Friday, December 30, 2011

What’s In a Name?

3 John 1-15
I find mail addressed to “Occupant” to be very irritating. Almost as bad is receiving a phone call from someone who calls me James. Yes, that’s my formal name, but I go by Jim and anyone who really knows me will call me that. Our names are important to us because they are a part of our identity. To be called the wrong name, or to be addressed by something generic, robs us of our particularity in many ways. The author of 3 John makes an allusion to this fact in one of our readings for today. “Peace to you,” he writes. “The friends send you their greetings. Greet the friends there, each by name” (3 John 15). Greet the members of the community there, and call them each by his or her name.

I like the sentiment expressed in this verse. It is important to know and to respect those who share in the faith with us. It is important to value what each of us offers the community as a whole. While we will never know every other believer, we must recognize the unique gifts that God has given us all and the sacrifices that each of us makes. The author of 3 John is right to ask that each of the “friends” be greeted by name, even though the author did not know them, or did not have the space in which to write them.

I wish that I could call all of you who are reading these words by name. I wish I could acknowledge the unique gifts that each of you have received. I wish I had even an inkling of the sacrifices each of you make. Since I can not know these things I will simply tell you how blessed I feel to walk in faith with you and to know that others are serving our Lord and Savior the best they know how.

Prayer: Lord, bless each of us in our efforts to serve you that your love may spread to all in need. Amen.

(As this is my last post of 2011 I wish all of you a blessed 2012. May all of the challenges you face bring with them the sense of God’s presence.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Face to Face

2 John 1:1-13
There is something about personal contact that cannot be duplicated by any other means. We may value the convenience of talking on the phone, or of texting or e-mailing, or of “following” one another on Facebook or Twitter, or of connecting via Skype or another form of video conferencing, but it simply is not the same as meeting someone in person and spending time in her or his company. The same idea is expressed in pre-technological terms by the author of 2 John. “Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). The church is a community of faith built on relationships, those among individuals and between Jesus Christ and humanity. To participate fully, then, we must be present with and to one another as we seek to serve our Lord. There is a time and a place for “paper and ink.” But only when we stand together do we find complete joy and fulfilled purpose.

Like virtually all congregations the one I serve celebrated Christmas Eve with a worship service. Attendance that evening was higher than at any time during my brief tenure. I suspect that when we reach Easter Sunday we will have a similar turnout. I’m not complaining. It is ALWAYS a blessing to worship God, no matter how many are present, and I am delighted whenever people are willing to participate. But it is essential for us to understand that we are not fully God’s people when we are not fully engaged with one another, and that means face to face.

The author of 2 John longed for the opportunity to put down his pen and instead to visit face to face with his sisters and brothers. That need still exists and can never be replaced – not even by a blog based on the daily lectionary!

Prayer: Lord, bring us together in the faith that we may serve you fully. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hope That Means Something

Isaiah 54:1-13
One key aspect to God’s relationship with humanity has been the series of covenants God has established. God bound the divine self to Noah soon after the waters of the flood receded (Genesis 9:8-13). God did the same with Abraham (15:18-21). The blessing that Jacob received at the ford of the River Jabbok is covenantal in nature (32:22-29). And of course at Mt. Sinai God made a covenant with the Hebrew people (Exodus 19:1-9). In our readings for today the prophet Isaiah reminds us of the nature of God’s connection with God’s people. “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For 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 54:9-10).

Here, then, is hope that truly means something for humanity. Not only has God entered into a binding relationship with creation, but God has renewed that pledge over and over again. For Christians the most grace-filled sign of the promise came in the birth of Jesus, for in this way God entered into our lives standing with and for us even unto death. In Jesus our faith finds a focus that allows us to live more fully just as God has become more fully known to us. The mountains and hills may fall away, but God’s “steadfast love” will never end and God’s “covenant of peace” will not expire.

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes with which to see your love and hearts to share it with those around us that we, too, may live in a covenant of peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

From Beginning to End

John 13:20-35
Our gospel reading from John takes place on the Thursday of Holy Week. Speaking to the disciples Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). On this the second day after Christmas we are being reminded of the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. We’ve seen God’s love in the giving of a Savior at Bethlehem, and now we hear Jesus speak of love as the key identifying trait of his followers. From beginning to end, then, the message of Jesus Christ is love and the work of Jesus is that of shaping a community of love.

Of course love can mean different things to different people. The word is often misused by our culture to describe far less noble emotions or attitudes. We say things like “I love it,” about a new television, or “if you really loved me you would do what I ask,” when we are talking to a friend or family member. This is not what Jesus is describing, nor is it what Jesus demonstrated in his life. The love that Jesus wants us to share is a self-giving love, a willingness to care for each other and to support and nurture each other without fear or manipulation or greed or other motivation. The baby born in a manger, “born that we no more may die,” is the man who now tells us to live for each other and as such to be an example to the world.

It’s a consistent message. Jesus shares it from the beginning to the end of his earthly life. The challenge for us is to live the same way.

Prayer: Lord, we do not always love one another as we should. Help us to be the people you have called us to be so that we may share your love with the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 26, 2011

That Didn’t Last Long

2 Chronicles 24:17-22
Acts 6:1-7, 7:59-8:8
Here it is, the day after Christmas, and our daily readings are full of conflict and death. The prophet Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:21) and Stephen, one of the first deacons (Acts 7:59-60) are each stoned to death, a persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem (8:1) and the church itself is torn by conflict over the treatment of widows (6:1-2). Frankly a few readings about peace and prosperity would have been nice today. The baby Jesus still lies in the manger. The Wise Men haven’t even gotten to Bethlehem. Could we not have had some time to enjoy the ambient glow from the stable? But that is not what we’ve been given today.

Maybe that’s just the way it should be. Had the world been filled with peace and light and warmth all along there would have been no need for prophets or a Savior. But the world needed God’s grace and over and over again that is what we got. Jesus was born into difficult circumstances demonstrating that God had not given up on us. Centuries later there are still issues that confront us and challenge us as people of faith, and yet God remains active in our midst.

It is also worth noting that in each of our readings today there is at least a glimmer of hope. Zechariah began to prophesy because “the spirit of God took possession” of him (2 Chronicles 24:20), and though he was killed for his efforts, Zechariah died showing faith in God (v. 22). Even though the church was conflicted early on, “the word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem (Acts 6:7). And the persecution that followed Stephen’s death helped to spread to word of God as Philip, another of the disciples, began to proclaim the word in the city of Samaria to the joy of it’s residents (8:5-8).

We’d like a rosier picture today. We’d like to dwell at the manger for a bit and watch the baby sleep. But the world needs the word of God too much for us to stand idle, and we know too much about the grace of God to remain silent for long.

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for the birth of our Savior. Now give us the courage to spread the good news throughout the world that all may come to share the joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Foundation For All Time

Psalm 102
The words of Psalm 102—one of our morning psalms—are a message of hope in an uncertain world. They are addressed to God: “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away; but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Psalm 102:25-27). To put our faith and confidence in anything other than God would leave us with no hope. But to stand on a foundation of faith in the Creator is to lay claim to the promise of life abundant.

Tomorrow the Christian world will celebrate Christmas Eve. Candles will be lit, carols will be sung, families will gather. At the same time there also will be those faced with hard decisions, with difficult lives, with poverty and homelessness. Above it all, however, the joy and the hardship, the family dinners and the homeless couples, God remains steadfast and eternal. No matter what tomorrow brings, no matter what the days ahead may hold for us, God’s providence will not end, and God’s presence will not be abated.

May this season of Christmas be a source of grace and courage for all of us in the living of these days, whether they be filled with joy or with struggle. For the Lord we await comes to us in weakness, but offers us strength beyond measure. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord, may the light of your continence fall upon us and give us peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Laughter Like No Other

Psalm 126
One of the evening psalms for today is Psalm 126. It paints a wonderful picture of restoration and hope. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” (Psalm 126:1-3).

We are hearing a lot of music these days because it’s that time of year. But the sentiment of Psalm 126 is about more than chestnuts roasting on the fire, or bells jingling on a sleigh, or even being home for Christmas. Psalm 126 is about more than a season of good cheer, it is about life set right and about the fulfillment of God’s promises. It is about laughter rising from the hearts of those who know beyond a doubt that the road ahead is filled with blessing, and that to journey on is to do so in the company of God’s people in a fellowship of gladness and praise. This is what the birth of a Savior is really about, and this is what the coming reign of God is about as well. If we really understand what Christmas means for us then we will allow the joy to fill us up and the laughter to come flowing out every day of our lives.

Prayer: Lord, fill us with your joy during this season and beyond. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Fortune Cookie Theology

[Note: This post was to have been published on December 21, 2011 but was delayed. Today's post (12/22/73) will be published later today.]

Titus 2:11-3:8a
Recently, after a carryout dinner of sweet and sour chicken, I cracked open my fortune cookie to read the following message: “It is now, and in this world, that we must live.” At the time it struck me that this was somewhat more sophisticated than the average “cookie wisdom.” I set it aside to reflect on it later thinking it might become a sermon illustration, but then this morning, in the reading from Titus, I recognized a similar phrase. “For the grace of God has appeared,” we read, “bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).

On the one hand we as disciples of Jesus Christ have set our hope on the coming reign of God and on the life eternal made evident by the resurrection. In that respect we do not live for today, but for the time that is to come which means that my fortune cookie was incorrect. On the other hand we have also been challenged by Christ to live each day according to God's will, in a manner that is “self-controlled, upright, and godly…” or as Paul would say, so as not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds in order to do God’s will (Romans 12:2).

So yes, we have a role to play in this world, in the here and now which makes the fortune cookie right after all. But our ultimate goal lies in the future and what we do today must be done with the future in mind.

Prayer: Lord, God, bless our efforts to live as your people, both in the world and for the world, but with your coming reign in sight. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Foundation of Change

1 Samuel 2b-10
Our Old Testament reading for today is the “Song of Hannah,” a beautiful expression of faith that serves as the model for the Magnificat, Mary’s song in Luke 1. Hannah’s words, like Mary’s, point to a reversal of fortune between the weak and the powerful, between the hungry and the well-fed, between the poor and the wealthy. And yet, “the pillars of the earth are the Lord's,” we read, “and on them (God) has set the world” (1 Samuel 2:8c). This may seem to be a contradiction; lives are turned upside down despite a firm foundation established by God.

The answer lies in the justice and righteousness that God seeks, that the Lord will bring to fruition. Those who rely on God’s Sovereignty may do so with hope and confidence because the pillars are sturdy and the foundation is strong. But those who rely on their own wealth, their own power, their own works will find themselves shaken to the core, for their lives are like a house build on sand. In the end God’s will is done as God’s reign comes in its fullness, and those who trust in God will not be shaken.

Where do we stand? Do we put faith in our possessions, in our social status, in our politics? Or do we trust in the Lord as a solid truth, one on which to build a lasting life of faith?

Prayer: Lord, help us to trust in you and to stand on the foundation that you provide. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lover Of God

Luke 1:1-25
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
This is how Luke begins his account of the gospel of Jesus Christ, addressing “Theophilus,” a name that means “Lover of God.” There are days when I almost wish I could forget everything I know about Jesus. Then perhaps I could read the gospel of Luke in the spirit in which it was written, as an “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us…,” as late-breaking news about God’s activity, something fresh and surprising, something the likes of which I had never heard but about which I would certainly want to know more.

While I can’t really forget the gospel, I can treat it with the same excitement that Theophilus must have, with the same hunger to know more. I can be drawn deeper into the story, listening for the voices of “eyewitnesses and servants of the word…investigating everything carefully from the very first…” Indeed, the gospel is too vital to be taken lightly or set aside for long periods. It deserves our attention on a regular and on-going basis. When we open ourselves to its power I believe we can more readily feel the excitement of what God is doing in our world still.

Luke’s words, written hundreds of years ago, are no longer current, and yet by the Holy Spirit they remain as relevant as ever, telling a story that remains fresh and profound. If we let them, Luke’s words will pick us up and carry us along until we feel a closer bond to Theophilus, until our love for God becomes more and more integral to our identity.

Prayer: Lord, help us to hear your word as though it were new to us so that we may feel again their power to change lives, including our own. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Now a Word From Our Sponsor

Zechariah 7:8-8:8
Just in time for Christmas, the prophet Zechariah has a not-so-subtle reminder of what our relationship to God is all about. "Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets" (Zechariah 7:9-12a). If we hold these words alongside the words of John the Baptist we begin to see the issues that Jesus Christ was sent to address, the claims that God was making in the stable in Bethlehem.

Right now, and just for a moment, reflect on how our global culture treats the poor and the disenfranchised in our midst. Then take another moment to consider how the message of Christmas speaks to the least and the lonely, those longing for the truth. Are there things that we can do better? Are there people for whom we can show more compassion? I suspect that there are. If we have in any way stopped up our ears to God's word, or allowed the sounds of our culture to drown it out, then Advent is the time to start paying attention again.

Now back to your regular holiday activities.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to hear and respond to your voice and your voice alone, during Advent and throughout the year. In the name of the one whose return we await. Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

No Other Way

Zechariah 4:1-14
It is not even accorded the status of a full verse, but to me Zechariah 4:6b is one of those profound expressions of faith we do well to reflect on frequently: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” No matter how strong we are in human terms, no matter how well-established or influential we may be, it is only by God’s grace that our efforts come to fruition. But assuming that to be true, this must also be the case that no matter how weak we are in human terms, no matter now poor or poorly-regarded, no matter how humble our presence, God’s grace is still at work in our lives.

The psalmist offers a similar thought: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1). But here, too, we should remember the other side of the equation, for with God’s help the builders do not labor in vain and the guards do not keep watch in vain, no matter who they are in human terms. After all, the world is littered with the debris of once-great civilizations, yet human history is full of simple actions by the least among us that have produced good fruit and touched countless lives.

What we await this Advent season is not a symbol of human power but of human weakness in the form of an infant. So why do we count on our own might or our own power to accomplish God’s will, and why do we discount the role of the poor or the weak in serving the coming kingdom? At all times the truth lies with God. There is no other way.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to trust you and your will for our lives while letting go of our own desire for power and might. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Majesty, Not Monotony

Revelation 4:1-8
In our reading from Revelation this morning the author is escorted into heaven and describes what he sees as he first enters. There is a throne, and the one seated on that throne has the appearance of precious stones, and of light and color. Lightening and thunder cascade from the throne as well. In front of the throne is a sea as calm and bright as crystal. Four living creatures, each in a different form, surround the throne. John tells us, “Day and night without ceasing (the four creatures) sing,

‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come’" (Revelation 4:8).

What a marvelous scene…unless earthly considerations begin to creep into our minds. Is eternity really this cold and sterile? Is everything made of precious stones and constantly lit by flashes of lightening? Is there nothing soft or comfortable to be found? And is there really no break in the singing (or could those four creatures at least pick something else to sing occasionally)? Such concerns are ill-founded, of course. The point of the scene is not the monotony of it all (even grandeur might become tiring after awhile), but the majestic presence of God which John is describing the best way he knows how, with human language and with reference to things that his readers would understand.

I don’t know what to expect in the heavenly court, but I trust it will be nothing of which the human mind could conceive or human words express. Nor should we be focused on what the four creatures are singing “day and night,” only that the praise of God is constant because there is nothing to distract attention from the glory and the majesty. If only our hearts and minds and souls were as focused on God’s glory now as they will be.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live with your praise on our lips and your love in our hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Reason To Sing

Zechariah 2:1-13
There’s a lot of singing going on these days. Visit any shopping center in America, for example, and you are apt to hear music associated with Christmas piped through loudspeakers. Visit a congregation on Sunday in most parts of the world and I suspect you will hear special anthems and notice that the hymns are sung with extra zeal. Groups of carolers are making their rounds, and even families will break into song from time to time as they decorate their homes for the Christmas season.

I think that the prophet Zachariah would approve of most of the music, at least that of a religious nature. “Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion!” we read. “For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst…” (Zechariah 2:10-11b). What better reason to sing? What better reason to rejoice? The Lord is coming to be Emanuel, God with us. The nations will be drawn together on that day as God’s reign is finally and firmly established. All will be set right and grace will abound in fullness.

Reading the promise of Zachariah I am reminded of James Weldon Johnson’s powerful words:

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Here, too, I believe the prophet Zachariah would readily approve. Let every voice be lifted in glad rejoicing. After all, ‘tis the season!

Prayer: Lord, may our songs of praise bring glory to your name, today and all days. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Journey Completed

Psalm 122
One of the two psalms for this morning tells us of a journey completed. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem (Psalm 122:1-2). “I was delighted when we began our trip to Jerusalem,” the psalmist is saying. “Now here we are, safely inside its walls.” A trek which began in gladness has come to a joy-filled conclusion.

The Christian faith is also a journey that, like all significant undertakings, has a purpose, a goal, a destination. We believe that someday we also will stand within the holy city under the fulfilled reign of God. Advent celebrates this expectation, it encourages us to plan and to prepare and to await that which we know to be coming, that which God will reveal to us in God’s time. Meanwhile we walk on together, a band of travelers, disciples led by a risen Savior, and as we journey we are filled with gladness for we know where we are headed and that someday we will arrive at the new Jerusalem and be filled with joy.

Prayer: Lord, you have invited us to walk with you. Guide our steps that by grace we may finish the journey and arrive at the destination you have prepared for us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stirred Up

Haggai 1:1-15
“Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord's message, saying, I am with you, says the Lord. And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God…” (Haggai 1:13-14).

God has often stirred up the spirit of God’s people, encouraging, enabling, and empowering them to be about God’s will, doing more than they thought they ever could. Even during the season of Advent we hear of God inspiring Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, and the residents of Jerusalem and all of Judea. When so many are awakened from spiritual complacency there must be something going on, and when so many turn to God and welcome God’s presence in their lives with shouts of joy and songs of praise it is clearly God who is responsible for the stirring.

Through the words of the prophet Haggai God stirred up “the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God….” And through countless other voices God continues to stir folks up. May we, too, be stirred from our spiritual listlessness until we find ourselves doing more than we ever knew we could. Then we will truly know that the Lord is at work.

Prayer: Lord, stir us up by your word and lead us in lives of faithfulness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Clean Up Your Act

Matthew 23:13-26
Our gospel reading for today includes words of Jesus’ condemning the actions of the religious elite. “Woe to you,” Jesus says, “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23:25-26). Jesus is pointing to the ritual purification of household items, and using it as a parable of righteousness. Those who were worried about appearances but who cared little for God’s will were like cups and plates cleaned on the outside but left full of filth on the inside. “Get your priorities straight,” says Jesus. “Clean up your act.”

Most of us are preparing ourselves for the coming holidays by decorating, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and so forth. We worry about our budgets (so much to buy), about our weight (so much to eat), about our time (so much to do), about our obligations (so many folks to please). Are our priorities straight? Are we focused on the real point of the season, the needs of our world that Jesus addresses over and over again? Or are we cups and plates that are clean on the outside but filthy on the inside? Let’s put it another way: would you serve holiday guests on dishes that had not been washed? No! Nor should we serve God with hearts that have not been touched by the call for justice and righteousness.

Jesus’ words are stark and direct. What matters to God is a life of faithful obedience. Live in accordance with God’s will first and foremost, and let your actions be your gift to the world.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to live as you intend, with hearts set not on worldly desires, but on the grace and mercy that you seek. In Jesus’ name. Amen.