Sunday, January 27, 2013

God is So Good and Our Bibles Are So Dusty ~ Nehemiah 8:1-10 ~ Third Sunday After Epiphany

Monday evening, I enjoyed a wonderful phone conversation with my grandfather; who, as you may know, is in declining health.  In spite of that, he loves to talk about how good God has been to him—particularly when it comes to his marriage to my grandfather...

The time is World War II, and he’s stationed in Hawaii.  He becomes good friends with his bunk mate, who had a girlfriend in Pittsburgh.  Every chance he’d get, he’d write her letters—and he received plenty in return.

One day, my grandfather worked up the courage to ask his bunkmate if his special lady had any good friends that he could write to, and he was delighted to learn that, yes he did...

So began what would eventually become a sixty-two year marriage—with letters.  Mere words giving birth to love that reached across thousands of miles and the most challenging of circumstances...

This is exactly what does in giving us Holy Scripture.  Yes, God is invisible; yes God is in heaven—but in Scripture, God becomes both present and knowable.  It is from the words of Scripture that God’s love reaches into our lives and becomes an ever-present reality.  It is from Scripture that humankind learns of the greatest truth that can ever be known—that our God reigns; a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

But what is our relationship to this great gift that is the Word of God?  What place does it have in our daily lives?

Are our Bibles open as long or as often as our favorite books or magazines?  How does the time we spend in the Scriptures compare to the time we spend watching TV?  Engaging social media?  Or texting?

One of the greatest problems in the life of the average Christian is the dusty, unread Bible.  All too often, the Word of God’s love to us sits on the shelf—and God’s truths remain unknown.

Yet in the same way as my grandparents would have never fallen in love without their letters—our relationship with God cannot flourish without Scripture.  Nor can we flourish as children of God...

This is exactly what had happened to the nation of Israel, as we hear in our first lesson for today. 

The year is about 400 B.C. The exodus from Egypt under Moses was 850 years ago.  550 years ago, Israel was at the height of its power under King David.  Yet that was all ancient history for the people in today’s text.  What they would have known is the horror of nearly 50 years of exile in Babylon. 

And the major reason why they suffered the exile is because they neglected God’s Word.  They didn’t bother teaching it or listening to it—and their relationship with God broke down as a result.  People did whatever they felt like.  They chased after other gods; they gave no regard to those in need...  It was only a matter of time that their nation would fall...

Then, all of the sudden, Babylon falls, and the exile is over.  The new king permits the survivors to go home and rebuild Jerusalem.  And this they do—but this was the most arduous of tasks for a broken and battered people. 

It isn’t for another 140 years that of Jerusalem is rebuilt, including the temple.  So now the time has come for their relationship with God to be rebuilt. 

So Ezra the priest gathers the entire nation together to hear the Word of God.  The people listen; and those who understood it taught others and helped it to make sense of it—so that everyone could understand.  

What we see in this story is exactly what we as the Body of Christ are called to do: we hear the Word, we teach the Word, and we understand the Word. 

Yes, the Bible is hard to read...  Yes, it can be confusing and frustrating and sometimes even scary.  That is why God gives to some the gifts of teaching, to help us all make sense of the Word.  That is why we have Sunday school and vacation bible school and confirmation.  God gathers us together as a Body, around the Word—so that we talk about it, ask the tough questions, confront whatever scares us and may even offend us.  And in the end, we are all teachers of God’s Word.  Your questions and your experiences and perspectives will always go a long way in helping everyone else to make sense of it.

We can’t treat the Bible as just another book; because that’s not what it is.  It is the power of God giving birth to the faith that saves us.  The Holy Spirit draws us to the Word, to be claimed by God; to be reborn in God; then transformed into the people God wants us to be. 

And the more and more that we know God’s Word, the more that Christ will live in us—and the better we’ll know his will for our lives.  God’s Word will become a fountain of healing and comfort and wisdom.  We ourselves will become living bibles who proclaim God’s love by what we say and especially by what we do.

When we’re tempted to sin, we’ll remember that God will never allow us to be tested beyond our ability to endure, and that God will provide a way out [1 Corinthians 10:13].

When everything goes wrong, we’ll remember that all things work together for the good of those who are loved by God [Romans 8:28].

When we do sin, we’ll that “as far as the East is from the West, so has God removed our sins from us” [Psalm 103:12]

When we’re lost and afraid, we’ll remember that “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”

When we’re at death’s door, we’ll remember that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life” [John 3:16].

When the future looks dim, we’ll remember that that Christ is soon to return to make all things new, to wipe away every tear from our eyes [Revelation 21, 4-5].

So don’t let your Bibles get dusty.  Be made alive by power of the living Word.  Know God and experience God by knowing the Word.  Let the Word of the Lord dwell in you richly. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How Jesus Turns Water into Wine ~ John 2:1-11 ~ Second Sunday after Epiphany

On the third day of a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, there’s a problem.  The wine has run out.

It hardly seems that a situation like this would be serious enough to involve Jesus. 

If something like this happened in our time, it would probably be a minor, temporary inconvenience; after all, Giant Eagle and Sheetz are open ‘round the clock.

But in Jesus’ day, this was a disaster.  For starters, weddings were not celebrated in the space of a few hours.  Most were massive celebrations that could last as long as a week.  Everyone in town would be invited.  Without soft drinks or clean tap water available, wine was the only available form of refreshment—so running out would be a big problem.

Yet this was also a severe social faux-pas for the bridegroom’s family.  Running out of wine was a “slap in the face” to the bride’s family, and to everyone in town who turned out for the occasion.  They could have been dragged into court and sued for such an offense.

Suffice it to say, this was not a life-or-death situation, but it was very much a crisis.

Jesus’ mother knows what a significant problem this is.  That is why she tells Jesus.

Is this what we do in a desperate situation?  Do we name the crisis before Jesus?

When we do, do we have the faith that Jesus will act?  Do we have the confidence that Jesus is more powerful than the situation?  Do we trust that Jesus will (ultimately) do for us whatever is best?

This is a case where it’s easy to say yes—but it is not so easy to live out. 

It’s easy for the situation to get the best of us, so that we see only the empty jars.  Panic strikes as we’re convinced that we’re going under.  Our heads spin out of control at all the terrible possibilities that could come to pass.

But Jesus’ mother knows that he is not powerless against the situation.  That’s why tells the bridegroom’s servants, “do whatever he tells you.” 

What Jesus tells them to do would hardly make sense from a logical standpoint: he tells them to fill six water jugs with water.  Then he tells them to draw from the jars.  They do as Jesus says, and suddenly they see his glory.  They see him for who he really is.

And when we find ourselves in such a situation, and our whole world shatters, Jesus wants to show us his glory just the same.  He wants to give us the signs by which we can believe in him.  Isn’t this what we want in times like these—to believe in Jesus? Then that we must act on our belief, so that Jesus will get the best of the situation—instead of the situation getting the best of us...

So we begin by naming the crisis before Jesus.  This is our first act of faith; for if we do this we must believe that Jesus will hear us.  We must stop the panic and replant ourselves firmly in what we believe and who we believe in...

Secondly, we do whatever he tells us to do—and we begin with the most basic acts of obedience.  We love and trust in God above all things.  We love our neighbors in truth and action.  We forgive.  And we pray without ceasing—because the more we pray, the more God’s Spirit will bring peace to our hearts.  Then, we’ll be inspired to do the will of God in ways we might not have expected.  God’s Spirit will give us the wisdom to know God’s will and the strength to do it.

Thirdly, we wait on God in trust—for as we know, God’s timing is not always our timing.  Yet we remain in obedient trust, that we will taste and see the glory of God.

And fourth, we recognize that we shall not see the glory of God if we keep to ourselves, and live only for ourselves.  The wedding at Cana shows us that the servants had to work together, WITH Jesus, and only then could they see the glory of God.  We need each other to believe in Christ and do his will. 

With Jesus, the crisis became a golden opportunity to experience the awesome power of God.  Jesus will raise us up from the depths of panic and despair, into faith, joy, and new life. 

I remember a story told by one of my seminary professors: a classmate of his, who was also a husband and father of three, was badly injured in a car accident.

As soon as the news reached the seminary community, they united in constant prayer for their friend and his family.  Against all odds, he survived.  That prayer was answered.  But he would be permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

But God was not done answering their prayers.  His family needed all the help they could get, taking care of the children, in addition to caring for their dad.  So in spite of the seminarians’ busy schedule, they all came together, taking turns in cooking meals and doing laundry and babysitting the children.  With their help, his wife was even able to go back to work.  And God was still not done answering prayers.  The Spirit continued to stir the hearts of the community, that they helped his wife with the arduous tasks of dressing and bathing their friend.  (And this isn’t something they did for a couple of weeks; they did this for years!)  Against all odds, this man graduated from seminary and became a pastor.  Together, they reveled in the glory of our crucified and risen Lord—in the love and care they showed to a child of God in need...

This is how Jesus turns water into wine. 

In our worst days, we want more than anything to believe in Jesus Christ; and that he is loving us and caring for us.  Well, God has a plan to fulfill our hearts’ desire.  When the wine runs out, Jesus turns water into wine.  When the bottom drops out, Jesus will keep us from going under.  With full faith and confidence in the love of Jesus Christ, let us name before him whatever is afflicting us—then let us do what he tells us to do.  Let us come together, as one Body in Christ, to walk in his love and wait in hope—for soon we shall all taste and see the goodness of God.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Great Expectations ~ Luke 3:15-22 ~ Baptism of Our Lord

During our last year at the seminary, Elizabeth and I attended a very large Lutheran congregation in Gettysburg.

It was so large, in fact, that there was a baptism just about every week—and most were of infants.

Usually, the infants “received” their baptism in one of two ways: kicking and screaming, or sleeping.

But there was a two-year-old little girl I remember: with all her might, she tried to leap out of her sponsors arms and into the font—with giggles and smiles all the way.  As she was lowered towards the font, she splashed her hands in the water, practically baptizing herself.  I have never seen a child that excited to be baptized. 

But even if she had slept through her baptism, or took it kicking and screaming, she would still be baptized.  That’s what’s important for us to remember about baptism: regardless of how we come to that baptism, that baptism is all about what God does for us.  In baptism God claims us as beloved children.  Nothing we can say or do, and nothing that could happen to us—will ever change that. 

But what about life after the baptism?  Will we live as God’s beloved children?

This is the point where we become like the infants at their baptism...  we either embrace the baptized life with eagerness and joy—or; we resist it, or we sleep through it...  

For starters, the fundamental duty of any child is obedience.  This is the most basic duty of children.  And God makes it very clear what is demanded from us.  We are to love and trust in God above all things; we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and care for those in need; and we are to forgive others as God forgives us.  Yet living a life that pleases God isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

This is a life that demands everything of us.  We cannot live for ourselves, chasing our own dreams and the best that our world has to offer.  The life of a beloved child is a life of submission; a life of humility; a life lived for others.

This was the life Jesus lived—and this is what his baptism teaches us. 

You see, Jesus wasn’t baptized because he needed it.  He was sinless.  He was God’s Son. 

Instead, Jesus’ baptism was an act of submission.  Jesus knew that he was born for the cross.  Yet Jesus had the faith that the cross would not be the “be all, end all.”  He had faith that God would raise him from the dead, together with the world that God loves. 

God had great expectations for Jesus—but Jesus had great expectations for God, and none were going to be disappointed.  It was because Jesus had such great expectations of God that Jesus was able to be obedient unto death, even death. 

That is what faith is all about: expectation.  Faith means living in expectation of God loving for us and caring for us as beloved children.

So what are your expectations of God?  What does it mean for us to be God’s beloved?

One of the biggest problems in the Christian is that we suffer from low expectations of God.  This is why we struggle to live the baptized life; this is why we struggle to faithfully pray and worship God.  This is why we struggle in our obedience.  We simply don’t believe that anything good will come out of it. 

But God does not command obedience as pointless busy work.

Moreover, God’s love for us is not just something to read about or sing about; it is a reality for us to experience.  Because we are loved, we can expect God to good for us. 

We can pray when we believe that God will respond to our needs.  We can worship God and study the Word when we believe that we will encounter Jesus.  We can serve a neighbor in need when we believe that God will make us a blessing.  We can face even the worst days when we believe that God will care for us every step of the way. 

We can take up our crosses and follow Jesus when we believe that we will experience resurrection. 

Obedience is all about living in anticipation of God’s goodness.  That is why the call to obedience is actually good news...  In our obedience and faithful submission, we are in the best position to recognize God’s presence in our lives—and know just how greatly we are loved.  

There will be times when we will be disappointed with God.  Prayers are not always answered the way we want, and the good that we strived for will not be realized. 

Bet we cannot let the disappointments blind us to the reality of God’s love. 

You are the beloved.  You are unconditionally loved and accepted as a child of God just as much as Jesus was.  This is why you can trust God and obey. This is why you can EXPECT God to do great things in your life and even through your life.

So don’t throw away the baptized life.  And don’t sleep through it.  Dive right in to God’s grace.  Embrace your life with joy.  Remember what you believe—and act upon your beliefs with the expectation that you will taste the goodness of God. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Following the Stars ~ Matthew 2:1-12 ~ Epiphany

I am what marketers would call “a reluctant adapter” when it comes to new technology.  This means that I will not embrace it until I have no choice but to do so.

GPS navigation systems are one such technology... 

The first time I ever used one, I was with a friend driving through the suburbs of D.C.—and his car was down to its last drops of fuel.  So we asked the GPS to find us a gas station.  Well, it led us away from civilization into an area that was considerably isolated and rural.  When the GPS proudly told us that we’d arrived, all we could see was trees.  No gas station in sight.  It took us more than ten minutes to finally find what we’d been looking for.

Since then, I’ve never found a compelling reason to own a GPS.  But ironically, I got lost while driving on a youth group outing—and low and behold, it was the GPS on one of your young people’s smart phones that got us to where we need to go.

There is nothing more frustrating than being lost; that helplessness in not being able to get to where you need to be.  When you’re lost, there’s no denying that you’ve made a mistake.  Maybe that’s why we’ve always referred to the Magi as “wise men,” because they were able to find their way to the baby Jesus.  They followed a star, and there they are. 

But this is not a story about how wise these men are... 

This is a story about all of us want to meet Jesus—and how relentless God is in leading us to him.

If we consider who the magi were, we’d find them to be the last persons we’d expect for God to lead to the baby Jesus.  For starters, they were astrologers.  They dabbled in magic and fortune-telling, the likes of which were strictly forbidden by God’s Law.  Secondly, they were not of Jewish Lineage; and thirdly they came from thousands of miles away. 

But that’s what makes this story is so miraculous.  God sent the Word of promise across the miles, so the magi could learn that the King of the Jews was to be born.  Since they studied the stars, God used a star to get their attention, and led them to Jesus. 

That is what God does—and that is good news.

So often in life, we feel lost.  We’re broken, we’re desperate, we’re afraid...  We know we need Jesus more than ever.  But we can’t find our way to him.  Our hearts ache for his peace, and he feels unreachable.  Sometimes, it may even feel as though God has pushed us away from him as either a punishment for our sin or for our lack of faith.

But that is not what the story of the Magi teaches us.   God is in the business of revealing Christ to the world.  That is why we call this day Epiphany.  Epiphany means revealing.  Jesus is born to be known, and God will do whatever it takes to make it happen.

So if you are feeling lost, the first thing to remember is that God has not lost you.  God is absolutely mindful of the aches and longings in your heart.  God knows that you need Jesus—that is why God will be relentless in leading you to the Christ you crave. 

This is why God gives you prayer.  This is why God gives you your church and its ministry of the Word; This is why Jesus invites you to his table.  We are gathered here as One Body to meet Jesus Christ and be filled to the full with his presence. 

And if you leave here today still hungry for him; or you still feel lost, and struggle to believe that you will find the Jesus you need, do not be discouraged.  It may be time to be open to meeting Christ ways we have not before.

He may be calling you to a new spiritual discipline, to serve in a new role here at church, or to share a gift or a talent so that so that someone else may know Jesus Christ.  If you are to grow in faith, you must be open to change.

The very same goes for our church.

We also must be ready for change, and God to lead us to places we’ve never been. 

Our neighbors need the peace of knowing Christ just as much as we do.  Our challenge is then to seek the Spirit’s guidance in how we can go beyond our walls and beyond what is familiar and comfortable to us—to be the star that draws our neighbors to Christ.  While this may seem like a daunting and perhaps even impossible task, it’s not.  We’re sitting atop a bounty blessings.  We are a people of incredible love.  We have all that it takes to be a shining star in our community.  All we need is for the Spirit to show us how we can tap into these great gifts—and share them with every heart that hungers for the presence of Christ.

On this day of Epiphany, we celebrate that the light of Christ’s love is shining in the world—so that all may know him and believe.  Christ is alive in the world so that hungry hearts may be fed with his presence.  We do not have to wander through life, lost and afraid.  The Spirit is hard at work, doing whatever it takes to lead us to the Christ who loves us.

So let us be relentless in confessing to Jesus our hunger for him.  Let us be fearless as God’s Spirit leads us to new opportunities where we may know him more. 

And let remember that our neighbors hunger for Christ just as we do.  So let’s be God’s shining stars in this dark world, so that may meet the living Christ, that we all may live our lives in his peace and his love.  Let us be the miracles who lead the least and the lost to Jesus.