Where’s Waldo? Where’s Jesus

Where’s Waldo?

waldo2Have you ever asked, “Where’s Waldo?”

It’s a fun children’s puzzle game in which you try to find the Waldo figure somewhere in the middle of a picture. What makes finding Waldo a challenge? He’s usually buried in a “busy” puzzle with lots of characters. It can be hard to distinguish Waldo from all the other figures.

Where’s Jesus?!

Epiphany’s gospel reading – magi are looking for Jesus. They’ve studied Scriptures, and they followed the star. Now, they arrive in Bethlehem and worship Jesus, and they give him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Isaiah’s words in first reading are now fulfilled in Jesus:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (60.1,3,6)

candleIsrael was supposed to be that light. God chose Abraham and Sarah, and God blessed them to be a blessing so that the entire world might be blessed. (Gen 12.2-3) In time, though, that large, inclusive worldview narrowed considerably. In time, the OT teachings and stories that we supposed to set Israel apart as different than others, and thereby help them point to the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, instead became used to distinguish insiders (Israelites) from outsiders (everyone else) and to reserve God’s blessings for the insiders, God’s chosen ones, Israel.

Epiphany loosens that exclusive hold on God’s blessings and restores God’s inclusive perspective toward the world. God’s love is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. This was Paul’s radical word in our reading from Ephesians:

the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (3.6)

And this is what Jesus lived out in his encounters with people during his entire ministry. This openness attracted so many people to him as he made his way through both Jewish and Gentile portions of Palestine.

Irony in the Search for Jesus

There’s a great irony in this, though. The very people who should have been looking for him – Herod and the Jewish religious leaders – weren’t. They were too distracted by their lives and clouded by their prejudices to see what was right in front of them. On the other hand, the very people one wouldn’t expect to be looking – the Gentile magi who didn’t have faith in God – were. Their eyes and their hearts were opened.

Another irony: Herod and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were only 6 miles away from Jesus’ birthplace. Had they been interested, they could have walked there in less than three hours. On the other hand, the magi traveled for months following the star, until they finally arrived in Bethlehem.

For What are We Looking?

May imagine that more are asking, “Where’s Waldo?” nowadays than “Where’s Jesus?” According to the latest census date from 2010 (www.city-data.com), Madera County boasts 31% of its population participates in some faith community. Fresno County: 47% participation, and the national US Average: 50.2 %. But maybe that’s not fair. Many are asking about Jesus; however, they may not be involved in a church as they do it.

This was the story of my mother, who had a falling out with the Episcopal Church when she was in her 20s. Although she left the church, she spent most of her life exploring other faith traditions and new age philosophies trying to fill the “God sized hole” in her life.

Challenge for us: when people come here looking for Jesus, what do they find? Do we reflect Jesus’ inclusive, welcoming stance? Or do our traditions and styles and culture here unintentionally put up barriers for newcomers? It’s a question with which every congregation, every leadership team needs to struggle. Honestly and openly.

Attracted by the Light

John and Mary, a poor Irish couple living by the Irish Sea. They only had a one-room hovel with only a dirt floor under their feet. Both worked hard all day, every day to scratch out their simple life. They didn’t have much, but they had each other. Now Mary was pregnant. One day, John came home bone weary from the fields. Made a little supper, and they fell into bed, exhausted; asleep almost immediately.

Soon, Mary nudged John and said, “Wake up and turn on the light, I think the baby’s coming!” What exciting news! In a flash John was up out of bed and turned on the light, and sure enough, the baby had come. So he went around the house until he found a small piece of cloth and wrapped the baby in it; placed it between him and Mary and got back into bed. As he drifted back to sleep, he thought, “We don’t have much, but I’ve got a family now; that’s enough.”

Little while later, Mary nudged John awake and said, “John, get up, turn on the light, I think there’s a baby coming!!” Oh my, how can it be twins?!” John thought. But he got up, turned on the light and sure enough, it was another baby! John looked through the house until he found another piece of cloth, wrapped the baby up, placed it between them on the bed and fell into bed himself. How he was a little nervous – they didn’t have much, and now there were four of them in their one room shack. How would they survive??? With these anxious thoughts running through his mind, he fell into a restless sleep.

Little while later, Mary nudged John awake and said, “John, get up and turn on the light; I think there’s a baby coming!” Oh, no!! Triplets. How can this be? But John got up and turned on the light and sure enough, there was a third child. So he searched the house; couldn’t find any cloth, so used some newspaper to wrap the child in; laid it between them on the bed and crawled in himself.

Now, John was scared! Triplets AND a wife AND himself in this one room dirt floor hovel? With fear gnawing at his heart and now three children squirming between them, he lay there wide awake, staring at the ceiling.

Little while later, Mary nudged John and said, “John, get up and turn on the light; I think there’s a baby coming.” This time, John rolled over and told Mary, “I’m sorry, honey, but I canna do that. You see, it’s the light that attracts them.”

How can we be an attractive light, shining Jesus’ love into the neighborhood and greater community? Jesus is our model here: Faithful teaching coupled with compassionate engagement with the community.

Religious leaders in Jesus’ day had the right theology, but they applied it in such a way as to create divisions between insiders and outsiders. Jesus’ ministry undid that. He maintained faithful teaching, but included with that teaching a care for others that drew people to him like flies to honey. Together, this good spiritual food and compassionate care transformed people’s lives and their relationship with God.

As we do this, we will live out our mission as servants of God: learning, living and sharing God’s great love! in a way that I believe will be attractive to folks like my mother who are asking “Where’s Jesus?”

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Happy New Year!

Every fall, I go a little crazy.

Just a little, mind you.

shadetreeWe have a big, beautiful tree in our front yard that provides wonderful shade to the west side of our house. Throughout the year I rake up the dribbling of leaves that fall from its branches as I mow and edge our yard each week. No big deal; I expect to do this.

What drives me a bit batty is that in December the trickle of falling leaves becomes a deluge . . . sort of. I no sooner rake up the mess than more leaves fall, making it look as though I haven’t done anything. Since my in-laws walk across those leaves every time they leave or return home, I really don’t want the fallen leaves to accumulate, especially when it rains (wet leaves can be very slippery underfoot). Now, if this silly tree would drop its leaves over the course of a few days, I could live with that. But no, as I write this it’s been three weeks, and the tree is still half full.

SisyphusThis brings to mind the story of Sisyphus, who, for his misdeeds, was punished by being forced to push a large boulder up a hill. Before he could reach the top, the massive stone would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. True, my leaf raking isn’t a punishment – it’s a joy to have a house and in-laws who live with us (really!) – but for a month or so, my leaf raking feels as futile as dear old Sisyphus and his rock.

There are times when each of us deals with seemingly hopeless situations – chronic health challenges, thorny work issues, dysfunctional family dynamics – that never change or get better. In the midst of this, it is easy to lose hope; to become resigned to circumstances that seem as though they will never change. In turn, we may be tempted to disengage or even become depressed at the future stretching out before you. As the Christmas carols fade in our memory and we turn over our calendars to 2014, I am reminded of the power made available to us to deal with the apparently unchangeable situations in which we find ourselves.

At this beginning of a new year, we have just celebrated how God entered into our human existence in a powerful and profound way: by becoming fully human and living among us. Because of this, nothing remains the same. The world says, “Death wins.” Jesus says, “I win.” The world says, “Nothing ever changes.” Jesus says, “I have made all things new.”

The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection affirms for us that death does not have the final word; neither do the seemingly unending tasks or burdens we face – even the burden of our sin. He removes that from us and gives us his peace, his perspective on our journey through life. In fact, he helps us reframe problems as opportunities to grow deeper in our faith and dependence on God.

The apostle Paul helps us see this when he writes this encouragement to the believers in Corinth:

For our light, momentary affliction (this slight distress of the passing hour) is ever more and more abundantly preparing and producing and achieving for us an everlasting weight of glory (beyond all measure, excessively surpassing all comparisons and all calculations, a vast and transcendent glory and blessedness never to cease!). 2 Corinthians 4:17 (The Amplified Bible)

May this New Year bring us a new perspective and some new insight into our circumstances, which might also lead us to a new and deeper relationship with God!

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A Blue Christmas

Joy and Pain

159615782The little boy toddle-ran across the family room after spotting his favorite blankie in the corner. Just before he got there, though, he tripped and fell hard. Usually one to catch himself with his hands, this time the 16 month old caught his forehead on his Fisher-Price holiday train instead. With big tears streaming down his face, he jumped up into his mother’s arms and cried for a couple of minutes. Then, sporting his own version of holiday colors on his head, he side-stepped the train and went about his business.

The very thing that had been bringing him so much pleasure suddenly caused him pain.

Holidays can be like that, can’t they?! There is so much talk about celebration and joy and happiness. Yet the very things that bring us pleasure can also bring us pain. We gather with family to share meals and memories. But we miss those we love who aren’t with us:

  • a loved one deployed with the military far from home;
  • a child away at school or working far from home;
  • a marriage fractured by separation and stress;
  • an empty chair representing the absence of a loved one who died this past year.

ChristmasSociety’s picturesque holiday scenes show happy families and fun times visiting with friends. But in reality, during this holiday season we may battle depression or loneliness.

Maybe this year was a year of fertility treatments that led to depleted savings rather than an expanding family.

Maybe this year was filled with work furloughs and pink slips and unemployment paperwork and job interview rejections and an ever diminishing sense of self.

Maybe this year was an unending stream of doctors appointments and tests and hazy diagnoses and ever diminishing energy and sense of hope for the future.

And so we hope time passes quickly and ushers us into a good new year. Because next year will be better. Because next year has to be better. Because next year can’t be as bad as this one was, right?!

For some reason, the holidays seem to magnify whatever emotions we’re dealing with, whether good or bad. That’s why we’re offering a Blue Christmas worship service this year. It’s a helpful way during the holidays to give space for the harder, darker emotions that may be associated with your Christmas.

Christmas (Kincaid)Even the first Christmas season was filled with angelic choirs singing Hallelujah choruses and surprise gifts from out of town guests, and untimely, tragic deaths, and unexpected holiday travel adventures. We need to come and rejoice at Jesus’ birth. And we need to hear a word from the Lord on how that birth still touches our lives this year if our holidays didn’t resemble a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincaid painting.

Listen Carefully to Scripture

We start with what may seem the most obvious, but still the most helpful place to start: We need to listen carefully to Scripture.

Sometimes, in the throes of life’s challenges we listen to the wrong messages, whether from well-meaning others or from within ourselves. Messages like:

God helps those who help themselves.

I like that one; it even sounds Biblical. There’s only one problem: it’s not in the Bible. And it’s contrary to God’s actions in Scripture, because frequently, God helps those who cannot help themselves precisely because they are powerless.

Or, how about this message:

If I were a good Christian (or if I had enough faith), I wouldn’t be struggling right now.

This is a tricky message to refute, because I suspect few of us here today, including the preacher, would disagree with the idea that they could be a more devoted follower of Jesus or that they would like to have more faith. I dunno . . . maybe I’m wrong: Anybody here make a return to Target after receiving too much faith as a Christmas present last week?

No, I didn’t think so.

And yet, neither message is Scriptural. Nowhere in the Bible are the challenges we face in this life related to the quality or quantity of our faith.

Maybe you’ve heard this message:

God uses these challenges to make me a better person / a better Christian.

As if God sits up in heaven thinking,

Alright, let’s give the Schoonovers four years of infertility treatments and several miscarriages so they’ll be better parents and appreciate their children more when they do finally have kids.

Now THAT’S the kind of God I want to worship! NOT! It’s one thing to go through life’s challenges and, through self-reflection or the trusted guidance of a counselor or pastor, grow as a person and develop compassion or empathy or other life skills. It’s quite another thing to think that God sends mishap or disappointments or heartache in order to shape us or develop our character.

I don’t believe Scripture supports this sort of view of God.

Or maybe you’ve heard this message:

God is judging me for some sin in my life.

 This was the question the disciples asked Jesus in John’s gospel when they met a man born blind:

 As he went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9.1-2)

At least this idea – that the man was blind as a judgment for his sin – is Biblical. The fancy church word for this is “retribution” and it comes from Moses’ teaching to the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness after their release from slavery in Egypt:

God does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. (Ex 34:7)

It’s a teaching Job’s friends tried to use when they reassured Job that there was a reason for his losing all this possessions, and his family, and his health. You’ve brought this upon yourself, they said. There’s some unconfessed sin in your life. If you deal with that, then you’ll be fine and God will restore your fortunes. But it’s this idea of retribution that Jesus refuted when he responded to his disciples’ question:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (Jn 9.3)

God doesn’t need to judge us or punish us in this life. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus took on the punishment we should have received because of our sin. But because Jesus suffered it for us, the penalty has been paid. There’s nothing we can do. So God doesn’t punish us in this life because of our sin.

When we sin, we may certainly face the natural consequences of our behavior. My dad smoked a pack or more a day for nearly 50 years. It’s no surprise he developed lung cancer, high blood pressure, and died of a stroke. Eat an unhealthy diet for years as an adult, and we can expect to deal with high cholesterol and weight issues, and even diabetes and heart disease. Abuse alcohol or drugs, and it’s not a surprise that we may destroy our liver, contract hepatitis, or even HIV. God isn’t punishing us with cancer or obesity or other health issues. They’re simply the natural consequences of our behavior. And we ought not blame God for them. The reason for our predicament is staring at us in the mirror.

Listening to Healthy Biblical Messages

Rather than listen to what the Bible doesn’t say, we need to listen carefully to what Scripture really says:

Our Testing Is Common To Everyone

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. (10.13a)

Nothing we’re going through is unique or unusual. When we are in the middle of a challenging time, it can seem like no one else has experienced what we’re going through. But of course, that’s not true. There is nothing in this life that we deal with that someone else hasn’t dealt with it. Strength of being part of a small group Bible Study or a group like Stephen Ministry or GriefShare. There are others who have gone through what you’re going through, and God may use us to be the resource that helps you find a way to endure the struggles you’re facing.

God Provides A Way Out

But there’s another part to God’s encouraging word from 1 Corinthians:

God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (10.13b)

When we feel overwhelmed by the struggles and temptations, God will offer us a way out. We may feel stuck and overwhelmed and unable to go on any more. But through this community of faith God offers a way to endure and make it through the struggles. While it’s easy – and even tempting to isolate ourselves when we’re going through hard times, it’s those times that we may need the support of our church family all the more. We are not meant to be islands unto ourselves.

God “Disciplines” Us With Difficult Times

This brings us to a Biblical message from Proverbs:

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. (3:11-12)

I’ll confess that as I pulled my notes together for this sermon I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this passage. Personally, I’m not real comfortable with the idea that God disciplines us. But the more I reflected on this Biblical message the more I realized I couldn’t skip it. And I realized that my reluctance had more to do with me than it did with God’s character or God’s love for us.

As I dug more deeply into this passage, I learned that the word “discipline” isn’t what I first expected. The image I had in mind was of a parent physically “disciplining” a child by spanking him or sending her to her room for a time out. The Hebrew word used here in Proverbs, though, has the fuller connotation of moral discipline, of teaching and instruction, than simply physical punishment. In fact, one could read the phrase this way,

My child, don’t reject the LORD’s instructionand don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.

This brings to mind the role of the “Law” in our Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel. God is revealed to us as both Law – in teachings about how we are to behave – and Gospel – the understanding that God freely offers us forgiveness for our sins and a restored relationship with God. In this, then, I hear Proverbs encourage us not to reject God’s Law; not to forget or downplay that there are some things that for our sake and for the sake of the community we dare not do.

This is a far cry from saying God sends hard times into our lives to give us a kind of spiritual “time out” or a dose of “divine castor oil”so we might amend our ways or grow in faith.

Which brings us to another Biblical message: 

Some Things Will Always Remain A Mystery

In the Old Testament, a fellah named Job had it all: family, livestock, a devout faith life; his was a successful life from every perspective. In a short time, he lost it all, including his own health. His friends basically told him it was his fault. He had surely done something to displease God. However, as the story begins, God describes Job as

blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. (1.8)

He’s done nothing wrong, yet his life is turned completely upside down. Toward the end of the story, Job rails against God for this apparent injustice, and God’s response is equally forceful. It goes on for three chapters, but here’s a highlight:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? (38:4-5, 8-11)

God puts Job in his place by reminding him that God is God and Job isn’t. Because of his human limitations, there will always be some things in life that will never understand. Paul’s says the same thing, though a little more gently, in 1 Corinthians:

Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (13.12)

No matter how hard we look to find connections or to make sense of what happens to us, there will be times when life’s events remain a mystery. We may not like it, but that doesn’t mean living with the mystery is somehow unfaithful.

Here’s another biblical message:

God Will Never Leave Us Or Forsake Us

Ours is a God who desires a personal relationship with us. Not some cosmic clockwinder who gets the world working and then heads to Disneyland on vacation. Speaking to the Israelites on their entry into Israel. Speaking to his disciples the night before his betrayal. Speaking to the early Christian community trying to live out their faith before Jesus’ return: God will never leave or forsake us. Why? Because of who God is, the name revealed to us at Christmas: God is “Immanuel” – God with us. (Matthew 1.23)

The Christmas Promise

baby jesus in mangerGod so loved us that he became one of us; Our heavenly Father took on human flesh and lived among us as one of us. That’s the power behind this incredible gift of God in the flesh; what the church calls the “incarnation.” Author and Pastor Martin Marty wrote movingly about this in the Lutheran Magazine several years ago:

Tucked into that long Latin word (Incarnation) is a short syllable – carn. When carn shows up in the dictionary it usually signals wild, messy, ungodly things. Carnage: as in the slaughter of flesh. Carnal: as in the lust of the flesh. The incarnation tells us God is involved with carn, with the wild and messy, but not ungodly things that go with our flesh. When we suffer, we know that God identifies with us, having suffered in our carn, in our flesh. When we are tempted, we take strength from knowing that so was the “true God from true God” incarnate in Jesus. When we die, among the tears are God’s tears. When good things happen to us, we rejoice knowing that God rejoices with us.

God has sent us a savior who knows us and who cares so very deeply for us. He walks with us through all the joys and sorrows this life has for us. This gift transforms our lives with healing and peace. It makes us whole when we feel broken. It reunites us with God and each other when we are estranged. And it gives us hope when we are weeping, that the darkness we experience won’t last. For with the psalmist, we can proclaim:

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Ps 30.5)

Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we have a promise that is sure: The power of God’s love is stronger than the power of death. As a result, God will turn our tears into joy. As we listen carefully to what Scripture really says we can know God’s character, we can trust God’s plan for us, and we can hold onto God’s promises. Amen

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Listening for Advent’s Promises – Hope

This season before Christmas we’re focusing on the theme Listening for the Promise. Each week, we’ll explore different promises associated with Advent. Our readings this week speak of God’s promise of hope, and of what it means to live with hope in a world that seems to lack it.

hookeroak1940I’d like to tell you a story about a tree. This is a true story; perhaps some of you know it. A friend of mine was born and raised in Chico, California. He told me once about how the central landmark in the city was a gigantic oak tree — the “Hooker Oak,” named after English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker. It was said to be the biggest and oldest oak tree in the world. Tree experts said it was perhaps 400 years old, and the trunk was so thick it took seven or eight adults holding hands to get all the way around it. The beauty of that tree is deeply engraved in the psyche of anyone who ever lived in Chico. It was a symbol of stability, of strength. The closest parallel I can think of in our area would be the giant redwood trees at Sequoia or Yosemite.

Well, one day in 1977, in the middle of a rainstorm, Hooker Oak collapsed. Apparently its roots had been dead for some time, and in the pressure of a small storm, the tree just fell over. This was a severe shock to the community. The newspapers spoke of crowds going out to the park to see, of people openly weeping to see that centuries-old tree, which once reached its lofty branches to the heavens, now lying in the dirt.

What happened was natural, of course. Trees cut off from their roots die. They may look all right for quite a long time, but in the end they collapse. We see it each year with our Christmas trees, don’t we — trees that are so fragrant and green when we bring them into the house soon grow dry and brittle. We enjoy them for a while, and then they are cut up and tossed into the fire. And like Hooker Oak, they die because they have no roots. No matter how diligently we keep water in the stand, the truth of the matter is that the tree is already dead when we bring it inside.

The prophet Isaiah used the image of a tree to say something about the Messiah. His image was a powerful one, so powerful that it was used by John the Baptist, by Jesus himself, and then by the church. I suppose we don’t often think of trees as a major Biblical image, but there are two kinds of trees mentioned fairly often. One is the cedar, a tree that was bountiful in Israel, in the mountainous area of Lebanon. These majestic “cedars of Lebanon” were used to build Solomon’s temple — the best wood available in the ancient world.

The other kind of tree mentioned often is the oak. This grew primarily in the southern kingdom, Judah. Under an oak tree Abraham first built an altar to God. And the people of Judah were every bit as proud of their majestic oaks as were the people of Israel of their “cedars of Lebanon.”

These two trees symbolized the greatness these two nations — much as we sing about our “purple mountain majesties” in this land “from sea to shining sea.”

In the time of Isaiah, Israel and Judah had just passed through a time of great prosperity, but were entering a time of turmoil and distress. The powerful Assyrian Empire was arising in the north; and according to the prophets, God was using Assyria as an instrument to punish Israel and Judah for their sins.

Isaiah pulls no punches in describing those sins: the people are haughty and proud, they spend lots of time and money on armaments and weapons, they refuse to trust God. They worship God with noisy ceremonies, but their hearts are not clean.

Because of all this, Isaiah says, God will punish these two kingdoms. Isaiah makes his point by speaking of those beautiful trees:

The Lord of hosts, has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high, against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan. (2:12-13)

The Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall. (10.33-34)

And the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2.17)

Well, you can imagine that Isaiah’s words didn’t go over very well with the people, but that didn’t stop John the Baptist from using the same images. When he began preaching, he warned that all the splendor of Israel was about to come crashing down. “Repent,” he cried. “Change your hearts and minds.” “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Both Isaiah and John were making the same point. As a tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and destroyed, so will God cut down his people if their fruit is not good. The fruit God requires is justice and mercy, not pride and haughtiness; it is love and kindness, not arrogance and power.

That is a message that we, too, need to hear in this season. We need to hear it always, but especially in this season. We so often get carried away by our celebration. We spend more, and party more, and go on a binge of extravagance as we buy gifts for those who really need very little. But those who really need our love and our gifts — well, we plunk a quarter in the Salvation Army pot and hope they’ll buy a turkey with it for some family.

Others will huddle in the cold, and have peanut butter for Christmas; we will be warm and cozy with our families and gather with joy around our beautiful Christmas tree.

In a way, I suppose, that tree is an apt symbol for us. That tree, which we make so beautiful, is dead. It is still green, and we make it beautiful to look at, but it is dead. How often we are like that — outwardly beautiful, but inwardly dead. How often we are filled with Christmas spirit that feasts on Santa and sleighbells, but neglects a poor and hungry child, born in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

Isaiah’s message, John’s message — they are difficult! I don’t imagine they’d qualify as a “Hallmark moment.” Can you imagine sending out a card like this

During this Christmas season, the Schoonover family wishes you and yours the very best wishes captured by John the Baptist: “REPENT!! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

I can’t imagine Thomas Kinkade has painted very many paintings featuring John the Baptist in the wilderness. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing he focuses on other subjects.

The message from Isaiah and John say that God has definite ideas about how we should live, and his ideas call for justice, mercy, love, kindness, humility, faith. If our lives don’t include those things, they say, God cuts us down — cuts down everything that is high and lifted up, everything that is proud and haughty. “Even now,” John cries, “the axe is laid to the root of the tree.”

So where is the hope? After all, that’s what I promised a few minutes ago when I said:

Our readings this week speak of the promise of hope; of what it means to live with hope in a world that seems to lack it.

These harsh words of Isaiah’s and John’s contain a promise. I told you about mighty Hooker Oak, but I didn’t tell you the best part. Passersby who went later to see where the tree had fallen, found that right in the middle of the rubble was a little sprout, reaching up from the ground. That’s the way oak trees are. When one dies, one or more new saplings grow in its place.

And that is what Isaiah said.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. . . . With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (11.1,4)

Out of the dead stump, a shoot. Out of seemingly dead roots, new life! From death comes resurrection! That’s what Isaiah promised. That’s what God delivered in Bethlehem: the righteous branch. Our friend St. Paul picks up the theme:

The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations, and in him shall the nations hope. (Romans 15.12)

For in Christ, we find our hope.

When we look to the world for signs of hope, we come away disappointed. For the world is too full of despair, like mall shootings, to provide the hope we need.

When we look to our own feelings for signs of hope, we come away disappointed. For our feelings are fickle. They change depending on the dinner we had last night, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, or the experiences we had growing up. None of these are a very stable foundation for our hope.

When we look to others to be a sign of hope, we come away disappointed. For no matter how well others behave, at some point we’ll be let down. No matter how consistently I’ll try to behave as a parent, one of the first phrases I’ve had to teach my children is “Daddy goofed.” Human consistency or dependability is a poor foundation on which to rest our hopes.

That’s why scripture proclaims a consistent message that God is the source and ground of our hope.

Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:4)

And

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psalm 18:2)

And

Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you,the Lord, the spring of fresh water. (Jeremiah 17:13)

The gospel message this Advent is one of judgment, a declaration that God will cut down the proud and arrogant, those who care only for themselves and not for the needy, and that God will do some serious pruning in our lives.

But it is also a message of hope, a message about a righteous branch, the sprout that comes from dead roots. We know God can, in this marvelous season, cut from us that which is not pleasing to him, and in its place put new life, a new branch, a branch of righteousness and love. We know that God can, and we know that God will, as God has promised.

May it be so for us as well. Amen

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Listening for Advent’s Promises – Jesus is Coming!

Someone-Is-Watching-560x374This season before Christmas we’re focusing on the theme Listening for the Promises. Each week, we’ll explore a different aspect of the promises God gives us surrounding the birth of Jesus. Our readings this week speak of a promise, and they tell of how we who follow Jesus are to live as we await the fulfillment of this promise.

The picture Isaiah paints of this promise is grand:

 In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains. (2.1)

This is no mere sanctuary renovation project of reorienting altars and rearranging pews. By no means; this is major earth moving! The mountain of the Lord’s house is the Temple Mount, not a very high hill in Jerusalem. But the promise is that God will do a marvelous, miraculous thing:  God will make this Temple Mount the highest mountain in the area.

But there’s more:

All the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (2.2-3)

God established Israel to be a light to the nations. God blessed Abraham and Sarah and their children so that they could be a blessing in the world (Gen 12.2ff). And the promise from Isaiah is that, finally, they will accomplish this purpose. All the nations will come to Jerusalem, to learn about God and to follow God’s teachings.

But there’s even more:

[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (2.4)

What a grand vision!

God, not human rulers, will judge between the nations, and as a result, true peace will come between peoples. The image for this will be that implements of war will be recycled into farm implements, and the nations will take a page from our Mennonite sisters and brothers and learn peacemaking.

What a grand vision!

And based on the newspaper headlines, oh how far we are from seeing that grand vision realized!! Sure, we had an agreement with Iran last week over reported limits on their nuclear program, but I don’t hear any swords – or uranium centrifuges – being beaten into plowshares. While it’s true that we are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t think that qualifies as nations not lifting up sword against other nations or not learning how to prosecute war any more.

Matthew reveals another aspect of this promise in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is speaking to his followers on the Mount of Olives, that place where Jewish tradition said Messiah would come in glory to rid Jerusalem of its oppressors. There, Jesus tells his friends that he, the Son of Man, would return ‘at an unexpected hour’ (v. 44). In fact, he’ll return at a time only God knows.

The spiritual challenge, of course, is that we might miss Jesus’ return. Jesus tells his followers that his return will be like the days of Noah. The people will be focusing on their every day lives – nothing inherently wrong or evil about that. But we’ll be distracted by our everyday cares and we’ll miss Jesus’ return.

How do we stay awake? How do we keep alert?

After all, the first disciples believed Jesus would return before very long at all; certainly before they died. But he didn’t. It’s been nearly 2000 years, and he’s still not back yet.

How do we keep alert for his coming as we wait?

It’s not a matter of figuring out what day he’ll return; Jesus is clear that no one knows that date. It can’t be discerned by reading tea leaves or decoding parts of the Bible. The promise we have this Advent season shows us another way, a gospel way:

First, it’s not really helpful to become anxious about any of these questions. You do not know on what day your Lord is coming, says Jesus, and for Christians that’s the watchword for thinking about all these things. We do not know, cannot know. We face a good deal of life with that attitude, don’t we? There’s an old prayer, said to be of Scottish origin, which expresses this well:

We know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving Thee is always nigh.

Second, the gospel way of approaching life is based on trust. It keeps coming back to this, doesn’t it? In all the mysteries of life, all the joys and sorrows, the challenges and rewards, the life of faith is a life of trust. I don’t know who said it originally, but you’ve no doubt heard it:

I know not what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.

The Christian lives in trust, knowing that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And third, the gospel way of approaching life settles for living the challenge of this moment. Paul’s advice is just right here:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 13.13-14)

There is enough to think about in living for Christ this day. There are enough challenges here and now. We take one step at a time, and that’s how we meet the future.

There’s a funny little thing going around on the Internet, and while it is part urban legend, it actually is based on something true. Back in 1976 an English graduate student named Graham Rawlinson demonstrated a remarkable thing about reading. He showed that as long as the first two and the last two letters of a word are correct, the letters in the middle can be scrambled just about any way and a reader will still be able quite easily to interpret the word.

It’s an interesting linguistic phenomenon, but it has a great symbolic meaning as well. For Christians, life is like this. We know the beginning that God loved the world so much he sent his Son; and we know the end that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. The stuff in between may be jumbled and confused; it may appear to be utterly random and unintelligible. But when we know the beginning and the end, we really have all we need to know. We can read it, understand it. It somehow makes sense, in spite of the confusion. In the darkness of the world, there is a light, and the light is Christ. This is the light that is coming; may it come unto us as well. Amen

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How Do We Live with Dying?

Do you have a “bucket list?”
What’s on your bucket list?
Country singer Tim McGraw sings about one such a list
	in his song, Live Like You Were Dying.
It’s full of fun things like skydiving and bull riding
	and Rocky Mountain climbing.
But it also includes some more serious aspects like
	loving more deeply and speaking more sweetly,
	extending forgiveness more freely, 
	and being a better friend and husband.
I know I’d want to spend more time with my family
	and maybe do some traveling.
What would be on your bucket list?

Our focus today is pretty straightforward:
How do we live with dying? Death is a difficult subject for us to deal with. There was a time in this country when most people died at home, surrounded by loved ones. More often these days we have shut ourselves off from death by having people die in hospitals or nursing homes, by having funeral homes be in charge of the dead body, by having the dead person look like they are alive, so that death no longer seems real, nor part of the human experience of life. Death is a subject we reserve for funerals, but not for everyday living. And yet . . . we don’t have to look very far to see death and dying all around us. Veteran’s Day – a time to remember and celebrate the sacrifice members of our armed services have made for us. Death stares us right in the face, although our focus may be more on the freedom they’ve defended or the country in which we live. Members our church who have died this year. Their funeral services remind us how fleeting life is for us. And yet our focus may be more on the family members left behind. Afghanistan . . . the Middle East . . . and most recently
the incredible destruction of the typhoon in the Philippines;
even our own family relationships.
Whether near or far,
death stares us right in the face, but we can do a pretty good job denying and avoiding this reality. How do we live with dying? It may be that we don’t. Maybe we avoid it in ways symbolized by the phrase Life is short, so eat dessert first! In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. We often deny death by our lifestyle and choices. We live as if can do anything we want because in the end, we all die, and it really doesn’t matter anyhow. Or perhaps, we live with dying in ways symbolized by Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh. I think Eeyore is perpetually clinically depressed. Everything is always doom and gloom. There’s never any joy or spontaneity in his life. Even when things are going well, he’s always on the lookout for when it’s going to get bad again. How do we live with dying? I think our ancestor in faith Martin Luther shows us another way. When asked what he’d do if he knew the world would end the next day, Luther is reported to have said, “Plant an apple tree.” In other words, don’t let tomorrow’s possibility paralyze us into inactivity. There is ministry for us to do that needs to be done today, no matter what else might happen tomorrow. How do we live with dying? We live in the shadow of a resurrection promise. Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees gives us some direction.
The Sadducees came to Jesus in order to trick him –
at this late stage of Jesus’ ministry, the leaders are trying to come up with enough evidence to have Jesus killed. The Sadducees were a group of religious leaders who didn’t believe in the resurrection at all. They only read the first five books of the Old Testament and they only believed the teachings they could find there. In Jesus’ day, teachings about the resurrection came from later books in the like Daniel and from teachings imported into Judaism during the exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. Socially, there were also members of the upper class, so they had a vested interest to believe in the here and now, where God blessed the faithful and punished the wicked. Notions of an afterlife where there might be a reversal of fortune like the one Jesus taught didn’t sit very well. And so the Sadducees ask an absurd question about an absurd family situation involving 7 brothers and one wife. The Sadducees already knew what their answer was – since there is no resurrection, it really doesn’t matter which husband is hers because they won’t be together any way. As he so often does, though, Jesus takes a question from left field,tweaks it and then throws it back in the faces of the questioner to point out the more important issue. Jesus did this in his encounter with the lawyer
and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Lawyer asked: "Who is my neighbor?"
as a way of trying to limit the definition,
to make clear who was inside and who was outside
the lawyers sphere of care and compassion.
Jesus answered: "Who acted neighborly?"
clarifying that it wasn't important who you cared for,
what was important was how you behaved.
That was the more important question. Here, Jesus responds to the absurd question about marriage in the resurrection and tells them the big deal isn’t about family values in heaven. The big deal is look what kind of God we have – a God of the living, who raises to new life those who believe in Jesus. How do we live with dying? Well, no matter what our circumstances, we live in the shadow of this resurrection promise. As a result, we believe that this world’s priorities are not our priorities. We live lives that are focused differently. Money has new meaning. How we spend our time has new meaning. We live with a purpose that God has given us, not our bosses or the world or media advertisers. Our goals and concerns are not necessarily the world’s goals and concerns. The trivia of this life looses its importance, but the values, the important things take on added meaning. I am assured of heaven, and because of that assurance, I live differently, I live for God, I respond to God with my entire being. I rejoice in life as a celebration to the new life for eternity. We also believe that the seven last words of this church are NOT We’ve never done it that way before. One church leader, Bill Easum, spoke once of the three greatest sins of the church. One of them is that

We’re more in love with our traditions
than we are with our missions. If we are intent on preserving the patterns of church life
with which we’ve grown comfortable, we’ll soon discover
that God has moved on and left us behind. God is always out there ahead of us, leading us into the future, and if we want to be working hand in hand with God, we have to be willing to ask the right questions. Not, What can we do to preserve what we find comfortable?” but “What can we do to be partners with God in mission?” The first question leads to a church that is dead and declining; the second to a church that is alive and dynamic. The same is true in our personal lives as well. How often we settle for what’s comfortable instead of what is true and life-giving. It takes no effort, demands no sacrifice,
involves no risk t
o simply go along with what the world says is important at any moment. It takes no courage, no commitment, no faith to just go on doing what we’ve always been doing. To go on working 60- and 70-hour weeks to provide for our family’s material comfort, but watch our families go down the drain because we’re too busy working to be present for them.
How crazy is that?!?
It’s easier even to live with our addictions and compulsions than it is to confront and overcome them. Healing is hard work, and frequently, it is very painful work. Yet without the willingness to get out of the comfort zone, healing cannot come.
The poet T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Wasteland,” calls April the “cruelest month,” because the showers of April stir up the dull and dormant roots of trees and flowers to begin bursting forth with new life instead of allowing them to remain comfortably asleep in the frozen ground of winter. Yet the sleep of tree roots and flower bulbs is the sleep of hibernation, not of rest. Trees were meant to put out green leaves; tulips were meant to push up through the soil and produce beautiful blossoms. You and I are also meant to grow, to mature, to blossom, not to hibernate in the frozen sleep of habit or tradition or familiarity. Paul says that we were meant to grow until we attain to the full height of the stature of Christ (Eph 4.13). And that’s often the point of our fear. We’re more afraid of change, of growth, than we are of becoming stuck in our present level of spiritual development. Better a comfortable rut than the risks of the journey. Yet our God is a God of the living, not of the dead. God is always there nudging us to get out of our ruts, to leave false comfort and security behind, and to take the risks of faith by following him into the future. The future is only frightening if God is not there ahead of us. If God is there, then what do we have to fear? What looks from our angle like a risky business – growing, moving on, living by faith rather than by sight – from another angle is the safest of all possible places to be: in God’s company. Amen
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God of Refuge, God of Strength

Choosing a “Base”

hide and seekI enjoy watching my younger daughter, Amy, on the playground at the park or in our backyard. She loves to play chase and hide and go seek with her cousins or with new friends she makes at the park. Often, though she needs to create a “base” — a refuge / place of safety when the game gets too intense. Base might be a bench, or a post, or a picnic table; and the best base is usually one that is close to where we are sitting. There’s something comforting about being able to see and touch Mom or Dad.

harley-bar-with-harleyEven as adults, we seek such a place of refuge. Often, our homes – or a room in our house – serve this purpose. Walking in the neighborhood I see men in their “man caves” – their finished garages – watching TV and drinking a favorite cold beverage. Such a perfect refuge from the busyness and uncertainty of daily life!

There’s no doubt about it – we live in tumultuous times:

  • economic woes associated with slow recovery from the recession (and more recently, from the government shutdown);
  • school shootings earlier this week in Sparks, NV, and Danvers, MA;
  • on Wednesday, pirates captured two Americans off the coast of Nigeria;
  • on Thursday, an earthquake (7.3 Richter scale) rocked Japan;
  • more car bombs in Bagdad and Mosul; and
  • dealing with a pastoral transition here, all the natural uncertainty.

Closer to home, we know what it’s like to get a sudden word from the doctor (“The test results indicate something’s not right.”), or the boss (“We are downsizing the department; today’s your last day.”), or our spouse (“I love you, but I’m not in love with you any more.”), or the pastor (“I don’t like how things are going, so I’m leaving.”), and suddenly, the foundation of our life has given way, and it feels like we’re in a free-fall, with nothing to hang onto.

Few of us like to live with uncertainty, but that’s the condition in which we find ourselves right now. Given that, there’s something very appealing and life-giving about God being our refuge and strength. But what might this mean for us today?

A God of Refuge

Hear again the words of the psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (46.1)

Perhaps you caught it, but just when, exactly, is God our “refuge and strength”? Only when things are going well and we are happy? Only when our faith life is humming along and we are feeling close to God? No, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. There are two encouraging words to me – and perhaps to you as well – in this statement:

First, our faith doesn’t magically protect us from experiencing trouble. Perhaps you’ve heard others suggest – or even claim outright – that since becoming a Christian, life should be filled with nothing but sunshine and roses. Now, maybe that’s been your experience, but it’s not been mine. Individually and as a family, we’ve had wonderful seasons of joy, and we’ve had painful seasons of loss and disappointment, and even times when we’ve simply scratched our heads and wondered what in the world is going to happen next. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that our faith gives us no guarantee that sadness or disappointment or grief or persecution or challenges of some kind won’t cross our threshold.  The words of the psalmist suggest to me that we will face one or more of these things at some point in our life.

SafeExitAnd that leads me to the second encouraging word: God doesn’t hesitate, but rather, God enters into our trouble, joining us in the challenging, dangerous and lonely places life takes us. For God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that  God doesn’t use challenging or painful times to punish us. God is our very present help in trouble, not a prosecuting attorney or a superior court judge. Through Jesus, God is “Immanuel” – “God with us” (Mt 1:23). In the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, God enters into our lives in a touchable and tangible way creating a base for us that grounds us in faith and connects us to each other and to God in a bond of love that nothing in this life can ever break. Isn’t that what the apostle Paul tells the believers in Rome:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.    (Rom 8:38–39)

What does this mean for us? The psalmist points the way here:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (46:2–3)

For those of us who are children of the Reformation, you see, the ups and downs of life, the world events that seem threatening, the personal troubles that shake us to our foundation – ­none of these things can make us afraid because God is our refuge and strength . . .The Lord of hosts is with us.

A God of Strength

Ours is a God of refuge; but also, a God of strength.

Arnold-SchwarzeneggerPerhaps this conjures up for you an image of God who is like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his earlier days: someone with huge, bulging biceps, legs as thick as tree trunks and chiseled, six-pack abs. (Me, I don’t have six-pack abs, I have beer-keg abs!) Well, to be sure, God’s strength is sometimes demonstrated in larger than life miracles: the creation of the world (Gen 1-2); the Exodus – 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea (Ex 4-15); the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Ki 18); and the blessing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), to name just a few.

But ironically, God’s strength is known as often in weakness as it is in miraculous powers. God’s saving power was revealed first, in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Yes, Jesus was later vindicated through God’s power revealed in his resurrection. But God’s strength is revealed through both weakness and power. This paradox continues with God’s disciples even to this day. Hear the apostle Paul, again; this time, in his first letter to the Corinthians:

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1:26–29)

Throughout God’s entire relationship with humans, God has consistently chosen to work through people on the fringes of society, the nobodies, the have-nots; average, ordinary people like you and me. God does this so that the fruits of our work cannot be traced back to us, to our smarts or our energy or our proficiency, but rather, to the Holy Spirit at work in us and working through us.

God’s strength reminds us that we are dependent on God. That God is the “just justifier” (according to our reading from Romans) of those who have faith in Jesus. In our reading from Romans, God’s strength reminds us that God is the actor, making us right through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, not through anything you or I could ever do. Our only response is to be thankful and to live out our gratitude in lives of loving service and witness. We are freed from the power of sin, death and the devil as a gift from our living and loving God. We are freed for a life of ministry that demonstrates God’s loving and forgiving presence in the world.  This freedom means we do not need to be afraid. The Lord of hosts is with us. Our God of refuge, our God of strength. Amen

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