Monday, December 28, 2015

A Theological Correction

While no one has said or written anything, the first line in the poem I wrote and posted on Christmas Day has bothered me.  While I delve into trying to write some poetry from time to time, it is not a style of writing with which I am comfortable.  It is an unforgiving and demanding way to write.  Every word has to count.  Every word has to fit.  There is little margin for missing the mark as there is when writing prose.  And then, too, poems are such invitations to a wide range of interpretation.  They are experienced more at a subjective level which is subject to the experience of both the writer and the reader. 

What bothered me was that beginning word, "Pushed from heaven to earth, they say..."   I was so focused on my thoughts about the Word becoming flesh, the Incarnation, that I wrote a word which could surely be misinterpreted.  Using the birthing language was probably not the best way to describe John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us," or that Philippian passage which speaks of Jesus  as One who "emptied Himself...being born in human flesh."  (Phil. 2:7) And, of course, another memorable verse which comes to mind is the one which reads, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..." (John 3:16)  When I chose the word, "pushed," it brought to mind the physical birth of Jesus to Mary, but it might have caused some to think that Jesus was forced into our world, or that it was against His will. 

It was an experience of being reminded to think through what we say about what we believe.  Words are important, not just to poets or would-be ones, but to all of us who seek to share words about what God has done for us through Christ.  Long years ago I remember a person wiser than I was who told me to take what we believe to its logical conclusion and make sure it is something with which we want to live.  For example, it is easy to talk about loving everyone, but then think about all those whom that includes.  So, forgive me for my use of literary license and know that I believe Jesus was not pushed into coming to die for us, but willingly made the choice.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Day

             AMONG US

Pushed from heaven, they say,
But, still from a mother's womb,
A warm dark comfortable place.
From warm womb to cold world,
A world as hard and cold as nails,
He came to live among us.

Before breath, the catch of hands,
Made rough by fresh cut wood,
Unsanded wood, full of splinters.
Unforgiving wood against flesh,
Flesh that reached out to take,
The One who came to live among us.

Shook to breathe, and live
And smell the new smells of earth,
Dung, and dirt, and moldy hay,
And taste the sweat of a father's hand,
The milk of a mother's breast.
The Holy Child, flesh among us.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent XXVI

There is mystery at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh, not the kind of mystery one might think.  There is one sense in which there is nothing there except mystery.  You know, the mystery that goes with God being at work among folks such as us.  No, this mystery is a bit different.  It is the mystery found in something that happened in the manger after the shepherds arrived.  We have all read it a thousand times.  As we go back and read verses 17 and 18 of the second chapter of Luke, we find these words, "When they (the shepherds) saw this (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the manger), they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them."  What is the mystery?  Actually, who is the mystery is the better question.  Who is "all?" 
 
What the Word says as it tells us that "all...were amazed"  is that there were some folks there besides Mary and Joseph.  Who was there that night?  Could it have been some people who lived homeless in the manger where the animals stayed?  Or, maybe it was the workers from the inn, or the workers who took care of the animals used by the guests?  Or, did word get out that a baby had been born outside in the manger and some of the guest came out to see what was happening in the manger?  If one woman got word there was a new baby somewhere, it is likely others knew about it as well.  A newborn does have a way of getting women to talking.

The truth is we are not likely to ever know exactly who was present in the manger that night when God was about such an extraordinary thing.  By now we should be accustomed to such a phenomena.  Think about all those times the people of God have gathered for worship.  There are always the familiar faces, but there are also the faces of the unknown folks who have been led to the place where God was going to do something among His people.  Sometimes they come via some unusual circumstances, but still they find themselves leaving knowing that they were present for a divine reason.  God does things in our world.  He does them among His people.  We never know exactly who they are.  They may be a mystery for us, but for God, they are simply a part of His plan. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Advent XXV

As I reflect on the Christmas story, I find myself wondering about Joseph.  After he is mentioned at the beginning of the story, he all but disappears.  The story of the shepherds is told.  When they leave, Mary is left to do her pondering, but there is no mention of Joseph.  Of course, he has a role.  It is his lineage that took them to Bethlehem at that particular time.  And when we turn to Matthew's gospel, we see him as a protector of his family, but at the end of Luke's rendering of what took place after the birth of Jesus, Joseph is mentioned as being present, but nothing more.  Even though we recognize that Luke is more focused on the event through the eyes of Mary and Matthew tells it through the eyes of Joseph, his lack of reaction at the manger still seems strange.
 
Lest we be too troubled by what we do not know, let us remember what we do know.  Even as Mary was chosen, so was Joseph chosen.  God wanted him to fill the role of being the husband of Mary and the earthly father to His son.  When the angel appeared to Joseph in the dream, Joseph was not told to abandon Mary, but to embrace what God was doing through her.  Joseph was important to the plan of God.  He was an integral part of it.  God would use his lineage and the decree of some pagan government official to orchestrate Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the place of prophecy.  But, more than just this one thing, God chose Joseph to be the male role model for this Son of His.  The influence of Joseph would be one that shaped the boy and the man.
 
Of course, even though Joseph is not mentioned there alongside his pondering wife, we know he is there.  The Word says he is there alongside of her.  Where else would such a man be except in the middle of being where God was calling him to be?  There is, of course, no better place for any of us to be.  In the grand scheme of things, our place may seem to be small, insignificant, and unimportant, but if we know God's hand on our life, we surely know it is of value because it is being used by God to accomplish a plan sometimes seen,  but also sometimes not seen so clearly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent XXIV

By the time those shepherds left her and Joseph alone with their baby named Jesus, Mary must been beyond being bewildered.  For her the journey to that moment started long before the departure from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It was a journey nine months in the making.  It was one that started with the angel Gabriel announcing that God wanted her to be the mother of one to be named Jesus as well as Son of God.  Her first step of the journey to Bethlehem is seen in her words of response, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)
 
We sometimes forget that the mother whose son was worshipped in Bethlehem was hardly out of her own childhood.  She was a very, very young teenage girl.  Had Gabriel visited with a woman of a few more years of life's experiences in her mind and heart, there might have been a Moses like response.  However, with Mary we see youthful abandonment to God which can truly take hold of the belief that with God nothing is impossible.  And even though many of us have grown older and settled into a kind of practical theological foundation that is based more on logic and pragmatism than abandoned faith, we can still remember, with a certain amount of longing, exactly how that kind of spirit feels in our heart and how it propels us into whatever God is saying to us. 
 
It is this young girl whose heart was open to whatever God was doing through her that we see fully experiencing this present moment of that extraordinary night of divine birth.  When the boisterous, loud, and excited shepherds left, the Word says of her response, "But Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart."  (Luke 2:19)  As we draw so very close now to remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus, let there be some pondering in our own act of worship.  More happened in that single moment of the new born Jesus breathing his first gulp of this earth's air than we could ever begin to grasp.  Mary's pondering spirit certainly speaks of this reality for her.  Just maybe pondering is as much an act of worship as singing, and preaching, and praying, and rejoicing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent XXIII

When the dark night sky cleared of the angels and their heavenly voices were replaced by the small sounds of nearby sheep, the shepherds collected their wits, and one said to the others, "Let's go!"  There was no question about where they were going.  Bethlehem.  So off they went doing something good shepherds would never do which was leaving their sheep to tend for themselves.  But, then this night was unlike any other night.  Perhaps, it was the kind of night which caused them to know that their sheep would be tended and kept safe by the God who had sent the angels.
 
When they arrived in Bethlehem, they found the Savior for whom they were looking.  They were men in a hurry, men on a mission, and not even the unknown would hinder them in finding the One about whom the angels spoke.  "They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger."  (Luke 2:16)  While the text says very little about they did when they arrived, it is not hard for this preacher to use a little literary license to read between the lines and be sure that they arrived full of a spirit of adoration and worship.  They told the story of the angels with such fervor and passion that everyone who heard them was amazed and touched deeply in their hearts.  It was a work of God and whenever the works of God are reported mysterious divine transactions take place in the heart.
 
Our worship during these days bears this story telling dimension.  When that story from Luke is read to the congregation, may we be one of those who finds ourselves sitting on the edge of the pew eager to hear once again how God was at work on that dark night long ago to save us from our sins and our own self-centered trivial pursuits.  Worship Him in these days with a spirit of joy and gratitude that causes us to  step into that eternal stream of joy and gratitude first revealed to us by that bunch of dirty shepherds who tended their flock just outside of Bethlehem. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent XXII

Sometimes moments of worship surprise us.  They come out of the blue, slipping into our consciousness without any warning.  One moment we are sitting midst the mundane, minding our own business, and suddenly we find ourselves on holy ground.  It has happened to us as we walked into the evening and there was majesty lighting up the evening sky.  It has happened when a friend spoke a word of hope to us when life seem to be falling into pieces around us.  It has even happened while we were sitting in some pew getting ready to do our routine Sunday business.
 
Those shepherds of long ago who were visited by angels no doubt had such an experience of worship.  One moment they were sitting around the fire, telling stories, warming themselves by the heat of the flames and the wine being passed around, and suddenly everything changed.  Heaven dropped in for a visit by way of a angel announcing the birth of a Savior followed by an angelic choral group who sang a glorious song of praise to God.  Their response to what God was doing in their midst was their spontaneous act of worship.  I have always imagined their initial fear parralled the fear of the disciples on the Mt. of Transfiguration.  When they dug themselves out of the  dirt, they went to Bethlehem.  Fear and awe is not such a bad response to God making Himself known. 

It is unfortunate that there is so little fear and awe expressed in our worship.  Perhaps, we have a relationship with God that has become too casual.  He is not our buddy, but our God.  We talk about Him in terms which speak of such familiarity that there is no room for the holiness which is so much a part of His nature.  When we stand in the presence of God, it is not time for backslapping and flippant greetings, but taking off our shoes, and then standing in awe at the majesty of our God who seeks us out to bless.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent XXI

There is something very special about Christmas worship.  Perhaps, the focus is so unique, or maybe it is the scripture around which the worship centers, or just maybe, it is the exceptional music which is a part of the season.  One of my favorite and most used definitions of worship is "our response to what God is doing."  While it may be too simple for some and not theological enough for some, it is one that works for me.  In today's ecclesiastical culture, worship seems to be about entertainment, or doing it with more "shazam!" or being more spectacular than the church down the street.  Worship is a simple thing.  It is our response to what God has done and is doing.

As we find ourselves reading the traditional Christmas narrative in Luke, we certainly see numerous examples of worship.  The first worship moment took place not in the manger, but out in the field where smelly shepherds sat around a fire trying to stay warm.  All of a sudden the sky above them burst open with an angel announcing what God was doing that very night in a nearby village.  And, then hardly had the angelic voice ceased speaking when a host of heavenly angels starting singing and praising God with that familiar anthem, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom He favors." (Luke 2:14)  The first act of worship on that night so different from all other nights was heavenly worship.  There in the presence of those shepherds, heaven raised up its voice in praise to God.

When we really find ourselves caught up in worship, there is always something transcendent about it.  It becomes a moment for us of heaven breaking into earth, of the sacred breaking in the secular, of God being present among humankind.  Too many times we settle for the mundane, or the momentary excitement of some moment of entertainment when God has so much more to offer those who come before Him with nothing more than an eagerness to respond to Him for all the things He has done and continues to do in our midst. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent XX

Have you noticed?  It is getting close to Christmas.  Of course, anyone who listens to anything gets the daily countdown of the number of shopping days until the big day of store closings finally comes.  But, if you are into the Advent thing, and since you are reading this, you may be one of the minority who think about Christmas more as a spiritual experience than a commercial one.  And, if you are into the Advent thing, you know the season is one filled with themes of waiting and anticipation.  How waiting and anticipation is experienced in this day of instant gratification is something which has to be worked out by each one of us in our own way.
 
One of the practical things I have always done as a way of keeping these themes in front of me during Advent is to stay away from the Christmas hymns and the scripture readings about the birth of Jesus as long as I possibly can.  In my observance of Advent, I want to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful"  and "Joy to the World"  for the first time on Christmas Eve or at what is my Christmas worship experience.  Christmas Eve is also the time I want to hear the story from Luke about the journey to Bethlehem, the angels and the shepherds, and the birth of Jesus.  It is a story I relish hearing.  It is one I delay so that I might eagerly listen to it.  While there is not a lot of theological depth being expressed by these practices, it is simply something done to remind me that there is value in waiting with anticipation.

We each figure out things that work for us.  Some have Advent candles in their home.  Some read Advent readings while some (like me) write them.  Some folks participate in weekly Advent studies.  Whatever we do, it is always good to remember that Advent is not really so much a season for doing as a season for being.  Learn to be.  It will be something which can be carried beyond the days of Advent.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent XIX

It is said, and even sung, that grace is amazing.  Indeed, it is.  Grace speaks of the favor of God being granted to the likes of you and me, not because of anything we have done, but because it is God's choice to grant it.  Grace, therefore, is simply understood as the undeserved, the unearned, and the freely given favor of God.  We experience it because God is loving and merciful.  Indeed, amazing!  But, could it not also be said that grace is bewildering?  Surely, anyone one of us who has stood in some broken moment full of sinfulness and received grace instead of condemnation would say that grace can indeed be a bewildering thing.
 
As I reflect on how grace is bewildering, I keep thinking about one of Charles Wesley's great hymns.  Charles Wesley had the famous brother, John Wesley, who is recognized as the Father of Methodism.  John was the preacher, but Charles was the hymn writer.  The hymn which will not go away is entitled, "And Can It Be."  I love to sing it, but even more, I love to be in the midst of a great gathering of God's people as this hymn is lifted toward God.  It is a great hymn to sing, but it was also and continues to be a great hymn of theological teaching.  Read or sing all its verses and nothing more needs to be added to understand what Christ has done for us.  Remember with me, though, just that first verse.  "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior's blood!  Died He for me, who caused His pain!  For me, who Him to death pursued?  Amazing love! How can it be that Thou my God, shoulds't die for me?  Amazing love!  How can it be that Thou, my God, shoulds't die for me?
 
Yes, it is amazing, this grace of God so freely given.  I am once again bewildered by it.  It happens every time I stand in the presence of it and realize that it is being offered to me.  To me.  Of all people, to me.  It is impossible to understand how it can be!  Bewildered again am I.  And, perhaps, you are, too.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent XVIII

Bewildered people stand before perplexing truth and say, "This can't be true."  Surely, this must have been the mindset of those who stood out there on the edge of the wilderness listening to John the Baptist as he gave one illustration after another about the meaning of "bearing fruits of repentance."  (Luke 3:8)  But, then what he said was not just bewildering for those who listened.  It remains the same for us today.
 
For example, we still struggle with generosity to the poor.  We are quite willing to donate old clothes to thrift stores, but none of our donations really deplete our clothes closets.  We often buy a new coat and give the old one away, but when was the last time, we bought a new coat and gave it away, keeping the old one for ourselves?  Actually, it is never a matter of having two coats.  Most us could give one to the needy and have not one but several left in the closet.  To stand before a Biblical call to give so much of what we have to those who have nothing, or at least very little, causes us to think that John the Baptist and Jesus surely must have been speaking metaphorically and not literally.  We are somewhat bewildered by this concept of sacrificial generosity when we practice a generosity that protects our comfort and our logical pragmatic self-seeking sensibilities.
 
Of course, the core issue is not generosity to the poor, but trust in God.  One of the primary reasons we cannot give sacrificially is that we do not trust God to provide our needs.  We talk about God as the One who provides our needs, but we all know that we can really only depend upon ourselves to provide.  Trusting in God to provide is a nice Biblical concept, but it really does mean turning from a way of life where self is at the center to a way of life where God is at the center.  Ah, but then, John's message was about repentance, was it not?


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent XVII

 Bewildered is the word.  At first glance all we see is the passion and the intensity of John the Baptist.  This is understandable.  This preacher from the wilderness is a commanding figure.  He may be roughly clad and offensive to the nose, but no one stands on center stage with a greater sense of presence.  But, what is seen as we allow ourselves to look more closely at the scene there along the banks of the Jordan River is the sheer bewilderment of those people who are listening. Imagine being called a "brood of vipers," (Luke 3:7) when you saw yourself as one of the chosen of God.  "How could he say such a thing?" must have been the bewildered response of many.  But, there were others who felt the same.  Bewildered is what they must have been when they heard John tell them to give up a coat, or to take advantage of no one. 

John the Baptist not only pointed people to the physical presence of Jesus in their midst as he said, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," (John 1:29) but as he spoke to them that day about going beyond what was required in their dealings with others, he pointed them to the spirit of Jesus and the heart of His message.  Before Jesus spoke the words we know as the Sermon on the Mount, John was preaching its prelude out there on the banks of the River.  The people who heard him were surely as bewildered as were those who heard Jesus preach that extraordinary sermon.

It is the season for experiencing bewilderment.  If we make it to the day we celebrate the Christ-event without sensing it, maybe we will end up missing it completely.  Surely, these are the days for us to stand like those folks of long ago, amazed and bewildered at what God is doing in our midst.  Be open to the mystery.  Be looking for what God is doing.  Anticipate God's bewildering presence and His bewildering Word.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent XVI

The problem with the way so many of us do religion is that we make the practice of religion our duty.  John the Baptist is not exactly the kind of guy we would expect to point us in a different direction.  There is something about him that makes us envision a fundamental Bible-thumping fire and brimstone preacher who sees nothing but your black and white duty to live right before God.  But, as we hear him preaching, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance," he takes us somewhere else. 

Fruit speaks of something that is produced in a natural way.  Fruit is not the result of a plan.  It has nothing to do with determination or duty.  Like the fruit of the Spirit, fruits worthy of repentance come from a changed heart that is now facing in a different direction and, therefore, expresses itself in a way that previously would have been perceived as unnatural.  While it is always true that divine grace is the first step in any transaction of change in the human heart, it is also true that the first step for any of us is the step of choosing to face toward God in such a way that the Holy Spirit finds a heart that is now pliable and changeable.  As we bear fruits of repentance, we do so with the knowledge that it is more about the Spirit at work within us than our making something different happen ourselves.

The fruits of repentance are, therefore, not something we seek, but something we experience as the result of grace at work on a changed heart.  We bear them not because we plan to do so, or because we ought to do so, but because God finally has something with which to work.  When kindness and compassion and self-sacrifice begin to be seen in our life, it will not be because we have accomplished our duty, but because our life has been abandoned to God. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent XV

Those who are ready for baby Jesus in the manger to take center stage because it is December and Christmas Day is in December are surely frustrated if they allow themselves to be guided by the Advent lectionary passages.  The first Sunday of Advent focuses on Jesus coming again and the next two highlight the ministry of John the Baptist.  On this the third Sunday in Advent we are still listening to John. But, something has changed.  Instead of simply hearing him as he hollers, "Repent!" we hear him sounding a different message.  Sounding more like a teacher than a prophet, he preaches to the crowd, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  (Luke 3:8) 

What does it mean to bear fruits worthy of repentance?  Surely, one of the first things we are caused to understand is that declaring we have changed is only the first step.  And, if it is the only change, then we have stopped short.  James wrote in his letter to the church, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."  (James 2:13)  John the Baptist would agree.  Repentance is not just a thing of the heart, but it is also something which expresses itself in the way life is lived with others.  Resting on spiritual laurels is not an option.  Neither is ignoring the needs of those around us.  If someone needs a coat or food, they can no longer be ignored.  If we truly bear the fruits of repentance, we cannot live oblivious to our brother and sister's need.  If our heart is changed, it will manifest itself in our actions.

There is, therefore, a practical side to this repentance business.  Repentance is not about some level of spirituality that makes us good for nothing on the earth, but something that enables us to bring a bit of heaven to the worst places and into the most difficult of relationships.  Repentance changes the heart and the changed heart changes the world. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent XIV

It must take an unusual man to perceive that God is at work in his life and that the work is a fulfillment of a prophecy spoken hundreds of years earlier.  Or, perhaps, John the Baptist was just being faithful to what God was asking him to do without any awareness that he was fulfilling prophecy.  Maybe it was the gift of human hindsight and Spirit inspiration which caused the gospel writers to note that He was the one who was to "prepare the way of the Lord."  Regardless of which way we go, it is still obvious that John the Baptist was useful to God.
 
As we hear the man from the Jordan calling people to repentance, he is calling people to live as those who are going to be useful to God.  Some years ago now I read John Irving's novel, "Cider House Rules."  While it was a novel addressing the issues around abortion, it was also a story with an undergirding theme.  The theme was "Be useful."  God's will is for us to be useful for Kingdom work, but that is something which is impossible if are faced toward serving personal ego instead of facing toward God's purposes for our life.
 
Repentance aligns our life with that purpose.  It is a turning point which moves our life in a different direction.  It is about more than just turning from one thing that we name as sin to not doing it anymore, but a turning that orients our life to the reason our Creator brought us into being.  It is not always an easy choice for many of us to make, but once it is made, life is suddenly lived differently.  We become those who make a difference.  We become those who are useful to God.  And, as we begin to experience this life with God, we also discover that repentance is only a first step which opens a door built by grace and mercy. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent XIII

A dire strait, indeed, it is that calls out to heaven, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner."  'Tis a strait so dire that naught can bring deliverance but the Holy Son of God whose lips uttered from that terrible wooden cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  There on that cross, forgiveness offered, yet, still not forgiveness received.  There is a world of difference.  It is the difference between wholeness and brokenness, life and death, heaven and hell. As necessary as breath is this divine forgiveness offered by the Dying Holy One on that hill where the evil one prematurely claimed victory,

Only the heart broken by hopelessness cries out, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner."  When such cry is heard in heaven by divine ears and heart, it is never a cry from the pages of ritual.  It is the cry of the desperate heart.  When the words of repentance are truly thrown out to heaven, forgiveness offered becomes forgiveness received.  It is a mysterious divine transaction that transforms sinful broken humankind like you and me into the saints of God fit to dwell in the Kingdom and its heavenly spaces.

There is no cause for delay.  The hours are slipping by toward that moment when the hours are no more.  As precious as life is, it becomes a wasted thing when lived simply to gratify the ego within us instead of as something to serve the eternal purposes of the Creator who gives the gift. Grace and mercy opens the door.   Repentance is that first painful honest step which ushers us inside where the air is filled with forgiveness.  Be bold.  Enter now.  Breathe deeply. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent XII

Repentance is a radical thing because it mean accountability and being personal responsible for messing up and both cut against the grain of human nature.  When confronted by God in the Garden, Adam said, "the woman made me do it,"  and the woman said, "the devil made me do it."  Not much accountability being modeled in that early encounter, but then what we do see is the stuff of which human nature is made. No one likes to say, "It's my fault.  I messed up.  I am wrong."  And so, in the story of beginnings, we see something of the issue that is at the core of this repentance business.

There can be no repentance without being accountable for our own actions and accepting personal responsibility for them as well.  It is strange that we have such a problem with this in our relationship with God.  There is nothing we say, He does not hear.  There is nothing we do, He does not see.  There is no motive expressed by actions that He does not understand.  As the Word reminds us, He knows us better than we know ourselves.  Surely, none of us really thinks we can trick God, or pull the wool over His eyes, or put up some fa├žade through which He cannot see!

What only makes sense is honesty before the Holy One who knows us so completely.  To have a repentant heart is to be honest with God about who we are as well as our real intentions for the future He is holding out to us.  What seems like such a logical thing for us to do somehow becomes such a frightening possibility.  But, in the long run, it is the only thing which really makes any sense.  It is in actuality the only way forward out of the mess we make of our lives. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Advent XI

When John the Baptist preached repentance out there at the Jordan River, he was calling people to make a choice.   The call to make a choice is a note which sounds throughout the written Word.  Joshua gathered the Hebrew people at Shechem and called out to them, "...choose this day whom you will serve..."  (Joshua 25:15)  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters..." (Matthew 6:24)  In another place, He said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves..." (Luke 9:23)  And to a would-be-disciple, Jesus said, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."  (Luke 9:62)
 
To choose is a Biblical mandate and nowhere is this mandate to make a choice heard more clearly than in the word repentance.  Rightly understood and embraced, it is a word that speaks of choosing a different direction in life.  Without God we are living in what John Bunyan called "The City of Destruction."  With God we are headed toward the heavenly city, or as Bunyan sometimes wrote, "The City."  Another way of expressing the choice inherent within repentance is to confess that before repentance our life is turned away from God and toward self and after repentance it is turned away from self and toward God.  When we rightly hear the message of repentance proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament, we come to understand that this is the radical choice with which we are confronted. 
 
But, John the Baptist was not really into theological reflection.  He was calling people like you and me to action.  He was calling the people of his day and the people of our day to realize that we are either turned toward God or we are not.  There is no middle ground.  There is no comfortable position of compromise.  If we think there is such a place, then we need to get in the front of the line for we have some repentance business to do.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Advent X

Language can be a tricky thing.  We often use it in a way to twist the meaning.  We talk about fasting to lose weight.  In our culture fasting is dieting.  The truth is fasting does not equal dieting.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline, not a weight loss program.  And then, we talk about making love and having sex as if the two are always the same.  Again, here are two terms which are not synonymous.  One speaks of a physical act while the other speaks of a sharing at a far deeper level.  Finally, in these early days of Advent we hear the Word of God talking about repentance.  Our culture speaks of repentance as being sorry.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Being sorry gives us an excuse to do the same unacceptable thing the next time we want to do it.  Repentance provides no such luxury.
 
When we repent, we turn away from something.  As the scripture uses the term, it is in reference to turning away from some sin in our life.  In some places the figurative language of "taking off" and "putting on" is used which also enables us to think about the kind of change inherent within the Biblical message of repentance.  When John the Baptist used the word, he was talking about a radical change of the heart.  The people of his day were those who figured keeping religious law was going to make them right with God.  His preaching out there at the Jordan River was a call to put that idea aside and embrace something new which God was doing even as they were being baptized.
 
What God was doing in those moments when John was preaching was bringing His Son, Jesus, on stage into human history.  While He had been walking the paths of the earth for some thirty years, He had done so in a kind of obscurity.  When He walked into the waters of the river, He was no longer living under the radar.  He was in those moments putting Himself in a position to be seen, and more importantly, believed by a people who were embracing a different belief system.  Some things have not changed.  The message of repentance is still one we need to embrace in this day.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent IX

Back in the days of preaching at the Vidalia United Methodist Church, I had a sound technician who often told me, "If you're saying something I want them to hear, I turn you up.  If you say something I don't want to hear, I turn you down."  Even though it is not quite so easy to tune out the messages we do not want to hear, we have become masters at picking and choosing the messages we do want to hear.  Call it IFM (Internal Filtering Mechanism), or anything else you choose, but at least let us recognize we all have one installed at birth.
 
Usually, we are good with messages about love and mercy.  But, when we hear the Biblical prophet prototype named John preaching at his listeners and us about repentance, we have a way of tuning out the message.  We tune it out because taking it seriously first of all requires that we admit something is wrong with us.  For the unbeliever repentance requires life cannot be lived rightly without it being focused on Jesus.  And for the believer, it requires admitting that the life we are living before God is not really something which is pleasing to Him.  For both believer and unbeliever, repentance means an admission which declares, "My life is a mess!"
 
Repentance is an important and necessary step in God's plan for us to get out of and beyond the mess we have made of our life.  Any movement in our life toward a change which will take it in a different direction must begin with us.  We have to take responsibility for the mess we have made.  We also have to take responsibility for taking the first step away from where we are to where God wants us to be.  No one can take it for us.  True repentance takes us to a changed mindset, a changed heart, and a changed lifestyle, but no one can take the first step for any of us. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent VIII

Even those who have done the Advent liturgy for years somehow are jolted by the appearance of John the Baptist.  Perhaps, this jolting speaks of how much the secular society around us has impacted the way we do things in December.  It rushes us toward Santa Claus, decorating, and gift buying.  With everything around us pushing us toward the Christmas tree, it seems strange to entertain scripture passages which focus not on the Christmas narrative, but on this wild character who appears on center stage to do God's bidding.  His message of readiness is far different from the dominant one heard from every direction.  His message is a message of heart readiness.
 
John the Baptist made the bank of the Jordan River his pulpit.  He used river water for holy purposes.  His physical appearance brought to mind the Hebrews prophets and his message was one no one really wanted to hear.  As folks gathered to hear him, they heard this message about repentance.  They heard him preach about the need for personal inner change.  They heard him declare that only a radical change of the heart would be an appropriate response to God who was getting ready to do something new and radical and life changing.  As he preached about all of these things, he pointed people who listened to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who would provide a final solution to the sin problem of humankind.
 
If we read the story of John's ministry there at the Jordan, it would seem that folks flocked to hear him preach.  As they went into the water for baptism, it surely seemed that they had truly heard.  These are days for us to be listening to what God is saying to us.  As we read these passages about the one who prepared the way, we are confronted with our own need for the change of repentance.  But, then who is really hearing it?  Who is really listening?  Who is ready to respond?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent VII

When the Holy Spirit is allowed to do His work in our heart and a spirit of patience begins to be genuinely and spontaneously expressed through our living, one thing which will surely be noted is a greater degree of contentment with a slower life.  What slows down will not necessarily be the pace of our going and coming although such could happen, but a deeper sensitivity to the present in our life.  A patient spirit helps us to pay attention to the people who are around us, to the circumstances which envelope us, and the things in front of us.  A patient spirit does not have to hurry.  It gives us time to smell the roses, or to be able to experience more fully what is going on in the right now moment of our life.
 
Slowing down is not a bad thing.  Most of us know we hurry too much for such little reasons.  I watched a guy in the car behind me pass on a yellow line only to pull off the road to his house about a mile up the road.  But, then even as it seemed like a dumb thing to do, I have done my share of them, too.  The truth is we only have one life to live.  We only have one opportunity to be useful to God.  We only have one life to play with and love the significant people in our life.   Patience causes these things to happen because it enables us to be a person who is paying attention to the moment.
 
Impatience robs us of the present moment.  It always does.  It tells us something in the future is more important and it is a lie.  It simply is one of those popular untruths that we unfortunately buy.  One of the things we certainly do not want to miss is a present moment experience of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said it was here, now, in the midst of us.  If living at a slower more patient pace will help us experience this blessing of Christ, then apply the brakes and enjoy the day instead of just enduring it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Advent VI

Patience acknowledges and accepts the reality that we are not in charge.  Once again, we are not in charge.  Not a single one of us is really in charge even though from time to time, we convince ourselves otherwise.  Think about it.  When we start drumming our fingers impatiently on the steering wheel while waiting for a red light to turn green, the traffic engineer is in charge.  When we find ourselves sitting impatiently in a doctor's office, the doctor is in charge.  When we keep looking impatiently at our watch wondering when the sermon is going to end, the preacher is in charge.  Not being able to accept the reality that we are not in charge has caused a lot of impatience to surface in our lives.
 
Not even our faith in Christ gives us a pass.  We whine, complain, and nag God in our prayers because we are not in charge.  We think we should be, but we are not.  Impatience declares we know better, better even than God.  However, once we understand and accept the fact that someone is in charge and it is not us, life moves into a different gear. 
 
What is said about love not seeking its own way (I Corinthians 13) is also true of patience.  It does not seek its own way.  It enables us to live at peace knowing that life does not center around any one of us, but around God.  Patience gives us a view of the plan of God and assures us that each one of is a part of it.  God is always present doing those things which bring about His will and accomplish good in this world around us and the amazing thing is that He chooses to partner with us.  But, still it is His plan, His purposes, not ours.  They always trump ours.  Patience enables us to relax  in such a world.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent V

Not all the Biblical heroes modeled patience.  Abraham became impatient with God who promised him many descendants.  Twenty-five years passed between promise and conception and during those years, Abraham took matters into his own hands.  Aaron who was Moses' right hand guy became impatient while Moses was on the mountain and consented to the people who wanted a God substitute.  The disciples of Jesus were often on another page when it came to slowing down and taking care of people around them.  Their impatience with people and their needs stood in sharp contrast to Jesus who never allowed Himself to get in a tailspin because plans were being disrupted.
 
It is easy for us to join the ranks of those who have been impatient with God and what He was doing.  Who among us has not at some time acted as if we knew better than God what would be best for ourself or another?  Who among us has not berated God for taking so much time to act?  The early texts for Advent remind us that Christ who has come is coming.  It also cautions us about not living in a constant of readiness.  The truth is we seldom take this Word seriously.  We cannot quite get hold of the idea that the delay of God is purposeful.  Since it does not seem none of this is relevant, we run off after whatever it is that is important.  We are too impatient with Him if He is not going to do whatever it is that He is going to do today.
 
What is often forgotten is that patience is about trust.  Patience does not need to tend to its own needs, because it is confident that God is going to do this as He has promised.  The fact of delay is irrelevant.  The relevant thing is that He can be trusted to relate to us according to His Word.  Patience gives us the freedom to live in confidence despite the fact that nothing is really in our control.  Patience enables us to trust in God to act in our lives even though what we see ahead of us is anything but clear. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Advent IV

Imagine for a moment there is a piece of fruit in your hand.  Not just any piece of fruit, but one that is large, unblemished, and inviting to eat.  Imagine that as you bite into that luscious tasty piece of fruit that your taste buds are suddenly overwhelmed with the crisp taste of an apple, the softness of a peach, the juiciness of an orange, the unique flavor of a banana, the tartness of a blackberry, and the surprising taste of a handful of blueberries.  Imagine that one bite delivered all those different taste and even more.  One piece of fruit and an amazing variety of flavors and textures.

Now with the image of such a piece of fruit in your hand, go to Galatians 5:22 and read what the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write.  "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control."  Note first of all, he wrote of one fruit, not fruits.  Too many times we preachers have talked about this passage and erroneously spoken of fruits of the Spirit.  In a similar way we have often heard someone say, "Now in the book of Revelations, even though the name of the Biblical book is "Revelation"...well, actually, "The Revelation."  But, the point is, there is one fruit of the Spirit.  To receive it is to receive a gift from God that shapes our inner being in many different ways, but each single way is interdependent upon the others.  For example, surely we can see that love generates patience as does kindness or gentleness or self-control.

As we abandon our life to God, the Holy Spirit is enabled to do for us things that we could never do. We may be able to make ourselves successful in the eyes of whoever it is we want to evaluate us, but we can never make ourselves loving and patient for such is a work of God.  Anyone who doubts the truth of such only needs to watch the unguarded, unexpected moments in our daily life when what is in our heart is naturally expressed through an action not previously considered or planned. 

 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent III

The mood of Advent is one of waiting.  Waiting is not what we do very easily.  We are much too impatient to wait on something as significant as Christmas, or as insignificant as a traffic light changing from red to green.  Patience we do not do very well.  It would seem that it would be something which we could master, but just when it seems that we have it well in hand, something happens which blows it for us.  The problem is our patience is never measured or tested in a planned manner.  If our spontaneous natural reaction to a particular situation where patience is tested is not one of patience then whatever is natural is going to come forth as an expression of what is really inside of us.
 
When the Apostle Paul speaks of patience in that "fruit of the Spirit" passage, he is declaring that being patient is not something we do, but something that the Spirit of God enables us to do.  When our hearts are under the influence and control of the Holy Spirit instead of our self-seeking, self-serving ego we are able to respond differently.  Sometimes in life our pursuit of one thing results in finding something unexpected.  A search for patience may prove to be a fruitless exercise.  Patience is not so much an end in itself as a product of a life that is rightly oriented toward God, others, and the soul within us.

In these early days of Advent with its focus on how God has acted through the coming of Christ and how He is about to act through the future coming of His Son, we can focus our attention on making our hearts ready for whatever it is that God desires to do in us and through us.  As we look toward God with a "do whatever You choose...make me useful in whatever way You choose," we may come to a deeper awareness of how our heart is being shaped by the Holy Spirit producing the fruit of the Spirit in us...even the illusive thing we call patience.