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.