Sunday, January 25, 2015

Holy Now! ~ 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 ~ Third Sunday after Epiphany

The problem with racing against the clock is that the clock always wins…

Occasionally, we’ll get the thrill of taking that shortcut and coming out on top, but not usually…  I find that some of the dumbest things I’ve ever done I did when I was in a hurry. 

I spilled a whole thermos of coffee on my laptop while typing emails and talking on the phone…

I tore the house apart looking for my keys when they were already in my pocket…

I threw away $43 worth of antibiotics while cleaning our kitchen…

Try as we may, we’ll never beat the clock!  Time is always short. 

This was Paul’s message to the Christians in the city of Corinth.  Jesus’ spoke the same message as he called his first disciples: “the time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near!” 

For these early Christians, the urgency is heightened by the fact that they were living in dangerous times.  The powers-that-be threw John the Baptizer into prison.  He would never again breathe free air.  The Corinthian Christians faced threats both from within and without.  The church was bitterly divided on questions of right living and right teaching.  Persecution of Christians was becoming more and more widespread.  Things were so bad that Paul was absolutely convinced that Jesus was going to come again. 

Time was short.

Paul’s message to these believers is to warn them against becoming entangled up in a dying world…  Just like us, these Christians were constantly challenged to live out their faith while at the same time working to support their families; and dealing with the other priorities and struggles of simply living life.  They too felt the pull towards the pleasures and treasures the world had to offer. 

All told, there was a rapidly-closing window of opportunity to receive by faith the saving grace of Jesus Christ. 

That’s the problem with time—it passes like a tidal wave.  It changes our lives in sudden and dramatic ways.  Sometimes the change is good—but very often it is not.   Death and evil ride the waves of time’s passing.  But death and evil also lurk within the time crunches we experience most days.  The devil exploits the scarcity of your time to lure you away from living your life in Jesus Christ.  When it comes to living the life of discipleship, the easiest and most convincing reason to say “no” is because you don’t have time.  We spend so much of our day racing against the clock that we reject Jesus’ call without even thinking about it.  That is the worst decision we can possibly make.

But thanks be to God that Jesus has come into our midst today.  He comes into our situations of crisis.  When death and evil destroy what is precious to us, he’s there.  He’s here today to forgive you and me for all the times we’ve rejected his grace and gone our own way.  His Gospel is a net that catches us from being destroyed by sin and death.   His grace turns us away from the temptations and urgencies of the present to live in light of eternity.

This very moment is precious and holy because Jesus has come to call you his own and give you rebirth into the eternal reign of God.  Today is sacred because Jesus is here to radically transform your soul, together with your plans and your priorities.  Today is sacred because we stand at the beginning of eternity. Today is sacred because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  But the promise we have from Jesus is that even if today is your last day on earth, the life you’ve known is only a prelude of the life of the world to come.

Jesus is here as we stand at the crossroads of life and death.  Today is the day to listen to Jesus’ words and put your trust in his promises.  Today is the day to dive into his eternal embrace, and to entrust all of your life’s greatest urgencies into his hands.

You may think you don’t have the time to follow Jesus.  The truth is, you don’t have time not to love Jesus.  God’s grace is the moment you are in here and now.  Don’t reject his grace cut your way out of his net.  Eternity is about to dawn on the horizon. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Family Affair ~ 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 ~ Second Sunday after Epiphany

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /
In the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, the entire world united itself in grief for the victims and in defiance against those who would perpetuate such brutal violence.

At no other time was this more apparent than last Sunday, as an estimated 3.7 million persons marched in Paris—and world leaders linked arms together.  Especially stunning was the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were both present![1]

This is a beautiful sight to behold—as nearly the whole world is united in the cause of peace.
Much the same took place thirteen years ago in the weeks following 9/11. 

Sadly, that unity was not to last.  We all love peace, security, and human flourishing—and we all hate violence and crimes against humanity.  But the question of “how do we get there from here” tears us apart.  That division becomes a clear, present, and powerful danger.  Jesus said it best when he said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Disunity emerged as one of the greatest threats confronting the young Christian Church in the Greek city of Corinth.  These believers were at odds with each other for a whole host of reasons around right teaching, right believing, and right living in a deeply pagan world. 

Many had heard Paul proclaim the Gospel and they took it as license to do whatever they wanted—and they did.  Many of the wealthier and elite men in the church continued what was a common behavior of the rich—to keep mistresses.  Paul asserts that this behavior is a terribly wrong—but not just because it violates the sixth commandment.  It’s destructive to the community.  Nobody exists in a vacuum.  One person’s actions will invariably impact the community-at-large.

All told, Corinth was a bitterly-divided church—and Paul had very real concerns as to whether this church could even survive.  Personal satisfaction does not a strong church make!  That’s why Paul sets the record straight:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

You see, in a city that was as pagan and perverse as Corinth, God was building a community of Christ.  The Holy Spirit was calling and gathering people (many of whom were as morally filthy as the city they inhabited) and giving them a whole new identity.  They were called and gathered to belong to Jesus and to one another, and not the world they inhabited. The pursuits and pleasures they once knew would have no part in the new life and the new community God is building. 

This speaks to us in just the same way.  We, too, are called and gathered to belong to Jesus and each other—but we resist that, just as the Corinthian Christians did.  Sin doesn’t just go away. 

As the Holy Spirit builds up the community of Christ, the devil is always hard at work to tear it down.  If Satan can’t keep you from the faith, the next-best thing is to warp into something that’s “all about me.”  The devil employs two tactics to do this: the first is to tempt you into living a double life as a professing Christian who still pursues the best of what the world has to offer.  Live life on your terms.  Do what’s most comfortable and most fun.  The devil’s second attack is to destroy the community through division.   Like some of the Corinthian Christians, we become divided on questions of right living, right teaching, right mission.  Parties and individuals vie for control and influence; and little by little the community dissolves. 

But thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit doesn’t give up easily.  Like Jesus’ first disciples, we’re called out of our disillusionments and frustrations.  We’re called out of our fears and doubts.  Jesus’ forgiveness turns us away from self-centered living, self-centered believing, and the factions we create.  We’re called into our God-given identity as Children of God who belong to one another in Christ.  We are slaves to Christ and servants of all.  We follow Jesus as a family.

Indeed, the Spirit is hard at work in this violent and immoral world.  The arms of God are reaching out both near and far to make us one.

So come and be present.  Always know that no matter how you come, you bring gifts and talents that the Spirit will use to do good in the world.  No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus is always glad you came.

As we grow in our belonging to Christ and each other, some things will gradually become less important than they were before.  Worldly pursuits and pleasures will lose their luster.  Forgiveness will cleanse us from unrighteousness and heal our divisions.

And finally, Christ will be leading us all in a new direction.  Together, we will go, out of our comfort zones, away from our desires into Christ’s desires, where we will flourish.  The Spirit will form us in faith; draw us together; and make us alive to be people who heal broken lives and a broken world.

Come and see what Christ is doing—and don’t forget: it’s a family affair!

[1] Fantz, Ashley. "Array of world leaders joins 3.7 million in France to defy terrorism." 11 January 2015. Article. 15 January 2015.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What Does He See in Me? ~ Bible Study blog for January 15

Image courtesy of Stoon at
Tonight, we took a slight detour in our study, moving to the New Testament.

John 1:43-51   43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me."  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."  46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"  48 Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."  49 Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"  50 Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these."  51 And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (NRSV)

What does Jesus see when he looks at you?

As Jesus calls his first disciples, it's amazing that Jesus and Philip and Nathaniel recognize so much in each other in their first encounter.  Philip follows Jesus after Jesus says two words: "follow me."  Philip then finds Nathaniel and announces that he has found "the one whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote."  Nathaniel is not as quickly convinced.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he argues.  In spite of his skepticism, Jesus declares Nathaniel to be "an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"

How did they see so much in each other?

For Philip and Nathaniel, they clearly demonstrated that they had been taught God's Word and knew it well.  Remember- there wouldn't have been any angel choirs announcing Jesus' presence as he came to town.  The power of God's Word enabled them and enables us to recognize when he shows up.  It creates faith that enables us to see Jesus and his gifts of mercy and grace.  In Nathaniel's case, his encounter with Jesus is enough to overwhelm his skepticisms and bring him to faith.

Through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given faith.  Believing is seeing.

For Jesus, on the other hand, we must remember his divinity.  Frequently, in all four Gospels, Jesus knows much about the people he encounters, in spite of never having met them before.  We are not told that Philip or Nathaniel had any special qualifications to be disciples.  What we know of Nathaniel-- his prejudice in thinking he knows the whole story about Jesus based upon where he's from-- we'd think that would disqualify him from discipleship.  But that's not the case.  Jesus sees the best in Nathaniel.

In the same way, Jesus sees the best in us; all of the good God created in us. 

For a moment, we pondered the question, "what does Jesus see when looks at you," with some discomfort.  The truth is, we know our sins and shortcomings.  We feel guilt and shame for what we've done and left undone. 

The truth is, Jesus sees none of that-- because we're forgiven.  Jesus sees the best in us.  Like Philip and Nathaniel, we're called and gathered to his community of disciples, so that the Holy Spirit may exercise the best in us, in order to reveal the love and mercy of Christ to the world.

At the same time, we're invited into a life of discipleship so that we may see the best of Christ.  Following Jesus by faith, we shall see his great power at work-- sometimes in big, dramatic ways; other times in smaller, more subtle ways.  Amazing grace can come in great and small ways.  Following in the way of Jesus, our faith will be strengthened as we live in a daily communion with our Lord.  His presence will increase our faith and obedience.

One of the most beautiful gifts of our Christian faith is that we can awaken each morning, 1) thankful for the good we've given and received in the prior day, 2) confident that God will be good in the day to come; and, 3) ready for the Holy Spirit to live, breathe, and act within us to do good unto others through Christ.

Our next Bible study will be Thursday, January 29.  We will be assembling a new and more structured plan of study, whereby it will be easier to follow the Bible study in the event that you are absent.  Our next study will be "Treasure in Heaven," from Matthew 6:7-21 (The Story pp. 341-343).


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Clinging to the Waters ~ Mark 1:4-9 ~ Baptism of Our Lord

Recently, Elizabeth and I have become hooked on a TV game show called Idiotest.  It’s a pretty simple concept—they show you a picture puzzle and ask you a question about it.  But there’s tricks: 1) the most obvious answer is usually wrong; 2) the puzzles can overwhelm you to the point that you panic and stop thinking critically.  You have only ten seconds to solve the puzzle.

Having watched over a dozen or so episodes, I’ve begun to enjoy it—now that I’ve gotten over the shock of learning that I am an idiot.
But sometimes, we may feel that way when it comes to questions relating to our Christian faith.  More often than not, we’ll find ourselves having too many questions—and too few answers. 

Take for example the disciples the Apostle Paul encounters in Ephesus… He asks them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”  Their answer is “No, we’ve never heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

I think any of us would feel this way if we were asked this question.  There is so much we don’t know.  The reason why is that a baptism into Jesus presents an entire universe of awesome promises that we can only begin to understand…  We’re baptized into Jesus’ baptism—of that we can be certain.  The short story of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Mark does have a great deal to teach us about our own…

When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn apart and Holy Spirit descends upon him as a dove. We receive this very same Holy Spirit. 

At the beginning of time, the Holy Spirit was a wind from God sweeping over the face of the waters.  Then God speaks—and the Holy Spirit brings all things into being.  But the work of the Holy Spirit was only just beginning…

At the beginning of all things, God had you in mind—and God’s Holy Spirit has been working through the tiniest atoms and molecules through all history so that you would be born—and so that you would be baptized.  On the day of your baptism, you are literally born into the life that God had planned for you since the foundation of the creation.  In baptism you are born into the very life of Jesus Christ. 

Your sins are forgiven; nailed to the cross.  You die to sin.  God puts to death the heart that lives and acts only for your own sake.  You are then raised to new life, as the Holy Spirit brings Christ to life within you. 

You receive the faith of Jesus, to live as a child of God.  The Spirit draws you to the Word, where God’s love is revealed.  The Spirit then uses that faith to see all the ways God loves and cares for you. 

You are also made alive into the faithfulness of Jesus.  The Spirit seizes you and exercises Jesus’ love and mercy for the world through you.  You’re no longer living for yourself.  You’re living in love for your neighbor, as Christ lives in love for you. 

It is in baptism that we know who we are and whose we are, as children beloved of God.

So often, we think of baptism merely as something we do so that we can go to heaven.  But it’s not that at all.  It’s a covenant; a relationship built upon all of God’s promises to us.

So often, we take baptism for granted—in the same way as we take Jesus for granted.  One of the easiest things to do is to take baptism as a kind of “get out of hell free card;” coming out of the water and going off to live the baptized life on our own terms.  Other times, we simply forget about it or minimize its importance in our lives as Christians.  Do you know your baptismal anniversary?  Do you celebrate it? 

Like many of you, I was baptized as an infant—so of course, I don’t remember it.  But the one baptism I know I’ll remember forever is the first baptism I ever performed in the neo-natal intensive care unit of the hospital where I interned in the summer of 2008.  Two young parents asked me to baptize their little baby boy Adam, who was born fourteen weeks premature.  He was so tiny he could’ve fit into the palm of my hand.  I can’t imagine how frightened his parents must’ve been that day.  But that day, God literally tore open the heavens and came down to assure them that no matter what, Adam was loved and so were they.  Jesus was clinging to all three of them.  Jesus would’ve clung to them just the same, even if his fragile little life would’ve slipped away before I got there. 

That’s why baptism is so much more than just something we do.  It’s Jesus clinging to us—and opening his arms to cling to him.  It is a physical, tangible sign that the heavens are torn open and that Jesus is hanging onto us, especially when the worst pains of life surround us.  So your baptism shouldn’t be something that fades into the past and is forgotten.  We’re invited back to the waters every day, to hear the voice of Jesus declaring that our sins are forgiven.  That sin and death have no ultimate power over us.  Our lives have a God-given purpose.  We return to our baptism every day to hear the voice of Jesus saying, “you are mine.”

That’s why you’re here today.

You may have noticed that the baptismal font has been moved—and it’s no accident.  It’s always filled with water, so that when you come into church, you can put that water on your forehead and feel the water, as it clings to the skin of your head, and remember that Jesus is clinging to you.  So make that your practice every Sunday from here on out.  Dip your hands in after you return from communion, or do it before you leave. 

Let the water that sustains your life speak the greatest truth you’ll ever know: you are beloved.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christian Garbology ~ Matthew 2:1-12 ~ Epiphany of Our Lord

Nestled deep within the realm of anthropology, sociology, and marketing is a little-known field of study known as “garbology,” or the study of garbage.  Fact is the average American will accumulate 109 tons of trash in their lifetime.  So there’s much to be learned about individuals as well as communities and civilizations.  Garbage reveals what’s important to a person—what is treasured.

When you treasure something, you always leave something else behind…

But are we truly wise to what is treasure—and what is trash?

Today, God is leading the Magi to the one who is the greatest treasure the world will ever know.  But I wonder if even they were prepared for how great a treasure they would find?

The Magi have to be some of the New Testament’s most mysterious characters.  They’ve been referred to as “kings of orient,” but there’s really no truth to that.  They were magicians, sorcerers, and astrologers.  They were constantly looking to the sky for truth.  Somehow, some way, by God’s grace and the writings of the prophets, they learned that a star would be involved in the revealing of the Jewish Messiah—and they learned it so well that they knew exactly what to look for.  So they set out.

So after an unsuccessful consultation with the “King of Jews” known as Herod, the Magi continue to follow the star to the house where Jesus was.  Upon arriving, they open their treasure chests, and give Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  It’s likely Mary and Joseph had little use for the latter two gifts.  But that’s not the point here. They didn’t give these gifts because they’re great baby gifts.  These gifts were an expression of love for the treasure they’d found in Jesus.  We don’t know if the Magi gave Jesus some or all of the goods and gold they possessed.  But that’s okay—because knew Jesus as the greatest treasure.  They’re taking home the love of God—and their testimony that salvation isn’t found in the stars, but in the baby Jesus. 

This Jesus treasures them and all the people of the world so greatly that he will lay down his life. 

So what about all this trash we create?  How does a season of giving become a season of boxing-up and throwing away?

I think about my garbage.  The fast food trash and Styrofoam tell me that I treasure convenience.  The worn-out appliances and electronics invite me to upgrade to the latest and greatest.  Then there’s the whole matter of wasted water, electricity, and gasoline—and all the pollution of my consumption.  But it’s not just stuff that’s getting wasted.  People are getting wasted, too.

Consider King Herod—he treasured his wealth and power so much that he didn’t even flinch to unleash horrific violence against innocent children in order to preserve it.  He is an extreme but powerful example of how we treasure things for ourselves so much that we abuse others without even thinking about it—and turn our backs to the neighbors in need.

But God through the Holy Spirit has called and gathered us from far and wide to bring us to Jesus.  God gives faith so that you can all live in daily communion with him, so that he can reveal to you how greatly God treasures you.  Your time, your selves, and your possessions are all signs of God’s gracious love.  Yet we can easily miss out on the wonders of his love in pursuit of the things we treasure and that we think we can’t live without, but that leave only a trail of trash, hurt people, and missed opportunities.

We don’t know what Mary and Joseph did with the Magi’s gifts—though they could proven very useful in financing their escape to Egypt.  When you treasure Jesus, you present gifts that bring redemption and healing, instead of trash and destruction.

We can call the Magi “wise men” chiefly because they know true treasure when they see it.  They go home with empty treasure chests yet full of the love Jesus.  His love has the power to revolutionize that which you treasure, to create in you the heart of Christ.  His love will exercise itself in you giving gifts that heal instead of making trash. 

So perhaps it’s time to become a kind of garbologist of yourself—to look at your trash, and hear as God calls you to a new way of living.  It’s time to become stewards instead of consumers; to be thankful for all that God gives but not allow the good to stop with us.  Everything we have and everything we do can become gifts that heal instead of destroying.  Things like locally-sourced food and fair-trade goods; to cast aside convenience so to treasure people and relationships.  Instead of racing against the clock, scrambling towards the next big thing, you can live in the heart of Christ, full of mercy, patience, and love.

May God give you the wisdom to know your treasure from your trash—and live accordingly.