Looking Forward: When God Appears

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

We are celebrating Advent, but the world around us is racing into Christmas and the “holiday season.” With all the trimmings and decorations, a person’s heart inevitably takes time to reminisce; to look back and remember with fond nostalgia the warm and wonderful memories from Christmases past, or to else struggle to overcome hard memories from troubled times. In our own way, even as Christians, the looking back becomes a way of shaping our lives, telling our story in a way that comforts us. The trouble with such nostalgia is that it doesn’t look far enough back.  We are meant to tell God’s story, not our own. When we look far enough back—even to creation itself—we see a mighty God whose hand can remove any obstacle, and whose love can overcome any pain.  This creates a longing…a stirring of the heart…a desire to see God move again.

It is true that when God moves—when the Holy Spirit truly moves among God’s people—it is like seeing the sky riven and hearing the thunderous roar of a cyclone. It is like a powerful earthquake shaking the foundations beneath.  When God moves, our comfortable personal histories are disrupted, and the world itself is changed.  Throughout the history of the church, faithful men and women have undertaken countless endeavors in the name of God. Many of these have accomplished untold good in the world, and yet all them combined pale in comparison with the awesome hand of God’s own self when he moves among us.

Looking Forward: Longing for God

Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-35

We are celebrating Advent, but the world around us is racing into Christmas and the “holiday season.” With all the trimmings and decorations, a person’s heart inevitably takes time to reminisce; to look back and remember with fond nostalgia the warm and wonderful memories from Christmases past, or to else struggle to overcome hard memories from troubled times. In our own way, even as Christians, the looking back becomes a way of shaping our lives, telling our story in a way that comforts us. The trouble with such nostalgia is that it doesn’t look far enough back.  We are meant to tell God’s story, not our own. When we look far enough back—even to creation itself—we see a mighty God whose hand can remove any obstacle, and whose love can overcome any pain.  This creates a longing…a stirring of the heart…a desire to see God move again.

It is true that when God moves—when the Holy Spirit truly moves among God’s people—it is like seeing the sky riven and hearing the thunderous roar of a cyclone. It is like a powerful earthquake shaking the foundations beneath.  When God moves, our comfortable personal histories are disrupted, and the world itself is changed.  Throughout the history of the church, faithful men and women have undertaken countless endeavors in the name of God. Many of these have accomplished untold good in the world, and yet all them combined pale in comparison with the awesome hand of God’s own self when he moves among us.

Moment by Moment We Rise With Christ

Matthew 25:31-46

We call him our Lord and we call him King, for that is what he is. But never in the history of humanity has there been a king like Jesus.

There is no earthly scepter and crown for this ruler.  Instead he takes up the towel and the basin, washes the tired feet of his friends, and sets for them an example of servant-love that is world-changing. There is likewise no public office for this ruler. Jesus cared little for governments, even less for the intrigue and politics of empire-building. When all the kingdoms of the world were offered to him, Jesus flatly rebuked the tempter. He then took refuge in a lifetime of humble, Godly obedience (obedience is a cleft in the rock where all faithful persons may hide, and from which all doubts flee in the night).

His Kingdom is literally not of this world, though many of his subjects are in the world.  He is “Immanuel”—God with us. He brings the promised fulfillment of long-held hopes, and at the same time a revelation of “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived.”

We call him Lord and King…for that is what he is.

Risky Business

Matthew 25:14-30

Members of a youth group once stood on a tall cliff overlooking the water, debating the merits of jumping off or not. One by one they crept to the edge, curling their toes into the dirt as the dizzying height revealed itself. One by one they backed away. Suddenly from the back came a whoop and cry, and one of the youngest girls from the group streaked past them and shot out into space.  There was silence…gasps…a giant splash…and then a smiling face bobbing up in the waters below.  By the time she could finish waving, the rest of the group was airborne.

Of all the de-motivators in the world, fear is the perhaps the greatest. When fear grabs hold, it can choke out initiative, quell industriousness, and paralyze us into inactivity. Yet wherever someone can break the stranglehold of fear, whole new seasons of joy and freedom ensue for everyone. Jesus told a parable about a man who entrusted staggering amounts of money to some of his servants, so that they could handle his business while he was away.  A couple of the stewards took a risk and invested the man’s money, doubling the wealth in the process.  The other, however, was afraid of “letting his master down” and simply buried the money in the ground until he returned. The master was displeased with the fearful servant, and sent him away with nothing to show for his fearfulness.

Matthew shares this parable to remind the church that being a steward of Christ’s kingdom can be a risky business, but the cost of succumbing to fear is infinitely higher.

They Cast Such a Brilliant Light

Revelation 7:9-17, Matthew 5:1-12

Today is All Saints Sunday—a day of remembrance for Christian people of every time and place. We celebrate the great communion of saints as we remember the dead, some known generally as members of the vast Church universal, and others whose names and cherished memories are treasured in the intimacy of our own hearts. Especially in our close memories, having joined the saints in eternity during 2016-2017, are:

 

Elizabeth Ann Anderson
Rosemary Duncan
Jay Farrell
Alexandra E. "Connie" Kull
William Gregory "Greg" Maloney
Jeri Armstrong Sutphin

Craig DeLong
Ada Lynn (Sappington) English
Richard Klutts
Dean Lentz
Naomi Soto

 

These saints are absent from the body of Christ on
earth and present with the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The Testing Continues

Matthew 22:15-22

Our world is shrinking, and at the same time the pace of life is speeding. Ours is a cultural chaos of competing interests and complex moral questions, and unfortunately there are some who take great delight in pointing out the hypocrisies, double-speak, and unsolvable dilemmas all around us. They have no solutions or new ideas…they simply want to ensnare others by tripping them up in a web of conflicts.

It was that way in the time of Jesus, too. Some Pharisees, along with some Herodians (who never got along with Pharisees, by the way) came to Jesus for one purpose: to trap him with a question for which there is no real answer:  “Is it against God’s law to pay tribute to Caesar?” If Jesus says “yes”, the Pharisees will accuse him of blasphemy (Roman coins were inscribed with words that called Caesar divine). But if Jesus says “no”, the Herodians will call him a hypocrite (“you welcome sinners and tax collectors but cannot accept all the benefits that Rome has brought to us?!”).

It’s a trap. A question that neither party really cares about, except that it will force Jesus into a complicated answer. But Jesus stays with simple rather than complex: If it comes from Caesar, give to Caesar; If it comes from God, give to God. Jesus doesn’t, however, tell us how to determine which comes from where…that task belongs to you and me.

What It Means to Be Accepted Into Grace

Matthew 22:1-14

It is common enough in our times to see a gate and guard shack in front certain neighborhoods, signs reading “private” and “members only” in front of certain golf clubs or beach resorts, and elaborate screening processes required for membership in certain fraternal orders. In our world, some of the most beautiful places are limited in access by one simple word: exclusive.

Not so with God’s kingdom. Jesus’ death became the salvation for all humanity.  Redemption through God’s grace is offered freely to all persons. Anyone who receives this news is justified before God, and “reborn”. We are accepted through Christ into a new life and a realm where grace is supplied in full measure to all persons, persons of every age, and station and nation.  There is no catch, no condition placed on the entrance to new life in Christ.

There are, however, some house rules once we enter God’s house. The grace which justifies us is only part of the story;  we are meant to grow into that grace, becoming sanctified and sharing the likeness of Christ. In the church, accepting all persons is not the same as condoning all behavior. Put another way: by grace we must clothe ourselves in righteousness.

Lessee What You Got...

Matthew 21:33-46

Chapters 21-23 of Matthew are sometimes referenced as the “confrontation” section of his gospel.  Matthew tell us that when Jesus and his followers had come to Jerusalem, though multitudes of holiday visitors flocked to see him, he was made to feel much less than welcomed by the religious authorities. After openly challenging his authority as a teacher and healer, Jesus replied by telling stories—parables and allegories—which left the disciples wondering and the temple authorities fuming.

The story at the heart of today’s lesson describes a landowner who bought some property, and then leased it to others while he went overseas.  At harvest-time, the landowner sent messengers to receive his share of the yield from his land…but those who’d leased the land were unwilling to part with any of the proceeds.  Instead, they beat up and even killed the messengers and servants the landowner had sent.  In desperation, the owner sent his son (thinking they’d at least respect the family name), but he too was killed. A kind of coup had taken place!

Jesus concluded by asking the religious authorities what they thought the landowner would do when he himself returned, and the authorities rightly judged that the landowner would restore justice.  At which point, Matthew tells us, Jesus told them “you are also tenants, and God has leased his Kingdom into your care.  And now it’s time…the harvest is due…Lessee, what you got?”