Sunday, December 16, 2007

Reflection on Matthew 11:2-11

I am thankful that you are reading this reflection during this Advent season; this season of waiting. “Waiting,” I’ve been saying that word a lot for the past few weeks haven’t I? Not only is it the liturgical season of waiting for our Lord; taking the time to quiet our own lives so that we can pay attention to what God is doing, but it is also the secular season of waiting in lines forever in order to check out at the store. Let’s be honest with ourselves. This isn’t a season of waiting; this is a season of impatience.

People are impatient about a great many things. Is this the Christmas tree that I should buy…the one and only Christmas tree that will bring the spirit of Christmas back into my life…or will it just cause me to sneeze? Is there another? Is this the party that I should go to…the one party of the season that will spark a sense of good will and love for one another in my soul…or will it be just another awkward social function. Is there another? Is this the gift the right gift…the one that will bring tears to her eyes and allow her to see how much I love her…or will she simply smile, say thank you, turn away and focus more on the Christmas meal than on me? Is there another?

Waiting patiently without apprehension and doubt is a difficult thing. We hear these same words coming from the mouth of John the Baptist. He is doubting the coming of the messiah as he sits lonely, waiting to be executed, from behind the bars of his prison. Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As his execution date approaches I think he is really asking, “Jesus, are you the one who is going to save everyone? Are you the one who is going to save me? I proclaimed your coming. You were supposed to turn the world upside-down with the Holy Spirit and Fire. But, Herod still has a firm hold on the land. Are you the one who will save or should I wait for another?”

His words still echo from our lips today: “Are you the one who will help me out of this financial pinch, or should I wait for another?” “Are you the one who will cure my illness, or should I wait for another?” “Are you the one who will save me, or should I wait for another?”

The horrible possibility lingers in our mind that our expectations of Jesus will go unfulfilled. A natural but uncomfortable feeling of impatience mixed with doubt settles in and starts to take hold of our lives.

Jesus tries to take the reigns of John’s life back by changing John’s expectations. John wanted the social-political world to be turned upside-down. John wanted the ruthless to be separated from the faithful and the chaff burned up in an unquenchable fire. Perhaps, John had his hopes set on something different than what God desires. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus is not who John expected him to be, but that does not mean Jesus is not active in the world. Do not take offense at Jesus just because he is not necessarily who we want him to be. Jesus is active in the world. If we listen and watch carefully, we will see it. If we take the time and wait before jumping to conclusions about God’s intentions, we will see it.

When I was a child, I couldn’t wait to open the huge presents under the tree; obviously, big meant great. I expected those huge presents to literally transform my life. However, I cannot even tell you what those huge presents were now that I look back years later. They occupy no space in my mind. I can tell you about the small golden necklace that my grandma gave me which I still have to this very day. My expectations concerning which presents would be the most important were totally wrong. My expectations have been adjusted.

I think Jesus is putting John through a similar reorienting process. Jesus is not great because he causes drastic social reform, breaks people out of prison who do not deserve to be there, or protects us from everything in the world that would harm us. These are unrealistic expectations. Consider the fact that even those people who Jesus did heal still became sick and suffered for years in the first place. Jesus does not protect us from every suffering. If fact, Jesus promises us just the opposite. He warns us that if we follow him we can expect to be treated as well as he was. Jesus did end up of the cross in the end. But, what we can expect is that Jesus will take horrendous experiences, such as the cross, and mysteriously transform them into something redemptive and good. This sort of divine work is not easily seen. It is also not easily understood. Perhaps, we should grasp onto the invitation of Advent to take the time to wait, listen, and watch closely for God’s work. In time we will see God’s work and we will be amazed.

I am reminded of a 40 year old mother who lost her only, very young baby from sudden infant death syndrome. Weeks after the death she entered the late infant’s room and started to sort through everything bought for the child. The tiny suit would never be used to take the infant to church. Looking away she tossed into a box for rummage. The crib would not be needed to protect the child from harm in the night. It did not do that when her child was alive. She tore the crib down like it alone had let her down. There would never be toddler years on the tricycle. There would never be teaching him how to drive. There would never be a last kiss before he walked forward to be with the new woman of his life. All she was left with was an empty room.

The empty room loomed for months. Increasingly, it just didn’t seem right that the room be empty. With the support of some friends, she decided to take in a foster child.

Ten foster children later, God has gifted the woman with the blessing of kissing four boys on four separate occasions as they handsomely moved forward in their crisp suits to be with the new women in their lives. She didn’t expect that her baby would die before it was time. She also never expected to impact so many children with that empty room. God didn’t cause her suffering. God also didn’t stop it. But, that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t at work. Just as Jesus transformed the cross from something horrible into something redemptive and good, Jesus transformed the horror of that empty room into a room of redemption and love for both the woman and her new children.

Wait for the Lord, and you will encounter the Lord’s goodness.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Matthew 3:1-12

The other day as I looked out the bathroom window, gazing at the birds dancing around on our hillside, I saw at the top of our driveway a skinny, little man. He was wearing a lion cloth in 20 degree weather, had an old locust leg stuck between his front two teeth, and he was yelling something. I opened the window a crack to hear this warning come screeching down the hill at me:

“Prepare your driveway for the Lord, make it straight.”

Now, if any of you have seen my driveway, you know this is a tall order. It is steep and it curves sharply three quarters of the way down. Currently, it is covered with ice and several delivery people in the past have found themselves to be surprise guests because the thing rendered them helpless to leave. It is no picnic to walk on either. Randele has hurt her knee on it. Aaron has hurt his behind, his back, his arm, his leg, basically everything on it. It has a couple of major gullies in it that really should be filled in by someone with gravel. I know, I really should fix the thing. I should extend it straight across our property, make it flat, make it easy and safe to access. But, I haven’t. It is going to take a good deal of effort, effort that I just don’t have right now. Besides, I don’t mind if my way is a little difficult to access. It is nice having some solitude. In fact, I love it. I love the privacy that my steep, icy, gully-filled driveway provides. "Prepare the driveway, make the driveway straight;" who does this little man think he is? Elijah? John the Baptist? And, why does the Lord need a straight, clear way to get through anyway? He is the Lord after-all, can’t he fix my driveway himself?

“Go away skinny, soon to be a human popsicle, little man!” Fix your own way! Make your own way straight! Now go home!”

As I slammed down the window, I watched him just stand there, staring down at me and I realized the truth of the matter; in his loin cloth this little man was almost naked. He had nothing. He was surviving on trust in God alone. This whiner is the wilderness already trusted in God’s provisions more than his own. He was eating grasshoppers out of the abundance that God provides for heaven’s sake. The Lord’s way into his life is already practically arrow straight and perfectly clean. There’s not a lot to get in God’s way in his life.

I guess the slamming of my window is really the same thing as not redoing my driveway; I don’t feel a need to make a straight path for others that might lead right into my soul. Heck, I don’t allow a path to go there myself. I just don’t want to think about what I may find if I look too close. How about we not take a deep look at ourselves this advent, OK? Forget this clean out your soul and wait for the Lord to enter in junk. That sounds good to me. How about we just make ourselves happy with giving nice gifts and receiving nice things over the next few weeks? Sound like a plan?

Keeping one’s path cluttered like this makes me think of a mother who wore a ton of makeup. With the makeup on, this woman presented herself as a perfect woman, with perfect skin, perfect poise, and perfect hospitality. The woman could have costarred as the wife on Father Knows Best. The only thing that didn’t appear to be perfect was her daughter who constantly dressed in black.

“Why don’t you get rid of that depressing clothes and become a real woman?” the mother shared with her daughter one evening.

“Why don’t you get rid of all that make-up so that I can finally get to know you? At least I dress as who I am, a daughter in mourning for her mother. Who are you mom? You’ve never let me in.”

All the daughter wanted was for the mother to make the path straight. She just wanted to be closer to her own mother. Without a doubt, the make-up was covering more than blemishes on the skin. It was a wall. I understand; it’s hard to clear the path. But, I am also beginning to understand that keeping the path cluttered helps no one.

With that said, why don’t we imagine something new for a second. Why don’t we imagine that we clear whatever or whoever is cluttering the path and keeping the Lord out of the deepest regions of our life and see what happens? Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts of an axe, a sharp winnowing fork, and fire be blessed? What are you carrying with you Jesus?

The skinny, little man shouts down the hill:

“How else is the Lord going to clear out the garbage? The axe is to cut away the root of your problems, so leave them exposed, don’t cover them back up. The winnowing fork is to throw your impurity into the air so that it blows off to the side and only pureness falls to the ground again. The fire, of course, is to burn the impurity away. Now be quiet and take it like a man! This isn’t going to be the only time he does it! This will be a daily thing from now on. I like to call it repentance and forgiveness.”

You can call it anything you want skinny man…hacking me up with an axe…I think that I would like to call it hell. But then again, what is more like hell, being stuck for the rest of your life with secrets, pain, and regret, or enduring the temporary pain of that stuff being cut out so that you can live in the freedom of the Lord.

I have a distinct image in my head of a grown man in a suit skipping down the sidewalk, like a boy on the first day of summer vacation. He had just left the room of his dying father in the hospital. Was he glad his father was dying? Of course not. His father had just forgiven him for running the family business into the ground years and years before. For 15 years, the man had been too ashamed to see his father. For 15 year he had not received a hug from his father. But on this day of repentance and forgiveness he did. That was something to skip about.

Come Lord Jesus, come. If I can’t do it very well, help me to make your path straight.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Reflection on Isaiah 11:1-10

In the faint light, he saw the shadow of a body lying on the ground. It wasn’t moving. A glint of liquid pooled around the body's side. As he moved closer, he saw the drips of blood ripple the pool below; small waves on pavement. The pool was greatly disturbed by the body moving slightly. Was he alive yet? There might still be a chance. With his strong African American hands he pulled the knife from victim’s side. At that moment headlights bathed him in a drowning light. Drowning was an accurate description. His life sunk to the depths quickly as he found himself behind bars with no one caring to judge him according to truth…according to righteousness. How he wished he could have a judge who judged with the wisdom, might, and truth of the Lord. How he wished someone would simply listen to his story before he passing judgment. But, the judge won’t. His life has been clear-cut of all growing life, and he can see nothing left to grow back and give hope.

She walked into the store in her ripped jeans and asked for an application. There was no point. She knew she wouldn’t be given the job. No one gives jobs to losers. No one gives jobs to slobs. No one will be willing to listen to her story of how her boyfriend abandoned her and her child. No one will want to take the time to find out how she has sold everything she owns for the welfare and benefit of her child. This employer will surely be like all the others. After one look at her ratty clothes the empolyer will make the decision. How she wished people would judge her not by what they see, but by the truth; by righteousness and equity for the poor. Her life has been clear-cut of all growing life, and she can see nothing left to grow back and give hope.

It is a dog eat dog world you know. Does truth and righteousness and equity mean anything anymore, or must we resort to evil when all goodness has been clear-cut from the world? But, if we commit evil in order to restore goodness to the world, and the world is left with only us and our horrendous actions, has the world really been cleansed of evil? How we need a judge who is completely clean from bias and evil.

What do you do when justice seems so far away and the forest of goodness has been clear-cut from your life? Repay evil with evil? Give up and become a stump in a dead forest? Maybe you listen to these words; words of truth concerning our Lord:

"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious."

I think we all desire our Lord Jesus Christ: the sprout of new life who can peer through the surface and see the truth, the sprout of new life who never forgets the hurting or disowned, and never judges according common knowledge. Christ is the sprout of new life who brings real justice, real peace, and real truth.

Just today I looked around the confirmation class and noticed that one of the students who had gotten off of the bus was not in class. I got in the car, drove downtown and found her in the gas station with a friend. I told her to get into the car and as we drove off I just about reamed her out for trying to skip class. But, the Spirit of God urged me to remain silent. After a moment, the silence was broken when she told me that her day at school and her life for that matter was terrible and painful. She just could not stand to be around others because she just may have broke down. Had I reamed her out, truth would never have been spoken. Thank the Lord for the Spirit of truth, who sometimes holds our mouths closed so that we may not pass judgment too early. Had the Spirit not kept me quiet, peace and healing would not have been allowed to happen. How we all need a righteous judge.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Matthew 24:36-44

This morning I want to break one of the commandments. I’m going to break the seventh commandment. I will give you one hundred golden points for you in heaven if you know which commandment that is for us Lutherans without looking at the next sentence. Stealing, good job. I’m not sure what you will do with your meaningless golden points in heaven but drag the heavy things around with you everywhere you go. But, you’re the one who wanted the stupid things, so that’s not my problem now is it?

Back to stealing. I really want to do it now and I don’t care if you see me. I want to steal this great, apocalyptic, end times text from Matthew back from people who would do it harm. You know, those people who would make you fear the coming of the Lord by telling you to shape up or you will be left behind when God rips away your righteous loved ones from right beside you. Rip, there goes…who was that? Oh, it was Dad, there’s his tighty-whities right there on the floor. Rip there goes the mother-in-law. Oh well. The Lord wants her? Who understands the ways of the Lord? Rip, the dog too? No, no, not Spot. Come back Spot. Why did I constantly tell you, you where such a good dog? No, bad dog, bad dog, lay down now! Come back, I’m feeling lonely here.


“Yes, Lord I assume?”

“You should have paid more attention to me. You should have been a great person. Instead, you were dumb. Now you can suffer the wars of Armageddon.”

“I’m sorry Lord. Please forgive me. I’m lonely. Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

“Nice try, but too late. I’ll be nice though and send back your mother-in-law for company.”


Ok, everything you just read right there: total bologna. I even love my mother-in-law. If I could have a wish granted this morning it would be that every time a faithful person would read these apocalyptic words from Matthew the person wouldn’t be put into a state of fear from these images that false prophets have placed into our brains. I don’t want people to imagine their loved ones being ripped away from them into the air. I don’t want people to believe that an unloving, unforgiving Jesus is furiously shooting darting glances back down at us as we perish in world war three. It kind of goes against our basic beliefs in grace by faith doesn’t it? Rather, I wish that people could see the hope and joy that comes from waiting expectantly for our loving Lord. The Lord’s coming is not something to fear, but something to celebrate…something to prepare for.

It’s sad to me that these false prophets of our times might cause people to wait expectantly for the coming of their first baby with more hope and joy than they would their own Lord. Not that waiting for your very first child should be joyless. It should be just the opposite and that’s my point. New parents, as soon as they find out that they are expecting start to prepare their homes out of hope and joy for the coming of their baby. The plodding walk of everyday life is suddenly turned into dancing. Their feet cause them to spin and twirl through the house searching for pieces of clutter that no longer matter. They need to create a space in their life to love their new child. In the dancing search to clear the way for this anticipated new love, they may find old, dusty but beloved gifts that might be cleaned up and used once again. Rooms are cleared out, cribs are built, walls are painted, and people are invited over to celebrate. Of course, they don’t know exactly when their little bundle of love will come to them, but that does not hold up their excited preparations.

I don’t know if you realize this, but love is coming to town. Love is come to your house. We don’t know when, for “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Never-the-less, the Lord is coming and already the very idea is turning our plodding footsteps into dancing. Space needs to be cleared. The murky, moldy concern on the floor that you’ve been wading through for the past few weeks…you know which one…it can be mopped up. Those grudges over there where the Lord’s bed needs to go don’t need to be taking up space. On the frig most of the “important” tasks really aren’t all that important. The marker board can be wiped clear for more important, Christ-like tasks. Take time now to haul all your garbage out. Let it roll off your back and onto the curb. Do you feel yourself getting lighter already? Do you feel your feet moving lighter? The Lord is on the way! Love is coming to your heart. The Lord hasn’t arrived yet, but your light dancing is a clear sign to all that hope has already moved you.

If there is any sadness in this apocalyptic text, it’s not that people will be ripped away from us and flung up into the air not to be seen ever again, rather that our sister may not see that love has come to town. The phrase, “one will be taken” is not about people being lifted away into heaven. It should more rightly read, “one will go along with and one will be left,” like the disciples go along with Jesus when he calls them to follow. Our sister, unfortunately, just continues to sit there and grind her wheat or plunk away at her computer doing her work.
As Brian Stoffregen notes in his online gospel commentary, "Work is important. You need to provide food and shelter for yourself and your family; but there is something more important than your work: the Son of Man could come. God might show up without an appointment. He could arrive unexpectedly. What would you tell him if you were busy at work? 'Don't bother me now, I've got work to do. Come back during my break, then we can visit. Make an appointment with my secretary.'" Some things in life are much more important.

The Lord is coming. Love is coming to town to stay with you. It’s a deeper and more devoted love than anything you have felt before. And, it’s cause for dancing. Do you feel the anticipation, like waiting for the arrival of your first child? The feet are already starting to move and dance as if the Lord were already here aren’t they? This Advent, don’t fear doing a little house work in your soul. It’s about time that we clear out our souls and our lives and allow space for God to enter.

Quoted Commentary from Brian Stoffregen can be found here:

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Luke 23:33-43

For people in the United States, Christ the King Sunday is a little disorienting. We aren’t quite sure what to do with it. We have no king in the United States. We have people who would love to be king, but we have a chance of dethroning them every four years. Many of us really don’t understand what it is like to serve one person, making sure that we don’t get on their bad side, and trying to figure out how to make them happy. When I asked myself, “Who is king in my life?” a question worth asking oneself every once and a while, I came up with “chocolate.” Seriously, nothing else is quite able to move me from laziness on the couch as effectively as that sumptuously smooth and sweet little dark delight residing in my cupboard. I say that as a joke…only partially though. Who is king in my life? Is it money? Is it prestige? Is it my wife? Who or what controls my life? Who or what controls the life of our church?

As we let those questions float in our heads, my mind wanders to our brothers and sisters in Christ in South America with whom I just spent time. I think in particular of a young pastor from South America with an infectious smile, insatiable need to joke around, huge stomach for good beer (he’s a real Lutheran), and a love for the poor people he serves. He preaches in seven churches throughout his country every weekend for zero pay from the people. He works a second job in order to keep himself and his family alive. When asked if it is a goal for the churches to be able to support a pastor on their own he looked back with an almost disgusted look on his face and answered, “These people are very poor, they need their money to survive. If the church collects any money it goes toward our ministry which teaches the men and women a trade so that they can better their lives. We aren’t here to take money from the poor.” Obviously, money is not his king.

Neither is personal safety. He and the other pastors have had death threats by covert government officials because the pastors have no problem making noise when government policies only benefit the rich and hurt the poor whom they serve. In thanks for their opposition to a free trade agreement with the United States, which would primarily only benefit a rich few and hurt those they love, their government gave the gift of a bomb thrown through the window of their church offices. I wonder who this pastor's king is that he would suffer so readily for the sake of others?

What exactly does your life look like if you follow a king who is dressed perfectly, has the best things that life can offer, has respect of everyone around, flies around in a helicopter, and has a personal chef. What are your own aspirations in life if this is the king you follow? Now, what exactly does your life look like if you follow a king who has been stripped of all clothing except for a blood soaked purple robe; has been beaten so strongly that his flesh looks like raw hamburger; has had nails driven through his wrists and feet like a knife stabbing through the cartilage of the holiday turkey; has been mocked by everyone under his feet, upon whom he declares a royal pardon, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing;” who turns to you as you hang condemned and ashamed next to him, stares into your guilt and shame riddled eyes and says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What exactly does you life look like if you follow a king like that? Does it look like that young pastor’s life?

Though there is nothing wrong with being mad at God, I think that there is a lot of misdirected anger at God when things in life don’t appear to be going our own way. Many people expect that life will become easier as they devote themselves to Christ. Somehow, they expect that their prayers for certain selfish things will be answered more readily. Somehow, they expect that hardship will pass them by more often now that they are devoted followers. Somehow, they expect to receive the life of a king with all of the luxuries that follow. What they didn’t expect was that they would get the life of our king. When love of others, especially the disadvantaged in life, and forgiveness of the sinner are the primary marks by which your king is known, you may not find that the life which follows is easy. The life which follows may include threats to your life as you oppose self-centered politicians. The life which follows may include mockery for refusing to follow the crowd. The life which follows will put you with certain sinners whom you normally would not associate. Your life may include all of these rewards and many, many more! WooWhoo!!! But, your life will also be filled with a gift more precious than that of gold, helicopters, prestige, respect, and even chocolate. Your life will be filled with God’s unfailing, forgiving love.

After all had been stripped away from Jesus and he was nailed naked, bearing all on the cross, resentment and anger was not what remained on his lips. God’s forgiving love was the last thing that remained. No one could take that from him. No one can take that from you. A forgiving love was the last thing that remained with Christ. If a forgiving love is what he held tightly to in the end, then I would say Jesus is a king worth following with your whole heart.