But Now

But Now

Isaiah 43 begins with two powerful words: “But now.” They tell us that a significant change is taking place:  “Before, things were one way; BUT NOW a new thing is happening.” Jumping into the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, we can easily miss the “before.”  So go back in your Biblical memory bank – way, way back.  Remember how God built Israel into a mighty nation:  saving them from slavery in Egypt; leading them to a Promised Land; raising up kings like David and Solomon; commissioning the Temple.  Remember that for a time, Israel had all the trappings of a mighty nation:  wealth and soldiers and land and buildings.   As Israel reached its pinnacle, it began to behave like an overconfident teenager who forgets that she owes any of her success to her parents.  Israel turned away from their God to worship other gods.  They did it again, and again, andagainandagainandagain.  God sent prophets to warn them again and again… but no use. The consequence to that sin was exile – being kicked out of their own Promised Land.  The Babylonians took Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BC.  Most of God’s people were scattered across the Babylonian Empire. They were exiled.  Exile is the “before.” But now. Something new is taking place.  With the rise of Persia comes the Edict of Cyrus in 587 BC, announcing that the scattered peoples can return to their native lands.  Or, as Isaiah puts it: “I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, Do not withhold;...

Following a Star

We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts, we traverse a-far. Field and fountain, moor and mountain – Following yonder star. So:  how did the “three kings” find Jesus? The followed “yonder star,” that’s how. The wise men made their way to Jerusalem because they saw Jesus’ star rise.  They found the exact spot when the star hung right over the infant Messiah.  The star was the key; they navigated by the star to find Jesus. Which makes me think:  I would not have made a good wise man (or woman, as the case may be).  I’m not so good at that kind of orienteering.  That’s not to say I can’t get around without a GPS.  I’ve logged plenty of miles along wilderness trails.  I’m so comfortable getting around in the woods, half the time I don’t even bother to bring a map.  But that kind of trekking involves following a well-defined trail cut through a dense forest – often with white blazes to follow as extra insurance.  What I cannot do is go away from the trail and the blazes and navigate toward some far-off point.  I cannot orient myself by the night sky, picking out Orion and the Big Dipper (the only two constellations I can recognize) and charting a course accordingly. I find my path by the nearby landmarks, not by some far-off star. Which works very well, I might add.  I have very rarely gotten lost in the wilderness. But it has happened. The most dangerous failure happened out in Colorado – a place I got to call home during three years of seminary.  Hiking...

Inviting God In

Matthew 1:18-24 Let’s talk about having people over. Personally, I love having people over to our house.  I’m a social creature by nature.  My definition of “me time” is one-on-one time with a good friend.  If we have a Saturday with nothing on our family calendar, I’m perfectly content to make breakfast and piddle around the house… until about mid-afternoon, when I’m pacing around like a caged animal, wondering who can play with us.  I’m like a golden retriever or something:  if you really want to keep me happy and healthy, I need to be regularly socialized. So naturally, I love having people over! But in reality:  we don’t have people over as often as we could.  You know why? It’s a lot of work to have people over. Especially new people.  When new people come over – for reasons I cannot completely explain – I feel compelled to do cleaning that seldom otherwise happens.  Base boards must be dusted and the inside of the microwave should be scrubbed and the rugs are due to be washed and why do all our hand towels look like old rags? As much as I love having people over, we don’t do it as often as we could because that first time is just so much work. But oh, thank God for old friends! Sweet, sweet old friends who have seen my house plenty of times before.  They know that it can pass the white glove test – but they also know no one lives like that all the time, myself included.  They’ve dropped by at a moment’s notice and seen my home in its everyday potpourri...
An Explicit Welcome

An Explicit Welcome

Luke 2:1-20 On Sunday we had our children’s Christmas play, where they reminded us of a very important Christmas message: All are welcome at the manger. All, meaning everyone. I hope this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that message. You might know John 3:16 by heart: “God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only begotten son…” Not that God loved a certain people in a certain place – but the whole world! Christ was born for everyone. Everyone should feel welcome at his manger! Everyone should – but not everyone does. — Too often, the world is like a high school lunchroom. I can clearly remember what it felt like to walk through the heavy double doors. I can hear the loud rumble of teenagers talking and trays banging and adults trying to maintain control. I remember what it felt like to stand there, wondering where to go. Sometimes, my best buddy and I got the same lunch hour. I’d go straight to “our” table and slide into the booth across from her. Isn’t it great to have a place where you know you belong? But there were semesters where we had different lunches. I got along with a bunch of other students, but I wasn’t sure if we were really friends-friends. Would they think it was weird if I walked up to their table? Would they want me to sit with them? Or would I be turned away Forrest-Gump-on-the-bus style: “Seat’s taken”? I’d stand in the lunchroom doorway with the social clock ticking, rapidly scanning the faces for a friendly one. A lot of times,...
Invitation

Invitation

Luke 3:1-6 I love getting wedding invitations in the mail. I can tell something’s up before I even open the card:  the paper is heavier than normal; the address is in a careful calligraphy; the titles are of an Emily-Post-approved formality.  Everything about it says, “This is no regular piece of correspondence; this is something special.” Then I slip my thumb under the seal and open the flap to find… another envelope!  This one has our first names on it, as if we made it past security and now we can let our hair down and have some fun.  And then, the details are revealed.  Oh, the details!  When and where for the ceremony, when and where for the reception, and juicy little tidbits like, “Black tie optional.” The happy couple did a lot of work to get that invitation to me.  Now that it’s in my hands, it’s my turn!  Preparations need to be made.  I need to find the right dress – if it’s not in my closet, it’s at a storefront, somewhere!  We might need hotel reservations or a babysitter; we certainly need to send a gift. An invitation to a really special event demands a response from us – not just an RSVP, but all the things we need to do to get ready. If this is true for a wedding… it’s certainly true for the coming of Christ. Jesus’ arrival was so special, it was someone’s full time job to make the announcement.  That living invitation was John the Baptist, born for the express purpose of making the path to Jesus straight and obvious. ...
One King, One People

One King, One People

“Jesus is King!” Is it just me, or does that statement sound… political? I’m not trying to be political; I’m trying to be liturgical!  Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, a day on our church calendar when we remember that Christ is our King – and if you think about it, we talk about it a lot more than just today. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe that Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for God’s kingdom to come. When we recite those phrases out of rote memory, and they don’t sound fighting words… partly because they’re not.  Jesus said that his disciples wouldn’t be fighting for him because his kingdom isn’t of this world (John 18:36).  Later, Paul would reinforce that by encouraging the early Christians to respect the authority of their government (Romans 13:1).  Jesus can be our king even while we’re citizens of the Roman Empire or the United States of America. It’s cool.  It’s fine.  “Jesus is King” – we say it all the time. So why does it feel a little edgy to say it this year? I’m thinking it’s the midterm elections.  They were so intense, it’s like they left a political charge on everything.  But instead of dismissing that feeling, maybe we should indulge it for a moment – because when Christ was first discussed to be King, the words had a dangerous charge. In the first-century Roman world, there was no king but Caesar.  To make a grab for that title was a capital offense; it...
Two Dollars, or Everything

Two Dollars, or Everything

Mark 12:41-44 This is my favorite kind of story – the one where the underdog comes out on top. So it’s strange that I’m not too fond of it. Jesus is in the temple, watching people put money in the treasury.  If we translate this to today, we might put Jesus in a church balcony.  From his bird’s eye view he watches the service take place:  hymns are sung, prayers are said, a sermon is preached.  Then it comes time for the offering.   He watches the plates pass from one pew to another.  He sees a few people get out over-sized checkbooks and fill in the extra-large “amount” boxes.   They place their checks in the plates, unfolded, so everyone on their pew can be impressed as all those zeros float by. But not Jesus.  He’s not impressed.  His attention has moved elsewhere. Jesus is focused on a little old lady sitting in a far back corner.  The ushers either forgot her, or assumed she had nothing to give – the plate never came to her pew.  So she gets up and goes to the back of the church where the ushers are standing.  She places two crumpled up dollar bills in a offering plate.  The ushers smile politely. Back up in the balcony, Jesus waves and points to get his disciples to see what he’s seeing.  “What?  What happened?” they ask, a bit confused; some of them were daydreaming. “Did you see that widow give two dollars into the offering?” Jesus asks, his eyes a little misty with tears. “Yeah, I saw it,” one disciple responds.  Without thinking, he...
The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Psalm 146 “Praise the LORD!  Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have being” (Psalm 146:1-2). Let me tell you about this “praise” that the psalmist is talking about. For the most part, it means about what you’d think it means: praising like saying good things, bragging on someone.  But the Hebrew word halal has another meaning that interests me, something like “to act the fool.”  That struck me as odd; what do praise and foolishness have to do with each other? Then I thought of the exaggerated way that infatuated lovers brag on each other, multiplying their new boo’s good points to the extreme.  That kind of “praise” is wonderfully foolish. That’s what we’re supposed to do for God, for our whole lives long:  praise to the point of acting the fool. We do this because God is better than any lover we’ve ever been infatuated with.  God breathed us into life; God has saved us from our last breath.  From beginning to end and without our deserving it, God is at work for us. We praise God because God is good (all the time; and all the time, God is good!). And we also praise God because the alternative is so bad. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (146:3-4). What we praise is what we value.  When I praise my children or my husband...
When Bad Things Happen to Someone Else

When Bad Things Happen to Someone Else

Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good person.  Job was a really good guy with a really good life. Then Satan suggested to God that Job might only be so good because he had it so good. So God gave Satan permission to test that theory.  Satan destroyed Job’s good life: no more wealth, no more children, and no more health. And when the dust from all that destruction settled, Job is left sitting in the dirt, scratching his painful sores with a piece of broken pottery. With that bleak setup, we’re almost ready for Job’s friends to enter the scene.  But before we read their story, stop and put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine you had a friend like Job.  What would you do for him?  What would you say?     I bet you’ve dealt with this question before, because if you have any friends at all (and I hope you do!) then odds are, they’ve had bad things happen.  Maybe you’ve had a friend who lost their retirement plan in a sickening stock market drop… or grieved the death of a child… or suffered with a debilitating illness. When that bad thing happened, did you know how to respond? Some people have a natural instinct for comforting others, but many of us do not.  It wasn’t a trait I was born with.  I remember two times in my teenage years when someone from our church youth group got sick in a scary way – stuck in the hospital or bedridden at home.  And my natural-born instinct was… nothing.  Either out of self-centeredness of lack of...
When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good guy. Job was a really good guy with a really good life.  He was rich; he had a big, loving family; and he was exceptionally devoted to God. But then! God had a chat with Satan (aka, “The Adversary,” aka, “The Accuser”).  Satan pointed out that Job’s good behavior might be inextricably linked to his good life situation.  To prove that wasn’t the case, God gave Satan the go-ahead to take away Job’s good life.  Then Job lost everything, rapid-fire:  livestock, servants, children, and finally, his health. Our story resumes with Job sitting on the ground and covered in sores.  Job is accompanied by a few friends; they’re debating the causes of and solutions to his problems. Job’s friend, Eliphaz, has just told him to repent – a frequent solution presented by the friends.  “You did something wrong, so stop whatever bad thing you’re doing and apologize to God!”  But Job knows better, and so do we.  Job hasn’t done anything wrong.  In fact, Job was doing everything right; his suffering came out of nowhere.  Job would like the chance to take his case before God and defend himself.  There’s just one problem: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9). In other words:  Job can’t find God. Logically, this makes sense.  The test of Job’s goodness wouldn’t work if God showed back up too quickly.  God needs to step...