Friday, December 31, 2010

Raising the Standard

2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2
John 8:12-19
What Jesus says in our reading from John today seems strange at first glance. “You judge by human standards,” he tells a group of Pharisees, “I judge no one” (John 8:15). My initial response is to say of course they judge from human standards. They are humans, what else could they do? Jesus’ next words don’t help much. “Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (v. 16). Well, of course Jesus has a different perspective, I say. He’s the Messiah, the Son of God. There is simply no way we could ever see things the way he does. That’s when Paul speaks up and tells me to slow down a minute. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” he tells his readers in Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:16a). So if I’m supposed to view people from something other than a “human point of view,” how is that going to work?

Over the years I have had the pleasure to offer training to dozens of Presbyterian lay people about to take office as elders or deacons. One of the things I will often do is show them the passage from Titus 1:5-9. where there is a list of the qualifications for elders and bishops. I will then ask those present to indicate if—based on what they have read––they are still qualified to serve. No one has ever raised his or her hand. And they shouldn’t. It’s very unlikely that anyone could ever meet such high standards. It’s just not human nature. But to me that’s not the point. The point is that here is a quality of life to which we may (must?) aspire, here is an image of what we should strive for.

I think Paul’s words to the Corinthians must be similar. It is practically impossible to see things as something we are not. But that does not remove from us the responsibility to strive, by God’s grace, to reach that point. As people of faith we are challenged to cast off, as best we can, what we have been and to put on that which is given to us in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a sign of this newness of life and a reminder of the community which walks beside us. As we enter a new year and face ever newer challenges, ever starker realities in our world, we should aspire to see things, not in the same old ways, but as new creatures born in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May 2011 be a time of awakening for us all, and may we find our standards raised as we strive to live in the light of the gospel.

Prayer: Lord, bless our past as a time of learning, our present as a time of living, and our future as a time of achieving all to your glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Everybody's Invited

Isaiah 25:1-9
Our reading for today from the prophet Isaiah discusses what the Lord will do in days to come. One particular verse caught my eye because of its relevance for the contemporary church. “On this mountain,” says the prophet, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow…” (Isaiah 25:6). This is one of the passages in Isaiah that has come to represent the Messianic hope which the church associates with Jesus Christ. In fact, in Luke we read very similar words: “People will come from east and west, north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

The first thing to catch the readers eye may be the quality of the food that is promised, “a feast of rich food…filled with marrow.” This is no fast food or carry-out, this is good stuff, the kind of meal that one associates with a full life. But I think we should also notice who it is that will be invited to this feast. The Lord will prepare this sumptuous dinner “for all peoples.” The Hebrew word used here for “peoples” usually means “all humankind.” The promise then, seems to be without distinction. Everyone will have the opportunity to share in the feast, to be a part of what God is doing.

On the one hand this may lead us to images of workers hired late in the day and paid for a full day’s labor, or of prodigal sons welcomed home, or of fights over who reclines where at a meal. But the image is certainly intended to be one of a joyous family reunion, tables heaped high with tasty dishes which we share with relatives we may never have met. So we look forward with great hope to that day when all the earth will see and understand the glory of God and life will be what it was always intended to be.

Prayer: God of hosts, give us patience as we await the coming of your kingdom and help us to welcome others in the meantime as we prepare for that day. Amen.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When I Need a Drink

Isaiah 12:1-6
Water is essential to life. We know that. The development of civilization has often been guided by the presence or the lack of water in a particular region. Even today, as technologically advanced as we are, water continues to be a concern around the globe.

Isaiah does not refute that, but the prophet would like to remind us that salvation is as important to human life as water. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” he writes (Isaiah 12:3). This promise stands over and against the plight of God’s people at a time when they were faced with exile and the loss of identity because of their transgressions. They might have the water necessary to live, but would they ever again have what was necessary to restore their life as a faith community? Someday, the prophet assures them, you will have that opportunity once more. And with joy you will find God’s grace as abundant as the water in your wells.

There are days when I forget to drink enough water, and I feel run down, achy even. Once I’ve hydrated, however, I feel much better. There are also days when I feel spiritually drained, when my faith seems run down. Those are the days when I most need the reminder of God’s salvation, when I need to drink most deeply from the resources that guide my faith. Maybe you feel the same way. I don’t use a well for my water, not directly. But in times of doubt I can return to scripture, to prayer, to worship, to my faith community, to those around me who love and support me and with joy find what I need to continue living as a child of God. Isaiah’s promise has been kept. The wells of salvation are all around us. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, continue to lead us by still waters and to the wells of salvation that we may drink deeply and find the strength we need to live by your will. Amen.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

That's a Long Time to Love Anyone

Isaiah 54:1-13
At the beginning of his book, “The Story of Mankind”, Hendrik Willem van Loon offers this illustration:

High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.

I thought of that story as I pondered our second passage from Isaiah for this morning. There the prophet promises that, “…The mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:10). Even if the process of erosion does not take as long as what van Loon describes, the idea is profound. Longer that it takes for mountains and hills to disappear, that’s how long God promises to love and have compassion for us. And that’s a very long time.

There’s another interesting point here, though. The removal of mountains and hills represents a great deal of change, and change is something that we experience on a regular basis. And though any change can be disconcerting and scary, it does not in any way effect the way that God loves and care for us. We may no longer recognize the neighborhood, but we are safe at home, nonetheless. In a world of change and uncertainty God remains steadfast and faithful for eternity…and longer.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to embrace your love for us and to share it with one another. Amen.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A New Commandment for Christmas

John 13:20-35
A quick trip to the mall yesterday turned out much better than I thought it would. It was the day after Christmas and there were hundreds of shoppers everywhere, but the stores were prepared and we were able to make our gift exchanges and buy our missing components and with little trouble. In some ways it seemed easier to shop the day after Christmas than it had been any day leading up to Christmas. Not only are we are still in the midst of the Christmas shopping season, we are still in the liturgical season of Christmastide. Yet our reading from John today puts us smack in the middle of Holy Week. Jesus is speaking to his disciples moments after Judas has left the room. “I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

These words are the reason we call the fifth day of Holy Week “Maundy Thursday”. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for commandment. But this is the second day after Christmas. Is this really an appropriate time to consider the days leading up to the crucifixion? Frankly, yes. On the one hand it is always appropriate to consider the crucifixion. As Christians we live our lives with the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice every day. But there is also an inherent connection between Christmas and Easter, between the birth and the death/resurrection that shapes the Christian life and experience. Without Christmas, the gift of “God with us,” there is no Easter, no demonstration of God’s love on the cross and at the empty tomb. In the same way, without Easter there is no significance to Christmas.

But finally, both Christmas and Easter give us ample reason and opportunity to “love one another” as Christ commands. Indeed there is never a season in which love is not God’s wish for us. So while we begin to pack away the decorations and take down the tree, it is already time to look ahead to the events of Holy Week and to focus on the love of God among us.

Prayer: Lord, help us to love one another as you command, that the light of your coming reign may be bright at all times in our world. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

God's GPS

Isaiah 35:1-10
It’s a minor point, but I’ve always been fascinated by one particular claim that Isaiah makes in today’s reading. “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;…no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray” (Isaiah 35:8). Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and culturally predisposed to avoid asking for directions, but the thought of a highway where even fools can’t get lost is appealing, comforting even. And as a metaphor it offers a myriad of uses which interests the preacher in me.

How wonderful, how amazing life would be if we simply could not get lost, if we were always going where we ought to go. Granted, there is grace to be found in the detours of our lives, events we would have missed if we had stuck to the path we were on, but that’s really the point. The path we are on is almost always based on our assumptions or our ideals and not on the will of God. As the man lay dying in the ditch it was the Good Samaritan who stepped aside from his own route to help. He alone remained on the Holy Way while the others foolishly continued in wrong directions.

Where are you going today? To the store for last minute shopping? To the home of friends to celebrate the season? To a candle-lit service of worship? Those are all appropriate destinations for Christmas Eve. But will you remember to follow God’s path as you travel? Will you trust in God’s directions, God’s GPS as it were? For now we do best to follow the stars, and the shepherds, and the angles we encounter, even asking for directions if we have to. But Isaiah promises that someday we will walk a path so clearly marked by God’s grace that we cannot go wrong. What a wonder that will be.

May each of you experience a Christmas full of joy and peace and may the world be filled with hope in the coming of a Savior.

Prayer: Lord of love and life, we thank you for the gift of Jesus Christ and ask for your help in following along the path you set before us. Amen.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Amen Already!

Revelation 22:6-11, 18-20
And so we wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

For almost 2,000 years we have waited for the return of Jesus Christ and the new creation, the restored Jerusalem that has been promised. Our reading from Revelation today hardly helps. “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Did we miss it? Has it come and gone? Was there so little to it that it slipped right past us?

No, we haven’t missed it. We’ll know when it gets here. But while we are waiting there is much to be done. The work of the coming reign of God beckons us. The Spirit of God cajoles us. The sacrificial love of Jesus inspires us. The needs of our world confront us. To believe in God through Jesus Christ is to accept the challenges at hand and to let God take care of the timing. Advent is a season of waiting, and too often we let it end on Christmas Day. May we instead let the work of waiting go on so that lives may be enriched and hearts opened here and now. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Now let’s keep busy. By the grace of God there’s a lot to be done.

Prayer: God of all goodness, help us to see through our own expectations and assumptions to the glory of your coming reign, and help us to be about your work in the world. In the name of the one whom we await, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

First Things First

Luke 1:39-56
One of the reasons that I so appreciate the gospel of Luke is its inclusiveness. People of all sorts play an important role in Luke’s story. Woman, men, children, the poor, the sick, the working class, none are considered unworthy just because of their social standing. (This attitude carries over even further in the book of Acts where Luke will include Gentiles among those who are found acceptable by God.)

Our reading from Luke for today is a good example. As soon as Mary discovers that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Luke tells us, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in (Elizabeth’s) womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Luke 1:41-42). Here is the first recognition of the nature of Mary’s child and it comes to us from a pregnant woman, one in seclusion no less. Shepherds watching their flocks will be the first to worship the newborn Jesus, but the first one to give praise to God for the coming Christ child is Elizabeth. It has to be significant because Luke places what we call the Magnificat, Mary’s declaration of God’s greatness, after Elizabeth’s pronouncement. The supposedly barren wife of a priest, a man who had himself doubted the message he had received from an angel (and who was now unable to speak because of that doubt), this woman is the one God allows to perceive what is happening before anyone else and to share that news with us.

I wonder who else God has chosen to proclaim the message of hope and joy to the world. I wonder what other news God is revealing through unlikely folk. And I wonder if we are willing to listen. Or do we judge the person before dismissing what they say as not worthy of our attention? That would not be Luke’s way, and it shouldn’t be ours either. What the world needs now is a willingness to listen for God’s word no matter what accent is used to speak it.

Prayer: God of Advent, help us to hear your good news and to embrace it and those who share it with us, so that together we may live as your people in a community of faith. Amen.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mission Possible

Isaiah 29:9-24
Luke 1:26-38
I wonder how seriously most of us take the words of the angel to Mary: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). We might pass them off as a sort of catchphrase, an advertising slogan like “No one beats our prices, no one!” Or we might consider them on a par with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team and their amazing consecutive wins streak. How do they do that? we ask before moving on to another topic. Or we might go so far as to confine God’s works to a Star Wars-like domain, “long ago in a galaxy far away.” Even at Christmas time, the season of miracles, we find the angel’s words better suited for pageants or services of lessons and carols than for “real life.” So perhaps one of the great challenges of being God’s people is accepting the them as bedrock truth, and then repeating them with a straight face.

Our reading from Isaiah today offers this bit of insight: “All those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction” (Isaiah 29:24). I’ve never thought of it in these terms before, but perhaps the prophet is speaking as much to you and me as to anyone else. Maybe our jaded view of things, our hesitancy to accept God’s actions as exactly what they claim to be is the erring in spirit, the grumbling that God corrects with understanding and instruction. Personally, I need a little instructing and understanding this time of year. I need my heart opened to allow God’s truth to come in. I need my very human cynicism blasted away so that the birth of Immanuel—God with us can touch me once again and give me the hope I need for the living of these days. Maybe you do as well. If so, remember the good news, that nothing is impossible with God.

Prayer: God of the miraculous, make yourself known to us so that we may live more closely attuned to your will, at Christmas and throughout the year. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

Isaiah 28:9-22
Revelation 20:11-21:8
The readings from Isaiah and Revelation today brought to my mind two cultural icons of sorts. The first is a line from the British comedy troop Monty Python. “And now for something completely different,” one would say, at which point something silly–like a man with a tape recorder up his nose–would appear. The other cultural piece that came to mind was a line from the Beach Boys song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.

And wouldn't it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong?

What both Isaiah and Revelation present to us is neither silly nor whimsical. What they point to is a new creation in which God’s people find their true belonging, a world that is “completely different” than anything we have ever known.

“See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation…” Isaiah writes, “And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet…” (Isaiah 28:16-17a). This is the kind of world which God promises, the kind of world in which we are intended to live. It is set on God’s foundation and filled with justice and righteousness, which is far different than the world in which we now live. From Patmos, John shares another promise. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1, 4). This vision is of something completely different from anything humanity has ever experienced, and yet, by God’s grace, it is the kind of creation in which God longs for us to exist.

These are the sorts of passages that give shape and context to the season of Advent, that help define what we are waiting for, the thing unseen for which we hope. This is the Lord’s doing that will be most marvelous in our eyes. Wouldn’t it be nice to have things become so completely different? Yes it would. And by God’s grace they will.

Prayer: God of hope and promise, help us to live in anticipation of what you are doing, and to celebrate this season with patience and joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Who Would Wash a Sow?

2 Peter 2:17-22
Matthew 11:2-15
Our reading from 2 Peter today includes an odd proverb. “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud” (2 Peter 2:22), we read. My immediate thought was who the heck would bother to wash a sow? Surely that’s not standard operating procedure, any more than putting lipstick on a pit bull. But I guess it get a certain point across. There’s no reason to wash a sow precisely because it is just going to wallow in the mud again anyway. The writer of 2 Peter was warning readers against returning to the bad behavior of their earlier lives. Yet, what would you expect to see a sow do?

And what about the Messiah? John the Baptist seems to have needed some clarification from Jesus. Are you the one who is to come, or are we supposed to keep looking for someone else to show up? Jesus answered him saying, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-6). In other words, there is no sow washing going on here. What we have is the will of God being carried out. And while Jesus may not have met all of John’s expectations of the Messiah, he certainly was doing the things the Messiah should do.

Maybe I’m forcing the issue a bit (or a lot!), but it seems to me that we spend too much time in our lives scrubbing hogs, and not enough time watching for Jesus and the signs of God’s coming reign. Besides that, we are called to tend to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, those needing good news, not to wander after tasks that accomplish little if anything. So I’ll go out on a limb here and say that worrying about the relative expense or size of Christmas presents is sow scrubbing. So is getting caught up in human definitions of success and accomplishment. To paraphrase Jesus, we should leave the sows to wash the sows, and instead should be about the work of God.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to do what is important and necessary according to your will and not to chase after the wild schemes and silly distractions that so often plague us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Highway Improvements

2 Peter 2:10b-16
Matthew 3:1-12
I’ve never been on a long car trip that didn’t eventually take me through an area of road construction. Maybe the guardrails needed replacing. Maybe the lanes needed re-striping. Or maybe the entire roadbed had to be redone. Whatever the case, traffic slowed down as we inched by the site before returning to normal speeds. It’s frustrating, but it leads to improved roads so it needs to be done.

Both the writer of 2 Peter and John the Baptist know that improvements need to be made in the way we are traveling spiritually. Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah as he describes John’s ministry: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3). The language in 2 Peter is far more direct. “They (false teachers of the gospel) have hearts trained in greed…They have left the straight road and gone astray…” (2 Peter 2:14-15).

What does it mean to walk a straight path, to travel in the proper direction? It means living in tune with God’s will. It means opening ourselves to what it is that God is doing in our lives. In the words of Micah, it means to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The good news is that God has not left us to do the “road work” alone. In Jesus Christ, God walks the path with us, points out the dangerous curves and the icy patches that can cause us so much trouble. With God’s grace we are able to repair our spiritual lives and walk a straighter highway, the highway of God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live in faithful obedience to you and to walk straight paths untainted by greed and selfishness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is the Cart Before the Horse?

Mark 1:1-8
John the Baptist must have been some kind of guy, to live where he did, and to behave like he did, and to say what he did, and yet to attract crowds from all over the region. As Mark tells us, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5).

In many ways the season of Advent belongs to John, the one who prepares the way of the coming Messiah. John did his best to point beyond himself. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…” he said (v. 7). Still, we have to wonder if the people who flocked to the Jordan to be baptized by this charismatic figure really had any clue as to what (or who) was coming next. But we can’t wonder for too long because this is all the prologue that Mark gives us. The very next verses begin the actual story of Jesus and his ministry, and we’ll have to decide whether to remain with John on the banks of the Jordan, or to follow Jesus on his strange journey toward death and resurrection. Mark invites us to make a decision, but gives us so little time to get our bearings.

This is a tough time of year to deal with such questions. Getting our bearings is probably way down the “to do” list, well below all the other pre-Christmas chores and holiday obligations. We barely have time to do the shopping, do we really have time to reflect on what John is telling us, to be ready to respond to the Messiah when the time comes? This may be a tough time of year to deal with such questions, but unless we’ve put the cart before the horse it’s what Advent is supposed to be about. We’ve got to find time to reflect, with John, on who it is that we are waiting for and what he will mean to us when he arrives, or Advent losses its meaning altogether, and we find ourselves caught up in yet another secular festival, our souls aching for good but news with none to be found.

Prayer: God of time and space, help us to use this season to set our sights on what you are doing in Jesus Christ, so that when the time comes we may respond with faithful obedience. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When the Light Shines, Pay Attention

Isaiah 9:2-7 2
Peter 1:12-21
Sometimes a little light can be a bad thing. If you happen to sit near someone who insists on texting in a movie theater, then you know how distracting it can be. A more drastic example comes from World War II. Then cities in Europe went to extreme measures to remain “blacked out” during the night so that enemy bombers would have no point of reference, no matter how small, by which to drop their bombs.

But when it comes to the prophetic word of God, the brighter the better. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;” Isaiah tells us, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). This is good news because it represents a turning point in the lives of God’s people. No longer will they be subjected to the doubt and fear of spiritual darkness. For in the days to come the light of God will be shining and joy will abound. The writer of 2 Peter takes it a step further. “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). In other words, given a choice between a path through the darkness or one illuminated by lamp, the wise will choose the way that is lit. Pay attention to the light, 2 Peter tells us. It is shining for us.

Perhaps another way to understand this is to consider Isaiah’s passage as a promise that we may be tempted to dismiss as wishful thinking or too general to take seriously. But the writer of 2 Peter assures us that the witness of the prophet is accurate. Indeed, we have Peter’s word on it, for he is a witness to what Isaiah was promising. Pay attention to the light, he tells us. It is shining for us, full of life-sustaining power, full of hope, full of joy. Clearly, that is where we need to be looking.

Prayer: Lord, may the light of your word fall upon our path and guide us in our living. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Seven Steps From Faith to Love

2 Peter 1:1-11
Recently the congregation I serve added stepping stones through a garden on the church grounds. This path makes the garden more accessible, but it also creates a nice shortcut from one side of the building to another. Our reading from 2 Peter today talks about something like spiritual stepping stones, though in this case there is no shortcut involved.

“For this very reason,” we read, “you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance and endurance with godliness and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Notice that the list begins with faith, which is as it should be. Faith, a gift to us from God, is what allows us to enter into the process and to take the first steps along the path of discipleship. But the passage reminds us that as those who have faith we “must make every effort” to support that faith with goodness. In other words, once we find ourselves on the journey along the path of faith the next step is to seek goodness. To take that step, however, we need knowledge such as we find in study, prayer, and involvement within the community of faith. And on it goes, from knowledge which requires self-control, to endurance which is supported by godliness, and finally mutual affection which is built upon love. Take out any of the steps and you will find the way blocked. Try to move along the path too quickly and you are apt to find yourself falling by the wayside. What we need are intentional, thoughtful steps, taken with confidence in God’s guidance.

Ah, but this is no ordinary path. We do not travel along it once to its conclusion. Instead we must travel each of the steps continually, so that one step supports and encourages all the others. After all faith is supported by love as much as it is by endurance. And godliness is as dependant on goodness as it is on mutual affection. And, as I’ve said, this is no shortcut of a path, but a lifelong process of loving and enduring and being faithful in goodness, knowledge, and godliness. But if we stay on the path, or continue with the process, we know we are moving in the proper direction. And that is good news.

Prayer: O God, help us to live our faith day in and day out according to your will. Amen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Waiting Room

2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
My son and I have a morning tradition. As I drive him to his high school he gets to pick the songs we listen to off of my iPod. This morning he choose one of his favorite bands, one with the odd name Death Cab for Cutie. The song was “What Sarah Said.” As I drove along, the lyrics oozed through my morning malaise.

“'Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news.”

“What did he say?” I asked my son. He repeated the lines for me.

Comfort. That and joy are supposed to be among the end results of Advent, which is, after all, a sort of temporal waiting room. “Joy to the world.” “Comfort, comfort my people.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” But when I look around I think I see “nervous pacers bracing for bad news.” We pile on the stress. The anticipation that builds is too often about worldly concerns. When Christmas ends we are almost relieved because we can get back to our daily lives with their “real concerns.”

Paul wishes something better for us. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). Paul wants our “waiting rooms” to be places where we expect good news of great joy, where we are sustained for the living of these days and do not become fixated on the weariness of life.

For my part, I’m going to hold Paul and Death Cab for Cutie side by side, allowing the tension between the two to help me make better decisions and to look ahead with greater clarity this Advent and beyond.

Prayer: Lord, may your comfort overwhelm your people and may your good news permeate our lives. Amen.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Get Up, Stand Up…In Faith

Isaiah 7:1-9
The late Bob Marley, a well-respected singer of politically charged reggae music, recorded the song “Get Up, Stand Up.”

Most people think,
Great god will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights.
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don't give up the fight!

Marley was affiliated with the Rastafari movement which began in his homeland of Jamaica among poor people of African descent. These people felt marginalized by the predominant culture. So, while borrowing heavily from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Rastifari beliefs emphasize an Afrocentrism, an end to racism, and the liberation of oppressed peoples everywhere. I believe it is these sincere beliefs that are reflected in Marley’s words.

And frankly, I’m not sure Isaiah would disagree entirely with Marley’s perspective. The poor and the oppressed are of particular concern to God, and should be—but too often are not—of particular concern to us as well. Yet Isaiah also reminds us that “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). The context for Isaiah’s comments was the threat posed to Judah by the armies of Aram and Israel. Isaiah assured the King of Judah that his nation was safe if it would stand firm in God. So it is not enough to “stand up for your rights,” one must stand on the proper foundation, the one that God alone offers.

Yes, that foundation can be misrepresented, can be abused by those posing as people of faith. The prophet frequently condemns such abuse as offensive to God. Ultimately it is God whose will is done and in whose light we must stand if we seek to change the world for the better. There is a struggle to be waged. There are concerns to be addressed. People of faith must constantly work for a better, fairer world, should stand up for the rights of others to live full, meaningful lives. But only God can show the direction those efforts must take, for it is only in God that we can truly stand firm.

Prayer: Lord, give us the strength and the determination we need to make the world a place of peace and love for all people according to your will. For it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Burning Coals and First Stones

Isaiah 6:1-13
2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
John 7:53-8:11
“To this end,” writes Paul, “we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call…” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). But what does it mean to be “worthy of (God’s) call” and how might that happen? Isaiah and John offer a bit of insight.

When Isaiah encountered the heavenly court there in the temple he immediately recognized his predicament. “Woe is me!” he said. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…yet my eyes have see the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5)! Then a seraph touches his mouth with a live coal from the altar and blots out Isaiah’s sin. He is now worthy to accept God’s call in his life.

In John, a woman is brought to Jesus accused of adultery. The law says she should be stoned to death, but what will Jesus say? Fine, is his response, just let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone. Before long the crowd has departed and Jesus and the woman are left alone. “Go you way,” he tells her, “and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). I would suggest that like Isaiah, this woman is now worthy to accept God’s call in her life. She has been forgiven and restored to a life in community.

So what are we to say about these things? For one, God alone is the arbiter of human worth and worthiness. How much we matter or to what extent we are “worthwhile” comes from no other source but God. For another thing, worthiness arrives in strange and unexpected circumstances, like a walk in the temple or in the face of a mob. And finally, this sense of worthiness changes everything. Now I don’t believe that Isaiah or the woman lived the rest of their lives without sin, but I do believe that the reordering of their lives by God removes questions of worthiness from the equation. If God says we are worthy, that settles it, no matter what happens next. And that is good news.

Prayer: Lord, walk with us and guide us in worthiness that we may respond to your call with all our hearts. Amen.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

When It's Tough to Give Thanks

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

Paul’s words to us this morning may seem a little contrived. “Rejoice always,” he says, “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

If we didn’t know any better we might accuse Paul of being one of those irritating people who are always just a touch too cheerful, like a morning person in a family of day-break grouches. But Paul had earned the right to exhort others in this manner. Over the course of his ministry Paul was frequently mistreated, beaten, imprisoned, ridiculed, and run out of town. If he could give thanks “in all circumstances”…well, maybe we can, too.

But there’s a weak economy, Paul. What do you say about that?

“Rejoice always.”

But Paul, I don’t’ even know if I trust God anymore. What should I do?

“Pray without ceasing.”

Paul, get serious. My family life is in shambles, my work is stressful and unrewarding, my health is bad, I am lonely and full of despair. I don’t know what to do.

“Give thanks in all circumstances.”

Can it really be that easy? Well, first of all Paul never said it would be easy to follow his admonitions. But no matter, all of this praying and rejoicing and thanksgiving is the will of God, and God’s will is our greatest source of hope. So maybe the season of Advent is the right time to practice following Paul’s advice. And maybe, just maybe, if we can take the first faltering steps down the road of praise and joy we will find ourselves moving with more and more strength, more and more certainty until our lives really do reflect God’s will more often than not.

So rejoice, pray, give thanks because that’s what God wants from us.

Prayer: Lord, we sometimes have difficulty living with joy and thankfulness. Forgive us, and help us to open our hearts and minds to you at all times. Amen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Advent of Ricky Bobby

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Luke 21:20-28
In the film “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” Will Ferrell plays a man with a particular view of Jesus, one which his wife Carley questions:

Ricky: Dear Tiny, Infant, Jesus...
Carley: Hey, um, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby. It's a bit odd and off-puttin' to pray to a baby.
Ricky: Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

If we’re not careful we can let the season of Advent become only about the “Christmas Jesus” and forget that we are also waiting for Jesus’ second coming and the fulfillment of God’s reign. And it’s no wonder. The “Christmas Jesus” is sweet and innocent and we know about his life, what will happen and when. But the Jesus of the second coming is…well, we don’t know what he’s like and we don’t really know what to expect. So we, like Ricky Bobby, would probably prefer to think about the “Christmas Jesus”, especially at this time of year.

But Paul and Jesus himself want us to keep the second coming very much in mind. “Now concerning the times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you,” says Paul. “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2). According to Luke, Jesus told his followers, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Something that comes like “a thief in the night” may be less pleasant to think about than a birth celebrated shepherds and wise men, but Advent is just as much about Jesus’ second coming as his first. Unless we keep that in mind we are only engaged in half of the season.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live with expectation and hope, not only as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but as we look for the Son’s return as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The True Meaning of More

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Luke 20:41-21:4

“Let’s be honest. No one ever wished for a smaller holiday gift.” At least that’s what the makers of Lexus automobiles say in their recent TV commercials. Maybe they know something I don’t, but I’ve got to believe they are wrong. According to Luke, of all the people who were contributing gifts to the temple in Jerusalem the one who Jesus pointed to as exemplary was a widow who gave only two copper coins. This was the greatest of all gifts, Jesus said, because she had given “all that she had to live on” (Luke 21:4). She could hardly have afforded a Lexus, but she gave all that she had anyway.

On the other hand, in 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, “…you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another…. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more…” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). And I’m quite certain that Paul is not talking about larger “holiday gifts”. He’s talking about the love of God, the love “that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19), the love that is patient and kind, that bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). No, you can’t park it in the garage or cruise the neighborhood in it on Christmas morning, but it will make your life and the lives of those around you profoundly better. And when the Lexus has found its final resting place in the junk yard, the love of God will continue to sustain and encourage those who share it.

So what is the true meaning of “more”? In reign-of-God terms it means more of ourselves offered to others, and all of the heart, mind, soul, and body given to God. Let’s be honest. No car company could ever pull that off.

Prayer: Lord, help us to love you and to love each other more and more, this season of Advent and beyond. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Community of Thankfulness

I Thessalonians 3:1-13

This time of year seems to highlight those places where community seems to thrive and those places where it does not. Community is a tremendous gift and something to be sought after. It provides care and nurture, regard and accountability to its members. Where there is no community, or where community has become fractured, there is no care, no regard, no accountability. With community men and women are allowed to flourish, without community we flounder. Of course no community is perfect, no relationship is without its faults. But by grace we do can find ourselves in meaningful relationship with others and are blessed by it.

It would seem that Paul considered his relationship with the Christians in Thessalonica to be a real blessing, a true community of faith despite the distance between them. He wrote, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you” (1 Thessalonians 3:9)? These were people who had responded to Paul and who had supported his ministry among them. Now he was gaining strength from that relationship, simply knowing that they remained faithful, that they continued in their worship and praise of God.

There are a number of communities, relationships, connections in my life from which I gain strength and support. My family, my closest friends, my prayer group, members of the congregations I have served or am serving, those who respond encouragingly to this blog, and so many others, past or present, help to make me who I am. Had it not been for such folks I might not have come to know God in Jesus Christ, not come to recognize my call to the ministry, not been sustained through the challenges of my life. Like Paul I can not thank God enough for the joy I feel because of these relationships.

What relationships are you particularly thankful for today? Where is community most visible in your life? And where is it lacking or in need of repair? As we await the coming of Christ this Advent season perhaps we could give thanks to God for those around us, whether we consider them part of our community or not. And perhaps we could demonstrate God’s community more visibly in the world. Meanwhile, I can not thank God enough for all of you and the joy I feel because of you.

Prayer: O Lord, you have blessed us each with opportunities for community. Help us to live with love and regard for others, sustaining and supporting your people wherever we find them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Rendering

Luke 20:19-26

The commercials and the ads have been blasting for weeks already, all with the same message: it’s the “holiday season” and it’s time to spend money. It’s a well-known fact that a retail business can make or break its entire year based on its November and December sales. So the official start of the holiday shopping season creeps earlier and earlier up the calendar (Christmas carols in the mall just after Halloween!), and the number of special shopping days proliferates (Black Thursday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday), until Christmas seems to sink under the weight. You are expecting the usual “keep Christ in Christmas” appeal, I know, and that is a valid point. But I think Jesus casts this whole question in a new light in the words of Luke’s gospel.

You know the story. The religious authorities are trying desperately to discredit Jesus. On this occasion they challenge him on the issue of Roman taxes. Is it lawful for a devout Jew to pay them or not? Jesus can see the trap and astutely sidesteps it. “…Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). Now it is awfully easy for us to hear that teaching and leave it comfortably where it lies, there in first century Palestine. But Jesus’ words will not remain still. They poke and prod at us. Only now it is not an emperor who seeks to control us, it is the commercial and economic pressures that insist that we “render unto” them our attention, our financial wherewithal, our sense of purpose at this time of year. What does Jesus say? Give them what is theirs, but reserve for God that which is God’s.

What might that mean for us? It reminds us to begin and end with God’s good news in Jesus Christ and let the other aspects of the season have what is left over, not the other way around. It reminds us that who we are, right down to our very core, is not consumers, but human beings who stand in relationship to their Creator and to one another. It reminds us that all of us have something to offer God, whether it be our time, our talents, our money, our hearts and minds, whatever, and that giving these things to God is far more important than giving the perfect gift to Aunt Beatrice (with apologies to Aunt Beatrice). And yes, it reminds us to keep Christ in Christmas.

Here’s a challenge. Each and every time you encounter an ad or a commercial or a newspaper insert hawking holiday specials, pause for a moment to give God thanks for the gift of Jesus Christ, and to ask what you might do that day of God. If you accept the challenge you’ll be doing a lot of thanking and praying. But really now, isn’t that the point?

Prayer: Thank you God for your gift of Jesus Christ. Help us to see and do your will today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Redeemed By Justice

Isaiah 1:21-31

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

I find the ideas contained in Isaiah’s words, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice…” (Isaiah 1:27) to be deeply moving for a number of reasons, and especially apt for this time of year. First of all the prophet affirms that God remains at work in the life of the people. There is an ongoing relationship, a conversation if you will, that God maintains. Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation. But we do not wait in isolation, we literally wait with God to see what God will do.

For another thing, redemption and justice help to define one another. To be redeemed by God is not the same thing as a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card in the game Monopoly. Redemption, though not dependant on our works, nonetheless presupposes our participation in God’s purposes. Meanwhile, God’s justice, when shared with the world, works to spread the grace and mercy upon which all community must be built if it is to survive. God’s redemption leads us to acts of justice, which in turn push the boundaries of community outward and help to make God’s redeeming work known to others.

Finally, Isaiah’s words resonate well with those of 1 Thessalonians where we read, “(We are) urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12). God’s call has already been placed. The kingdom is already at hand. Redemption is a reality. Now all people are urged and encouraged and plead with to “lead a life worthy” of what God is doing, to enter wholeheartedly into the cycle of redemption and justice because that is what God’s people do.

What would God’s justice look like? How will we know when it arrives? These are not easy questions and good people with good intentions can argue long and hard about them without consensus. But it is a conversation that we must have at all times and it is a process that must allow and accept God’s word to stand supreme in our midst, during Advent and beyond. Part of our excitement at Advent should come from knowing that someday, in God’s time, the answers will become clear and the kingdom will arrive in its fullness, and that is something worth working for and living towards!

Prayer: O God, as we await your coming may we do so with justice for others and with thanks for your redeeming love in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Clean Up Time

Isaiah 1:10-20

We have entered the season of Advent, that time when we await the coming of Christ. But as we wait there is much to be done. On the one hand there are plans to make, cards to mail, presents to buy, decorations to display, parties to attend; all the things that make the Advent and Christmas seasons both hectic and festive. But there are even more important tasks for us to be doing as well. Isaiah puts it this way: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). It is not enough to clean our houses, we must also cleanse our hearts and minds; it is good to decorate for the season, but we must also dedicate ourselves to God’s will; and while we attend parties we should also attend to the word of God.

Somewhere along the way Advent got shoved aside for the sake of a longer Christmas season. The stores in our community have been ready for Christmas since just after Halloween. I know this season has profound economic consequences for the coming year, but we’ve got to reclaim its profound spiritual and moral consequences, too. If we need to slow down our pace in order to appreciate what God is saying, if we need to look away from the colored lights and massive displays in order to see the needs of the hungry and oppressed in our midst, then so be it. Christmas can wait. Indeed, waiting is what Advent is all about. What better time to begin getting things in order? What better time to do the will of God?

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when we look past those in need, our attention stolen by the flash and glitter of our world. Help us to clean ourselves and to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Realm of Light

Zechariah 14:1-11

Zechariah’s vision of the day of the Lord with an end to darkness is a familiar image. “And there shall be continuous day,…not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light” (Zechariah 14:7). Among other places in scripture that we find this notion expressed is the book of Revelation. “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” (Revelation 22:5). What strikes me about passages such as these is how fundamental a change they represent.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God call the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (Genesis 1:3-5). At the very beginning of creation God had created Day and Night and had set them apart from each other. Of course only the light was called “good” because it stood over and against the darkness of the void, but this rhythm of day and night had been essential to human life from the very beginning. John’s gospel adds a new dimension to the story by associating light with the Word of God and saying, “The light shines in the darkness (present tense, on-going), and the darkness did not overcome it (past tense, once and for all)” (John 1:5, with author’s comments). All of this is to say that in Zechariah we find an end to the rhythm of day and night and a new reality where light—God’s Word—is at last established. And the light that God first brought into being at last overwhelms the darkness, fills the void, and God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness.

As we enter the season of Advent this Sunday, we will be entering a time of renewed emphasis on light. We are awaiting the time when darkness will finally be pushed back and light will prevail. In the meantime we work hard to focus on the light, on the Word of God, and on living as God intends us to live. Zechariah’s vision has not been realized…yet. But we know that it will be, for the light shines continually, and that the darkness was unable to put it out the one chance it got.

Prayer: Lord, as we draw near to Advent, help us to welcome the light and to live in it as your people. In the name of the Light of the world, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Do Not Cease to Give Thanks

Ephesians 1:15-23

The Christian year is drawing to a close and Advent is upon us. Now is the time that many of us pause to reflect on months passed, to assess where we have been and what we have done, and to acknowledge God’s many blessings along the way. Thanksgiving Day, the civil holiday celebrated today in American, is also a good time to consider one’s blessings. Perhaps it will take place as families are seated around a table, or in religious services, or public gatherings. Where there is thankfulness, there God is praised.

Paul has words of thanks for us today as well. He writes to the Ephesians, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15-16). What Paul indicates, and what we really must remember, is that thanks and praise to God should not be limited to one time of year or another, should not be an occasional event. Paul does not cease giving thanks for the faith of his readers. Every time he prays he remembers them and gives God glory for their discipleship.

Hopefully we give thanks to God for all that God has done for us and for others every time we pray. Hopefully we do not limit our praise or ration our acknowledgement of God’s grace. Hopefully what we do today will roll over into a continual act of thankfulness to God, and into what my father-in-law calls “Thanks-living.”

May this day and all days bring you the joy of God’s peace and blessings, and may your heart be filled with thanks.

Prayer: Lord, we give you thanks for all our many blessings. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Small Minded and Up a Tree

Luke 19:1-10
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”

I remember singing that song in Vacation Bible School over the years. It helps us to set the scene in Like 19 where Jesus passes through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. In Jericho there was a tax collector named Zacchaeus who, according to Luke, “was short in stature” (Luke 19:3). So he climbed a tree to get a view of the man called Jesus. Most of us know the rest of the story. Jesus came to the foot of that very tree, called Zacchaeus by name, and went with the tax collector to dinner. When others complained that Jesus was consorting with sinners, Jesus replied that “the Son of man came to seek out and save the lost” (v. 10).

But I want to reflect a bit on Zacchaeus’ small stature. Zacchaeus, though Jewish, was a collaborator with the Romans because he collected taxes for them. This would have given him a small personal stature in the eyes of his neighbors. Maybe Luke is telling us that Jesus had every excuse to “overlook” Zacchaeus, to ignore or avoid him. But Jesus does no such thing. Instead he engages the man in conversation and ultimately conversion.

But setting aside the question of physical height, I know that many times I do “small” things, act in ways that are “small minded.” So do you. We all commit thoughtless or selfish acts that disappoint God. We all fail to live to our potential as God’s people. Frankly, God has every right to “overlook” us, to ignore or avoid us. But in Jesus Christ God does no such thing. Instead God continually engages us in conversation leading us patiently toward the coming kingdom. How many times will I need to be forgiven in my life? I don’t know, but I do know that God is willing to stick with me. Even when my sinfulness has pushed me up a tree. The same is true with you. Because “the Son of Man come to seek out and save the lost.”

Prayer: Lord, I know that I often do that which I should not. Continue to forgive me and to lead me along the path of discipleship. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What a Fool Believes

1 Corinthians 3:10-23
“If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19). This is a familiar concept, this issue of foolishness versus wisdom. What we as Christians are called to do often seems downright stupid to the world. Where the world seeks wealth and power, Christians are taught to give up what we have and to follow Jesus’ example of weakness. Where the world believes bigger is always better, Jesus teaches that the least and the smallest are sometimes the best examples of grace. When the world seeks revenge in the guise of justice or accepts the death of others in the pursuit of a “greater good” Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, to share in his passion and to turn the other cheek. What was God thinking?

It’s like the song says, “What a fool believes he sees, the wise man has the power to reason away…” And yet, sometimes reason is the very worst response we can offer, especially to God. Sometimes God calls for a foolishness, or even a giddy sense of joy, when circumstances would seem to merit another response all together. But that’s life in the coming kingdom. God is not interested in what we think is prudent or smart because God is not trying to win a prize, God is working to claim hearts and minds and to use them to reach out to others.

So what do we do? We quit worrying about what the world thinks of us and go right on seeking God’s will, God’s way, God’s wisdom which defies the world. And if anyone laughs, we invite them to join in. And if anyone cries, we offer them hope. And if anyone doubts we offer our faith. “For the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” And vice versa.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to set our priorities on you and not on what the world holds to be true, and when we appear foolish give us the strength to continue on your path. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Gospel According to Sam and Dave

Galatians 6:1-10
Paul’s words in the sixth chapter of Galatians really hit home for me, especially when the apostle encourages his readers to continue in the faith. In the years immediately following the resurrection there were already questions about how long it would take before God’s kingdom came in its fullness and Jesus returned to lead his people home. As the time passed by and the wait grew longer, some believers began to lose hope and even revert to their former ways. Paul offered them encouragement. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right,” Paul writes, “for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Paul’s words remind me of the Sam and Dave classic, “Hold On, I’m Coming.”

Well don't you ever be sad
Lean on me when times are bad
When the day comes and you're in doubt,
In a river of trouble, about to drown.
Hold on, I'm coming.
Hold on, I'm coming.

There are times when I feel overwhelmed by the struggles of life, “the river of trouble” full of doubt. At those times it lifts my soul to hear a word of hope, a reminder that it will be okay. Hold on, Paul says to me and to anyone else who is listening. Hold on until the harvest time. Continue by God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to do what is right and just and true. If you will just hang on you will see the promises of God fulfilled in due time. In other words, “When the day comes and you’re in doubt, in a river of trouble and about to drown, hold on…” Yes, we will grow weary. Yes, our lamps may flicker for want of oil and our eyelids droop from want of sleep, but that for which we wait grows ever nearer. Hold on, for Christ is coming. Hold on, for the time of harvest is nearly here.

So I move ahead by God’s grace as I look for the kingdom to come. And I strive with the help of the Spirit to live a life of faithful obedience. Sometimes that’s all I can do.

Prayer: Lord, when we feel the weariness of time lift our hearts with your word of hope that we may remain faithful and continue to do what is right in your eyes. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Robbing God

Malachi 3:1-12
Sometimes verses of scripture seem to jump right off the page at me, which is when I feel like I need to pay particular attention to what they are saying. That’s what happened with the reading from Malachi for today. “Will anyone rob God?” asks the prophet. “Yet you are robbing me!” (Malachi 3:8). I’ve preached a number of stewardship sermons over my career, and I’ve heard even more, but I can’t remember ever saying or hearing anything about robbing God. Perhaps we preachers find this too aggressive for modern ears. Or perhaps we ourselves resist the metaphor. But there it is.

There’s a difference between robbing and stealing, of course. To steal is simply to take someone else’s property, and frankly that’s the idea I would expect here. But to rob someone normally means using force or the threat of force to take the possessions of another. Robbery is far more aggressive than stealing. So how is it possible to rob God? Malachi’s original audience asked that same question. “But you say, ‘How are we robbing you (God)?’ In your tithes and offerings…’” (Malachi 3:9). In other words, not living up to our commitment to God, not giving God what is due according to the law, is an act of aggression on our part. We might as well hold God at gun point and say, “empty out your pockets!”

It isn’t difficult to establish the fact that all creation belongs to God. Psalm 24 sums it up nicely. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1, KJV). As stewards or caretakers of God’s creation we are asked only to return ten per cent (a tithe) to God. When we fail to do so, when we withhold God’s own creation from it’s rightful owner, we are no better than robbers. That certainly puts things in a different light, doesn’t it?

What I take from this is that God holds us to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. What God calls us to do is to strive for that higher standard and to quit holding back. That’s quite a challenge, I know, but the alternative is far more offensive.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, you have given us a world in which to live, now help us to live with generosity toward you and one another. Amen.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And They Call This GOOD News?

Luke 17:20-37
“Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37). Of all the sayings of Jesus that we might quote on a day to day basis, this is certainly not one of them. I doubt that many kindergarten Sunday School classes have ever been taught this verse. It’s certainly not something we would tell our children as we tuck them in at night. Nor are we apt to use it at the bedside of a hospital patient. (How horribly inappropriate would that be?) So what is this verse doing here in Luke’s gospel, in the “good news” of Jesus Christ?

Actually this verse makes perfect sense. No, it is not appropriate for all times and places, but it is profound in its simplicity and directly on point. The disciples have asked Jesus where the people of God will gather when the end times come. Jesus ignores that question—it’s not really important for them to know that bit of information––and instead warns his followers to be about the work of God here and now, today, because when the time comes they will know it, but it will be too late to put their houses in order.

In his poem “Grass”, Carl Sandburg speaks of the human tendency to forget even the most horrific of events:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all….

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Jesus doesn’t want us to forget who we are or whose we are. Jesus doesn’t want us to forget what it is that we are supposed to be doing. Be aware, he says. Bear good fruit in your lives, be about God’s work lest you come to realize someday that the vultures are circling and it is too late. The where and the when are in God’s hands. In the mean time we have important work to do.

Prayer: Lord, help us to be about your work and to trust you and your care for us. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sown in Peace

James 3:12-4:12
Luke 17:11-19
I wish there was a way to convey the words of our reading from James to those in positions of leadership, especially the ones who have participated in so badly polarizing American and international politics. James already takes a dim view of “the world” (meaning, I believe, those who choose to live outside God’s covenant), but we should experience added distress when we read two verses in particular. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:17-18). According to James, God’s wisdom is that which leads us toward all of the blessings we find in true community: purity, peace, gentleness, willingness to yield, mercy, and good fruit. This is how God’s people are called to live, “without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” In other words, openly, lovingly, with genuine concern for the other. And in the end those who make peace will harvest the righteousness sown in that peace.

Jesus already knew that one of the ten lepers who approached him was a Samaritan, but he healed all of them, including the foreigner (Luke 17:14). Jesus reached across many lines of division: from health to illness, from purity to uncleanliness, from the people of Israel to a foreigner. There was no attempt to exclude, berate, convert, or otherwise dismiss the Samaritan leper. In doing so he demonstrated a community built not on the normal vestiges of nation, culture, etc., but in peace and mercy, gentleness and a willingness to yield, and in a very, very real sense, purity. How blessed our lives would be if we were to follow suit and to live in peace with others, displaying the love of God for all people, and looking forward to the day when righteousness becomes the norm, not the exception.

Prayer: Lord, heal us of our sins so that we may help to share your good news and the promise of your coming kingdom with others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Faith In What?

Luke 17:1-10
According to Luke Jesus’ followers made what most of us would consider to be a fair request: “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). We can’t know for certain what the apostles meant by this, but as usual Jesus presents the whole matter in a new light reminding us that faith requires an object and that if we intend to follow Jesus the object of our faith must be God.

Jesus is clear. Faith isn’t about heading out on our own or trusting in ourselves and our own perspectives. In Luke’s gospel faith says, “not my will, but yours be done” (22:42). Faith says, “your kingdom come” (11:2). Faith is not a spiritual ATM ready to dispense whatever we want. It is the harmony that results when we add our voices to those of the courts of heaven, praising God, and that we find on earth when our actions are those that God wills for us.

Jesus’ reply to the apostles might actually have been this: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed (and God willed it), you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you (as agents of God’s will)” (17:6 with additions). To whom or to what then are we faithful, ourselves or God, our desires or what God seeks from us? That may be the most important question we ever have to wrestle with.

Prayer: O Lord, increase our faith in you and help us to do your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Habakkuk 2:1-4, 9-20
Luke 16:19-31
“(Abraham) said to (the rich man), ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:31). These words, spoken by Jesus, make clear the connection between his ministry and the words of prophets like Habakkuk. On the one hand the Hebrew Bible—what we commonly refer to as the Old Testament—was the only scripture that Jesus and the early church had. It guided their lives and helped their understanding of God. But listen again to what Jesus says: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Isn’t Jesus really talking about himself here? Is he not pointing ahead to the resurrection and the fact that afterwards many will remain dubious of the gospel? If this is what Jesus is saying—and I’ve got to believe it is—then the connection between him and the prophets is airtight.

Nothing that Jesus does or says should come as a surprise to anyone who takes the prophetic writings seriously. Jesus may represent God’s will in unexpected ways, but he remains truly faithful to God’s word though out. “(T)he earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea,” writes Habakkuk (2:14). In his ministry Jesus did just that, filling the world with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. Even the image of the waters is appropriate as Jesus established the sacrament of baptism as a mark of belonging to God. “Look at the proud!” Habakkuk says. “Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (v. 4). Over and over again Jesus makes this same statement. How else could the wealthy man be brought low even as a poor beggar like Lazarus resides with Abraham in eternity (Luke 16:19-31)? How else could the tax collector be justified before God instead of the Pharisee (18:9-14)? How else could Mary, the mother of Jesus, rejoice in God lifting up the poor and hungry (1:46-55)?

If we aren’t willing to hear the words of the prophets and take them to heart, if we aren’t willing to live according to their view of a just and righteous society, if we aren’t willing to give up our greed and instead turn to those in need with generous hearts, then what difference will the resurrection really make in our lives? The proud may assume it is within their own power to determine their fate, says Habakkuk, but only those who begin by trusting faithfully in God called righteous.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live as your people, hearing your word and responding in faithful obedience. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pure Religion

James 1:16-27
Generally speaking I am not fond of the book of James. I think it gets awfully close to supporting works righteousness, the idea that we have to earn our salvation through good deeds. As a Calvinist I do not believe I am capable of earning my salvation, but instead am totally dependant on the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. But I also believe we must let the entirety of scripture speak to and challenge us, not just the parts we agree with. For this reason I think that James offers an interesting definition of religion in today’s reading. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father,” we read, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

On the one hand this seems fairly straightforward. Pure religion requires pure actions: helping others and refraining from the world. But really there is a great deal here about relationships, too. Those who would live in right relationship with God (“religion that is pure and undefiled”) should also be in right relationship with others, especially those in need (widows and orphans), those who are hurting the most and yet count for the least. And there are relationships to be avoided, too, namely those with the world that would stain or sully us. To focus on God’s will draws our attention past the easy and the expedient and on to what is likely to be far more difficult.

When I’m feeling a bit cynical I sometimes say that the church would be a great place if it weren’t for the people. But according to James we need to be very careful how we think about each other. We must do what we can for those in need while not allowing the world to take us in directions that we are not called to go. Living with “pure religion” is a tough challenge, but ultimately it leads us to that place where God is sending us. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, may our religion be guided by you and may we praise and glorify you all our days in word and deed. Amen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

When He Came to Himself

Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
The verse that I have always found most compelling in the story of the Prodigal Son is “But when he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17). Faced with starvation and neglect, separated from all those who loved him, reduced to menial labor the son “came to himself,” which I take to mean he “woke up” or he “finally figured it out.” I think we are all likely to have those moments when we finally get the big picture, that our own choices have been poor and have led us astray. But that is only the moment of realization. What follows is the question “now what?” Inspired by that question a few years ago I wrote the following liturgical poem for use in worship settings. It is entitled “Where Can We Go?”

When we come to ourselves,
where can we go?
If we feel like we’ve outlasted our usefulness or outstayed our welcome,
where can we go?
If we’ve fallen on hard times,
or fallen away,
or fallen by the wayside,
where can we go?
If we’ve lost our way or turned away,
lost our will or lost our nerve to do God’s will,
where can we go?
If we’ve lived to ourselves and not to God;
if we’ve made poor choices based on bad judgment;
if our human-ness has pulled us away from God’s desires for our lives;
where can we go?
If the dark night of the soul finds us grasping for what is right;
if the glaring lights of false prophets leave us aching for what is true;
where can we go?

We can go to the only place where we have ever been truly welcome;
we can go where our return is celebrated with waiting, open arms.
When we come to ourselves we can go beyond ourselves.
We can go to God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to see the need to turn back to you, and give us the courage to take the steps that lead us to your wil

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Economy of Redemption

Joel 1:12-19
Luke 15:1-10
God must not have taken the same Intro to Economics class that I did in college, or maybe I just paid less attention than I thought. Either way God demonstrates a lavishness of forgiveness and salvation that defies human understanding. After spending the opening verses condemning God’s people for their waywardness, the book of Joel suddenly veers in a new direction. “(God) is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing…” (Joel 2:15). “I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied,” says the Lord (v. 19). If the people will simply return to God they will find all they need provided by God’s hand.

But the lavishness really becomes clear in the gospel account for today. There Jesus tells us of a shepherd who is willing to leave 99 perfectly good sheep to go look for one who is lost (Luke 15:3-7). What a crazy idea! I’ve been told by “real” shepherds that losing 6 or 8% of a flock in a year is not unusual, not with illness, age, predators, and so forth. So who risks 99 sheep to save one? Only God would take that kind of risk, would lavish that kind of salvation.

For many of us in the church this is stewardship season, the time of year when financial pledges are made and budgets are drafted. Perhaps, then, this is a good time to reflect on the lengths to which God is willing to go on our behalf before we determine what our commitment will be to God and the work of the church. Don’t expect God’s side of the ledger to add up, at least not in human terms. But while God is pouring out grain and oil and wine, and while the Good Shepherd is refusing to lose even one sheep out of 100, maybe we should strive to live more in accordance with God’s economics and less with what the world considers appropriate. I’m sure the one sheep would agree.

Prayer: Lord, forgive us our sins and our shortcomings and help us to live lives of generosity. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Too Much Noise?

Joel 2:3-11
Revelation 19:1-10
There is a deafening roar rising from both Joel and Revelation today, but the sources of the sound are very different. In Joel a plague of locusts infests the land “as with the rumble of chariots,” “ and the crackling of a flame of fire,” causing the earth to quake and the heavens to tremble (Joel 2:5, 10). “Who can endure (such an onslaught)?” asks the prophet (v. 11). This is the day of the Lord, and it is terrible. In Revelation, however, the sound is very different. “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a multitude, like the sound of many waters, and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’” (Revelation 19:6).

The very loudest experience that I’ve had in my life was a rock concert I attended in 1985. My ears were ringing well into the next day. It was at a volume well beyond my comfort level. That sort of noise makes sense when we are talking about the passage from Joel, where comfort is far from the issue. But what about Revelation? There the sound grows out of praise, not judgment, yet it would seem to be just as loud. What then are we to say about these things? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure of what to make of all this noise except to say that perhaps praising God is outside the normal comfort level of humanity, too. After all, this was John’s experience there on the Island of Patmos, a living human being’s vision of the end times. In our current condition we are incapable of relating to God as we should, and the experience of God’s praise is bound to be as physically jarring as oceans and thunderpeals.

Clearly, God is someone we can never get entirely comfortable with––and certainly not someone we can control. Ever since Adam and Eve hid themselves in the Garden of Eden we’ve been ill at ease in the presence of our Creator. The good news is that God appears to be willing to remain in covenant with us, delivering judgment to be sure, but also accepting our feeble praise. And as long as God is with us, then I believe we will be able to handle being with God.

Prayer: O God, we thank you for your continual presence in our midst. May we learn to offer you praise and to live according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Compelled Into the Kingdom

Luke 14:12-24
Tucked in among today’s readings about God’s judgment and the fall of great cities is an interesting little comment from Luke. There Jesus tells a parable about someone who gave a dinner. When the time came, however, those whom he had invited declined to attend. So the one giving the dinner sent slaves out to bring in all the people that they could find: “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21). When this had been done there was still room left in the banquet hall. Then the master said, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house my be filled” (v. 23). Compel them to come in? Really? In all the usual talk about who will be found worthy by God, about who has been elected for salvation, I don’t remember much talk about God forcing people to enter the kingdom. And yet, the ones for whom the banquet was prepared had opted out when it was time. They had made a choice not to come. This left the master in the parable—whom we may assume represents God—to look elsewhere for guests and to gather in even some who had never really thought about coming. Jesus’ story seems to muddle the whole idea of salvation.

And yet Jesus does make this much clear, that election is not just about salvation, it is also about service, about responding at the right time, about being ready for God’s call. The original invitees were distracted by their own interests. None were unable to come because they were working at a soup kitchen or helping a traveler found bleeding in a ditch. There were tending to personal property and to marriage. And the ones who were ultimately admitted were either the blind and lame, or ones who had to be shoved through the door, possibly because they had always been told that they didn’t belong.

I take this passage as a word to the wise. Salvation––a place at the great banquet––is a gift not to be taken lightly because it also is a responsibility. It precludes our self interests and forces us to consider those around us, our fellow guests, and the will of the host. It gives us choices and then urges us to make the right one. It lays claims to our time and talents. Most of all it surprises us because God surprises us.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live as your people, aware of both the gift and the responsibility of salvation, and eager to respond to your call. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Language of God

Zephaniah 3:8-13
“What are words for, when no one listens anymore?” Those lyrics, from an ‘80’s pop song, seem apt in light of today’s passage from Zephaniah. Our world is full of words, most of which are dubious: marketing, politics, gossip, hate speech, crudeness, angry rhetoric, which flood our lives from all directions. We can’t possibly take them all in, and yet they do so much damage. Mercifully the prophet envisions a day when human language will be changed into something different.

“At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9). Frankly, the implications of this verse are a little overwhelming. For one thing it was God who first divided human speech at Babel (Genesis 11:7-9). Now God promises to reunite humanity in a common tongue, one that is pure and suitable for praising God. This “pure speech” echoes the work of God in many ways. Creation was brought into being by God’s speech, by God’s word covenants were made, prophets were called, and the law was established. Ultimately, according to John’s gospel, the Word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14), and on Pentecost the Holy Spirit gave power to the apostles to speak in a way that the world could understand (Acts 2) and the church was born.

Today there are whispers of God’s word that can be found, the “pure speech” that the prophet foretold. It is heard when God is truly praised, when lives are truly enriched, when the Spirit makes plain some aspect of God’s will. Those of us who dare to preach strive to find bits of pure speech to share, and on occasion I’m sure we get close, but not always. The church mediates the sacraments as reminders of God’s word, but even here we fall short. The world’s harsh syllables still creep under the doors and compete for our attention. And all of us, without exception, are drawn away from God’s will at some time or other.

What limitless joy we will experience when our language is made pure and the world offers its praise to God. In the mean time (and perhaps the word “mean” is very appropriate here) we must do our best to resist the cacophony that the world offers and seek ways to listen for God’s pure tone, that we may learn what it means to speak in a way that really makes a difference.

Prayer: God, give us the words to say that we may serve you and the strength to resist the harsh divisiveness all around us. In the name of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Attention All Elected Officials

Zephaniah 3:1-7
Luke 13:18-30
According to Zephaniah, God has found Judah, and Jerusalem in particular, to be full of corruption and sinfulness. And according to the prophet it begins with those in positions of authority. “The officials within (Jerusalem) are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred” (Zephaniah 3:3-4). Those who should have known better, who should have lived lives of righteousness and fidelity to God have instead lived with complete disregard to God’s will. Jerusalem is condemned from the top down.

What God expects, what God promises in the coming kingdom, would appear to flow from the bottom up. At least that’s the impression Jesus gives us in our reading from Luke. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19), that smallest of seeds, and like yeast mixed by a women in a bowl of flour (vv. 20-21). These are humble, domestic images that, when set next to the power—and the corruption—described in Zephaniah offer a stark contrast. “Indeed,” adds Jesus, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (v. 30).

Here in the United States we have just held national and local elections. Those who have been chosen by voters to serve in various positions would do well to consider these things carefully. Power and authority can corrupt a person all too easily. What is needed is consideration for the least and last of our society, those whose activities or whose standing seem to best represent the coming kingdom of God. It is they for whom God is concerned, not the powerful and affluent. But make no mistake, God will bring about salvation. People will come from all directions and converge at table in God’s presence (v. 29). What can we do, not to secure our own standing in this life, but to provide for all God’s people now and thus prepare ourselves for the life to come? After all, God’s salvation is referred to as “election.”

Prayer: Lord, help us to resist the temptation of power and instead to concentrate on your will, living as your humble servants and ministering to one another. Amen.