Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, November 30

Something in today's appointed readings got me thinking about Sunday's lessons.  This Sunday's Gospel is John the Baptizer, in the wilderness, calling folks to repentance.  

Repentance is tricky, for me.  Trickier than for some other pastors.  I am a firm and non-wavering advocate of prevenient grace.  This is the grace of God which acts on me which makes it possible for me to respond to God.  God acts first - we respond.

So then, where does repentance fit into such a scheme?

We can't be expected to repent first, if it is grace that makes it possible for us to do so.

But if there is no change in our lives, can it be said that grace has been active?  So repentance must occur.

My experience has been so overwhelming and powerful that I have found myself searching for ways in which I might more completely live in harmony with the One who has allowed me to experience.  Overcome by the enormity of God's grace toward me I search for ways in which I can reflect God's goodness and God's hope for creation.  My repentance is a renunciation of those things which do not allow me and my life to share this good news with others.

I don't have a problem with repentance.  My difficulty is with repentance understood as a precondition to God's goodness coming into our lives.

And I have no hesitation in challenging you to repent - to look at your life and to allow your study of scripture to expose where that life is out sync.

John is right - we must turn, continually turn.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 29

It is raining.

I stirred in my sleep somewhere around 3 am when I heard it for the first time.  It has coming and going.  And as I write, some of the moisture is falling from the trees and hitting the roof.  What a glorious sound.

We are so protected from the elements that we too often don't notice something like rain.  We might have noticed dust clouds or marveled that the lake is so low.  But unless we are working the land, we might have only been grateful that not a single football game was a wet, miserable experience.

Scripture speaks of God sending "his rain."  Rain was understood as one of God's greatest gifts.  And it is.  Without rain the crops don't grow, without the crops the livestock don't eat, without........  How marvelous of God, to send us rain.

When you pray, make it a habit to pray for the things which absolutely essential.  Don't cease to pray for an end to cancer; but make sure to thank God for rain, and sunshine, and the winter frost which breaks down the seemingly impenetrable clods of dirt.  

It is raining.  Thank you, God.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Devotion - Monday, November 28

This is a time of the year when preparing is spoken of all around us.  You are preparing for exams; you are preparing for Holiday travels; you may be preparing for gift exchanges; Alex and Caitlin are preparing to enter a covenant of marriage.

How are you preparing yourself as a child of God?

I read from I Thessalonians this morning the lines where Paul says:  "You became imitators of us and of the Lord."  My practice of prayer I imitated from Frank Showers.  My attention to those often overlooked I imitated from David Choate.

The best preparation I have undertaken as been to imitate those who do this well.

There were also verses from Isaiah this morning.  The prophet says:  "cease to do evil, learn to do good;  seek justice, correct oppression."  "Learn to do good."  It isn't always immediately apparent what the "good" is.  It won't always come second nature to us.  We do need to learn how to do good.  This is particularly true when we seek justice and to correct oppression.  These are evils which are systemic and thus easily not seen.

How are you preparing?  And will you allow the preparation for exams to blind you to the need for preparation in other aspects of your life?  Don't mishear me:  STUDY HARD AND DO WELL IN CLASS.  But you need to learn now how to attend to the immediate task while keeping your eye on those things which define us as a person.

Prepare well.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon - Advent 1

Isaiah 2:1-5              

                                                         All the Nations Shall Stream to It

How many of you went shopping on Friday?  I had told myself I wasn’t, then ended up at CVS. So I guess I need to raise my hand as well.  Did you find what you were looking for?  I found something that seemed like what I wanted, but when I pulled it out of the box on Saturday morning, I was terribly disappointed.  Anyone have a similar experience?  That feeling of wanting something, but not quite able to grasp it?

I wonder how many of those who stayed at home and away from the Friday shopping did so precisely because they already knew there was nothing in the stores or the malls which would be the thing most wanted.  That which we seek just isn’t to be found in the shops or the malls or even the lighting displays.  The hope we have for this season will be realized by the arrival of something far beyond the glitter and glitz, by the dawning of something which cannot be wrapped and placed under a tree.

So whether you went out looking on Friday or remained in your home, it is now Sunday and we are here.  And in this place we will turn our eyes and our hearts to the advertisements and promotions which promise eternal satisfaction.

I want to spend most of the time this morning looking at the Isaiah passage.  There is something right at the beginning of this passage which addresses how long we will need to wait for the promotions and promises of God.  It is my hope that by looking closing at just a very few words, we can more closely approximate the day when we live fully and comfortably in this new place and time.

A bit of background.  We have talked in the past about Isaiah having three parts:  20 chapters of warnings, 20 chapters spoken to Israel during the time of occupation, and 20 chapters speaking of the rebuilding and hope.  Part I (from which Isaiah 2 is taken) are those proclamations spoken by Isaiah during the anxious years.  In the eyes of many – let’s call them the establishment - Jerusalem and Judah were flourishing.  But others were disgruntle and angry.  They were looking at the system and voicing their opinion that the system had forgotten them, or ignored them, or at least overlooked them.  Israel was doing well for the insiders and elite, but doing poorly for the masses.  Isaiah speaks of God’s displeasure at the system and its designs.

If you have your bible with you, open it to Isaiah.  Look at some of the lines with which this book opens. 
Vs 7 – Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire
Vs 3 – The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand
Vs 2b – I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.

Many were content with the system the way it was – but others were shouting out in frustration and anger.  Isaiah collects their emotions, pours them into his oracles, and then speaks the word of God in the midst of all this. 

We are about to go from the general to the very specific.  I want you to look at the first phrase of the second verse of chapter 2.  On our bulletins, it reads, “In days to come.”  This is the New Revised Standard Version translation.  Other translations interpret the phrase a bit differently.  Does anyone happen to have a New International Version translation?  The NIV translates the same phrase as “In the last days.” 

“In the days to come.”  “In the last days.”  Same phrase, two different translations.  And while I don’t want to make mountains out of mole hills, these differing translations can also align themselves with differing belief systems with regard to how we are to read what follows and the role we are to play in the unfolding of these promises.

The NIV interpretation tends to be preferred in congregations where the focus of our assembly is in the far-future.  Reading Isaiah’s words as “In the last days,” put the action on that final day, the day of Christ’s return, the day of God’s in breaking.  The NIV interpretation may suggest to us that we see Isaiah’s words as something which will come to pass at the final consummation of all things.  It isn’t something we are to expect now - it is something that will happen at the so called return of Christ.  It isn’t something that will happen in our life-time – and therefore it isn’t something we affect or influence or bring closer by our participation.

I want to acknowledge that the NIV a translation has solid backing.  Those who translate the phrase “In the last days,” have done research.  In fact, this translation is more in keeping with the historic translations favored by the Church from the 16th century till the 20th.  “In the last days” is the mood in the Latin Translations and thus also in the King James Translation.    You can find further support such an interpretation when you cross reference the Hebrew phrase as it ­is used in Daniel 2:8 and 10:14. 

However, I want to attempt to persuade you that this is not how Isaiah meant these words to be understood.  Verse 2 of Chapter 2 is a foreshadowing of the promises outlined in greater detail in Chapters 40-60.  For Isaiah, “the days to come” may be indefinite, but it is not vague.  It refers neither to the end of time nor to some point beyond time.  It is a reference to God’s activity within time. 

To take it back to my opening set of questions:  the promises of God will not forever evade us.  We will find it possible to set aside our longings and our desires and to experience the arrival of that which truly satisfies.  While systems of evil and power and domination may attempt to maintain their stranglehold, God’s people can and will break free.  And all this isn’t some distant last day, it is in the days which will come.  Perhaps those days will come even before Isaiah finishes his book.

To be sure, the prophet Isaiah expects a radical transformation of history, as the remainder of his prophecy demonstrates.  But Isaiah does not speak of some future integration of the things of heaven with the things of the earth.  He is talking about what he sees God doing in the history which we call human history.

It is very important, how we understand those four little words.  If we accept the ­interpreta­tion of the NIV then we are justified in accepting the continued presence of hatred and war and violence and loathing of others.  Such an interpretation would allow us to believe that it is beyond us to live in a world where swords are bent into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  But, if we accept Isaiah’s words as God’s promise which comes within time - then we find ourselves looking for ways that our history might be transformed into a history of peace and good will.  If we join Isaiah in describing the days to come, we are also presented with the chance to participate in the making those very same promises a reality.How we understand those four little words will determine whether we see ourselves and our world as a place where there will always be hatred and war and so we might as well accept it and get on with it.  Or, will we find the conviction to believe that the angels’ song was not a reference to the sweet-by-and-by but an announcement of the arrival of the One who has set us free from such cycles of self-destruction.

Some will sit and wait for the “last days.”  They will resign themselves to the war and hatred and violent talk.  They will forever perceive our world and shared existence as one devoid of words and instructions of the angels.  They will shop till they drop on the Friday after Thanksgiving only to return to their private fortress and discover how disappointed they are with the things they have grabbed up and accumulated.

Others, will listen for the announcement of the angels.  They will insist on seeing today as the “day to come;” the day on which the “mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established.”

Those horrible images I shared from Isaiah 1 are offset by the invitation of Isaiah 2 to not only dream of the days to come, but to make them come.  The Lord will do his part.  Then we are to do ours.  Read verse 5 with me:  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Will we sit back and remain indifferent to “The last days”?  Or will we allow our hearts to come alive at the angels’ song?  Will we see “Peace on earth, and goodwill among men” as a future and far-off possibility?  Or will we join the prophet Isaiah in streaming to the highest of the mountains where God “may teach us his ways… that we may walk in his paths”?

Even those who teach preaching at the seminary admit sermons lose out every week to hymnody.  You are seven times more likely to go home repeating a line from a hymn than a thought from the sermon.  So let’s try to combine both.

I have asked Judi to be ready to help us sing Hymn 538.  We sang this just two weeks ago.  It isn’t really and Advent hymn, and is actually grouped among the Sending Hymns in the ELW.  But I am going to ask you to sing it with me, now.  And remember that the first two lines repeat, as will the last four.

The Lord now sends us forth with hands to serve and give,
To make of all the earth a better place to live. (Repeat)
The angels are not sent into our world of pain
to do what we were meant to do in Jesus’ name;
That falls to you and me and all who are made free.
Help us, O Lord, we pray, to do your will today. (Repeat)


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 22

Laura and I were guests last evening at Clemson's 1st Annual Rainbow Thanksgiving Dinner.  We sat at table with a young woman who impressed both of us.  Over dinner, she spoke of how different she was now from when she came to college.  Others at the table asked how that change would be received by her family when she joined them for Thanksgiving.

This allowed Laura and I to reflect on how difficult it was when our children returned home for holidays, revealing to us all they had learned while away from us.  This caused Laura and I to speak of the hope that as parents we had been open and excited to the emerging individuality of our children - even though it meant they would think for themselves and follow paths of their own choosing.  This is difficult for parents to do.

This morning I was reading from Zechariah 11.  The prophet speaks of shepherds.  He is speaks of the shepherds whose oversight had not resulted in the hope God had.  Zechariah is the last of the books in the Christian order of books in the Bible because Zechariah also speaks of a future shepherd who will do the will of God.  This Good Shepherd will lead the sheep to the pastures God has prepared for them.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all being influenced by "shepherds."  We make choices - and need to make them with eyes and hearts wide open - but the options set before us are revealed by the persons or thoughts we have found ourselves following.  

As we look to ourselves, it is also appropriate to consider our shepherds.  To evaluate them and to decide anew each day if they are leading us to the places we want to go.  

And, if you are fortunate enough to be with family over this Thanksgiving Break, talk with them about the ways you have grown and changed and matured.  Acknowledge that this can be tough for them, and assure them that the new ideas and thoughts you are developing are grounded in shepherds whom they too can come to trust.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Devotion - Monday, November 21

There are many things for which I will be thankful this week (and in the weeks to come.)  One of them is being a part of "us."  "Us" is a reference to those who begin each day with a moment to reflect on God, and how God is active in our lives, and how God hopes we will be active in the world.  "Us," is a community (just as real if it is cyber or assembling) in which there is an abundance of grace and a generous supply of mutual concern.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul makes a reference to "us". There he uses the phrase "household of faith."  This label stuck with me.  

A "household" involves everyone inside as well as everyone connected.  All those in the household may not have the same color hair, the same opinions, or the same ideological emphasis.  But they are of a shared household.  They are bound together.

To call it a "household of faith" does not mean that everyone is in the same place or on the same plane regarding faith.  But it is this faith which defines the household.

In this household, we (us) can be confident of each other's support, encouragement, and instruction.  It is a gift, to be included in such a household.  I give thanks for us - and will continually pray for the rest of you and request your prayers for me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, November 17

I began reading the Book of James this morning.  Our Tuesday night bible study group considered James this fall.  The book is an encouragement to seek the wisdom of God and to follow it.  Martin Luther expressed concern that we might take some of James' comments to suggest we can merit the love and grace of God which has already been freely given.  But Lutherans should willingly embrace this book's encouragement to admit the right and then do it.

The 15th verse of the first chapter occupied my prayers this morning.  James writes, "Let no one say they are tempted by God."  

When we face difficulties, it is appropriate to cry out for a greater measure of assurance that God has not abandoned us.  In our hour of need, it may truly seem as if we are alone and abandoned.  But the wisdom of James reminds us that God is not the one who has placed this obstacle in front of us.  

Be assured - God is on your side, in all things.  However or wherever pain and hardship enter your life it is not as a result of God's actions.  God is the one taking that pain upon himself.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, November 16

This morning I was reading from Luke 15.  Here we find the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The summation of these parables addresses the joy which comes when a "sinner" is found or returns to God.

I am very uncomfortable, thinking of those who are not with Christ as "sinners."  We are all sinners, so why single them out as such/

It isn't much better to think of them as "lost."  At least if we allow that designation to imply that they are "lost to the Lord."  God does not lose anyone; and no one is outside the reach of God's gracious care.

But I will entertain the notion that the one sheep which has become separated from the ninety-nine, or the one coin that is in a different place from the other nine needs to be reunited.  There is something lost; and that may be the confidence that God is attentive and searching.

Life is too often lonely and frightening.  Life tends to contribute to worries that we have become lost.  My bible reminds me that this is an often expressed emotion.  And my bible assures me that I am not lost, that I am not alone, and that I can find courage to face that which is frightening.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 15

In Luke 14:25 ff we read another of the often repeated warnings from Jesus about taking too lightly our promise to "follow" him.  The examples Jesus gives may not connect as well to our lives as others might.  

In Luke 14 he speaks of the man who desires to build a tower, but doesn't first sit down and consider the cost and so he runs out of materials and money before it is completed.  

The other example is of a king who goes off to war without first calculating whether his army is large enough to face the opposition.

I don't know that  I have ever had a member of a congregation build a tower; and none have amassed an army and started their own war.

If these examples leave us flat, we should look for others.  Following Jesus gives us a joy and a satisfaction and an assurance beyond our wildest hope.  But following Jesus must be our hope, our true hope and our final hope.  Following Jesus means acting the way Jesus would act and seeing the world the way that Jesus sees the world.  Following Jesus means making important in our lives the things that were important in Jesus' life.

It is important to count the cost.  It is essential to consider well if we have the courage and dedication to follow through.  So so much to avoid Jesus' disappointment but to avoid the disappointment experienced by so many who come to realize that they have allowed some other goal to come between them and Jesus.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, November 3

One of the student leaders asked me, "Do you really get up early and write those devotions, or do you do them the day before?"  I asked if it wasn't obvious, from all the typing and spelling and other errors.  I do them as a stream of conscious each morning.  This also means I don't have a plan, or even check a record to see if I am saying the same thing I said earlier.

Like - have I said anything about Revelation?  I have been reading this, as one of the appointed daily lessons, for the past couple of weeks.  But I can't remember if I have written anything.  Forgive me if I have.

This morning the verses I read are from the 12th chapter.  This is the so called "War in Heaven."

As with all of Revelation, there is no doubt to the outcome.  The evil one is easily defeated.  There is no possible challenger to God and God's anointed ones.  The Devil is cast out of heaven, along with all of his followers.  There was never any question this would happen.

What does happen is some fallout from this defeat.  The evil one is cast from heaven, and lands on the earth.  In his weakened humiliation, the evil one attempts to inflict as much pain as possible.  So, while he is easily routed, there is still pain even in his defeat.

These words are words of ultimate hope.  These images help us to place in perspective the pain that is inflicted upon us, while holding firm to the assurances of God's victory.

It is somewhat hallow, and I would never speak such words to those in the midst of a crisis, but no hardship or pain should ever be interpreted as God having lost or given up.  We will endure.  We will preserve.  The victory is ours.

Pastor Chris

P.S.  Fall Break is Monday and Tuesday.  There may be a "Friday Devotion" sent out tomorrow from one of our students, but I will be back with you on Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 2

I want to spend one more day on the book of Jonah.  As we discussed this book last night, we were struck by the folks in the book who hear and respond to God.  Jonah is not one of those who does.

Jonah runs away from God.  Jonah reluctantly does what God asks of him.  And when Nineveh repents of its evil, Jonah is frustrated that they do.  

We are too quick to label those who are inside the circle and those who are not.  We are too fast in assuming with whom God is pleased and who is following the way of God.  We distrust the stranger and the foreigner.  We, like Jonah, insist on our own preferences rather than responding to God and living into our relationship with God.

Nineveh has a foreign city.  Nineveh was a place that was looked down upon and avoided.  And yet Jonah is to go to Nineveh and when he does the people of the town hear God's word and respond.

We can learn much from this short book.  We ought to learn much from it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, November 1

Things have a way of aligning.  This evening we will be discussing Jonah at our Tuesday Bible Study.  This morning, I opened my devotional guide to the same book.

When we think of Jonah, we tend to think of fish.  (It is described as a fish.  We tend to think of a whale - probably mostly because we get distracted when we read Jonah, wondering how he could survive for three days in the belly of the fish, and attempt to resolve the doubt by thinking of a huge whale.)

But Jonah is about much more.  It is about God's insistence that His message be shared.  It is about our tendency to ignore God and even run away from God.  It is about the very nature of God and His attitude toward his children.

Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh.  This is not a city of the Hebrews.  He is to call them to repentance.  He flees by boat, a strong wind blows against the boat, Jonah acknowledges the only way to save the boat is throw him overboard, the crew does, and a fish swallows Jonah.  Jonah has a change of heart, the fish spits him out, he goes to Nineveh, and the city hears the warning and repents - from the least to the greatest.

Then comes the exchange which always stops me in my tracks.  Jonah becomes angry, embarrassed really.  That his words of warning did not result in the destruction of Nineveh.  He is so embarrassed that he asks that he might die.  Then he admits that this is why he tried to flee in the first place.  He said he knew God would repent (the text does speak of God repenting) and that God would not destroy the city.  Jonah says, he knew God was "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to repent from punishing."


What a powerful image of God.  And what a welcome one.

And what a great correction the next time someone speaks of Jonah as a story about a fish.  It is about the very nature of God - a nature which is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and ready to relent from punishment.