December 8, 2017 – Credibility- Jesus’ Sheep Know His Voice- Luke 2:4-5, Isaiah 9:7, Isaiah 22:22, John 10:27

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Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. Luke 2:4-5 (NRSV)

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:7 (NRSV)

I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. Isaiah 22:22 (NRSV)

Luke takes a great deal of care in discussing the genealogy of Jesus, primarily because he was speaking to fellow Jews. These were people who knew that God’s Messiah would be a descendent of King David.

Credibility is a big thing these days. Everyone wants the genuine article, which is why Luke goes into such depth.  It was important to Jews to know that Jesus was of David’s line to believe that He is truly who He said He is.  Even today, most Jews do not believe that Jesus is God’s chosen One in spite of Luke’s genealogy.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to see and know the credibility of Jesus. If we look to the credibility of other Jesus followers, we aren’t always going to see Him reflected in those people’s behaviors and actions. Yet we will see Him when we look for Him.

(Jesus said:) My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27 (NRSV)

Are we listening for Jesus’ voice?

December 6, 2017 Emmanuel, God With Us- Matthew 1:22-23, John 11, Isaiah 53:1-5

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All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:22-23 (NRSV)

Today doing business from a distance is quite a normal concept. Most of us use the Internet to order items from all over the world, setting events in motion in different states or even on different continents that are not under our direct control.

Sometimes it’s easy to envision God as doing the same thing we do when we order things or pay our bills online, pulling strings from a distance, never having to get dirty or even (metaphorically speaking) having to get up off the couch.

God chose to “get dirty.” He did not have to enter the world of humanity with its suffering, pathos and drama (not to mention dirt and pain and bad smells) but He chose to enter our world, to become part of it, to embrace humanity by becoming fully human.

Jesus could have skipped the 33 years of having to smell the odors of dirty people and livestock, of having to put up with heat, cold, pain, filth and screaming brats and having to hand-hold and spoon-feed clueless disciples. He embraced the hard realities of being human- even that stuff we really don’t like such as physical illness, discomfort and grief.  He made friends.  He lived with and loved flesh and blood humans in a flesh and blood body just like ours.  When His friend Lazarus died, He wept. (John 11)

As Jesus followers we don’t always talk about the humanity of Jesus, or we get stuck on concepts such as the virgin birth, as if God Who created the universe and everything in it couldn’t manage an immaculate conception. If God had wanted to, He could have just dropped Jesus on the earth as a full grown man and sat Him on a throne with a flaming light saber, but in coming to us as an infant, born of a human woman, He became human, approachable, one of us.

More than that, God took the route of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:1-5) to save humanity from its own sin and death.  He could have simply remained detached, viewing the world and its flawed humans from afar, but His love was too great to leave His creatures- His friends, His beloved, to their own devices.

God With Us- Emmanuel, Jesus, is with us.

 

December 5, 2017 – Keep Awake! – Mark 13:24-37

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(Jesus said:) “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Advent is a time of waiting and watching and anticipation. The Christmas story is so tender and sweet, with Joseph and Mary on a donkey, making their way to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born. We all love to sing carols like “Silent Night” that picture the baby Jesus in a manger. But verses such as this passage from Mark 13 and others like it (such as Matthew 24) when Jesus spoke of His return used to turn my blood to ice.  Jesus isn’t portrayed as a sweet baby or even as a nice guy in this passage.  He is coming back with an attitude.

Yes we should savor Advent and take the time to get away from the holiday hoo-hah to reflect on what God With Us really means. We should rejoice with Elizabeth and delight in Mary’s song of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  We should look at the manger with wonder and awe.  We do know that Jesus will return at some point in human history, and it will be a dramatic return. The thought of His return can seem rather frightening, especially when taken in the context of popular movies and books that are loosely based on apocalyptic passages of the Bible.  However, we need to take apocalyptic passages as part of the whole counsel of Scripture and not turn them into a bang them up action movie.  There is a great deal of exaggeration and metaphor in apocalyptic literature which is meant to drive the message home.

What if Jesus returns in the midst of the chaos? What if He comes back right into the middle of destruction, death and human suffering?  Where will we be in that drama when He arrives? Are we going to be on the “good guy” side? Will He catch us “being good?”

Rather than looking at Jesus’ return as some kind blazing inferno action flick, why not see and anticipate Him as He really is: a deliverer, the one who will end suffering, death, destruction, and agony? He is the One we cry out to when we are suffering, when we are in despair, when there is no hope left.  We reach out to Him from the chaos and uncertainty that characterize our lives.

We can look forward and watch and wait and anticipate that day, knowing that He will find His people who He has named and claimed waiting for Him and already bringing about His kingdom here on earth.

It has been said that when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew today were the end of days, he said he would plant a tree.

God asks us to do the planting and the tending. The harvest is up to Him.  Not every good thing we do will bear fruit that we will see, but it is all known to God.  We wait and watch and hope and work and pray, not in fear, but with excitement and joy.  Be awake.  We don’t want to miss this!

 

 

 

 

December 1, 2017- Faith Fulfilled, John the Baptist and Joy in the Morning- Luke 1:1-25, Psalm 30:5

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In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  

 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:1-25 (NRSV)

Infertility is not just a modern issue. In Biblical times children (specifically sons) were viewed as gifts from God.  If a woman was not blessed with children those around her wondered what was wrong with her.  She was viewed as “defective,” and her husband was considered to be “cursed.” Zechariah and Elizabeth both wondered what they had done that was so wrong that God withheld children from them.  They had come to that place in life where they had probably accepted that they would never be parents.

Yet they still prayed, even when what they were seeing didn’t coincide with what they believed and hoped for.

Faith is not the absence of doubt, nor is it denying reality. Faith is trust in God that He has made a way, even if that way doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. God has the infinite ability to exceed our expectations and to answer our prayers in ways that we can’t envision.

For Zechariah (who had his doubt issues!) and Elizabeth the waiting and disappointment ended when God gave them the joy of a son in their advanced age, a son who God had very special plans for, who He chose to reserve for a couple who would cherish him and raise him in a home that honors God.

It seems a bit confusing that John the Baptist was a very austere man- set aside from the time of his conception to follow the Nazirite vow, (Numbers 6:1-21) a man who lived frugally, by himself, yet Jesus, his cousin who followed, enjoyed eating and drinking and celebrating.

John was a man who paved the way- a man who pled with us to get rid of all the things that aren’t necessary, to open our hearts and minds to receive God With Us. It is said he was the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament disciples.  He walked that long, lonely path of waiting and anticipating the “not yet.”

Many of us who walk similar paths of waiting and praying- those of us who are anticipating a breakthrough in our lives, whether it be an improvement in health, healing of relationships, financial worries, often have a hard time holding on to faith. We endure loss, suffering and pain of myriad kinds in this lifetime.  Whether we are aware of it or not, God does hear our prayers.  He does walk with us.  He does weep and mourn with us.  And He holds the promise of joy in the morning.

Our lives carry stories of tragedy redeemed. We live stories like the story of Ruth, who had lost everything and whose life looked hopeless, until she discovered Boaz, who married her and redeemed her. (Ruth 4)

Zechariah and Elizabeth had their joy in the morning. Infertility wasn’t the end of their story. Many of us are still in our lost and mourning and suffering part of the journey, wandering in the wilderness.  In this world we are waiting, anticipating, and almost consigning ourselves to the fact that the status quo will prevail.  God says differently. In the season of Advent we learn there is a Savior coming to us.  We can endure the waiting, the doubt, the suffering, because God With Us has promised healing, redemption and hope.  There will be joy in the morning.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5 (NRSV)

 

 

November 29, 2017- Rejoice Always- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Psalm 16

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Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (NRSV)

Rejoice always. That’s not an easy instruction, even coming from the apostle Paul who had plenty to not rejoice about.

It’s easy to rejoice when things are going our way, but not so much when things turn dark. It’s hard to sing through pain. It’s hard to smile through suffering. It’s hard to reach out for what is good and right when so much is going wrong.  Yet Jesus invites us: rejoice always. What we see isn’t the whole picture. We are called to have faith in the unseen, and to believe even when the evidence we see doesn’t always support our faith.

One of the most depressing aspects of the late fall/early winter is that many of us don’t see daylight much if at all, several days a week. If one works in a place without windows and comes to work in the dark and leaves in the dark, at times it’s almost hard to believe that the sun exists.

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In hard times we don’t always see the evidence that God is with us- like the winter sun that we seldom see from October until March. Yet God is with us, in all things, even in suffering, illness, grief, and adversity.

 

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.  I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. – Psalm 16 (NRSV)

November 24, 2017 – Christ, the King! Colossians 2:6-19, Matthew 20:25-28

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As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.  For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.

 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision  by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. Colossians 2:6-19 (NRSV)

Speaking of kings seems like a very old fashioned thing to do.  The United States declared independence from the British monarchy 241 years ago.  Admittedly, King George III was a rather tyrannical monarch, and history has proven over and over that one man having absolute power will lead to absolute corruption.  Human monarchies typically are not terribly effective forms of government.  Dictatorships are even worse.  Why should One Guy be in charge of everything?

In Scripture we learn that even the “good kings” like David, Solomon and Hezekiah had tragic faults. The “bad kings” were Really Bad. So why would we want to call Jesus “King?”

The answer is that Jesus simply is (that simple little word again) the King.  He was not made- He is One with the Father Who made us. Unlike human beings who want to think they have some kind of divine calling to rule over other humans, Jesus is the divine ruler.  No debate, and no proving ground was ever necessary.

Yet Jesus took the ultimate proving ground. While He could rule over humanity with an iron fist- and be within His right- Jesus took the route of sacrifice and ultimate love.  He entered into the world of humanity and took on the entire human experience, including poverty, suffering and an unspeakable death.

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As we think about Jesus the conquering King, we also remember He comes to us in humility and compassion. We represent Him and follow Him when we reflect His example- when we remain humble, when we sacrifice of ourselves for the good of others.

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But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)

 

November 22, 2017- Forgive, Be Thankful and Praise God- Colossians 3:12-17, 2 Samuel 6:14-15

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As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

One of the most important “wilderness lessons” I had to learn the hard way is that the heaviest thing to carry is a grudge.

Jesus doesn’t command us to forgive as a cruel joke. We may at times be quite justified in our anger, but holding on to anger does nothing to right the wrongs that have been done against us.  Holding onto our anger does nothing other than poison and paralyze us, while those who have wronged us go on about their merry way, blissfully unaware that we are hanging onto vitriol that is intended for them. Forgiveness allows us to surrender our anger and hurt and frustration to the One Who does have the power to make wrong things right again.  Forgiveness allows our healing and opens our hearts to the love and restoration- and peace- that only God can bring.

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Thankfulness is a close cousin to forgiveness. If we forgive others we also give up the “right” to be jealous of what others have. Rather than look at Susie-so-and-so and envy the fact that she is thinner or prettier or has a better car, why not thank God for the many blessings He has given us?  When we think about the simple gifts such as friends and family, the ability to breathe, the beauty that surrounds us, it is easy to be thankful. It is amazing what God can do through us when we have an “attitude of  gratitude,” rather than a heart that covets the things it doesn’t have.

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Praise is a natural by-product of thankfulness. It is said that King David danced before God in praise, and had no inhibitions about it.

David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.  So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 2 Samuel 6:14-15 (NRSV)

Admittedly, from a cultural viewpoint, Midwestern Americans of European descent are not normally prone to breaking out in dancing. Dancing is not forbidden in the Lutheran tradition, and it is a common form of worship in African congregations.  In some Puritan traditions dancing is frowned upon as being “too provocative” and/or drawing attention to the physical body.  However, we should have the freedom and the openness to praise God in our own way- with singing, instrumental music of all kinds, visual art, poetry and prose, and dancing, should the Spirit so lead us- no matter what other people might think about it.

The apostle Paul (who wrote the letter to the Colossians quoted in the verses above) was no stranger to hardship, deprivation and even experienced prison time because he kept on preaching and teaching about Jesus. Yet he forgave those who tormented him, thanked God for his blessings, and praised God constantly.

How can we forgive those who have wronged us, thank God for all He has done for us, and praise God when no one is around and even when everyone else is watching?