Saturday, December 28, 2013

A New Years Resolution

A New Year’s Resolution
Psalm 51
            Between now and January 1 many of us will be making resolutions—resolutions we have every intention of keeping, even against the odds that say we won’t.  We know from past experience, and all we read and all we hear, that our chances of keeping any of those resolutions for even a month are slim.  Yet, hope springs eternal, and we start the New Year fresh, with great intentions for changing old habits.
·         We’ll be more careful about what we eat, trying for a more balanced diet, including more fruits and vegetables and less fried foods and sweets.
·         We’ll start—and continue—that exercise program we need to stay healthy and make sure the weight comes off—and stays off.
·         We’ll give up smoking, or cut down on our drinking, or get more sleep, or…
What we wouldn’t give for more will power—or, as someone who really understands the human condition once said, more won’t power.
            David wasn’t making a New Year’s resolution when he wrote Psalm 51, but he knew he needed to change.  He was responding to the words of the prophet Nathan, who had let him know that God condemned his behavior. 
David’s sin began not with his sexual liaison with Bathsheba, but when he failed to fulfill his duty as king.  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel….But David remained in Jerusalem”  (2 Samuel, 11:1).  Davis’s sin began as so many of ours do, not with commission, but with omission.  The king belonged at the head of his troops—but David stayed home. 
In the same way, many of our resolutions go by the boards not because of something we do, but because of something we fail to do.  We know we should rid the house of unhealthy snacks, but we keep them around, making the “just one cookie” a possibility.  We know we should get up earlier and exercise before we get too busy with the day, but we stay in bed that extra half hour.  Sins of omission are just as dangerous as sins of commission—perhaps more so.
So David finds himself alone with God and with the full horror of his sin.  He has failed to be the leader his people needed and expected him to be.  He has seduced another man’s wife and impregnated her.  He has arranged for that man to die in battle—murder just as surely as if he had wielded the sword himself.
After confessing his sins to God in some of the bitterest words in Scripture, David begins his resolution.  “Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit” he prays.  “Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me.  Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a vigorous spirit sustain me” (Jewish Study Bible).
David realizes that the changes he needs to make cannot be achieved in his own strength.  He needs God’s help to turn himself around and again become God’s faithful servant.  Admitting his helplessness, he asks God to change him.  Only then can he say, “I will teach transgressors your ways, that sinners may return to you….O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare your praise.”

As we contemplate the changes we wish to make in ourselves and our habits for the coming year, let us look first to those things God is pointing out to us.  What changes do we need to make to become more completely the people God wants us to be?  How can we achieve a pure heart and a steadfast spirit, and be more faithful to God?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

God in Human Form

God in Human Form
Philippians 2:5-11
            Have you ever received one of those Christmas cards that talks as much about the cross as it does about Christ’s birth?  I understand the reason for those cards.  We must never forget that the ultimate purpose for Christ’s life on earth was to die on the cross.  Jesus’ death and resurrection was what God intended to accomplish.  Still, combining Christmas and Easter does seem to be rushing things a bit, don’t you think? 
            My wife has a difficult time with those cards.  “Why can’t we focus on Christmas for a while,” she’ll say when we open one.  And she has a point.  We have a season of the Christian year when we prepare for Easter; it’s called Lent.  I know—we don’t send Easter cards nearly as often as we send Christmas cards, so Christmas is a good time to remember both events; but shouldn’t we spend at least some time focusing on the beginning of Christ’s life? 
            My answer is a resounding “Yes!”  As I have said before in this space, there was more to Jesus’ life than his death and resurrection—as important as they are.  His life is important too, because it is through Jesus’ life that we learn how to live.  It is through his time on earth that we discover what it means to be human—human in the most perfect way we can be human; the way Jesus Christ was human.
            All this is relevant to our Scripture passage for today, which is usually associated with Easter, especially verses 9-11:  “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him a name above all other names…”—and we should celebrate these words.  God raised Jesus to everlasting glory.  Because Jesus lives we too shall live.  Yes, Jesus is Lord of all creation, but his human life began in a stable in a small Judean town.
            God is a God of paradox, and we can see it in the beginning verses of this passage.  Jesus Christ, although being in the form of God, made himself nothing, a nobody—a baby born to a peasant couple of no importance outside their little community.  Once born, he humbled himself by becoming a servant.  He showed his disciples how to be a leader.  “You want to be important in God’s order of things?  Become everybody’s servant—not just the servant of a few people, or the very rich, or those you love.  Learn to serve everyone.”  The one whom God exalts is the one who learns the humility of servanthood.
            Emmanuel, God with us in human form, began his time on earth as a helpless infant, not able to walk, not able to feed himself, not able to do one thing to affect the world around him.  He grew as any human child grows, through infancy, through childhood, through his teen years, to adulthood.  Once again, as God had done many times before, God turned weakness into strength.  God’s power was proved through Jesus. 
Therefore, we have no excuse.  No excuse about being too weak and powerless to accomplish anything for God.  No excuse about being too good to do servant work for God.  No excuse about not having time to do God’s work, or not being rich enough, or not having enough status.  Jesus Christ, the baby in the manger, takes away all our excuses and shows them for what they really are—insufficient reasons given by those who will do anything to avoid the work God calls us to do.

True, we must never lose sight of Jesus Christ, God on the cross, come to reconcile us to God.  But we must also never lose sight of Jesus Christ, God in a manger—incarnate in the helplessness of a baby, come to show us how to live, and how to serve.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Image of God

The Image of God
Colossians 1:13-23
            One of my seminary professors said that if the only task Jesus had to perform was to die for our sins, God could have dropped him from heaven onto the cross.  Jesus didn’t have to live thirty-some years on earth just to die.  There must have been a reason for him to have been born as a baby, live his life on earth, and go through the torture of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  There must have been some other work that Jesus had to accomplish in addition to his death and resurrection.
            Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Colossians that redemption and reconciliation were necessary.  Not just our individual sin, but the corporate sin of the world had separated us from God.  However we look at Christ’s death, whether as sacrifice, or substitution, or whatever other theology of the cross we espouse, Jesus Christ was sent to redeem us and reconcile us to God.  But, as my professor said, that didn’t take thirty-plus years.  Why did Jesus go through the complete human life cycle from birth to death?
            Paul gives us at least part of the answer in v. 15:  “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”  God is invisible to us.  No one has seen God at any time.  Probably that’s a good thing, since we know what happened to Moses, who came the closest of anyone to seeing God.  You may remember that when he came down from Mt. Sinai his face glowed.  This frightened the Israelites so much that he was forced to wear a veil.  That was the  only way they would come near him. 
I remember another of my instructors saying that visions were something else you didn’t want to have happen to you. She said visions were the only way God could get some people’s attention—including hers.  For her, at least, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.  Encountering God firsthand seems to be something we’d be better off avoiding.
            So God chose another solution.  God sent Jesus, the “firstborn of all creation.”  Jesus came so that we might see what redemption and reconciliation looked like.  He came so that we could see God—as much of God as we would be able to comprehend.  If God is love, then Jesus was God’s love in action—love in practical terms:  God’s love in a way we could understand.
            The problem is that we often don’t want to see God’s love in action.  When we look at the way Jesus lived we see the folly of our own lives.  We see how little we love, and how poor our service is.  We see how frequently we are preoccupied with our own salvation and how seldom we are concerned with sharing God’s love with those around us.  Remember, Jesus never talked to anyone about being saved; he talked to people about being salt, about being light, about being God’s love in the world.
            Jesus came to show us how to live.  His life was as much a sacrifice as his death.  We will probably not be called on to die for someone as Jesus did for all humankind; but we are called every day to live as Jesus lived—for all humankind. 

            Jesus was not only the firstborn of all creation (v. 15), but also the beginning of something new:  the firstborn from the dead.  In Jesus’ resurrection we have the hope of our own resurrection.  But first we have to learn to live as Jesus lived.  “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  If we say we belong to Jesus, and Jesus lives within us, we ought to live in the same self-sacrificing way Jesus lived.  Being redeemed by God through Jesus’ death on the cross means our lives are lived in the stability and steadfastness of active faith.  Being reconciled with God means we live our lives in love—as Jesus did.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Preparing for Guests

Preparing for Guests
Matthew 3:1-12
            The story of John the Baptist is often the Lectionary gospel reading for one of the first Sundays in Advent.  John is an important figure in the life of Christ.  He was Jesus’ cousin through the blood relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.  Luke records that part of the story at length, and I invite you to read it leisurely and thoroughly.  For now, we’ll concern ourselves with the shorter version as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
            John was an unusual character to say the least.  Today we might refer to him as a hippie or a bohemian—someone who turns his back on convention to “do his own thing.”  Of course, he didn’t do his own thing at all, but rather fulfilled the role God had given him. 
            John was Jesus’ “announcer”—sort of like Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson.  As McMahon set the stage for Carson, John the Baptist prepared Judea for Jesus.  Those of us who are old enough will remember McMahon’s famous introductory line: “Heeere’s Johnny!”
            I mean no disrespect when I compare John the Baptist to a TV announcer.  I only want to demonstrate his role (at least in part) in the story of Jesus’ ministry.  Of course, Jesus could have gotten along quite well without someone to introduce him, but John’s presence and ministry let Judea know things were about to change.  Someone important was about to take the stage.  This Someone would shake things up in ways that no one—perhaps not even John—could imagine.
            John’s message came from the prophet Isaiah.  Having been born into a priestly family, we can imagine that John knew Scripture (that is, the Hebrew Scriptures) well.  He would have been trained in both the law and the prophets, and known them well enough to quote them when they helped him present his message. 
Perhaps John chose the location of his ministry so that he could fulfill one of Isaiah’s prophecies:  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  John set up his revival far away from town.  Instead of finding him at a corner in downtown Jerusalem, people had to go all the way to a deserted area near the Jordan River to hear him.  You couldn’t stumble across John by accident; you had to go looking for him.  He needed to be near the waters of the Jordan so he could baptize those who responded to his call to repentance.
What was John’s message?  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”  John used Isaiah’s words to introduce Jesus as God’s Messiah.
Isaiah was referring to King Cyrus, the Persian ruler who allowed the Jewish people to end their exile in Babylon and return to their homeland, Judea.  What a blessing his decision was to those who had been away from home so long!  How the exiles must have praised Cyrus for allowing them to go home and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple that was its centerpiece!  Isaiah used these words to promise that Israel would have a joyous and easy return to Judea.
How much more John hoped the people would praise God for the gift of the One who would provide a means of reconciliation between them and God!  How much more important it was for him to prepare the way for the Lord of all creation.

My father used to say that, if we were expecting an important guest, we would outdo ourselves in preparation.  We would clean the house thoroughly, get out the best table settings, and put our finest linen out for the guest’s use.  Just as John prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, and we would prepare for the visit of an honored guest, so we must prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming to us.  How much more important it is that we prepare the way of the Lord by preparing our hearts and minds for his arrival.

Telling It Like it Is

Telling It Like It Is
Matthew 3:1-12
            “Telling it like it is”—one of those expressions that we like to throw around to describe a person who isn’t afraid to speak the truth, even when it might get him/her in trouble, or offend other people.  In a way, we admire these people for their forthrightness.  In another way they frighten us, since we don’t know when they might call us to task for something we do that displeases them.  In still another way we resent them when they burst one of our bubbles or execute one of our sacred cows.
            John the Baptist was such a man.  He was not beholden to anyone for anything.  Renouncing the comforts of a good home, fancy clothes, and a pleasant diet of tasty food, John took himself out to the wilderness, wore what he could find to cover himself with, and ate whatever came to hand.  If you didn’t approve of his lifestyle, or like what he said, or agree with his point of view, it didn’t matter to him.  He said what he had to say—the message God had given him to deliver to the world—and let the consequences happen.
            Many in Judea welcomed his frank approach.  They were ready for a change—ready to throw off the oppression of Roman rule and Pharisaical dominance alike.  If following John could help, they were all for it.  When the Jewish religious leaders came out to see what was happening, and John let them have it, the people probably cheered—at least inwardly.  They might support John for telling it like it is, but they weren’t bold enough to put their own heads on the line.
            Many people accepted John’s message of repentance.  They felt the urgency of his words.  They knew they had to make a change, turn away from their past lives and be baptized.  Enough of them did so that the Pharisees and Sadducees felt they had to find out what was happening.  We can be sure they didn’t go to see John because they were interested in becoming his disciples.  Rather they wanted to see what the commotion was all about and determine whether this was someone who might threaten their privileged status.
            And threaten them he did.  Calling them “a brood of vipers” (not a way to get on their good side), he told them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  It wasn’t enough for them to look like religious leaders, or spend time in the temple, or preach fine sermons and pray eloquent prayers.  They had to realize that their privileged position could end.  If they continued to behave as they always had, God would cut them down and replace them with another chosen people.
            Which is exactly what happened.  In the year 70 C.E., the Romans became so incensed at a group of Jewish insurrectionists who dared to rebel against the empire that they destroyed Jerusalem, razed the temple (Just as Jesus said would happen), and scattered the Jewish people to the four winds, effectively ending the privileged status the religious leaders had enjoyed.

            John’s message is just as relevant today.  God continues to work God’s purpose out, no matter how slowly the mill seems to grind.  The time is coming and now is when today’s religious leaders—in fact, all who call themselves Christian—must be ready to bear the kind of fruit that is pleasing to God:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians, 5:22-23).  Only through repentance and turning our lives around—a continual process for us broken and sinful people—can we bear fruit worthy of our claim to be Christians.  Only by realizing God’s claim on our lives, and fulfilling our responsibility as God’s children by loving and serving our neighbors, can we hope to avoid having God’s axe laid to our roots, and being replaced by God’s new chosen people.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and Everything Else

The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and Everything Else
Luke, 1:26-38
            What do you have to believe to be a Christian?  Different denominations have different answers to that question, of course, with each one touting its dogmatically doctrinal take on the issue.  Some are very simple; some more complex.  Each of us subscribes to that set of principles which best fits our spiritual outlook.  But, at the root, what is absolutely necessary to believe in order to call oneself a Christian?
            Do I have to believe in the Trinity?  Good question!  You won’t find the doctrine of the Trinity stated as such in the Bible.  In John 14:15-17, Jesus promises to send a Helper (Comforter in some translations) who will be the “Spirit of truth,” but doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit by name.  Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit frequently. I believe it is on these references, more than any other Scripture, that the doctrine of the Trinity is based. 
            I know some very sincere Christians who have trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity.  They don’t deny the divinity of Christ, but aren’t sure the Holy Spirit is a third, separate person in the Godhead.  I believe their doubts center on the fact that Jesus doesn’t use Trinitarian language.  He says, “I and my Father are one,” but doesn’t include the Holy Spirit.
            So—do I have to believe in the Trinity to be a Christian?  As far as I’m concerned, no; but you may see it differently.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the Trinity, only that I don’t believe it’s essential.
            Do I have to believe in the virgin birth?  Matthew and Luke focus on Mary’s virginity in their birth accounts.  They speak of the Holy Spirit as the One who causes her to be with child.  In order for Jesus to be both truly and properly human and truly and properly God, he would have had to have been born of a human woman; but was it necessary for her to be a virgin?  What’s difference does it make? 
From our vantage point, when DNA tests can accurately determine paternity, perhaps not much.  In the first century, the only way a man could be sure he was the father of a child was if he knew absolutely that the mother was a virgin.  This was essential in the matter of inheritance.  If it could be proved that a woman could have had a child by another man, the paternity of any of her children would be in doubt, and who inherited what became an issue
            So—how important is Mary’s virginity to the Christian belief system?  It could be very important in proving that Jesus was really the Son of God.  But is it essential?  As far as I’m concerned, probably not; but you may see it differently.
            What do I have to believe?  The church of which I am a member has a very simple confession of faith.  Every Sunday we say:  “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and I confess him as my Lord and Savior.”  We also ask each prospective member to make this confession.  Say you believe, and you’re in.  No further questions asked.
            While that may not be enough for some people, it’s enough for me.  Jesus Christ is exactly who he said he was—the Son of God.  I accept that unquestioningly.  I also acknowledge that Jesus Christ is my Savior—that by his life, death and resurrection I have been reconciled with God.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of my life.  I give him my complete allegiance.  I serve God through Jesus’ two commands:  Love God, and love neighbor. 

I believe that as long as I fulfill these requirements, I can consider myself Jesus’ faithful servant, and be in a right relationship with God.  Everything else is secondary.