Total Pageviews

Monday, December 17, 2018

3rd Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2018 - Luke 3:7-18

Image result for advent 3

            Waiting ... for Christmas break; students get time away from class and some have jobs that allow time off from December 25th to New Year’s Day; .  
            Waiting ... for Christmas morning, gathering round the lighted tree as presents are excitedly opened and a special meal is shared with the family.
            Waiting ... for the stroke of midnight when we get to shout “Happy New Year.”  
So much of this season is built around waiting.
 This is unlike any other time of the year.  We stretch out our celebration of Christmas.  Some grumble that decorations go up too early, or complain that the holiday has become too commercialized.  In truth though, a lot of people feel a unique kind of specialness.  We hope that during the holiday season, people will act a little bit nicer.  People in financial distress call churches and charities hoping the generosity will be greater because it’s Christmas.
But, to me it feels weird to say we are awaiting the arrival of Jesus because he came already - 2000 years ago.  Thus our Advent scripture readings are infused with double meaning.  Our ancestors in faith awaited the Messiah; we await the Second Coming of the Messiah.  
As we do, we listen to the sermon of John the Baptist preached on the bank of the Jordan River in 30 AD.  What does the arrival of Jesus - his first coming - mean for us now  - in the living of our lives today?  Why is it important that Jesus was born?
“The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.  He went into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:2b-3).  John preached to everyone who came - the wealthy, the poor, the sophisticated urbanites and rough-around-the-edges shepherds and fishermen; his word was for Jews and gentiles.  To all he said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” 
The Bearing of fruit metaphor was used both by John the Baptist and by Jesus as a way of describing what is produced in the life of a believer.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Beware of false prophets.  ... You will know them by their fruits. ... Every good tree bears good fruit and every bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-18).  Jesus later says, “God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” (John 15:1).
Fruit is a sign of growth.  When we lead others, those outside the faith, to meet Jesus, we are bearing fruit.  When we help new believers grow in their understanding of God, we bear fruit.  When we guide believers into new opportunities for mission and good works, bear fruit. When we meet people in great need and help them out of our own abundance, we bear fruit.  When, through study and prayer, we deepen our relationship with God, we bear fruit.  When we encourage people who are hurting, and when we walk with them through their trials, we bear fruit and grow as disciples.
Jesus’ very drastic statement is that when we do not bear fruit, our connection with him is severed.  God removes every branch that bears no fruit.  There’s no such thing as casual faith.  We grow as disciples or our faith is dead.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John preached.  Repentance, of course, is making that full turn away from the temptations and cultural trappings of the world around us and turning fully to God.  Repentance is the most radical change one can experience.   “Every tree that does not bear good fruit,” John preaches, “is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9).
Anyone who takes the word of God seriously would, at this point in the story, come to two conclusions.  First, being thrown into the fire is judgment.  It is the state of being cut-off from God.  Failure to bear fruit, failure to live an active faith, is equal to calling judgment down on ourselves, and we do not want that.  We do not want to face life without God, much less face eternity after death without God.  The second conclusion is, we have to ask how do we avoid this judgment?  That’s what the crowds hearing John wanted to know. 
In 3:4, Luke describes who John is and what John is doing, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  John is the one preparing the way and Jesus is the Lord.  Because Jesus has come, everything has changed.  That’s why John issues the call for repentance, and that call involves changing is what our lives are about.  
What must we do?  The crowds asked that question and John offered a ready, practical response.  “Whoever has two coats, share with any who has none.  Whoever has food, share with anyone who is hungry” (3:11).   Judgment does not have to come for us.  It’s coming, and will be harsher than we can imagine and will be final.  God’s judgment is to be feared because God is holy and will not tolerate sin and every one of sins.  But, John offers a lifeline.  Share with each other so that no one is freezing or starving or crippled by poverty.
“What should we do?”  Tax collectors asked.  They collected taxes imposed by the Roman empire.  Roman soldiers would force peasants to pay whatever the tax collectors demanded.  Most tax collectors demanded higher amounts than Rome required, and got rich pocketing the difference.  They were thieves. 
What should we do?  John doesn’t tell them to quit the tax collecting business.  He says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed.” In other words, work ethically.  What does that look like in your job?  Where you work, away from the church, in the world - that’s where your discipleship is on display.  It doesn’t mean you’re always talking about Jesus.  Sometimes we do.  At other times, you do your secular work to the very best of your ability and you do it honestly.  When we live in integrity, we bear fruit.  When we treat people around us with kindness, we bear fruit worthy of repentance.
“What should we do?”  Soldiers asked John.  The soldiers were charged with maintaining order.  They possessed unchecked power.  They could bully the people and take what they wanted, and they did.  What should we do asked these soldiers who felt convicted by John’s words.  
“Do not extort money by threats,” he answered.  “Be satisfied by your wages.”  He didn’t tell them to quit the military.  John did not impose pacifism as a rule for God-worshipers.  In fact, his answer implies they would go right on being soldiers, work that is by nature violent. But, if we take the bullying, the threats, and the intimidation of common folk out of their work, then soldiers are responsible protectors who can be respected and even admired.  When we use whatever power we possess for good, to help people, to contribute to people’s flourishing, we bear fruit.  Sharing, acting ethically and honestly, and protecting and helping are all ways we can, in our lives, bear fruit worthy of repentance.  We choose to live this way because Jesus has come. 
His coming, His Advent, is a sign that God’s judgment is coming.  We take that seriously and know that on Judgment Day, if we have to stand on our own merit, we’ll be found lacking.  So, we repent.  We live to worship God and help others.  We acknowledge God as Lord throughout our lives, not allowing any aspect of life to be secular, apart from God’s rule.  And then, we trust God.
John knew that Jesus, and not he, was the Savior and Lord.  “I am not worthy to untie his sandals” he says (3:16).  He baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  He will judge, collecting the good fruit and bringing it into God’s house, and casting the bad out to be burned, cut off from God.  We can’t control that harvest.  We can’t determine if we will be saved or judged.  God judges and we are at God’s mercy.
So John, offers something we can all do in our lives, right now as we wait.  Because Jesus has come, we can share, be honest, be ethical, be kind, and be compassionate.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can live as people of the Kingdom of God even while we live in the world, fallen as it is.  And John promises the help of the Holy Spirit because Jesus baptizes us in the Spirit and Jesus has come.
As we wait for His second coming, we live in the reality of His first coming.  Our lives are different than the lives of non-believers because the Spirit is in us.  The world needs us to be different just as the world needed things to be different when Jesus was born.  
So, find someone with whom you can share.  Find a hurting person in need of encouragement, or a lonely friend in need of compassion.  When your peers cut corners on the job, express your repentance by working ethically.  And the when the opportunity is there, tell someone about why Jesus is your Lord.  Invite someone to come to worship with you.  This is the Advent fruit we have to share.  And people are hungry for it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Advent 2 - Luke 1:68-79

“Song of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:68-79)
Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018

            We’re well into the season now!  Lights, music, TV commercials, cards in the mail; decorations around the city and around the neighborhood; shopping lists; eggnog; Christmas is upon us.  I love it, as many of us do.  But as much as we love Christmas, we treasure the story of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ even more. 
The story of Jesus’ birth is a Holy Spirit story.  We can read Luke and clearly see that in the story of Jesus’ birth, the Holy Spirit is at work.  And, when the Holy Spirit is at work and we respond in faith, then the Spirit lead us into God’s peace.
The Spirit is mentioned over and over.  The angel who appeared to Mary promised the Holy Spirit would come upon her (1:35).  When Mary’s cousin Elizabeth came to visit, the Holy Spirit filled her (v.41).  Later in Luke we see the Holy Spirit fill Jesus and lead him into the wilderness to face Satan (4:1).
This morning we zero in on Luke 1:67.  Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.  Earlier Luke described Zechariah as an aged priest descended from Abijah and his wife Elizabeth, also elderly and also a descendent of a priestly line, the line of Aaron.  The couple was childless and past childbearing years.  In this particular year, Zechariah was the one priest chosen to enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement to make the offering on behalf of the nation.  Alone in that sacred space, an angel came to him.  He wasn’t prepared for that!
Members of the clergy are as shocked and awed by direct encounters with divine beings as lay people are.  He wasn’t ready to meet an angel, but that’s what happened.  “Fear overwhelmed him” (1:12) as the angel told him that his barren wife Elizabeth would have a son who would be named John and be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15). Zechariah couldn’t believe it, and said so.  The angel was not impressed by his skepticism, and so, he rendered old Zechariah mute until the miracle baby came. 
All who knew Elizabeth and Zechariah rejoiced with them at their son’s birth even as they marveled at the old priest’s inability to speak.  Their friends and family knew this child was from God.  Still, when Elizabeth gave the baby the name “John,” the neighbors and relatives called time out.  You can’t name him that.  John’s not a family name.  They all looked to silent Zechariah who grabbed a tablet and scrawled out “J-O-H-N.”  He held it up for all to see.  With the baby here, his voice was released.  Aloud he said, “His name is John.”
Then, the priest, the father of the miracle baby, Zechariah, silent the previous 9 months, sang this song.  It was a psalm in the form of Old Testament psalms.   The message was the stuff of prophets of old, word that had not been heard since Malachi, hundreds of years earlier. A psalm?  Yes.  A prophecy?  Most definitely, in the tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the great prophets.  Yet this song of Zechariah was also a song of the Holy Spirit.
Through the priest’s mouth the Spirit tells what God has done and is about to do.  Next, Luke will tell of the birth of Jesus.  John and Jesus, cousins; one born of a woman after she’s gone through menopause; the other born of a virgin; both inspiring great songs of faith: John, Zechariah’s benediction and Jesus, Mary’s magnificat.  John preceded Jesus.  After Jesus was baptized by John, his public ministry began, and John encouraged his own followers to leave him and follow Jesus.  Many did including some of the 12 disciples.
This story, flowing through Zechariah’s song, declares that God has acted. “Blessed be the Lord ... he has looked favorably upon his people” (1:68).  How?  “He has raised up a mighty savior” (v.69).  God’s people will be saved from powerful enemies who hate them.  God has shown mercy.  God has remembered his covenant with Abraham.  
Zechariah sings, because of what God has done, “we [may] serve him without fear.” Think Adam before the fall when he and Eve enjoyed complete freedom in their relationship with God in the garden, even freedom from sin.  When we put our trust in this savior foretold by Zechariah, we are rescued from the chains our own sins impress upon us. 
After praising God for Jesus, Spirit-inspired Zechariah then sings to his newborn son.  “You, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”  In Jesus God has acted so that the very thing that separates us from God - God’s holiness verse our sinfulness - is removed.  He takes our sins on himself, and puts his righteousness on us.  When we put our trust in Jesus, we are made right where previously we were flawed.  Sin is that serious.  In sin, we are destined for death.  And we are all sinners.  But John the Baptist would come and show us that in Jesus, God forgives.
Zechariah sang of being rescued from enemies.  The three greatest foes of all people in all times and place  - the three greatest enemies you and I face - are antagonists who cannot be defeated: sin, Satan, and death.  In Christ, we are safe even from these three evils.
Zechariah closes singing, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet onto the way of peace.”  Ah yes, the way peace, where the Spirit leads those who trust in God.  In God’s light, we see the world as it is and ourselves as we truly are, sinners.  Without God, we are lost.  The journey to salvation is a free gift, one full of joy.  That’s doesn’t mean it is easy.
Pastor and blogger Alan Brehm likens what we go through when we step onto God’s path following the Spirit to the process of refining glass.  Touring a glass-blowing factory, he watched as the glass was heated up to remove impurities and make it moldable.  The furnace was so hot, even at his safe distance, he felt uncomfortable.  The goal was to make the glass a thing of beauty.  The process required intense heat that would change the glass from impure to pure, from rigid to pliable.
When we turn to Christ and put our trust in Christ, we are that glass, heated up, refined, bent, shaped, molded, and made into something new.  God goes to work on us.  The Holy Spirit takes up residence in us just as Jesus takes our impurities, our sins, and re-creates us as right and acceptable before God.  John’s job, as Zechariah stated, was to go before Jesus, paving the way.  Further on in the story, we see John baptizing people beside the Jordan River (3:3). 
God accomplished His work in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of the son.  God continues the work of salvation today. The Holy Spirit appeals the hearts of women and men, drawing them to God’s light.  
Of course, when we keep our gaze fixed on the world around us, we cannot see God’s light or know God’s peace.  When we make life choices based on the values of our current culture instead of the transcendent values of Heaven, we cannot see God’s light or know God’s peace.  When we hold on to old grudges, refuse to give grace, and instead view our fellow human beings with malice in our hearts, we cannot see God’s light and know God’s peace.  We have to see the world, but see it in God’s light.
Jesus has come.  The light is shining.  God’s spirit is here.  We can accept God’s gift or not.  We are called to repent, to turn from the darkness in the world to God’s light.  This was preached by John the Baptist and taught by Jesus.  Turn away from darkness, turn to the light.  Turn away from sin, turn to God.  Turn away from false, impotent saviors, to turn to the one true Lord, the crucified, resurrected Jesus.  We may choose faith in Christ.  The Holy Spirit helps us.  But even with the Spirit’s help, God allows us free will.  We can turn away from God.  God will not force us to have faith. 
To walk God’s way, the way of peace, we have to be honest about our self-indulgence, our need to control others, and the aggressions and prejudices that live within us.  We have to present ourselves, the very worst of ourselves fully to God.  We have to go through the Spirit’s refining fire.  We not only hear and tell the story.  We enter it.
We enter the fire and come out new.  We approach as sinners and emerge as people born again, as new creations.  When we hear the song of the Holy Spirit, ... and believe it, ... and decide to live it, ... then we begin to understand what new life really means.  We start to grasp the peace the Bible promises.
Christmas is great.  The peace of God is a whole lot better. When we hear the Spirit’s son and allow ourselves to be led into faith, peace is what we get.


Works Cited

Brehm, Alan. “The Waking Dreamer.” Refining, 1 Jan. 1970,

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Belief in Quarks, Belief in Christ

Image result for quarks

2 Corinthians 4:16-18
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

            Quarks.  They are subatomic particles, so small, they have never been seen. Theoretical predictions based on their existence have been confirmed experimentally.  The late John Polkinghorne was a mathematician when quarks were discovered.  Mid-career, feeling the call of God, he switched careers, attending seminary to become an Anglican priest.  In his book Living with Hope, a collection of Advent devotions, during the second week of Advent, he briefly describes the discovery of these theoretical realities, quarks.
            We cannot see them.  We only believe they exist.  Belief is the stuff of faith.  Science deals with measurable evidence.  Polkinghorne wonders whether real scientists should take quarks seriously.  Then, the scientist-pastor answers his own question writing, “We believe in quarks not because we have seen them sitting on their own but because that belief make sense of so much experience that we can observe directly”[i]  (italics mine).  He has faith in the methods of observation that leads scientists to accept un-seeable quarks as real things.
            Similarly, Polkinghorne anticipates the eternal blessing we have in our faith in Jesus.  Citing 2 Corinthians 4, we see that our outer nature is wasting away (our bodies are dying).  But, because of who we are in Christ, saved by grace, our inner nature is being renewed and destined for life beyond the death of the body.  Paul says something seemingly incongruous.  “We look at … what cannot be seen.”
Like the unobservable quarks, we can’t see the eternal life we are promised when we give ourselves to Christ.  What we can do is hear the story – Jesus rose from the grave.  We can assess the history.  Bodily resurrection is the best explanation for why first century Jews like Peter and Paul believed in Jesus as Messiah and Savior.  If he was truly resurrected, then should God be trusted?  Yes.  Polkinghorne writes that though Paul did not see the glory he was describing, both he and Peter “had direct experience of the grace given them from God the Father, and the hope given them through the risen Christ, and sufficient knowledge of the Spirit at work in their hearts.”[ii]  
Can you believe a Star led astrologers from Persia to Bethlehem?  Or that a baby was born to a virgin?  Or that this baby was the Savior of the world who, when he grew up, would be crucified for your sins and after that rose from the grave?  Is any of this believable?  John Polkinghorne, a true scientist, considered the evidence and more importantly considered his own experience after seeking God.  This Christmas, seek God!  Consider the evidence yourself, and ask God to speak to your heart.  I pray that if you do, you’ll find the best conclusion to be reached is that God can be trusted and Jesus is who the Bible says he is.  Once you’ve discovered that, put your faith in Him. 

[i] J. Polkinghorne (2003), Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.27.
[ii] Ibid, p.27.

Monday, December 3, 2018

God's Way, the Way of Hope (Psalm 25)

Image result for psalm 25 Advent 1

First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

In Psalm 25, the singer appears to have had enough of life lived by his own wits.  “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust” (25:1-2a). He speaks of enemies and appears to fear the power of those enemies he is sure hate him.  In my own life, I am blessed to say I don’t have specific people I cite as enemies. I don’t view Muslims as my enemies. Most are not terrorists and the encounters I have had with Muslims in Ethiopia, in Egypt, and in here in triangle have been very positive.  No, Muslims are not my enemies.
Nor are unbelievers and unchurched people.  I have a lot of friends who don’t go to church at all and are unsure of what we do here.  Certainly their worldview is different than mine. But, they love their kids. They are friendly people.  I believe they need Jesus and are lost without him. But, I don’t count them as enemies.
Petty rivalries, family conflicts, disputes with neighbors; none of these amount to anyone I would describe as ‘enemy.’  Maybe you have specific people in mind when you hear that word. I don’t. But, I have had many moments when I have prayed that prayer uttered by the singer of Psalm 25.  “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” Pressure in life builds, stress mounts, and I feel I cannot meet all my responsibilities or handle all that life throws my way.  With Christmas, the most materialistic of holidays looming, shopping and parties and expectations add financial strain and demands on our time to the list. Yes, I bet many of us find ourselves with the need to lift our souls to the Lord.
The singer has something specific in mind.  Do you bark orders at God? You and I do, if we take the words of this song and sing them as our own.  Three times from verses 4-5, we sing it. “Make me know your ways, O Lord; lead me in your truth, and teach me.”  Ways.  Truth. Teach me.  Then, verses 8-10; we know the Lord is good and upright because He instructs sinners, directing them away from sin to God’s way.  “He leads in what is right and teaches the humble his way” (25:9). When we keep his decrees, we are on God’s path, and that path is unfailing love.  
This singer, originally David, perhaps, and then the community that canonized his words for worship - the singer is not bashful and is not playing around.  As if God needs reminding, the singer says, “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord” (v. 6). Remember me. Forget my sins. Remember your love. Remember me. That’s Biblical prayer.  He sets the course he wants God to take. He wants God to make sure he, the helpless sinner, is rescued and set in God’s way.
As we “do” the holidays, are we on God’s way, in-step with God?
Or, is the world out of step?  Have we along with the world around us, lost a deep sense of the way of God?  Over and over and over, this Psalm invites any who would sing it to sing it directly to God.  We can do that. The Bible makes it plain here and in many places. At any point in life and especially when life is falling apart, we can sing and pray and shout and cry to God, and we expect God to hear us and respond.  If this Psalm is our cue, then when we seek the Lord, what we’re asking is to be gently guided back onto the way of God. We pray this because the way of God seems to be the best way to live, the only way.
Signs that the world, and maybe us with it, are falling away from God instead of walking joyfully hand-in-hand with God are all around.  The lostness of the world is on display in every direction we look. I heard of a high school student passing out brownies that his classmates gratefully accepted and hungrily gobbled up, not knowing they were laced with marijuana.  Regardless of your views on the efficacy or evil of this drug, it’s deceptive to give it to people without their knowing.
A more drastic sign of how lost the world is:  The porn industry is one of the most profitable in our country and in the world, a multimillion dollar business that degrades the consumer and the producer.
Even more drastic, a sign of how evil spills over humanity, bringing and sorrow with it: the “caravan.”  A throng of desperately poor people are stuck in limbo along the border of the United States and Mexico. Families seeking the American dream and escape from dangerous, oppressive situations are met with closed doors and tear-gas.  Whatever your view of immigration is, this is evil.
And this: I recently read that 6,000-10,000 churches in the United States close their doors every year.  In a world run amuck, the church is to be the body of Christ bearing witness to the salvation people have in Jesus. Yet, more churches die than thrive.  Six thousand-10,000 American churches close their doors permanently, every year. ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; ... make known to me your ways.”
Perhaps worse than churches dying are Christians dying.  In Nigeria, it is common place for Christians near the North to be physically assaulted and rendered homeless or murdered by the Boko Haram Muslim terrorist group.  Even more deadly are the Fulani sheep herders who live all over the country, who are Muslims, and now, thanks to Boko Haram, are armed with assault rifles and willingly use them without warning against Christians.  Our Nigerian brothers and sisters in Christ will celebrate Christmas as we do. As they do so, they will pray Psalm 25 with an urgency we might not recognize. “Do not let our enemies exult over us,” they pray, singing the Psalmist’s words.
Churches die because Americans aren’t interested enough to attend.  Christians die because some deranged people in Nigeria decide to kill them.  Both are signs that the world is falling away from God.
Where’s the hope?  We might point to China, where Christianity is spreading like a wildfire.  Similar stories come out of Korea and India and South America. Rejoice! The world will never be without a witness testifying to the salvation God gives in Christ.  Rejoice!
But what about the weary Nigerian church?  What about the impassive, disinterested American church?  Or, the great cathedrals of Europe that stand empty, museums pointing to a now dead age. Is Christianity here destined to be a thing of the past?  We serve a living God, one more powerful than any sinful temptation, one able to turn back the seeming inevitability of history. If we didn’t believe in God’s great power, we wouldn’t waste our time in worship and prayer, would we? But we do believe.  Yes, the growth of the church in the global south is a cause for hope. Yes, though churches are dying America, there are still some American churches thriving. These stories are testaments of hope.
The greatest testament of hope is the reality of God himself.  That was all the singer had. Verse 15 - “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.”  David held this trust when King Saul tried to run him through with the spear and later when his own son Absalom raised an army and went to war against him.  David’s hope always came back to his unwavering trust in the power and love of God.
David never got to see God come in human flesh, in Jesus of Nazareth.  We know God in Jesus - the ultimate expression of God’s love. Jesus is our model for walking in the way of God. Assessing the lostness of the world, we know our hope is in Christ.  Whether that hope is for revitalization in a ho-hum American church, or for life itself in a threatened Nigerian church; or, for hope in a desperate crisis you are facing in your own life; the hope is Christ who guides us back to the way of the Lord.
Just a few days before he would be arrested and crucified, Jesus was in Jerusalem in the temple district with his disciples.  Taking in the grandeur of the temple and the hypocrisy of the worship, his disciples wondered when God would act dramatically to turn history around, in their favor.  Jesus warned that the moment would come and would mean judgment because God punishes sin. God casts out those who reject His way.
But, as terrifying as God’s wrath might seem, hope comes with it because Jesus sets things right.  Our sins are nailed to his cross. He takes our death on himself. He takes his resurrection and shares it with us.  In the sermon he gives his disciples there in the temple’s outer court, he promises, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Luke 21:33).  That’s our hope: the promise of Jesus; the promise that he will guide us into the way of God and the way of God is the life we want to live.
As we prepare our hearts for the Lord’s supper, bring to mind the struggles in your life, or the signs of lostness in the world that threaten to diminish your hope.  Let this prompt you to cry out the words of the Psalm. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” And lift your soul to God. Bring your burdens to God. The Holy Spirit will help you, God will take your load, and Jesus will tenderly, lovingly open before you life lived God’s way, the way of hope.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Look! The King is Coming (Revelation 1:4-8)

By way of introduction he simply writes, “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9).  John lived in the penal colony named Patmos, a rocky island off the coast of modern Turkey, ancient Asia Minor.  Piecing it together, we figure out that he was in exile because of his Christian faith.  In 96 AD, in Jerusalem, certainly in Rome, and in the region of the seven cities mentioned in the first two chapters of the Bible’s final book, Revelation, followers of Jesus suffered for their faith.
            The Roman Emperor Domitian insisted on deference from all people, even demanding that subjects of the empire acknowledge him as divine.  “Domitian is Lord!”  All were expected to make this proclamation, suffering greatly if they would not.  Christians would not. 
            Some were harassed in their own communities.  Their businesses were forcibly closed, or they were bullied by local constables, or they were shunned by people who did not want to suffer by being associated with them.  Others ended up arrested for their insistence upon saying that Jesus and only Jesus is Lord.  Of those arrested, some were executed in gruesome fashion, or for sport, thrown to lions in the arena, or forced to fight in gladiator games; all because they would not just let it go.  “Jesus is Lord.”  To these late first century believers, that claim was worth more than anything; more than their own lives.
            “Jesus is Lord.”  How much is that worth to us?  Who is Jesus?  A cute ornament, the centerpiece of the nativity that sits on the mantel.  In the final days of the year, when we get rid of our trees, take the lights down, and bid Christmas farewell, do we put Jesus in box in the closet to be left there until we give him a nod at Easter, and then put up our nativity next Christmas?  “Jesus is Lord.”  Do we make that claim?  Do we make it seriously?  In the softness and comfort of our American context, we don’t face severe punishment for saying Jesus matters more than any relationship, possession, or loyalty.  Still, we are as called as John was to acknowledge Jesus not only as Savior who assures us of Heaven but also as master who directs our lives.  Do we? 
            John doesn’t tell the specifics of his story.  Somehow, he avoided the death penalty and instead was exiled, away from his home church in Ephesus to, perhaps, hard labor on Patmost Island.  He wasn’t concerned that future generations of Christians know who John is.  He wanted to help his friends in the seven churches in Asia Minor stay faithful in their commitment to Jesus even as they faced the same persecution that landed him in chains.  Revelation was a letter comprised of his vision of the end.  He presents Jesus as the victor and Lord of all.
            We’re not persecuted, but in our affluence, too many of us who claim to be Christians have reduced Jesus, emptied him of His power, neutering his authority and setting him at the margins of our lives.  Moving from Thanksgiving to Christmas, how can we recover the grandeur of Jesus, the majesty of our Lord, so that this season for us is a season of worship? 
            “From Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”  John takes himself out of the equation.  His vision isn’t for him.  Jesus spoke this word that John might write it and pass it on so that the individuals in the congregations that receive it might be formed as communities of disciples who will stay true to Christ no matter the cost.  Jesus longs for you to read Revelation to grow into a disciple who will see Him and give yourself fully to Him.  Even if you or I never face persecution, we can develop a faith that would stand up in the face it.  Our discipleship takes form as we truly see Jesus.
From Jesus Christ, the faithful witness.  The Greek word for witness is ‘martyr.’  Of course, we hear that and think of those who die for what they’ve said and for beliefs they refuse to renounce.  With that picture in mind, we might hope our faith is strong enough that we would stay faithful, but we don’t aspire to become martyrs.  We are happy to live for Jesus, but we don’t want to die for him. 
Yet, martyrdom – witness – is our calling, by the Holy Spirit.  In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus demonstrates the perfect love of God lived out on the human stage.  He was fully human, he saw people as they were, and loved them as they were.  Even at the end, betrayed, arrested, flogged, and crucified, Jesus modeled perfect love, loving those who betrayed and killed him. 
As our Lord gave witness to the goodness of the Kingdom of God, so too must we.  We can admire the way Jesus forgave people and loved all, even his tormentors.  He wants to see us go beyond admiration.  He wants us to see Him, know Him, grow in our knowledge of Him, and then add our own testimony to conversations with friends and to the public discourse even when doing so sets us uncomfortably apart from the people in our lives who don’t feel that call to follow Jesus.  That’s what a martyr does: testifies to what he or she knows to be true about Jesus.  Will we?  Do we know Jesus?  Will we tell what we know?  As we live our lives through the holiday season to New Year’s Day, 2019, what will be said of our witness?  What will others learn about Jesus from us?
Jesus, the faithful witness is also, the Firstborn of the dead.  The way we think of things, birth begins life, death ends it.  God never intended death to be part of our story.  Death is sin’s descendant, not God’s.  Sin does not get to change God’s story, even the sins we choose.  In God’s story, his children have eternal life in His loving presence.  Just as Jesus showed us how to live, by his witness, in his resurrection, he clears our path.  He is the first born.  We follow Him into eternity when we put our trust in Christ and become his disciples.
Finally, we are told, the Witness and the Firstborn is the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.  Jesus is not a Christmas decoration or a piece of golden jewelry.  He is the king.  President Barak Obama; President Donald Trump; Presidents Washington and Lincoln; each one of them, just like each one of us will bow before Jesus, the king of kings and lord of lords.  The Bible says that will happen, and confessing Christians believe it to the extreme.  We believe on some future day, we cannot predict when but know it is coming, all this will be gone, and the Kingdom of God will remain, in glory. 
            Jesus the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the king of kings, loves us, has freed us from our sins by his blood, and makes us kings who serve.  John had the audacity to write this while imprisoned and his followers, themselves facing death believed it.  And the church has preserved this story so we can read and believe.  We are beloved of God.  Jesus actively loves you as you are.  He sees you as a child of God. 
            Jesus the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the king of kings who loves us, has freed us from our sins by his blood.  Sin snares us and we cannot escape.  Paul’s letter to the Romans emphatically makes this point.  Sin wreaks our relationship with God and destines us for an eternity apart from Him.  But Jesus, through his death on the cross, takes on himself the punishment for sin.  He forgives us and invites us to step from our sinfulness to his holiness.  Matthew, one of the 12, stopped being a cheating tax collector and began life as a disciple of Jesus.  Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, whom he had forgiven, to go and sin no more.  Jesus loves us as we are and frees us so that we are no longer slaves to sin.  When we receive his love and forgiveness, we do not remain as we are.  We are new creations, ready to live the life He created us to live from the start.
            He loves us, he freed us, and he makes to be Kings, yet, people who serve; a kingdom of priests serving God.  We worship.  We study.  We share His love with others.  We forgive each other and those outside the church.  The resurrected one is the Jesus of Revelation, the king of kings; Jesus tells us in Revelation that our destiny is to be his people in the world, drawing the world to him. 
            He was a baby born in a manger, but that manger’s been empty for a long time.  Our anticipation in the Advent season is of the coming of the King.  “Look,” Revelation says, “He is coming with the clouds. …on his account, all the tribes of the earth will wail” (1:7).  And later in Revelation we are told people from all the tribes of the earth will be part of his Heavenly gathering (7:9-10).
            In my house, we’ll have a nativity decoration, as will many of you.  It’s part of our remembrance.  It’s how we tell the story.  As we tell it, I hope we can honor John who wrote Revelation while on Patmos, and along with John, all the Christians who have suffered for their testimony that Jesus is king.  The Christmas story we love so much starts with Mary and Joseph, with a baby and a star, with shepherds and wise men.  But that’s only the opening.  That prelude draws us in to the story of the King and the relationship He invites us to have with Him.  Discover life lived in step with Jesus; a life in which we are always anticipating that day when we look to the horizon and say, “Look!  The King is coming with the clouds.”  That story is our story, the story of eternal life with God.  It is a story to be shared.

Monday, November 12, 2018

How Much is God Really in Control? (1 Kings 17:8-16)

Image result for 1 kings 17

Sunday, November 11, 2018

            Whew!  Big exhale.  Why?  She has looked at me with a solemn face as she asked me to pray for her.  What I say next is really important.
I respond, “Tell me about it.” 
Every single one of us has a story.  Even the seemingly unremarkable daily occurrences move the story of your life.  It might mean nothing to someone else, but this is your story.  You don’t know what’s on the next page until you get to it.
When someone asks for prayer, she (or he) is reeling from what happened on the previous page; agonizing through the page she’s currently on; and, fearing what’s on the next page.  We don’t ask for prayer in the happiest parts of the story.  We’re blissful in those moments.  We ask for prayer when things are tough and we’re worried, afraid.
It’s clear she is a believer in Jesus.  Her thought that prayer might help was an indication of this.  As she tells her story, she says, “I know God is control.”  Why say that?  I think it’s because we absolutely hope that is so.  It’s a veiled desperation heave.  O God, I hope you’re in control. 
God could have stopped the mass shooting in California; and the one in Pittsburgh; and the one in Parkland, Florida; and the one … . God could have stopped it all if God wanted to.  Did God just not want to? 
Telemachus Orfanos was at the Las Vegas concert last year.  He survived that mass shooting.  I wonder if he said a prayer of thanks that included the words, “God is in control.”  He was 27 years old, a U.S. Navy veteran.  We honor veterans today. God is in control.  He who survived Las Vegas was killed at the shooting in California last week.  God is in control?  How much control does God really have? 

The book of First Kings in the Old Testament, after taking us through the golden age of King Solomon, then details the tragic story of God’s chosen people as they, against God’s intentions, split into a Northern Kingdom, Israel, and a Southern Kingdom, Judah.  Both were ruled by a series of kings, many of whom tried to be faithful to God’s ways.  Just as many abused power, disregarded the suffering of the poor, and led the nation into sinful idolatry by mixing worship of God with worship of other peoples’ pagan gods called Baals. 
At the end of chapter 16, we meet the new king of the north, Ahab. It says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord … than had all the kings of Israel before him.”  Ahab married a non-Jewish queen, Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon.  Ahab happily followed as she led him into idolatry, an insulting disregard of the God Ahab was supposed to represent and serve and love. 
Flipping the page to chapter 17, without warning or ceremony, we meet Elijah the Tishbite.  No introduction is offered.  He bursts onto the scene, his first recorded words a direct threat to King Ahab.  He tells Ahab there will be a 3-year drought in which rain will only come at his, Elijah’s word. 
Why don’t we receive background on Elijah, the Old Testament’s most prominent prophet?  Prophets only existed to point people to God; often, pointing to God’s displeasure.  Prophets meant to speak and then diminish as the message of God dominated the story. No one believed the idea that God is in control with as much commitment as the prophets.
Implied in his pronouncement of the drought was a condemnation of Ahab and Jezebel.  This drought is God’s punishment for their wickedness.  Immediately God sends Elijah into the wilderness, on the run.  By declaring the environmental disaster and blaming the king, Elijah becomes an enemy of that king.  Ahab kills his enemies.  And Jezebel is more coldblooded than her husband. 
The entire episode displays God’s control.  God tells Elijah to flee to the Wadi Cherith, a barren, dry place of wilderness; and that was true even when there was no drought.  Now, no one survives out there.  It is the perfect place to hide because Ahab will never think to chase Elijah there.  No fool would hide there. 
God makes water flow from the dried up wadi and Elijah drinks.  God instructs ravens to bring Elijah food and they do.  Control!  God controls the rain and the animals and the streams. 
But this begs the question, what about everyone else, besides Ahab and Jezebel.  We know that in natural disasters – floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires – the poor suffer worse than the rich.  Yes the drought punishes the wicked king and queen, but must God punish everyone as a drought clearly does?  We have to look back at the story – Elijah’s story; Ahab and Jezebel’s story; yours and mine.  I meet God in my story, but I do not know what God is doing in others’ stories.  There was a drought.  It does not tells us how God acts in the stories of common people throughout Israel during the drought. 
Then, the next account tells us exactly that; not a king’s story, but the presence of God in a very common person’s story.  Elijah has been in a place where his only hope of survival is God’s ability to command nature – ravens to provide for him.  Also, Elijah depends on his belief that God wants to help him. 
To Elijah in his Cherith wilderness hideout we read that “the word of the Lord came to him.”  “Go now to Zarephath and live there.”  Zarephath is in the coastal region to the west of Israel.  Sidon is the capital city of the region.  Remember Sidon?  That’s Jezebel’s hometown.   It’s like telling a runaway slave in 1860 to hide in the home of a poor white farmer in Mississippi. 
God tells Elijah, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”  The narrator of 1st Kings does not let us in on Elijah’s, thoughts, not yet, anyway.  Elijah goes and meets the woman at the Zarephath town gate.  She doesn’t look very good as she gathers kindling.  She’s dangerously thin, with sunken cheeks and sallow complexion.  Elijah asks her to stop what she’s doing and fetch him a drink of water.  Without protest, she moves at his word and as she does, he asks her to bring him bread. 
This is too much.  She replies, “As the Lord your God lives” – she knows who Elijah is, that he is the prophet of the God who’s caused the misery of this drought – “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son so that we may eat it and die.”  She is preparing for her own last supper. 
First, God sent Elijah to survive in the wilderness around the Wadi Cherith.  He lived in a place of death.  Now, God has sent Elijah into enemy territory to get sustenance from a woman who is planning to starve to death in the midst of the drought God has sent. 
Elijah’s next words show how utterly idiotic we can sound when we say exactly what God tells us to say.  “Fear not,” he tells her.  Then he tells her to go ahead with plans, a last supper followed by death by starvation.  Yeah, go ahead with that, but first bring me a little something to eat.  It’s so ludicrous, it defies description.  And that’s the point. 
We heard the telltale phrase of Old Testament prophets when Elijah was sent to Jezebel’s stomping grounds.  “The Word of the Lord came to him.”  Now we hear a similar phrase that signals God is in the midst of this inexplicable contradiction in Elijah’s words.  “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel.”  We know something profound is coming.  Your jar of meal from which you make bread and your jug of cooking oil you use to prepare it will not empty until the rain comes.  So, go ahead and prepare for your death, but know this.  God is preparing life for you.  Not only that, but you will be a part of the story of God’s word convicting and then redeeming Israel. 
We say “God is in control” as a desperate hope that God will do something to rescue us from the darkness we’re in; we cling to the hope that God will heal us from the trauma we have suffered.  God did not cause the shooting in California or Pittsburgh or Florida.  God did not spare Telemachus Orfanos in Las Vegas just to have him die this past week.  These shootings happen because God allows us to have free will.  When we human beings have free will, often, we choose evil.  These shootings and deaths are evil.  Evil is present in the world.  I don’t know why this young navy veteran died.  His story is not my story.  What I believe is God was in his story.  I know God is in mine. 
God is first in control of God’s self in a way that I cannot control myself.  I overreact to things.  I get emotional.  I lose my temper.  I can be selfish and, sometimes, shortsighted.  I lose control.  I believe we all do.  God is steadfast.  God doesn’t direct every movement of my life or course correct every time I make a bad decision.  God lets me live with the consequence of my mistakes.  God lets me suffer the natural outcomes of my sins.
When I turn back to God in repentance and faith, God forgives.  God creates a new future.  When, from the darkest parts of myself, I turn to God, God shines His light in the darkness.  God draws me to it.  We see this in the Apostle Peter.  He denied knowing Jesus three times as Jesus was being tried and flogged.  A week after the resurrection, Jesus restored Peter, three times allowing him to pledge his love.  Peter bore scars on his soul from his sin, but those scars were signs of healing restoration, not shame. 
The widow in Zarephath “went and did” according to Elijah’s word (v.15).  She doesn’t question.  She keeps scooping ground meal, pouring oil, baking bread, and feeding God’s prophet, her son, and herself.  With each meal, with the restoration of her health, with each moment of feeling full and satisfied, she discovers what it means to live according to the word of the Lord. 
When the pages of your story tell of that part when you have to walk, as Psalm 23 says, through “the valley of the shadow of death,” and your only recourse is to ask a friend to pray for you; there’s no other solution.  I don’t know that God promises to make the next page in your story instantly easier or to immediately solve all problems. 
Here’s what I am sure of.  God promises to be there.  Life is out of control.  You and I feel out of control.  So we pray.  And when we do, we meet a God who gives hope to starving widows who have lost it.  We meet the God who confronts wicked kings with truth and power.  We come face to face with the God who loves us so much, he let his only son take our place in death. 
Maybe in your story right now, the next line is, someone, please, pray for me.   Maybe that’s how things are.  Of course, you have people to pray for you and with you.  God is here.  He loves you.  Whatever you have going on, in this very moment, turn to Him.  Ask him to help you.  Turn to Him and see what it looks in your life when he fills your cup and blesses you with His love.