Monday, December 31, 2012

A Thought

It has been said, “One who breaks a [New Year’s] resolution is a weakling; one who makes a [New Year’s] resolution is a fool”.  I've often wondered why we have such a time-honored tradition in making resolutions or, more significantly, why we wait until the end of the year to make them.  This may be the first indication that New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure before they've even had a chance; that we would resolve to wait until the end of the year before we make any significant changes in our lives could mean we don’t take seriously our need to change.

Most resolutions are noble and good; give more and take less, quit smoking (or drinking or overeating).  In other words, we take an inventory of our lives and decide where we need to improve, but we are less resolute about when this improvement should take place.  Acknowledging our short-comings, however, is part of an often painful spiritual process that should be a part of our daily prayer life; think of it as the Lord’s “refiner’s fire” (“If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged”, 1 Corinthians 11:31) .  Reflecting on these things while speaking to and listening for the Holy Spirit is how we come to more fully understand our need not necessarily to change but to always evaluate because everything we do (good AND bad) is a direct reflection of our faith.

If there is one resolution worth making, it is to resolve to look more deeply and critically at our own lives (rather than the lives of others) daily in prayer and consider how our Lord looks to others through us; and if we identify an area of our life that needs to change, change it right then and there!  If we would worry more about how our Lord is reflected in our lives and less about whether we need to lose weight, the other things within us that need to change will change as we resolve.  For instance, don’t think of overeating as bad for your health; rather think of overeating as “gluttonous” which is offensive to our Lord when we take for ourselves more than we need).  If we think of the weak areas of our lives in much broader terms than “me”, we might be more inclined to change for the sake of our relationship with our Lord.  I cannot help but to think that our relationship with the Lord will by such efforts become more of a genuine relationship!    

It is time much better spent, and the Church will be the stronger for it.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Beginning is not the Ending

1 Samuel 2:18-21
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:21;25-35

Rarely, if ever, do we look upon a child and see or even think "demise" or "ending".  Rather when we look upon a child, we see so many positive things all of which can be summarized in "promise" or "potential".  A child's life is always the beginning of something wonderful, something incredible, even - and in spite of - the certain heart aches and heart breaks that will surely come!  So it always saddens me whenever I hear of young married couples who make a conscious choice never to have children because, they reason, "the world is so foul" they cannot bear the thought of bringing an innocent child into such an evil place.  They fail to understand or appreciate that by their very nature, in the purity of their innocence, and in the hope and potential inherent to their very being, children always - ALWAYS - make the world a better place!

This is the perspective we would do well to remember and embrace especially when reflecting on the birth of Messiah Jesus and what that means for us.  If we were to seriously consider the Might and Power of our Holy God and Father, knowing He could come to us however He chooses, we could not help but to think there is no better portrayal of Divine Promise than in the infant birth of the Blessed Child.  And even though there is a certain perspective of theology that suggests we are "worthless" apart from our Lord and that we "deserve" Hell as some might suggest, we are reminded in Messiah's birth that our Holy Father clearly does not share that sentiment.  By entrusting to humanity His most beloved infant Son protected only by two devout and righteous parents, our Holy God proves to us that we are not "worthless" but rather "priceless" to Him!

We are beyond the Incarnation, however, and the Scripture story we encounter now is the Presentation.  Jesus is taken to the Temple after He has been circumcised into the Covenant of Abraham and after Mary has completed the days of her purification.  An appropriate sacrifice is made for Mary, and Jesus is given over to the Lord as the first-born male child to open the womb; each according to what is written in the Law of Moses.  A detail Luke leaves out, however, is the act of redemption performed by the father.  If the father intends to take the child home, a sacrifice is required in order to "redeem" the child.  Jesus is not left to serve in the Temple as Samuel was; He was presumably taken home by His parents.

Of course we can try to read into a prophetic future by Luke's sharing these details, but I think maybe we don't do ourselves any real good by trying to read into Luke's early account of Jesus' life by trying to back into the story.  It is perhaps a fair attempt given the prophetic nature of Simeon's discourse and blessing, but we miss a great deal by trying to insert into any given text something that clearly is not there.  Instead we should explore Luke's account as it is written rather than as we think it should read.  Let us see the beginning of Jesus' life just as Mary and Joseph would have seen it: a beginning filled with promise and unforeseen potential. 

And we can learn how to begin by giving more attention and credit to the faith and patience and gratitude of Simeon who, according to Luke, didn't celebrate the notion that sinners and evil-doers and enemies of Israel are gonna get it.  Rather Simeon celebrated in the infant Jesus the "Consolation of Israel", the "light to the Gentiles", and "the salvation of all the peoples".  It may also be no small, insignificant detail that Simeon "took Jesus up in his arms"; that is, Simeon literally and figuratively embraced the promise of the New Covenant which was upon "all the peoples".  It has been suggested that Simeon's embrace of the Child was a necessary step for a Temple priest, but the text says Simeon was led "by the Spirit into the Temple".  Simeon is not presented as a priest; rather he is given to us in the story as a "just and devout man"; a "man in Jerusalem". 

It is not necessary for us to make Simeon out to be something he perhaps never was.  It better serves our purposes to allow Simeon to serve as the "ideal" of the faithful, the higher calling that still belongs to us even today as we have witnessed through faith and Scripture the birth of Messiah and trusting in the Holy God to see to the rest while we wait patiently and expectantly - just as Simeon obviously did.  Exactly what we can anticipate from this moment remains to be seen - and the same can be said of Simeon, I think - but it is enough for the moment that we have witnessed the fruition of the Divine Promise; that Messiah would come and bring with Him a New Age, the messianic age, the time of Messiah.  It began at His birth, and its end is far from over!  This means 2000 years after His birth and even in the repeat - and sometimes redundant -cycle of the Church calendar, we can still look forward to potential unforeseen because the messianic age is still upon us.

Even Joseph and Mary "marveled" at the things spoken of by Simeon.  We continue assuming Jesus' parents were always consciously aware of exactly who Jesus truly is and what He means to "all the peoples", but I have often wondered if the grind of daily living and the potential of a new child would not have been as much a distraction to Mary and Joseph as it is to us.  Do we dare be honest enough to admit that the Lord and His will for our lives is not always foremost on our minds or in our hearts?  Do we dare to be honest enough to admit we do not often consider our lives to be part of a spiritual "journey"?  Do we dare to be honest enough to admit that we are happy just to make it through another day with our sanity intact, our jobs and pensions secure, and our loved ones safe?

To suggest  Joseph and Mary did all these things of the Law strictly because they were always aware of Jesus' special status - OR - even that they only did these things because the Law required it is, I think, a bit presumptuous and gives no attention or credit to the evident faith Mary and Joseph had both previously displayed.  Especially in this particular context, we might remember what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says when we are reminded that "faith is the substance of things hoped for" (11:1).  Can it be enough in this moment that Mary and Joseph were simply grateful to the Lord for their child and for all every new child means to any mother and father? 

Faith has little to do with what we have already witnessed and even less to do with what we can readily see with our eyes.  So we look upon these major characters in Luke's story as those who are always looking forward not strictly through 'Jesus the Son of God" per se but rather in accordance with all He truly represents and all that is before us in Him and through Him. Even in the ashes of Newtown or in mourning the death of a loved one, Jesus beckons us forward out of these ashes and into a future yet unforeseen and unforeseeable; and yet a "future of peace and ... hope" (Jeremiah 29:11).

Let us begin our future today with all the anticipation and "marvel" shared by Mary and Joseph.  Let us begin our future together today with the knowledge and satisfaction and gratitude and patience of Simeon; knowing there will be challenges, knowing there will be heartaches, knowing there will be suffering - BUT - knowing our Lord is leading the way as faithfully as He calls us to follow Him.  Let us work together in FAITH and in HOPE and in LOVE - knowing that in all the potential that is evident in the life of a child, the best is yet to come for those who endure this incredible Journey - and perhaps even more so for those who begin the Journey anew in the Body of Christ.

It's not over at Christmas - not by a long shot!  It has only just begun ... so let us begin.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Thought

“The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  Romans 8:26

We know how easy it is to offer intercessory prayers for those whom we love and we know how easy it is to ask for things for ourselves, but to enter into prayer for its own sake is hard.  We don’t always know what to say or even what we think we should say.  It is common for us to enter into a time of prayer and do all the talking, but it is not so common to enter into a time of prayer with intentions only to listen.  Even the moments of silence during the time of worship are not fully appreciated but are rather more often used as transition to move from one item on the bulletin to the next.  Praying for its own sake, quite simply, can be very challenging.

This can surely be called a time of “weakness”, the moment St. Paul refers to.  We do know of those times when we feel so overwhelmed with pain or grief or despair that finding words for prayer is difficult, but those times when we simply do not have something to say are harder still.  These moments can also be called periods of “weakness” because we, by faith, find ourselves in the presence of the Almighty in prayer … and we can think of nothing to say apart from “I want” or “I need”?? 

It’s ok, though.  Jesus promises that our Holy Father knows what we need – NEED – even before we do, so to enter into a time of prayer is to ask to simply be in the Divine Presence of the One who chose to come to us in Christ to teach us, to heal us, to free us, to bless us, and to show us the way Home.  And since we are not yet “Home”, perhaps our time devoted to prayer would be better spent just listening because everything we do is incidental to this Journey.

We do enough talking in our daily living, our worship, and even in our prayers.  It is time to give ourselves a break from this need to talk, and let the Holy Spirit of our Lord talk through us and to us.  This we truly need above all things.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Thought

“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgive you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Colossians 3:13-14

If we might ever wonder what comes after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season besides returning gifts that didn’t fit or were “less-than-perfect”, I think St. Paul states it very clearly.  We may be past the “day” of Christmas, but we must never get past the spirit of Christmas in which Divine grace was visited on the human race in the birth of Messiah.  And when thinking in terms of Divine grace, think about the condition of the world during the time of Jesus’ birth compared to the time of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Could we honestly say that the condition of the human heart was much better during Jesus’ time?  Yet the Holy God of Grace chose not fire and brimstone by which to visit but instead in the innocence of a child.

Now with the secular season beginning to wind down, let us remember by our words and deeds what the true Spirit of Christmas is all about.  Let us remember that as we may choose to return that “less-than-perfect” gift, we must never turn our backs on the Gift that is always perfect and always fits: grace that manifests itself in forgiveness and love.  This is the only place, in this perfect state of grace, where we will ever find the “Prince of Peace”.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

4th Sunday of Advent 2012: "Anticipation"

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Luke 1:39-45

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found [lacking].  It has been found difficult and left untried."  G.K. Chesterton

How are we to understand exactly what it means for us as we prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of the "Prince of Peace"?  Something important happened when Jesus of Nazareth was born, yet something even more important will take place when Messiah returns to "judge the living and the dead", as the Church's creed states.  What this means for us in our day-to-day living somewhere between the Incarnation of Messiah and His Return can perhaps be anyone's guess, but I think the common thread that connects the prophet Micah, to Mary, and to Elizabeth - but seems substantially disconnected with us - is "anticipation"; waiting with great expectation and living as though something marvelous is ahead of us.  These biblical characters were excited about the coming Messiah, the "Prince of Peace".  Today?  We're just excited about Christmas, a date which will end even before the sun sets. 

Awaiting the "Prince of Peace" by merely waiting for Christmas Day is a challenge for the Church because we have so long associated Advent strictly with anticipation of Christmas.  It is a natural and traditional assumption because, as I have shared previously, it is the order of the Church's calendar though it is not necessarily an order of actual events because, after all, we cannot wait for something which has already taken place; we should be anticipating Christ's return even as we will celebrate His coming into the world. We are further challenged in the context of the promised "Prince of Peace" because we are a nation at war. 

Because of the challenges the world's terrorists continue to mount against peace-loving people, virtually the entire world is at war to one degree or another.  Because of the fears and uncertainties about the economic and political future of this nation, we are virtually at war with one another right here at home!  Because of the fears and uncertainties about the future of the United Methodist Church and the Church universal as a whole, we are virtually at war with one another within the very Body of Christ!!  Each "player" in these conflicts earnestly believes he or she is doing the right thing for whichever cause they profess, but how right can anything be when we know someone will be hurt in the process?

Yet we cannot discount or ignore our Lord who stated very clearly: "Do not think I came to bring peace on earth.  I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).  How do we reconcile this with the promised "Prince of Peace", the One whom we proclaim and believe has already come?  How about the angelic host who announced to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace and goodwill toward men"(Luke 2:14)?  Was it a cruel joke?  Did the Gospel writers get it wrong?  Or was John the Baptist's question a valid one: "Are You the Coming One, or do we wait for another?" 

The Revelation indicates a 1000-year period in which the evil one will be locked into the "bottomless pit ... so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years are finished" (20:1-3).  This will be the time of the First Resurrection for "the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus", the martyrs who gave their all for their faithful work and witness, those who refused the "mark of the beast" (whatever that "mark" may be), those who held nothing back from our Lord and the work they were called to do.

For our purpose of understanding this great cosmic mystery is Peter's announcement of the Lord's intent in the seeming delay of His imminent return: "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief ..." (2 Peter 3:8-10); that is, unexpectedly for those who do not excitedly anticipate this Day that is yet to come, unexpectedly for those who try to pretend it won't happen at all.

So the intent of Advent is very much a New Testament thing but is also consistent with Old Testament prophesies.  There are some OT references that seem clear about the literal birth of Messiah, at least within a traditional interpretation, but there are many other OT prophecies that go beyond the birth of Messiah when referring to the "Day of the Lord".  These are the prophecies which are carried forth by the apostles of Christ's Church and spoken of in the visions of The Revelation. That is, we still very much have something ahead of us, something to anticipate, most certainly something for which we must prepare not with dread or fear but with excitement; the kind of excitement only genuine, God-given faith can produce!

"End Times", however, is hard to teach and preach with a positive spin because "end times" is immediately associated with "doomsday".  Doom?  For those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, "the end" is a time of mourning and grief.  Who would look forward to anything like this?  And even to speak of "end times" as spoken of by the apostles - and by Jesus Himself - seems redundant today because we are 2000 years removed from the time of Jesus.  Within our human capacity to understand, we might even reason to ourselves that since He hasn't come by now, He's not coming at all! OR we are misinterpreting what is written for us in the Scriptures.

We mark time according to clocks and calendars in definitive terms; we cannot think in "eternal" terms.  So Advent themes get a little tricky for us if we remove Christmas from the overall anticipation because we can easily "count down" to a date we are familiar with and can see coming, but we cannot "count down" to the Day of the Lord, a time which "is not for you to know" (Acts 1:7).

Aside from this, however, "Count Down" is not even appropriate because we do not know, cannot know, NEED NOT know of the Day of the Lord until that Day is upon us.  Why?  Because we still have lives to live and a Gospel to proclaim!  Good News for any who are desperately searching for Good News, who NEED some Good News in their lives!  And the News is all good, of course, but we still live in a world filled with conflict and hatred.  The same world which the "Prince of Peace" had been born into, the same world - incidentally - that rejected Him, mocked Him, and killed Him; a world not unlike the one we experience even today.

It is time for the Church to get real about what life in Messiah and His imminent return can really mean for us, and it cannot begin and end on a single date on a calendar.  Call me a killjoy, Scrooge, or Grinch if it makes you feel better about yourself, but it is time to put certain holiday traditions in their appropriate places.  Even if we try to put the "St Nicholas" spin on the "jolly ol' elf" and feebly attempt to insert this tradition into the Gospel of our Lord, is it not ironic that we would celebrate this bona fide saint of the Church while making fun of the Catholics who venerate (NOT worship!) the saints, including the very Mother of the Most High God herself? 

It is time to give our children so much more than a moment which will pass as surely and as quickly as the morning of the 25th!  It is just not possible to teach children about Jesus and the Covenant by indulging in their every desire for gifts and fantasy.  And it is not possible to be a true witness of the Gospel to an unbelieving world which has outright rejected Christ's Holy Body the Church, when they are unable to distinguish the difference between a "Christian" Christmas and a non-Christian celebration of the holidays except by empty words chosen to designate the "proper" holiday greeting!

There is a distinctive, feel-good spirit about this time of year from which many of us have some of our most cherished memories.  This is the time of year when we remember to share our many blessings.  This is the time of year when we reflect on that awesome moment in eternity when the Almighty touched the human race in an unmistakable way, but this is also that time of year during Advent (which, remember, means "coming"; not "done come") when we are reminded that our journey is not complete and the time to anticipate is not ended as soon as the last package has been unwrapped; for it is as our Savior admonishes us: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).

The "Prince of Peace" is in the hearts and minds of the faithful who live and work and act and worship with confidence in the Risen Christ and the Eternal Covenant in an unbelieving - and sometimes - hostile world.  The peace of Almighty God has been given to His Holy Church so that we can face the present and the future with hope, with confidence, and with great anticipation for the Eternity of the Kingdom which is upon us!

It is that Eternity which came to us in Christ and the New Covenant.  It is that Eternity we become a part of NOT when we demand that our Lord follow us in our own choices - but rather when we "take up our crosses" and follow Him.  For the Way of our Lord is the Way Home.  Confidence in that spiritual and eternal reality is where our Peace comes from.  That Peace is Christ our Lord who is always before us - NEVER behind us.  And we can and must give thanks always to our Heavenly Father who grants this peace to His Holy Church. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Thought

“John [spoke to Jesus] and said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.’  But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.’”  Luke 9:49-50 NKJV

If most of us were willing to be honest, we would admit we do our work in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven while focusing specifically on growing our own churches.  We equate growing the Kingdom with growing our own churches.  We have no real interest in the well-being of other churches because, frankly, we have our own agendas.  We also have our own way of understanding our Lord, and we have our own doctrines.  Beyond this, how can we know we are working effectively if the people we touch end up in other churches?

The key to understanding this passage in Luke’s gospel, I think, is in John’s concern that the “someone” who was casting out demons was not following “us”.  It could be John was concerned this “someone” was not following John and his crew – yes, including Jesus – and doing things “their” way.  What we may be able to appreciate, however, is that this “someone” was clearing working in Jesus’ name even with the disapproval of John.

We must always be careful about whom we choose to follow and in whose name we may be working.  It could very well be that John was on the cusp of becoming no better than the scribes and Pharisees who had their own sense of religion and faithfulness.  John may have been concerned that his own agenda was not being followed.  It is the danger many of us face.

Let us remember there is only one God, one Lord, one Covenant, one true and genuine religion; and it is not denominational.  It is ok if we express our faith as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc. as long as we earnestly express our faith that “Christ has died for us, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again” and become an active part of a faith community.  If we lose ourselves in the senseless arguments about the proper mode of baptism, communion, or other sacramental elements of the Church, we stand to lose the sacramental nature of the Church herself as well as losing others who will not respond to our conflicts but will respond to the pure Gospel of our Lord.

It is the season of Advent for these many as well as for us!  They just don’t know it … yet.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Thought

“This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that one thing happens to all.”  Ecclesiastes 9:3

Whether good or bad, life simply happens.  Sometimes the surprises we encounter are pleasant, and sometimes they are not.  The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is in the knowledge that our physical life on this earth for its own sake is pure “vanity” (the writer’s favorite word and the overall theme of the book).  That is, we can do all we wish to do and gain all we wish to gain but in the end, it will all have been for nothing because we will all – good and evil alike – “return to the dust from whence we came”.

On the Day of the Lord, however, when the resurrection of the righteous occurs, the “dead” will still be dead … forever.  The “vanity” of life on this earth is in the idea that personal happiness and wealth and material gain and accumulation of goods can actually mean anything in the end.  What matters in what we do in this life is what we use and how we use it on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are sojourners – OR – we are permanent residents.  If sojourners, we are just passing through.  If permanent residents, we will go the way of the earth and every other living thing.

Messiah Jesus was born and brought into our world to show us the way out and the way home, to show us by His Resurrection that there is life beyond the grave!  And one day He will return to call His faithful home.  Let Him return and find us faithful to Him.  Let the season of Advent be that means by which we are reminded that we are not forgotten, and that one day our Journey will be complete.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Thought

“If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.”  John 10:37-38

This passage makes me think of the “Great Commission” as the eleven disciples (soon to become “apostles”) gathered to Christ before His Ascension into Heaven included “doubters” among those who gathered and worshiped the Lord.  We cannot ignore what is written in that passage (Matthew 28:16-20) as it is inferred that Jesus did not take offense and dismiss these “doubters” before He spoke His words. 

The “doubters” among us are never more prominent that during the holiday season when there are so many conflicts in the so-called “war on Christmas”.  These “doubters” and outright “deniers” are downright hostile to the Advent season and to the Holy Day itself.  Why do they seem so antagonistic to Christians, Christmas, and the Church?  Why do we take offense when they do not believe us? 

It may be in why many of us can become so easily offended when any errors are pointed out to us; people just don’t take us at our words, and we hate to be wrong!  More telling, however, is that people during this Holy Season do not believe our “works”.  We adamantly proclaim “Jesus is the reason for the season”, but we look and act just like the “doubters” and the “deniers” by cursing them.  Even Jesus did not seem to be offended when the religious leaders did not take Him at His word, but He was clear that His “works” could not be denied as having come from the Holy Father.

We need not be offended that so many do not believe what we believe, but we should be convicted if they do not believe our “works” as those having come from the One whom we profess as “Savior”.  If these “doubters” and “deniers” cannot see Christ in our works, they have every right and reason to reject our words.

Let the glory of our Holy Lord be the “reason for the season” and let us, by our works, give “doubters” and “deniers” a reason to believe.

A blessed Advent,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Internal Conflict

For several years I have tried to remove myself from the political process.  When I was a political science student and a part-time preacher as well as holding down a full-time job that depended in large part on sound, responsible public policy, I found my preaching to have been substantially influenced by my political inclinations and my disdain for government run amuck.  I was soon compelled to make a decision and choose politics or religion because I found that, at least for myself, I could not do both.  Though I still consider myself a news junkie, I will often scan headlines more than I will immerse myself in the stories themselves.  I prefer my life as a preacher, an aspiring theologian, and a committed disciple of Messiah Jesus, imperfect though I certainly am.

This does not mean I have completely detached from the political process.  Though some may suggest I cannot be a responsible voter unless I am fully informed about the ins and outs of the political process and the issues, I nevertheless do the best I can with what is available for my perusal.  My commitment, however, is to the Lord; and I have discovered that our Lord does not have leanings toward the Republican Party platform OR the Democratic Party platform.  If anything, it grieves our Lord that any politician or political party would attempt to invoke the Holy Name for its own purposes ("You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain").  In point of fact, I have come to better appreciate the Jewish tradition of not even uttering the Holy Name outside of the worship setting lest we lose reverence and awe of "Hashem" (the Name).

Writer Rachel Held Evans stated in a recent blog post, "We end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says."  So it is with politics.  In my humble opinion, public policy (actually not unlike religious philosophy) is a moving target.  "For the good of the country" is no more a forethought of Americans in general than "for the good of the Church" is for Christians.  We are all more inclined these days, it seems, to "getting mine first".  In the realm of "individual rights", we have become convinced that these rights trump all others.

And I say that to say this: we are faced with an inept Congress (my opinion) and a formerly detached and now incredibly arrogant president (my own observation, of course) all working not toward responsible public policy but toward the next election with all plans and policies geared toward "taking control".  Our own Arkansas governor recently stated at the Arkansas Democratic Party's winter convention that their focus must necessarily be on regaining their "losses" after the state's Republican Party gained control of both houses of the state's legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.  Apparently having the Republicans in control is a "bad thing" (and I'm sure Democrats would agree) just as Republicans will agree that Democrats in control of anything is a "bad thing" regardless of the stated will of the people.  Surely it can be easily seen that neither side is interested in public policy; they are interested only in their own policies and platforms.  And sadly, each side makes subtle and sometimes overt attempts to invoke the Almighty as being on "their" side.

Does the Bible support political values?  Can political values affirm biblical values?  For that matter, as Ms. Evans stated, can any one of us adequately define "biblical" values useful in the public realm?  In other words, can "Caesar" and YHWH be successfully assimilated?  Jesus refused to take sides and even seemed to go so far as to distinctly separate the two: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21).    

Yet St. Peter and St. Paul seem to agree that the "governing authorities" derive their authority from YHWH.  St. Paul says, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God" (Romans 13:1), and St. Peter admonishes us to "submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13).  Both passages, of course, must be read in their own contexts because neither, in my opinion, grants divine (absolute) authority to these "rulers" ("representatives" in our American context) but rather supports and promotes public safety and the "general welfare" of the people.

These passages become problematic, however, when such "hot button" social issues as same-gender marriage and abortion become public policy.  There are many conservative Christians who cannot - will not - abide by infanticide (abortion on demand), and these same Christians cannot in good conscience support same-gender marriage.  Count me among these, for the record.  In my own opinion and according to my best understanding with a sense of compassion for those who feel compelled toward abortion for whatever reason or inclined toward same-gender relationships, neither can be justified biblically without substantial "insertions", independent "assumptions", "reading between the lines", or dismissing the "antiquity" altogether.

Therein, I think, lays the danger because in the public realm, it does not really matter what I personally or theologically or politically think.  It matters, however, what I think in the Church.  It matters what I believe in the Church not only as a preacher and pastor but also as a disciple in fellowship with other pastors, preachers, and disciples.  It matters in the realm of the Almighty whose Kingdom is yet to come but whose realm is universal and eternal.  What I think and believe matters within the context of understanding - and helping others to understand - that we cannot have our cake and eat it, too.  One must choose "this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15).  For the people of the Holy Covenant, the choice is clear.  

Sunday, December 09, 2012

2nd Sunday of Advent 2012 - "Which Way?"

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

Jesus said, "I am the Way ..."(John 14:6).  John the Baptist carries on and fulfills Malachi's call to "Prepare the way".  This is what John is doing; he is "preparing the way of the Lord" as Malachi in his day sought to "prepare the way" and as the Church is also being charged to "prepare the way"; all in virtually the same context - the Lord is coming; Advent.  Even John the Baptist was not talking about the Birth of our Lord which had already passed!  Here we are two-thousand years later, and the sense of urgency about "preparing the way" seems substantially diminished.  We no longer feel compelled to even ask, "Which way is THE way?" because we've become assimilated into the dominant culture.  We're comfortable here.  And besides, if we say the "magic words" and claim to believe in Jesus as Messiah, what more is required of us?  What more can we expect?  What more does our Lord expect?

When we say Jesus is "the Way", we stipulate He is the ONLY way.  Fair enough because this is implied in our Lord's proclamation when He says He is "the" way rather than "a" way, but what exactly does He mean?  How do we come to understand "the Way"?  I think we can make such a determination without over-thinking ourselves to death, but I also think we must necessarily think through it because faith is not benign, faith is not incidental, and faith is certainly not secondary to the disciple, the follower, the student of Christ.  Faith is discipleship; intentional, purposeful, active engagement in the life of Messiah Jesus.  Faith does not just "sit there" and "exist" any more than love does.  This is not "the Way"; it is a "spot" on "the Way".  Faith on the "Way" is moving and proactive and sacrificial as is love.  Faith is like every other good gift from Above; we are expected to utilize these God-given gifts for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

St. John Chrysostom was a 4th century "Church Father" (a developer of Christian doctrine) who believed "the Way" was revealed by John the Baptist when John told the "multitudes" that in order to "flee from the wrath to come" and "make [the Lord's] paths straight", we must "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:4,7-8 NKJV).  That is, WE must do our own work rather than to rely on the work and faith of those who came before us.  Look at how John the Baptist actually used Abraham "against" the people of Abraham who would attempt to lean on Abraham's faith and the Lord's Covenant with Abraham's legitimate seed - those who constantly "take" but never, ever "give".  We can partake of the fruits of others, to be sure, but we are equally obliged to bear our own fruits for others to enjoy and spiritually benefit from, "fruits worthy of repentance". 

The word "repentance" itself, however, has been so misappropriated over time as to be rendered either completely meaningless or completely negative.  Typically when the word is tossed into a sermon, there is an implication from the preacher and the traditional understanding of the congregation that "bad people" must become "good people".  The negative connotation, then, is in that implication which comes from a general understanding and universal assumption that "all have sinned" as it is written in the Scriptures.  We remind ourselves and one another that we are "all sinners in need of grace".  So what do we do?  We convince ourselves that we must stop doing bad things. 

Fair enough, of course, but not nearly far enough because it not enough to simply acknowledge and passively "admit" our short-comings, and "confess" our sins in a general way.  That's the easy part.  Compared to actually and actively repenting, confession requires little more than being honest with ourselves.  And because the Protestant tradition negates the need to confess our sins to a priest, it is very easy to make our confession silently.  But if our confession stops there and we have been convinced - or have convinced ourselves - that nothing more is required of us, our faith - such as it is - dismisses "the Way" of Christ because "repentance" has not taken place.  We have "confessed" and we may have renewed our resolve not to do that particular sin again, but we have yet to actually "repent".  To "repent", then, is not merely the absence of a former path; it is rather the presence of a new path and the resolve to walk that path, that "Way" of Christ.  So to "confess" and THEN "repent" can be - perhaps must be - considered mutually exclusive of one another.  One should lead to the other, but neither replaces the other.     

To "prepare" the way of the Lord, then, means much more than to simply stand aside while He passes and refrain from doing "bad things".  If we have rutted out a road to the point that it is impassable and we do nothing to correct the damage, knowing it is the ONLY road to where we need to go, the road remains impassable even if we are doing no further damage to the road.  The road still has to be fixed; the road must be made passable again before it is even useful.  So the Church must be actively engaged in the preparation process to "prepare the Way of the Lord" - because our Lord IS COMING BACK!  The "road", therefore, must be fixed because our Lord, when He was among us, created this Road for us.  We neglected it and may have even done the damage through misuse and abuse, using it for our own purposes with no thought about who might be coming behind us rather than for the purposes of the Kingdom.  We perhaps managed with our 4WD's and 4-wheelers and "gators" and other off-road vehicles, but what did we do for those who lacked these resources?  Did we even offer them a ride?  Or did we simply rest in the knowledge, "I got mine"?

This is the most engaging and compelling component of the Advent season.  If we knew Jesus were coming tomorrow and the call was issued to "prepare the way" (which, of course, has happened and continues to happen!), what would we do to prepare before His 9am arrival?  Well, we would stop doing bad things, of course, but has "the path made straight"?  Is there genuine "fruit worthy of repentance"?  The Lord will do His part, of course, just as we are reminded by St. James that the "rains will come", but the farmer can wait only after he has done the necessary work before the rain can even do any good (James 5:7-8)

The farmer prepares the soil and plants the seed, but what may come of that seed is finally in the Lord's hands.  But it would do the farmer or the Kingdom little good if the farmer only "admitted" or "confessed" that he failed to plant the seed, and then just let it go and walk away, reasoning that "the Lord knows my heart".  In order for "fruits" to be produced, the farmer would need to "repent" from his failure by "making amends" to go out and plant the seed; seed, incidentally, that did not just "pop" up from nothing.  It is seed that comes from other seed.  Perhaps the "seed of Abraham" from which entire nations and kings would spring forth?

We must not, however, get hung up on the notion that we can somehow "work" or "buy" our way back into the Lord's good graces.  This is not what the Scripture passage is about.  "Fruit worthy of repentance" is NOT about "personal" salvation.  It is about engagement in the ministry of Messiah Jesus which seeks others to join "the Way" of Messiah.  It is about sanctification, "going on to perfection", but the spiritual process transcends "personal" and becomes "community" - NECESSARILY

"Bearing fruit worthy of repentance" is about discipleship for the sake of the Lord and His Church.  It is about acknowledging that Messiah Jesus is "the Way", and that "Way" has our Lord's footprints all over it.  It is the "Way" that has been laid out for us.  It is the "Way" that has been made possible - and passable - by Messiah Jesus, and it is the "Way" by which He will judge when He returns as it is written in The Revelation: "Behold, I am coming quickly [says the Lord], and My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last" (22:12-13)

"He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly', [says the Lord]!"

This, dear friends, is Advent.

"Even so, come Lord Jesus!"  "The grace of our Lord Christ Jesus be with you all. Amen."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Thought

“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument … For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”  C.S. Lewis

Isn’t it funny that when Christians think of “transforming power”, as in the Holy Spirit, we typically mean we want the Holy Spirit to transform others into something more pleasing and less offensive, according to our own cultural tastes and social sensibilities?  We like the idea of being “saved”, but transformation?  Changing into something other than what we think we already are?  Not so much.  We are much more inclined toward that old hymn’s implied promise, “Just as I am”.  It’s a nice idea and a good start, but staying “just as I am” defies the Wesleyan concept of “sanctification”; that is, “going on to perfection” as the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us toward – AND – it denies our Lord’s call to “take up your cross and follow Me” because we would much prefer our Lord to follow us.  “Just as I am”.

If Messiah Jesus is “the Way”, then let it be His “Way”.  If Messiah Jesus is “the Truth”, then let the Truth prevail in our own lives.  For “the Life” we pray for and wait for during the season of Advent, that of Eternal Life, is upon us – IF – we are on “the Way”.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

Defining Necessity - 1st Sunday of Advent 2012

Luke 21:25-36

As the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words".  I was recently moved by a photograph making its rounds on the Internet.  On the left is a photo of starving children with distended bellies and skeletal arms reaching out for food distribution (we've all seen these images on TV and in other media appeals for money).  On the right is a photo of what we have all probably seen before as well - and wisely chose to run for our lives when we saw it! -  a "Black Friday" sale mob with angry-faced people in the "mad dash" carrying more "stuff" in their arms and shopping carts than any one person or even family could possibly need.  The montage was entitled, "Define Necessity".

I guess necessity is relative to each individual because it can surely be said that what you may deem to be necessary I might consider a luxury; something nice to have but something that will not substantially affect the quality of life one way or the other.  I think we can agree that food and clean drinking water are universal necessities though we might disagree about what is considered adequate food.  Remember the ancient Israelites were sufficiently fed with manna (virtually flavorless bread) on the journey to the Promised Land, but they soon grew tired of the same ol' thing day after day.  When they finally revolted with their unreasonable demand, they were sharply reminded through the Lord's wrath that genuine necessity is NOT relative to individual desires or even mob demands but that cravings could be our undoing especially if we bite the hand that is already feeding us (Numbers 11:31-34).

No matter how we define necessity for ourselves, however, one thing is clear: we will never be able to reach consensus on necessity apart from the Lord's own definition of what we truly "need".  We base our "needs" on what it takes to live from day to day according to a freely chosen lifestyle - however simple or elaborate.  Yet from the beginning our Lord has tried to teach us that our only real "need" is for Him in our lives.  Surrendering to that, we will find our true needs met - IF we are willing to trust our Lord to that extent.  That, dear friends, is the continuing challenge for the Church especially during the season of Advent - probably better known as the "Christmas shopping season".

In a recent conversation, I recalled an Advent practice at the church in which I grew up.  The Nativity was set up in the church for Advent, but the Christ child was not placed into the manger until the Christmas Eve Mass.  Over the years, however, I have come to question that practice because I have discovered Advent is much more than a count-down to Christmas; in fact I would question the validity of Advent to that end.  The best ideal of Advent is not exclusively the anticipation of that Sacred Moment when Christ CAME; rather it is now for the faithful more about when Christ will COME again "in a cloud with power and great glory" - for the term "advent" is based on a Latin word which means "coming" - NOT "done come"!  That Messiah was born is a certainty, but that moment will not be repeated just as the Crucifixion will not be repeated because as the Letter to the Hebrews challenges us, how many times would we demand our Lord to go to the Cross for sins from which we refuse to repent (6:1-8)?  Of course, we've made it a little easier for ourselves actually with a little help of the Church; we've redefined sin "according to a freely chosen lifestyle" in the name of "grace".

It is far better that we heed our Lord's words in Luke's gospel: "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life [so that the Day of the Lord does not] catch you unexpectedly, like a trap".  Clearly Jesus is not referring to that "Day" as the day He was born, yet the Church does well to mark and remember that blessed day with extreme reverence and thanksgiving.  However, we must always have our hearts and minds geared toward our next certain reality: His imminent return.

Advent is not an either/or preparation period when we get to choose what we will celebrate, and sometimes I think it is unfortunate that in the Church calendar Advent immediately precedes Christmas simply because of what it has become.  There is the Remembrance, of course, because it is a given that when the blessed day of our Lord's Birth is upon us, we will mark the time hopefully in worship, hopefully in reverence, and hopefully not in a period of self-indulgence, pagan practices that have been "normalized" over the centuries, and crushing debt by having bought for ourselves and our loved ones things we have managed to live - so far - sufficiently and very well without. 

When we teach our children about the "hope" we share, the "the hope that is within us" (1 Peter 1:15)  especially during Advent, do we teach them by the Christmas Count-down to "hope" they get more stuff than their friends?  Do we teach them to "hope" Santa will pay a visit with that coveted toy or gadget everyone has been talking about?  Or do we use this blessed season of Remembrance AND Anticipation to remind them of our mystery of faith; that "Christ will come again"?  Hopefully it is the latter (though current practice indicates the former) because this, my dear friends, is the only genuine Hope the Church has left.  This is precisely the Hope Jesus refers to in Luke's gospel, and this Hope has nothing to do with Christmas.

"End Times" theology sounds more foreboding than it is.  In fact I ran across an article recently in which people from NASA spoke about the so-called Mayan calendar count-down.  It was pointed out that even though this cataclysmic event is NOT going to happen as so many fear, it is that so many young people have been pushed into a state of utter hopelessness and listlessness because life no longer has meaning beyond December 21.  They are genuinely "afraid" of this Mayan thing because they do not know of the Hope we share in Christ.  And friends, I assure you, Santa will not, does not, CANNOT deliver that kind of hope, and it is NOT available on a store's shelf!

Jesus does teach that "people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken" (Luke 21:26).  This sounds profoundly foreboding, but what can we gather from this that sounds any less so, any less "fearsome"?  Could it be these "people" to whom Jesus refers are exactly those who do not know Him and never did?  Could it be these "people" to whom Jesus refers are fearful because they have no hope?  Could it be these "people" to whom our Lord refers are those "people" who have finally come to realize that the thousands of dollars they spent on junk at Christmas was really not "all that"?  I think maybe this image Jesus conveys would always evoke fear in the simple-minded and the faithless and the hopeless - and certainly children!  It does not sound good AT ALL!

Look again, however, and look with your hearts and minds wide open!  For Jesus continues: "When these things begin to take place, STAND UP and RAISE YOUR HEADS ... because your redemption is drawing near."   This is the good stuff, brothers and sisters!  "Your redemption is drawing near!" 

This means that soon - but perhaps not soon enough for us - we will no longer have to read stories in the newspapers about a child abused by a trusted adult.  This means that soon - and perhaps not soon enough for us - we will no longer have to read about a child in a strange land who was beheaded because she refused an arranged marriage to an older man according to strange, man-made customs.  This means that soon - and probably not soon enough for us - we will no longer have to listen to senseless politicians trying to claim and play the role of "messiah"!  This means that soon - and absolutely not soon enough for us - we will have all doubts and all fears and all anxieties cast aside - "for [our] redemption is drawing near!"

This is what Advent prepares us for.  This is our Hope!  And this "season", such as it is, must never end - because it certainly DOES NOT culminate at Christmas!  Of course we can hope and work for better days or bigger paychecks or newer cars or nicer homes, but none of these things are listed anywhere in the Holy Scriptures as sources of "joy unspeakable" and "full of glory"!  None of these things are mentioned anywhere in the Holy Scriptures as the sources of our "redemption"!  None of these things will last any longer than the generations before us that are long gone and soon forgotten.  None of these things will enhance (but can certainly inhibit) our Journey of Faith because none of these things, at their very core, can be construed as "necessary".  These are all culturally argumentative, of course, but spiritually and theologically they are not even in the ball park.

But by reasonable means, let us enjoy our lives, but let us not neglect the fellowship of the Church!  For our God is the God of Life and of Living - and living well as a community.  Life itself is a Divine Gift by which we are reminded not only of the limits of our humanity and our need for our Savior, but we are also reminded in daily living what really matters, what we truly need - if we would look beyond the Christmas Tree.  He is Christ our Lord, Christ our Savior, Christ our Redeemer.  He is Emmanuel, "God with us", and His time is near.  Amen.