the bottom line.  The revelation of God in Jesus, prompted the praise of the heavenly host.
And, we praise God for sending the Savior.  We can do nothing less than join the host of heaven with praises to God for His grace.
We pray, “Lord, fill us with praises for Your grace to us. Amen.”
We need the same things the first century world needed.  The stark contrast which Jesus brought to the ways of the world revealed the power of love and the effectiveness of grace.  To better understand God’s answer to the needs of the world, let’s consider the question.  What was the world like when God sent Jesus?

The world was a world of Caesars.  August in their own self-conceived images and assertions.  They exercised divine rights and imagined themselves as gods.  They built empires and used human resources as though people were expendable.
In the ways we assess effectiveness, leadership is not often humble.  According to the world, effective leaders put themselves forward and first on all fronts.  Effective leaders brook no insubordination.  They are at the top of the food chain and are loath to let anyone think otherwise.
The august Caesar planned a census to count everyone, not because he believed that everyone counts with individual worth as human beings and might need resources, rather because census determined taxation.  Also, a census would help him determine military resources and strategies.  With hubris, Caesar presumed to own all that he had conquered.  He was counting his assets.
Amidst this hubris and among the thousands of travelers, a couple of transients made their way to Bethlehem.  Joseph was in the proud lineage of David, but his journey was not a boastful homecoming.  Rather, two people made their way under the duress of a foreign king to continue as objects of the imperial domain.  Their story changes history.
Telling their story personalizes an otherwise systematic disregard for human life.  Joseph and Mary would register with the authorities of the realm, but Mary was with child.  New life fills every family with the potential for growth.  This promise of a soon to be born baby, fills this story with the potential of the seed of David upsetting all that the greed of Caesar presumed.  Into a world of Caesars the true King is born, and we praise God for His grace.

The world also had a scarcity of room, or so everyone believed.  That there was no room in the inn has a poetic, even poignant, depth.  We discover the metaphor for lack of room reflected in our busy lives and distracted hearts.
Back then, the world may have offered different models of commercialism but the reality is no different today.  Whether they are known as kings and princes or as CEOs and presidents, it makes no difference.  A relatively few wealthy people control the production and distribution of resources.  And worldly desires drive their envy, often prompting jealousy and erupting in conflict.
An imperial edict forced a housing crisis created by an migration of transients.  We already mused over what might have motivated the census described in Luke’s Gospel.  Today, we see thousands displaced by brutal wars, the results of rivalrous desires to acquire.
Whether the census-created housing shortage in Bethlehem or the greed-created shortage of room in our Bryson City hearts, the trouble boils down to the same messed up desires.  And leaders are not the only problem.  No amount or kind of Christmas gifts can satisfy our deepest desires when we catch “our” desires from each other.
As long as we want what the other guy has, or seems to want to have, rather than wanting what God wants, we will crowd out any hope for true peace.  There will be no room in our lives or our hearts for the Prince of Peace, Jesus.  Commercialism will win.  Commerce becomes Caesar; and Caesar becomes commerce.  There is no room in the inn!
I am thankful that Jesus, even baby Jesus, is Lord!  The birth of Jesus creates in me a whole new set of desires.  All Jesus wanted in life was to please the Father, to do the Father’s will.  This can be my desire too!  I praise God for His grace.

As the baby is born, and the story unfolds, the camera pans out for a wide shot, and we see shepherds in the distance.  There are shepherds today, ranchers with vast herds and small farms working at subsistence levels.  I am certain they are all brave folk who meet the many challenges of the job.  The world produced a practical courage based on human strength and skill.
First century shepherds were probably a rough and ready sort.  They were accustomed to extended separation from the town folk.  They had experience meeting the dangerous threats from wild beasts.  Fearless though they might have been, when the angel of the Lord appeared to them, they were terrified.
As the world measures it, courage has much to do with the notion of a tough-guy shepherd.  As the angel revealed it, courage has more to do with the Gospel.  He said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
The angel went on to say, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).  Doesn’t sound very courageous does it?  Can all this encouragement come from a helpless baby in a manger?  Yes!  Profoundly, yes!
What will it take for us to understand the power of love, the power of childlike dependence, the power of God?  Will the words of the angels persuade us?  The heavenly host praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14).
Christian courage is courage to trust God to deliver, not just the baby Jesus, but the Prince of Peace, the Savior, Christ the Lord.  Because of the good news of Jesus, we praise God for His grace.  Amen.

106 “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”

Precious Produce (Fruit)

James 5:7-11
John Alden Tagliarini
December 11, 2016 — Advent 3

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.  The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains” (James 5:7).

In this passage, James encouraged believers to patiently wait on the Lord.  The passage ends, in verse eleven, with the promise that God is coming full of compassion and mercy.
As believers, we patiently wait on the Lord.  And I pray, “Lord, teach us to wait patiently upon You.  Amen.”
What else does James say about patience in this text?  How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?

Define Patience
Sometimes people get under my skin.  Do you know what I mean?  Usually the irritants are not personally attacking me, but sometimes that has happened too.  While bullying occurs anywhere, the scenario plays out in our schools daily.
I remember boarding the bus one day, while in junior high school, and bearing yet another insult from a particular nemesis about my Italian heritage and parentage.  I had taken all I could, so I wailed my fists against this boy’s back until he seemed to submit.  I looked up to see the bus driver staring at me.  Uh oh!  Yet, she turned away in what I construed to be silent approval.
Even with what seemed to be an adult justification of my actions, I felt weak and unsatisfied.  I wanted my fists to transform my enemy into a blithering puddle, profusely apologizing for his meanness.  It didn’t work.  He shut up, but it didn’t feel as good as I imagined it should.

Often, our strategies of force only frustrate us as we wait for true justice.

The Lord’s coming will bring ultimate justice to His world.  How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  Before we cite patience as the primary strategy, we ought to define patience.  Two common words translate as patience from Greek.  One word suggests remaining under a load, endurance of a situation.  Often this connotes adverse or difficult things or circumstances.
The other word suggests suffering long with regard to antagonistic persons.  “Long-suffering is that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish; it is the opposite of anger, and is associated with mercy, and is used of God, Ex. 34:6; Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet, 3:20. (Vine’s EDBW, p 377, from Notes on Thessalonians, by Hogg and Vine, pp. 182, 184.)  James uses this second word in most of this passage.
The refusal to retaliate or to act on our latent anger should change our concept of patience.  Patience is no longer a matter of simply biding our time, twiddling our thumbs.   Waiting does not involve the proactive self-defense of a crusader.  In true, spiritual, waiting, we absorb the pain and hurt of our interactions with others.  More on that in a bit.
How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We exercise patience through the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Farmer
So, how does the farmer show this sort of patience?  Why does James offer the farmer as an example?  Our familiarity with gardening may skew our interpretations.  Too often we preach this text by talking about how farmers actively wait by weeding and fertilizing and watering.  The problem with this approach to understanding the text, however based in reality it is, is that it does not capture the focus of the text.  It’s just not what the Bible says, here!
James could easily have described active waiting in terms of the farmer’s work: weeding, tilling, fertilizing.  Remarkably, James’ farmer simply waits on the early and late rains.  No farmer controls the rain.  He must wait on the rain, on something that he cannot manage, manipulate, or cause to be (Irrigation notwithstanding—it’s just not the point!).
If there is a “between the lines” interpretation, I see more a critique of the agriculturist who wants to know why the farmer isn’t digging wells, or canals, or building aqueducts to water his fields.  To any such critique the farmer seems to be saying, “I am waiting on the rain.”  It makes no sense.  But that is the posture of faith—waiting on something one cannot control, waiting on God.
There is an important modifier in this verse.  The farmer waits for “precious” fruit.  This fruit is honored, of great value.  The adjective seems a little over the top for a tomato, or potato, or a pomegranate or even for a fig!  You, who have grown a big crop of corn, tell me the truth.  How many ears do you shuck before you begin to think, “Enough already!”?
This fruit is valued as precious.  The phrase is unique in the Bible, precious fruit.  Would the farmer value it more if he’d logged many hours in cultivation?  Or, does the farmer value this fruit so greatly because he understands what a gift of grace it is?  Perhaps the farmer understands that by patient waiting, God has cultivated a precious fruit of faith in his own heart.
How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We strengthen our hearts by trusting God to act.  The ultimate work of justice is beyond our control.  The precious fruit of grace, received by faith, is a gift.

Practice Civility
Another clue which pertains to this precious produce is James’ call for civility.  James told believers not to complain or groan, expressing anger or desire against one another.  This is the part we can control.  We can choose to live peacefully with others.  In this commitment, we will suffer long in the face of taunts and innuendo and outright assaults.
Remember, long-suffering is the very definition of patience.  I did not have patience on the bus that day.  James said this is an area in which we can expect judgment.  “Do not complain, brethren against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:9).
Judgment opened that door as I saw our bus diver looking at me in disbelief.  I was one of the last ones the route, so we had shared enough time to know each other.  My actions probably surprised her as much as they surprised me.  At first I saw her judgment as commending my righteous indignation.  In reflection I wonder if her judgment was more a disappointment over my lack of control.
How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  Let’s watch our tongues and lower the rhetoric of anger and desire.

Consider the Prophets
An alternative to a face-book type one-ups-man-ship is prophetic speech.  James said to take the example of the prophets.  In the prophets, we find truth spoken in love.  And for speaking truth, they suffered.  They showed patience, at least most of the time.  Regardless, they trusted in God to deliver.  And, they spoke in the name of the Lord.
This is key, speaking in the name of the Lord.  To speak in someone’s name suggests you know his or her mind and heart.  James and John tried defending Jesus’ honor with a “Tweet” calling for the destruction of the village in Samaria, which had not received them.  “But He [Jesus] turned and rebuked them, [and said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’]” (Luke 9:55-56).
Here is where we misunderstand the prophetic voice.  Too often we think to be prophetic means to condemn and to judge.  If we speak in the name of the Lord we ought to be certain we understand God’s heart.  God cares for the salvation of souls and not their destruction, however just we might think it to be.
Even when we speak truth to injustice, God’s purpose is redemptive not retributive.  This is why the prophets of old knew suffering.  They waited in true, spiritual, waiting.  They absorbed the pain and hurt of their interactions with others.

They were willing to speak against power while refusing to use power to be heard.

How do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We replace our self-serving language of condemnation with the language of redemption.

Patient Endurance
Up to now, James has spoken of patience, translating the word for long-suffering.  In this final verse, James used the other word for patience, translated as, endured and endurance.
James called our attention to Job.  Job endured affliction from circumstance and from people.  He suffered long, and he remained under the load of trials.  He is a good example, because Job did not endure silently.  The book bearing his name is filled with his searching for answers.  And the story ends with God blessing Job.
This final dealing with Job reveals the truth about God.  It affirms what James said, “…that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11c).  I have no other reason to endure, much less to suffer long, than the power of who God is.  The Lord who is full of tender mercy and compassion is coming and indeed, is already near.  Immanuel!  God with us!
When our tempers flare in hurtful outbursts, we are saying we do not trust God’s mercy and compassion.

Impatient rhetoric and reaction denies that the mercy and compassion of God are viable alternatives to this world of sin.  But friends, either God’s character counts for something (for everything) or it doesn’t.

How then do we wait on the coming of the Lord?  We remember how God meets our endurance and patience with His mercy and compassion.  We remind one another of God’s grace by showing mercy and compassion to others.  Amen.

267 “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”