VIP – The Sick. The Criminal.

VIP – The Sick. The Criminal.  – 12.24.2018
[Luke 2:8-20 and Matthew 25:31-33, 41-46]
          My favorite part about Christmas Eve has got to be the candle-light vigil. We’ll get to that in a little bit, but think about it – it’s just a beautiful moment of light slowly spreading while the music rises. But what I really like about sharing the flame is that to spread my fire costs me nothing. When you light your candle on mine, my flame is not diminished. My flame is not smaller, but now you have light too. The same goes for love. To spread my love costs me nothing. When I give my love to you, my love is not diminished, my love is not smaller – but now you have love too. If my love comes in a roaring bonfire, or in a flickering spark – it can still ignite your heart all the same. Today is the final sermon in the series ACCESS – where we look at the story of Christmas and ask the question – Who is worthy? Who does God want at the birth of Jesus?  And through this whole month, all the pieces come together in the strangest puzzle for just one night to tell the story of the birth of Jesus. Tonight we will tell that story.


          Luke chapter 2, [read v.8]. Now, we know this part of the story pretty well – shepherds are out in the fields, but I wanted to point out that it says, “living in the fields.” So they are near Bethlehem, they are near the city, but they are living in the fields – so they’re homeless. We’re talking about a bunch of homeless guys. They’ve got a job, they might be hardworking – but they’re not exactly high society living. [read v.9-12]. Now we talked about this a little bit last week – putting a baby in a manger is weird. It’s gross and humiliating. It was a sign for the shepherds because literally nobody else would do that. You don’t put babies in the food trough – that’s very unusual. But God took that very unusual, disgusting moment and turned it into something beautiful because it could be a sign that the shepherds would look for.
          Angels go back into the sky, and it keeps going, [read v.15-18]. When they saw the baby, when they saw it was true… They weren’t hallucinating about the angels – this is a real thing. They tell everyone. It says they made it known. Just imagine these overly excited Shepherds praising God and telling the story of what just happened, running through the streets of the city. But you know the ancient world, the towns were kind of small – there’s not that many people living in Bethlehem these days. If they really wanted to spread the news about Jesus, they should have done it when the city was packed with people… you know, like during a festival or a big party, or major sporting event or I don’t know – a census? (!) Again we see God take something bad, something inconvenient, like an over-stuffed city in the middle of a census and use it for his purpose, use it to do good in the world. With the census going on, it’s actually pretty convenient for the shepherds. I mean, if you wanted news to spread, what better time than to wait until the city was full of visitors, who then could go home and spread the news there as well. The inconvenience that resulted in Jesus being born in the barn actually came together in the end to lift the name of Jesus even higher. It’s almost like God knows what he’s doing.       
          So we shift over to our scripture in Matthew. We’ve been reading this same passage over and over in December – because there’s a lot to it. Basically Jesus lists a bunch of people in need – hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, and criminals – and he’s saying, “if you take care of these people, you take care of me.” He makes himself equal to the lowest in society. Yesterday we were talkinga bout providing physical needs, but tonight I want to focus on the other side of things – visiting the sick and people in prison. Jesus teaches us, it’s important to visit people in prison and to visit the sick. Why? Why does Jesus want to do that? What’s the point of visiting people? Why would I visit a sick person – I’m not a doctor, I’m not going to be able to help, I can’t do anything really – so what’s the point? Why would I visit someone in prison? I’m not a lawyer, or judge. There’s literally nothing I can do for that person – so what’s the point? I mean, I get taking care of hungry and thirsty people – I got food and water they need. But what can I possibly offer to someone who is sick or in prison? You know the answer, I’m being stupid on purpose. We can’t change what’s happening, and yet – it matters that we are in the room. We visit them to show them love. Just like giving food and water shows love, so does showing up. Sometimes the best help we can be is just to sit with someone. Even if you’re in the prison and there’s a glass wall between you – you’re still there for them. To visit, talk, to be present with them. Maybe we need to reclaim the power of just being present with someone.
          But I’m still having trouble with this whole “visiting prison” thing. I mean, why would you visit a criminal? It doesn’t say visit the falsely accused, so he’s saying visit bad guys, real criminals who have a reason for being there. Why would we visit bad guys? The world spends a lot of time telling us that prisoners are bad guys, not worthy of our time. They can’t get jobs, they can’t get loans or cars – they are reduced by the world. So why should we visit them? Why should we care when someone is in prison, and they deserve it – why should we visit them? Why would I visit someone when they don’t deserve it? [Walk over to the baby in the manger, hold it up.] This is your answer. Did you know that one of the best metaphors for what happened at Christmas is visiting someone in prison? Humanity is in prison. Our world is a mess and we deserve it. We caused it. We don’t deserve help, we don’t deserve a visit from God. And yet, here He is. We didn’t change our ways, we didn’t fix our problems or addictions, we didn’t clean up our act – we didn’t even apologize, and still God came. God visited us, was present with us. Again, it’s almost like God doesn’t care about the world’s standards – he’s got a better way of doing things. God visited us, to show us a better way, to love us and offer us forgiveness so that we might repent and change our lives. That’s why we visit people in prison – to offer them love and forgiveness, so that maybe they’ll be inspired to change their lives.


          See here’s the thing, the baby in the manger – it’s the start of a story of forgiveness. God forgives us. That’s why he came – to forgive us, to lift us up, to give us hope that there is more, there is something better. God offers love and forgiveness to every single person – the unprepared, the misunderstood, the poor, naked, hungry, the sick, and the criminal. When we repent, God forgives all of us. No matter where you are at in life, no matter what you’re going through tonight – whatever personal hell you are fighting through, whatever highs and lows you are dealing with – God came for you. God offers you forgiveness, and a new life. A better way. God forgives all of us. No matter where we are, no matter what we are going through – God stands before us, arms wide, with a VIP ticket in hand. You are welcome to the birth of Christ. You are welcome to stand in the presence of God. You are welcome to receive God’s love and forgiveness and blessings. You are a Very Important Person. If you fell asleep because I was going on and on, wake for that one sentence – then you can go back to sleep, I don’t care. I need you to hear these words, and not just hear them with your ears, but to hear them with your soul – you are a very important person to God. Every single page of this book tells me that fact over and over. Doesn’t matter who you are, the mistakes you’ve made in the past, your scars, your brokenness – God welcomes us all.
Even more than welcoming, God came to us. Think about this – God was in heaven, in paradise, in perfection. He didn’t need us. He didn’t need all this drama, and dirt and pain and difficulty. But he wanted us to know him, to share in his kingdom, to experience forgiveness and rise to a higher level, and so he came to us. He stepped out of his comfort zone, into our world – that’s how much he loved us. To give up heaven, even for just a little bit, to come and offer love to everyone – to the broken, the misunderstood, the unprepared, the sick, the criminals – all of us. To look at all of humanity and say, “I’m gonna put you first, and me second.” It’s beautiful really. Inspiring – I mean, I want to be like that. I want to love like that, to welcome people like that. To step out of my comfort zone, to reach people who don’t have what I have – to put them first, and me second.
God is offering you a better way. so our response is clear – when God offers you a VIP ticket, accept the ticket. Accept the access that God gives you to a better life, a life lived in God’s grace. Accept your place and your status as a VIP in the party that is eternal life, where we are raised up in a new life – leaving the old ways behind. Let this Christmas be the start of something new working in your life.


          But here’s the problem, one of the things that’s always annoyed me about religious institutions is our ability to come into a place like this, to learn about God, to see what God has done for us– and then to go back to our lives like it doesn’t even matter. Like nothing has changed, to just compartmentalize church to Sundays. You know, it’s that thing we do on Sundays that doesn’t matter for the rest of our life. I mean, so much of religion in our lives is just extra. We give what we have left over after we get done with all the important stuff in life – like school and family and work. These are the real priorities. The real things we worship. But I look at this story, I look at the shepherds. [read v.20]. God reaches them in this crazy awesome way with the heavenly chorus, they go and see the baby – and then they just spread out throughout the city telling everyone about Jesus. It’s like they can’t keep silent, it’s too big a deal. From that night on, their lives are never the same. You know 30 years later, they’re telling that story to their grandkids, “I was there, I saw the angels, I saw the baby in a manger – if you can believe that – I was there.” It changed their lives, it changed their identity. They became the shepherds who have seen Jesus, the shepherds who met angels.
          What if instead of going through the motions: family dinners, Christmas concerts, presents, thank you cards, travel, story of Jesus, more family dinners and back to work next Monday – What if instead of having Christmas be one more thing on our to-do list, what if we let this story change our identity? What if we let the example of Jesus, the example of what God did for us – what if we let that inspire us to do the same in our lives? God says, “You are a very important person” – even in our darkest moments. God said, “You first, me second.” What if we did the same? What if we turned to the people around us, not just family, not just friends, but all of them – the misunderstood, the unprepared, the hungry, naked, broken, sick, criminals – and said, “you are a very important person.” What if we let the love and example of God get into our DNA, into how we live every single day – looking at the least of these and saying, “you first, me second.”          

            I’m not trying to make you feel bad. Family, work, school – that’s all good stuff. I push because I believe there is a deeper level to life. There is more for you to experience. The smallest spark can still set the world on fire. Remember the example of the candle. It doesn’t matter how impressive the source is, how big or small the flame that lights your spark is, it doesn’t matter if you’re a wise man, or a shepherd, a king or a criminal – all that matters is that your candle catches the flame. All that matters is that the Love of God catches fire in your heart. And so I’ll leave you with this. If I spread my fire to you, it does not diminish my flame. The same is true for love. If my love comes in a roaring bonfire, or in a flickering spark – it can still ignite your heart all the same. Merry Christmas. Amen.    

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