We have begun a new year in the church! Advent begins the church year anew, and, through its themes and assigned lectionary Scriptures, situates us between Advents. We are reminded that we are living between the first Advent - the birth of Jesus Christ - and the second Advent - his coming again in glory. This is the fundamental orientation of the Advent season, and it asks us to evaluate and live our lives in the light of the truth and veracity of these two events.
I want to just briefly highlight a few Advent imperatives:
1) Advent compels us to be people of waiting and anticipation. Advent stands in stark contrast to the world around us at this time of the year, when everyone is busy, rushing from this activity to the next, purchasing this and that. Advent reminds us that we need to spiritually prepare ourselves for Jesus Christ's presence in our lives.
2) Advent assists us in understanding the whole story of the Messiah's coming. During the four weeks preceding Christmas, we hear portions of the story that point us to the promise of the Messiah and give us context for Jesus' incarnation. We need to hear from the prophets, from John the Baptist, from Mary, Elizabeth, and more, in order to truly grasp what happened in the stable in Bethlehem.
3) Advent is a time to focus on spiritual discipline. Both Advent and Lent are good times to focus on our own spiritual growth and development. These seasons are opportunities to grow closer to God as we wait on his movement in our own lives.
May this Advent be a time of renewal for you, as we look to his birth and look forward to his return!
This Sunday's Gospel lection is the well-known story of Jesus miraculously multiplying 5 loaves and 2 fish, and feeding thousands of people. Here is the text from Matthew:
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
At the outset of this section, I am struck by Jesus relationship to the crowds. At the beginning of chapter 14, we read of the execution of John the Baptist (Jesus's cousin) at the hands of Herod. After making a drunken bet during a licentious party, Herod, in order to keep face with his guests, had John beheaded. So, this lection begins with Jesus hearing that news. No doubt he was filled with grief and sorrow. No doubt he wanted some time away; in fact, the author makes that clear: "he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place." The crowds continued to follow Jesus, and when he saw them, "he had compassion on them and healed their sick."
I'm struck that even in the midst of tremendous personal loss, Jesus's concern is still for the welfare of others. Given the human tendency to get so involved in our own "stuff" that we can become completely and totally self-absorbed. Our Lord continues to offer us his example of service and sacrifice. Certainly there is a need to deal with our own losses and times of tragedy; however, let's not lose sight of the struggles of others around us. May we never ceased to be "moved with compassion" for our sisters and brothers.
After a hiatus, I am back with some "first thoughts" on the upcoming Scriptures for Sunday. I hope this is a place where you are inspired to also reflect on the Scriptures, to meditate on them, and to bring that with you to worship on Sunday.
Since we are in the middle of a series on Jesus' parables, we will look at the assigned Gospel lessons over the next couple of weeks. Here is the lesson for Sunday, July 23:
"He [Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn....Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
According to the four gospel accounts, Jesus taught in parables about 40 times; interestingly, only twice did Jesus offer the interpretation to the parable he'd given (the other is the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13). Here, Jesus offers a parable that also uses agrarian images; however, this parable seems to me to be much more intense than the parable of the Sower, as Jesus talks about fire, angels, weeping and gnashing of teeth. What is Jesus communicating in this parable? Here are a few initial thoughts:
1) There is real evil in the world. Indeed, this evil can even creep into the midst of God's faithful. Jesus seems to indicate that the Evil One has influence through people, even in the church. We can easily point to evil in the world - suicide bombers, abusers, drug use, greed. But even among those who are part of the Kingdom? Apparently so.
2) It is God's job to execute judgment — not ours. Do you see how the weeds and the wheat grow together? Ultimately, it is God's job to sort everything out, do pluck the weeds from the wheat. But that will happen someday in the future - the consequences are not quick in coming. For, in fact, both the wheat and the weeds are all bound up together. Apparently, to remove one would also inevitably destroy the other, because one cannot tell the difference right away between the wheat and the weed.
3) We have Jesus’ promise that in ambiguous, challenging situations - when we can't distinguish between weeds and wheat - we have the promise that, in the end, God will sort things out.This doesn't mean everything will turn out just fine. Our decisions have consequences, some good and some hard. Sometimes things go wrong. The promise in the parable isn’t that there is no hardship in the Kingdom of God; the promise is that we are not justified by our right choices but rather by grace through faith. And knowing we have God’s unconditional regard in spite of our poor choices frees us to live in the moment.
Friends, what are your thoughts?
After a brief hiatus, weekly First Thoughts on the upcoming lectionary texts resumes.
This Sunday, March 19, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, gives us the well-known story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at a well in John 4:5-42.. I won't post the entire Scripture here, as it is quite lengthy; I invite you to read it on your own. Here are my initial takeaways:
1) The Kingdom of God disrupts boundaries. It would have been controversial — indeed, far outside the boundaries of proper social customs — for Jesus, a Jewish man, to associate in public with a Samaritan woman. Jews viewed Samaritans as the lowest of the low; Samaritans had intermarried with Gentiles long ago, and were thus regarded as unclean and dirty. Their worship rituals and customs also differed significantly from Jews. To speak with her alone, to accept water from her — all of this was so far outside the "norm." In doing all this, Jesus reveals that the Kingdom of God encompasses all and is for all. No one stands outside of the reign of God.
2) Jesus continues to be misheard and misunderstood. This is one of the hallmarks of St. John's gospel: Jesus posits something about a spiritual reality or the realm of God, and his listener or conversation partner mishears and misunderstands. We saw this last Sunday with Nicodemus. Jesus spoke to him of the necessity of the new birth, of being "born from above." Nicodemus doesn't get it: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?" (John 4:3). The Samaritan woman also fails to grasp Jesus' spiritual teachings. They have an incredible discourse regarding water. Jesus talks about living water, of water which assuages all thirst. The Samaritan woman takes him to mean literal water, and, of course, desires that!
3) We can't keep a transformative encounter with Jesus to ourselves! After their interaction, the Samaritan woman told her townsfolk about Jesus: "He told me everything I have ever done." (4:39b). We see great numbers of Samaritans become disciples of Jesus because of that woman's testimony. Testimony is always the appropriate response to the personal realization of God's grace.
What are your First Thoughts on John 4:5-42? Feel free to comment below.
This coming Sunday, 2/12, is the third Sunday in our sermon series, "Living the Kingdom Lifestyle." The focus is "Maturing in Kingdom Relationships. This bit of text from Matthew challenges us in our relationships. Here it is;
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
This segment certainly contains some of Jesus' more difficult teachings. Jesus dramatically elevates the standard of Kingdom behavior and relationships. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus is actually making things more difficult; that he is simply adding more rules to follow. I believe Jesus is doing something entirely different from that. Jesus is ordering a fundamental re-orientation of what it means to be in relationship, and he is communicating the truth that externals are the result of internal processes. You see, instead of more rules, Jesus is telling us to quit focusing on the externals, and instead examine the internal motivations, thoughts, values, from which the externals necessarily flow. Remember, Jesus taught this in Luke 6:45: "A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (NLT)"
What are your first thoughts on reading this bit from the Sermon on the Mount?
This Sunday, Feb. 5, we continue in our sermon series from the Sermon on the Mount, titled Living the Kingdom Lifestyle. This week's emphasis is "Maximizing our Kingdom Impact." Last week, we looked at how the Beatitudes begin to form our kingdom orientation. An orientation has to do with identity and practice; the latter flows from the former. Only when we have intentionally developed an identity — which deals with how we understand who we are and who we are in relation to God and others — are we able to live out the blessed life that Jesus teaches in Matthew 5-7.
Here is Matthew 5:13-20:
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
I want to focus on the first few verses. Jesus uses two images to convey how Christians are to maximize their impact for the kingdom of God: to be salt & a lamp. Let's look at salt first. Salt adds flavor and turns that which was bland into something delicious. Salt also is a preservative; in the ancient world - and even today - it is used to keep certain foods from spoiling. But Jesus also conveys a harsh reality: salt can lose its potency, and therefore be useless to the job it was intended to do. How do we, as Christians, keep our saltiness? How might we maximize our potency for the kingdom?
We are also a lamp. The lamp is placed on a stand, illuminating the area around it. It allows people to move freely. It allows for unhindered work and unfettered play. It dispels the fear and uncertainty that comes when people are in darkness. When we bring the flavor of the kingdom to the world around us; when we live in such a way that illuminates the reality of the presence of God's reign in our world today — we maximize our impact for God.
What can YOU do as one person— what can WE do as a church — to maximize our kingdom impact? Jesus gives us salt and light. What images/metaphors would you use to describe how Christians are to live in this world as we point others toward God?
After taking a few weeks off from posting my "first thoughts" on the upcoming Sunday's scriptures, I'm back to write about an exciting new sermon series that will begin Sunday, January 29.
This sermon series will focus on the following sections of the Sermon on the Mount (a body of Jesus' teaching found in Matthew 5-7):
Week 1: Living the Kingdom Lifestyle: Developing a Kingdom Orientation (Mt 5:1-12)
Week 2: Living the Kingdom Lifestyle: Maximizing our Kingdom Impact (Mt 5:13-20)
Week 3: Living the Kingdom Lifestyle: Maturing in Kingdom Relationships (Mt 5:21-37)
Week 4: Living the Kingdom Lifestyle: Strengthening our Kingdom Commitments (Mt 5:38-48)
On Sunday, 1/29, we begin this series by examining the familiar teachings of Jesus called the "Beatitudes." Jesus teaches that those who live out the orientation(s) described in these teachings are those who are "favored by God." We will think and talk together Sunday about how we can develop this orientation that runs so counter the popular culture. Read Matthew 5:1-12 now, and feel free to jump into the discussion using the comments section of this blog! What do these teachings say to you?
Christmas Eve is upon us! We have journeyed through Advent, with its anticipation of the coming Messiah. We have heard chunks of the Biblical narrative that help us make sense of the Messiah's arrival - the words of the prophets, the witness of John the Baptist, the role of Joseph in Jesus' birth. I have found that one of the challenges of such a season like Christmas in the Christian liturgical year is its familiarity. We know the story; we are well-versed in the themes of Advent and Christmas. The difficulty can be in hearing the story we know in a new way.
Here is the birth story according to Luke 2:1-20:
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
Here are my initial thoughts & take-a-ways:
The birth of Christ stands in stark contrast to the worldly values. The Messiah was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, famous for instituting the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) - but this was a peace built on warfare and conquest. The Prince of Peace brings a peace that no earthly king or kingdom can achieve. It is a peace that even some of his closest followers can't seem to grasp, because it is not necessarily a peace built on a restored social or political order, but on a restored relationship with God.
The good news of the Messiah's arrival is ESPECIALLY good news for "everyday" people. Did you notice the first recipients of the good news? Shepherds. These men were relatively poor, lived outside, and were often transients or had a criminal past; they were at the bottom of the social ladder. They are the ones entrusted with the news! God gives the message to those who realize the impact and import of the good news, as the shepherds did.
The arrival of the Messiah elicits a response of praise and thanksgiving. The shepherds checked out what the angels said - they went and found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; this resulted in them "glorifying and praising God." This happens over and over again in the Christmas narrative. Mary sings a beautiful song of Praise in Luke 1 when she and Elizabeth visit during her pregnancy. Simeon offers a similar canticle of praise. After all, with what can we respond to such good news of God's incarnation into our world? Praise is most fitting.
This Sunday - the Third Sunday of Advent - continues the narrative of John the Baptist, and his role in preparing for and elucidating the role of Jesus as the Messiah. Here is the gospel text from Matthew:
"John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen-- the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way before you.’
“I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is!
Go back and tell what you have heard and seen. This is the essense of Christian witnessing: giving testimony. Telling what we have heard and seen God do, in our lives and in the lives of others. Have you seen people miraciously healed, perhaps physically, emotionally, spiritually? Tell others. Have you experienced the grace of God in a tangible way? Tell others. Have you seen relationships restored, demonic activity broken, people who were enslaved to addiction set free? Tell others. Embody a life of testimony.
We have begun our Advent journey. While it is a journey that leads us into the mystery and reality of the Incarnation, it also requires that we keep an eye to the Second Coming, to the promise of God's fulfilled, complete reign. This past Sunday, we were reminded that even when our journeys come upon places of despair, grief, tragedy, and uncertainty, Jesus still offers hope, and this hope must be a key component of our life's navigation.
This Sunday, we hear from the prophet Isaiah once again. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with Isaiah 11:1-10. This Old Testament prophet is essential in grasping the themes of Advent and the promise of the Messiah.
Our gospel reading for Sunday is Matthew 3:1-12:
John the Baptist Prepares the WayIn those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near. The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” (New Living Translation)
One of the themes of Advent is urgency, and that is certainly one of John the Baptist's emphases. REPENT! TURN! PREPARE THE WAY! CLEAR THE ROAD! It is clear that John the Baptist has something time-sensitive to communicate. Here are a couple of my initial takeaways:
The imminent arrival of Jesus should cause us to repent. Repentance is something that has fallen out of fashion with many mainline Christians, and there seems to be confusion about what repentance is. Repentance isn't really about being sorry, or about feeling guilty for certain things. Repentance is adopting a mindset and a worldview that seeks total realignment with God's will as expressed in Jesus Christ. There is something so holy, so utterly world-changing about Jesus, John the Baptist tells us that the proper response is repentance.
God's "in-breaking" into the world in the Incarnation brings about a fundamental break from the past and the way things have always been.
There is no more "business as usual." Nothing can ever be the same. All has been shaken. However, there is good news here: God’s judgment and God’s promises are inextricably linked, for while the old has passed away, the new has come — the Kingdom of Heaven and all that it entails. Here, repentance comes into play once again: in Advent, we turn from what was, to what will be in Jesus Christ. We orient ourselves to a new way of living. We no longer swear allegiance to the kingdoms of this world, but find our residency in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thoughts? Comment below!