Prepare!

“Prepare!”

Mark 1-3 prepare, road

Mark 1:1-8 (1:3) – December 10, 2017

This is the second weekend in December, a time of year that many people consider festive, merry and bright. The holidays here in America—with Christmas quickly approaching—are associated with tinsel, holly, and bright lights. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, silver bells, and jingle all the way.

But, that’s the secular way of welcoming the holidays. When we think of religious Christmas carols, we can remember O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels We Have Heard on High, The First Nowell, and O Come, All Ye Faithful.

Except…it isn’t Christmas yet. We are still on the second Sunday of Advent. We are still preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of the Baby in Bethlehem. Sort of like in George Frederick Handel’s “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts’s verse “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

The first two Sundays in Advent are more prophetic in tone. The bible readings for these two weeks look at prophecy referring to the coming of the Lord. In the case of the Apostle Peter, he is talking about the second coming of our Lord Jesus. The Gospel reading from the first chapter of Mark is about the forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist. Mark starts off this gospel with “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”  John the Baptist cries, “Prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord!”

What are we supposed to prepare, anyhow? That was always a question I asked myself.

Let’s back up. We learn more about John the Baptist from the Gospel of Luke. He was Jesus’s cousin. We know about John because his older mother Elizabeth was pregnant at the same time as the young Mary, the mother of Jesus. I suspect John and Jesus grew up fairly close to one another, perhaps even seeing each other on a regular basis.

What about the people at the time of the John the Baptist and his ministry, in the first century? What did they think of him? John comes across as—what some today might call—a lunatic or crazy person. Some homeless guy, spouting weird religious stuff about the coming of the Lord, or something. Really wacko, and not very appealing. Look at what he wears! Look at his weird diet, too!

John had quite a prophecy to live up to, as well. Listen to what Isaiah the prophet has to say! “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Yes, we can compare John to one of those doom-and-gloom prophets with a long, bushy beard. We might see them in cartoons, walking around a downtown area with a large sign that says “Repent! Prepare! The end of the world is near!”

I know I’ve heard street preachers downtown who preach fire-and-brimstone messages, warning everyone of the judgement to come, telling people to clean up their acts. Isn’t this similar to what John was preaching? Telling people to repent and to prepare for God’s coming?

Although, God did not just send a preacher like John the Baptist one time only, two thousand years ago. No, God regularly sends those preachers into our lives today to remind us that God’s arrival is indeed just around the corner.

What’s more, we hear from one of those preachers in the New Testament lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent. In Eugene Peterson’s great modern translation “The Message,” the apostle Peter asks, “Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life?” [1]

Living a holy life? That is exactly what John the Baptist wanted people to do, too. That is why he told people to clean up their hearts, and clean up their lives. Prepare! Get ready! John told people they had forgotten how to live like God’s people and needed to make changes. So, he baptized people who heard him, changed their minds and hearts, and wanted to make those changes permanent in their lives. [2]

We know that many people did change their hearts and minds, and did start living the way God wanted them to live, back in the time of John the Baptist. We know that many people repented and got baptized as an outward sign that they were repenting, and that God forgave their sins.

There are certain people who do not want to change. Certain people are stuck in their imperfect but familiar ruts, stuck doing the same thoughtless things, saying the same hurtful words, thinking the same inconsiderate thoughts. Everyone remembers Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol? Remember how mean and sour and nasty Scrooge was? He had absolutely no intention of changing his ways and becoming a kinder, more compassionate person—becoming more Christlike.

The people who John baptized certainly wanted to change, and they told John the Baptist so. They had a change of heart, and turned around to go a different way. They were preparing for the coming of the Lord. They were preparing the way for the Lord to work in their hearts, minds and lives. Can we do the same thing in our hearts, minds and lives, today? Or, will we cry, “Bah, humbug!” with Ebenezer Scrooge and continue on our stubborn way, away from God?

Another aspect of Scrooge’s life bears looking at. Another of Ebenezer Scrooge’s problems was that “he thought everything he had – his money, his possessions, his business – were the things that brought meaning to his life.” [3] The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future could be viewed as preachers. They came to him that evening and reminded him that all of those earthly things could be gone tomorrow. Sure, Scrooge had prepared all his earthly assets, but he had not prepared the inner sanctuary of his heart.

In the first century, in our Gospel lesson today, John the Baptist encouraged the crowds to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We have preachers today to encourage us to do the same thing. We have the witness of conscience and the Holy Spirit to do the same thing—encourage us to change. By repenting; literally making a 180 degree turn. By stopping dead in our tracks, like old Ebenezer, and re-evaluating the course of our life.

What is more, John promised that someone was coming from God who was going to be very important. John told people that they could change and that Jesus would give them even more power to make even bigger changes.

What about us, here and now? We can hear the call of John the Baptist. We can prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We can prepare Him room, just as the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” tells us. We can prepare the sanctuary of each of our hearts to welcome the Baby in Bethlehem who is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Won’t you prepare the way?

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Two. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/11/year-b-second-sunday-of-advent-december.html

Year B – The Second Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014)

[3] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Two. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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Keep Awake!

“Keep Awake!”

mark 13-26-artistic-christian-clouds-

Mark 13:24-27 (13:27) – December 3, 2017

How difficult it is to keep watch! Imagine how hard it is when you know the estimated time of arrival. There is even an acronym for this—ETA. We know about the estimated time of arrival of planes and trains and buses. People give relatives and friends their estimated time of arrival if they are traveling a long way. It is the polite thing to do, even courteous and helpful thing to do. Just so that the people on the receiving end know when visitors or relatives will be arriving.

We know when the Baby in Bethlehem arrived. Two thousand years ago, that’s when! God the Son, the baby Jesus, God made flesh, was born into this world as a helpless Baby a little more than two thousand years ago, as foretold in Bethlehem. He was born into an oppressed people group, in a land that was under occupation, under a conquering power; born to a young woman and her fiancé with very little money, power, or other prestige.

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the weeks the Church sets aside to wait quietly, expectantly, for the Baby in Bethlehem to be born. Yet, these first two weeks of Advent also give us a look at the future: predictions and promises for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Here in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning, Jesus is asked about the timing of the second coming. When will this mysterious time come about?

Jesus—as is so often the case—does not give a direct answer. Instead, listen to His first example: “24 “In the days after that time of trouble the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, 25 the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses. 28 “Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin.”

Sure, the people of Jesus’s time were wondering when Messiah would return. When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when! How similar is that to our own time. Many, many people are dissecting both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings. They, too, ask when Messiah is going to return the second time? When, Jesus? Please, just tell us when!

Next, Jesus gives His listeners a parable about a householder and his servants. As the Rabbi Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, “34 It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch.”

We know that Jesus often tells His listeners stories about everyday things, with a twist. Somehow, Jesus uses these common, ordinary things to communicate powerful truths. In this parable, we see a bunch of servants working for a boss with a large household, a large piece of property. The boss goes away on a long journey, and his employees do not know when he will be back.

What would people at your workplace do in a situation like that, with the big boss gone for a really long time? Would your fellow employees continue working hard? Or, would some of them start fooling around? Maybe stop working altogether? How might you react, if this happened to you, or to someone you knew? Again, what would you do?

 Jesus totally skips over that part about exactly when the Messiah is coming back.

Instead, Jesus commands His listeners to “Keep watch!” Let’s look more closely at this story. We are not only supposed to wait expectantly, but we need to be alert. Not just to stand around and twiddle our thumbs like a bunch of do-nothings and know-nothings. Each servant—or employee has their own job to do. Each servant—or employee has an assigned task. The door-keeper has just about the most important job of all of them, which is to stay alert and to keep watch, no matter what. Keep an eye on things, and when the big boss unexpectedly returns, we are warned not to cut back or sleep or lie down on the job.

Let us consider today, in modern-day United States. When we think of Advent, what comes to our minds? Advent wreaths? Advent get-togethers after work or on the weekends? Maybe school holiday productions incorporating Advent?

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, said “Each and all of it can be wonderful, and each and all of it can become rather overwhelming. So perhaps we might invite folks to make a short list – whether in their heads or on paper – of a few of the things that will occupy their Advent.[1]

What are you going to do for Advent? How are you going to get ready? How are you going to watch and keep awake?

I am not sure about anyone else here, but my December activities are threatening to become overwhelming. Can anyone else relate? Does anyone else have any idea about vulnerability and connecting with others?

The Church around the world is told to keep watch diligently. And then, “to think about how in each of those events and activities they might be more attentive to the vulnerability and need of those around them and more honest and open about their own need that they might receive the care of others.” [2]

Now, wait a minute, Jesus! I thought Advent was a time for us to wait and watch? A time for Advent calendars and Advent wreaths? I wanted to sit quietly in my corner and watch from the comfort of my easy chair. I did not want to step out of my comfort zone!

Guess what? The landlord—the big boss—has given all of us our jobs to do. In last week’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we are to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit the people in hospitals and in prison. Yes, this may be a lot for us to take in. However, the commands of Jesus are pretty important! Don’t you think we ought to sit up and pay attention to His commands?

Jesus and His commands can lead us in new directions. Pastor Janet Hunt makes the following suggestion: “knowing that it will all one day end can also set us free, can’t it?

  • Free to speak words of truth and hope and love.
  • Free to reach out in generosity and kindness.
  • Free to forgive what before seemed unforgivable.
  • Free to let go of what we thought we would always need.” [3]

What an exciting opportunity to truly be what Jesus—the householder—the big boss—is calling each of us to be. “How do we “keep awake” in this kingdom time of already-not-yet? Simply by being faithful to the tasks God has given us to do – the tasks of kindness, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and love.” [4] When we are faithful in these things, we will become more and more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/advent-1-b/  “Preaching a Participatory Advent,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/raking-in-the-dark/  “Raking in the Dark,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.

[4] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week One. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

For the Least of These

“For the Least of These”

Matt 25-35 for whatever, words

Matthew 25:31-46 (25:40) – November 26, 2017

This Sunday—today—is the last Sunday in the liturgical year. This Sunday is also called Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate and lift up the might of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ today! Dominion, honor, power, authority, glory, majesty! Crown Him with many crowns! Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

We have many marvelous hymns we can choose from for today. I love many of the words and tunes of the hymns that refer to our Lord Jesus having all power and authority in heaven and on earth, being King and ruler of the universe, and all creation.

I think all of us are familiar with the stories Jesus tells in His ministry, featuring real life situations. The Rabbi Jesus tries to get His listeners to understand some deeper truths through these stories, or parables. Jesus Himself talks about an all-powerful King at the end of the world, in this final parable from Matthew 25. The all-powerful King from this parable is the exalted Lord Jesus, ascended to heaven, as we declare every time we say the Apostle’s Creed.

As we did two weeks ago, let’s pull back from this particular parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is midway through Holy Week in Jerusalem, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

However, something does not fit. Something is very puzzling about this parable.

Here in Matthew 25, we have the exalted Lord Jesus, the almighty King eternal, sitting in judgment over all the peoples of the earth.

At first reading, even at second, third, tenth or twentieth reading, this final parable from Matthew can be really scary. Just like in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the prophet Ezekiel, all sheep and goats are separated, just as all the people from every nation in the world are separated. All people are divided into two groups: those who the King is pleased with, and those who the King is not pleased with.

The people listening to Jesus in Jerusalem that day were extremely puzzled. Scratching their heads, they might have said, “Rabbi, you just don’t make any sense.” Especially the people who had followed Jesus for months might have been particularly lost. Things just don’t add up!

On one hand, we have Jesus, the caring, nurturing Shepherd. This is what the prophet Ezekiel starts off with in our reading today. In many parables, in many situations throughout His ministry for three years, Jesus has shown Himself to be loving, caring, gentle, and welcoming to everyone—no matter who, no matter what.

But, wait. Let’s go back to this final parable from Matthew, where the King at the end of all time is talking to the vast assembly of people from every nation, tribe and tongue. Let’s remind ourselves of the words of the Son of Man: “Then the King will say to the people on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.  I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.”

I am certain that many people listening to Jesus and His parables were absolutely floored by these words. What on earth are You talking about, Jesus?

Dr. David Lose said, “When we think of God, we typically think in terms of power and might and glory and all the rest. And, indeed, the [final] parable begins by describing the coming of the Son of Man in glory to sit on his throne attended by angels, seemingly only reinforcing our preconceptions.” [1] This word picture is absolutely the picture we associate with Christ the King Sunday, with dominion, honor, power, authority, glory, and majesty!

Yet, we also see a loving, caring, nurturing Shepherd, as expressed by our Lord Jesus Himself any number of times during His ministry. And, there are glimpses of that Shepherd here in the parable, too. We have two different, disparate, even disconcerting pictures of Jesus here. What gives? Which is the real Jesus? What is going on here?

The people in the parable are puzzled, too. Let’s listen to their reaction: “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you?  When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

As if the two very different pictures of Jesus are not enough, the King in the parable adds a third. I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!”

Here, Jesus tells us He is right with the chronically hungry and thirsty. He is among the strangers and refugees. He is among the indigent poor and sick, and is right there with the many hundreds of thousands all across the world who are in jail. Jesus, the Son of Man, would rather hang out with the bums on Skid Row rather than with the fancy people in their religious country clubs or with the fine Pharisees in their first-rate houses of worship.

Does anyone else feel challenged when they hear these serious words of Jesus?

As Dr. Lose tells us, “No one expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.” [2]

Jesus gives us a judgment scene in this final parable. This is a cautionary scene described here, at the end of all time. Here, in this parable from Matthew, we have three separate pictures of Jesus. Yes, He is the King! All honor, power, majesty and glory be given to Him! Amen! Yes, Jesus is the Gentle Shepherd, the loving, caring, nurturing one who gathers the lost lambs into the fold. And, third, our Lord Jesus is seen in the faces of those who are difficult to love, and a challenge to care for.

Jesus shows up in those unexpected places, in the concrete and real needs of our neighbors next door, and around the world. But, you and I are not at the end times, yet. We can take action, and see the face of Jesus in others around us. The disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and in need.

Jesus calls us to serve others. By serving others, we will be serving—loving—caring for Jesus. How can we serve Jesus, today? How can we help others? How can we extend our hands and hearts to be loving, caring and giving, today? The best part? God will be right by our sides as we extend our hands to serve and care for others. And, God promises to change us from the inside out as we extend our hands—our hearts—ourselves—to others.

Here, in this final parable, Jesus the King tells us He is right with the vulnerable, the unlovely, the indigent, those difficult to love and those who are such a challenge to care for.

Next week, we will begin the liturgical year with the season of Advent, those weeks when we await the coming of the Baby in Bethlehem at Christmas. We await the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Eternal Almighty God the Son emptying Himself and becoming a baby. Becoming vulnerable, becoming human. Just like us.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/ “The Unexpected God,” David Lose, …In The Meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Thanksgiving to God

“Thanksgiving to God”

2 Cor 9-11 thanksgiving, words

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 (9:11) – November 19, 2017

Today, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, many people across the United States celebrate as Thanksgiving Sunday. “According to the Internet there are 12 nations – large and small – who celebrate in one form or another their nation’s Thanksgiving Day; whilst other forms and styles of celebration include local “Harvest Thanksgiving” services.” [1]

Both scripture readings this morning feature words of gratitude and thanks to God for giving us our many blessings, and specifically for the blessings of the harvest. First, our psalm for this morning lets us know God has provided so much for us to enjoy. Not only the bounty of the harvest, but more than that. Our Psalmist lets us know God has made the earth and water, and everything else, and provides everything for humanity’s benefit.

Let me read again from Psalm 65: “You, God, soften the earth with showers and bless its abundant crops. 11 You crown the year with a bountiful harvest; even the hard pathways overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness become a lush pasture, and the hillsides blossom with joy. 13 The meadows are clothed with flocks of sheep, and the valleys are carpeted with grain. They all shout and sing for joy!”

All this bounty is considered to be given to humanity to enjoy. All the harvest and bounty that this psalm celebrates is what the apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the church in Corinth, too. Except, Paul goes one step further.

When we read Paul’s suggestions in this passage today, he urges the believers in Corinth to be generous. Sure, in Paul’s previous letter, in 1 Corinthians, the people from that church were collecting for the poor and persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Now, with this updated message to Corinth, Paul praises the church for continuing with the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, and urges them to be generous. He broadens his suggestion and encourages them to give gifts freely. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

What about that last phrase, anyway? “God loves a cheerful giver.” Sure, Paul is urging his fellow Christians to be generous. However, this goes over and above mere giving of alms, or slipping a dollar in a panhandler’s cup, or even a five-dollar bill in the Salvation Army kettle in the holiday season. Paul lets us know we ought to give cheerfully (Gr. hilaron), or “hilariously,” in the sense of very joyfully. But, he doesn’t want us to throw our money around needlessly. And, not in the sense of thoughtlessly, either.

Money, charity, and giving are discussed in the Bible in several places. I will highlight one: “cheerful” givers always receive God’s loving approval (Prov. 22:8). So, God wants all of us to be cheerful, generous, and open-hearted.

There is a problem here, and Paul mentions it. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

One of my favorite bible commentators, Bob Deffinbaugh, writes “Some people simply do not enjoy being generous. It causes them great pain to give up more of what they possess in order to bestow it upon someone who needs it more than they do. Once I suggested to a friend who was dying that she give away some of her possessions while she was alive, so that she could enjoy the act of giving while she was still alive. I had seriously misjudged the situation. This woman did not want to give anything away before she died, because she found no pleasure in giving. Only after her death, when she could keep her possessions no longer, would she reluctantly will them to someone else. How sad.” [2]

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. Certainly, the idea of reluctantly giving away money or worldly goods is something most of us associate with Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol fame. I know very well that there are great numbers of people who only give “grudgingly.”

So many people love their stuff, don’t they? Or, if not “stuff,” then they are awfully attached to their money, or even their time. Some might hate to part with anything of value, period.  And, especially, “We should not give because we feel there is no alternative, or because we think others will look down on us if we fail to give.” [3] It’s sort of tGod’swisted and perverted, and just like the Pharisees. That is the exact opposite of the reason Paul tells us to give.

As Bob Deffinbaugh relates, “To use an analogy our Lord employs, when we see a brother who has no coat, we don’t have to own a coat factory; all we need is two coats (see Luke 3:11). The reason we may not have the means to give to the poor is because we have not sown from that which we have in order to reap more to give. We, like the widow who cared for Elijah, may need to give first to those in need, and then look to God to supply our needs.” [4]

We can follow Paul’s words and suggestions, and ask—how would we celebrate God’s blessings to us? How could we give thanks? Like I suggested to the children earlier today, we can be generous. Give of what we have. If we have a little extra food or canned goods or pasta, give that. If we have an extra coat, give it to a coat drive. If we have some free time, volunteer or donate that. If God has been good to us and we have some extra money, be generous with whatever God has blessed us with.

When my husband and I were hiking through a state forest some years ago, we came across a stream. The path turned and followed the bubbling, flowing stream. As my husband and I continued walking, we came to a little waterfall, where the water bubbled and traveled downward from one level to another, and then went rushing along its merry way. I think of giving like this. Paul lets us know that generous giving flows out of God’s generosity to us. If we dam up that trickle of giving, we might end up with a backload of water that can’t flow, can’t run free and clear, and cannot transmit God’s blessings to others.

When we understand that everything—every single thing!—we have comes from God, it is much easier to share what we have with others. God supplies both the seed and the harvest. He is the one who makes us rich so that we might be generous on every occasion. Our giving is a demonstration of thanks to God. We thank God for what God has given us by giving it away!

And, what is the final point of Paul’s suggestion? What is the most wonderful thing God gives us? Praise the Lord for God’s unmatchable, unspeakable, unsurpassable Gift—Jesus Christ! Jesus and the grace He freely gives to us is the reason we give to others.

We give thanks that our generosity is rooted in the generosity of our God in the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We can say “Happy Thanksgiving,” indeed.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.thetimelesspsalms.net/w_resources/pentecost23[30]c_2016.htm

The Timeless Psalms: Psalm 65, Joan Stott, prayers and meditations based on lectionary Psalms, 2016.

[2] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

[3] http://soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/2corinthians.pdf

2 Corinthians, Expository Notes, Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2005 edition.

[4] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Keep Watch!

“Keep Watch!”

Matt 25-12 I know you not

Matthew 25:1-13 (25:13) – November 12, 2017

Just two weeks ago, St. Luke’s Church had its big fall Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. This dinner took quite a bit of planning and preparation. Just ask anyone who worked on planning, preparing, serving, or cleaning up. And, another big thank you to all of those who planned, worked, or ate at the Spaghetti Dinner. It all was much appreciated!

I am a person who is not naturally a planner. Or, rather, I was not the person who would be so very prepared. You know that sort of person. They always plan way in advance. They always bring more supplies, buy plenty of food, and especially are always there in plenty of time, for any occasion. I admire these people. Over time, I have learned how to copy certain aspects of their planning and preparation. However, I am not naturally one of these super-prepared people.

To recap from our scripture from Matthew 25, there are a bunch of young women—strictly speaking, the text calls them “virgins.” They are to accompany the bridegroom and the rest of the bridal party as he travels to the bride’s home, picks her up, and they all go to a large banquet hall to celebrate the ceremony. This was a common feature of weddings in that part of the world, and still is in places around the world, today.

Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25 is all about being prepared. Doing some advance planning. And, at face value, it seems really unfair.      As Dr. David Lose (one of my favorite commentators) said, “All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids.” [1]

Oh, Dr. Lose, I relate so much! I fear I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids, too! I am afraid I may not be welcomed to the wedding banquet, either.

I have a confession to make. I have never preached a sermon on this parable before. I have always been leery of it. Or afraid of it. I wrestled with the idea of preaching on this parable, and felt convicted by God. So, I decided—with God’s help, when this reading came up as a lectionary Gospel reading that I would definitely preach on it.

Let’s pull back from this brief parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is sometime midway through Holy Week, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s a big reason why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

Jesus “lets them know that there will be signs, terrible signs, that will give people clues that the end is coming, encouraging them not to listen to idle rumors, but to trust His words. The parable of the bridesmaids compares the listeners to [bridesmaids], entrusted with a role,” [2] while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Preparation and planning are often mixed up with waiting. Sure, we can plan the menu for a big dinner, and purchase the food for the big event. We prepare everything for the festive table, and get the table centerpieces and flowers and everything else. But sometimes, waiting is somehow involved in this process. Waiting for God to show up. How long do we wait? That was just what the disciples were anxious and worried about. That was one big reason why Jesus told several parables in this particular discourse.

A story one commentator told happened several years ago. Dr. Karoline Lewis relates: “My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam [my father-in-law] ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

“That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.” [3]

I wonder how many of us can trust God when we are waiting and wondering? I wonder how many of us continue to have faith in God when things just don’t seem to make any sense? Like in the case of difficult scripture passages like this one, this parable from Matthew where the bridegroom—Jesus—sends the five foolish, unprepared bridesmaids away, not allowing them in to the wedding banquet?

All these bridesmaids were waiting. (As do we. We wait for Jesus to return, and we—the church—have been waiting for centuries.) Five of these bridesmaids were prepared, and had enough oil. Five did not. We can compare that to having extra batteries for your flashlight, like I told the boys during the children’s time before the sermon. But today’s parable does not highlight a shortage of oil for the lamps. No, the oil is plentiful. There is more than enough oil. However, the five bridesmaids forget they are going to need the oil. [4] I sometimes forget I need oil—which God bountifully supplies. Do you sometimes forget, too?

I want to highlight verse 13, where Jesus says “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Yes, there is pain, suffering, loss, grief, sickness, anxiety, and all manner of other difficult things in this world. We are not certain when God will show up. Yet, we can glean some words of advice from this parable: Be prepared. Plan. Watch. Keep awake. And, wait.

“If only we will remember that we have a steady supply of precious ‘oil’ to help light our way. For we have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return.’ We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.” [5]

We all have been called to lift our lamps—our lights—and lift them high, shining as signs of promise and hope in a dark world with little hope or brightness or light in it. The oil is provided for us. Jesus encourages us to lift our lights in an often dark world.

Indeed, isn’t this what the world needs most of all?

 

(A big thank you to David Lose, Liz Milner, Karoline Lewis and Janet Hunt for their helpful writings as I wrestled with this challenging text from Matthew 25.)

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/  “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1534-my-bad-dream  “My Bad Dream,” Liz Milner, Journey with Jesus, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413  “How To Wait,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[4] http://dancingwiththeword.com/oil-for-our-lamps/  “Oil for Our Lamps,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.  November 5, 2017

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

All the Saints

“All the Saints”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 9:7-28 (9:7) – November 5, 2017

Today, we commemorate All Saints Sunday. The first Sunday of November, that day we remember all the saints who are now in heaven, worshiping God in that great cloud of witnesses. We also remember familiar people, relatives and friends known to us, dear to us, who died since last All Saints Day last year. What is it about these formal occasions of remembrance? Often, we remember those who have sacrificed much, displayed tremendous bravery, or were persecuted—even died—at tremendous risk to themselves.

What is it that causes you and me to be listed in among a great multitude of saints like these? Or, aren’t we even to be worthy to be listed on the same page as these rarefied superstar saints? These women and men who followed after God, no matter what?

One of our Scripture readings today comes from the book of Revelation, starting at verse 9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

We break into the narrative as the elderly John has another vision, this time a scene of heaven. And, instead of seeing a predominance of Jews and only a sprinkling of other tribes and people groups, John sees a great multitude of all colors, all ethnicities, all languages and dialects, from every place on the globe.

I am blown away by that vision, the more I think about it. I am in awe, because the great multitude is of every possible description, every possible people group under the sun. Not just me and my family, not just me and the people from the neighborhood where I grew up. Not just people from one region, or one country, or one ethnicity. But, people from everywhere.       These people of the vision are called “saints,” and many people today have only one specific idea of what a “saint” is. St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John of the Cross, or St. Martha—the patron saint of our neighbor Catholic church, or the newly beatified saint, Mother Teresa.

Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, has a different definition of “saints.” “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” And, both apostles Paul and Peter call their friends “saints” in the greetings, to all of the people who receive their letters.

But, we know very well that life often does not go smoothly. Not for us, not for our friends and families, and certainly not for the multitudes who lived in centuries past. Interesting, that “because we sinners are made holy by God’s grace, and not by our own actions, we are able to keep on going as Stevenson says.  Our keeping on in life often involves suffering.” [1] And, if we know anything about history, we know that believers in Christ often had to deal with grief, pain, suffering, and even persecution.

When John received this grand series of visions that he wrote down in the book of Revelation, he was often puzzled. He had to ask the people or elders or angels around him what it was he was seeing. As is the case here: “Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

Leading question, you may say! John persuades the elder to answer the question himself. ““they are before the throne of God and serve God day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat.”

It sounds like to me that these people in heaven, who are identified as “saints” in other places in the book, no longer have to go through that valley of the shadow here on the earth, where God walks right by their side as they are in difficulty. They no longer need to face challenges of health reversals or job loss or crushing poverty or horrible accidents, or various calamities of one sort or another. They are at God’s side in heaven, and never have to experience those trials, losses, hunger and anguish any more.

But we are still left on this side of the veil. On this side, on a troubled world where suffering and loss and fear and anxiety rear their heads all too often. Especially grief, where we mourn the loss of loved ones, friends and relatives who left us too soon.

Rev. Janet Hunt talks about a sad situation like this: “And yet, for all of those for whom I light a candle and remember each All Saints Sunday, there is still really just the one I carry closest of all. One whose dying has me yearning most deeply for the promises of this day.

“It came to me again last week when a beloved cousin came to visit. He had stopped to see his folks the night before he flew out and as he sat with them he told his dad he was going to see Kathleen. “You remember Kathleen, don’t you dad? She was Tommy’s wife.” (Kathleen is my mother.)

“Now in these recent years my dad’s brother does not remember as he once did. For a moment last week, though, there was clarity as he remembered his only brother and as he registered all over again the fact that he had died and with that remembering, his face fell along with his tears. And mine did, too, to hear of his remembering.” [2]

Grief, sorrow and loss are like that, sometimes. We can be fine, content, living our lives. Then, out of nowhere it seems, the thought of that special loved one, that dear friend who is no longer with us in this world, comes to mind.

And then, Janet Hunt reminds us, “nothing makes us more grateful than the gift of that time and place so vividly described in today’s words from Revelation. A time and place:

  • where the whole world will gather and join together in song and where we will be washed clean,
  • where hunger and thirst will no longer hold sway,
  • where there will be shelter from all that would harm,
  • where the very water of life will sustain us,
  • and where God Himself will bend low to wipe away our tears.” [3]

Is such a place even possible? In those times when you or I are grieving anew, remembering with sorrow or longing in our hearts, the apostle John assures us that “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And, ““Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

In plainer words, from his first letter to the scattered believers in Christ, John gives us further assurance: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Today, we have a foretaste of heaven from both Scripture readings. Revelation tells us of the wonderful worship service in heaven, where everyone is praising God. And 1 John lets us know that when our Lord Jesus appears to each of us, we shall be like Him in glory.

“So with all of you, I will light the candles this All Saints Day. In memory and in powerful hope we will light the candles. Standing confident in the very promises of God we will light them.[4]

Amen. May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://preachingtip.com/archives-year-a/pentecost-year-a/all-saints-day-all-saints-sunday/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-day-in-memory-and-in-hope/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Faith Alone

“By Faith Alone”

sola gratia, scriptura, fide - Lutheran

Romans 3:19-28 (3:28) – October 29, 2017

Today is a festive day in the church. Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday in October every year when we remember the bravery and determination of Father Martin Luther, Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany.

This year is not just an anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, countless people throughout the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door in Wittenberg.

As I have said during the past few weeks, I care very much about this celebration. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two full years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I can tell you that Martin Luther had his ups and downs as he was traveling the religious road through life. He really, truly wanted to know exactly how to get right with God.

Our New Testament reading today comes from Romans 3, and it starts in a not-very-good place. The apostle Paul talks about the Law of Moses. All of its statutes and ordinances and restrictions would tie people up in knots as they tried to follow every single little rule. That’s the situation everyone finds themselves in, if we start with Romans 3:19-20. We are all in the same sinking boat. From Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation The Message: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the other people? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it:”

Martin started out as a monk, became a priest, and eventually earned his doctorate in theology. He was extremely intelligent, and knew lots of different kinds of stuff. Bible, theology, mathematics, rhetoric, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. However, he seemed to have an inferiority complex. Or, to say it in a different way, Martin was scared to death that he would never measure up to God’s standards and the way God wanted him to live.

Martin Luther tried really hard to get into God’s good graces, for years. He was quite earnest about it. He would try and try to pray and meditate, to do things that would get him on the plus side of God’s righteousness ledger. However, he never could measure up, not on his own. Not even because he was trying as hard as he could to get on God’s good side.

Does that sound familiar to anyone here, today? Is anyone here trying desperately to have God approve of them? Did we all hear the scripture reading from the book of Romans? We are all—all of us—in the same sinking boat. What is more, there is no one who can say they are living the right way, God’s way. Everyone falls short.

From time to time, I look at an online discussion board where ministers share their ideas and insights about scripture readings for sermons and bible studies. This was a few years ago, but Pastor Erik from Wisconsin shared the following comment in a discussion about these particular verses from Romans 3:

“This Sunday we celebrate confirmation. As a part of their confirmation requirements, students have to meet with me for a brief discussion/interview. I ask them about faith, life, God, etcetera – see if they learned anything during confirmation. One question I always ask is “How will you get into heaven? How are you saved?” Most often I get the answers – “Pray. Go to church. Do good deeds.[1]

Martin Luther went to the extreme, in this respect. That would have been his answer, for years and years. Martin spent hours every week on his knees, asking God for forgiveness and confessing his sins to God and to his own personal confessor and spiritual director. He fasted, depriving himself of food and drink, regularly. Martin even went on pilgrimages, to try to gain special favor with God and show himself to be extra specially deserving of coming into God’s presence.

And then, he would meticulously chalk up the good deeds he did. Not to be loving and giving, as our Lord had told us to do, but in order to be super-religious, and to show everyone just how religious Martin was being. Just in the same way that the Pharisees were super religious and meticulous in their rule-following in the first century, when our Lord Jesus walked the earth.

What does Romans 3:23 tell us? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

I don’t know whether anyone here has ever used a bow and arrow. Has anyone? (I would really like to know.) One of my daughters has, plus one of my close friends. The apostle Paul uses an expression here used for shooting arrows—falling short and missing the mark.  Not hitting the target. What’s more, we can never, ever hit the target that God has set for us to hit, no matter how hard we try, because of sin. All of us sin. That’s everyone. No exceptions.

One of my favorite commentators had this weighty insight about sin. Dr. David Lose tells us that “When we talk about sin, it’s almost always in the plural – sins – as in describing bad things we’ve done. But sin described in [Paul’s writings] is not so much a thing as it is a force – the power that seeks to rob the children of God of abundant life.” [2] How about that? We are all stopped from hitting the bull’s eye by this unstoppable force called sin.

But, wait! There’s more from Dr. Lose. Sin is also “a condition in which we are trapped. In this second sense, the condition of sin is very much a state of existential insecurity – being fearful or anxious that you are not safe, not sufficient, not worthy of love and respect.” [3]

Worse and worse! We not only are being stopped by a force that eternally keeps us from hitting this bull’s eye of living God’s way, but this same unstoppable force convinces us that we are not safe, not sufficient, not able even to use a Godly, heavenly bow and arrow—so to speak. It’s the ultimate feeling of insecurity, of feeling less-than, fearful and anxious that we will never get to heaven and never be in God’s presence.

But, who will save us from this wretched situation? From this unstoppable force and condition of sin? How can we come into God’s presence and live God’s way, the way our Lord meant us to live?

Martin Luther was also a diligent student of the Bible. He would pour over Scripture for hours each week. Finally, in 1513, he found this mind-blowing idea in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers.   Verse 3:28:” 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”   Thanks be to God.

“God also loves us, accepting and loving the insecure, wayward persons we are. Not the person we’ve tried to be or promised to but, but the person we really are. And so God not only forgives us those sins (plural) we commit, but also promises us God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and regard.” [4]

Again, thanks be to God for God’s unspeakable, marvelous, glorious gift!

This sermon is called “By Faith Alone:” Sola fide! Last Sunday’s sermon was “By Grace Alone:” Sola gratia! Last week we looked at Ephesians 2:8-9, which says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

We know from Paul’s straight account that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that no one can boast about their good works, “that none of us can brag that we earned some spiritual star a long time ago. If anyone will boast, we will not boast of our faith; we will not boast about our good works.  If anyone will boast, we will boast about God, the God who forgives us and loves us.  We will boast about Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for you and me. We will boast about the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin.” [5]

We are gathered here in this building because of Jesus Christ, because of what He did for us on the Cross, because He conquered death, and because we are now His followers. What more wonderful expression of our faith is there than to say Soli Deo Gloria! Or, to God alone be the glory. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://javacasa.ipower.com/resources/dps_form_results/roma3_19.htm

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/ref-day-pen-20-original-insecurity/  “Original Insecurity and the Power of Love,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mother Teresa, Good Works and Faith  Romans 3:19-28 – ·  Reformation Sermons, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)