This year has been an interesting and unconventional ride for all of us who are tuned into politics. I think one of the big questions Americans have begun to ask is which party, if any, really represents their values, agendas, and dreams. This question was seized by Donald Trump, and he won the presidential nomination as an outsider who yesterday stood in front of the gathered crowd and proclaimed the government inept and out of touch. And yet, today there is another group of people gathering because they believe that both President Trump and the Congressional powers do not hold the best interests of some Americans as a top priority. So, I watch the pageantry of the peaceful transfer of power. I view with respect the outgoing president and thank the Obamas for their service. I respect the Trump family, but have to candidly say that Trump’s own words and thoughts have opened the door to critique, push back, and protest. So, what do we do when we think that we don’t have a voice among those in power? What action is taken when we want to be heard? We create a movement…which leads me not to a discussion of politics, but one of religious movement.
I find it odd that many of the same people who claim that there needs to be more parties involved in electing a president are the same people who sometimes condemn Christianity for having so many different denominations (that is parties). Imagine that there were only two different parties in the Christian faith and one was highly authoritarian and the other was a direct reaction to it. Over the years, groups of Christians decided to break away from the religious power structures because they thought that these established groups had moved away from the heart of Jesus’ message. So each denomination started as a movement to draw the heart of Christian groups back to the essence of Jesus.
You might recall that the Democrats and Republicans were not always the parties in control, and didn’t always think the same way they do today. American parties have included the Whigs, Federalists, and later the Libertarians, Green, and Tea Parties. Some parties are seen as subsets of larger parties, for example most Americans would see the Tea Party as a part of the larger Republican Party. And we have the same thing in religious movements as well, and we also have the incorporation of different ideas into the larger parties through the voice of smaller “protest groups.” This would be what is currently happening to the larger Episcopal Church with the smaller group of American Anglican Churches who want to support same sex inclusion. The larger fellowship is not in line with the smaller “protest group” and they are working it out. I bring this up because it is a contemporary news headline and there are so many other discussions like this happening all across religious denominations.
So, I ask you to think about the idea of religious freedom today and compare it to your own ideas of freedoms of speech and assembly. You see, America gives us the freedom to disagree and when we do so, to act upon it and to create an environment of inclusion from those who have been excluded. If I were to go to a Catholic church this Sunday I would not be permitted to take the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, yet I am part of a church family that proclaims Jesus’ sacrifice is for everyone and all are welcomed to the table of Christ. It is a major difference, one that is still being discussed and debated. However, as we open up the Lord’s Supper to all those for whom Jesus died, we believe it is a correction that legitimizes the existence of a different party…notice I did not say the superior one or the only one, but a choice. And in the end the idea of freedom finds its practical application in choice.
I am finding myself trying to be an American and defining that not through what the parties tell me, but listening to the voice of our highest ideas and values, and listening to the dissenting voices. And likewise, I find myself trying to be a Christian by not attending to my tradition and patterns, but by going back to the essence of the Bible and the teaching of Jesus and listening to the dissenting voices. I know that some voices are extreme and harsh, but there are biblical directions about discerning. In the end, freedom that is expressed in choice must be rooted in wisdom, and so we ask for the wisdom from above so that we can properly engage the multiple avenues to fill our minds with wisdom from below. So, the next time you ask why there are so many churches, ask yourself if you are completely heard by the two party system? In the end, the government is still trying to “get it right” and the government is so much younger than the church, who by the way, is still trying to “get it right” ourselves. Of course, that concept should lead us to the one who ultimately got it right, and provided us with the opportunity to be the righteousness of God in the midst of our search.
After about a week of dreary days and rain, we received about an inch of snow. My kids went out to play in it before school started that morning, and I sat, sipping coffee, with the blinds open to the back yard—enjoying the scene. There is something about the covering of snow that is just beautiful. I’m not saying that it can’t be chaotic, cancel school, and make life a mess. I remember our 30 inch storm last year. But, in my mind and heart, a fresh snowfall is a renewing sight, especially after rain and cloud cover. Snow lightens up the winter, it cleanses the ground because it looks clean and new.
A contrast is made in the Bible between light and dark. Whether it is the creator God at the very beginning separating light from darkness and calling the light “good,” or John’s depiction of Jesus as the light of the world that darkness cannot overcome. There are also images of washing that talk about someone being made clean and pure, the Bible will refer to that as being made “white as snow.” You see, sin makes things darker and God makes things lighter. It was God that hung the sun in the sky and it is God who controls the “gates” of heaven where the rain, snow, and other weather pours forth in the Old Testament. Since we just focused on the Christmas story, think about the image of a star that shines forth in the darkness in which Wise Men can follow from afar and gather around Jesus. This contrast permeates the biblical text.
Another way this appears is in passages like Ephesians 3 in which Paul says that his task in ministry is to bring to “light” the mystery of God that has been hidden. We also see this in the Gospel of John when Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night, or in the darkness. John uses this image to both tell us what time of day he came, but also to indicate the relationship he has with Jesus…Nicodemus is in the dark and he needs to be “enlightened” with the truth of God’s work through Jesus.
Ultimately we come to this; in the Bible, heaven is a place of perpetual light and at the center of this image is the very presence of God, and earth threatens to spiral into a dark and chaotic place and is an image of humanity’s choice to live in their own ways and fulfill their own wills. The narrative unfolds, and we who are enlightened by the Gospel know that God is in the process of setting up outposts of heaven on earth, dispelling darkness and chaos, and being a place of light. As imperfect as these outposts are, they are mostly referred to today as churches. Churches are these spaces in which the darkness of sin can be redeemed and dispelled, its power defeated, and light can reign bringing the presence of God to us. Remember, darkness has no fellowship with light…when we bring our sin into the light then God forgives us and the sin has no power over us (1 John 1).
So what is the point of this rambling? Sometimes I need the snow in the middle of winter to clean up the ugliness of a barren and stripped natural world, I need to be reminded of my God’s beauty and know that even in the darkest days something wonderful can happen that changes my whole outlook. That is the same reason I need the church, because I need to be in contact with the heavenly world that breaks the ugliness of a barren and stripped spiritual world. I need to be reminded of God’s presence and know that even in the midst of sin, something wonderful can happen that changes humanity’s outlook. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
The other night I attended my daughters holiday music concert. She sang in the second grade chorus, but there were other groups including strings, band, and fifth grade chorus and choir. You know, if I’m candid with you I have to say that I have attended better concerts. Some of the performance was lackluster; notes were missed, entrances were shaky, and then there were young musicians playing stringed instruments…need I say more.
Yet, it is hard to compare unequal things even though we do it often. These kids were prepared to give it their best. They practiced and took instruments home. They learn hand motions and sign language to go along with their songs. And they were so joyful and proud of their efforts. What I liked was at the end of the concert, everyone stood up and gave the children a standing ovation. I joined in that, proud of my daughter and the kids who had put in the time and effort to do their best.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes we think we are being applauded for our performance when we are actually being applauded for our effort. I realize that if I live for the applause of God, I am sure not hoping he compares me to others that are better than I am. If I could supply him with a list of persons who I think might make good comparisons, then we could perhaps go down this path. (Like trying to establish the price of the house you’re buying by looking at the worst prices in the neighborhood!)
God, please don’t compare to Jesus, or the martyrs, or some of the saints who have sacrificed so much to follow you! But what I want to assert is that God’s applause isn’t beckoned by perfection of performance, if that was the case then he would not recognize our achievements at all. You see, even the greatest achievements of the church and God’s people are still imperfect outcomes done by an imperfect people. I do believe God recognizes effort, however, and that is why God is so pleased and happy with us. When we give God “with all of our,” then he is proud of us. The Bible says to Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We need to practice and take the performance of this verse seriously, because Jesus prioritized it as the number one command. But even when our performance is dissonant and the wrong notes are played, it is the effort that God sees and it is the effort that God applauds.
There are many times I wonder why it is that study of the Bible has been a part of the life of faith, encouraged since the time I was young. You see, there was a time in our world in which many people attended the worship service came to hear the word of God read to them, to hear it explained, and then spent very little time reading on their own. It wasn’t because they were unfaithful, it was because they were illiterate. So, there was a dependence upon the church to tell the larger story of God—through the Bible—so that the people would know what to look for and do in their lives.
This is not my experience, in fact, as a young man I thought that reading the Bible was a chore. Maybe you have a hard time getting into the word of God, but I want to suggest that we are living in a shifting time for the church, because for the past 50 years or so many evangelical churches assume that their people are reading and studying on their own. This is one of the biggest difference between some of the earlier, more liturgical churches and many of the more recent, populous movements of the 18th and 19th century. The newer church groups, like the one I’m a part of, are beginning to realize that people are not choosing to read their Bibles. The scholars call it a post-literate world in which we can read, but choose to explore other forms—for us those forms are multi-media and digital.
So, there is a shift back to wanting more scripture presented in the worship service, reminding us of the story of God that we rarely engage in Monday-Friday. And while we can argue what people OUGHT to do, there is a difference in all of our lives between what ought to happen and what seems to really happen! (Am I right?!?!?)
However we engage, we need to focus on the larger story of God because it is God’s historical faithfulness that helps us in times of trouble, both individually and collectively as a church. Listen to the words of the psalmist Asaph:
1 Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
display your radiant glory
2 to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
Come to rescue us!
3 Turn us again to yourself, O God.
Make your face shine down upon us.
Only then will we be saved.
4 O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
how long will you be angry with our prayers?
5 You have fed us with sorrow
and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
6 You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
Our enemies treat us as a joke.
7 Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
Make your face shine down upon us.
The Psalm points us to a refrain, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make Your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” This refrain speaks of the ever unfolding story of our God. “Turn us again to yourself” looks backwards at all the times God has abruptly stole our attentions away from other things. God interrupted our world and turned our heads around. God did it in Egypt, at the Sea Crossing, and by protecting his people over and over again. “Make you face shine down” focuses on the present situation in which the psalmist cries out for help. The Psalmist knows that he can ask God for help because God has acted before, but presently there is a need for confirmation of God’s presence. Then, there is a statement of faith in future deliverance…”only then will we be saved.”
For the church, of any generation, this message is one centered on Christ. Through this Christmas season we teach and focus upon the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. We ask to know the Lord’s presence in the midst of our congregations and on a daily basis in our lives. We long for the second coming, the time of redemption and full salvation from this world. It is these verses below that Asaph wrote so many years ago to provide new meaning in our hearts today, he wrote this to God:
17 Strengthen the man you love,
the son of your choice.
18 Then we will never abandon you again.
Revive us so we can call on your name once more.
19 Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
Make your face shine down upon us.
Only then will we be saved.
God, tell us your story from Alpha to Omega, beginning to the end, so we can see your power, know your faithfulness, and stand in awe of your love. For today, we ask to feel your presence and know your Son Jesus because we want to be saved, we want to be his people on the day of his return. God, make us your people because we don't deserve it but your grace and mercy provides a relationship between us. Amen.
I’m not sure if you believe in omens or signs, but you will at least get a laugh out of this one. Yesterday morning I woke up and I have been having some stiffness in my right ankle. As a result, I tend to grab both handrails and gently lower myself down the stairs each morning to make coffee and try to wake up. I managed about five steps before my left foot slipped off and I found myself laying at the bottom of our staircase with a sore little toe on my left foot.
There I was, on the floor, and all I could do is laugh at myself, get up, and wonder what in the world would happen during this week…because when you fall down the stairs on Monday morning, it can’t be a good sign! (about a half hour later I hear the thud, thud, thud, sound again and my daughter yells, “I’m OK.” on Monday, my family had a 50% chance of falling down the steps…we were 2 for 4 that morning—Not Good!
Now, that was a funny story, but the Advent reading from Isaiah 7:10-16 is in the middle of a very serious political landscape. I will not take the time to go into detail here, because if you can navigate to this page on a computer then I am sure you can look up the background of this text explained by far smarter persons than yours truly. However, one point is necessary here. Ahaz, the King of Judah (the southern portion of a divided Kingdom), has trusted other kings and given his allegiance to the Assyrian king meaning that Ahaz has not trusted God or sought God’s guidance as Judah was being threatened by Israel (the northern portion of a divided Kingdom) and Aram. Yet, God offers Ahaz a sign to help him in his distress, and well…here’s the way Isaiah tells the story…
10 Later, the LORD sent this message to King Ahaz: 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.” 12 But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? 14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). 15 By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt (more like curds or butter) and honey. 16 For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
For Ahaz, this is a bittersweet sign from God. We connect to the first part in that the birth of Immanuel means that God will continue to be with the people and God has not forsaken them even in the midst of Ahaz poor decisions. This child is the hope of the future of the Kingdom (Judah) for sure. However, Isaiah also indicates here and later in chapter 8:1-4 that Assyria will be violent with Ahaz and Judah, and this happening is God’s judgment against them.
Immanuel, God with us, such a reassuring image in that the virgin will conceive and bear a son who bears that name. This passage is a Messianic prophecy, that is it points us toward Jesus and is picked up in Mathew 1:22-23 because there is a connection between this image and the image of Mary as virgin conceiving and bearing Immanuel. It is a beautiful image, but we must not forget the continuing image of Messiah through the book of Revelation in which Jesus is portrayed as the king whose return we long for, coming in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation—but also to evaluate our faithfulness and allegiances and make sure that we are ready for such an event.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.