Monday, December 24, 2012

Which Way?

Luke 1:67-80
Maybe it's the season. Maybe it's because my stress level is running too high. Maybe it's the litany of events that have washed over the United States in the past month. Maybe it's all of these. Whatever the reason, I find myself embracing the words of Luke today, and especially one promise in particular. "By the tender mercy of our God," we read, "the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:78-79). I want to walk in the way of peace, the sort of peace that redefines life, that makes sense of this world, that builds community and overcomes injustice. I want that kind of peace.

But the good news of Luke's gospel for today is not without its challenges. God's chosen one may guide our feet into the way of peace, but we are going to have to do some walking. We are going to have to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being the community of faith, the people of God. We are going to have to do the work of the coming kingdom, follow the will of God, embrace God's call for justice and righteousness. We are going to have to look beyond ourselves and our needs and our wants and "rights" and be willing to do things God's way, mindful of the least among us, the lost and the lonely, those who, like us, are longing for a better world. Perhaps this is what it means to "take the necessary steps." Perhaps it means that we must stand up and begin to exercise our faith muscles once again.

This may not sound much like peace, at least not the peace we are looking for at present. But here is our hope, that by God's grace we can and will find the strength and the courage we need for the living of these days and will, by God's grace, someday find ourselves awash in the true peace that only God can offer. Until then, until that day when Luke's words like those of the prophets come to fruition, we live in the knowledge that we are not alone and that the steps we take, no matter how faltering, will
 lead us in time to the right place. 

On this Christmas Eve, may our lives be filled with love and light, and may our living be directed by and toward the will of God. 

Prayer: Gracious God, guide our feet and open our hearts to your love and grace that in your time we may find the true peace that passes all understanding. In the name of the one we await. Amen.

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Honest Woman

Luke 1:26-38
I admire Luke’s portrayal of Mary when he writes, “But she was much perplexed by (the angel’s) words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). The conversation between Gabriel and Mary should not be passed by hurriedly. It is one of the most transforming moments in all of scripture through which the work of God unfolds. This is as much a call story as is Exodus 3, or Isaiah 6, or Jeremiah 1 and in each of those cases the men in question hem and haw with fear and trepidation. Why should Mary, called to bear God’s Son, be any different? Why should she not be perplexed? Why should she not wonder how this could be true of a virgin? Her questions are honest and straightforward. Her concern is natural. This is a real person dealing with really surprising news. By the time Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” we know that she means it.

May all of us strive for the honesty of Mary, allowing our questions to rise and our concerns to be expressed. God seeks the best that each of us can offer and honesty is high on that list. When we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” may it be with true conviction. May we know that we mean it.

Prayer: Lord, may our minds be active and our hearts alive during this season as we welcome your word into our world and accept the challenges that you give us. In the name of your Son our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Through God’s Stomach

Psalm 50
"If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me" (Psalm 50:12-15)

As the psalmist knows, what God seeks in the divine relationship with humanity is faithful obedience and “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” What God does not seek or need or want from humanity is food, as if the way to God’s heart was through God’s stomach. Offering bulls and goats to God meant nothing without acts of righteousness and justice, without turning to God at all times and responding to God’s word. God does not fall for flattery. God cannot be bought with cake and cookies. God is not impressed with grand assemblies. What God really wants is for us to recognize the grace and peace and love of God that is all around us and to live accordingly.

It sounds trite but sometimes the smallest gifts are the best. During this season of gift-giving and stocking stuffing, of cutting edge technology and luxury items, of commercials on TV promising us happiness if we will simply buy a new car or give someone a diamond ring, it is essential that we stop and consider what it is that God really wants from us and what it is that we really owe to one another. Consideration and thoughtfulness is in such short supply these days, as is concern for the feelings of others. Now is the time to give thought to what it is we offer to God: empty gestures, or our complete attention? Now is the time to think about how we live in community: insisting on our own way, or sharing our best with others and accepting what they have to offer? God is looking for our response. What’s it going to be?

Prayer: Gracious God, may all our thoughts and actions be tuned to your will that we may praise and serve you by living in community with one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

No Way This Happens, Unless…

Isaiah 11:1-9
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; 
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9). These words from today’s Old Testament reading are filled with hope but also with almost comical imagery. Here is a scene that nature could never recreate: predators and prey, carnivores and herbivores, human children and the offspring of dangerous animals all coexisting in a way that even Disney’s “The Lion King” wouldn’t dare to suggest.

But then that’s the point, isn’t it? It isn’t natural, it isn’t an aspect of life as we know it, it isn’t the way things happen, but it is a parable about that which God is able to do. If we depend on ourselves we will fall short; the wolf will consume the lamb, the leopard will devour the kid, the lion will chow down on calf and ox and not think even once about straw; there will be pain and destruction all over the mountain if we try to pull this sort of thing off. Only God could make it work.

And only God could announce the approach of God’s reign with a baby born to humble parents in an out-of-the-way place and under extreme circumstances. What was God thinking? The arrival of God’s Son in the manger at Bethlehem isn’t natural, it isn’t an aspect of life as we know it, it isn’t the way things happen. If you want to bring lasting change you have to have a bigger stage and a wider audience than shepherds and traveling sages. So maybe the story of the birth of Jesus is a parable of sorts as well. Maybe it reminds us that with God all things are possible. With God love can overcome evil, pain can be soothed with mercy, poverty can be addressed with generosity, hunger can be assuaged with compassion. With God all things are possible and all things find their fullest purpose. So maybe Isaiah’s scene from the holy mountain is not as far-fetched as we may think. Maybe it really is a sign of what God is doing in our world.

Prayer: Lord, may all the world live in peace under your coming reign. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

An Angel From the Realm

Luke 22:39-53
It may seem like an odd time of year to be reading events from Jesus’ passion, but there is significance in holding the season of Advent, which highlights both the birth and second coming of Jesus, in tension with the events of Holy Week. They are, after all, aspects of the same life. But in reading the gospel passage for today, what really resonates with me is the way that God responded to Jesus’ earnest prayers. “Then (Jesus) withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength” (Luke 22:41-43). Jesus, the word of God incarnate, sought to avoid the death that awaited him and asked God to “remove this cup.” (In faithful obedience, however, Jesus was determined to accept God’s will.) And while God did not choose to change the events to follow, God did send Jesus strength by which to persevere. It came to him in the person of an angel who ministered to him.

There are people hurting in our world today, whether from illness or mishap or from some act of evil, people who may have prayed fervently to have some “cup” removed from their lives. They may be people of tremendous faith in God who live in obedience to God’s will. Yet God may not respond the way that they would like. This does not mean that God deserts them – or us – in our hour of need. We all face challenges and hardships. It is by grace that we discern the presence of God offering us strength to endure. The good news of the gospel is that with mercy God reaches out to those who are hurting, who are lonely, who are neglected, who long for light and peace and joy, who wish to be saved from challenges or tribulations, and in any number of ways God seeks to meet those needs and answer those requests. It may not be what we wanted, but it is always a source of hope.

Prayer: Lord, bless us with the knowledge of your presence in all that we do and give us the strength and the courage we need to face the challenges of our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Words of Comfort

2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
It is difficult at the best of times to comprehend a tragedy of the magnitude that struck in Connecticut today, but during the season of Advent the death of so many people—most of them children––is even more crushing. And while there is no easy word of comfort that can be spoken to those who grieve, we remember that we live in the presence of a God who has suffered the death of a Son and whose love for us is boundless. Today’s epistle reading includes these words: “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).

As we struggle with yet another act of intense violence may the dawning of God’s coming reign draw us closer to one another in our suffering even as it draws ever nearer in its proximity. And may the Christmas season be filled with genuine acts of kindness and humility as together we seek the blessings of God for ourselves and one another.

Prayer: Lord, be with people of Newton, Connecticut. Lift them through their grief and despair and give them hope in these days of pain. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Testing, Testing…
John 7:53-8:11
There is a story in John’s gospel that includes the familiar adage, “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” That’s not the exact quote, but that’s how it gets used most often, and I think for most of us it seems to be the point of the story. But there are other things going on here that sometimes get lost in the account. “The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him” (John 8:3-6a). There is no question that the woman has done what she is accused of. (In fact she never denies it.) But her sin really isn’t that important to the religious leaders. Actually, their intent is not to administer the law of Moses but to force Jesus to either abide by the law or to publically defy it. The whole thing is a trap with Jesus right in the middle of things.

But Jesus turns the situation around, effectively removing himself from the equation and shining a light, first on the leaders, and then on the woman. “Fine,” he said, “kill her. And the first stone should be thrown by any one of you who is not a sinner.” It must have been some scene, as first the elders, and then the scribes and Pharisees began to slink away, one by one and then in larger groups, until no one was left to carry out the punishment. How could they? To presume innocence at this moment would have been utter hypocrisy. At the very least they had just tried to trap Jesus using a technicality of the law as the reason for arresting him. Once they had shuffled off it left only Jesus and the woman, the one who had initially been identified as a sinner and who never denied it. And finally Jesus is able to turn his full attention to her and to offer forgiveness of her sins while admonishing her to sin no more.

The scribes and Pharisees wanted to make Jesus the point of this story, but Jesus did what the gospel does so often, which is to put the focus on us and on our lives. Where do we stand in all of this? Do we want to force Jesus to do things our way? And if so are we willing to cast the first stone? And what about the sins that we have committed? Are we willing to hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness if they are followed by the call to sin no more? There really is a lot to think about in this story, a great deal to consider. Ultimately, however, it is a story of grace. And perhaps that’s what we really need to hold on to.

Prayer: Lord, help us to accept the light of the gospel as it reveals our shortcomings, knowing that it also grants us your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

It’s A Virtue
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
I needed to hear these words today: “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). It isn’t the admonition, the encouragement, or the help that I needed to be reminded about, it is the patience. It’s Advent, and my patience is running low. What a shame, too. This is the season of expectation and hope, of looking forward to what God is doing while celebrating what has already been done. It is a time for preparing and for reorienting. Joy should permeate everything we do; the King of Glory is coming!

But Advent also presents us with more hectic schedules and more complicated calendars. There are family arrangements to work out and money to be spent. There are long lines and short fuses. It is a complicated time of year and I find myself getting antsy about the silliest things. I know I’m not alone. Even good experiences, even kind people, even days filled with good cheer can cause stress, like weddings, for example. As a minister I feel a certain responsibility for this season, to help others experience the joy of Christmas, and that can cause me a good bit of stress as well. And the stress in turn leads to a loss of patience.

But faithful obedience calls for faithful living. As the writer of Thessalonians reminds us, patience is a virtue for which we should strive at all times and with all people. Advent, then, should also be a time for practicing the sort of calm acceptance that the world needs. Lord, I’ll be glad to do all the admonishing, encouraging, and helping that I can, but I’m going to need you to give me the patience that I need, so that I can share your love with others and can live in peace during Advent and beyond. Oh, and Lord, could you hurry up with that patience? I haven’t got all day!

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when we are quick to judge and quick to anger, and help us to live in peace with one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Those Who Dream
Psalm 126
Not all dreams are pleasant, which in part explains the tone of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

…To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; 
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

If you’ve ever had one of those nightmares that keeps disturbing you well into the next day, even when you know that you are wide awake, you will understand Hamlet’s concern.

And yet we often use the word dream to describe pleasant events, with expressions like “dream come true,” or “dream vacation.” These are experiences, which at their best, may give us a surreal, fuzzy feeling and make it difficult to believe what is happening. Which, of course, is close to what the psalmist had in mind when he or she wrote the first words of Psalm 126: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1). This surreal, fuzzy feeling sort of joy was prompted by the restoration of Israel, the setting aright in the lives of God’s people all those things that had gone amiss. Or was it? Some scholars actually think the passage should be translated in the future tense: “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion—we see it as in a dream…” Is this a past reality, or is it one that awaits the people of God in the future?

Frankly it shouldn’t matter. Why? Because God is Sovereign Lord of the past as well as the future, of lives restored, or things set right as well as futures filled made bright with hope and promise. Whichever way we look, forward or behind, we find God’s grace and mercy active and alive. Nor is the present exempt from God’s control. Here, too, God is at work sustaining and leading God’s people.

Do we see God’s work and experience it as in a dream-like state, overwhelmed with joy? Or do we dream of a day when the Lord will set all things right and bring truth and justice to bear? The answer is yes, and either way, the dreams are good.

Prayer: Lord, we bless your holy name for all that you have done in the past; all that you are doing in the present; and all that you will do in the future, for you alone are sovereign. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Walk This Way

Isaiah 2:1-4
The prophet Isaiah shares a divine word about the times to come. “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isaiah 2:3). Note the focus of the vision. In those days the nations of the world will turn their attention to God, not to institutions or agencies related to God, but to God alone. And it is in God that the truth will be found. I make this point because I think too often people of faith are tempted to claim authority in matters that belong to God. Who will teach the peoples? God will. In whose paths will they walk? The ones that God has established. Indeed, who is drawing the nations together? God is.

On the one hand this passage should remind us that we all have much to learn from God. No matter who we are or how much we know or how faithful we believe ourselves to be, we simply must remain open to what God is doing and saying and teaching. We, too, should make our way to “the house of the God of Jacob” to seek instruction for there is much that we, too, have to learn. At the same time, this passage also reminds us that God alone chooses who it is that God will teach, will guide, will claim. We do not have the authority to determine who may approach the divine presence. We do not control who is “in” or who is “out” in terms of God’s love. God alone “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (v. 4a). It is God who stands at the center of Isaiah’s vision, and it is God alone who should—who must—reside at the center of our lives.

The vision offered by the prophet is one of hope precisely because it does not depend on human authority. It is only good news because it is God who is at work. So we look forward to the day when God’s will is done, and in the meantime we turn to God for instruction, standing shoulder to shoulder with whoever it is that God has called.

Prayer: Lord, help us to remain focused on you alone, and help us to hear your message of truth and righteousness. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Monday, December 3, 2012

In Spite of All the Danger

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In July 1958 the band that was later to become the Beatles made a record for the very first time. One of the two songs from that historic session was Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” The other was the only song ever credited to Paul McCartney and George Harrison as a writing team. That song is called “In Spite of All the Danger.”

In spite of all the danger
In spite of all that may be
I’ll do anything for you
Anything you want me to
If you’ll be true to me.

I’m fairly confident that McCartney and Harrison weren’t thinking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians when they penned their song, and yet there are similarities. The Apostle Paul writes, “…in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers…” (1 Thessalonians 1:6b-7a). In other words, “In spite of all the danger” faced by the Christians in Thessalonica, the joy they displayed because of the gospel had become an inspiration to others.

I can only hope that despite whatever challenges I may face, whatever struggles come my way, I will live so as to reflect joy and peace to those around me. It isn’t always easy. I frequently find myself grumbling about even the most insignificant of matters. I fuss and I fume when things don’t go my way. But by God’s grace I also find myself reaching out to others in ways I wouldn’t have expected and touching lives in ways I would never have thought possible. And all the while, I am blessed by those around me and the sincerity of their faith and the joy with which they live.

“In spite of all the danger” –– or at least the struggles and the challenges that we face –– joy, like grace, abounds. And when we are at our best it is because we have become a source of inspiration for one another and the world.

Prayer: Lord, may we each find such joy in your word that our lives become a source of comfort and hope to others as they seek to follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.