Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, December 24, 2012

"right in the middle," 12.24.12

Isaiah 9:2-7
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined…. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His 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.

Luke 2:1-14
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

            The Bible is a story about God reaching out to us. There are twists and turns along the way. Sometimes people welcome God’s care, other times we turn away. In the beginning, God made a man and woman to tend a garden and nurture a life connected to God. Before long, the couple was tricked into breaking God’s commandment and choosing independence over closeness with God. Later, out of all the families of the world God called Abraham and Sarah to be partners in God’s promise. Through wanderings and changes God kept his covenant with Abraham and his descendants.

            When the people of Israel became slaves in Egypt, God sent Moses to lead the people out of bondage to freedom. Through desert wanderings, God taught the people rules to shape a faithful life together. Rules about worship and looking out for the stranger and the poor among them. In time the people came into the land God prepared for them, but soon desire and pride and the drive for power led them away from God.

God sent prophets and kings to call the people back. Sometimes those voices were welcomed, other times they were rejected and persecuted. When we’re honest with ourselves, we can understand why. There’s a part of each of us that wants to welcome God’s calling, welcome God’s love and concern for the most vulnerable. But there’s another part of us that thinks we know best, that wants to keep the biggest piece for ourself, that wants to be first and worries that opening ourselves to others will get us hurt.

God doesn’t give up on us. After centuries of twists and turns, closeness and rejection, God reached out to humankind in a truly unexpected way. God became flesh as a baby. A baby who was born in a stable in a holy land occupied by Roman power. God didn’t pick an easy year or an easy place. There were tensions among different Jewish groups, tensions with the Roman authorities, and a rising revolutionary movement.

On top of the big picture events that make the history books, Jesus was born into the middle of the usual stresses of life that no one ever reads about years later. Joseph and Mary were far from home and didn’t have a decent place to spend the night when the baby Jesus arrived.

Away from the spotlight of our story, on that night in Bethlehem normal life was going on too. Maybe the family next door to the inn was having an argument. A family down the road was about to lose their home to a creditor. Around the corner a young husband came home from a distant journey to a joyful reunion with his wife. Across the street another husband watched helplessly as his wife got sicker and weaker. An aging father wondered where his adult children were and whether he would ever see them again.

A baby cried, a donkey brayed, a camel scuffed its feel nervously. God came into the world unnoticed except by a few travelers on a dark night. The world changed and God got closer, but most people couldn’t tell the difference.

            Today too, it’s easy to miss the signs of God’s presence. In the rush and whirl of the world we can forget God’s calling. We feel overwhelmed by the immediate demands of life, and when something like today’s shooting happens we can feel like the world is simply too much. It’s easy to feel far from God when we hear news of children or firefighters senselessly murdered. The world is hard to understand and often threatening.

            But right in the middle of that fear and stress, anxiety, distraction and heartache we find God. God came to earth in human flesh so he could meet us exactly where we are. Jesus came to join us in the joys and sorrows of being human. He came to show us how to live and how to die. He came to show us the depths of God’s love for us and to bring us closer to God.

            In a hospital room or at the kitchen table, in a prison cell, at a Christmas party at work or at church, God is right with us. Our struggles and our celebrations are not alien to God, because Christ has shared our life. In Christmas, Christ breaks into our everyday world. God’s light of love shines in the darkness of fear and doubt. The message of God’s love is for everyone; the angel’s words to the shepherds are for you and me too. To you is born a savior who is Christ, the Lord.

            No matter where you have been this past year, God loves you deeply. No matter whether this is the first or the thousandth time you’ve stopped to listen for God’s message God wants to welcome you today. No matter what people have told you, no matter what secrets you have, no matter what burden of joy or shame or fear you’re carrying, God reaches out to you. Christ left heaven to share our life in all it’s messiness: that’s what Christmas is about.

            Glory to God in the highest! And peace to all people on earth. Thanks be to God.

            John 1

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Repentance and forgiveness," 12.23.12

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Luke 3:1-18
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

            I’ve got good news for you and bad news. We’ll start with the good news: God loves you and welcomes you into his kingdom. That’s the best news. God welcomes us with open arms. The Lord is waiting to pardon our sin, to throw out all the garbage that stands between us and God. God is ready to set the past aside and welcome us into a future free from judgment and shame and guilt. God is ready to do that right now for you; for everyone. That’s a fact.

            The bad news is that you need to change. I need to change too. We need to repent, which means to turn around. We need a fundamental change in the way we approach life, the future, God and everything else. Repentance and forgiveness go together, but not always in the way we expect.

            Often we have this image of God like a strict father. He stands over us and makes us say we’re sorry with the threat of punishment in the background. A lot of people go to church because they are worried they will go to hell if they don’t. Behind door number 1 is saying we’re sorry, forgiveness, following the rules, going to church, and finally, going to heaven. Behind door number 2 is having fun, not following the rules, not going to church and finally, hell.

That’s a theology of punishments and rewards. There are some pretty huge problems with this theology. There’s some truth to it, but it’s not the freeing, joyful, transformative life God calls us to. Thinking about our relationship with God that way leads to questions like: what’s the least I can believe and still go to heaven? Can I repent at the last minute before I die? Why does God let people who repent at the last minute into heaven the same way as those of us who have been going to church for years? What do we get for following God for our whole life.

            There are definitely times the Bible talks in terms of rewards and punishments. Our passage from Luke is one of them. John paints our choices in stark terms: God comes to judge, to gather the wheat into the granary and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John calls the audience to choose between blessing and curse, life or death, wheat or chaff.

            It sounds like a simple choice, and in some ways it is, but there’s more to it than that. We can only repent because God opens the door for us. God’s grace comes first: before our first confession, before our repentance, before our first breath. God’s grace, God’s amazing love for us paves the way for us to realize our mistakes and turn around.
Even the call to confession is grace filled; that’s part of why Luke says John is preaching good news to the people. Even in John’s challenging words and his call to repent and change their lives the people recognized something important. His message touched them, so people came from all over to be baptized. They recognized that they were not right with God, and they felt John had a way to come back home.

"Expecting a child in a broken world," 12.16.12

Luke 1:5-25
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 1:26-45
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Luke 1:57-66
57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”

62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

            This week has been a stark reminder that the world is broken. There’s nothing I can say that will explain the tragedy in Connecticut. It’s hard to make sense of a world where children are massacred at school. Nothing can make that OK.

I can’t tell you why tragedy happens. I do not believe it is God’s will. I can’t tell you why God lets things like that happen. What I know is that the world is broken and God weeps over that brokenness. I’ve got an opinion on gun policy like you probably do. Inadequate access to mental health care is part of the problem, as is our culture’s fascination with violence and our decreased ability to get along with people with whom we disagree. The pieces of this puzzle are complex and there is not an easy solution.

A tragedy like this one in a place that seems so normal and safe shakes our assumptions about what normal and safe means. But the truth is that innocent kids die every day in staggering numbers. As some of the most vulnerable members of society, kids are often the ones who suffer for our sin and our mistakes. Daily, about 20,000 kids under 5 die worldwide from preventable causes like malnutrition, malaria and other diseases you and I never have to think about, mostly in the so-called third world.

Part of the problem is that those of us in wealthy and powerful countries feel far away from third world poverty, so we put a higher priority on our dinner reservation or Christmas shopping than on the lives of the children who will die tomorrow or next week. Some of those closer to the problem see opportunity for themselves in aid money rather than a responsibility to make sure it gets where it should go. Other issues of responsibility, dependency, economics, psychology, race and politics also get between resources and those in need. The common theme across the world is that those with the least power suffer first and most.

With so much trouble in the world it almost seems silly to open an old story like the Bible today. The truth is, we need to light candles most when it’s dark, and we need to sing songs of hope most when the world doesn’t make sense. The truth is the story of God’s love and promise in the Bible, is closely connected with children in Connecticut and children in Africa. God created this beautiful world. God weeps over violence and misery, and God sent his son Jesus to bring new hope and a clearer vision of love into our troubled world. Through Christ’s life, God knows the pain of losing a child to a violent death. God sees the terror and heartbreak on the faces of children and teachers in a suburban school and in a rural village where clean water seems like an impossible dream.

In a world where power speaks loudly and violence is assumed, God’s story began a new chapter in a conquered piece of desert. Zechariah was a priest. He and his wife Elizabeth were probably respected in their town, but Elizabeth was also shamed for not having kids. Mary and Joseph were regular folks from a small town in the middle of nowhere.

God stepped into these ordinary lives to keep the promise of redemption. The Angel Gabriel came to Zechariah to tell him the hope he’d given up on, the hope of being a father was coming true. Not only would Zechariah have a son, he’d have a son who would get people ready for the Lord, a son with an important role to play in God’s story of grace. While Zechariah is doubtful at first, when his son is born he praises God aloud with strong and grateful faith.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"God's children," 10.21.12

Isaiah 11:1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.           

Psalm 8
1O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Mark 10:13-16
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
             This is one of those passages that you’ve heard a million times if you grew up in the church. But even though it’s familiar, I’m not sure we know what it means, and by that I mean I’m not sure I know what it means.
            The first part of the passage is pretty clear. Some of Jesus’ disciples thought children were not important enough to be taking up Jesus’ time. We know that Jesus was busy. Even when he wanted to spend time alone with the disciples, crowds of people kept finding them. Wherever Jesus and his disciples went, there were people crying out to be healed or trying to argue with Jesus about God’s calling. He was important and he clearly didn’t have time for all the people who wanted him.
I’m sure the disciples felt that pressure often enough, maybe mixed with some jealously that they never got their teacher to themselves. When parents start bringing their kids to Jesus just to be blessed, the disciples seemed to think this was the last straw. They thought they were doing the right thing and taking Jesus’ time seriously by sending the parents away, but Jesus got angry with the disciples instead of the parents.
So the obvious take away point from this story is that Jesus thinks kids are pretty important. Even in the rush of everything he had to teach, even when his path towards Jerusalem and the cross was starting to become clear, even when his closest friends didn’t get it, blessing children was worth taking time for.
That’s a point that’s both obvious and challenging. We know kids are important. We say and hear time and time again that children are our future. No one really argues with that statement, but it’s hard to figure out where it points us when it comes to immediate action. The second part of the passage, where Jesus says that only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child can enter it, is more confusing. I think it fits with Isaiah’s claim about the leadership of children, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
Isaiah paints a vision of God’s redemption of Israel and the world. In this new world peace and community replace violence and domination. The reason this passage is on our menu today as we celebrate a Sabbath dedicated to children is that there are two images of children in it. Both have something to teach us.
We’ll talk about the second image first: babies playing on top of poisonous snakes. I’m not a parent, but that doesn’t sound like a great idea to me. I’m sure our insurance company would have some questions if we decided to put snakes in the crib and toddler room. In God’s redeemed world, though, it works, because peace rules the world instead of greed. Asps and adders are as safe as teddy bears, and cows can play with wolves because in God’s peaceful kingdom we’ve given up our desire to kill and taken up the calling to love.
There are children in this image because kids are the most vulnerable members of our society. They stir up our protective instincts, so pictures of kids in danger upset us while pictures of kids at peace suggest that everything is all right. When the world is so safe that little kids can play next to poisonous snakes, every other danger must have been overcome too. Everything in this passage shows a world at peace with itself and its creator; kids playing next to serpents is the exclamation point. We want to protect our kids, so the perfect world is so safe there is nothing we need to protect them from.
Needless to say, that’s not the world we live in now. Our world includes so many dangers we can’t stop to name them all. We want to protect our kids, but the threats seem to come from every direction. When we think of all the dangers our kids need protection from we get wound up in a frenzy of anxiety, ready to do just about anything to keep our kids from harm. We’ll come back to this image of safety, danger and protection in a minute.

"Conquering weakness," 10.14.12

Isaiah 55:1-13
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Revelation 21:1-11
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he 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.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Revelation 22:1-5, 20-21
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever….

20The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 21The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

            Who can tell me about the picture on the cover of the bulletin? Great. Now what’s the smaller picture below it? Good guess. I’m not going to make you guess what the Space Shuttle Endeavor has to do with the Book of Revelation, though I’m sure that could be an interesting sermon all its own. My point is much simpler: it’s hard to understand a piece of a picture or story if we don’t know what the big picture looks like.

I think for many regular church members and even more people outside the church the Bible is an intimidating book. It’s intimidating because we feel like we should know it, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it. A big part of that feeling is that we don’t know the basic outline of the story; we don’t know the big picture so it’s hard to understand the individual pieces we read. This summer I’ve tried to address that feeling by leading us in a tour of the Bible. We started in June with the creation story and today we’re wrapping up this marathon sermon series with the end of Revelation, the last book of the Bible.

When we look at the Bible as a we notice a ton of variety: different subjects, different authors, different kinds of writing, different perspectives and different times. With all that diversity, the Bible is also one story, though there are detours and intermissions from time to time. The whole story of the Bible through all its diversity is about God’s relationship with people.

Your urban ministry fact of the day is that the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city. More important than that, many of the themes that began in Genesis find completion in Revelation. God created the heavens and the earth in Genesis and promises a new creation in Revelation. When Adam and Eve turn away from God by eating the forbidden fruit, God curses the ground so it will only produce crops with great effort. In Revelation’s new earth there is no longer any curse and trees of life grow spontaneously in the street.

When we look at the story from the end, which is the view John’s vision in Revelation gives us, we see that many of these themes have been echoed many times over in the Bible story. The pain and sorrow that came from that first sin, and from the human pride and lust for power so often on display throughout scripture, is healed in God’s new creation. We know from Genesis that God is the beginning of creation, the Alpha or first letter of the alphabet. We hear echoes of Genesis in John’s Gospel which starts with: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” Revelation tells us that God is also the end, the completion, the Omega, or last letter of the alphabet. There is nothing before God and there will be nothing after God. As Paul preaches in Acts: “In God we live and move and have our being.”

There are more echoes too, because this vision from John isn’t the first vision the Bible gives us of God’s healing for a troubled world. The passage Karen read us from Isaiah is a familiar vision, as are other prophetic visions from Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others. Though there have been moments of doubt, God showed the prophets all along that the story has a happy ending.

That was an important thing for John and the churches he served to know 1900 years ago. John had been exiled for his faith and many other Christians faced ridicule, isolation from relatives who didn’t understand their new religion and even persecution from religious and political leaders. It was important for them to hear that they weren’t crazy, that even though their everyday experience said the opposite, God was in control and would bring the story to a happy ending.

John’s Revelation is that God is still on the throne, that Jesus in his scandalous death on the cross is stronger than Rome or Satan or evil, that one day healing would overcome suffering and joy would put an end to pain. That was good news to John’s churches facing trouble and persecution. It’s good news for churches and Christians facing persecution today in Burma or parts of India and Afghanistan. It’s good news for girls struggling to get an education in Pakistan or longing to escape sexual exploitation in Philadelphia. It’s good news for kids trapped in poverty and violence here in Rochester and Christians cut off from their family lands in Palestine. It’s good news for the church of every age longing for an end to evil systems that keep some in power while others starve and suffer. It’s good news for a church around the world longing for peace, praying for God’s new heaven and new earth, for the holy city coming down from heaven.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Faith and politics: voting God's values," 10.28.12

Matthew 25:31-45
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Romans 13:1-10
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.

7Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

             I’m doing something a bit dangerous, this next couple of weeks. I’m preaching about faith and politics. Last night with a group of people I mentioned that was the sermon topic for the morning and you’d have thought I threw a grenade. Everyone had something to say; some were excited, others worried, surprised or even angry that I would do such a thing. Don’t worry: I’m not going to tell you who I think you should vote for. This is not going to be a partisan sermon, or a rant, or a scolding. It doesn’t matter to me who you vote for, but it does matter to me that you vote, and that you take your faith with you into the voting booth.

My job as a Christian is to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ. When I say Jesus is Lord, what I mean is that I want to obey him in my life. That’s supposed to mean my whole life. Of course, saying it and living it are not exactly the same. I’m human, so I am not perfect. But I hope each day to bring my actions closer to my intentions by spending time in prayer, reading the Bible and practicing my faith consciously. Each day I should get better at seeking and following Christ’s direction in everything I do.

In the same way, my goal as a pastor is to help you grow in your discipleship and to help Laurelton get better at nurturing people for their spiritual growth. I want us to get better at living our faith together. I want this community to reflect Christ’s love more clearly each day in how we treat each other and how we treat our neighbors. I want us to get better at following God in everything we do, which includes thinking about our faith as we decide how to vote.

Politics is how a community lives together and governs itself. Elections are part of that, but so is how we spend our money and time, how we interact with our neighbors, how we raise our children,. Right now when we think about politics, we think especially about the community we call the United States of America, and the upcoming elections for President and many other offices. But ultimately, politics is less about who wins this election and more about what kind of country we want to live in, what kind of country we want to build together.

Next week we’re going to focus on loving each other when we disagree. This week we’ll focus on what our faith tells us about life’s priorities and the role of government.

Let’s start with priorities of life and faith. I chose this passage from Matthew because it gets at the core of what our faith is about. Jesus tells his listeners what will happen at the end of time when he comes in glory to rule and judge the nations. We’ve read this together recently, so I’m not going to pick it apart in detail. The point is: when Jesus judges us the question that will matter isn’t how often we went to church, how much we pledge, whether we taught Sunday school or smoked cigarettes, or read the Bible. Instead, the question Jesus will ask is how we treated the hungry, the naked, the sick, the lonely and those in prison. The question that Jesus thinks is most important is how we treat those people who are easiest to ignore. Jesus calls them, “the least of these who are members of my family.”

Neither of our presidential candidates talks much about “the least of these.” Neither one talks about the people on the margins of society, even though most of us realize that we could be right there with a few unlucky breaks. We know that if we lose our job at same time we have a major medical problem, we will be headed for financial catastrophe very quickly. That’s not the priority of our political parties. People living in poverty don’t contribute much money to political campaigns and they are not as likely to vote as people with higher income.

Both of our presidential candidates, in fact all of our candidates, talk a lot about the middle class, but not much about the poor. Jesus talked about the poor a lot, and never mentioned the middle class. Don’t get me wrong; supporting the middle class is important. A strong middle class has been one of the keys to the stability of US society from the beginning of our nation. But as people who follow Jesus, caring about the poor is not optional; it is the thing Jesus tells us we will be judged on when the world ends.

"loving when we disagree," 11.4.12

Romans 14:1-13
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God. 13Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.

1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:3-5, 9-11, 16-23
10Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth…. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.

11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 16Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

21So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

            The early church was an amazingly diverse community. In the months after Jesus’ death and resurrection the first few disciples became hundreds and then thousands by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even in the beginning, when everyone joining the community was Jewish, there was a wide mix of different cultures and languages. Soon the church was discussing whether there was a place for people to follow Jesus and the God of Israel without keeping the laws and traditions that shaped the Jewish community. When the first church council decided that the gospel of Jesus was for everyone, with or without Moses’ law, the church’s diversity became dizzying.

            This early church contained Jewish priests and tax collectors. It contained scribes who had copied and preserved Israel’s law and people who couldn’t read. It included a few government leaders, some financially comfortable people, who supported the church by providing space to meet, and many people who struggled each day to survive. The church contained teachers and scholars as well as servants and widows. It contained slaves and slave masters.

            With all that variety, it’s no surprise there were conflicts and differences within the church. Paul spent lots of time and lots of ink advising different communities on how to stay united in the face of serious differences within the church. Paul’s wisdom is helpful for us, especially this weekend, as we face differences and division in our community.

            In the early church there were a number of important leaders who traveled to teach about Jesus. It seems some people thought a lot about which leader they felt closest to and looked down on people who identified with a different leader. That still happens in the church now as we all have favorite speakers or writers or churches who guide us in our faith. Of course, it’s great to connect with teachers and learn from them, but it’s a problem if we judge other people because of what we’ve read or who we listen to.

            Paul puts it well: Jesus Christ is the foundation for every Christian. Paul and other leaders play a part in building up believers, so each believer is a bit different, but we all have the same foundation. The buildings might look different; each teacher emphasizes different things, but the core beliefs are the same. The point is Jesus, everything else is just details.

            This emphasis is especially important in an election week when it seems like the only thing that matters is red or blue, Romney or Obama. If you’re on facebook, you probably see both funny and mean posts exalting one candidate or political party and tearing down the other. Each candidate argues that if they are elected the US will be on the right path into the future while their opponent will lead us into disaster. Don’t get me wrong: this is an important election; there are big issues ahead of us as a country and it matters how you vote, but let’s slow down for a minute and breath.