Manger Scene: Mary

Luke 1:26-38 Today we continue building our manger scene with Mary… the one who found herself unexpectedly pregnant and had faith enough to accept it. I have to believe that finding out you’re pregnant is always kind of shocking.  When I discovered I was pregnant with Eleanor, our oldest, it was very much planned for – Alan and I had been married a couple years and wanted to have a little Alan or Mary Jr. But it’s funny, seeing the positive result on that pregnancy test still took us off-guard.  I used my shaky hands to call Alan at work, hoping he could come home for lunch.  “No, I’m tied up today,” he said, not realizing the mind-blowing news I wanted to deliver. So I just blurted it out:  “Well then… I’m pregnant!”  When he finally came home and we got to talk it over together, we just laughed in a kind of hysterical disbelief.  We were trying and hoping for this end result… but now that it had worked, it felt a lot like our bluff had been called. And that’s with an expected pregnancy. So how much more shocking was Mary’s pregnancy?  No at-home test, no “trying,” even.  Just an angel showing up and saying, “Hello, Mary – God’s favored one!  God is with you!” Mary was likely just a girl (women got engaged around the age of 12), but she shows a mature intuition with this glowing greeting.  Luke 1:29 tells us she was “greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29). Here’s how I interpret...

Manger Scene: Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25 During Advent we at Andrews UMC are building a manger scene, adding a piece each week until Christmas Eve.  Today we begin with Joseph… which means, today we’re talking about Jesus’ earthly dad. I have always been a daddy’s girl.  I aspire to be like Dad in all important things, from the way I sink a basketball (sometimes) to the way I drink my coffee (black, always).  I love my daddy. But like many daughters, I was closer to my mom.  Being the only two girls in our five-person family meant that Mom and I naturally logged more hours together.  We’d shop all day, laugh late at night, and talk on the phone each morning until I was late for work.  I’ve always adored my dad, always felt close to him… but for much of my life, I knew my mom in an intimate, best-friend kind of way that I didn’t know my father. I think many of us are like this with Joseph and Mary.  We might admire him, but we don’t know him like we know Mary.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth tells us a whole lotta details about the Messiah’s mom:  her shared pregnancy with Elizabeth; her song; even some of her thoughts on things (“How can this be?”).  Mary shows up in the story of Jesus’ adult ministry (notably, around the cross); Joseph is only mentioned later as part of Jesus’ identity (“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”) Who is Joseph, really? Today’s Scripture tells us Joseph’s reaction to Jesus’ birth in just 8 verses… but those 8 verses tell us a very important thing...
The Shepherd that Seeks

The Shepherd that Seeks

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 The Prophet Ezekiel by Michelangelo (1510) Today we hear from Ezekiel, a smart and kind of strange prophet from the late 6th century.  That was a tough time to be an Israelite, because it was the period of the exile.  The Northern Kingdom had been kicked out of their share of the Promised Land since 722 BC, when the Assyrians came to power.  For the Southern Kingdom this exile is a fresher wound; the Babylonians took Jerusalem in 587 BC.  Ezekiel lived in that southern kingdom… lived in the past tense, because now he’s been forcibly deported 600 miles east to modern-day Iraq. Ezekiel has a message for God’s exiled people: God is searching for you. Ezekiel the prophet uses the image of the shepherd to explain this phenomenon.  “I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out,” Ezekiel says for God (34:11).  Imagine the sigh of relief this must have given the Israelites, to hear that God will find them and bring them home. Yes, it’d surely give them relief… if they could make it through the first 33 chapters of Ezekiel’s message. Chapters 1-24 of Ezekiel is a message of doom on a people who worshipped other gods not only near God’s temple, but in God’s temple.  Ezekiel’s vision is of God’s presence leaving that temple.  He compares Israel to an unfaithful spouse.  After all that – like an angry man ready to snap at the next person who comes into view – Ezekiel spends chapters 25 through 32 judging the surrounding nations. No one gets off the hook.  Mistakes have been...
Remembering God When Things are Good

Remembering God When Things are Good

Deuteronomy 8:10-20 “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (Deut 8:10). Easier said than done, I think. I speak as one with authority, because today’s Scripture is preparing the Israelites to go from the wilderness into civilized life… and if you know me at all, you know I’ve spent my fair share of time in the wilderness.  As a backpacker, I’ve made my bed in a sleeping bag under a tarp.  I’ve packed up and walked and designated a new plot of land as “home” each night.  I haven’t survived on manna, but I have lived on the food I could carry:  dry goods and simple meals where “add boiling water” is the bulk of the recipe. In the wilderness you learn to ration… or you go hungry.  Then sometimes you do ration and you still go hungry.  You’re hungry for something besides granola bars and dry ramen noodles.  You’re thirsty for something besides plain lukewarm water. All this hunger and thirst and rationing leads a person to daydream about leaving the wilderness. Which is a funny thing about backpacking.  When I get to go on a hiking trip, I look forward to it for months.  And then, when I’m actually out in the wilderness… after about day 2 all I can think about are my creature comforts back home. I’m not totally convinced, but I think it’s possible that the main reason I like backpacking is the glorious moment when I step off the trail and into a climate-controlled vehicle… the triumphant ride back to...
How to be a house that serves the LORD

How to be a house that serves the LORD

Joshua 24:14-25 Joshua is old.  He is about to die. He has time for a farewell speech, though.  It’s a good speech, reviewing everything God has done for Israel:  setting them free from Egypt; leading them through the wilderness; bringing them to this promised land; allowing them to defeat bigger armies with bigger soldiers.  I can picture the people getting pumped up remembering all those victories. Then the trip down memory lane builds to a challenge: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:14-15). The people have a choice.  Neither God nor Joshua is going to make them serve God.  They can choose to go serve other gods, if they want. Joshua just made that good speech, though, so the people are prime for this kind of commitment.  Their hearts full of inspiration make the right answer obvious.  “We will serve the LORD!” the people say. “You better mean it,” Joshua says (my paraphrase).  “God won’t put up with unfaithfulness.” “We won’t be unfaithful – we will serve the LORD!” the people say. So they say. And so we say – in the moment.  It’s easy when we’re in church or at some retreat.  The right answer is...

Crossing Over

Joshua 3:7-17 Israel has been waiting for this promise to be kept. Ever since the twelve spies scouted the Promised Land out; and ten of them doubted it was possible to take this land for themselves – so God gave them 40 more years to think about it (Numbers 13-14). Ever since they made a golden calf to worship, and God got mad, and threatened to not go along with them at all (Exodus 32-33). Ever since they wondered how they’d have enough to eat or enough to drink to even survive the journey – and God provided (Exodus 16-17). Ever since they were backed up at the Red Sea trying to get out of Egypt – and God parted the waters so they could pass (Exodus 14). Ever since Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh with twelve plagues (Exodus 7-12). Ever since they were slaves in Egypt and they cried out to God for help, and God heard their cry and called Moses (Exodus 2-3). Ever since all that, Israel has been waiting to make it to the Promised Land. And here they are:  crossing the Jordan River. There are few things as delicious as a long-awaited moment now arrived.  Like Christmas morning come for children, or retirement day come for adults.  After 40 years (and then some) of anticipation, the Israelites are finally here. Now that they’re walking across the Jordan and into what will become their permanent home, now that they’re celebrating and we’re celebrating with them, it’s easy to forget just how long they waited to get here. Forty years… and then some. Because before the...
Passing the Baton

Passing the Baton

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 What a sad death. I mean, poor Moses.  He’s come so far, and done so much!  He’s confronted Pharaoh, parted the waters of the Red Sea, met with God on Mount Sinai, guided Israel around and around the wilderness…  Now God and Moses are perched on a vista overlooking the Promised Land.  And God says to Moses… …look, but don’t touch.  Or, more accurately:  “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there” (Deut 34:4). And Moses dies!  That’s it!  That’s the end of his story! This is depressing.  Like if Neil Armstrong never made it to the moon.  Or Sir Edmund Hillary never summitted Mt. Everest. Or if Dan Marino never won a superbowl. Oh… wait. Yes, much like Dan Marino never winning a superbowl… Moses’ life has been all about the goal of leading these people to their own land, and he doesn’t get to claim that victory with them. And yet – this is weird – Moses’ story doesn’t end on a low note.  Listen to all the glowing words about him:  “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to do…” (Deut 34:9-11). That’s not a sob story; that sounds like a celebration.  If Moses dies with his life-goal unfulfilled, why isn’t his a tragic ending? I’ll tell you why:  Because we’re not running a one-man race here.  These lives we live, they’re part of a relay race. In a one-man race...
What We Know About the Future

What We Know About the Future

Exodus 33:12-23 I’ve been wondering, lately, where we’ll go next. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Family Life Center – 10 years of that two-story facility serving our church and the community.  But not just that; we celebrated the full payoff of the $800,000 loan we took out to build the Family Life Center. Many of our members seriously wondered if they’d live to see it paid off.  Maybe that’s why, in our budgeting meeting this past week, we actually looked forward to the  “mortgage payment” line item… so we could write a big, fat “0” in that box.  When we burned the note on September 17th, we talked about how we’d pass this blessing on – use what we’ve accomplished to even better serve God and serve others.  And I feel that potential.  With the debt paid, there’s a whole world of options open to us.  We can move on to the next big thing that God is calling us to do! …Except I’m not quite sure what that is. In some ways, that’s not really a problem.  God isn’t always calling us to a capital campaign; there isn’t enough land for that, and none of us would want to go through that again anytime soon, anyway.  Neither does this mean we have nothing planned for the future.  Rebecca (our Director of Youth and Facilities) is building our student ministries and exploring new ways to use that debt-free Family Life Center.  This week I had a great meeting with a church member about some new small group opportunities for 2018.  The missions...
The Most Important Person in the Room

The Most Important Person in the Room

Exodus 32:1-17 This is a low moment in Israel’s history. Moses has been up on Mount Sinai with God for forty days (24:18).  To Israel’s credit, that is kind of a sizable sabbatical.  If I were gone from my church for a month and a half I would assume that my congregation would make some big decisions in my absence. But I’d also hope they’d make some good big decisions. Israel does not.  They lose patience with Moses’ delay.  They come up with a big idea on their own.  They go to Aaron, Moses’ brother and second-in-command, with this big idea: “This ‘Moses’ – we don’t know if he’s ever coming back.  So let’s stop wasting time and make gods for ourselves.  Then let’s throw a festival for those gods – let’s have a big party!” This is a huge mistake, and if you studied the Ten Commandments with us last week you know why.  If not, you can flip back to Exodus 20 and see: Rule #1:  No other gods. Rule #2:  No idols. I mean, it’s not just that theses two are covered in the Ten Commandments… they’re the top two.  Israel comes to Aaron with the idea (bad enough), and then Aaron’s response is along the lines of, “Sure, why not?” These are the moments of disobedience that will push a parent to the snapping point, like:  I JUST TOLD YOU NOT TO DO THAT FIVE MINUTES AGO AND NOW YOU’RE DOING THE EXACT THING I SAID NOT TO DO!  God is our Father, the perfect parent.  So does God feel that flash of human rage...
God is great, God is good

God is great, God is good

Exodus 20:1-17 There’s a prayer we say together before dinner at night.  I bet you can guess which one.  I’ll even give you a hint:  we have two small children. Yep, you got it: God is great, God is good, Let us thank him for our food. By his hands we all are fed; Give us Lord our daily bread. Amen. (Optionally followed by:  Dig in!) I’ve said this prayer my whole life… but I don’t think I thought about it until recently, when Anna Carter Florence made mention of it in a book I’m reading.  All of a sudden I stopped to wonder: What does it mean that God is great and God is good? Do we only say that because it conveniently rhymes with “food”? I don’t think so; I think we say it because it means something.  Our God is not small and bad; God is great and good.  And that has consequences.  Consequences not only for our basic beliefs about the Creator of the Universe, but for the way God’s creation (that’s us) is supposed to behave. Do you want to know what those consequences are? Then let’s turn to Exodus 20, more commonly known as the Ten Commandments. To set the stage, God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  God has led them across the Red Sea.  God has given them manna from heaven to eat and water from a rock to drink.  Now they’ve arrived at Mount Sinai.  God has descended in a dense cloud, and spoken loud enough so that Moses and all of Israel can hear. And here is...