Sunday, December 23, 2012

New Beginnings

New Beginnings
Isaiah 65:17-18
So much of the Bible is about new things.  Isaiah uses the word “new” frequently.  He talks about new moons, new songs, a new heaven and earth, new names.  Jeremiah promises a new covenant (31:31).  New is important.  While we respect and honor old traditions, it is easy to become so stuck in the past that we cannot move on to accept anything new. 
Many of us know people who can’t let go of the past, whether that past is good or bad.  Some are so enthralled with past events, past achievements, past glories that they spend their time and energy reminiscing.  Others suffered so much in the past from bad relationships, bad health, or bad choices that they work hard at maintaining that misery and spreading it like germs to everyone around them.
But that’s not what Isaiah wants us to hear.  Through him God said, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”  Don’t misunderstand.  This was not some kind of spiritual amnesia, where God’s people would forget their past.  What Isaiah was saying was that the new thing God was about to do would so eclipse what had gone before that people would willingly set the past aside for a far more glorious future.  God says through Isaiah, “But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create.”  Don’t bemoan the passing of the old.  Set it aside because what is coming is so much better.
In his last years, when my father was more than ready to give up the body which so sorely tried him, and move on to the new one he believed with all his heart was waiting for him, he would say, “Those who have already passed to their heavenly reward are up there saying, ‘Those fools down there!  Striving so hard to stay alive when what they have waiting up here is so much better!’ ”
Those of us who still enjoy good health, and feel we have a few years left to enjoy loved ones and loved experiences down here may not agree with him.  But we know that, as good as life is right now, God has something even better in store for us—maybe right around the corner; maybe with the turning of the year.  We don’t have to wait for heaven for God’s blessings.  We can enjoy God’s gifts here and now.
In a few days we will ring out the old year and ring in the new, just as we do every December 31/January 1.  It is appropriate that we should look back and see how far we’ve come.  But let us not fail to look forward, lest we miss the blessings that God has in store for us.  That is what January means.  The month is named for the Roman god Janus, who had two faces so he could look forward and backward—backward to remember past glories, trials, accomplishments and failures; forward with a sense of vision at the possibilities offered by the future.
As we prepare for our own January experience, remember the words of Brian Wren.
This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
Time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
For by the life and death of Jesus, God’s mighty Spirit, now as then,
Can make for us a world of difference, as faith and hope are born again.
Then let us with the Spirit’s daring, step from the past and leave behind
Our disappointment, guilt and grieving, seeking new paths and sure to find.
Christ is alive, and goes before us to show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new.
May you experience a happy and blessed New Year.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
John 1:1-5, 14
There was a cartoon in the paper recently.  A little girl is sitting on her father’s lap.  They are reading a book about the Christmas story.  She asks: “Did Santa Claus and Jesus go to school together?”
We chuckle at her na├»ve question—but don’t we all suffer from the same kind of confusion?  How can we help it when the two appear together so frequently in Christmas settings?  Santa’s sleigh is right next to the manger scene in gaudy lawn displays, in department stores, and in home decorations.  There’s even a picture (meant, I’m sure, to show the proper relationship between the two) of Santa kneeling at the manger.  But does this send the right message?  Like the little girl in the cartoon, won’t people confusingly connect the two?
The original Santa Claus—St. Nicholas—was a religious figure.  He was known for his generosity in providing gifts to those who needed food, clothing or other essentials.  He did his good works in the name of Jesus and out of his commitment to live his life for Christ.  Similarly, the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus” is about a ruler who cared so much for his subjects that, in the name of Jesus Christ, he put himself to some discomfort to provide food, drink and firewood for a poor peasant out struggling in the cold, deep snow of winter.
How we have corrupted these images!  We expect Santa Claus to bring not just the necessities of life to those who can’t afford them, but to meet our every wish and desire.  Remember the song, Santa Baby?  Is this what St. Nicholas intended us to become?
Don’t get me wrong!  I’m far from Scrooge.  There’s no “Bah! Humbug!” in my vocabulary.  At our house we watch every sentimental Christmas movie we can, and even shed tears during Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street.  I believe Santa Claus should be part of every child’s growing up.  The longer kids can retain their innocent belief in Santa the better.  Santa Claus provides us with one of the few positive role models whose image has not been tarnished.
What concerns me is confusing Santa with God.  When our prayers are indistinguishable from letters to Santa, when we expect God to provide us not with what we need but with what we think we want, when we confuse God’s blessings with Santa’s bag of goodies, we are in danger of settling for a lesser god, one we create in our image rather than the other way round.
Jesus told us that whatever we asked for in his name would be granted; but when we ask as if we’re taking a walk through F.A.O. Schwartz, we’ve misinterpreted Jesus’ words and trivialized the act of prayer.  When we ask for things and don’t get them perhaps we should take another look at our wish list to see if we’re asking for the wrong things.
First century Judah looked for a military messiah whose mission was to free her from the bondage of the Roman Empire.  God sent a Messiah to free the nation from the bondage of sin.  The religious leaders wanted a messiah who would reaffirm their version of the law.  God sent a Messiah who called them to return to the law’s core message:  love God, and demonstrate our love for God by the way we treat the rest of creation.
Let us remember that Jesus came as the Word made flesh to show us what God intended us to be.  The Son of God came not to be ministered to, but to minister; not to take, but to give.
As we prepare our homes for the celebration of Christmas, let us prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah who will not necessarily give us everything on our wish list, but who promises to teach  us how to live so that what he does gives will be sufficient. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

From Malachi to Matthew

From Malachi to Matthew
Malachi 3:1-4
Matthew 3:1-17
            The Bible leaves a huge gap between Malachi and Matthew.  What happened during these years?  We know that several empires conquered tiny Judah.  Israel had all but disappeared before the Babylonian captivity, but Judah remained. Much diminished in stature in the Middle East, Judah had the misfortune to lie at a crossroads.  Nations wishing to expand southward towards Egypt had to pass through—indeed, pass over—Judah, a task which wasn’t difficult. 
            Judah had periods of freedom.  The Maccabees led revolts against their overlords and threw off the yoke of bondage, but it was relatively short-lived.  As soon as one conqueror left, another moved in.  Judah knew very little peace in the almost 700 years between the prophecies of Malachi and the events of Matthew.
            The culmination of these events was Judah’s conquest by Rome, whose rule was particularly oppressive.  The Romans wanted those they had defeated to understand their place in the order of things—at the bottom.  Revolt was put down quickly and cruelly.  The empire intended that no one would ever forget who was in charge.  Their rule was absolute.
            Malachi said, “Behold I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me.  And the Lord whom ye seek will suddenly come to his temple.”  So Judah hoped and waited all those years.  Who would this messenger be?  Was it one of the Maccabees?  No, for they had their day on  stage and were gone.  Was it the Messiah, whom Isaiah had promised?  What would he be like?  Would he come at the head of an army of angels?  Micah had said the Lord would suddenly come to his temple.  Would he arrive on a cloud?  In an instant?
            Micah had been short on these details, but he did promise retribution.  The messenger would be a refiner’s fire and a cleansing agent.  He would change the priesthood, making it as pure as fine gold or silver.  Many would not be able to stand in his presence, or endure his judgments.  But when—when would he come?
            Surely the messenger would come now.  How could things get any worse?  Could any captors be more hateful and hated than the Romans?  If ever a nation wanted a deliverer, it was Judah in the first century BCE.
            And the messenger came.  He was from the tribe of Levi, for his father Zechariah was a priest.  He preached repentance, and offered baptism for the remission of sins.  But what a creature he was!  Living in the wilderness, and dressing in weird clothing, eating a diet not fit for civilized people—this couldn’t possibly be the messenger Micah had promised!
            Yet people flocked to hear his preaching and be baptized by him in the muddy Jordan River.  Not much more than a creek, the river was not the place to take a cleansing bath.  And yet the people came to hear him and respond to his message.
            But what was he saying?  “I am not the one you’re looking for.  I’m only the messenger of the messenger.  There’s another one coming who is far greater than I.  If you think my message is difficult, wait till you hear his.”
Then Jesus stood among them.  The Lord had come—not to the  temple, but to his temple.  Jesus had come bringing a message of hope and of peace—not to conquer, to throw off the Roman yoke, but to end the oppression of sin, to exchange its yoke for his own.  Not to bring outward peace, but to bring the peace which dwells within those who commit to serving him. Micah’s prophecy had been fulfilled.  God’s messenger had come.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

God So Loved

God So Loved
John 3:14-17
            God loved the world.
            God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to be the world’s Savior.  When this world had become thoroughly broken through sin, and had reached the place where God said, “It’s time,” God sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world God had created out of love.
We have no conception of this kind of love.  Many New Testament authors attempt to give us some idea, but all fall short.  We understand human love.  We see it in action.  Men and women love their spouses, sometimes sacrificing their careers and independence to care for a partner.  Parents love their children, giving up what they’d like for themselves so their offspring can have what they need or want.  Sometimes love means standing by while one we care about learns the lesson that some paths lead to destruction.
            At times human love seems to transcend rationality.  Men and women consciously put themselves in harm’s way to defend the law or their country, or risk their lives in rescue operations.  News sources bring us, along with the latest criminal activity, infidelities and other bad news, the occasional human interest story to brighten our day and demonstrate that there is good in the world.  A policeman reaches into his pocket to buy boots and socks for a homeless person.  Youth and adults go on mission trips to bring medical help, needed construction assistance and the love of God to those in need.
            Human love enriches our lives, helps us see the good in people, and sets an example for us to follow.  But human love has its limits.  As sacrificial as human love can be, it is not boundless.  At some point, whether through exhausted resources or for some other reason, human love ends.  God’s love is boundless.  It never ends.
His love has no limits, his grace has no measure,
His power has no boundary known unto men;
For out of his infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
Annie Johnson Flint
            We read these words, sing them joyfully, but cannot comprehend the love that would redeem not just a few close acquaintances or fellow citizens, but sacrifice for all creation.  How God must have rejoiced on the seventh day, standing back and saying, “That’s good!”  What pleasure God must have taken to see all the beauties of nature, and humankind—the crown of creation—stretched out in a panorama.  How this same God must have grieved when those creatures, who had been made a little lower than angels, through their own willfulness desecrated that beautiful creation with the ugliness of sin.
            Like a potter at a wheel God could have destroyed this  creation and started over.  But God chose another way.  God chose to redeem creation through sacrificial love that surpasses anything we can fathom.
            This Christmas season, as we decorate our homes, buy presents for those we love, and prepare for holiday celebrations, let us remember the reason for the season—redemption.
            God loves the world.  God so loves the world that in the fullness of time God chose to redeem the world we ruined through selfishness and sin.  What wondrous, boundless love is this, that through God’s loving gift we can find salvation.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Simple Solutions

Simple Solutions
Isaiah 7:14
Isaiah 40:9-11
“For every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.” 
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), “the sage of Baltimore,” was an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and a scholar of American English.  With that resume it’s no wonder he scoffed at simple solutions to complex problems. 
Faced as we are with problems even more complex than those troubling his generation, we’re still tempted to opt for simple solutions.  Whether we approach those problems from the left, right, or center, we’re sure if our leaders would only…, everything would be fine.  It’s easy to forget that many of the situations troubling us were caused by adopting too-simple solutions—solutions that failed to take into account all the ramifications of applying a too-quick fix.
Lest we think the simple solution mentality is a modern failing, a look at Genesis should convince us the urge to oversimplify is as old as humanity.  Adam and Eve tried to achieve god status by eating forbidden fruit.  Cain figured if he got his brother Abel out of the way he’d gain God’s favor.  The people of Babel thought a tower would bring them into God’s presence.  In each case (and many others) people sought an easy solution.
This was the case in first century Judah.  Since Samuel, God’s people had tried to achieve the status of Important Player in the Middle East.  They thought a king would do it, and for a while it worked.  Under David and Solomon Israel became a mighty—if small—nation, exerting influence far out of proportion to its size.  Solomon thought he could do even better if he added the gods of his foreign wives to the mix.  His descendants moved even farther in this direction, resulting in defeat, captivity, and the almost complete destruction of the nation. 
Having discovered that kingship didn’t make them great, Israel tried another direction.  In Isaiah’s prophecies they saw the promise of a messiah, a leader sent from God.  This messiah would right all Israel’s wrongs, make her politically and militarily important, and bring her to the leadership position God’s people deserved.
And so they waited, and prayed, and hoped, longing for the day God would redeem them from insignificance.  But the promised leader didn’t come, and things got progressively worse, culminating in oppressive dominance by the conquering Romans and the puppet kingship of Herod —and still no messiah, no savior sent from heaven.
Is it any wonder they missed a baby born in a manger?  Is it any wonder they missed an iterant preacher whose followers were common folk?  Is it any wonder they missed a man executed by the Romans as a common criminal, dismissed by the religious leaders as a rabble rouser and trouble maker?  Yet this baby, this preacher, this thorn in the flesh of the religious and political elite was the Messiah for whom Israel had been praying all those years.  They wanted one who would conquer Israel’s enemies.  God sent One who would conquer death and sin.
Are we any less short-sighted today?  We say, “Christ is the answer” with all the glibness of first century Pharisees quoting the law.  Yes, Jesus is the solution for all the world’s problems, but that solution is not a simple one.  Applying Jesus’ message to the world’s problems is a complex task.  As Jesus called Israel to repentance, so he calls us to work for him wherever it leads.  When we commit ourselves to his service, it’s the beginning of a lifetime of discovering how difficult it is to follow him.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Language of Prayer

The Language of Prayer
Psalm 139
            What is the language of prayer?  Paul says we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26-28).  With our imperfect communication we do the best we can, but fall short of reaching God.  There is logic in this, since we know that even our highest and best thoughts of God are incomplete shadows of God’s reality.  Paul says that’s alright because the Spirit intercedes for us “with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  The Spirit translates our poor attempts into God-language.
            This is all well and good, but it still doesn’t address the question:  what is the language of prayer?  What is our language of prayer?  We cannot concern ourselves with God-language since we can’t speak it.  We can only stumble along in our language—but what is that language?
            What is our language of prayer?  I believe it’s the language of poetry.  Many of us have an innacurate concept of poetry.  We think of poetry as lines of text with an equal number of syllables, ending with words that rhyme—sort of Roses are Red language.  This is one kind of poetry, but not the only kind.  Poetry is much more varied than that, but at its root it is rhythmic language
The rhythm of poetry is not sing-song, but a flow.  One word leads to another, one line to another, until we are caught up in this flow of language.  When we reach the end, there is a feeling of completeness, but also a desire to know more, to experience more fully.  Good poetry tells us enough so we understand, but not so much that our understanding is complete.  Our imagination supplies the final details.  Poetry is understanding without overstatement.  Above all, poetry creates images.  Because the language of poetry is vivid, pictures form in our minds.  We see what the poet is trying to say.
            Read any of the great prayers of the Bible.  Moses praising God for bringing Israel through the Red Sea and destroying the Egyptian army (Exodus 15:1-19).  Hannah thanking God for the gift of a son—a son she will return to God (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  Solomon dedicating the temple as God’s dwelling place on earth (1 Kings 8:14-54). Mary’s prayer (the Magnificat) thanking God for his grace in choosing her to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55).  Either version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:1-4). 
            In each case the language is poetic, vivid.  The pictures are clear.  They engage our imagination.  We catch glimpses of God acting on behalf of God’s people.  We get a sense of God’s greatness, God’s power, God’s holiness, but we can also see God’s mercy, God’s lovingkindness, and God’s grace.  This is a God who cares about humanity, a God who chooses to be involved in our lives.
            The psalms are poems.  Many of them are also prayers.  For me, none is more beautiful than Psalm 139.  The psalmist says God knows him intimately.  He cannot escape God even if he wishes to.  God is so integral a part of his life that he cannot even have a thought that is unknown to God.  All this is said in far more beautiful language than I have used here, the language of vividness, the language of imagery—the language of poetry.
            But what about us?  Most of us are poor poets indeed.  We may be able to create simple rhymes, but to create images?  To express ourselves in language that soars, with the Spirit’s help to God’s throne?  How can we do this?
            We return to Paul.  Our prayer language is passionate.  It’s vivid.  It’s poetic.  It expresses our wants, our needs, our concerns—imperfectly, but clearly enough for the Spirit to understand.  Then the Spirit does the rest. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jesus is the Christ

Jesus is the Christ
Philippians 2:5-11
            “Jesus is the Christ!”
            To us this doesn’t sound like a controversial statement, but that’s because we’ve grown up with it.  It’s part of our vocabulary.  Often we combine the name and title and refer to God’s Son as “Jesus Christ,” as though it was a first and last name.  Our familiarity with the name of Jesus may cause us to miss the inflammatory nature of this statement in the first century world.
            “Jesus is Lord” was an early baptismal confession.  Affirming the lordship of Jesus made one eligible for baptism, but it also set the person apart from the rest of the world.  Claiming Jesus as Lord, as the Christ—the Messiah—separated one from both Jews and Gentiles.  When Jesus was affirmed as Lord, he was recognized as having three different roles.  Naming Jesus as the Christ meant accepting him as a prophet, a priest, and a king.
            Jesus the Prophet  Jesus stands in the long line of Jewish prophets.  We think of prophesying as telling the future—and there’s a sense in which this is correct, both for Jesus and for the prophets we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus foretold his own death and resurrection as well as the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.  We believe he gave us some idea of what the end times will be like, although he was short on details.  Revelation is much more thorough in that regard, yet even that book does not give us a complete picture.
            A prophet is a messenger, one who delivers a word from God.  That word might deal with the present, the future, or a combination of the two, but it always involves the message that God has for the world.  God sent Nathan with a message for David after his adultery with Bathsheba.  Elijah had a message for Ahab and Jezebel concerning their idolatry with Baal.  Isaiah, Jeremiah and others had a message from God for the nations of Israel and Judah concerning the sin of neglecting God.  God would first punish the people, then restore them to their inheritance.
            Jesus is God’s ultimate prophet—the Son sent to restore the vineyard to its Master.  Jesus had a word from God:  “Love God and love your neighbor.  That’s what God expects.”
            Jesus the Priest  A good place to see how Jesus fills the role of priest is chapters 3-10 of Hebrews.  The author says Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice for the whole world.  Where Levitical priests regularly offered animal sacrifices for their sins as well as those of the people, Jesus’ sacrifice assured forgiveness of sins once for all.  Now he intercedes for us in heaven, so that our salvation is not only assured but ongoing.  As we make our way through this sinful life, Jesus continues to represent us before God’s throne.  By accepting God’s grace offered through Jesus’ saving act we acknowledge Jesus as our high priest—our intercessor.
            Jesus the King  In the first century, claiming Jesus as Lord—as king—meant that no one else was king.  To the Jews this was heresy.  In pagan culture, where the Roman emperor was thought to be a god, this statement was not just heresy but treason.  If Jesus was  king, then—for the person making that claim—Caesar was dethroned.  No one can serve two masters—two kings.  When we make Jesus the Christ—the king of our lives—we dethrone every other person, thing, or idea.  If Jesus is king, there can be room for no other master.
            “Jesus is the Christ!”  Jesus is a prophet, God’s messenger to the world.  “Jesus is the Christ!”  Jesus is a priest, the One who intercedes for humanity.  “Jesus is the Christ!”  Jesus is a king—our king and the Lord of our lives.  Nothing and no one else can take his place.  Nothing and no one else can stand beside him.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Half of All My Goods

Half of All My Goods
Luke 19:1-10
We love the story of Zacchaeus.  It’s one of the great stories of salvation.  A man considered to be the worst of sinners by his fellow townspeople encounters Jesus and has a complete change of heart.  From despicable sinner he is transformed into a model of one who follows Christ.  The story ends with Jesus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Like many stories of Jesus this is about more than salvation.  If we write it off as merely that, we lose much of the rich meaning embedded in the text.  Understanding the background will help us see deeper into the story.
To grasp the significance of Zacchaeus we must understand the place tax collectors held in first century Judah.  Today, we don’t especially like those who collect our taxes, but few of us are nasty to them.  They are, in many cases, our neighbors.  We not only see them in their official capacity, but in the grocery store and gas station.  We are willing, although reluctant, to pay our taxes as long as we think they are assessed fairly.
Not so with Zacchaeus and that other well-known tax collector in the Bible, Matthew.  These men were hated as few people were.  First, although they were Jews, they were employed by the even more despised Romans.  They were agents of foreign conquerors who did everything they could to suppress and oppress the people they controlled.  The Romans wanted everyone to know who was in charge, and what would happen if someone forgot.
Unlike tax collectors today, Zacchaeus, Matthew and their fellows were not paid a salary.  They had a set amount they had to collect for Rome.  Whatever they could squeeze out of their fellow citizens above that amount they could keep—another reason they were hated. 
As you can imagine, that could amount to a hefty sum.  Tax collectors lived well.  They flaunted their wealth.  If they had no friends, that was the price they paid for the good life.  Money might not be able to buy happiness, but they were going to try to prove the saying was wrong.  This was Matthew’s life before Jesus called him, and Zacchaeus’ life the day Jesus passed through Jericho.
Why did Zacchaeus want so badly to see Jesus?  We might want to imagine it was because he knew his lifestyle was wrong, or because God directed him to that spot.  It’s just as likely that he was curious—curious and too short to see over the crowd.  As my father used to say, people took great pleasure in keeping him on the outside.  Imagine the sharp elbows he received, the kicks to the shins, the pushes and punches—all delivered anonymously, of course, since he was protected by the Romans.  So the vertically challenged but ingenious Zacchaeus took the only recourse open to him.  He escaped the angry crowd by climbing a tree. 
Did he think he would be able to observe Jesus without being seen in return?  If so, he was mistaken.  We know from our experience that when Jesus wants to find us, he does.
And so we have a healing, a changed heart, a contrite spirit.  Once Zacchaeus encountered Jesus he knew he had to change.  He had no choice.  “Half of all my goods,” he said, “I give to the poor.  And I’ll return everything I’ve taken falsely four times over.”
And so we applaud.  We also applaud Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and others who have pledged to give half of their fortunes away.  We look with awe on Andrew Carnegie who did the same, especially when we think of his gifts of libraries and concert halls.
But what about us?  Are we ready to give half of all we own?  A quarter?  An eighth?  Ten percent?

A Wasted Life

A Wasted Life
John 3:16-17
Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name,
Nobody came
Father Mckenzie, wiping his hands as he walked from the grave,
No one was saved.
            If you’re old enough to remember the 1960’s you may remember this song by the Beatles.  The refrain was, All the lonely people, where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, where do they all belong?  The theme is loneliness.  The song is about people whose lives seem to be wasted because they had no obvious value to anyone. 
            Did the song raise the level of consciousness about such people?  Did it contribute, even a little to the debate about providing for people who seem to have no one to love them, no one to mourn for them when they die?  Did the level of care at even one nursing home become less institutional and more loving because the Beatles wrote and performed Eleanor Rigby?  Perhaps, perhaps not—but the song remains:  the written and recorded effort of four young men to express the lonely lives of so many.
            We don’t think of Jesus as lonely.  He was always surrounded by people:  the chosen twelve; the many other disciples who, while not part of the inner circle still accompanied him throughout his ministry; the multitudes who followed from place to place or sprang up in the cities and towns he visited.  We know he sometimes sought solitude from the press of the crowds so he could be alone with his heavenly Father.  Did he ever feel loneliness because of his separation from God?  We know he prayed fervently on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Was this the only time he felt abandoned?
            Of course we cannot know the answer.  The gospels do not reveal much of Jesus’ inner life.  I doubt he ever confided even in those closest to him.  As Mary kept all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and pondered them in her heart, so Jesus seems to have kept his own counsel about his feelings.
            The Beatles tell us that both main characters in their song led lives of insignificance.  Eleanor Rigby was active in church, but that’s all we know about her.  We see her at church and at home—alone in both places.  We find her cleaning up the church after a wedding—not her own—but see no evidence of interaction with other people.  Father McKenzie writes sermons and darn socks—all without the benefit of human contact.
            Do we feel the same way about Jesus’ life?  Was it insignificant?  We seem to spend more time talking about his death than about his life.  Certainly his death—and resurrection—were significant.  The theologian Jurgen Moltmann and others believe this to be the most significant event in all of history.  But we can’t forget Jesus’ life.  His time on earth was not merely a preparation for his death but equally as significant, because his life shows us how we should live. 
            How are we to live?  We are to love God and demonstrate that love by loving all our neighbors—all creation. We are to give of ourselves to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the poor and downtrodden.  We are to live our lives in such a way that everyone we meet will see God reflected in us.
            If we live as Jesus lived, in service to others, our lives will not be wasted, and we will never be lonely.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tension and Resolution

Tension and Resolution
Matthew 16:26
            Early in their education, musicians are taught about tension and resolution.  Tension occurs when a chord is unstable—dissonant.  Resolution occurs when that tension—that dissonance is resolved.  The composer uses a consonant chord, everything comes together, and all ends happily.
            This is also the essence of good storytelling.  “Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy finds girl again—and they live happily ever after” (in some form these are usually the last words of the story).  Tension is created, consonance occurs, tension is resolved.  The story ends.
            Christianity is full of such tensions.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace, yet he comes to bring a sword—to divide families.  Jesus comes as the Messiah the Jews are expecting, but because he comes as a baby, born to poor parents, and not as a conquering king riding on the clouds, he is rejected by many.  Paul says, “The preaching of the cross is foolishness, confounding the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)  The word “paradox” seems to have been created just to describe Christianity.
            Matthew tells us that Jesus said gaining the world but losing our soul is disaster.  The world tells us that nothing matters but the world’s standards.  We are caught in the middle.  We have to live in the world.  We have to earn a living.  We have to coexist with our neighbors, our friends, our families.  Yet we know that Jesus calls us to a higher standard.  We have no choice but to live in this world, but we are told not to be of this world.  How can we reconcile these two extremes?   How can we live in the world but reject the world?
            Paradox.  Tension.  Where’s the resolution?
            In at least one sense we can’t.  There are tensions in Christianity that seemingly can’t be resolved.  There are well-meaning liberals and well-meaning conservatives who are committed to following Jesus Christ.  Can they both be right?  Does one side have to be wrong?  Where’s the middle ground between these two extremes?  Do we have to find a resolution?
            I think not.  I believe we are all created in God’s image.  I also believe that no one side, no one viewpoint possesses the whole truth.  Each of us takes God’s word and applies it to our own lives in the way we feel led to do.  Each of us hears God’s voice differently, calling us to different ways of looking at the world and its problems. 
            If we say, “This version of Christianity is right, so all others must be wrong,” we’re denying God’s sovereignty of judgment.  We’re placing ourselves in God’s chair and trying to make decisions for God.  Yes, I know we read the Bible, think we understand what we see there, and, because we need to be really sure, really right, really positive we understand God, we reject all other interpretations.  If I’m right, then you must be wrong.  We think there can be no other correct way but ours.
            Tension. Paradox.  Must there be a resolution?
            Yes, there must—but it won’t happen here.  There is a resolution, but it may not occur during our lifetime—or our children’s lifetime, or their children’s lifetime.  The resolution will occur in God’s time.  We are called to live our lives in this tension because we live in the in-between time.  Christ has come.  Christ will come again.  Until that happens, we will each interpret the Christian gospel the way we understand it, and live in faith, hope and love.
            Tension?  Paradox?  The way we live now.  Resolution?  That’s what heaven’s for.


Psalm 8
Job 38-41
“Balance,” he said.  “You’ve got to have balance.” 
Most of us have heard these words at some time or other, and we’ve heard them in a wide variety of settings. 
            We’ve got to have balance between our work lives and our social lives.
            We’ve got to have balance between studying and partying.
            We’ve got to have balance between obeying the rules and being creative.
            We’ve got to have balance between our birth families and our marriage families.
            We’ve got to have balance between opposing sides of an issue.
You’re probably thinking of many “balance” statements you’ve heard. 
We understand the need for balance.  If we skew too far to one side or the other we can stumble and fall.  I experience this when I walk on our treadmill.  If I get going fast (for me, that is), and pay too much attention to what I’m watching on TV, I shift my weight too far to one side and have to use the machine’s arms to help me regain my equilibrium.  I’ve got to pay attention to keep my balance.
Balance is important in our spiritual lives.  It is so easy to lose our balance, especially when we read what seem to be contradictory passages in the Bible.  As we read Scripture we become aware of conflicting statements.  How to resolve these conflicts is, I believe, what faith is all about.  We have faith that the Bible is the record of God’s interaction with creation, especially with humankind, and that God has given us this record to aid in our salvation.  We have faith that God will reveal enough truth to help us understand more completely.
One such apparent conflict appears in the contrast between the story of Job and Psalm 8.  Job and his three friends spend the better part of the book arguing theology.  Theologians can be like philosophers, finding fault with each other in order to enhance the truth of their own statements.  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar give their theological opinions about the cause of Job’s affliction.  Job answers them with theology of his own.  They never reach consensus.  Job’s wife even makes her own theological statement:  “Curse God and die!”
God answers with a scathing criticism of all their theology.  “Who do you think you are?” God thunders.  “How can you possibly understand the way I do things?  Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?  You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
Contrast these chapters with Psalm 8.  The psalmist says, “You have made humankind a little lower than the angels.  You have crowned us with glory and honor.  You have put all things under our dominion.”
A silly bunch of know-nothings or the crown of all creation:  which are we?  The answer, of course is—both.  We are indeed the highest form of creation—at least so far (care to debate evolution anyone?).  God told Adam and Eve at the beginning that they would have dominion over all creation.  (We’ll save criticism of the way we’ve handled that responsibility for another time).  We’re also so far below God that we cannot understand even the smallest part of God’s ways.  Yes, our knowledge is expanding exponentially, but only as God allows it—only as God reveals to us more and more how God is working in creation.
Balance.  We’ve got to have balance.  We’ve got to know where we fit in God’s order.  As a Serbian proverb says, “Be humble for you are made of Earth.  Be noble, for you are made of stars.”  We find our balance in the middle.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Our Father's World

Our Father’s World
Genesis 1
            “Worldly-mindedness, infidelity, and dissipation threatened to deluge the land, and sweep away all vestiges of piety and morality.”
            Sound familiar?  This is the way many of us see the world today.  Things are so bad that they cannot get worse.  Our country—in fact the whole world—is going downhill so rapidly it’s like a runaway freight train.  Oh, if we could only go back to the “good old days,” of _____(fill in the blank), when people were_____(fill in the blank), we would be so much better off.  Maybe God should just send another flood (or some other means of destruction), wipe out all the immorality, infidelity, impiety and worldly-mindedness and just start over—leaving us, of course, and all people who think and believe like us.
            Actually, the quote comes from Robert Davidson, a nineteenth-century historian writing about the State of Kentucky in 1800.  Not more than four or five percent of the state’s population claimed to be members of any church, say Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker in their book Journey in Faith.  Davidson also said, “The population of the State advanced with incredible rapidity, and soon outstripped the means of grace.”  Does that sound familiar?
            That’s a scathing criticism, but it’s something we need to be reminded of.  The world has always had problems.  Yes, it was created perfect by God.  We only have to read the first chapter of Genesis to know that.  God created the world good—God said so!  After each act of creation was completed, “God saw that it was good.”  Our ancestors were handed a perfect world. 
            What happened?
            We know the answer.  Sin entered the world and caused the brokenness we see all around us.  We’re all imperfect.  As a result, all our institutions are imperfect (yes, even the church!).  But if we want to return to some more perfect past, we have to go all the way back to the beginning.  On the whole, we’ve never been better or worse off than we are today.
            There have always been people who have felt the world pressing in upon them and who seek to escape.  In the early days of the church there were the desert fathers (and mothers) who opted out of society in order to experience God more fully.  Today there are still men and women who seek release from the world in monastic enclaves.  We should be grateful to these people, because they have given us some of the world’s greatest thoughts on God’s relationship to humankind.  Most of us are not called to that life.  We are called instead to live in this imperfect world and to strive to make it better.
            Above all, we must remember that, while the battle seems to be against us, it is far from over.  While things have always been bad, and Christians have always been in the minority, we know the outcome.  We know, even if we cannot prove it day by day, that this is still God’s world, and God will not let it destroy itself.  As Maltbie D. Babcock said so well:
This is my Father’s world: 
Oh let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world
The battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and heaven be one.