Thursday, December 28, 2023

What We Have Seen...

 


What We Have Seen…

 

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

2:33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

 

Simeon and Anna were prophets. We are witnesses. Collectively, our eyes have seen salvation. If you want to begin the new year with both a challenge and a good word, here it is. We have seen salvation.

 

The two prophets reported on in Luke’s narrative are bringing their exciting (and yet, daunting) word to the parents and the child, as he is brought to the temple for circumcision. It is an affirmation to his “father and mother” that their child really IS something special. Obviously, we know that Jesus was more than just “special,” but these kinds of prophetic affirmations are precisely what we offer at the baptism of each child presented before the church, and God. Again, we are ALL witnesses. 

 

At baptism, the parents are challenged to live out their Christian discipleship in such a way that the child they present will be “saturated” with good examples. Likewise, the congregation vows to do the same, to the end that we will help this child make her or his own profession of faith, and discover and live out their purpose in life.  In this Luke 2 passage, the parents are also being charged with raising their son in such a way that his life will glorify God, and fulfill his purpose on earth. It just so happens that Jesus has quite an agenda ahead of him, which the two prophets readily point out. While Joseph disappears from the biblical narrative sometime after the “left behind” incident in Jerusalem when Jesus was about twelve, Mary is around for the whole miracle—and ordeal. I wonder if one of the reasons we have the story of the “water into wine” miracle at the wedding at Cana of Galilee is to show that Mary is fulfilling her parenting vow? After all, she is the one who gets Jesus to intervene when the wine runs out, and it may be a sign that she continues to fully believe that her son is exactly who the angel, Simeon, and Anna said he was. She went from witness to activist in this story, raising a bit of ire on Jesus’ part. Even the Son of God is a bit miffed when “nudged” to do what I’m sure he knew was the right thing to do. We pastors understand this.

 

Think of all the things we have seen, friends. As 2023 ends, take time to recall the stories of what God has done in your life, or in the affairs of the world. Absolutely, there are still horrible pockets of grief that seem godless, such as the bloodbaths in Ukraine, Gaza, and in genocidal, “tribal” wars in various nations throughout Africa. We should continue to pray not just for peace in these inhuman activities, but for wisdom for people who comprise the forces driving them. Even as “the child” in today’s narrative “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom,” may these modern leaders also be aware that they should be seeking “the favor of God.” In the politically, racially, and religiously motivated violence they perpetrate, they are not; in fact, I’m sure it’s safe to say they are stoking God’s eventual judgment. 

 

However, we see signs of progress in other areas. Ever since the pandemic, the economy has been on a respirator, but over the past couple of years, with some wise leadership on the part of the White House and the Fed, we have seen a rising market, lower unemployment, and now, interest-rate stability. A recession—long forecast as inevitable by some—has apparently been avoided. Even the price of gasoline has been dropping. While some folk in the middle class continue to proclaim themselves as victims, the facts do not support their doomsaying. Food prices are one area that remain a challenge, but there is evidence that food suppliers may have used the scarcity of the pandemic to bolster what had been failing margins on these prices, anyway. From farmers to supermarkets, food prices may have been brought so low by both competition AND lower demand (many of us were making public restaurants our personal “kitchens” before COVID) that they were on the brink of failing. Many did. If higher prices could bring stability to these vital supply services, so be it. We Christians should cheer and promote this kind of fairness, rather than decry our own “pain” over the price of Pop Tarts and Corn Flakes.

 

I just read a rather lengthy report in Thursday’s press that violent crime and homicide is DOWN in most major cities in the U.S. in 2023, in some cases, quite markedly. This is despite what you may hear from some politicians who stand to capitalize on public fear. The only “exceptions” to these positive trends were Houston, Texas and Washington, D.C., as I recall, and both of these cities have seen significant increases in population over a short period of time, which often adds to crime, at least initially. Still, the news is largely “better” on this important front. If we are wise, we will be “witnesses,” possibly even “activists” of these facts, rather than continue to believe—as does over 70 percent of the American public, according to recent polls—that “violent crime” is a growing epidemic. Fear is a funny thing: it is a useful “tool” in ginning up the ire and irritation of voters; and it is very hard to dispel, even with hard facts, once it gets momentum. 

 

What I love about Simeon is that he believes the prophecy he has received from the Lord, he follows the Holy Spirit, who leads him to the child, Jesus, and he tells of what he has seen. He may be the original “Christian” witness to the grace and goodness of God, as manifest through Jesus Christ! Now, here we are, generations and generations later, and ready to witness a new year. What will WE tell the world what we have “seen and heard” like the shepherds? What will we witness to, like Simeon, that will have us telling of God’s salvation and God’s glory? Or we just allow the negative events that will also surely come with the new year just pummel us and victimize us, only then crying out to God for help and healing? Not that that’s a bad thing, but both Simeon and Anna may be telling us it’s time to be proactive with our positive witness. It may be the very thing that can ward off the victimization, fear, and un-truth-telling that has led us to such division and strife.

 

Jesus said it would be the TRUTH that would set us free. May we, in the new year, become “prophets” and witnesses to the truth, and may we witness God’s salvation, which is NOT just a “personal relationship with Jesus,” but a life-altering, world-rescuing, justice-bringing EVENT that is still unfolding in our midst! Like Simeon, may we yield to the Holy Spirit, show up where Jesus IS, and proclaim the greatness and grace of our Lord! And may we then add the activism to our proclamation and seek to bring about the peace, justice, and goodwill toward all humans prophesied and promised by the Heavenly Host! 

 

My prayer for you, and for all of us in the new year, is that God WILL break in through us and through the church to announce to the world a “year of God’s favor,” not because we have caused it, but because GOD has not given up on God’s people. May we finish 2024 on a much higher plain because we have seen with our own eyes just what God can do. To quote Stuart Hamblen:

 

It is no secret, what God can do;

What he’s done for others, he’ll do for you.

With his arms wide open, he’ll pardon you.

It is no secret, what God can do.

 

Let’s not keep it a secret in 2024! Happy New Year, Beloved! Shalom!

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Advent Four: The Newborn King

 


Advent Four: The Newborn King

 

Romans 16:25-27 
16:25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages

16:26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith --

16:27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. 

 

Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

                                                                                               

 

Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,

Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thy own eternal spirit, rule in all our hearts alone;

By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.

 

                                                                                   -Charles Wesley

 

Why is it that it seems some people are wanting the Jesus who is supposedly “coming back” than the one we have with us right now? Advent is the season in the church year when we ruminate on the “return” of Jesus, a subject that plays equally well on SyFy, Discovery, and even the Comedy Channel. The “mystique” of Jesus returning far overshadows the “current reality” of God with us—Emmanuel. Talk of “the rapture,” Armageddon, the “tribulation period,” and the magic “Millennium” pegs the “interest” needle for many followers of Jesus way beyond a sermon on the Jesus we have with us. Believe me, I know, having preached 36 years of sermons that focused almost exclusively on the latter. 

 

I didn’t preach much about the “return of Jesus,” mostly because we know so little about it. Oh sure, several authors have made a fortune speculating on the details and timelines of the samples of apocalyptic literature we find in the Bible, but the fact is, these interpretations are not taken seriously by a wide variety of serious Bible scholars. Some don’t believe in a “literal” second coming, believing instead that the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost that gave birth to the church and became the “presence of Jesus” with all believers, WAS the second coming Jesus, himself, predicted. Then there are those who point to his “no one knows the day nor the hour” word as “proof” that he IS actually coming back. Of course, if this is true, most of the speculation on WHEN is chaff. 

 

“Strong” belief in the second coming of Christ may be a parallel to what is happening in our current political situation—the “next” president, congressman, senator, or Supreme Court justice must SURELY be better than the ones we have? Jesus with us now is nice, but we want the NEXT Jesus, because he will be “no more Mr. Nice Guy!” Isn’t there something titillating about a “tough guy” savior who will harshly “judge” the people we don’t like? Of course, WE are OK—it’s those others who will get the whippin’ they deserve! Problem is, our lists of the “judge-ees” don’t jib, do they? It’s this “we’re in the right” polarization that makes the “rapture” so popular. Serious students of the Bible can point out that the scripture used to “prove” that it will occur couldn’t fill a Buckyball, but I doubt you can find an “evangelical” who DOESN’T believe in it. We want the “King Jesus” who will be OUR kind of “king,” who will rule with a righteous “iron fist.”

 

Seriously, why is it so popular to believe that the Jesus who loved children, hung out with the poor and destitute, fellowshipped with and healed lepers, chose his disciples from the “riff-raff” of society, and eventually succumbed on a cross, would return as a nasty, vindictive “Super Savior” who would make a fine addition to Marvel’s stable of superheroes? It just doesn’t add up. And what of the idea that a deity who gave people “the law” to encourage them to “get along” with each other, and to live in harmony, would then “snatch up” one segment of society before judging all the rest? Where is the accountability in that? (“Orthodox” Christians have bashed the Jehovah’s Witnesses for decades over their belief that they are “the 144,000” chosen ones mentioned in apocalyptic literature, but isn’t the evangelical idea of the “rapture” pretty much the same thing?) If any of this is true, we’ll have to rewrite the parable of the lost sheep—Jesus sets aside the 99 “good” sheep, while finding and beating the hades out of the one that was lost. 

 

So where am I going with this on the final week of Advent 2023? Here’s the thesis: Jesus was born a king, lived as a king, was crucified as a king, was resurrected as a king, and will forever reign as the King of Kings. He’s just not the kind of king many are hoping for—one who “chooses sides” and returns to separate the “sheep from the goats,” with US getting to make the call as to who makes the cut. 

 

Look at the two lectionary texts cited above. In Romans, Paul is rejoicing that the “mystery of the ages” has been revealed, and that Jesus already on the throne as king (glorified forever). And this benevolent king will eternally “reward” faithful obedience. But obedience to what? How about the law he gave us: love of God, as manifested through love of neighbor. This is a king that IS and WILL preside over a “Peaceable Kingdom” demonstrated by his example in the incarnation, and made possible by the totality of the Christ Event, from wondrous birth through glorious resurrection. That God is WITH US (Emmanuel) is the “mystery of the ages” Paul was writing about in Romans. This truth doesn’t need a “rapture” or a second coming to validate its current and future reality. Jesus Christ IS the “once and future king,” and is, as the Bible tells us, “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). 

 

The second text is, of course, the famous “birth narrative” from Luke 2. It has always been my favorite to read and “preach around” on Christmas Eve. We can argue ad infinitum over when Jesus Christ was born, what the actual circumstances of his birth were, whether he was actually “born of a virgin” or just a “young maiden,” and even WHERE this birth took place, but let none of it take away of the meaning of his birth. Jesus was born into the human community as God’s affirmation OF that community, and to “save his people from their sins.” Even as John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, believed that “salvation” DIDN’T just mean being absolved of wrongdoings, but included feeding the poor, caring for the incarcerated, and bringing equity to society, so Jesus came to show us what HIS “kingdom” would look like. That “his kingdom is not of this earth” had nothing to do with heaven, but was a promise that God wanted the world to look very different from what WE have made of it. God’s kingdom is one that looks much more like that for which Mr. Wesley was working. As Paul reminds us in Romans, the “prophetic writings” had it right—Micah, for instance, who told us eons ago that what God “requires” of us is “to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). The kingdom over which Jesus presides will be THIS, coming fully into reality. Friends, this is not a dream, but a promise, and one on which Jesus Christ will not give up until it is “fulfilled.”

 

So, if you buy this line of biblical reasoning, Jesus IS King and WILL BE King, forever. We have our “marching orders” to follow Micah’s formula for personal discipleship, as well as to “partner” with Jesus to make this world loving, peaceable Kingdom over which Jesus would be proud to reign. So endeth my Advent Four message…but it’s ALSO Christmas Eve on Sunday!

 

No one but Charles Wesley could say it like this, Dear Ones:

 

Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the new-born king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the new-born king"
"Glory to the new-born king"

 

With this unusual reality, let me wish for you and yours to have the merriest of Christmases! And let us, once more, revel in that wonderful Lukan birth narrative, which is a remarkable example of biblical myth. Remember that in biblical studies, “myth” does not mean an “untruth” or a fiction, but an ULTIMATE truth—something that is “eternally true,” and that does not rely on it being either factual or historical, to BE true. “Jesus is born” is the truth we celebrate at Christmas time. Luke’s story is a myth. Matthew’s story is a myth. That neither Mark nor John give us their version of Jesus’ birth, nor does the Apostle Paul mention it, should not discourage us from celebrating the colorful stories we get from two of the synoptics. Both narratives tell us that “Jesus is born.” For that matter, Paul’s life was amazingly altered by the fact that “Jesus is born.” So was mine, and I pray, yours! May our world continue to be “saved” by this, as well, one person at a time, if necessary. 

 

Hallelujah, friends! Jesus is born! Amen.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Advent Three: Paul's List

 


Advent Three: Paul’s List

 

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 
5:16 Rejoice always,

5:17 pray without ceasing,

5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.

5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,

5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

5:23 May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this. 

 

 

I live with an almost compulsive list-maker. She’s a “One” in the world of enneagram science; an “ISTJ” for you Myers-Briggs people. And I am not. I have tried to make lists of important things I should be getting done, and then promptly lose them, probably because I turn them over to write down other important things, like what sounds good for lunch, or a phone number some robot is repeating in my ear while on hold. Lists make me crazy.

 

I am thankful for my wife’s lists, though, as they usually are quite inclusive of things BOTH of us need to pay heed to, especially when getting ready to travel. I’d be a wealthy man if I had a nickel for every time we were getting unpacked in a hotel room, and I—lamenting something I was sure I left behind because I don’t “do” lists—was suddenly relieved as she produced whatever it was from HER bag, because she DOES “do” lists. If she were honest in naming her lists, they might be called, “Hey idiot, here it is” lists. Honestly, I have learned myriad “organizational” skills from 46-plus years with this incredible woman, much of which has “stuck,” but the list-making thing just won’t take root, and I am the lesser for it.

 

History is full of important lists: Schindler’s List (which saved hundreds of Jews); the Ten Commandments; the Beatitudes; the Bill of Rights; Santa’s list; the Apollo Program mission lists; the Hollywood Blacklist; and of late, the infamous “bucket list” we all claim to make of things we want to do before we “kick the bucket.” Paul was clearly a notorious list-maker, as were his various amanuenses. The Letter to the Romans is kind of a collection of lists, including the “Marks of a Christian” in Romans 12:

 

·      Let love be genuine

·      Hate what is evil

·      Hold fast to what is good

·      Love one another

·      Outdo one another in showing honor

·      Do not lag in zeal

·      Be ardent in spirit

·      Serve the Lord

·      Rejoice in hope

·      Be patient in affliction

·      Persevere in prayer

·      Contribute to the needs of the saints

·      Pursue hospitality to strangers

·      Bless those who persecute you

·      Rejoice with those who rejoice

·      Weep with those who weep

·      Live in harmony

·      Do not be arrogant

·      Associate with the lowly

·      Do not claim to be wiser than you are

·      Do not repay evil for evil

·      Live peaceably with all

·      Never avenge yourselves

·      If your enemies are hungry, feed them

·      Do not be overcome by evil

·      Overcome evil with good

 

Some list, huh? I’ll bet Paul went through a lot of ink. Those of us who struggle with the whole “list-making” thing find lists like this one in Romans 12 quite daunting. There’s a tendency to see it as a wall over which we will never successfully climb, and then throw in the towel. Of course, thankfully, we don’t, but how we DO respond to such prodigious lists is a varied as are our personalities and subsequent “coping skills.” Ben Franklin simply picked ONE of these virtues and worked on it for a time, then moved on. (Some said that when he was working on that one, he felt “free” to eschew the others.) People like me “regroup” the longer list, edit out the items we KNOW we aren’t ready to tackle, and deal with the redacted result. I also did my best to “honest” as a preacher with a text like Romans 12, freely sharing my edited version of Paul’s “marks” with my congregation. I would encourage them to get the central gist of Paul’s words (live in harmony; love on another; overcome evil with good; serve the Lord), and then “personalize” the other items as a kind of “list of goals” for the current phase of their faith journey. My hope was that they wouldn’t be bowled over by the author’s “list overkill,” but could extract enough practical theology from it to move safely into the next week without feeling they were a spiritual garden slug.

 

I know my approach would not have sat well with the few serious “listers” in the congregation, like my lovely spouse. They do NOT respond well when others mess with their organizing!

 

[A story…back when I was a “probationer,” (the term we used to use for “beginning” pastors; we now call them “provisionals,” a little less demeaning), we were on a required retreat focused on “organization, planning, and time-management.” The lead facilitator for the retreat was a very successful pastor of a large church who was known for his skills in the organizational genre. After a full day of sessions wherein this master shared his considerable cache of skills, techniques, and systems he had evolved to manage his considerable ministry, we adjourned for a discussion-rich dinner. My fellow probationers were, shall we say, rendered a bit anxious by the day’s presentation. Dinner questions could be balanced on the fulcrum of a single inquiry: “Is he saying ‘Here is a smorgasbord of ideas, and you can pick and choose what might work for you,’ or is he suggesting that to be successful in ministry, we should do ALL of the things he has shared with us?” Since I had a little more of a personal history with the presenter, I suggested that the former was more likely the case. Of course, when we reconvened for a final, evening session after dinner, one of the most anxiety-ridden of the group had to ask the fulcrum question. Rev. Organization pondered the paradoxical question of “suggestions” vs. “requirements,” and after an even more anxiety-provoking pause, answered, “I guess I’m saying you should do ALL of them.” Again, knowing the presenter more than most of my colleagues, I deduced that he just didn’t want to let up on the pressure to incorporate myriad organizational and time management skills into our ministry, as reflected in his “exclusive” answer. Of course, most of my peers didn’t hear it that way, and rather swooned into one, giant, group eyeroll.]

 

Let’s get back to Dr. List Maker, the Apostle Paul. Thankfully, his list in today’s lectionary reading from I Thessalonians is a bit shorter than that of Romans 12, possibly because many scholars believe it to be his earliest letter, and he wasn’t yet fully up to speed. I’ve always been swayed by this list, seeing it as a brief primer on what it means to live the Christian life, even in the midst of unexpected and sudden challenges that may come our way. 

 

“Rejoice always” echoes what we read in Philippians 4. Rejoicing is both a state of mind and an activity. When I’m “rejoicing,” I have made a conscious choice to find the blessings in the blustering storm, and to start with a smile, followed by a “Praise the Lord, anyway.” This latter expression emanates from my earliest foray into the “Charismatic revival” going on in my teenage “Jesus People” days. A small book by the title, “Praise the Lord, Anyway” was circulating around the Christian community in my hometown, and its Charismatic author, Frances Hunter, told her story of praising God in the midst of mostly small, emotional downturns. Her thesis was that this simple act “lifted one up” to a place of at least temporary joy, if not a longer lasting state of contentment. One can see the psychology behind this philosophy, and it certainly can have a soothing effect. I’m sure Paul’s “Rejoice always” went much deeper than Frances Hunter’s “Irma Bombeck” version, as Paul’s was born out of imprisonments and stonings, not just that your bread dough went flat, but the principle is still the same. Both authors’ ideas have their roots in the same ground, though—FAITH that God will meet us wherever we are and begin to restore us, when we move more quickly from “Woe is me” to “God is WITH me.”

 

“Pray without ceasing” seems as incomprehensible as Rev. Organization’s “I guess I believe you should do ALL of it.” Who can literally pray without ceasing? Unless, of course, one alters one’s belief of what constitutes prayer. Between Paul’s singing in prison cells, praying in “tongues,” as he said he did regularly, and what his writings might summarize as a “state of mind” of being in the presence of God at all times, we begin to see he has a quite comprehensive view of prayer. To limit prayer to some finite “model” or a mindful narrative that includes certain mandatory parts (such as always ending with an “amen,” or even an “in the name of Jesus”). In seminary circles, we might label such “forms” of prayer as liturgical. If one accepts that prayer CAN be just a phrase, such as what the early mystics called a “breath prayer,” a single thought in God’s direction, or even a cry for help in the midst of crisis, the idea of “praying without ceasing” moves onto the table of possibility. I remember hearing the Christian testimony of a woman who said that, as a young girl, she was pulling a bucket of water up from the well on the family farm when the pulley let loose and the rope yanked her down into the well, as it fell. In a split second, as she was falling down the well, she shouted, “God SAVE me!” Cushioned by the water at the bottom of the well and kept afloat by air trapped in her fluffy dress, she was soon rescued by her father, with only a few scrapes and bruises to show for her ordeal. However, her testimony was that God DID “save” her in that moment, and not just from physical harm. Her faith walk with Jesus Christ “began” in that very moment, and her life took a godward course. Might “prayer” be about anything we believe it to be, as long as it is “aimed” in God’s direction? And, if so, might we ALL be quite capable of following Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing”?

 

“Give thanks in all circumstances” straddles the first two items on Paul’s list, doesn’t it? And it sounds a lot like Frances Hunter’s “Praise the Lord, Anyway.” Paul models this for us many times, including the time he and Silas were shackled in a Philippian jail, and they responded by singing hymns of praise to God. Most of us know this story ends by an earthquake that crumbles the walls of the jail, and the salvation of the Philippian jailer. Was this the result of Paul and Silas’s impromptu hymn sing? I once heard a preacher who suggested that God was so “blessed” by their song that God “sent a little rhythm” (the earthquake) to accompany it! Again, the idea of turning one’s thoughts “up” in “down” circumstances is often good psychology. Obviously, depending on what one is dealing with—grief, for example, after the death of a loved one—the “recovery” time may be prolonged, necessarily so, for the “turn” to happen and the fullness of the healing to take root. For most of us, though, the “all” in “all circumstances” is typically less traumatic, and the sooner we invoke our gratitude—especially toward God—the faster we will rebound. Paul describes this act as being “God’s will in Christ Jesus” for us. Why? Possibly because in “all circumstances,” Jesus, himself, forgave, thanked God, offered grace in the face of criticism and condemnation, and profoundly, resurrection in the face of death. Jesus embodied “giving thanks in all circumstances.” As one who has tried to make this element of Paul’s list here in Thessalonians part of my personal spiritual disciplines, I can say it IS transformational. As the old TV ad said, “TRY it, you’ll LIKE it!”

 

“Do not quench the Spirit” is Paul’s way of saying, “Don’t throw water on a perfectly good fire.” In Paul’s day the Holy Spirit was truly “ablaze” as she stoked the “fires” of growth in the early church and empowered its prophets, preachers, and leaders to focus and direct its affairs. What has become “organizational” skills in our day was a much more spontaneous outpouring of “promptings” and “sparks” by the work of the Holy Spirit, in Paul’s. Even then, however, there were those who were seeking to “control” or maybe even manipulate what was going on in the Body of Christ, things that may have fallen under Paul’s “quenching the Spirit” warnings. I certainly believe God’s Spirit is still “doing her thing” in our time and in our midst, often working quite comfortably within the structures, committees, and educational expertise we have raised up to foster consistency, efficiency, and fairness in the faith community, as well as to help us be good stewards of God’s provision and gifts. But is the Spirit always confined to our systems? Of course not, and when the Spirit is doing a NEW thing in our midst, we would do well to hear Paul’s warning and heed it. Now, the reality is that “conservatives” conserve, and “progressives” progress—we get that. But ultimately, we must come to accept that the Holy Spirit will be the one sometimes putting on the brakes, and at others, hitting the accelerator to move us into new realities, because there is NO PLACE where God will NOT be, or will NOT break in—this is both the promise and example of Jesus Christ, himself. Neither “faction” has exclusive claim on the “truth,” as the Holy Spirit sees it. NOT “quenching the Spirit” is a hard thing to accomplish, and requires both the “giving thanks in all circumstances” and “praying without ceasing” to carry out! We’ve all heard—and affirmed—that the most effective form of ministry is “noticing where God is working and then joining God there,” but this is NOT an easy thing to deduce. A primary role of the Holy Spirit is to be our “GPS” to help us find our way!

 

“Do not despise the words of the prophets” is a wordy way to say, pay heed to the scriptures. In our day, of course, this may include the New Testament. In Paul’s day, the warnings of the prophets were important to the Jewish experience, especially when they were wise to “learn from history.” Throughout the history of Israel, the prophets were sent by God to warn the people of what was to transpire as a result of their self-centeredness or their general disobedience to the law it so often led to. Once what they “sowed” started to be “reaped,” as the prophets said it would, they turned again in God’s direction (repented). Again, the prophets foretold the prosperity that may result from their rejuvenated faith, but with the caveat that they should offer their gratitude to God and stay faithful to God as part of their thanksgiving. These are the kind of things Paul was thinking of when he told the early church to “not despise” the words of the prophets, as these warnings and this guidance would likewise apply to them, as “grafted in” members of the house of Israel. As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we know that scripture was primary for Mr. Wesley, as it should be for us. “No despising” the prophetic words of the Word of God means taking the scriptures “too seriously” to take them literally, using our best scholarship and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to rightly interpret them for our age. The truth we find there will “set us free,” as Jesus told us. If our interpretation binds and imprisons us—or others—we may be guilty of “despising” it, rather than heeding it. All Christians should respect that God’s Word is a LIVING Word, not just words on a page of ancient writ. Paul follows up this text with his recommendation to “test everything…holding fast to what is good.” Again, taking the prophetic word of God’s Word seriously means examining it carefully, even as we “test” our means of interpreting and understanding it. If we follow the tradition of the Rabbis of old, we will thoroughly digest the scriptures, use our best learned gifts, discuss them fervently in the community of faith, and to quote one of our bishops, “…take them out to see what they will do.”

 

The last thing on Paul’s “do” or “don’t” list is “abstain from all forms of evil.” You how, when you are making an agenda (or a list?), you finish up with a kind of “any other business” catch-all at the end? “Abstain from all forms of evil” is the religious form of this. Paul has already given us a fairly tall order of things to incorporate in living the Christian life, but just in case, “abstain from all forms of evil.” Doesn’t sound like religious rocket science, does it? Engaging in ANY form of evil is generally not a healthy thing for people who are wanting to glorify God and walk the walk of a disciple, or Christ follower. I suppose we could ruminate a bit on the “all forms” part of this injunction, as there may be some debate about what kinds of things should make the “evil” list, and what may not. Obviously, all kinds of juicy theological debates can be (and are) had about the “sin” list, which is just a hop and a skip from the “forms of evil” list. Elements from the sins and evil forms lists may both fall under the “convictions” aegis. There are things that the Holy Spirit may “convict” you as being wrong for YOU, but that may be OK for me, such as the conflict over “eating meat sacrificed to idols” in the early church. It was actually Paul himself who qualifies this as neither a “sin” nor an “evil form,” but a matter of personal conviction, unless of course it could cause someone to stumble. 

 

So, there you have it—Paul’s list. As one of the lection passages on this third week of Advent—when we are lighting the Candle of Joy—we might ask ourselves how this somewhat pharisaical discussion of a list of “dos” and “don’ts” could amount to something JOYFUL? Fact is, list-makers like the Apostle Paul truly believed that a definitive list of how to “behave” as a follower of Jesus Christ SHOULD lead to more joy. I get that. We SHOULD find joy in “knowing” we are blessing God and others with the way we are living our life in Christ. Follow the list, live in a state of Joy. Only if it were that easy. Lots of things may be factors governing how “joyfully” we are experiencing life. Still, Paul is trying to do his part to keep us on track, at least as far as our “faithing” is concerned. May your walk with Jesus bring great JOY to you this Advent season! Amen.

 

Friday, December 8, 2023

Advent Two: Slowness...

 


Advent Two: Slowness

 

2 Peter 3:8-15a 
3:8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

3:9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

3:11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness,

3:12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?

3:13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

3:14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish;

3:15a and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him. 

 

Here's my list of things that happen too slowly: a good steak finishing on the grill; my wife admitting I was right about something; losing weight; Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins improving; my electric car, charging at a paid “fast” charger; Congress—period; and church ending on a Communion Sunday. Oh, the list is actually much longer, but I’m sparing you the agony; and besides, I’m sure as you read these few slowness “peeves,” you began thinking of your OWN list. My dad once told me that the motto of the military service was “hurry up and wait.” Having seen the musical “1776,” it would seem this is in our national DNA.

 

When it comes to things we are expecting, we are a bunch of impatient waiters. Of course, when considering things for which WE are responsible, and for which others are waiting for US, we like to suggest they “keep their pants on.” It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.

 

So it is with the “end of the age,” as the author of Second Peter would remind us. The members of the early church knew what it was like to have Jesus around—many of them, first-hand. They also comforted one another, especially when the persecution rained down on them, with the “promise” Jesus seemed to have given them that he was NOT deaf to their suffering, and that they were part of his “this generation will not pass away until all of these [apocalyptic] things take place” teaser. Their anticipation of Jesus’ return to vanquish their “foes” and set up a just theocracy was exponentially multiplied by the severity of the challenges they faced as a fledgling faith community under the thumb of Rome. Their disillusionment that their suffering was in close proximity and Jesus seemed far off was obviously weighing on the leaders of the church, hence narratives like this passage in this week’s lectionary. Let’s ponder that phrase from 9: “as some think of slowness.”

 

How do YOU think of slowness? Is it your spouse’s promise six weeks ago that he would get the dishwasher fixed? Is it your impatience with the Pittsburgh Steelers returning to “greatness”? Or is it your take that “election cycles” are now perpetual, and produce only duds, for the most part? I’ll bet that for some of you, “slowness” might be a “kind” label for how quickly God is answering your prayers. The early church was expecting a cataclysmic answer, and one that would put them in the catbird seat, once the Romans were set aside. Many modern “evangelicals” are looking for the same escape hatch, but meanwhile, quite a few have adopted the “Trump is the answer” stopgap philosophy. (I just read an interview with Tim Alberta, author of the new bestseller, “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. Alberta spent time with Trump-promoting Christians, [Or at least Trump-leaning] evangelicals, and details their belief that, like the Old Testament prophets, Donald Trump may be “God’s man” to move along the apocalypse. They have set aside Trump’s moral failures and “authoritarianism,” replacing it with the idea that God often uses “inferior” vessels. Trump would certainly be the “Trump card” of THAT concept!)

 

The early church was dead wrong, that Jesus was going to return soon to rescue them. The Trump evangelicals will turn out to have been wrong, too—maybe dead wrong—if they help him get re-elected and be the “day one” dictator he has promised to be. Their “Christian nationalism”—a political baptizing of their theology and beliefs, forced upon a diverse nation—could destroy our representative democracy. This is precisely what the Founders feared, and what Ben Franklin was referring to when he said, “[You have] a Republic, if you can keep it.] Frankly, as I read my Bible, Donald Trump fits the description of what the apocalyptic writers call the “Anti-Christ,” more than any prophet or savior I find in scripture.

 

The movement still persists among more moderate evangelicals that it will take Jesus’ return to fix the earth, because they believe it has become so “corrupt.” Author Alberta, who is a “born again” Christian, himself, opines that the church has performed a dangerous “flip-flop.” The first iteration of the church offered love, forgiveness, and redemption to the world, without judging its “worthiness” of it, but internally, held one another accountable for growth in faith and discipleship, both to glorify God, AND to be a credible witness to the world when they were “in it, and not of it.” The church today—at least in its most “conservative” iterations—DOES judge the world for its “sins,” and prays that Jesus will show up to smite it, while behind the scenes schmoozing with harlots and vagabonds, to build a powerbase. Alberta visited a raft of “evangelical” churches, and what he heard from almost every pulpit was a “baptizing” of the Fox News (or NewsMax) broadcast “highlights” from the previous week. The message, “It’s US against THEM,” and the myriad conspiracy theories that support it, SELLS! Alberta’s Dad got converted and became an evangelical pastor, and one who got caught up in some of the “justification” of Donald Trump before he died, and in preaching this “Us against THEM” message, he grew his church from 100 to over 1,500. 

 

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away, yours truly told my first church that I could preach a message that would pack the church. What Alberta is observing NOW, I told them would “sell” over 36 years ago. (Since I was a student pastor, and that church was experiencing some financial “hard times,” a few people WANTED me to preach those messages!) However, I told them this “US against THEM,” no matter how popular, was NOT the message of John Wesley, and CERTAINLY not the message of Jesus Christ. It was about that time that the United Methodist Church came out with the “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors—the People of The United Methodist Church” slogan, which I told them was a good start at heralding the true beliefs of the Christian faith. It was a message the world needed to hear, but it was NOT popular, especially in conservative quarters. The outcome is what Alberta details in his book—young people eschewing the Christian church, seeing it as a divisive, judgmental, and un-diverse entity.

 

For those of you who would like to read the transcript of the Alberta interview, here is the link:

 

Interview with Tim Alberta, author of "The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory"

 

Unfortunately, in 2023, much of the “Good News” of the church has skewed heavily toward the “US against THEM” message. The “prosperity” gospel promises “rewards” for being faithful to “God” (actually the theology of the one preaching it). LGBTQ persons are seen as the “enemy from without,” in a concerted effort to KEEP them from getting “in.” “Pro-Life” has come to mean NO abortions at ANY cost, even in the case of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is endangered, and the same people who scream this “Pro-Life” message want to cut public assistance of every kind for new mothers! Oh, and most of them oppose ANY form of “gun control,” even in the face of what seem like an epidemic of mass shootings. Capital punishment? They’re in favor of it. “Pro-Life” means nothing but NO ABORTION, and some even add the mantle of NO BIRTH CONTROL. The modern evangelical church seems bent on putting people between the proverbial “rock and a hard place,” and then slamming the two together. 

 

It gets worse. Slinking deep behind the scenes of many an “evangelical” and their churches is a “secret” belief that the United States was founded as a “Christian” nation (it categorically WASN’T), and that “Making America Great Again” means subjugating all other religions to our “state” religion. Slinking even DEEPER behind the scenes is the belief that “white men” should be kept in charge, and this belief follows many—even some who claim to eschew it—into the privacy of the voting booth. 

 

The early church learned a hard lesson by believing a for a little too long that Jesus would “snatch” them out of the persecution they faced. Thankfully, they scattered across the world, taking the initial “Jesus” message of love, forgiveness, and redemption with them. The modern “evangelical” church is “cruisin’ for a brusin’” by alienating those outside of their walls with a message of judgment and condemnation, followed by a political “power grab” in an effort to institutionalize and force their beliefs on the populace. It won’t work, in the grand scheme of things, and it won’t last. Let us hope that the WHOLE of the Christian church won’t go down with it!

 

Believe it or not, the candle of PEACE is what we’re lighting this week. If there is anything that “personifies” slowness, it is arrival of PEACE in this world. It’s no wonder that Jesus said people would cry, “Peace, peace…” but there is no peace. I’ve detailed a few barriers the modern church has actually CREATED against peace. “Speeding up” the coming of peace must begin with tearing down THESE walls, and repenting of being God’s “judges,” rather than the Gospel’s heralds. Ask yourself, What IS the message we should be shouting from the housetops? I’m guessing it’s the one of grace, compassion, and welcome to ALL of the people of God, not an angry word of judgment.

 

As I have done so many times over many “second weeks” of Advent, when lighting the candle for Peace, I close this message with an Ann Weems poem, “Searching for Shalom”:

 

I keep searching for shalom,

            Drawing my water from one well after another—

            But still I thirst.

For the shower of blessing

            That is shalom.

 

I yearn

            For life to be just and merciful and peaceful,

            But the streets are filled with daily deaths

Of Spirit and of flesh

            …but no shalom.

 

I keep searching for shalom,

            Away from crowds and commotion,

            But peace and quiet

Don’t blot the pain

            Of broken hearts and broken bodies.

 

I keep searching for shalom

            Thinking perhaps I’ll find it

            In a quiet field of flowers

Or in star or sea or snow,

            But still the innocent are trampled.

 

I keep searching for shalom,

            Standing in holy places,

            Sitting among saints.

Surely in the sanctuary

            I will find shalom.

 

Beyond cathedral walls

            And above ethereal music,

            The blaring din of death persists.

Back in the streets,

            The people walk in darkness.

 

I keep searching for shalom.

            I have pursued

            And sought it.

Have I looked in all

            The wrong places?

 

What is this bonding,

            This glue among us,

            This cohesiveness

That holds us in the hope

            Of shalom?

 

The longing won’t die.

            The hope keeps emerging

            Like a new sprout

That perseveres on the stump 

of a felled tree.

Even in the daily barrage

            Of obscenities 

            Some new star melts

Into my eyes

            And the promise persists.

 

Here in the darkness

            Some new light

            Stirs within me.

Here in the streets

            I find shalom.

 

Shalom lives

            Not in the sanctuary,

            But in the streets…

In chaos

            On a cross.

 

In the face of Jesus

            Is the peace

            That passes all understanding

The everlasting Sabbath…

            Shalom!

 

Amen.

What's Next?

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