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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

God In the Second Or Third Person

Zephaniah 2:1-15
Revelation 16:1-11
Luke 13:10-17
I’m no grammarian, but as I understand it there are three forms of pronouns in English. In the singular, the first person refers to me: I am running behind schedule. The second person refers to you: You are late for work. The third person refers to he or she: He is slow, but she is very prompt. Our three readings today each include one of these forms, and how they are used is insightful.

The prophet Zephaniah offers this exclamation. “Is this (Nineveh) that lived secure, that said to itself, “I am, and there is no one else’?” (Zephaniah 2:15). What initially caught my attention in this verse is the near-blasphemous way that the citizens of Nineveh refer to themselves. “I am,” says the city, making a claim that scripture reserves for God alone (See Exodus 3). The most sacred name of God is to be found in forms of “I am.” When Nineveh makes this claim it has transgressed badly.

By contrast the voices of heaven (as heard by John on Patmos) speak of God in the second person. “You are just, O Holy One,” they say, “who are and were…Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just” (Revelation 16:5, 7). And in Luke’s gospel we find an implied third person. “When (Jesus) laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (Luke 13:13).

In his song, “Within You, Without You,” George Harrison says,

When you’ve looked beyond yourself,
You may find peace of mind is waiting there.

That’s an oversimplification of course, but it comes close to the truth. When the Ninevites spoke about themselves it was in glowing terms. They were all that mattered. But when the angels of heaven and the woman whom Jesus healed spoke either to God or about God it was with praise and honor. By looking “beyond themselves” they gained a better understanding of who God was and is. In other words, it isn’t about me, it’s about God and God’s relationship with me…and with you, and with him and her, and with them. The challenge is whether or not we can “look beyond ourselves” to find that the peace that surpasses all understanding is waiting there, and that God is its source.

Prayer: Gracious God, help me to be concerned about more than myself and my own needs, so that in praising you I may stand in fuller community with all your people. Amen.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Faith v. Faulty Towers

Zephaniah 1:14-18
Luke 13:1-9
The prophet Zephaniah offers this warning to the people of God: “Neither (your) silver nor (your) gold will be able to save (you) on the day of the Lord’s wrath…” (Zephaniah 1:18). It is a familiar idea in scripture, that wealth is no guarantee of salvation, and anything can be turned into an idol. But when set beside today’s reading from Luke Zephaniah’s words, as emphatic as they are, still take on a heightened meaning.

In Luke, Jesus is told about a group of Galileans murdered by Pilot as they offered sacrifices in the temple. “What do you think about this?” Jesus asks his listeners. “Was this God’s judgment on them because they were worse sinners than others? And what about the 18 people killed by a collapsing tower? Were they any worse than others living in Jerusalem at the time?” No, says Jesus, neither they nor the Galileans were worse sinners than anyone else. But unless you repent (literally “turn around” in your living) you can expect to perish just as they did (Luke 13:1-5).

It all has to do with our relationship to God. To invest hope in wealth or comfort, to treat any other aspect of life as though it were a god, is to be separated from the one true God. You might as well have a tower fall on you for all the good it will do. Instead, trust in God, live to God, be focused on God and God’s will. Then falling towers will become nothing to fear. As the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). Perhaps it is all about perspective. Those who count on their own wealth or abilities in life have no hope. But those who trust in God live in hope and, when the time comes, die in hope as well. And that is something that no amount of money in the world could ever buy.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to live our lives in the hope that you alone can offer, trusting in you and your merciful grace. Amen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Are We Resting On the Dregs?

Zephaniah 1:7-13
Revelation 14:1-13
Luke 12:49-59
The prophet Zephaniah uses an interesting turn of phrase in today’s reading. “…I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (Zephaniah 1:12). According to Elizabeth Achtemeier the expression, “to rest on one’s dregs,” comes from the process of making wine. New wine that is left to sit too long will become “thick and syrupy and too sweet and subject to mold” (Achtemeier, Nahum—Malachi, John Knox Press, 1986, p. 69.). In other words, such wine becomes good for nothing, as do the people who produce it. The prophet condemns this apathy among God’s people as growing out of the belief that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zephaniah 1:12), or that God is apathetic, inactive, and “good for nothing” as well.

But our other two readings today give us a much different view of God. “Fear God and give him glory,” says the writer of Revelation, “for the hour of his judgment has come…” (Revelation 14:7). Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth.…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:49, 51). God is anything put apathetic. God is anything but inactive. God is anything but worthless. We may be tempted to “rest on our dregs” with complacency, but God’s will is that we get up and get to work preparing for the coming kingdom, meeting the needs of the world, reaching out in God’s name to cure and to comfort and to console. God is holding us accountable so there is no time to waste.

What can we do today that will demonstrate active participation in the will of God? We can care for the hurting, we can give to the poor, we can share the good news with those who sit in darkness. We can pray for the church and for one another. In these ways we produce good fruit, wine suitable for its purpose, lives in tune with the will of God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to remain active in service to you and to others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.