Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sermon - Third Sunday of Advent - Year B

Zephaniah 3:14-20                 

Announcing The Year of the Lord's Favor

Some of you have heard of my e-devotions.  Many of you have also heard of the gaffs and catachrestical errors which are regularly committed in them.  It was about three weeks ago that I was writing about Zephaniah.  My error that day was to assign Zephaniah placement as the last book in the Old Testament.  I know that spot is reserved for Malachi.  My quick look at the indexes of my bible was too quick to realize I was not looking at their order, but at an alphabetical listing.

The mistake was so enormous, I worried it prevented readers from hearing the point I was trying to make.  Like Malachi, Zephaniah does much to set the table for what happens when the New Testament story does begin.  Zephaniah lifts a promise and an assurance which we have come to see was realized in Bethlehem of Judea.  Zephaniah tells all of Israel to sing and shout!  “Rejoice and exult with all of your heart!”  The fortunes of Jerusalem are about to change – the king of Israel, the Lord, your God is soon to be found in your midst!

This is the story of Christmas.  The good news that God will no longer consider the heavens His abode.  In Jesus, God takes on our flesh.  We do not look to the skies in order to find God; we look at one who shares our meal and shares his love.

If we want to talk about mistakes or errors, forgive something as simple as getting the books of the bible in the wrong order.  Let’s call attention to the mistake of thinking we are living as in the days before Bethlehem.  Let’s call attention to the mistake of failing to see God as one who is constantly and continually in our midst.

Look back at those verses from Zephaniah.  Note how many references are made to flesh and blood concerns.  He speaks of hands that do not grow weak, of oppressors experiencing God’s rebuttal.  Look particularly at the verses at the top of Page 7 in our bulletin: “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.”  When God is “in our midst,” life here becomes different.  The life lived by God’s people reflects the presence of our God.

This is the life we are living.  We live in the time of which Zephaniah speaks.  We live on this side of the birth in Bethlehem.  The arrival of our Lord means the changes of which Zephaniah spoke have come to pass.

Or have they?

Has the reality of what happened in Bethlehem sunk in?  Or maybe it sunk in for a while and then the luster wore off.  It sure seems as if too little of our religious life is a celebration of the marvelous thing God has already done, and too much of our attention is looking for God to do something else, something more.         

This is the story of Christmas.  The good news that God will no longer consider the heavens His abode.  In Jesus, God takes on our flesh.  We do not look to the skies in order to find God; we look at one who shares our meal and shares his love.

If we want to talk about mistakes or errors, forgive something as simple as getting the books of the bible in the wrong order.  Let’s call attention to the mistake of thinking we are living in the days before Bethlehem, to the mistake of failing to see God as one who is constantly and continually in our midst.

When God is in our midst, we live differently.  We don’t have to be anxious about what we will eat or what we will wear. 

When God is in our midst, we think differently.  We don’t have to wonder if we are loved and accepted.  We do not need to compare ourselves to others – to find others lacking and ourselves excelling.

When God is in our midst, we start to ask “What then shall we do?” 

This is the question they asked of John, and we just read what he told them.

If you have two coats, share with another who has none.

When collecting money from others, collect only that which is fair.

When God is in our midst, life is different.  It is peaceful.  There is great contentment. And satisfaction.  And joy.  And happiness.

We too often make the mistake of forgetting that we live on this side of the events in Bethlehem.  We read the words of Zephaniah as if they remain a distant hope rather than a realized reality.  Allow the good news of the birth of Jesus to sink and never let the luster wear off. 

Live your life aware that Messiah has come; and that the Lord, our God, is in our midst. 


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, December 13

This is my Christmas note to you.  There are two more days of exams, but some of you have already completed and gone home.  As you make your way, I want to say "Merry Christmas" to each of you.

The way in which Advent aligns with finals makes it difficult to observe this season.  Many of you have participated in mid-week observances and have attended Sunday worship.  There was a time when we attempted to have students share an Advent Calendar experience; but completing projects and preparing for exams was too much competition.

Christmas you will observe.  You will be free of deadlines and you will have the opportunity to step into the peace and calm.  You can remember the birth at Bethlehem and you can gaze at the heavens in search of guiding stars.  Make the most of this opportunity!

Attend to the matters of your soul and your heart.  Whether it has been a tradition or habit in your family, invite your parents (maybe one at a time) out for coffee or ice cream.  Have an adult conversation with them - one which will allow them to see the adult you are becoming and thus be proud of who you have become.  Ask them one faith question.

Give.  Give to those persons in your life who have given you so much.  Maybe it was a scoutmaster, a teacher, a neighbor, or friend's parent.  Pick up a $2.99 box of chocolates and go to that person.  Tell them you can't find a gift equal to the emotion, but you wanted them to know how much they had impacted your life.

The ending of the semester makes it difficult to have shifted into Advent gear.  But you can do Christmas right.  I hope you will.  I pray you will experience the joy and peace and happiness which comes with this season of our year.

Pastor Chris

PS:  I will be back with you in January.  The new term starts January 9.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, December 12

Most of us are familiar with the call of Isaiah.  You are likely to have sung the camp song, "Here I am Lord, if you need me.  I have heard you calling in the night...."

The call of Isaiah (chapter 6) is today's appointed reading.  It is a dramatic scene:  There are flying horses, robes and thrones and smoke.  A burning coal is touched to the lips of Isaiah to take away his sin and guilt.

If something like that happened to any one of us we would also be likely to raise our hands upon hearing God ask, "Whom shall I send?"

Perhaps your invitation to Christ's family wasn't as dramatic; but is it any less powerful?  To what do you point when you speak of your inclusion in the people of God?  Maybe it was a word of comfort (or a simple meal) during a stressful week.  Has there been a time when you could see no way forward and a pastor or teacher helped you to see one?  Has fear attempted to hold you in it's grasp only to be kept at bay by a simple reminder that you are a baptized child of God?

That which calls us may not be dramatic, but it does not lack power.

That to which we are called can be equally powerful.  We are not all called to reclaim Israel for God.  We are not all called to Reform the Church.  Our calling may be to be the one who says, "I don't appreciate that" when a racist or sexist joke is being told.  Our calling may be to speak up for the disadvantaged and forgotten.

Singing the song may be the best way to affirm our having been called.  It is also a reminder that we are needed, by God, to see that God's will is done in the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, December 11

The first letter written by St. Paul is Thessalonians.  He wrote this in 50 a.d.  His next letter is three years later (Galatians).  There is a simplicity in Thessalonians which should not be overlooked.  

His ending to the letter is the prefect, practical advice for those seeking to life the way of Christ.  I share these words with you, encouraging you to read them slowly, and to pick out one phrase for your day.  (I will bold the one which I most want to keep in my heart today.)

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
I Thessalonians 5:12-19

God's blessings on your day.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

Devotion - Monday, December 10

The Opening Prayer in my guide stuck with me throughout my morning devotion.

"Lord, free us from our sins and make us whole."

Are there two requests in this petition? Or two aspects of one plea?

Too often we speak and hear of "sins" as an act or thought or word.  Sin can also refer to a broken relationship.  This latter understand would then see acts committed as an expression or result of the broken relationship.

I also found myself thanking God for the wholeness which comes from knowing that I am linked with that larger than myself.  The forgiving of my sins means I live united with God and thus my life is whole, complete.

What might be lacking in my life is of no real consequence.  The only things in short supply are things which I can easily live without.  My life is whole, my sins are forgiven, I am at one with the God who created me and who redeems me and gives me the very air I breathe.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sermon - Advent 2 - Year B

 Luke 3:1-6 & 1:68-79                                                                                   

                                                                 Historically Noteworthy

Anyone who had been assigned to read the lessons on Pentecost Sunday or at an Easter Vigil liturgy had to smile a little smile this morning when you heard me stumbling over the names for the regions presided over by Philip, brother of Herod.  “Ituraea?”  “Trachonitis?”  “Abilene” is rather easy to pronounce, but what of the guy who was the ruler of this city – “Lysanias?”  Like the readings on Pentecost, these verses contain difficult names to pronounce, of places and people we have long since forgotten. 

Why are all those names included in Luke’s text?  I had this discussion with another preacher.  I asserted that these names were there in order to document the year when John begins his ministry.  “One reference would have done that,” was the reply.  Besides, this reference only confuses the time line.  While each of the persons mentioned eventually figures into the unfolding story, their reigns don’t align as perfectly as Luke 3 would have us believe.

“No.” my conversation partner insisted.  “They are mentioned so Luke can drive home the point that all these powerful people are passed over when God has a word to share.”  Look right there at the last phrase of verse 2.  The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  The word of God does not respect the structures or preferences of human design.  The word of God goes where it will – and at the time of Messiah’s arrival - God wills it to go to John, out there, in the wilderness.

Luke will employ such a tactic many times in his writings.  And we had all better get used to it, because we are in the year of Luke.  From now till next Christ the King Sunday, we will be reading from Luke on Sunday mornings.  And throughout Luke there is a theme of God passing over the rich and powerful in favor of the lowly and powerless.  Such a message was an added “good news” to Luke’s readers.  Remember that they were not members of Rome’s ruling majority nor were they Pharisees, Sadducees, High Priests, or scribes. 

I guess it is yet to be determined whether we will consider this aspect of Luke’s presentation as good news.

Emperor Tiberius, Governors Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip; high priests Annas and Caiaphas – the word of God is spoken to them, but not by them.  The word of God is spoken by John, the guy living out there along the river bank.

Or I should say, it will be spoken by John, eventually.  Did you notice or realize that John doesn’t speak in today’s readings.  He is spoken about, but he does not speak.  Others speak about him.

The first to speak about him was his father.  Zechariah’s song is in Luke 1.  (Luke 1:68-79) These verses are the appointed Psalm for today.  The “Psalm Substitute” captures much of the same message.  The message is clear and straight forward – God has looked with favor upon His people and is sending to them one who will save them “from the hands of our enemies.”    

Zechariah’s speech is notable for other reasons.  Do you remember that when a messenger from God told him that he and Elizabeth would have a child; Zechariah doubted that such a thing was possible.  Elizabeth was old and considered barren.  When Zechariah doubted it was possible for God to send them a child, he lost his ability to speak.  It is only at the naming of the child, when Zechariah affirms that he is to be named “John” that Zechariah regains the ability to talk.  And Luke 1:68-79 is what he says.

Zechariah’s song affirms that God does see us and God remembers His promise to us.  God comes to us, giving us reason to hope - and then fulfilling our hopes.  Zechariah sings:  The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

That is what Zechariah has to say about John.  In Chapter 3, we read what Luke has to say about him.

These lines are also borrowed from elsewhere in our bibles.  Do you remember where?  Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:  The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Again, high hopes and welcomed promises.  Luke remembers the words of Isaiah, spoken to people who had lived through some of their darkest days.  Luke repeats Isaiah’s assurance that God will come and set them free from the hands of those who hate them, the tyranny of those who oppress them.

In Luke’s day, it was the ruler of Rome – all those folks mentioned in verse 1.  In the time of Isaiah, it was the Babylonians.

If you turn in your bibles to Isaiah 40, you might have footnote, similar to the one in my bible.  Isaiah 40 begins what is sometimes called Isaiah II.  There are three sections in Isaiah: the first section which speaks to the time just prior to their being overrun and carried off into exile; the second section (the one that begins at Chapter 40) which is offered during the time of transition in their fate; and a final section which speaks of the rebuilding of their lives and their religious practices.  Isaiah 40 was an assurance that God had not abandoned His people.  They were sitting in darkness and may have feared that they had lost their status in God’s eyes.  “Not so,” God assures them.

Same situation, same message, some six-hundred years later.  In Luke’s day it was Rome who rules over them.  Tiberius and Pilate and Herod and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas – these are not your liberators or redeemers.  The one who can save you is the one whom God is sending.

We are too often enamored with the power structures of our world.  We come to rely on the alliances we have made and the systems we have put into place.  They usually function very well – particularly for those who created them, because in the creation process we tend to make them favor us as much as possible.  But the message of Luke 1 and Luke 3 is to remind us that we cannot find our salvation, or our hope, or any reason to be encouraged in such structures.  The word of God goes to the wild-eyed guy living in the wilderness.  It goes to the one who cares not what happens to the rulers of the state or to the rulers of the religious structures.  It goes to the one who isolates themselves from all of that and listens for the word of God.

Is Christmas about what God did back there, in that place and time; or is Christmas the perpetual arrival of the One who turns the tables in the Temple, angers those in authority, upsets the social norms, and is eventually executed at the insistence of the crowd who had once welcomed his word but turned on him when they learned the ramifications of accepting that word?

I join the majority who like the way things are.  I live rather comfortably in the configuration as it is.  But all week I have struggled with the question of whether the rest of the world’s populations would accept my complacency. 

That list of difficult to pronounce names were the who’s who of Luke’s day.  All of them are gone.  The only reason their names are remembered is because they are included in someone else’s story.  The nations and regions they fought so desperately to control – wiped off the map and given different names by new rulers who were themselves eventually overthrown.

But the word of God continues. 

The word of God comes to those who listen for it and to it.  The word of God comes to those willing to allow their world to be turned on its head and re-established with God’s vision of justice enthroned.  The word of God is like no other word we will ever hear.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, December 6

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.  Nicholas was known for his acts of generosity.

One story involves his actions to save three young girls from a horrible future.  Using cover of night, he placed coins so their father would have a dowry for his daughters.  When locals would ask who the benefactor was for such acts, reports would emerge of someone in a red cape (Bishops were red) slipping away from the home and into the darkness.

Not all origins of our Santa Claus can be traced to St. Nicholas, but enough of them can.  Christians should reclaim this Bishop and his ways.  

One I would life up is the difference in his behaviors:  He gave to the poor and needy while we tend to lavish gifts on those who lavish us back.  (Sorry, don't let this become a downer.)

Christians need to know the story of St. Nicholas and we need to retell it.  We need to be about efforts to help December 25 be a celebration of God's birth among us, the Light which no darkness can overcome.  Social and cultural traditions are meaningful and nice, but cannot or should not overtake our attention to what it means to be the children of God and members of God's household.

Renew your knowledge of St. Nicholas.  And celebrate with all of Christendom those who help us observe the way of Christ.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, December 5

"The Lord shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not life up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more."
Isaiah 2:4

I wonder, during these days of Advent, if our society desires the dawning of the vision articulated in Isaiah 2 or if we oppose it.  War typically happens when one group wants to impose their advantage on another or when one group fears being robbed of they have come to think is their possession.  I wonder - how you individually hear the prophet's words about an alternative world-view.  And I wonder how we as a society hear those words.

My fear is that we are scared, worried, nervous.  That we are inclined to lock ourselves inside our fortress and stand ready for battle.

Isaiah's word will be read and repeated in many of our Advent texts.  His oracles are God's invitation to come to the Holy Mountain and to receive the gifts of God's justice.  Isaiah calls upon all the societies of the earth to be united in following the way of the Lord.

I wonder.  If we can trust in God's way - giving up our own way.  

I wonder.  If we can see the bounty of the earth as enough for everyone and thus cease to hoard.

I wonder if the sense of wonder spoken of during this season of the year might find its way into our conversations and our attitudes and our moods and our self-understanding.

I wonder, and I hope, and I invite you to do the same.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, December 4

In I Thessalonians 2:12 Paul writes:  "Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory."

During a coffee visit Sunday afternoon, I was exploring with my guest how differently we find ourselves responding to different worshiping communities.  There seems to be an undertone which evokes emotions from us.  She was sharing her reaction to an undertone which involved a plea to bring others into the fold.

What is the undertone for the community we share?  What is the end toward which we are moving?

I hope it is these words from Paul.

The reason we are here is because we have been invited.  More than invited, called.  We have been sought out and claimed and given a name and an identity.  We do not need to fear or be afraid of not having a place or a people or purpose.

"Here," we are encouraged to live.  To lead a life worthy of this call.  My years of ministry have brought me to the conclusion that transgressions are seldom born out of rebellion; they arise out of fear.  We become fearful of the worthiness of the call and we act in a way which we (mistakenly) think might bring us some pleasure or comfort or acclaim.  "Here," what we are called to do is live.  A life worthy of the calling which is ours.

Undertones are often difficult to parse out.  They are also too often part of ourselves which remains un-examined or unstated.  We can't easily speak of that which is taken for granted and assumed.  The visitor or new new arrival is often better at helping us hear our own undertones.  Being clear about them avoids confusion or conflict.  Consider them, and allow your emotions to inform you actions.  Make sure your spiritual life is being nurtured by that which lies at the heart of the communities where you gather.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Devotion - Monday, December 3

We have entered the Liturgical season of Advent.  These are the four weeks prior to Christmas.  There are two aims to this season; both are essential for our journey of faith.

First, Advent is that only season of the year when we kinda-sorta don't have Messiah.  These weeks are a time to anticipate what the arrival of Messiah might mean.  Pastor Jon preached yesterday about the "second Advent" as the arrival of Messiah in full majesty.  Advent is that time for us to look at our lives and at our world and ask, "Where is there a need for Messiah?"  How might the world be different?  How ought the world to be different?  What does the arrival of Messiah mean?  In Advent, we learn to ask God to do this amazing thing which God has promised - "Come, Lord Jesus!"

Second, Advent is an opportunity to explore how we might respond to the arrival.  Do our lives reflect the arrival of the first advent - the birth in Bethlehem.  While we wait for the full culmination of the Kingdom, the world has already been irrevocably altered by the dawning of the light which darkness cannot overcome.  This is a call to faithfulness and to discipleship.  During Advent we can ask ourselves if we are so fixated on a future visit of Messiah that we have failed to live fully into the new order brought into being by Mary's first-born.

Advent may be the most difficult season for college students.  It comes at a time when exams and final projects compete for our time and attention.  Remember, you are a student, that is your God-appointed calling.  But find a way, make some time to feed your faith and to nurture your response to God.  Do not miss the new thing which God is doing and the invitation from God to see your life transformed.