Sunday, December 31, 2017

Reflection on Luke 2:22-40

There is one phrase in this entire continuing story of Jesus’ birth and childhood that says everything: "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." 

When Jesus is presented at the temple, his parents offer a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons as his offering to the Lord.  This offering gives us a fuller picture of faith as we move from the holidays.

I will tell you what I mean. 

You see, the holidays are supposed to be full of cheer and joy.  They are supposed to be times of abundance, giving, and gratitude.  In our society, the holidays are expected to be a big, positive, celebration with family and friends. 

When they are not, then we go away disappointed and depressed. 

But, this continuing Christmas story that Luke tells puts it all into perspective for us.  Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, gave two turtledoves or two young pigeons as his offering to the Lord.  In other words, they were poor. 

They were not rich enough to give a goat or another great offering.  They had to use the welfare-like prescription in the ancient law that allowed them to use a more humble animal for sacrifice. 

The first Christmas was not one of abundance, but one of a birth in a small animal shed and a paltry sacrifice.  Jesus was not born into perfection, he was born into reality.

And, reality is full of both.  Reality is full of both angelic chorus and scraping by just to get your next meal.  It is full of dancing and singing with children and loneliness in the hospital bed.  It is full of accomplishments and days of failure.  Jesus, God with us, was born into our reality.  He was not born into our imaginings of perfection.

Even the baby Jesus himself gets a dose of reality in this scene at the temple.  As his poor family walks around the temple, they are shocked by the righteous man, Simeon, who grabs Jesus and pronounces with joy that he had finally, in his old age, seen the salvation of the Lord.  Jesus, a member of this poor family, is honored with the highest distinction possible for a young boy in ancient Israel, Messiah, and blessed for the life that will come. 

Simeon also blesses Jesus’ parents, but gives Mary the oddest sort of blessing.  He says, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too." 


Jesus life is destined for greatness, but swords will also pierce.

Reality.  This life is not only about the blessings and joy that come out of nowhere, like the day early on in our marriage that my wife and I were looking at our bills, wondering how we were possibly going to make it through the holidays with some food, much less presents for each other.  And, just as we opened the mail, we saw a curious letter from the State of Minnesota.  We opened it, and there was a check.  It was Jessie Ventura’s famous tax rebate from the late 1990s.  He cut government spending and gave the balance back to the people of Minnesota, and ours came at just the right time. 

We felt blessed that very moment.  But, the reality was that there would be more days of struggle without rebate checks randomly showing up in the mail.  Reality.

This life is full of ups and downs.  This life is full of greatness for us and our children and swords that pierce our souls. 

This life is life. 

It is not the fake perfection of family holidays, but the reality of the days that follow.  Jesus was born, not into the fake, idealized stuff, but into the reality.

Jesus does grow to be great in wisdom and understanding.  He does grow to be the long anticipated Messiah.  But, no one at the idealized, angel filled stable realized what being Messiah actually meant.  It meant hoards of followers like a rock star, yes, yes.  But, it also meant death on a cross, alone.  Jesus was born into our reality, and it is in reality where he will be found.

He is there both when you celebrate another birthday, and when you find out about the cancer. 

He is there both when you celebrate the new child, and when you fear for their lives as they wander away. 

He is there both in the times when you are filled with faith and give of your time and money to help others, and in the times when you think only of yourself and cause total destruction. 

He is there bearing both blessing in the good times and grace and forgiveness in the times of struggle. 

He is there beaming with joy during times of greatness, and offering peace in the darkest moments. 

Jesus was born in a stable, presented to the Lord with doves or pigeons, and lived the life of real people.  And, it is in those real lives, our real lives, that he still resides through the Spirit. 

The Spirit of Jesus Christ is with you still. 

Even if. 

Even if the celebration is past and the reality has settled in.  He is there.

Simeon too has his highs and his lows.  He holds the very salvation of the world in his hands.  What a beautiful scene.  A true high. 

But, he also prays that he might now go to die.  A true low. 

Yet, in the reality of his situation he prays a simple thing.  He prays simply that he may “go in peace.” 


This is what I pray for you.  Peace throughout the highs and throughout the lows.  Peace during times of greatness and during the times of trial.  I pray for peace for you as you face your reality.  I pray for you the peace of Jesus, the peace that surpasses all understanding.  I pray for you the peace that calms in the face of the storm.  I pray for you the peace that sustains though it all.  I pray that you might live in a spirit of peace until the last day of your life, and beyond.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Reflection on Luke 2:1-20

What if love could take on flesh and walk around?  What would it look like?  Who would it care about?  Where could it be found?

A little over 2000 years ago, an angel came to announce that God’s love was coming to the world in a very real way.  After a quick stop at the temple to give Zachariah some news, the angel headed out, away from the temple, away from the seats of power and the garrisons of soldiers, and shared some good news with a very young woman, and some undervalued shepherds watching their flocks by night. 

Rather than choose to announce the coming of Emanuel (God with us) to royalty, priests, or the rich, the angel comes to the lowest of the low. 

What if love could take on flesh and walk around?  Where would love start its life?  With whom would love hang around?  Where can love be found?

Is it too much for me to take a little of your time to share the greatest joy that I see in the Christmas celebration?  Is it too much to be excited about a little, very little thing?  Well, even if it is, I do not care.  I am going to share with you my Christmas joy.  It is simple.  It is small.  It is the manger. 

The manger is humble.  It is dirty.  But it is only dirty because it is the feeding trough of God’s animals.  It is the place of blue collar workers, and faithful, salt of the earth farmers. 

Growing up on a farm, I felt a deep connection with God’s choice for a crib: the manger.  Jesus, the love of God in the flesh, was more than willing to join me in the barn with the pigs.  That simple fact made me happier than maybe it should have.  But, take a moment to share my happiness and ask, “What does the manger say about God?”  “What does the manger say about the nature of love?”

You know what I think it says?  I think it says that when love decides to take flesh, it decides to come and visit even the lowliest of people and creatures in the lowliest of places.  When love takes on flesh, it decides to spend time with the animals and the shepherds and the farmers and the people who have no other pace to stay than a shed. 

What if love could take on flesh and walk around?  What would it look like?  Who would it care about?  Where could it be found?

If love took on flesh and walked around, I think love would probably find its way to the suffering: the ill, the disturbed, the poor, and the sinner who has not found relief from the guilt.  Love would find the children and the tax collectors.  Love would choose plain old salt of the earth people to hang out with and to teach.  Love would heal and save them all. 

Love could not care less about the large temples and fancy imperial houses.  Love could not care less about those who stick up their noses and see themselves as important and morally superior.  Love could not care less about wealth. 

When love takes on flesh and walks around, it embraces those who could use a little…love.  It would take part of its body and blood, love would, and would share it with those who hunger for a little…love. 

It would not care about its own skin, but would care enough for others that it would take the fall for them.  Love would find itself on a cross, full of grace and forgiveness. 

Love would do that because love does not forget, or fail, or betray.  It is not haughty or boastful.  No, rather love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love even endures crosses and evil.  Love endures to the end. 

What If?

What if love could become flesh and walk around?

What if you could see love walking and know exactly what it looked like?

What if the dirtiness of your life could be cleaned away so that you would not feel ashamed to show your face…your true face?

What if you could walk in the company of love?

What if you could become love yourself?

What if?

Do you want to know the true meaning of Christmas?
Do you want to see the true meaning with your own eyes?
Do you want to experience it?
Do you want to become a part of it?
Do you want to know love deeply; love that will not betray or forget?

What if love could become flesh and walk around?

What if you could be happy once again?

What if?

Do you?  Do you want to be happy?  Do you want to see love?  Do you want to walk in the company of love?  Then come and take a look.  Take a look in the manger.  See the Christ child.  See love in the flesh, and be happy once again.

Reflection on Luke 1:26-38

“Do not be afraid.” 

It is what angels say all the time. 

A guy in a bible study once mentioned that he has read that angelic greeting so many times that it comes across like a simple figure of speech, much like, “How are you doing?”  No one really wants to know how you are actually doing.  No one wants to hear about your bunion…really no one does.  He said, “Do not be afraid” sounds just as insignificant as "How are you doing?" when you do not take the time to read the Bible closely. 

To his surprise, when he took the time to read this story about Mary and the angel closely, he found that the phrase is anything but insignificant. 

He had never thought about Mary’s situation before.  He had never thought about a young girl suddenly encountering the supernatural.  He had never thought about the actual fear that probably penetrated the dark that night.

Imagine, a girl of about 13 or 14 settling down on her straw-filled bed in the complete darkness of the ancient night world.  Remember, in this ancient world there were no street lights nor were there nightlights plugged into walls. 

The night is not safe.  The night is full of robbers and wild animals.  The night is a place of spirits and demons.  The night is a place of fear. 

That night, piercing the dark suddenly, is a man seen standing against the dim starlight in her small, dark bedroom. 

Alright, admittedly the Bible does not say that the angel came to Mary at night.  It could have happened in full daylight for all we know.  That said, just stick with me here, in the darkness, because there is much more to fear than the dark. 

The angel says out of the darkness, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.”  “Favored one;” what a strange thing to say to someone who really is not anyone.  After-all, Mary is not a princess.  Mary has no political or religious influence in her society.  She does not have the wisdom of the years needed to influence the men of power from behind the scenes. 

Mary is just a young, inexperienced, engaged girl…in the dark…not favored by anyone except maybe Joseph.  She is a poor nobody.  Mary sat on her bed perplexed, knees snug up against her chest protectively, listening to the man’s words.

The words, “Do not be afraid,” float from across the dark room, originating from the strange man. 

As I mentioned before, the setting is not the only thing that is scary here.  I actually think that the angel was trying to make sure that Mary did not run in fear of the message he was about to deliver. 

The voice from the dark continues, “You have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

Have you ever suddenly realized that your entire world was about to change?  Have you ever been in a situation where you were quite certain that your life would never be the same? 

“Your position in the company is being moved overseas to Germany.  I hope that you have an English-German dictionary,” the boss mentions standing at your door. 

“I don’t want to be with you any longer,” the spouse says to the shocked other. 

“Happy day graduates! I hope you have a plan for the future already,” the principal says during the graduation ceremony. 

“I’m sorry, but she is dead,” comes from the mouth of the police officer at the door. 

“You are going to be a father,” she says to her shocked boyfriend.

All of these are examples of the very moment that your old world dies and a new world begins, whether you are ready or not.  Much of the time we are not ready.  We are certainly not ready for the tragedies of life that take loved ones from us, or announce terminal illnesses. 

Nor, are many of us even ready for the seemingly happy events of life, like finding out for the first time that you will be a parent, or finding out that you were excepted into a prestigious, yet academically challenging school. 

With her shocking news sinking in, Mary questions this new, uncertain vision for her life that will bring about the death of her old life.  After-all, young virgins just do not find out that they are pregnant.  The lowly just are not chosen for greatness.  How do you even raise a king correctly?  What if you raise a brat?  What if you accidentally drop a divine child on his head?  The stakes are awfully high in this heavenly game. 

Mary’s world is changing this very instant, and, as you probably already know, fear flourishes in times of change.

“Do not fear” the angel says to Mary. 

Has saying, “Don’t be afraid” has ever worked for you?  Imagine, the plane’s engine stops in mid-flight and the steward says, “Don’t be afraid, it happens all the time.”  I have to admit that just does not quite do it for me…I don’t know about you. 

But, the angel has more for Mary than just “Do not fear.”  He continues with something even better: “You have found favor with God.”

And, that right there is the sweet music of grace.  “You have found favor with God.” 

It says, “No matter what, God is on your side, because God has found something of worth in you.” 

It says, “No matter the fear or the hurdles you are about to face, God knows that you are the right one for this time and this place.” 

It says, “It doesn’t matter if you think you are the right one, God knows you are the right one.” 

And, it says, “God is with you through it all.”  “You have found favor with God.”

It is true, you are the right one for this time and this place.  God did not make a mistake in choosing you for where you are in your life.  You have found favor with God.  God considered everyone else and thought, "No, I have found the right one.  It is you."

Mary believes the promise. 

Though she is from the middle of nowhere; though she is no princess of even a duchess; and though she is just a young teen, she believes the promise and sets her sights on her new future. 

That is how great the promise of God is.  It allows Mary to look upon her uncertain, new life and respond, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." 

Here we are Lord.  We do not know what you were thinking in choosing us.  We do not know what the future holds.  If we are honest with ourselves, no amount of “Do not be afraid” is going to comfort us.  Yet, you think we are the right ones for the task right here and right now.  So, I guess, if you think so Lord, here we are.  We are your servants.  Lead the way Lord.  Lead the way.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Reflection on John 1:6-8, 19-28

I wish. 

I wish that I could enter into your darkness.  I wish that I could heal your pain and shine some light on those nights when you cry deep into the darkness.  I wish that I was the full moon for you; or even better, the light of the day.  I wish that I could shine the divine light that creates new life onto your skin and make everything better. 

I wish.

But, like John the witness, I am not the light.  I cannot shine on you or make anything new.  No sores will be healed through me.  I am not the creator of life.  I am not the giver of new life.  But, I can point to the one who is. 

He is the one who shined on those first wisps of creation and gave them life.  He is the one who can enter into your locked room at night and provide the light of joy on those dark nights. 

Behold, Christ the light!

I wish. 

I wish that I could free you from your own brokenness.  I wish the failures of the past would not hold you back quite so much.  I wish that you would not dwell on them again and again.  I wish that you could be free of your failures.  I wish that you would feel truly free to be a child of God.  I wish that the sin that keeps tripping you up would simply go away.  I wish that I could be a burnt offering for your sin.  I wish that your failures would burn with me and fade into the ether. 

I wish.

But, like John the witness, I am not the Lamb of God.  I am not the one who can take away your sin.  I am not the one who can free you from the damage of the past.  I am not the one who can wipe your slate clean.  Though I can declare forgiveness, I am not the one who can grant it in a way that will actually bring you peace.  I do not take away the sins of the world.  I cannot even take away my own sin!  I am just as broken as you.  But, I can point to the one who can. 

He is the one who promises to take away sin and make you new again.  He is the one who promises to be our last Passover lamb, who once and for all time passes over our brokenness and says, “You are forgiven.  Now, just let it go.”  He is the one who can save us from ourselves. 

Behold, the Lamb of God!

I wish. 

I wish that I could bring the holy to you.  I wish that I could make this Christmas sink into your heart in a way that the past ones could not.  I wish that I could just make it a rule that you believe, and you would just do it.  I wish that you could know the joy of faith, the peace that passes all understanding, and the hope that still inspires the nations.  I wish that you could feel rooted deeply into something greater than yourself.  I wish you would be able to sense the spark of divine presence in your very soul.  I wish you had great faith. 

I wish.

But, like John the witness, I am not the one who can give you the Holy Spirit.  I cannot strengthen the divine spark in you.  I cannot blow oxygen on it and make it blaze gloriously within your soul, burning with colors of love and faith.  I cannot make it outshine all the stars, or outshine the holiday projections on the houses, or even outshine the lit up, air filled Santas and Frosties.  I cannot do any of that.  I cannot fill you with the Holy Spirit.  But, I can point to the one who can. 

He is the one who created that divine spark in your soul in the first place.  He is the one who can blow on it, fanning the flames of divine, holy love.  He is the one who can fill you with the joy, the peace, and the hope of the faithful.  He is the one who can create great faith where there once was little. 

Behold, the Son of God who baptizes with the Holy Spirit!

After-all, none of us are the saviors of the world, nor are we even saviors our own lives.  None of us are self-made successes.  None of us created the greatness of our lives out of nothing.  None of us. 

And, if we think that we are great because of our own efforts…if we think that we are basically wonderful, sinless people who need no one to save us, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 

The truth is: the best any of us can do is point to the one who can save.

Like the Christmas trees, the best we can do is point up to the light of the world. 

Like the shepherds, the best we can do is point our bodies toward the light and walk in that direction. 

Like the wise men, the best we can do is point our faces to the ground and humbly offer up the gifts that we bear to the light of the world. 

Like John the witness, the best we can do is point to Jesus Christ, the light of the world. 

In all we do and say, we can point to the one who died for the world, and also raises the world to new life; Jesus Christ. 

So, have faith, not in me, but in Jesus.  Have trust, not in me, but in Jesus.  Have hope, not in me, but in Jesus. 

My own body will fail and disappoint.  My own body can love you, but in an imperfect and faltering way.  My own body cannot give you new life.  My own body can only point to the one who can, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.  But, that is more than enough.  Being pointers who direct others to God is more than enough.

The fact that I can only point to the light of the world means one thing though; you may have to wait.  I cannot make anything happen in your life right now.  I cannot make your pain go away right now.  I cannot make your guilt evaporate this instant.  I cannot make joy fill your heart this holiday season.  That is up to God and God’s timing. 

Thus, you may need to wait. 

But, that is what this season of Advent before Christmas is all about is it not?  It is about waiting, with hope.  It is about waiting with faith.  It is a season of trust.  But, we do not trust in ourselves or our neighbors.  Rather, we trust in the Lord. 

Wait for the Lord, be strong, have faith.  Our Lord is near.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Reflection on Mark 1:1-8

Everyone likes a good ride through the wilderness.  As you peer out the window of the car, you enjoy seeing the grandeur of the tallest pines (or the tallest cacti if you are traveling through the desert), feel awestruck by the sheer size of granite cliffs, and keep a look out for a rare glimpse of a bear, buffalo, wolf, or mountain lion. 

If you are really lucky in the southern parts of the wilderness of Arizona you might even catch the very rare glimpse of a jaguar.  That would be exciting, as long as you are in a car. 

But, when driving through the wilderness, you are not really in the wilderness.  It is more like you are simply touring the wilderness; seeing it as if you are watching on a 3D television screen. 

You would not actually be in the wilderness unless your car broke down.  When your car breaks down, then you are actually in the wilderness.

It is kind of like when you attend the funeral of someone you barely knew from the community.  It is good you are there.  It is good to honor the memory of a person and to pay your respects, but it is like driving a car through the wilderness. 

You are not actually in the wilderness of grief; just passing through seeing others in their grief struggle. You can try to say the right words, but you do not actually know what it is like to wander in this particular wilderness of grief. 

You would not actually be in the wilderness of grief unless your car of life suddenly broke down and you lost that special one who had latched onto your heart.  Then, and only then, are you in the wilderness of grief.

The same is true for the wilderness of cancer or divorce or financial struggle or any other wilderness of life.  It is not until your car breaks down that you are actually in the wilderness. 

When it does break down, then suddenly you are forced to take stock of what you have. 

Do you have any food in the car?  Can the car still serve as a shelter?  Are there any blankets?  Did you bring a phone?  Are the cushions of the seats flammable? 

In other words, do you actually have the tools to make it through this wilderness experience, or are you lost, wandering through the dark, with no food and no one in sight who can help or who understands your struggle?

Do you know what would be great to have in a wilderness struggle? 

A road. 

After-all, roads lead somewhere.  Roads can bring you to a place of safety.  Roads are relatively straight compared to the wanderings of someone lost in the wilderness.

In addition, even if you are too injured to follow it, that straight road might at least bring someone your way: someone who can help; someone who knows how to get through the wilderness; someone who has been there before; someone who can save you.

To those who struggle in the wilderness, the gospel writer Mark announces directly to you some good news. 

“Good news,” by the way, can be rightly translated from the Greek as “good news from the battlefront.”  It hearkens back to images of messengers running from the field of war with good news about the progress of the battle. 

So, here, Mark is telling all of us who struggle in the wilderness that there is some “good news from the battle” or “good news from the struggle.”  

And, the "good news" for you who struggle in the wilderness is: there is a road. 

On some days, that alone is good news.  When going through the pain of grief, simply knowing that there is a road through it is, on some days at least, hope enough.  The pain that comes with wandering in the wilderness of grief is not the last word.  There is a road. 

When going through cancer, it is nice to know that the doctors have a road to travel.  Where it leads is not known, but at least there is a road.  At least there is hope.

But, Mark did not say that this is the "good news of the road."  Rather, he said that this is the "beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ." 

This is the beginning of the good news that says, not only is there a road through your wilderness, but there is someone who is coming down the road to meet you and to walk with you.  There is someone who is coming down the road who will save you.  Jesus Christ will come to meet you in your wilderness wandering. 

Not only that, he will come with a tool to help you in the wilderness; the Holy Spirit.  God’s very own Spirit will be with you in the wilderness.

I am here to tell you this morning that there is a road through your wilderness.  There is way in your wilderness.  There is an end to your wilderness wandering. 

And, you do not walk alone in your wilderness either.  Jesus Christ comes to walk with you in your wilderness.  He knows the way.  Heck, he is the way. 

He is the hope for the hopeless. 

He is the love for the loveless. 

He is the grace for the graceless. 

He is the way the truth and the life. 

When it seems no one else is there, Jesus Christ promises to be right there in the middle of the suffering. 

This should be no surprise to the people of faith.  When we search the scriptures we find that Jesus is always with the suffering.  He is always with the struggling.  Wherever crosses of burden can be found so too do we find Jesus; standing on a road of new life leading away from the struggle.

Jesus Christ comes to us with good news from the battlefront.  He is there to lead on the path to salvation.  Jesus Christ is there to lead us back home.

“Precious Lord Take My Hand"

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home (lead me home)

Songwriters: Thomas A. Dorsey
Take My Hand Precious Lord lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reflection on Mark 13:24-37

It had become a ritual for the boy. 

Every evening he would grab his basketball, go out onto the porch, and stare where the road met the horizon. 

He was waiting to see the silhouette of his father returning home from war.  He had done this same thing for a couple of years, and his mother’s heart broke for him each evening when he would come back in and say, “He didn’t come tonight.”

Eventually, too much time had passed with no letters, and no response from the military.  The mother assumed the worst and slumped into a grief stricken sort of depression. 

The boy, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction.  He maintained his evening watch on the porch, with the basketball firmly planted at his side, but he also learned to pick up the slack around the house. 

He did the things that his father used to do.  He mowed the lawn.  He washed the dishes.  He fixed the toilet.  He changed the oil in the car.  He made the bed in the guest bedroom.  And, he even made his parent’s bed every morning…a task that his mother just could not bring herself to do any longer. 

He had resolved to be the man of the house until his father’s return.  The boy did this for years without fail.

The boy had devoted himself to “keeping awake.” 

It is the same sort of "keeping awake" that Jesus encourages us to maintain until his return.  It is not a one and done sort of wakefulness though.  In other words, it is not the sort of one time spiritual awakening that you get when you finally see the truth and the truth then forever sets you free.  It is not the one time, blinding vision of Jesus on the road that changes everything for the rest of your life. 

As valuable as those spiritual experiences can be if you are lucky enough to have had one, the wakefulness that Jesus encourages is the kind that quietly, continually, happens every single day. 

We are encouraged to keep awake like the boy on the watch for his father. 

We do not know the time of his return, so “keep awake” Jesus says.  We do not know when the end will draw near, so “keep awake.”

This is the way it is when you live in the end times.  Each day is lived as if preparations are being made for Jesus’ return. 

It is as if an employer has gone off on a vacation and left the employees in charge.  The employees would continue to produce the goods.  They would continue to order the raw material.  They would continue to hire workers to assemble the product.  They would still hire the trucking company to distribute the goods.  And, though the company is running smoothly, the guard at the gate still watches for the employer’s return, and is ready to open the gates as soon as his car turns the corner.

And, so it is with the followers of Jesus who wait for his return.  We care for the sick, feed the hungry, pray for the imprisoned, comfort the grieving, and forgive the sinner until he returns. 

It is a way of life. 

It is washing the dishes, and changing the oil, and making the bed in the guest bedroom until the father’s return. 

Just as the boy has no idea when or even if his father will return, we too do not know about that day or hour.  Yet, we do not stop being the people of new life and new possibilities in the meantime.

As legend has it, when asked what he would do if he was told that the world was going to end tomorrow, Martin Luther answered, “I would plant a tree.” 

In other words, he would continue to live a life that gives life.

If you were told that your days were numbered what would you do? 

Having walked with many people in this situation I know what most people do.  They do the things that matter.  They do the things that are important. 

They spend time with children.  They forgive in abundance.  They make things that will last ages such as writing books or letters.  Some finish life-long dreams such as recording the music they had always hoped to pass on, or writing journals full of wisdom for the family that they will leave behind.  They go on that long dreamed of hike in the mountains with family and friends.  They take the time to be with those they love.  They touch base with those whom they had forgotten.  They hug a lot. 

In other words, they love and love as if tomorrow there might not be a chance to love again, because maybe there will not be another chance.  They plant trees all the way through to the last day.

Living in the end times is not a time to lay back, give up, and rest in the corruptness of the world. 

Living in the end times is a way of life that is awake.  It is a way of life that loves and hopes all the way to the end. 

It is a way of life that would love even enemies all the way to the cross.  It is a way of life that would forgive even as the nails pierce the hands and feet.  It is a way of life that would embrace the world even though the world abandons.  It is way of life that seeks God’s ways to the last breath, “it is finished.” 

It is the way of life, backing up Jesus’ story a few paces, that stays and prays in the garden of Gethsemane even though the disciples fall asleep.  It is the way of life that loves those who fall asleep, but desires much more than a life of sleep for those disciples.

The world might seem cruel and harsh, and we may be enticed to just give in and fall asleep to it all; but sometimes being awake pays off. 

A young man now, he still sits on the porch as he always has with the basketball in his hand looking out to the crest of the horizon.  But, this evening is different.  This evening the crest is breached by the heads of two figures.  As they near, the young man can see that they are both in uniform.  They walk with purpose.  They walk as if they have something to say.

Knowing the news that the sight of two soldiers always brings, his heart falls to the dust as does the basketball. 

As they approach, they take off their hats and the hat of the soldier on the left reveals a face that he knows very well.

“Dad!” the young man screams embracing the soldier.  The father embraces his son back, and the mother joins them in shock after hearing the all the commotion on the porch. 

“This is my friend Chuck” the father introduces the second man. 

“He has no home or family to which he can return.  I hope that the guest bedroom is ready.”

“It is dad.  It is.” the young man says proudly.
“That’s my boy.  I knew I could rely on you.  Now, I believe that a game of basketball is long overdue.”

And, with that, the father picks up the basketball, and they play the long anticipated game deep into the night.  It is a game that is more about love than it is about winning. 

Sort of like this life in the end times. 

It is a life that is more about love than accomplishing tasks, following rules, or getting ahead in life. 

It is a life that is awake though it waits. 

It is a life that is awake to others and awake to Jesus. 

It is a life that is awake to love.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 25:31-46

If you had to make a bet, you would not have bet on her.  Yet, she was the one who journeyed off into African tribal lands to live with the poorest of people and help teach them sustainable living. 

The act seemed wildly holy and Jesus-like, but she would have never put it that way. 

She sent back pictures of her time in the Peace Corp. and they showed her living in her small, dust floored hut, working beside the people in their small fields, and even dancing with them while they sang and worshiped. 

She was the one who actually went out and did it. 

Many of us talked about it.  Many of us said we would go off and make a difference in the places in the world where there was suffering. 

But, it was the one atheist in our graduating college class who actually did it.  She was the one who went out and loved some of those people who Matthew would describe as “the least of these.”  She was the one who went out and loved as Christ loved.  And, here’s the real kicker, she did not even realize what she was doing.  Christ’s love was working through her and she did not even know it.

Her story flashes through my memory whenever people corner me at the end of church halls and ask the desperate question, “What does God do to those who do loving things, yet do not believe?” 

The question is always desperate, because they are not ever asking as if this were a generalized theological question for their own self-education.  Rather, the question always has a name attached. 

“My husband Bill was a good man.  He loved everyone, yet he never believed.  What will happen to Bill?” 

“Rachel was the sweetest little girl, but she never had time to know the Lord before the cancer took her away.” 

“My brother in arms, Chuck, lost his faith in the war, but he saved a bunch of us.  If he ain’t going to heaven, then I don’t want to be there.”

Her story flashes through my mind when these questions fly my way because it is her story that reminds me of Matthew 25.  Matthew 25 actually answers these questions and answers them quite clearly.  Matthew 25 does let us know what the King of Kings thinks of the nations who have not heard of him or sought to worship in his name.

So, here is what Matthew 25 has to say: 
As people from the nations come to the throne (people of the nations are people who do not know God or follow Jesus) the king declares,

"’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'’

This story is talking about my Peace Corp. friend and your husband Bill, and little, innocent Rachel, and your friend Chuck and about any number of other loving people. 

This story is about those people who were filled with the love of Jesus, but did not know it.  It is about loving people who showed that love onto the lonely, vulnerable, and forgotten. 

Notice that the people in Jesus’ story are not surprised that they showed love by helping someone.  They knew what they were doing, after-all they wanted to do something good!  They knew they were caring for others and serving them. 

What they did not know…and what they were surprised to discover…is that they were actually serving Jesus. 

“When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you,” they asked.  They were shocked when they were told that their love was directed at Jesus.  They are surprised to find out that they care about all that Jesus cares about.  In other words, they were surprised to discover that they had been loving with the love of Jesus and following the ways of Jesus the whole time.

Now, if I were to go up to my devoutly atheist Peace Corp. friend and declare that I know she is going to heaven because the Bible tells me so, I am pretty certain that she will look me straight in the eye and flip me the bird. 

But, for Jesus, it is not about getting into heaven or not getting into heaven.  For Jesus, it is about love. 

Does the love that he showed on the cross, the love that cares for powerless and hopeless, the love that cares for the poor in spirit, the love that seeks justice for the lowly, the love that raises up the sinner to new life; does that love show up in real ways in the real world? 

Jesus loved the whole world and died for it, and is therefore overjoyed when that love reaches the farthest points.  Jesus will use whoever Jesus needs to use to spread that love.  And, Jesus is overjoyed when that impulse to love is not stifled.  There were those who did not help “the least of these” who must have stifled the love given to them.

My Peace Corp. friend did not stifle that love.  Instead, she lived in it.  She basked in its glow.  She was the love of Jesus.  She was no stranger to that love. 

Now, being an atheist, she will certainly be surprised when she discovers that there is a King of Kings and a Lord of Lords.  But, one thing she will not be shocked by is that the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords is not like the corrupt and powerful leaders and institutions of the world. 

She will be happy to see that the King of Kings shows up in places like humble mangers and in vast fields filled with the poor, sick, and hungry.  She will be happy that Jesus gives attention to those who she gives attention.  She will be happy that the King of Kings loves the people she loves.  I think she will be happily surprised to find out that the love of Jesus has been with her the whole time.

I think she, and all those who love others but do not know the Lord, will be happy to hear Jesus’ words of love that sound something like, “welcome to eternal life.”

Reflection on Luke 17:11-19

Over the years I have had the opportunity to hear many people at many Thanksgiving tables share the things for which they are thankful. 

Most of them are heart-felt, yet predictable: “family,” “friends,” “children,” or “spouse.”  I have even heard a couple of people mention the rare but coveted “good employment.”  But, some of the most memorable came from children.

When it was his turn to share, one little boy answered, “Chocolate.”  When his grandmother asked him to share something a little more appropriate and dignified he answered, “Dove chocolate?”

Another child was asked what she was thankful for and she answered, “Cucumbers.”  OK.  I guess she really appreciated cucumbers. 

But, I love the answer from one little guy provided when his grandfather asked what he was thankful for. 

The boy answered, “Amebas.” 

“Amebas?” his grandfather asked.  “Why amebas?”

“Because they’re small,” he beamed proudly.

Who can argue with that?

What I really like about these answers is that they are so heartfelt and honest.  I do not know about you, but I am tempted to believe that my thanksgiving answer somehow needs to be profound or heartwarming.  I actually take a little time to think about and plan on what I am going to say. 

These children, on the other hand, simply answered what was right on the top of their heads…or right on the top of their tongues, because they were simply and purely thankful for those things.  They felt no need to plan ahead in their answers.     

We see this sort of purity of thankfulness coming from that tenth Leper in our Thanksgiving Bible reading from Luke 17. 

As you already have read, all ten Lepers called out for healing.  All ten Lepers were instructed to go show themselves to the priests so that they might be found clean and allowed back into the everyday life of their towns.  All ten Lepers walked away and looked down to see that their skin was made clean.  All ten were healed by Jesus as a gift, but only one was made whole. 

What I mean by that is that only one had a heart that was compelled to return to Jesus and give thanks.

We might be tempted to be a little harsh of the nine who walked away without giving thanks.  I know that in the back of my mind I sit on the judgment throne and declare them unworthy, as if I am qualified to do such a thing. 

But, here is the one thing that gives me pause: Jesus found them worthy of healing.  

No, they did not return to give thanks, but all of them followed Jesus’ instructions to a T.  The nine went off to the priests as they were told to do.  The nine did as they were told and were healed.  The nine were all probably great people.  The nine were probably a lot like you and I who go about our everyday lives, yearning to do the right thing and yearning to be healed.

I once talked to an emergency room worker who regularly saves lives, and out of curiosity asked how many people sent letters or cards of appreciation after their lives were saved on those dark nights.  He responded that he rarely gets them, but that is not why he does it.  Maybe ten out of every hundred people sent a letter or card giving thanks. 

Now, I was never any good at math in school, there is a reason that I am a pastor and not an accountant, but if my math serves me right, I think 10 out of 100 emergency room clients is the same percentage as 1 out of 10 lepers.

All of us are healed, but not all of us are made whole. 

All of us recover, but only a few of us have a change in heart. 

The tenth leper was made whole.  The tenth leper had a heart that was changed toward faith.  The tenth leper was given something special, and I think that I yearn to have it. 

I yearn to have that sort of gratefulness to Jesus.  I yearn to have such a purity of thankfulness.  I yearn to have such faith.  But, such wholeness of faith is a gift and not a task to accomplish or a rule to follow. 

Given that, I guess that my simple prayer to Jesus is to be made whole. 

I desire the purity of thankfulness that can appreciate amebas.  I desire the gratefulness that causes me to stop in my tracks, turn around, and worship.  I desire to love as much as I have been loved. 

But, until my prayer is granted by Jesus, I guess the best that I can do is find ways to take time to be thankful to Jesus.  I know it is not the same, but just as smiling when you are unhappy can actually bring about happiness, maybe, just maybe, the practice of being thankful every morning and evening will open up the door for Jesus to make us whole…to make us truly thankful.