Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Looking In the Right Place

1 Corinthians 2:1-13
"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).

If you want to learn to speak with Italians you shouldn't study Dutch, if you want to become proficient in math you shouldn't take public speaking classes, and if you want to be a drummer you shouldn't take piano lessons. Why then would you ever depend on the "spirit of the world" to understand the gifts that God has given. As God's people we depend on the Holy Spirit for our insight into matters of faith. The world always has something to say to us, always offers a perspective, but if the world becomes our one source of information we will find ourselves poorly prepared for lives of discipleship. We might as well type wearing boxing gloves, or look up a Houston phone number in the Chicago phone directory. It isn't going to work.

When it comes to understanding God's will for our lives and what God seeks from us we need to go to the right source.

Prayer: Lord God, Help us to hear your word and respond to it in faith and obedience while turning away from the ways of the world. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thanks For Nothing, Paul

1 Corinthians 1:20-31
Mark 1:14-28
Reading the passage from 1 Corinthians for today is not likely to overwhelm us with self-confidence. "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters," Paul writes: "not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Not exactly what I'd want in a reference letter: "I am pleased to inform you that Jim Freeman is generally foolish, weak, low, and despised. (Signed) Paul the Apostle." Thanks for nothing, Paul.

When Jesus called disciples (as we've also read today in Mark), he did not go among the wealthy and powerful, he went where the common folk were hard at work trying to survive. And as the gospel of Mark unfolds one might argue that Jesus' choice in disciples was not particularly inspiring. In human terms he could have done so much better. But that is really the point, isn't it? God doesn't seek our wisdom, our strength, our standing in the community. What God wants from us is faithfulness and obedience. What God wants from us is everything we are, including our feeble efforts, our halfhearted failures, our confusion. God takes all of that, and by grace God brings out of it something wonderful and miraculous.

We have a role to play, you and I, and God constantly challenges us to do our very best. But ultimately it is God, through Jesus Christ, who we must trust to accomplish the divine will. Until then we are called to make our wisdom, strength, and prominence that of God, and to leave behind that which the world claims to be essential.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to give our lives to you, that we may live in faithfulness all the days of our lives. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ready, Set, Wait!

Mark 1:1-13
A church member stopped me during my pre-worship walk through the sanctuary yesterday. He was reading the scripture passages from which I would be preaching and had gotten to Mark 1:12: “And the Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness.” The church member wanted to know if that verse would be the text for my sermon. No, I told him, the sermon was not going to deal with that particular issue. But then in today’s readings I find Mark 1:12 popping up again so I guess I can’t get away from it after all.

The word that is used to describe what happened to Jesus is used most often in Mark in reference to demons being “driven out” of those who are possessed (Mark 1:34 and 39 for example). In other cases it is used when a person is sent away (like the leper in 1:43), driven out (like those who were selling and buying in the temple in 11:15), or thrown out (like the heir to the vineyard in 12:8). Immediately after his baptism, then, Jesus was compelled by the Spirit to go to a lonely place and to separate himself from human contact. But why?

For one thing, places of desolation have often offered revelation and preparation for God’s people. What we sometimes call a wilderness journey may lead to a clearer understanding of what God wants or expects from us. But there is also the importance of timing. The promise given to Abraham and Sarah was that their descendants would take possession of the land in which they dwelled, not they themselves. At the time of the ascension Jesus told the disciples to return to Jerusalem and wait there for the Holy Spirit which would come when it was time. Likewise, when Jesus came up from the waters of his baptism the Holy Spirit took him right away to a lonely place. Could Jesus have needed time to prepare for what he was about to do? Of course. Even during his ministry Jesus could be found taking time away for prayer and reflection. The days following his baptism offered breathing room for getting things in order, something that the humanness of Jesus would have needed, especially considering where it would lead. Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. From there the good news of the gospel would erupt upon the world.

Prayer: Lord help us to live in patience according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Being Content

The Rev. Dr. Debbie Carl Freeman

Philippians 4:10-20

“Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11).

Paul is thanking his readers for their care and concern for him. But verse 11 speaks volumes in our age of not only economic downturn but also of discontent and dissatisfaction with everything in life. What does it mean to be content with whatever I have?

Most of us have heard encouraging words about being content in times of trouble or of trusting in God’s will and wisdom in our lives. But how many of us have been encouraged to be content when we already have plenty? How many of us seek more? More food, more wealth, more happiness, more time…? How many of us are looking for something better? Better deals, better cars, better diets, better worship…?

How much easier it is for us to be content when we have little. There are fewer distractions, less clutter, and though perhaps a more difficult time making ends meet, an opportunity to trust God’s providence fully. How difficult it is to let go or even to be content when we have so much. We are bombarded with messages that we need more. And yet Paul’s message in verse 11 is as much about having more than we need as it is about having little, he says, “Not that I am referring to being in need; I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” Paul is encouraging Christians to trust that God will provide; that God will be a source of strength in times of plenty and joy as well as in times of want and sorrow. What a tremendous message for us to hear as we move through the season of Lent.

Prayer: Provident God, may I trust in your care for my life today, tomorrow and the next day. May I learn to be content with whatever I have, not just in times of need but especially in times of plenty. Through Jesus Christ I offer this prayer and my life. Amen.

Debbie Freeman is the interim pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Jacksonville, Arkansas. She has previously served congregations in Arkansas, Virginia, and Scotland. In March she will run her first half-marathon. She is also my wife.

Friday, February 24, 2012

No Fair!

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
I said it as a kid. Something wouldn’t go my way, like a game of Chinese checkers or of hide and seek, and I’d say, “That’s not fair.” It was almost a reflex action: lose a game; yell, “No fair!” Well. apparently the people of Israel had the same tendency. “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” (Ezekiel 18:25). The issue at hand was whether a wicked person should be able to turn from the ways of evil and receive God’s forgiveness. Shouldn’t such a person be punished for their transgressions? The same questions fill our lives as well. We find the world working a certain way; we see certain people getting ahead or doing well; we notice those whom we believe to be undeserving who are actually better off in one way or another than we are. How can God let this sort of thing happen? How can this possible be fair?

God’s answer is good news for all who have ears to hear. Those who renounce their wickedness, says the Lord, will find life. In other words, God’s grace abounds and though it may not seem fair to us, there’s no denying the mercy and love of God. God takes no pleasure in death; God seeks abundant life for all people. Is God fair? No, not in purely human terms. But let’s give thanks for if God were “fair” we’d certainly be without hope.

Prayer: Thanks be to you, O God, for your mercy and grace. Without them we surely would fall into the snares of our own wrongdoing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

NOTE: Beginning tomorrow, I will be including blog posts each Saturday written by "guest bloggers" who will offer their insights on the readings for that particular day. I deeply appreciate the willingness of these folks to share their time and talents with us. Be sure to stop by on upcoming Saturdays to see what they have to say.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Restoring God’s Renown

Habakkuk 3:1-18
The prophet Habakkuk offered these words to God in prayer. “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2). What would it mean for God to revive the divine renown, the holy work in our day and age? What would it mean for God to remember mercy in the midst of wrath today? In other words, can these be our words as well? Is this an appropriate prayer for Lent 2012 and beyond?

In truth, God has been visibly at work in our world all along and has, “in our own time,” continued to show profound mercy and compassion. In Jesus Christ God entered our lives and suffered alongside us, going so far as to die for our sake, and to rise again with a promise of eternal life. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit performed spiritual CPR on a small band of terrified believers and emboldened them to share the good news. On the Damascus road Paul caught sight of our risen Savior and a new meaning for his own life. At every step of the way God has remained steadfast and merciful, leading God’s people to serve and to share with heart, mind, soul, and strength. When we have failed and faltered God has judged us and held us accountable but has never once ceased to love us or forgive us when we have confessed. Today the people of God–inspired by the Holy Spirit, guided by the will of Jesus Christ–are involved in countless forms of outreach and ministry, all to the glory of God.

So is Habakkuk’s prayer suitable for our own time? Is it even necessary? The answer is yes. I say this because we, the people of God, need constant reminding of whose we are and who we serve. To pray with the prophet is to reflect on the needs of the world and our own shortcomings. It is to lay claim once more to the charge that Jesus gave us saying, “go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). It is to reflect on where we are and where we need to be. In short, to pray with Habakkuk is to use the season of Lent for repentance and renewal.

Prayer: O Lord, in our own time revive you renown and make your work known; and in wrath may you remember your mercy. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

NOTE: Beginning on February 25, I will be including blog posts each Saturday written by "guest bloggers" who will offer their insights on the readings for that particular day. I deeply appreciate the willingness of these folks to share their time and talents with us. Be sure to stop by on upcoming Saturdays to see what they have to say.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It’s Not All Up To Me

Luke 18:9-14
One of my earliest sermons–written for my intro to preaching and worship class in seminary–was based on today’s passage from Luke. It was one of the more wretched sermons I’ve ever preached. At the time, of course, I was actually proud of the effort but I had a great deal to learn and fortunately my preaching has improved over the years.

Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 18:14). Jesus was condemning the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and offering assurance to those who, like the tax collector, come to God with humility. This is a powerful reminder of God’s concern for the least and the lost, but it points as well to the fact that we don’t always know what we are capable of. As a preacher I am often amazed at the response I get from folks following worship. It seems that when I’ve preached what I thought to be a solid–if not profound–sermon there is little comment. But when I’ve preached a sermon that I did not feel particularly good about, one that could have been so much better in my opinion, I’ve gotten sincere thanks from people who found meaning and hope in my words. Go figure.

The truth is that it’s not all up to me. I have a role to play in the life of the church but it is only by the grace of God that my words or actions make a difference. Like all of us I should do my best to God’s glory but beyond that I can only trust God to accomplish the divine purpose. It may be that my “wretched sermons” are the ones that touch lives while the ones that I feel proudest of are far less meaningful for community of faith. If that is true, so be it. The last thing any of us need to do is to exalt ourselves before the Creator. We need to leave our egos out of the equation and pray that the Holy Spirit will work through us. Humility really is far more pleasing to the Lord.

Prayer: O Lord, help us to serve you with humility and to put our faith in you alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

NOTE: Beginning on February 25, I will be including blog posts each Saturday written by "guest bloggers" who will offer their insights on the readings for that particular day. I deeply appreciate the willingness of these folks to share their time and talents with us. Be sure to stop by on upcoming Saturdays to see what they have to say.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If Only…

John 18:28-38
We can have all the information in the world, all of the emails and letters and TV broadcasts and newspapers and magazines and spreadsheets and campaign ads and tweets and, yes, blog posts, but at the end of the day we may be left asking the same question that Pilate asked of Jesus. Jesus said, “’For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:37b-38a). I can imagine Pilate smirking as he said it, as if he had heard that sort of thing before. After all, everybody claims to have the truth in some shape or fashion.

Years ago, just as the internet was becoming more common, a woman who regularly visited the church I served approached me with an email she had received. The email claimed that members of the board of directors of Proctor and Gamble were Satan worshipers and that the CEO of the company has said so publically. The woman was aghast at the news and wanted to know what I thought about it. I tried to explain to her that even though she had gotten the item off of her computer it didn’t mean that the story was factual. That particular rumor had been going around for some time.

“What is truth?” It’s a question that we all must wrestle with constantly. It is so easy to accept what we want to believe. There is no such thing as a compassionate conservative; all liberals are out to destroy the country. The president is a socialist; his main rivals are idiots. The denomination to which I belong willingly ignores the Bible; anyone who disagrees with me is filled with hate. I hear variations on these comments on a regular basis and they make me sad. Jesus spoke the truth when he said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). Love is what Jesus wants; not hate or apathy or disdain or disinterest, but love. And this love is true because Jesus died for it. If we could only begin there, with the love of God, and reorient our lives accordingly. If we would only let go of the falseness of life. If only…

Prayer: Lord God, help us to hear your truth and to embrace it even as we seek to embrace one another in love. For it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

NOTE: Beginning on February 25, I will be including blog posts each Saturday written by "guest bloggers" who will offer their insights on the readings for that particular day. I deeply appreciate the willingness of these folks to share their time and talents with us. Be sure to stop by on upcoming Saturdays to see what they have to say.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Danger, danger!

Proverbs 27:1-6, 10-12
To be honest I’m not at all sure what to do with this verse from Proverbs: “The clever see danger and hide; but the simple go on, and suffer for it” (Proverbs 27:12). Are we to understand that godly, devout people who happen to be intelligent are encouraged to duck and cover when the going gets tough? Is that really what is going on here? Or is there another way to read this?

In his Interpretation series commentary on Proverbs Leo G. Perdue offers only a bit of insight. “Verse 12 is an antithetical saying,” he writes, “that contrasts the clever who see danger and hide with the simpleton who does not and thus suffers for it” (p. 227). With all apologies to Dr. Perdue that really doesn’t help much. Jesus was, by all accounts, extremely bright and yet according to the gospels he was willing to face his own death and “go on, and suffer for it.” Likewise countless people of faith from over the centuries have willingly confronted danger in the name of God and for the sake of justice and righteousness. In our own age we are reminded of people of great courage like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in faith, faced trials and tribulations for the glory of God.

Now, I’ll readily agree that we “shouldn’t go courting trouble.” But perhaps one aspect of God’s grace is that it allows us to live a “simple” life of faith, one that allows us to face danger, even to suffer and die, in order to help others and to give glory to God. If that is what Proverbs 27:12 is all about then may God give me the simplicity to “go on, and suffer for it,” because I really don’t think that people of faith are supposed to run for cover during times of challenge.

Prayer: Lord God, give us the courage to live as your people no matter what the circumstances may be. In the name of the one who accepted his death for the sake of the world. Amen.

NOTE: Beginning on February 25, I will be including blog posts each Saturday written by "guest bloggers" who will offer their insights on the readings for that particular day. I deeply appreciate the willingness of these folks to share their time and talents with us. Be sure to stop by on upcoming Saturdays to see what they have to say.