There are all sorts of teachers out there too. Pre-school teachers, substitute teachers, Sunday school teachers, professors from the highest ranks of academia to parents who homeschool their kids. And then there are bosses and co-workers, close friends, or people who, although you met only once, made an indelible impression on you. We learn how to navigate life from learning or watching others.
I heard a great scholar confess how he learned more about God’s grace and forgiveness from his dog than from anyone else. Is there a person you know or met who has made your life more blessed by what they taught you?
In 1979 I got a job as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant a block away from my house. I was hired by the owner, whose birth name was Francis L. Morris, the same name as a guy who escaped Alcatraz and was never caught.
I mention that because Frank was a tough and intimidating man. A retired firefighter from the South Bronx, Frank was raised on the wild streets that he would later serve. Outside men like Evel Knievel and the Bionic Man, Frank was probably the first male figure I looked up to.
However, he was not the kind of teacher parents would want their children to have. He taught me how to cuss more colorfully, how to think more dangerously, and how to survive on the streets more skillfully…and often illegally. He made such an mark on my life that when I went off to college people always asked me what part of New York I was from.
Just as someone taught Frank, and he taught me, I try to do my best to pass on the lessons I have learned. In today’s Gospel passage, we see how this kind of teaching works. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness doing something new with an old ritual. People were coming in droves to see what he’s all about. In the midst of the dunking and shouting, Jesus walks by.
Out of nowhere, John blurts out, “There’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He’s teaching those gathered that Jesus is the one who brings true restoration between God and all of creation.
Today, we know this because, as the Bible reveals, John is testifying, he’s teaching us to what God has already made known to him. God tells John and John tells us. This is how teaching works – said knowledge moves from the teacher to the student. And in this case, it’s the kind of knowledge that sends the students to go and learn more.
To those who meets Jesus will learn, it’s more than mere knowledge…it’s excitement, joy, transformation, new life…the kind of newness you can’t help but share with others, if only because others see the change Jesus makes in you.
Look at what happens to Andrew when he leaves his teacher John to follow Jesus. He is enlightened and runs to his brother Simon to teaches him what he knows about Jesus. These two brothers, who become part of the 12 disciples, will go on testifying – teaching others what they know in their hearts to be true about God’s transformative love in Christ. To those they teach, will in turn will go and do the same and on and on and on it goes… right up to this very moment in time. (Bowron)
And that’s where we come in. Like every aspect of life, we eventually make the move from student to teacher. As followers of Jesus, especially we who have been spiritually awakened to our belovedness in Christ, we have to proclaim this truth: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The question we all must ask ourselves then is how am I testifying this good news? How am I telling or showing the world that they too are a beloved children of God, made in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit? This is not just my job, but yours as well. We are all ministers, teachers, of this truth.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives his students a great task. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations. Go make students who then can become teachers who can go and teach others of God’s redemptive love and grace. Jesus knew if we don’t continue what he started then people will not know that they are loved, no matter what. They will be left empty, searching for anything culture and society offers to fill the void.
People are watching and listening, they are learning from you whether you know it or not. So how will you teach them? In what way do you live your life that bears witness to Christ? How do you show the excitement of your faith like Andrew did when he ran off and told his brother?
I understand not everyone is comfortable expressing their faith verbally. Most of us don’t want to be pushy or have people avoid hanging out with us. So here’s something I learned from a wonderful mentor about circumventing this uncomfortableness. He said, “We don’t beat people into the kingdom of heaven. Instead we must live the kingdom in such a way that others will want to join us there.”
When I was going through a difficult time in my life, a friend asked how I was able to cope. I answered, very much like Jesus did, with my own an invitation of “Come and See.” I asked, “What are you doing on Sunday at 11:00 am?” She accepted my invitation to come and learn. And a year and a half later, she married me in that church.
How do you teach or testify? I have a t-shirt that says “The Sermonator.” You might wear a cross around your neck. Both are powerful statements and great ways to start a conversation.
Another great place to start is in the way you show kindness to others. Kathleen always says it’s easier to catch a bee with honey than it is with vinegar. People may not understand why you are flashing your lights at them, but when you respond to a rude gesture with love, that is a teaching moment. Even if you don’t say anything, simply being the love of Christ in the world helps to spread the love of Christ where it’s needed the most.
Start with love. Start with caring for someone else. Start small if you want to, but start. The more you practice this the easier it becomes and bigger it grows. John lit the fire in Andrew, and Andrew lit the fire in Simon, and so we too are to light up the world as God’s beloved children.
Before her death some 500 years ago, St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
Yes, Jesus invites you to come and see. But today, I encourage you to go and be. Go and be a living testimony to God’s glory in your life. Go and be “like John, be like Andrew, be like the uncountable cloud of witnesses to God’s gospel of love, justice, peace, and presence. Show us all in your words and deeds, in all of your life, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.” (Bowron)
Flash your light on this message and teach the world to see their place in the kingdom of God. Amen.
Let us pray:
God you have shone your light in us, now that we are full of your light and love, send us out to fill the hearts of others, encouraging them to do the same. Amen.
Bowron, Josh. Testimony, Epiphany 2. Posted on January 12, 2020 (accessed 01/16/2020).
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A vol 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) p.260.
Louis Bernacchi, a physicists on one of Shackleton’s crew wrote, “He was essentially a fighter, afraid of nothing and of nobody, but withal he was human, overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to all his friends.” Because they trusted their leader, Shackleton’s crew was able to accomplish some remarkable feats in the face of uncertainty and death. His leadership skills literally changed their world.
Today, the church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus; another world changer forged in water. Jesus was also a leader who put others before himself, and was kind and generous to all people, be it friend or foe. As such, many would follow even if it would cost them their life.
While Shackleton developed his skills on the high seas, Jesus got his from reading scripture and shaped his life accordingly. In Luke we learn that when Jesus was only 12 years old, he was in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, and asking tough questions. “Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).
Long before Jesus was baptized, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words. I invite you all to imagine hearing them as Jesus first did. And think about how they might shape who you are.
Read Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
When you heard these words, who did you imagine Isaiah talking about? I’m sure it wasn’t anyone in Washington DC. Imagine being a politician and running on a platform of mercy – caring for the weak and vulnerable, executing justice among the nations, or heaven forbid, releasing prisoners from their cells. What would Fox News call you? Or how would Twitter or SNL would roast you?
So who than is this one chosen by God, who does not break a bruised reed or extinguish a dimly lit wick? Believe it or not this is a hotly contested question.
Was it a person? Someone like Shackleton who did the impossible to ensure his entire crew made it safely home after being shipwrecked in the darkness of winter and no hope of survival. Some argue it’s a collective group – like Israel or the United States – who believed they were chosen by God to bring justice into the world. Because it’s written in poetic form, there are those say Isaiah’s words are symbolic, a metaphor for living life.
When I asked my wife who she thought this passage was about her answer surprised me. She said, “It sounds like you.” (I know many people who would beg to differ, myself included.) To her credit, she meant it allegorically describing the way I evangelize. “Despite challenges and doubters you face,” she said, “you do not quench their light or grow faint, instead you persevere and grow through it.”
Although I love my wife’s perspective of me, given my Christian upbringing, it’s difficult to see anyone other than Jesus in this passage. Who else checks off all these boxes? But believe it or not, and I know what I’m risking by saying this, my wife is right too suggest that maybe God is not just talking to us in this passage, but talking about us as well?
It’s easy for us to read Jesus these words, but not so when it comes to seeing who we are in them. That’s why I asked you to hear these words as Jesus did. Jesus took the scriptures to heart and used them to defined who he as and all that he stood for. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus declares that he “did not come to abolish the laws or the prophets; but to fulfill them.” This is how he understood his ministry and how he ushered in the Kingdom of God.
Sadly, many of us view the Bible as some dusty old history book, forgetting that it’s the Living Word of God. We need to read these sacred text less like a history lesson and more like a user manual for living life. Like Jesus, we need to take these words and infuse them into every aspect of our lives. This is how we, in our own baptism, participate in the Kingdom of God; leading the way for others to follow.
The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus living out the word. One in particular is like our scripture reading today. In Luke 4, Jesus is asked to do the reading at his hometown church. The Rabbi handed him a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Standing before family and friends, he read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18-19).
At the end, Jesus didn’t say, “This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.” Instead he broke tradition and declared, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 20). On one hand, Jesus is boldly announcing who he is, and on the other he’s calling us into action. To not only be hearers of the word, but doers as well.
Like trekking across Antarctica, living faithfully in God’s word is a risky endeavor. So maybe we make Isaiah’s passage about Jesus, because it’s easier to let him do all the heavy lifting. We give Jesus the responsibility to deal with others so we don’t have to. We say Jesus loves. Jesus saves. Jesus heals. Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. That is true. But if we only see Scripture talking about Jesus, then I fear we’ll miss out on the bigger blessing that God has given to the world.
Like I said last week, we are God’s beloved children, chosen in Christ to participate fully in God’s redemptive grace. We are stamped with God’s love and filled with the Spirit of Christ to be a light to the nations.
It’s our job to stand up for justice…without shouting, breaking, fainting, or quenching. It’s our job to free people of the bonds that bind them without judging, shaming or belittling anyone in the process. It’s our job to be a living example of God’s covenant to all people, despite of where they’re from or what they believe. God has called us in Christ …to lead the way of the greatest exploration of all time: the journey back to God’s loving embrace.
Jane Goodall once said, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Just as Jesus cared for the bruised and the hurt, so must we. Is there someone in your life who needs their pain soothed or a hurt mended? If so, lead the way by being the healing balm they need to be well.
Just as Jesus cupped his hands around the dimmest wicks until it was able to shine brightly, so too must we. Do you know someone whose light is barely flickering and in danger of going out? If so, then strengthen and stoke that ember until a bright light shines within them.
Jesus led by example. And in doing so opened the eyes of the blind to see God in their midst. Do you know someone who’s having trouble seeing God’s love and grace? If so, lead the way by being God’s love and grace for them.
Let us not forget that the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit sealed within us at ours. Same is true about his mission and ours. Just as Jesus left the wild, raging waters of the Jordan to proclaim the gospel, so too are we called to participate in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus changed the world by living fully and faithfully to God’s word, so too are we do the same. We can do this because God has anointed us with all the abundance of God’s glory at our disposal.
And so, in the name of Christ, go and be the person who changes the status quo, who stands up for justice and fairness for all people. Go and be the one who heals the broken and opens the eyes of the blind. Go and be the one who frees other’s from the prisons they have put themselves in. Go and be the light of Christ that leads others on the great exploration of life, and bring them safely home to God.
Let us pray: Loving creator, in your sacred words we find all that we need to be world changers. Empower us with your Spirit to be leaders of your love and peace, to be more like Jesus so others will come and see your glory. Amen.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 218-223.
Morrell, Margot and Stephanie Capparell. Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From The Great Antarctic Explorer. (New York: Penguin, 2001) p. 15.
It’s been said that “Nothing packs up and leaves town quicker than the Christmas spirit.” But since today is the actual 12th day of Christmas I thought we should honor this special time by holding onto the holiday spirit just a little longer.
But instead of talking about 12 drummers drumming or a partridge in a pear tree, I’d like to look at Christmas through the lens of epiphany, which the church officially celebrates tomorrow. An epiphany by definition is a sudden revelation. But to the Christian churches it’s a religious holiday that celebrates the divine revelation of Christ to the Gentiles as defined in the story of the Magi, or the baptism of Jesus.
Epiphanies happen not just in angels, stars, babies, and water, but in ordinary moments like holding a hand, or watching a sunset or driving to work. They can pop up immediately or gradually appear over time. For Christians epiphanies are given to us by God, to awaken us to the mysteries of God in Christ. I think our scripture today speaks to those points and gives us a new vision of who God is, and who we are as created beings in Christ.
Ephesians is a wonderful letter that was written as a call for Christian unity, and to be holy and right before God. Years ago, when I read these opening verses, I had an epiphany. Dare I say one that was divine, profound, and life changing. Yet it’s so simple I almost overlooked it. What was it? God chose me. I am loved and valuable to God who has blessed us all in Christ. Talk about a revelation!
When I feel alone or get down on myself for messing up, I have these words to remind myself that I’ve been chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. I’m not making this up to feel good about myself. I already feel good knowing this was God’s plan for you and me since the very beginning. To understand that I am ‘in’ Christ not only changes the way I see myself, but it also encourages me to move beyond myself to become a larger part of God’s eternal vision.
The expression ‘en Christo’ or ‘in Christ’ occurs 216 times in Paul’s letters alone. According to Richard Rohr, ‘en Christo’ is “Paul’s codeword for the gracious, participatory experience of salvation.” As Rohr points out, “We’ve never been separated from God.” Instead we’ve been “living inside this cosmic identity” that has already been put in place. God chose us long before we chose God. This not only saves us, but it drives and guides towards true Christlike transformation. “We are all in Christ, willingly or unwillingly, happily were unhappy, consciously or unconsciously.”
By this revelation, I take Paul at his word, that we all possess the power to live holy and rightly before God “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”
Now spiritual blessings are different than material ones. A person may have great material wealth yet be bankrupt when it comes to the spiritual blessings of joy, peace, wisdom, contentment, or just being in a right relationship with God. As we move into a new year and decade, I looked back over the last ten years to see what I accomplished. I changed careers, learned Greek and Hebrew, earned a Masters of Divinity while beating cancer, got ordained, moved my family across the country to lead my first church, and then back here, to plant and shape this new church. I may not have attained much material wealth along the way, but spiritually I feel rich beyond measure. While going through some great challenges, it was hard to see what God was doing. But because God chose me, I am always alive in Christ. And I am free to live this way or not.
Too many of us waste life trying to obtain things that are worth much less than the spiritual blessings God already gave us in Christ. We chase after meaningless things so we can keep up with the Jones; we sell ourselves short to belong to some group or team or tribe; we seek to have more likes, more followers, and to build up an image that lives or dies by other people’s opinions. Obtaining wealth, being a part of things and enjoying a good life is fine, but God has greater plans for you and me.
Before the earth’s foundations were set into motion, “God had settled on you as the focus of his love.” God didn’t just choose you for his team, but God built a team around you. Before the very first sunrise ever appeared, God adopted you to be his beloved child. Let that sink in. God knows everything about you and chose to accept you for who you are – rich or poor, sinner or saint – you’re already on the best team. We are no surprise to God. He knew what he was getting into with us. Instead of throwing in the towel with disappointment because of our inability’s, God came to be with us, as one of us.
I want you to say out loud, “I am a beloved child of God. I am worth more than any earthly treasure.” This should be our mantra for the new decade?
To borrow from Henri Nouwen “If you dare to believe that you are beloved before you are born, you may suddenly realize that your life is very, very special.” Because God chose us In Christ, we are redeemed and made holy, blameless, and consecrated. By being ‘en Christo’, we live with God in love without reproach. What’s really cool about this is we don’t have to feel guilty and ashamed about our weaknesses and our faults. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us.
British journalist and renown atheist, Marghanita Laski, made an amazing confession on TV once when she said, ‘What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness.’ She added, rather sadly, ‘I have no one to forgive me.’ In her statement lies Paul’s great epiphany – that in Christ, God has done for Laski according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
It’s that grace, in my humble opinion, that God reveals the single most important blessing in Christ. Grace is both the power and the vulnerability of God made manifest in Christ; not just for our sake, but to the entire order of the cosmos. I can’t imagine life without grace. Think about it, sick days wouldn’t exist, being late to an appointment would be unforgivable, and every bad thing you ever did would forever define who you think you are.
Because of God’s grace, we need not hold on to our past but only move forward and closer to God. So what I want you to know is that: In Christ, we have God’s grace. In Christ, we have God’s peace. In Christ we are united to God’s perfect love. If we believe God is love, then we need to seek and find this love in and all around us; and to share that love in all our wonderful and difficult relationships, responsibilities, and circumstances.
It’s up to us to claim the truth – God chose us…and we are loved no matter what. This is where our faith comes into play. Faith is how we are able to see God’s will for us. I like to say we have faith in Christ so we can have the faith of Christ. By faith we are able to see others with Christlike eyes, and love our enemies with a Christlike heart.
As faithful children of an all loving God, it’s up to us to share this good news to help others know who they are. As God’s children we too are a people of forgiveness and reconciliation, called to heal ourselves and others with God’s love. We are called to be united, to tear down the walls between us and our neighbors. We are called to seek peace and to stand up for justice and fairness, and to live in Christ as Christ lives in us. How blessed are we, and every other human being, to belong to the same God of Love who chose to be with us and to dwell in us.
As you leave here today, I encourage you to receive God’s love and to relax in it. To sit and breath in God’s love as you exhale the mantra, “I am a beloved child of God. I am worth more than any earthly treasure.”
As we move from Christmas to the New Year, let us not worry about you’ve done but what you can do not, today, knowing what God has already done for you in Christ. It’s in this grateful place that God transforms you in the most unexpected ways. Awakening in you an epiphany, for others to discover who they are…in Christ.
Let us pray:
Lord God, with a grateful heart we give ourselves up to your love and to your will. Send us out into the world to be in Christ, and to be little Christs to those whose hearts need to be awoken.
Nouwen, Henri. You Are The Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living. Convergent Books: 2017.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How A Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Books: 2019.
Call to Worship:
Come let us rejoice together in the Spirit of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
Lighting the Advent Candles:
As we enter the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me by holding on to the light of hope, knowing the Christ is coming and all will be well in the world. I invite you also to hold fast to the light of love, knowing that it was out of great love for me and you, that God came to be with us, to care for us and to guide us back into God’s own heart. Because of this hope and this love, we can hold fast to the light of peace, even if such a thing feels impossible or futile at best.
Today we celebrate joy, knowing that for many of us, finding glad tidings of comfort and joy can feel like a difficult task. But if these candles tell us anything, it’s that God is present – illuminating our darkest places so we can see God at work in our lives transforming our pain into joy. And so we light the joy candle to remind us that no matter how difficult your life might seem, joy is present if only because God is present.
Read Luke 2:8-14
Now that school is out, my wife has returned to her rightful place on the sofa to binge watch a new batch of Christmas movies. Which really aren’t that much different than the ones from last year. Or the year before that. As someone recently described, “These movies all seem to come from the same candy cane factory.” The story lines are pretty much predictable, big city girl…small town boy…snowstorm…a kiss…and Christmas is saved.
It’s also a safe bet that carolers dressed like 19th century Dickens characters will show up and sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
Like the sugary holiday movie, this is one of those happy tunes that promises to fill us with comfort and joy. But recently I heard this song in a different light. As I was trying to play it on the guitar, I noticed this majestic proclamation is sung in a minor key…like the ones you find in most blues songs. And if you’ve know blues music, then you know why the name is appropriate.
In a recent essay on this subject, Margret Manning pointed out that the juxtaposition between the minor notes of the song and its uplifting lyrics suggests that joy is not simply found in things that make us happy, but also in times of sorrow.
With only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a short but powerful word. It appears 145 times in the bible which tells me it’s important to understand. According to Merriam-Webster joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune; or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” This definition leaves me to wonder what if you don’t get your way, does that mean you don’t experience joy?
Theopedia describes joy as “a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.” I think this definition brings us closer to what God is trying to tell us – that joy is not a feeling you get when something good happens. That’s happiness. Happiness lives in the head. It comes and goes depending on your experience or mood.
Joy is different. Joy is permanent. It lingers deep within our hearts whether we feel it or not. Famed British author C.S. Lewis said it best when he wrote, “Joy is an experience no one would ever exchange for all the happiness in the world.”
In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, joy is one of the seven fruits of the Spirit along with love, peace, faithfulness, patience, gentleness and kindness. It’s not a fleeting or passing emotion but a holy gift from God that helps us navigate the ups and downs of life. And so, as we look to this small but bright flickering light, we know we are able to rejoice no matter what we are up against, if only because God is rejoicing in us.
In Luke’s gospel, as the angles hovered over the dark earth heralding in the reign of Christ, joy entered into creation in the bleakest of times. Through Christ, God brought glad tidings of comfort and joy. Such things don’t come from assuming power or amassing possessions. They come from a person: Jesus of Nazareth, the joy of God incarnate.
One of the first people to feel the joy of Christ, was John the Baptist. While still in his mother’s womb John leapt for joy when a pregnant Mary entered the house. He carried that joy with him, and held on to it in the loneliness of the wilderness and the struggles he would face out there as he ushered in the Kingdom of God. Even in prison with the threat of death looming over his head, John’s joy did not diminish. He knew that no matter how difficult his life got, joy was present if only because God was present within him.
This is hard to hear or understand when you’re in a bad mood or when someone or something steals your joy. But you might take comfort knowing that not even Jesus himself was immune to the pain and sorrow of this world. Manning says, “the tidings of comfort and joy which we desire come as God entered into a suffering world – not removed from it.” Whatever you are going through, right now in your life, you can rejoice knowing God is there with you; in a person who understands your pain and knows what it’s like to suffer.
I know that it’s hard to rejoice when people you love get cancer or when your friends abandon you. It’s hard for me to find joy as long as gun violence permeates our communities, as the homeless situation in our nation worsens, and children still don’t have enough food, or clean water, or a loving parent nearby. Joy isn’t easy to come by when you’re alone in your house, or overworked, or out of work.
Which is why, as Henri Nouwen once said, “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Jesus is God’s greatest joy. Therefore we have to make the conscious decision to seek and welcome him into our daily life. We have to wake up every morning and choose to see and do what Jesus did…if only so others may find their hope, their love, their peace and their joy.
When we choose to be with Jesus, to be imitators of his love, a deeper sense and understanding of joy begins to grow in us and all around us. It becomes manifested in us, in the way we love and care for one another, in the way that we give and receive the Christ within us all.
I invite you to chose to welcome Jesus as those shepherds did on that Christmas morning. I invite you to receive him as your utmost joy, and to live in his Spirit, bearing its good fruit in all that you do. As you leave here today, I want you to know that we don’t experience joy because life is good. We experience it because God is great. God does not come and go like happiness. God sticks around, and is always there whether we know it or not. When life kicks the joy out of you, God is there kicking it back in.
Because God has chosen you and me to carry this light into the world – to shine our hope, love, peace and joy as bright as the host of angles who first brought glad tidings to those shepherds watching their flocks by night.
Let us pray: As we seek your presence Lord, may we do so rejoicing knowing that wherever we are and whatever we are facing we can do so joyfully because you are with us. Help us to be this bright shining light for others as Jesus did for us. Amen.
Manning, Margaret. Sowing Tears and Reaping Joy. A Slice of Infinity devotional, December 17, 2019 (accessed 12/17/19) https://us5.campaign-archive.com/?e=2ee208b3a9&u=45b75085e6ab57e339ea89d67&id=1b4bf221eb
I have recently learned that for the last couple of months my daughter’s been working on her manifestation skills. She said we should be proud of her for being able to manifest tickets to Harry Stiles record release concert. When I told her to use her skills for something better, she offered to manifest world peace. I was hoping for getting into college, but world peace would be nice too.
And so today we light the peace candle, remembering the angles who broke through the dark skies to announce the birth of Christ by proclaiming “peace on earth and good will towards all.”
It will be this same child who will deliver God’s shalom, the completeness and fullness of God’s peace in the world. He will do so by the way he loves the world. It will be Jesus who will tell us, “how blessed are you who seek peace among all people, for you will be a child of God.”
As we look at the candle of hope, the candle of love, and now the candle of peace, Let us hold fast to the words of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
In the glow of this light, I am reminded that God’s peace is available for those who want it. And who wouldn’t want peace in their life? Some peace and quiet? Or peace of mind, knowing that you have whatever it takes to get through the difficult times. Tis’ the season to put our peace to the test. As we hustle for the last-minute gift or make our way home for the holidays…peace can be in short supply.
Since October 9, 2001 I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy searching for peace in my life. That was the day Fiona was born. The day was amazing. That first night, not so much. As most babies do, screamed and cried for most it. And to be honest, she hasn’t stopped since.
I imagine Jesus came into the world screaming and crying. It’s good for a newborn to let out some big bellows at birth - filling their lungs with their first big breaths of life.
Through Jesus, God continues to scream divine life into a world that is anything but peaceful. No matter what you’re facing today, God’s peace is yours if you want it.
READ: Matthew 2:13-23
Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is a dreamer. However, his dreams are really more like nightmares. In the first dream Joseph is warned that King Herod wants to kill his son. And he knows Herod has both the authority, and the means to do it without impunity.
When Joseph awakes, the nightmare isn’t over. In a frenzy to get out of Bethlehem as fast as they can, Joseph hustles to gather their belongings and whatever supplies he can get his hands on before the gates of the city shut. In this moment, I imagine Jesus is restless as babies often are. I suspect Mary is sleep deprived as nursing mothers tend to be. And I am sure Joseph’s body tenses up every time a soldier passes by as they make their way to Egypt to escape a politically motivated hit job.
They escape just in time. Before them is the great unknown. Behind them the land darkens with the blood of innocent children. Echoing across the sky are the inconsolable cries of wailing mothers who fell victim to the injustice of an insecure and out of control king. Where is the peace and good will the angels promised the night Jesus was born?
Robert Gundry suggests it’s on its way because the one who is to usher peace into the world has escaped. This is the Kingdom of God. And in this kingdom Christ will reign. There will be no more murder or violence perpetrated ever again. Peace is coming, but we have to wait.
I know how hard it is to find peace when you’re rushing to make your connecting flight or taking your final exams or looking for a parking space at the mall. But what about Mary? How did she find peace knowing her son was in danger? It’s a mother’s job to worry about her children – but she shouldn’t have to flee from her home to save their lives. Or Joseph? Still a teenager himself, he has to protect his family in a foreign country. Peace is hard to find when you’re afraid or can’t find a job because you don’t speak the local language.
Recently, a Methodist church in Clairmont, CA made national headlines for its controversial nativity that displays Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus all locked up in three separate cages – highlighting the plight of refugees and asylum seekers at the U.S. Mexico border. Karen Clark Ristine, the lead pastor at the church challenges us to really look at the holy family through the eyes of these people who only want peace and security in their lives. It forces us look at our responsibility as Christians – who are called to see and do what Jesus did. And then go and do likewise.
Jesus understands the plight of the refugee because his life began as a refugee. He knows our pain and suffering firsthand, because his body still bears the scars of human cruelty. Jesus spent his life moving from one danger to the next. Through it all, he embodied God’s perfect peace by practicing a ministry of kindness, mercy and radical inclusion of all people.
Where’s the peace we all seek? The same place it’s always been since the beginning of time - in the Christ, the very heart of God.
While in Egypt, Joseph has his second dream. Herod is dead. And the family can return home to Judea. As a father, I understand why Joseph hesitates to go back. Herod’s son is in charge now. And a rotten apple never falls far from the tree.
Joseph’s fear is confirmed in a third dream which sends the Holy Family further north to Galilee. They will make their home in the town of Nazareth, a despised place in Jewish lore. For nearly thirty years, God will hide Jesus in an area where nothing good ever seems to come.
The bible doesn’t give us much info about those years, outside one story in Luke’s gospel when Jesus is twelve. But the way I see it, if God can protect this baby from hurt, harm, and danger, from even the most despicable people in the despised places, so too will God protect you in whatever uncertainty or nightmare you’re facing today. Through the birth of Jesus, peace has come. And by his resurrection we know that peace will come again.
As we wait for Christmas, for Christ to be born in a dark and smelly stable, we do so by standing outside the dark and empty tomb of Easter. It was there peace greeted Mary who ran off to proclaim the good news. And it’s here today if you want it. What the world isn’t able to give you, Jesus is able, and willing.
By living out a radical, all-inclusive love, Jesus showed us how to walk peacefully in a troubled world. It’s up to you and me to see and do as Jesus did, so peace can prevail. It’s up to us to embrace love like it is the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal. If we want to feel God’s peace in our hearts, we need to be the light of God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s peace in the world for one another.
This week, a pastor friend of mine in Massachusetts touched on a similar note when he posted his Christmas wish list on Facebook. He wrote,
In our hearts let us plant peace, and with our hands let us manifest it in the world today.
Let us pray:
Lord, in our busyness we often forget to ask for the one thing we all seek. Peace. Peace of mind, peace in our relationships, peace in our prayer, peace in our homes and at our work and schools, peace in our finances and health, peace in our sadness as it is in our happiness. By your Holy Spirit empower us with the spirit of your peace that we may manifest it in all that we do, so that all glory may be given the Prince of Peace, our savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I offer you the words of St. Paul who said, “Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Special thanks to Dr. John Tamilio III for his words posted to Facebook on Dec. 12, 2019.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp.164-169.
Last week we lit the hope candle, reminding us that hope is a period of active waiting for a certain thing to happen. Hope begins as a thought in our head before makes its way down to a desire in our heart – where love is ignited. Today we light our second candle. Love.
When I asked Siri what is love, my phone told me, and I quote “As I understand it, love refers to a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude.” In other words, Love is a feeling that is understood best by the things it makes us do – acts of kindness, being generous and giving of ourselves to others.
Jesus is the perfect example of God’s love for us. And so as we look at this light of hope and love we are reminded of the words of John who wrote, “For God so love the world that he sent his only begotten son” and those who see and do what the Son does will be redeemed back to the everlasting love of our Creator.
Come and let us hold fast to the words of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
It’s easy to laugh at Christmas jokes, but it doesn’t always make the season joyful. For many, this time of year is hard to bear.
It was three years ago, last month, that my family and I made the hard transition of leaving our church, my ministry, and some very dear friends for reasons I will not go into. This was one of those life changing choices Kathleen and I had to make. We relied heavily on God’s guidance to get us through it.
A month later… I was sitting in this room, feeling abandoned by God. My spirit and joy were barely noticeable. I no longer had a ministry or a reason to pursuit one. Needless to say it was a very difficult advent wait – a dark time spent doubting myself and my calling. Everything I had worked hard to achieve and held true in my heart felt like it had been shoved through a wood chipper. I was nothing but an old stump of what I once was.
Have you ever felt that way? Chopped down to nothing, feeling hopeless, worthless or useless at best? Is Christmas hard for you? Are you having trouble mustering the strength to get through the season?
Hopefully, today’s reading will shed some light on your life so you can see that God, out of deep love for you, is hard at work redeeming and restoring you… transforming all of creation into something new and amazing.
Read Isaiah 11:1-6
Two summers ago we put up a new fence around our property. When I read this story I thought of the six huge ficus trees we had to cut down to make room for the fence. The guy who did the work didn’t use a stump grinder to finish the job. Instead he cut giant X’s into the stump with his chainsaw. Then, for safe measure, poured gas into the grooves which apparently kills the tree from the top down. With the trees gone, I removed the sprinklers from the area. And a couple of days later we had a brand-new fence in its place.
But that’s not the end of the story. A year later, these little green sprigs began growing out of those stumps. For a while, I would snip them off. But the more I snipped the stronger and faster they grew. Today, we now have a lovely green hedge in that old space.
Not only did the trees survive being cut down, dosed in gasoline and denied water…but they were also transformed into something new in the process, they went from trees to shrubbery. A perfect illustration of how God’s love works. Out of death comes new life.
We see this when Isaiah pronounced the coming prince of peace. Judah had been defeated and those who were hauled off in captivity believed God had abandoned them. Their life seemed hopeless. And those who remained behind were nothing more than old stumps of what they once were. But Isaiah said, God is up to something.
A green shoot from the House of David will emerge and reign with the Spirit of God’s love and righteousness. A new king will come out of Bethlehem and lead his people with “wisdom and understanding” “counsel and might” and with “knowledge and fear of God.”
And just for good measure, this ruler will be the bearer of God’s Spirit, who will transform a culture of fear into a world of peace. He will judge with justice according to God’s will and righteousness: freed from bias or favoritism.
Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, or left for dead, comes the sign of new life. This is how God’s love surprises the world. Hope emerging as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place. A teenage mom, a dirty stable, a tiny baby born with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a giant target on his back.
I had a professor in seminary who always warned us not to read Jesus into this text no matter how tempting it is to do so. St. Paul has no problem using the stump of Jesse metaphor to argue differently in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 15:12). Either way, Isaiah shows us how to wait for Christ.
For those of us who are fed up with the moral, religious, and political crisis our nation and world are facing today, Isaiah reminds us that God is up to something.
For those of us who are in dark places, and cannot muster the strength to live another day, Isaiah says hold on, God is up to something.
For those of us who are barely getting by, or living in poverty or suffering injustice, Isaiah offers hope that arises out of God’s great love for us.
No one exemplified God’s love better than Jesus, the Christ. When we look to him we see God. Through him we know who God is and who we are to God.
And so Isaiah invites you to ask where are the stumps in your life? Where do you feel chopped down, hopeless, or alone? Can you imagine or believe that even now, in your own dark space, God is nurturing the growth of something new and good? The world can dowse us with gas, and even deny our thirst, but it cannot stop God from doing what God wants to do – creating life out of death.
When I thought my ministry was done, God was up to something – transforming my faith and leading me to a new kind of church that uses technology to reach people who, for whatever reason, aren’t hearing the Good News.
Today, New Church Sherman Oaks, along with our sister church The Phoenix Congregational Fellowship, are literally reaching the furthest corners of the world to share Jesus’ story of love and redemption. As long as we have the internet, we have mission and ministry...because God is always up to something.
No matter what you might be going through, I pray Isaiah speaks to your heart and gives you hope in your head. Because God is not only faithful, but God is hard at work. Through Christ, God is taking your pain, your fears and worries, and making something new. A new life, and new light, and new everlasting love.
The peace of God that is inaugurated with the incarnation is one where all things will be transformed. Humans, animals, and the land itself will be filled with the knowledge of God. And be reconciled and restored into God’s glory, where the kingship of Christ will reign with justice and fairness.
But here’s the kicker. All we can do is wait it out. Yet in this time of wait, I invite you to look within yourself. And ask how can you use this Advent time to spiritually mature?
How can you bear the fruits of God’s love, through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and justice?
How can you see and do what Jesus does, so others can see and do the same. Our hope, and our love, are the first fruits that God uses to bring divine peace into a world that desperately needs it. In Jesus, God came to be with us, to show us how to be the shining lights in the darkness, to show how God is at work in the most ordinary and unusual of ways.
As you leave here today, how you might live out this light of hope and this light of love in such a way so the wolf and lamb can live in harmony? Here’s a hint: follow the little child who leads the way back to God’s glory?
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, shine in us and through us today so that we might illuminate the darkest corners of our life and the life of others in this season of advent wait. Help us to see what you do, and a to accept the call to go and do the same…so your name can be glorified, now and forever, Amen.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Bartlett, David. L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press: 2010) pp. 26-31.
Last year, I kicked off the first Sunday of Advent with a quote from Julie Polter who described this season before Christmas as “the ending that is the beginning ...when we ponder the second coming of Jesus before we celebrate the first.”
I feel like we’ve spent the last few weeks pondering this beginning and ending as we looked through the lens of hope. And not just any hope, but hope that was born in the Bethlehem stable. A kind of Hope that not even death could defeat.
By definition, hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen...a wish, an ambition, or goal. Hope is experienced in many different ways. Fiona hopes she gets into the college of her dreams. Sean hopes to get a Nintendo Switch for Christmas. And Colleen hopes I won’tuse her as a sermon illustration. I don’t even want to know what my wife is hoping I will do today, because I was hoping to take a nap later on.
Which leads us to today’s scripture. Whenever we hope, we can assume that there will be a period of waiting. But what exactly are we waiting for? And how will we fill that time? These are questions to ponder as we look at Matthew 24:36-44.
Nothing like starting off the Christmas season with a story about the end of the world, and the end of humankind. But if we look at it honestly, we might see Jesus’ words are no different than a Hallmark Christmas movie, where something good always happens no matter how bad the situation might seem.
Recently we’ve talked about how prophetic and apocalyptic text are warnings for us. They are the flashing red lights and sirens that get our attention, designed to keep us on our toes. Matthew uses this technique to awaken us from our slumber.
He tells us that one day Jesus might appear like a thief in the night. We don’t know when that day or hour will come. We can’t mark it on our calendar or prepare for it beforehand. We just have to stay awake. For those who like to nap, this is a bit disconcerting.
So why does Jesus bring it up? Does he want us to be feel unsettled and anxious? Personally, I think that the fact Jesus isn’t telling us when that day will come, is actually very telling. Just as we overlook advent to get to Christmas, it’s easy to jump ahead and make faith only about the end goal- getting into heaven. We become so enamored with talking about spending eternity in the Kingdom of God that they forget Jesus said the kingdom of God has come.
Advent is not a time to simply wait for Christ to be born, or the resurrection to happen. Instead it’s a time to “Stay awake.” To be present and live intentionally, to see and do what Jesus does as if Jesus meant what he said. It’s a time, not just to ponder the first and second coming of Christ, but to be fully engaged with the Christ within us all until that day comes.
I love to tell the story of a Buddhist monk who is being chased by a very hungry tiger. Running as fast as he can the monk realizes he’s running straight towards a cliff. As the tiger gets closer and closer, the monk searches for an escape. He sees a long vine dangling from a tree over the cliff. The monk jumps and grabs hold of the vine and begins to shimmy down just before the tiger can pounce.
But as fate would have it, the vine wasn’t as long as the monk had hoped. And when he looked down there were sharp, jagged rocks about 1,500 feet below. Letting go of the rope would be certain death. As would climbing back up.
So the monk looked for another escape plan. And that’s when he saw a small ledge on the side of the cliff. On that small ledge was a patch of soft, dewy grass. Growing from a crag in the rocks was a small strawberry bush. And on that bush rested a fresh red, ripe strawberry.
The monk reached out and plucked the strawberry off its branch, and brought it up to his nose and inhaled its goodness. It was the best thing he had ever smelled. He savored that moment before he took a bite and enjoyed its sweetness.
There was something about that strawberry that made heart sang with joy. In that moment he was fully alive. Had he only focused on what was to come, the sharp jagged rocks below, or on his past where the tiger waited, he never would have seen the gift God had placed in his path to savor. Jesus says, “stay alert.”
“When we are too focused on heaven as the only place of beauty and goodness,” writes Jazzy Bostock, “we run the risk of not only ignoring the beauty and goodness of the world but also our responsibility to it.”
A life of faith need not be focused on the world to come but on how to remain faithful in this one – the one God gave as our mandate to love and care for. It’s here in this world, in this place and in this time that we find that red ripe strawberry to savor.
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my blog, you know that I spent each day of November getting to know someone new. Afterward I quickly wrote about the experience. What you may not know is I didn’t take notes, or record the conversations. Instead I listened to what they had to say. In doing so, I learned something new about myself: I could remembered their story, their quotes, and the small facts about who they were and where they were from, simply because we shared a moment. Their story became a part of my own story.
Moreover, I discovered this simple act allowed a young man named Matt to cry with a total stranger. It helped Dan to confess something before going home to make amends to his wife. It gave Bill, an elderly vet who I continue to run into, a friend to talk to in the park. And it helped Gerry and Victoria to take sting out of a bad situation.
We may not know the day or hour, but we do know that at any given second Jesus will appear around the corner, suddenly like a hungry person, or a neighbor in need of help, or a friend who is sick, or someone we love who is in a broken or toxic relationship. People around us are suffering in many different ways. They are worrying about climate change, gun violence, and fearing what is to come out of this political mess we’re in.
Jesus doesn’t tell us when the day is coming, because today there is work to be done. When we focus only on the world to come, we lose sight of the task God has called us to do right now.
“Jesus is offering us an invitation into the world we are already in – an invitation to this world, to this time and place” (Bostock). As messy as this place might seem, it’s precisely in this space we find our hope, our strength, our grace, our salvation.
Here’s the best part about it all. We don’t need to be perfect, just present. We don’t need to hide from our messiness to participate in this season. John Pavlovitz calls us to,“bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. This is where we notice beauty, move with compassion, and have grace revealed.” Jesus calls us to ready ourselves to leave this world by truly living in it, by soaking up every grace-filled moment and savoring its sweetness. To actively wait for both the birth and rebirth of Christ that is happening all around us, right now.
If you’re only sitting around waiting for God’s kingdom to come, then you’re missing what God’s Kingdom is all about - a kingdom where Heaven and Earth are one. In the race to get to Christmas morning, the season of Advent can come and go without notice. So I invite you to take the time to be in a spirit of wakefulness and watchfulness. And to make yourself God’s Christmas gift for those around you.
Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour – it might be in this moment or it might be on Christmas Eve, we don’t know. But what we do know is what we can do while we wait. And that’s to make heaven happen for someone today. It might be in the most outstanding act of charity or the simplest act of compassion. It may be in our our daily busyness or in our quiet moments.
As we kick off advent, we do so with gratitude that Jesus makes us sit and ponder what is to come. In doing so, Jesus is giving us the time we need to simply be in the moment where life is happening in real time. He is giving us this day to see Christ in our midst, in the stories of strangers and friends alike…and he’s giving us the time to love them as if we were loving Jesus himself.
Not knowing when the day or hour will come is a gift for us. It’s the time we need to look around and see those red ripe strawberries that are growing wildly all around us, to pick them and to savor every bite of goodness, as we wait the goodness and the greatness that is to come.
Let us pray.
Loving and generous God, you have given us so many great reasons to be alive in the moment. As we move forward in our day, take our burdens into your heart and redeem them; take our fears and transform them, and make this step we are taking to be in line with the steps of Christ who walks before us, behind us, and beside us until the day your full glory is revealed. For it is in his name we pray. Amen.
Bostock, Jazzy. No One Knows. episcopalchurch.org. (Accessed Nov. 27, 2019).
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. (Chalice Press: 2019) Kindle edition.
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Speaking of hell, our Congress has spent the past couple of weeks questioning people about the President’s use of quid pro quo to get information on a political rival. The world has tuned in to hear the statements from diplomats and career civil servants hoping to learn the truth. After all, the President’s reputation is on the line.
In today’s reading from Luke, we get an unembellished statement from a man whose reputation is also on the line. His is profoundly poignant - especially given its context. The one who asked the question is overjoyed because the answer he receives reveals the truth he had hoped for.
READ LUKE 23:32-43
Last week we spoke of hope. And now on the last Sunday of the church calendar, as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, Jesus offers the world hope like it’s no one’s business. In his final statement to another human being Jesus tells a confessed criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It’s like Jesus is the diplomat of God’s grace. The ambassador of love. A statesman for salvation. This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus began his ministry announcing the kingdom of God to the world, and now at the end of his short life he shows us what that kingdom looks like. Often in the most unorthodox of ways.
“Jesus was pretty weird,” writes Todd Brewer in a recent essay on Mockingbird. “Jesus laughed off death threats, and he regularly insulted his dinner hosts. He held a patent disregard for social conventions. And when he had the chance, he did or said the last thing people expected. He must have been incredibly infuriating to be around.” Sound like anyone you know?
The priest and politicians deemed Jesus a threat, because he represents and embodies God’s grace - the greatest threat to anyone who reigns over people with fear instead of love. Even in his final minutes of life Jesus practice what he preached – showing what real grace looks like to those who believe they aren’t worthy to receive it.
This begs the question, “Who among us is worthy?”
Jesus says you are. God loves us all no matter what. Hanging on the cross is proof of that love. Sadly, we waste so much energy believing that we are unworthy. So, we avoid God as if God is keeping score. Or hiding in the bushes to catch us.
If what Jesus says is true, if God’s grace is real, and God’s love is abundant, then what does that say to those who doubt or mock Jesus from their cross? Are they any less worthy than the ones who recognize him?
There are some folks who say yes. They don’t want to believe that “all” people deserve God’s grace. Muslims, Hindus, Democrats, or your weird gun-toting uncle who spews conspiracy-theories whenever you’re around. Who wants to share eternity with them?
In a recent Facebook post, a friend made a comment about not wanting to live in heaven next door to the kid who killed two students last week at Saugus High. She preferred he be “in substandard housing in a really warm climate.”
But then another asked, “Does this kid get more of a pass because he was messed-up?” This got me thinking. God didn’t mess this world up, we did. God didn’t teach this boy to hate, we did. We made a place for him where violence and killing is normalized. Who needs God’s grace more than this him?
In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber confessed she was reluctant to recognize the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza among those killed. But then she realized “that the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not be overcome by that darkness. Not by Herod, and not by Adam Lanza. The light of Christ is so bright that it shines even for me and even for them.”
It’s hard to think God loves mean, angry, bad people. But if God is alive in all, then no one can be left out. The grace of God that is revealed in Christ is so deep and so abiding, that even to those who disappoint can receive it if they want it.
Some might call this fake news. But to me, it’s the good news. The gospel Jesus proclaimed when he ushered in the kingdom of God. A kingdom where prodigals are forgiven, lost sheep are found, people are restored, and those who are condemned can claim God’s mercy and grace if they want it.
Christ has shown me God’s Kingdom is like a dad who never gave up when his son screwed up. Or a mother who patiently loved her daughter through those difficult years. It’s like my wife who forgives me not because she’s committed to loving me for better or worse, but because she too has received undeserved grace. She knows the power of claiming it…if she wants.
Congress can debate the usage of quid pro quo, but Jesus knows God plays by a different set of rules. You see, God’s grace is not transactional. It’s transformational. It has nothing to do with what we did to deserve it. But it has everything to do with those who want it.
Here is a person who does not taunt or mock Jesus with royal titles, but simply addresses him by his name. Jesus. A name which means “God saves.” And more precisely, “God is rescue.” I don’t know if that criminal knew Jesus is the embodiment of God's salvation and rescue, but he wants it. The very last thing this dying man does is to speak “the name that is above all names” (Phil. 2:9). And today he is with Christ in paradise.
I want you to remember this as you go out into the world. God’s love is infinite. So too is God’s grace. There is plenty for everyone – not just those who recognize who Jesus is but even for those who mock him. If they want it.
But here's the catch. If you accept it, remember that grace is God’s way of saying, “I’m not interested in what you’ve done but what you are doing right now, today, in this paradise.” Jesus has already died. We have already received the benefits of his sacrifice. Now it’s up us to go and be the presence of God’s greatest gift for others .
Today it’s up to us to go be weird like Jesus, who showed us how to sit with others in their sorrow, how to celebrate in their joy, and feed their hunger for something other than what this world offers. It doesn’t matter which side of the cross they are on, to care for the least of our brothers and sisters is to care for Jesus himself.
As we move towards Advent, we do so with the cross of Christ in front of us and the hope that it sheds light on. It is our reminder that God love is real. And God’s grace is real. The life that Jesus invites us to live is an everlasting life that begins today. If you want it, God says it’s yours.
Today, let us call on the name of Jesus, to make his name our statement in the world. This means to be a diplomate and ambassador of Christ and proclaim the truth of God’s love in all that we do.
Today, I invite you to see and do what Jesus did, so the narrow path expands and the doors of the Kingdom are pushed wide open for anyone who desires to enter into paradise.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 4. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp. 332-337.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. (Convergent: 2015) p. 78.
Brewer, Todd. The Elusive Strangeness of Jesus. Mocking Bird: Nov. 19, 2019. (accessed 11/19/19) https://mbird.com/2019/11/the-elusive-strangeness-of-jesus
Read Isaiah 65:17-25
Advent starts in two weeks. Yet this reading seems more appropriate for Easter. If we think about it, we really can’t have one without the other. Even though sometimes I think they’re in the wrong order.
In her Life Mastery course Mary Morrissey said, “Everything is created twice.” That is, everything was first a thought before it became a thing. The lightbulb was first an idea before Edison produced the actual product. The seat you’re sitting on, the camera I am looking through, the shirt you are wearing, everything was first a thought before it could become a thing. Even us. A student of biology knows that long after we’re pronounced dead our bodies take on new life through decomposition, and through that process we become something new.
So maybe this moment we are in is only God’s idea, and not yet the thing God has in store for us. Maybe the stuff we’re going through today is not what will always be. Everything is created twice.
In the 7th century St. John Damascene said, “I do not worship matter. I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and designed to inhibit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” Here Damascene speaks of the Christ who took on human flesh, who lived and died like all of us, and yet transcended the grave to create new life. You see, death was not God’s idea for us. Life was. And the life it produces through the Christ is resurrection Life. It is in this promise that we find our hope, our joy, and our reason to love one another – even in hard times - knowing that what we do here will affect what is to come – a new heaven and new earth.
This might sound crazy or idealistic at best. But I’m sure DaVinci idea of flight seemed nuts before the invention of the plane. God, the creator of life, is no different. And we see this in Isaiah’s prophecy. A mere 700 years before Jesus is born, Isaiah watched the Israelites reject God yet again. In the preceding verse, the Lord spoke through the prophet saying, “I will destine you for the sword and you will bend down for the slaughter; for I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.” God was not happy.
Despite their betrayal, a plan was already in the works. As Isaiah watched Jerusalem burn and his family and friends get carted off into captivity, God spoke these words of comfort through him. “Behold, I will create a new heaven and a new earth.” Everything is created twice! This passage tells us that God is not only present in our pain and suffering, but that God is looking far into the future, to a time when pain and suffering will not exist because Christ has ushered in the resurrected life. This is the promise God gives us… to get through those seemingly impossible hardships we face.
When our job is lacking, our relationships are fading, or our health is diminishing, there is hope because God is at work making something new. When a friend hurts you, your spouse betrays you, or someone you love is no longer with you, God is at work making something new. As an old southern preacher used to say, “when you are down on something God is up to something.” What is that something? I don’t pretend to know. But Isaiah gives us some clues to what we can expect:
The things we did will not be remembered nor come to mind. Our past will no longer define us or weigh us down or limit our possibilities. All the dumb comments we’ve made, all the shameful and foolish things we did in our youth God won’t remember them! And neither will we. Can I get an AMEN!
In this new heaven and this new earth…there will be no crying or weeping or suffering. The things that break our hearts will no longer exist. There will be no more miscarriages, stillbirths, or parents dying when their children are still toddlers. Sons and daughters won’t get killed in car accidents or school shootings. People can love without the pain of heartache. Can I get an AMEN!
In this new heaven and this new earth we’ll live in everlasting harmony with one another. There will be no more bullying, no more meanness, no more petty jealousy or personal attacks on Twitter. No more war, poverty, injustice, captivity, hoarding resources or holding back care. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together. They will neither harm nor destroy.” Can I get an AMEN!
In this new heaven and this new earth… you will enjoy the fruits of your labor. Yes, you still have to go to work. However, your commute won’t suck, your co-workers will be awesome, you won’t get frustrated when someone thinks your idea is dumb. And of course, you work will always be rewarding because your boss will always reward you with the greatest of blessings. Can I get an AMEN!
The way I see it, God’s joy is creating – creating a new space, a new context, a new Jerusalem where God will be with us and we can be with God. Where God is present, joy is present. Hope is present. Peace is present. This new space becomes a party space, because the reign of God is a joyful party that Jesus has invited you to attend. A wedding banquet, a marvelous feast, an unbelievable party to celebrate new life. For what was once lost is found, what was once dead is alive again!
You’re probably thinking this new life sounds great, but what about now in this unpredictable life that we are enduring the best that we can? How will this help me deal with the news from my dermatologist tomorrow or prepare for that math test on Thursday?
Lutheran pastor Daniel Habben said, “Studying this text is like circling your vacation days on your kitchen calendar. You do that, not because you’ll forget to go on vacation, but because sometimes you need a motivational tool to keep plugging away until that day comes.When the shortened daylight hours lengthen your dark mood, you can look at those red marks on your calendar and be reminded of the warm sands of Waikiki under your feet."
When you need to work overtime to make changes on a presentation that is already overdue, those red marks help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. When your world is literally crumbling and burning down right in front of you, God puts a circle around our life and reminds us that everything is created twice.
Through Christ, “we are headed to a better place that will keep us from giving up on life or from getting wrapped up in all the negativity and frustrations that cause us to lose focus and direction.” Yes, God is up to something. We may not know exactly what it is but we have some clues to know what to expect. We are never without hope.
Hope is the sole message of Advent that leads us to the beauty of Christmas morning. The hope God gave us in the stable is also the hope we find in the Easter tomb. Everything is created twice – and with God, it’s always for a greater purpose. While Isaiah gives us a great picture of what God is up to, Jesus shows us how to begin living that new reality today. In Jesus God is making painful memories, anger and sorrow disappear. So why bother holding on to grudges now?
Jesus teaches us to forgive the sins committed against us, just as God has forgiven and forgotten what we’ve done to others. Let your resentment go and focus on the love that God has placed in you. Today is the day to give up all arrogance and all judgments and condemnations and take on a heart as gentle and humble as the heart of Christ who will bring you to that place where God has always imagined you to be – in a new heaven and a new earth.
I know we can’t circle the day on a calendar when Jesus will return, and make everything new. But I can stay encircled in Jesus’ love and the hope that his love brought into the world. We can be that love for others to understand that the pain they are feeling now will no longer be pain but joy. By seeing and doing what Jesus did, not only will we set foot in that new heaven and new earth, but we will also help usher it in today, tomorrow and forever. Can I get an AMEN!
LET US PRAY:
Loving God, you are forever patient with us. As we fumble with our lives, and make messes of things, you are busy at work planning and preparing a place for us all. Help us to understand this in both good times and bad, when we are feeling grateful or feeling like the wind has been knocked out of our sails. In all times may our focus be on you and all that you are doing through Christ the Lord, Amen.
Greatly indebted to Rev. Daniel Habben for his inspiring sermon “When Lions Eat Straw” on Nov. 15, 2010 (accessed on Nov. 14, 2019). www.sermoncentral.com
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 2 (Westminster John Knox: 2009) pp.354-359.
When I was a minister at a church in Greenville, Michigan I started a Beer and Bible Study for men. My secret goal wasn’t to just share my knowledge of God with them, but the help them crack the gold leaf on their bibles so they could search through the pages and get to know God on a more personal level.
As I was looking for a passage to preach on this week, I discovered that there were sections in my bible that just automatically open – places I tend to frequent. There is still some unchartered territory that I haven’t ever preached on. One such book is Chronicles, actually it’s two books but could easily be one.
Chronicles is a considered a historical book that literally chronicles the kings and players in Israel’s story. Todays reading focuses on the time in King David’s reign when the Ark of God has been returned to the tabernacle after having been lost in battle. It is a reason to celebrate, and to worship God! So David commemorates the event with liturgy, a song of praise.
It comes from 1 Chronicles 16:7-11:
I want you to take a moment and think about something your grateful for today. How does it make you feel? And how do you show it?
I asked this question at an assisted living facility and nearly everyone said the same thing. The first thing they do when they wake up is to pray thanking God that they woke up. We often overlook the obvious, like breathing, gravity, and good art.
I am grateful for the gift of life that is Colleen and for the love which she was created from. I am grateful God has chosen to make our home a holy space for people to worship in God’s presence. I am grateful to have my voice and the ears who are willing to hear what I have to say.
I met a man who, since childhood, has recited an ancient tribal prayer that had been passed down through his Locanda ancestors. He begins each day saying, “Spirit, I thank you for my first breath, and for the knowledge that every breath I take after this is my responsibility to reveal your truth through me.” What a powerful way to start your day, centered in gratitude for the gifts you’ve been given and accepting the responsibility to use them
More than just being grateful, giving thanks to God is a great way to check in with God on a daily basis. Our God is relational and loves to connect with us. We have all the time in the world for binge watching, hanging out with friends, or zoning out on Instagram. But when God wants to share some of our time we balk.
We should be grateful that God wants to be with us. God wants to have a relationship with us. The incarnation is a powerful reminder so that God was willing to become one with us through Jesus, so we could have a face to relate to. I’m grateful for that!
Social scientist have proven that living in gratitude builds better relationships, improves physical, mental and emotional health, and builds confidence and self-esteem. It actually helps us sleep better, and who doesn’t want that?
If living in gratefulness can have that affect on your life, imagine the transformation that can happen when you call upon God’s name – the second imperative in this verse.
Although he wasn’t always good at it, David made it his goal to make God his number one priority. He called on the Lord constantly. He sought God’s council. Pleaded for God’s help in matters big and small. As a result, David dwelt in the rich presence of God’s glory.
His story is similar to Abraham, Isaac, Samuel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and so many other saints who have experienced the transformative power of God’s glory simply by calling out to God. It could be a morning prayer, or just an ongoing conversation you have with God while driving to work. Another thing I am grateful for is the car phone…because I can talk out loud to God without looking crazy to the other drivers.
I don’t think it matters how you do it, or what you say, God just wants to hear from you. I have found that when I speak my problems out loud, I am able to deal with them better than if I stuffed them deep inside me. When I speak them out loud with God, I am inviting God to help me through them. God wants to help you through those tough situations or difficult challenges you might be facing. As C.S. Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
Just as it is with gratitude, we need to give God a call at least once a day. Not only does it help turn the ritual of prayer into a relational conversation but it keeps us aligned with God’s will. Even if we falter from time to time.
Calling on the name of God keeps the connection between your heart and God’s heart moving in one continuous flow. When our hearts are connected to God, we find our inner peace; we receive a deeper understanding of who we are and the relations we have with God and others; and we develop a more accepting and loving spirit. We become a living testimony of God’s grace and love. The third imperative in this verse.
I don’t know if it’s because of where we live, or the time in which we live in, but it seems to me there is a greater and growing reticence among Christian people to share their faith in public. It’s almost as if we’re embarrassed of our faith, or by what God has done for us.
Just yesterday, while meeting someone for my KNOWvember challenge, the person opened up about his faith, and his failures in it. When I asked him why he felt comfortable sharing those things with me, he said, “because you’re a minister, non-believer can’t understand.” All the more reason to let the world know that God is worth knowing.
Imagine a world where people felt free to talk about God and share their faith – without shame, or fear of judgment. We have no problem spewing our political beliefs, or our opinion on a movie or celebrity. But when it comes to sharing our beliefs in God or our Christian faith we just clam up. It’s not easy to share something as personal as faith, but how else will people come to know God’s glory, or find the love God has for them?
Today also marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Sesame Street. For 50 years they have been proclaiming God’s will in the most creative, and unintentional ways. Sounds crazy, but watch an episode and you will see the ways they teach us to love and care for each other. Wasn’t that Jesus’s message?
If a big yellow bird can teach us how to be hospitable, kind, gracious and joyful, then so can you. If Oscar the grouch can teach us how to lament or be more accepting of who we are, then we can teach others as well. You see, talking about God doesn’t mean reciting bible verses to win a dogmatic argument.
King David did it with poetry and song. Jesus did it in the way he loved and forgave others. For Paul it was preaching and in his letter writing. To borrow from St. Francis, preach the gospel –use words only when necessary. How could you proclaim the good news without saying a word?
The prophet Micah said, “What does God want from us but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.”
John Piper teaches us that, “God calls us to enjoy continual consciousness of Divine greatness and beauty and worth.” This takes a daily, conscious effort to set our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.
When we set our minds in God’s mind, we can do the will of God without fear or trepidation. When we set our hearts in God’s heart each day, we can revel in God’s love and peace always. When we testify to God’s great glory, our life and every life around us, can’t help but be transformed and rejoice.
So to borrow from David’s psalm, I leave you with this challenge: “Seek the Lord and God’s strength. And seek God’s presence always.” For there is no better way to worship God.
Let us pray: Most glorious and merciful God, we give you thanks for all that we have been given; especially through the the gift of your Son, Jesus the Christ. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can go out in the world to proclaim your glory by walking in the footsteps of Christ in all that we do. Amen.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
Worship with us live on Facebook
Sunday at 11:00 a.m.