Sunday, November 27, 2011
Perhaps, the first real surprise of Advent is John the Baptist. No one expects to see him striding into the sanctuary during this season of the year; yet, the traditional text for the second Sunday in Advent brings him into the spotlight and on center stage. What most folks are looking for is Jesus in the manger and to their surprise and dismay, in walks this obnoxious character to whom Mark introduces us in the first few verses of his gospel. And, let their be no mistake. John the Baptist is a character. He comes striding onto the stage of history wearing smelly clothing made of camel hide and with breath that reeks of locust and honey. When we get over the shock of his appearance, we are even more offended by his message. At a moment when folks are starting to say, "Merry Christmas," John is hollering, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 3:2)
The scripture identifies this messenger of repentance as the "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight." (Mark 1:3) There is this fanatical and radical singularity about John the Baptist. Those first century folks saw it and, certainly, we do. Despite the current environment of a struggling economy, most people are more interested in hearing the many secular voices which promise that things will eventually get better than the one voice which tells us that something is so fundamentally wrong with each one of us that only radical change will save us.
What really makes John the Baptist so offensive is not his out-of-style attire or his bad breath, but the way he says that there is something wrong with each of us. Dealing with it is what is involved in getting ready for Christmas, not buying more gifts.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
"Ripley's Believe It or Not" is an amazing collection of things too bizarre and unusual to believe and accept as true. Yet, all those things recorded are included in the listing as something which is verifiably true even though "impossible" sounds like a better adjective. Those of us who read the Bible know about impossible sounding things. And, in that Word we are introduced to the author of impossible things. When Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would as a virgin bear a child, she was told by the angel, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)
Another place where we find ourselves in a Ripley moment comes in the first chapter of the book of Acts as men in white robes appear to the disciples while they are watching Jesus disappear in the clouds above them. Verse 11 of that chapter says, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." Those angelic beings bring us headlong into a believe it or not moment.
It is not surprising that this part of the gospel story is viewed with such skepticism by the current followers of Jesus. Our culture demands that everything add up, make sense, and be logical. The message about the return of Jesus is not regarded as credible by many because of a world view which gives the individual permission to believe only those things which can be proven in the science lab or the school of hard knocks. But, these men in white robes do not seemed concerned with offering proof of what they were saying. The disciples who heard them could believe it or not. Such was their choice. And ours.
Each year the clergy members of the Annual Conference gather to hear a report of the Conference Board of Ministry. It includes several listings which provide some order to what might otherwise be a rather confusing and careless look at the clergy membership available for appointment by the Bishop to the church. There is also that moment when the Bishop asks each of the District Superintendents to speak a word about the character of those clergy members of their respective districts. The usual response to the Bishop's historical question is some variation of "Bishop, the men and women under appointment in my District are blameless in life and faithful in service." Some may hear the exchange with a measure of smugness, but I suspect more cringe just a bit at being put in the category of blameless.
The Apostle Paul talked about followers of Jesus being blameless. In I Corinthians 1:8, he wrote, "...so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." And then over in I Thessalonians 3:13 he is back at it again as he wrote to the church, "And may He so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints." It must have been a source of great encouragement to those early Christians to know that someone like Paul was praying that they would be able to stand blameless before Jesus when He returned.
However, the truth of the matter is that none of us would dare have such a hope were it not for what has been done for us through Jesus on the cross. To be seen as blameless on that day will only mean that a great work of redemption has been completed for us, enabling us to know a forgiveness we would, otherwise, never know and a oneness with God that we always recognize as being undeserved. Thanks be to God for that grace and mercy which will cause Him to see us on that day as one of the blameless ones.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Advent calls us to the discipline of waiting with anticipation. But, it is not just about sitting somewhere with a passive mindset. The Apostle Paul makes it plain that we do not live passive spiritual lives. In the last three verses of the 13th chapter of Romans, he reminds us, "the night is far gone, the day is near." Of course, he is not talking about night turning into day as it does each morning. He is, instead, reminding us that the time for the Lord's return draws nearer with the passing of each day. Thus, as those who follow Jesus, we are the interim people. We are those who know without a doubt that His return is certain and, therefore, we wait with anticipation. How we should wait is very clear as we allow ourselves to read the Word in that section of scripture. Because "the night is far gone, the day is near," we are to "lay aside the works of darkness...to put on the armor of light...to live honorably as in the day." Instead of sitting on our hands, the Word calls us to embrace a positive, intentional, and faithful lifestyle which allows the fruit of the Spirit to be expressed through our living. Nothing passive is being communicated here. So, as we wait, we are to live in faithfulness to God which takes us back to the ninth and tenth verses of that same chapter. In those words we are reminded of commandments which keep us rightly related to those around us and then there is that final word of summation which says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Surely, nothing would please God more than for us to use these days of Advent waiting as a time for doing the heart work reconciliation requires
As I read the gospel lessons for the first Sunday in Advent, particularly Luke 21:25-36, a song more contemporary than traditional comes to mind. Since I prefer the traditional music, I am always a bit surprised that "We Shall Behold Him" begins to go around inside my head. Of course, it is verse 27 of the Lukan text which does it as it says, "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." More than once have I gone to a Minister of Music and asked that someone sing this song on the first Sunday of Advent.
"We shall behold Him...face to face...in all of His glory..." Were it not for Advent, the theme sounded by the song and message proclaimed by the text would never be heard in the church. The one thing the church seeks to avoid in our day is to seem other worldly and to focus on the theme, "Christ is coming" appears to put the church in just such a place. But, then, maybe more than appearing other worldly is the fear of coming to terms with the fact of final accountability to the Christ who will come into our midst as Lord and King.
We live in a culture which judges people and places value on people according to what has been accumulated. We are so vested in this culture that it is truly frightening to find ourselves coming face to face with the reality that embracing such a value system turns our life into a wasted trip. When we behold Him, the things we hold in our hands will not be seen as having more value than the things of the heart. What a surprise awaits so many!
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
When the early church was in its infancy stage during those early years after Pentecost, its members lived with the expectation that Jesus would be returning any day. Certainly, He would be returning before those witnesses to His earthly presence had died. Some suggest this is the rationale for the "selling of possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:45) What became obvious to the early church was the fact that Jesus was not coming quite as soon as they had first expected.
However, such a realization did not change their confidence that what was delayed was still certain. Jesus would come. They became those who waited. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Christians he acknowledged this as he wrote, "...you wait for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Cor. 1:7b-8)
The church is still waiting. The delay has now stretched over a span of time those early believers would have found to inconceivable. As we wait, the temptation is to take for granted the coming of tomorrow. As Advent calls us to be ready, we are reminded the delay gives us time to ready ourselves by acts of compassion, by ministries of mercy, by embracing repentance, and by striving to be reconciled to those where relationships are broken.
After fourteen years of studying the Bible, William Miller became convinced that Christ would be returning to the earth on April 3, 1843. The Millerite Movement came into existence as a result of his ministry. As people bought into what he was preaching, they sold possessions which were not going to be needed. On the appointed day, groups put on white robes, climbed high places, and waited to see Jesus in the clouds. Others went to graveyards to ascend with departed loved ones. And, in Philadelphia, some society folks went out to the edge of town to avoid going with the common riff-raff of the city. Of course, nothing happened. William Miller did some more figuring, but after two more prophesied dates were set and passed, the Millerite Movement lost much of its momentum.
Miller had it right that Christ would return. The gospel writer Luke enables us to hear Jesus saying, "Then they will see the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and great glory." (Luke 21:27) Miller got that part right. What he missed was a Word of Jesus found in Mark. "But, about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:32) Miller's mistake was the mistake of human arrogance which causes us to think we can know what only God knows.
Of course, Miller was not the first, nor has he been the last to make such a monumental error. The scripture is clear that the "when" of the coming of Christ is unknown and can never be known by anyone of us. But, it does not change the reality that there will come a dawn unlike any others in that it will usher in the moment in history when the book will be closed on human history as we know it. In the meantime Advent calls us to live today as if the sun has dawned on the day of His coming.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
It is always interesting that Advent begins with a focus on things yet to come instead of what has already happened. For those who have their eyes on Christmas, such is not the expectation. These Christmas watchers say that since Advent ushers in Christmas, the focus should be on the Christ who has come and not the Christ who is coming. As far as the world is concerned, things seem out of kilter when the church starts reading those gospel texts like Matthew 24:36-44 or Mark 13:32-37, or Luke 21:25-36.
Even though the message of those texts is not a Word secular society wants to hear, the Church continues to proclaim, "Christ is coming!" It is a futuristic reality. Only the day and the hour is uncertain. What is not uncertain is that the One who has come as a baby in Bethlehem will come again as King of Kings. When He came in Bethlehem, He came as the powerless one. No one is more powerless than an infant child. When He comes again, He will come as the One with all power. No one is more powerful than the resurrected Jesus.
The readings for these early Advent days call us to live in the present moment with the knowledge that He who has come is coming and it could be today. It goes without saying that constantly living with such an expectation will impact the living we do in the present moment as nothing else could ever do. It is no wonder the gospel writers tell us to "Stay awake," and to "Be ready." If it is true that He is coming, nothing else makes any sense.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Advent is the church's answer to those who protest the commercialization of Christmas and are always saying, "Let's put Christ back into Christmas." When Advent is properly observed, it enables us to spiritually prepare ourselves to celebrate the Christ-event without getting caught up in what the secular community says must be done in order to get ready for December 25. However, the truth is the spiritual community is so tuned into the secular voices of the season that Advent becomes more like pre-Christmas hype than a time where things like anticipation and expectation are allowed to grow in our hearts.
Anyone who enjoys a good sunrise at the beach knows that the experience is about more than just seeing that big yellow ball pop up on the ocean. Sunrise watchers arrive early. Sometimes they sit in darkness. Always they watch and marvel at the way the promise of light is offered through the changing colors at the distant place where sky meets water. These early morning watchers are constantly thinking things like, "It won't be long now," or "It's coming!" The experience of waiting is so powerful that the moment of actual sunrise is almost anti-climatic.
When we do Advent right, it is much the same, but even more powerful than the experience of sunrise watchers. Advent watchers are a patient bunch. They look forward to the waiting and expectation. They understand and accept the tension created by those who cannot do Advent because they have to do the secular version of Christmas. They sit on the edge of their seats thinking, "It won't be long now. He's coming." They have learned that December is not so much about hurrying around filled with stress, but a time of quiet waiting which only fuels our hunger for Jesus.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
As one who has been preaching for a long time, I have learned that folks often grab a word or two, maybe a phrase, and occasionally, a thought to take with them out of the sanctuary. Usually, it was not what I thought was a great arrangement of words, but a simple thought that spoke to their circumstances. Such should not really be a surprise when I remember that my own spiritual journey has been influenced and shaped by simple words and thoughts heard along the way.
I remember Clark Pafford, who pastored the church where I did my first stint as a summer youth worker. Numerous times he told me, "The success of your ministry is determined by what happens when you leave." As I moved from one ministry place to another, I always found myself being reminded of his insight. He was also the man who told me, "Preach to empty pews before preaching to filled ones," a practice observed over a lifetime of preaching. And when Bishop Cannon came to Talbotton to preach, he did so for about forty-five minutes, but all I took away was the phrase, "Life is fragile." I have breathed and spoken those words more times than I can count. Finally, I remember Dr. Brokhoff, my preaching professor at Candler, who kept saying over and over, "Preach the text." When I failed in preaching by talking too much about what I thought, it was not because I had not been told what to do!
All of us carry simple thoughts and phrases with us that have had shaping power on our journey of faith. I wonder what you have heard. I wonder how your life has been shaped and directed. If you have a minute, click on comment, and share one of your "words for the journey."
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
In the early 90's while serving the Vidalia Church, I led my first Disciple group. With the exception of one or two years, I started a Disciple Bible Study group every September. Every time I finished one, it seemed like the best one. And when I did the last one at the Richmond Hill Church before retirement, I thought again, "This one is the very best one." In many ways, it really was an extraordinary experience with some disciples who God brought together for those nine months.
After that group was done, I wrote in the back of a devotional book some lessons I learned from those people and the community they, along with the Spirit, brought into being. I learned that when there is real community in the church 1) there is immersion in the Word; 2) people pray for each other, and 3) and believers are bound together by mutually agreed upon accountability. I learned from the faith journey of those folks that community is not forced, legislated, or structured by a planning committee, but something created when these elements are present.
For almost four decades I preached about it, planned for it, and bought into programs of the larger church which promised it. No matter what I did, creating community always seemed to be one of those much-sought-after goals that remained too elusive to capture. And, then they did it before my very eyes. Those folks God brought together for a holy experiment created community and lived it in a way that still leaves me wondering why I could not have understood sooner.