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)

 

 

May 10, 2017 – Evidence of the Unseen- Hebrews 11:1-3

jesus and the disciplesNow faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. Hebrews 11:1-3 (NRSV)

It is hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to walk with Jesus and the disciples.  Would there have been something special about Jesus’ physical appearance that would have stood out, or would he have looked just like an average guy?  I would like to think that He really did look like one of us.

When Jesus and the disciples are portrayed in artwork, the artists generally make them stand out.  In sacred art, Jesus has His obligatory halo, as do Mary, and the apostles, and various other saints of the church.  As one who grew up in a tradition that tends to put the saints of the Bible on pedestals, the message implied in the artwork and in the stained glass was clear.  These were the saints, the true believers…and then there’s, uh, you.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love and appreciate sacred art, but it is important to remember that God is the hero of the Biblical story, and we are all participants in it.

When they lived in the real world of flesh and blood, it’s pretty obvious nobody knew Jesus or His disciples by their halos or by the aura of lights surrounding them.  I am pretty sure neither Jesus nor His disciples were pristine clean 24/7 either.  They got dirty.  They had callouses and worry lines and messed up hair.

Perhaps it is easier to believe in an untouchable God than it is to believe in God incarnate, Who wept, Who got dirty and sweaty and worked with His hands.  Of course, He is all of those things.

Is it easier to believe in the omniscient (all knowing,) omnipresent (at all places at all times) and omnipotent (all powerful) God than it is to believe God in the flesh Who comes to us in a simple meal or a conversation with a friend?

The worlds were prepared for us by God, beyond space and time.  We are provided for in His plan for all eternity, yet Jesus came to this earth to share our experience and to give Himself for us.  What an amazing truth for us to put our faith in- and to pass along to others.

March 20, 2017 -Marked with the Cross of Christ Forever… Acts 10:44-48 and Luke 15

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Marked with the Cross of Christ Forever…

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.  Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)

In Baptism we are spiritually buried with Christ. We enter into His suffering and death, as well as we are welcomed into the promise of His Resurrection.

In the Lutheran tradition any person may be baptized regardless of age or cognitive ability. This tradition affirms the truth that God’s Kingdom is open to all, and that it is God doing the choosing, not us.  God chooses us, even when we fail to choose Him.

When infants or children or the infirm are baptized it becomes the parents’, caretakers’ and the greater community’s obligation to see that these most fragile and impressionable members of the community are cared for and instructed in sound Biblical teaching. It is both an obligation and a delight to lead children in the way they should go even though today’s prevailing culture and social mores don’t make it easy.

Often we get discouraged when we see teens and twenty-somethings fall away from a life of faith. Unfortunately for parents and for people who care for young people, often there are times when our children and loved ones take a little hiatus in the pig pen.

It’s challenging for us to keep from distancing ourselves from our children when we can’t agree on their life choices or mode of living, but it is so essential for us to look to Jesus’ example and love them unconditionally, even if we don’t love their current philosophy or approve of their behavior.

Our hearts ache for them to come back to the church, to worship, to study, to love Jesus and live as Jesus followers. The reality is that none of us can do those things apart from the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Even those of us who strive to be Jesus followers miss the mark.  This is where the promise of Baptism gives us hope.

We are- and our children- are, in Baptism-marked with the Cross of Christ forever…not just when we’re behaving, or when we feel like it, or when we acknowledge God is with us.

So he (Jesus) told them this parable:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  Luke 15:3-7 (NRSV)

In other words, as Jesus also illustrates in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), a person who belongs to Christ might take a trip to the pig pen, but those who belong to Christ also belong in our Father’s house, and He will find a way to get us back there. We may choose the easy way or hold out for the hard way, but we can trust that God finds a way to bring His own home.

Martin Luther once said that we should “put on Baptism as daily wear.” In the morning when we look in the mirror or stand under the shower, maybe, is a good time to remind ourselves that we are baptized. Chosen. Washed clean.  Named and claimed as a child of God.

January 15, 2017- I Had a Dream…Isaiah 11:6, Hosea 1:10

 

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The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah 11:6 (NRSV)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had a noble dream.  His dream was that all people would be judged according to the quality of their character rather than by the color of their skin.  We as a nation and we as humanity still struggle with this concept.  Even though I would like to think differently, I know that I have deeply ingrained cultural and ethnic biases.  I come from an extremely conservative, Christian, white American family, and that upbringing influences how I see the world and how I view other people.  Most people prefer to be around “people like them.”  I know I am more comfortable around people who are Americans who speak English, and who are of a similar ethnic and cultural background.  It’s hard for me to relate to those of different cultures at times.  It can be awkward, and I can fall back on stereotypes that may or may not be accurate when I am dealing with people who are different from me.

The question I have to ask myself is, do I value people who happen to be from a different ethnic or cultural background as much as I do conservative white Christian Americans?   Do I love them with the unconditional love of Christ even if their customs are different from mine, even if they don’t believe the Good News of Christ, or if they have a different language or skin color or point of view than mine?  If I am to be completely honest with God and myself, perhaps at times I don’t- even when I know that every human being is made in the image of God. Every human being has the same intrinsic worth in the eyes of God whether I feel that way or not.  Addressing the disparity and prejudice that we humans impose upon each other was exactly what Dr. King was talking about.  Let me see your heart, not your skin color.

When I look in the eyes of a fellow human being, do I see the eyes of Christ?

Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”     Hosea 1:10 (NRSV)    

When Jesus came to earth to be God with us, He meant all of us.  Not just the Jewish people who were God’s first chosen.  Not just Midwestern WASPs like me.  Not just the church in Africa, or the church in Haiti, or the Orthodox churches, but for ALL of humanity.  Jesus came to redeem all of the HUMAN race, which includes all of the colors and languages and cultures.        

Can we work toward the heart of God that ALL people will be called, “Children of the living God?                                   

December 21, 2016-Simeon’s Answered Prayer: “My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation”-Luke 2:25-32, Revelation 21:3-4

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Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,  Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” – Luke 2:25-32 (NRSV)

The above passage is known as the “nunc dimittis“- meaning,”now You dismiss Your servant,” and it is also known as the Song of Simeon.  In some traditions it is used as a prayer for the ending of the day, or for the ending of a worship service.

There is nothing more joyful than experiencing answered prayer and the fulfillment of much-longed for dreams.  It is hard to imagine Simeon’s delight as he held the infant Jesus and realized: This child is the promised Messiah.

What an incredible blessing God granted Simeon in that moment, that he would come face to face with his Savior, and that he could die in peace.

We are still waiting in our “not yet” world.  Waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.  Some of us are holding on to a breakthrough in a hard situation. Some of us are walking through the stages of physical, emotional or spiritual healing.  Some of us are weighed down in depression and grief and just can’t see the way out of the dark.

We may not be blessed in the same way Simeon was, that we may see the face of Jesus before we die (although that is not impossible!) but we can trust God that His word is true.

One of the most encouraging words to the weary, to those who most need to experience the presence and healing touch of God is:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4 (NRSV)

God Himself is with us.  And in this “not yet” world, we can know in Christ that death and mourning and crying and pain are not the end.