Saturday, November 26, 2011

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a voice in the wilderness of uncertainty

"Annunciation to the Virgin Mary (detail)", Pontormo, Jacopo da, 1494-1556.

For Sunday, December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

The wilderness of uncertainty is where our culture has chosen to stake it's tent.  It's in vogue to be uncertain: to be certain is deemed arrogant and narrow-minded.  Of this thought is the Secular West, ironically, most certain.  The problem is this: while the wilderness can be a good place for the occasional adventure, it's not a very hospitable place to live.  Hence do this week's readings call us gently, lovingly, and compellingly to better ground.

This week's first reading comes from Isaiah 40, which is a profoundly beautiful chapter of the Bible.  "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:1-2).  The gospel invites us to come out of the wilderness and make our home by the verdant river of God's grace, alongside which we have received from the Lord's hand "double for all our sins".  

"The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:8).  One of the most important roles of the church in the world is to proclaim the Word of God.   We get so caught up in the latest social developments, whether the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, that we forget that these things, albeit important, are ultimately fleeting.  What is going to last?  What has lasted from the very beginning in Eden, through successions of the rise and fall of empires, up to this very day?  The Word of the Lord.  When we proclaim this Word, however imperfectly, we are grounding ourselves in something both true and enduring.  How a culture living in the wilderness of uncertainty needs this slake of truth.  

Turning then to this week's second reading in Psalm 85 we read: "Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?  Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation" (v. 6).  What God wants is not that we would continue hurting, but rather to heal us through his unfailing love.  There is comfort, confidence, and strength in his redemptive purpose for each of us.   "Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven" (v. 11).  The gospel is like a cool spring flowing down a rock on a sky blue sunny day.  May this cool water and warm sunshine refresh our souls and bring joy to our bodies.  

In this week's third reading, Mark 1, Mark the evangelist begins his gospel by quoting from this week's first reading.  He follows the quotation with this: "And so John came" (v. 4).  In other words, the voice of the wilderness has been revealed.  It is John the Baptist.  This John said, "I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8).  
When we come to Christ by believing in his ability to forgive our sins, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives.  God marks our confession of faith with his own personhood in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Don't despair, for if you have believed, the Holy Spirit is in you.  

Finally, in this week's fourth reading, the Apostle Peter sums up what the reality of the gospel means for each of us who believe: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be layed bare.  Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming" (2 Pet. 3:10-12a).  

Reader's Corner:
What is God putting on your heart this week to live out a holy and Godly life?  How might your unique gifts and talents be used by your Heavenly Father to speed the coming of the day of God?  Please feel free to share in response: it would be an honor to pray with you this week for God's purpose to be fulfilled in you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

adventus Jesus

"Adoration of the Shepherds", Guido Reni (1575 - 1642)

For Sunday, November 27, 2011
Advent Sunday

This Sunday moves us from the Revised Common Lectionary's "Season After Pentecost" to "Season of Advent" and from Year A to Year B.  What this means is that we've completed our first of three annual sojourns through the Bible and are now beginning the second.  It's a good time to pause and reflect: how has my life been saved or changed by the gospel of Jesus over the last year?  How this next year might my life be saved or changed as I deepen my commitment to him?  

The English word 'advent' comes from the Latin 'adventus' which means "coming".  The purpose of Advent is to give us a reason to pull out all of our Christmas kitsch.  Well... sometimes it seems that way, doesn't it?  What Advent is supposed to be about is this: preparing ourselves as the people of God for our Savior, the one through whom God would save us from ourselves and restore a world broken beyond recognition. 

This week's first reading, Isaiah 64, moves us from Christmas kitsch to the cosmic significance of what actually happened 2,000 years ago:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come downthat the mountains would tremble before you! . . . Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.  
Mary and Joseph waited on God and he acted.  We may find ourselves waiting likewise today.  What if we really believed God would act on our behalf?  Take heart, because He did, and He will.

Yet while we wait expectantly we must also wait penitently:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we shrivel up like a leaf (a good metaphor for late fall in Wisconsin), and like the wind our sins sweep us away. . . Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever.
As this week's final reading, 1 Cor. 1:3-9, reminds us, our Heavenly Father has bestowed upon each of us who follow Christ boundless gifts of grace and strength:
For in him you have been enriched in every way - in all your speaking and in all your knowledge . . . Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.  He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God, who has called you into fellowship with his son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.  
May this Advent be one in which we bring ourselves into the Nativity ("the birthing among us") of Jesus, and in the wonder of this moment find the grace which can renew our souls and slake the thirst of those around us who remain utterly lost in a desert of despair.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A shepherd, his sheep, some goats, and a destiny

"Christ in Judgment", Florence, Italy (1300)

For Sunday, November 20, 2011
Reign of Christ
Proper 29

Are you feeling lost today?  “Lost, ah... no.  Just temporarily disoriented.”  Right...  Well... if you ever do find yourself lost, this week’s readings can be of encouragement.   They are about a shepherd, his sheep, some goats, and a destiny.  

In this week's first reading, Ezekiel 34:11-24, we read about a God who is intent on serving himself as shepherd who will seek out, find, and provide good pasture for lost sheep:
For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them . . . I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. . . I will tend them in a good pasture.
There is no place I would rather be than under this Shepherd's care here in this good pasture.  How about you?  

In this week's second reading, Psalm 100, we find reinforcement for the reality of the people of God as sheep under a good Shepherd in a very good place:
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture (vv. 1-2).
In this week's third reading, Matthew 25:14-30, we learn what separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are the ones that respond to others in need - whether they be thirsty, away from home, sick, or imprisoned.  The goats are those who fail to recognize the face of their Lord in the presence of the needs around them:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
The sheep will be the ones that saw the needs around them, saw the face of their King on the pang of the throng, and responded accordingly.  The goats will be the ones that also saw the needs but did nothing but look the other way.  Here is a haunting question: how many of us are counting ourselves among the sheep while merely looking the other way in response the needs around us?  

In this week's  final reading, Ephesians 1:15-23, we read about sheep who have been empowered by the God who has put their Shepherd at his own right hand.  Hear how the Apostle Paul prays for his dear followers in Ephesus:
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of his might strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but in the age to come (vv. 18-21)
 And why did God do this? . . . all for a bunch of sheep (a.k.a. the church):
And God placed all things under his feet (Jesus's), and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fill everything in every way (v. 22).
The church in the world is a very good place to be.  May we be in the world what God has called us to be.

Monday, November 07, 2011

buried treasure?

Woodcut of the Parable of the Talents
From Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae (1712).

Matthew 25:14-30
For Sunday, November 13, 2011
Proper 29

Have you heard the the Parable of the Talents before?   A master is going on a long journey and entrusts his estate to his servants, of which there are three.  He gives five talents to the first, two talents to the second, and one to the third.  After "a long time" (v. 19) he comes back and discovers that the servant who had five talents now has ten, the servant who had two now has four, and the servant with one now has... oh... still one.  

The master is understandably pleased.  He received 100% return on his investment from servants number 1 & 2.  Servant 3, whom everyone already knew was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, only had 1 talent anyway, and at least he didn't lose it.  No harm, no foul, right?  

Wrong!  Servant 3 suffers withering criticism.  "You did what?!", the master asks?  "You buried my money in the ground.  The least you could have done was take it to the bank for a a Certificate of Deposit!"  The master then takes Servant 3's lone talent and gives it to Servant 1, who is now known as  Mr. Ten Talents Plus 1.  Servant 3 is then earmarked for the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

"Wow, that seems a bit harsh," we say in response.  Then we think about it some more.  "Wow, that seems incredibly harsh!"  How can the master, known as a "hard man" (v. 24), demand that the dullest Servant in the drawer suddenly become a successful entrepreneur?  It wasn't even the Servant's money!

What, though, was the Master really angry about?  Was it that he only got a 90% return on his investment instead of 100%?  No . . .  what he was angry about was that Servant 3 squandered the opportunity given to him.  A talent was equivalent to 20 years' wages.  At $40,000 per year, that would have been $800,000.  Rounded up (to keep things simple) that's a million dollars.  

Servant 3 was entrusted with a million dollars but he never engaged: he just buried his treasure in the ground.  How many of us do the same thing with our faith?  We've been given something far more valuable than one million dollars: we've been given eternal grace and peace that is intended to transform not only our own lives but everything around us.  

The important question this parable asks is this: "What are you going to do with your million?"  As a child of God, you have been entrusted with the kingdom of God.  God's plan for the redemption of the world is you.  Don't fear: engage.  

"But where do I start?" you ask.  Pull out a piece of paper.  Take 5 minutes to write  out brief answers to these three questions (Would you mind turning off the TV while you do this?  Thank you so much):

  • How would I like to engage today?
  • How would I most like to engage this month?
  • How would I most like to engage this year?
Now go, and don't forget, you are worth a million bucks.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

So what is this thing called "All Saints Day"?

Eastern Orthodox icon of All Saints. Christ is enthroned in heaven surrounded by the ranks of angels and saints. At the bottom is Paradise with the bosom of Abraham(left), and the Good Thief (right). (Description from Wikipedia)

For Sunday, November 6, 2011
(Readings for All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 2011)
Proper 27

This Sunday is All Saints Day.  If you are a Protestant than what this probably brings to mind is nothing but the sound of crickets.  Yet in this quiet moment why don't we let history speak to us and see in what direction it might redirect us forward?

Dr. Dan Clendenin has a wonderful essay entitled "Celebrating the Saints: All Saints Day" in which he traces the origins of this day and suggests some ways it could bless us in the present.  He notes that in the first four hundred years of the church's history there was a felt need to remember those who had founded the faith, especially at the price of their lives.  Just as those of us who are Americans draw strength from remembering George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, so did the early church draw strength from remembering heroes such as The Apostle Paul, Justin Martyr, and Augustine.  The author to the Hebrews provides a wonderful panoramic of the people of God's early history in Hebrews 11 which he concludes with this: 
And what more shall I say?   I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned into strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.  Women received back their dead, raised to life again. . . Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword . . . the world was not worthy of them. (Heb. 11:32 - 38, selected).
If the church is to be what she is called to be today then this legacy must be nurtured and cherished.  Yet as Clendenin notes, in honoring this legacy mistakes have been made.  He quotes Martin Luther, whom many consider to be the founding father of Protestantism:
These vulgar distortions of the Gospel made Luther's blood boil: "What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a twig from Moses' burning bush. And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?"
So how might we recover the legacy without being blinded by such abuses?  Clendenin points the way forward:
. . . Protestants shouldn't overreact and throw out the baby with the bath water. We shouldn't dismiss a practice just because it's abused. Protestants could do a better job of honoring the role that the saints can play in our Christian lives, especially for us who in stressing the personal nature of salvation often slide into individualistic, privatistic, and even narcissistic patterns of discipleship. We should see ourselves in the greater, communal identity of all God's people. There's a social and corporate dimension to our journey with Jesus that should include the saints.
When I think about the saints, whether the especially holy like Mother Teresa or the egregiously fallen like Jimmy Swaggart, I'm reminded that I have choices to make in my Christian life, and that my choices matter (emphasis mine). These choices have consequences for my spiritual welfare.  
Here then are a few practical suggestions on how we might mark All Saints Day personally and corporately.  First, if you are part of a small group, take an evening to share about your favorite biblical heroes of the faith, and how they inspire you.  Second, consider reading a book about great heroes of the faith, such as John Woodbridge's Great Leaders of the Christian Church.  Third, take a morning to journal about the contemporaries who have made the most significant marks on your own journey faith.  I think of people like Jan Godfrey, Bill Godfrey, Stuart Briscoe, Mike Franz, Steve Sonderman, Jeff Chudy, Sam Osterloh, Doug Clarkson, and Jerome Iverson.  Unfortunately, like the author to the Hebrews, I don't have time to tell you more.

The important thing, however, is to remember that God in his mercy and sovereign glory uses those who have gone before to point the way ahead.  On this All Saints Day may our common path forward be blessed by the rich legacy into which we've been called.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Brief: Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs on 60 Minutes

I saw the 60 Minutes interview in which Walter Isaacson shared some of his last conversations with Steve Jobs.  Mr. Isaacson mentions that in some of those questions the subject of God came up.   He said that Steve said, "Sometimes I believe and sometimes I don't."  I find this fascinating.  Just maybe God found Steve before he died.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

authentic leadership

For Sunday, October 30th, 2011
Proper 26

Authentic leadership refreshes the soul.  When encountered such leadership is both recognized and remembered.  This week's passages are an invitation to lead authentically in light of the gospel of grace and truth.

First, in Joshua 3:7-17 we learn that authenticity means leading like we have Jesus preceding us, because we do.  When the Lord called on Joshua to assume the mantle of leadership from Moses, he didn't put Joshua all the way out front.  In front of Joshua was the ark of the covenant, an incarnation of the presence of God with his people.  Joshua said to Israel, "See the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you."  As Christians, we don't have this. We have a better incarnation: Jesus himself.   Let us therefore lead like Jesus is preceding us.  There are times as a dad, a husband or an employee that I feel like I just don't have it in me to lead as I ought.  Yet when I remember Jesus in front of me it's so much easier to take the next step forward.  

Second, in Psalm 107:1-7 we learn that authenticity means leading like we know where we are going and we know how to get there.  "But I don't know where I'm going much less how to get there," you may object.  This passage tells us where we are going: to a city in which we can live (v. 7b).  How will we get there: easy, the straight way (v. 7a).  A colleague shared with me this week how his church is growing and thriving.  Nothing fancy: they are just loving people, starting with the kids of the area through their Awana program, and then on from there to the kids' parents.   It isn't rocket science: it's merely taking the straight way to the place God intends for us.  

Third, in Matthew 23:1-12 we learn that authenticity means leading like its not about us.  Why?  Because it's not: it's about Jesus, and God's redeeming the world through Him.  It's not about having the right color robe, it's not about the size of the church, and it's certainly not about the kind of Bible we carry much less the positions we hold.  It's about humbling ourselves that we might be used as God intends.  For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (v. 12). Fourth and finally, in 1 Thes. 2:9-13 we learn that authenticity means leading like a father would his children (v. 11).   How does a father provide good leadership for his kids?  By encouraging them, comforting them, and urging them on into the calling God has on their lives (v. 12).  This is how Paul led the Thessalonians and this is the example we are challenged to follow.  What a joy a father has when he can pour out his heart to his kids by encouraging them when they are sad, comforting them when they are hurt, and urging them on into a life walk worthy of being called into God's kingdom and glory. 

Would that such authentic leadership would break out all around us to the grace and glory of our Father in Heaven who leads us in these very same ways.  

Reader's Corner:
Where and when in your life have you experienced authentic leadership?  Was there something in that experience that resonates with what is being described here?