Sunday, January 28, 2018

Moving in the Correct Direction

Moving in the Correct Direction
Isaiah 30:19-21
                When it comes to retracing a new route, some of us are directionally challenged.  In the days before MapQuest and GPS, many drivers (notoriously male), would doggedly insist they knew the way, only to end up three expressways and umpteen miles past the right exit.  Today, equipped with a GPS system, travelers can hit the road with expert guidance and instant navigational advice.  Those who have traveled spiritual routes before us have also left behind key navigational points to follow on the journey to righteous living.

            I read this recently.  I have no idea who wrote it, but I can attest to the truth of much of it.  Let me explain.
            It didn’t take me long to learn that my wife has a much better sense of direction than I do.  I think I must daydream or something when I’m driving.  I sometimes find myself going in the wrong direction, or I forget how to get somewhere I’ve either driven to a couple of times or only been to as a passenger.  Once, in New Jersey, I had to call my wife in Mississippi to ask her how to get to my parents’ home.  Thank heavens for cell phones!
            I will not admit to driving out of my way because I didn’t ask directions.  My ego doesn’t work that way.  I will admit to going into a gas station or convenience store, asking directions, then having difficulty remembering them when I get back to my vehicle.  GPS has indeed been a blessing.
            So I’ve learned to trust my wife’s judgment when it comes to getting somewhere.  She’s not infallible, but she’s far better than I am.
            “Those who have traveled spiritual routes before us have also left behind key navigational points to follow…”  We don’t have to travel an unmarked road in our spiritual lives.  The signposts are there.  We just have to observe them. 
            Isaiah was writing to a stubborn and rebellious people.  That’s what had gotten them into trouble in the first place.  They thought they knew the correct way.  They had everything figured out.  Don’t tell them to look for exit signs or mile markers.  They knew where they were going.  Stop to ask for directions?  Not them!  Waste of time.
            And now they were hopelessly lost, seemingly abandoned by God, not knowing which way to turn.  Where were the signposts?  Which was the correct road?
            Isaiah knew God had not completely abandoned them.  God had let them get lost since they were so bent on doing just that.  But like a good driving instructor, God was waiting for them to realize they had made a mistake and ask for help getting back on the right road.  God was willing to be their GPS.  Instead of taking the wheel, God would sit in the seat behind them, saying, “This is the way, walk in it” if they started to make a wrong turn.
            One of the major signposts for our correction is the Bible.  We make a serious mistake when we pick sound byte portions of Scripture and tie our spiritual life to them.  We are almost sure to go astray, substituting our wisdom for God’s—and that will get us lost.  Instead, we need to read Scripture in large portions—and to read all of Scripture.  The Bible is the record of God’s interaction with humanity.  Like any good road map it will give us an overall picture of where we’re going in addition to knowing which road we are on. 

            As I’ve learned to trust my wife’s sense of direction so I need to trust the directions of those who have gone before me spiritually.  They know the way.  They’ve been through the rough spots.  They’ve climbed the hills.  They’ve found the path through the dark valleys.  The best part is that they want to help us, to guide us.  All we have to do is listen to them and follow their directions.  It may not make the road easy, but they will guide us home safely.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ribbons of Grace

Ribbons of Grace
1 Corinthians 1:4-9
I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time
Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine
If you received my letter telling you I’d soon be free
Then you’ll know just what to do
If you still want me.

Tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree
It’s been three long years, do you still want me?
If I don’t see a ribbon round the ole oak tree
I’ll stay on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me
If I don’t see a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree.

            Tony Orlando told this story in a 1973 song written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown.  The singer has been in prison.  He’s paid his debt and now it’s time to rejoin society.  There’s only one problem—does society want him back?  There’s one person who means more to him than anyone else.  Specifically, does this person want him back?
            It’s a woman—a woman with whom he had a relationship before he got in trouble with the law.  A sweetheart?  A wife?  We don’t know.  We only know he still cares—cares very much.  He says, I’m really still in prison, and my love she holds the key.  But how does she feel about him?  Does she want to see him?  After three long years is there still a spark?    He has no way of knowing short of showing up and seeing what happens.
            But he has a plan—an idea that will save her confronting him if she’s no longer interested, and save him at least a little agony.  He writes and asks for a sign.
“If you still love me, tie a yellow ribbon around the oak tree.  If I don’t see the ribbon I’ll know it’s over between us.  It will still hurt, but at least we won’t have to see each other.  We can let the relationship fade away.  You can go on with your life, and I’ll try to build a new one.”
What will she do?
Now the moment of truth is approaching.  The bus is nearing his stop.  He wants to look but is afraid of what he’ll see—or won’t see.  He asks the bus driver to look for him, to tell him if his love wants him back.  Here’s her answer.
Now the whole [darned] bus is cheerin’
And I can’t believe I see
A hundred yellow ribbons round the ole oak tree.

That’s grace.  There’s nothing obligating her to welcome him back except her love for him.  Nothing else that says she has to tie that ribbon around the tree.  His question: “Do you love me enough to take me back even though I’m damaged goods?”  Her answer: “I have not one ribbon worth, but a hundred ribbons worth of love.  Is that enough?”
Paul understood grace.  He’d received it from God on the Damascus road.  He had persecuted the followers of Jesus.  Could Jesus forgive him for that?  Jesus’ answer: “I have more love for you than you can possibly imagine, and I have grace to cover whatever you’ve done—and more!”
As a result, Paul’s letters are full of grace.  He begins many of them with the words, “Grace and peace to you.”  It’s not enough for him to have received grace.  He wants to pass it along to others.  He tells the Corinthians how grateful he is to God for the grace they have received through Jesus Christ.  Later Paul will chastise them for the un-Christian things they are doing, things that upset Paul and harm the fellowship of the church.  But before he does, he assures them of many, many ribbons of God’s grace. 
This is going to be a tough letter.  Paul knows it when he begins, but he first reassures them that God is faithful, and God’s grace will keep them in fellowship. 

That’s grace.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Ordinary Time/Extraordinary Events

Ordinary Time/Extraordinary Events
John 21:20-25
            Many Christian churches (including mine) follow the Liturgical Year.  It begins four Sundays before Christmas with the Season of Advent.  This is followed by the Season of Christmas (Christmas Eve through January 5), then Epiphany (January 6).  The time from January 7 to Ash Wednesday (the beginning of the Season of Lent) is called Ordinary Time.  We joke about it being “just old ordinary time,” but that’s not what it means.  Instead of “just the same old same old,” this ordinary derives from the word ordered.  (For those of you who like completeness, Lent lasts until Easter, which lasts 50 days until Pentecost, then Ordinary Time again until the next Advent.)
            These two seasons of Ordinary Time are not just long periods of waiting with nothing to do.  Instead they are times when we consider all the events of Jesus’ life between his birth (and the preparation for it) and death (the preparation for it and the events after).  And there is much to focus on.  The gospels are full of the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, and the reactions of many people to him.  We read of healings—physical, emotional and spiritual.  We hear him as he calls people back to the spirit of Torah Law, instead of just the letter.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeats several times the words “You have heard it said…, but I say…,” each time completing the first half of the statement with an old interpretation of the Torah followed by his interpretation in the second half.
            Repeatedly we see Jesus favoring the poor, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed.  He doesn’t have much good to say about the rich unless they are willing to give their surplus wealth (which is greater in Jesus’ eyes than in their own) to help those in need.  God’s kingdom, the coming of which is a focus of his teaching and his mission, is reserved for those who love God with everything they have, and demonstrate their love for God by the depth of their love for their neighbors.  Jesus defines neighbors as anyone who has a need we can meet.
            There is enough of this material to fill Ordinary Time three times over and then some.  John says it best in the final verse of his gospel: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did.  Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
            Hyperbole?  Probably—and yet there is truth in the statement.  John’s conception of the world was much smaller than ours.  For him the world consisted of the Middle East—and only part of that.  We who have seen the earth from outer space (albeit only in pictures) know just how large our planet is.  Surely it is large enough to contain all the books written about the life of Jesus, even if every single event were recorded.
            But what about since then?  We know that Jesus has never stopped being active in this world.  Yes, there are many times when it seems Jesus is far removed from the world, but in our hearts we know that’s not true.  Many of us have experienced his presence in our own lives, and we can testify to God’s work in us and in those around us.  Sometimes Jesus works in us directly, and we can feel the power of his love and grace filling us, changing us, and calling us to deeper love and higher service. Often Jesus works through others to bring about changes in us.  We experience him through those who serve us, through those who encourage us, through those who show us where we need to grow.

            If we were to write down every thing that Jesus has done to affect so many people since his resurrection, John’s statement might well be true.  There would not be enough bookshelves on this planet to hold all those writings—and isn’t that amazing!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Quest

The Quest
Matthew 2:1-12
            “Wise men still seek Him.”
            You may have seen this on a Christmas card, or on the cover of a church Christmas program, or some other place.  What lies behind the line is the concept that we should seek Jesus until we encounter him and develop a personal relationship with him.
            Quest stories are common in literature, both fiction and nonfiction.   Mitzi Minor describes the gospel of Mark as a “journey story.”  In these tales, someone sets out on a journey—a quest.  She may know what she is looking for, or just have a general idea of where she’s going without a specific end in mind.  Along the way she goes through a series of trials until she reaches her goal.  Eventually she returns home, successful in her quest, and somehow changed, becoming a new person through the journey.  We see this pattern in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Tales, J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories from Middle Earth, and, in a slightly different form, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  In each case the hero successfully completes his quest, experiencing something along the way that changes him and affects the rest of his life.
            Such is the story of the wise men in Matthew’s gospel. By some means, in their home country far to the east of Judea, they become aware of a birth that will have a cataclysmic effect on the world.  Their scientific texts and holy books, combined with some disturbance in the normal celestial patterns lead them to believe something is happening they shouldn’t miss.  And so they set out on their quest. 
How many there were, where they came from, the route they took are a mystery to us.  We can speculate using what we learn from Matthew’s account and what we know about the times, but we cannot know for sure the answers to our questions.  All Matthew tells us is they showed up in Jerusalem asking for directions.  We know what happened next.  Herod knew so little Scripture that he had to call in the experts.  They provided some information, but could only point the Magi in the general direction. 
The Magi arrived at their destination, fulfilled their quest, and returned home by another way.  But it wasn’t only their travel route that was different.  They were changed—new people because of their journey.  We do not know what trials they went through on their quest.  We only know they completed it and found themselves back at the place where they started—but not the same as when they started.
We can be very suspicious of people on quests.  We’re much more comfortable with people who know who they are and what they know—people like the biblical experts in Jerusalem.  They had no need to go on a journey to find the new king.  They knew who their king was, where their loyalty lay, and what their role was.  No need to go anywhere.  No need to upset their lives.  Stay home and be content with who we are and what we know.
We have to admit, it’s an easier life.  Why go searching for something else?  Why not be content with what we have here?  Who knows what could happen to you out there, on the road?  Who knows what trials await, what dangers lurk, what disappointments we might find?
Ah!  But what they missed!  Their quest wouldn’t have been as long and arduous as that of the Magi, but they would have returned home changed people—new creations, with new knowledge and new understanding.
Wise men still seek Him, and in seeking find not only the completion of their quest, but a new life. 

Will we be wise?