Sunday, November 27, 2011

November 27, 201, "The Long Road"

Isaiah 64.1-12

Advent is a time to search our souls, take a deep breath, think long and hard about the values we hold, the lives we live … a time to ask big questions, to ponder the nature of God, who is God really like, what God is up to, and what is it that we truly want out of life.

Advent is a Long Road … a four-week journey into the heart of God’s purpose and plan … a time to think deeply.

If ever there were a need for deep thought, it’s now … the world is changing … upheaval everywhere … people are afraid … and frightened people always make dumb decisions … and I fear that we’ve been making a lot of dumb decisions lately, and maybe God can raise up others to lead the way, but surely it’s our task, those who know the love of God, who have Christ in their hearts - it’s our calling, isn’t it, to lead the way?

As I survey the Christian scene in America, I’m mostly troubled.
Too many people scratch the surface of things and claim to have the wisdom of the ages.
Too many preachers without training, and too many churches without guidance.
Too many Christians who don’t know how to keep their nose out of other people’s business.
Too much judgment and not enough love.

We need the vision of hawks … hawks fly high, see the big picture, all the detail - how it fits, how it works, find the right target, be patient, don’t waste time going after the unimportant.
The world needs Christians with the vision of hawks on high!

Advent is a time for us to receive Jesus all over again.
Jesus is like a book - the first time we receive Jesus, it’s only the first chapter - maybe as a child, or a young adult at a revival service, or in the quietness of our home, but receiving Jesus is only the first chapter.
We need to keep on reading Jesus all of our life … chapter upon chapter … a never-ending story, because God’s love is infinite … Satan tempts us to stay in the first chapter; Jesus beckons us onward - Come, follow me … it’s a long road … we have miles to go, and promises to keep.
We never reach the end of Jesus.
We never explore all of God’s love.
We never become a Christian entirely … we just keep on growing and going … that’s what faith is all about.

My Hebrew professor came into class one morning, smiling and chuckling - Dr. Lester Kuyper said to us, “I’ve solved a translation problem I’ve been working on for 20 years” … we called him The Student - he was always learning, and what he learned, he shared with us - his lectures were solid and fresh.
At the same time, there were professors who lectured us from notes yellow with age … they said to us what they said ten years ago … it was good, but it wasn’t fresh.
Faith needs to be fresh!

Donna and I had a seminary summer assignment in a Miami, Florida church.
When the pastor and his wife went on vacation, he told me, “Use my office, and whatever books you want.”
I took a good look at his library; there were very few books purchased after his seminary graduation twenty years earlier … the books he had were good, but the man had stopped reading … and I think he had stopped growing.

Advent is a time to grow … a child stands in a doorway; Dad or Mom take a pencil, mark on the doorframe the child’s height, a date is written … a few months later, lo and behold, the child has grown all the more.

Old clothes no longer fit … a new wardrobe is needed - new clothes for the growing child … new faith for the growing Christian.

No one here wears clothes they wore twenty years ago … and none of us should be wearing the same faith we had twenty years ago … God doesn’t change, but we’re creatures of change, and only when we change, can we grow.

In Tuesday’s LA Times, Stephanie Bryson - a disheartened high school student, bad grades, ready to drop out; she wanted to become a professional surfer … but she didn’t drop out; she pressed on, entered Cal State, Long Beach; last May, she graduated summa cum laude and class valedictorian. 
She’s now a graduate student at Georgetown and was named a Rhodes Scholar - making her only the second Cal State graduate to receive the honor, and one of four students from CA, among only 32 from the entire US to be named a Rhodes Scholar.
Stephanie Bryson chose to grow!

The writer of Hebrews says: Let’s press on to maturity … 
Paul writes, Let’s grow in every way into Christ …
Peter writes, Grow in the grace and knowledge of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 64 gives us some clues about growing …

First of all, how not to grow: Isaiah wants God to do something … Come on LORD, get with it - do something splashy - flashy and big; let the world know.
Like the Devil in the wilderness tempting Jesus - “Jump off the Temple pinnacle … something splashy, flashy and big -you’ll have the people eating out of your hand.”
Jesus refuses to go for the show, and God doesn’t show up with quaking mountains and roaring fire … Isaiah learns as Elijah learned:
The LORD isn’t in the wind. The LORD isn’t in the earthquake. The LORD isn’t in the fire. But in a still small voice … 

As the story of the Old Testament unfolds, God is learning right along with us - not by might, nor by strength, but by my Spirit … and when we finally reach Jesus, no legions of angeles heavily armed, just a heavenly choir; no displays of power, just healing and feeding and welcome and kindness … not power, but peace … and sacrifice and mercy … a lot of people looked at Jesus and said, “Not big enough; not powerful enough. We expect fireworks!” … but no fireworks, just the fire of faith, and the invitation, Come and follow me!

If we want to find God, we need to look in tiny places - in a tiny little manger in a tiny little town in a tiny little country.

What’s next for Isaiah?

Isaiah struggles with Israel’s story, then confesses - “We’re a chosen people, yet rebellious - we prefer our own counsel to that of God, even as we worship God and declare our trust in God … “LORD, we have done wrong” - not what the other guy does, but our stuff; not how bad other nations are, but how bad Israel has become; not about the defects of other religions, but how Israel fails to live up to its own faith … 
It takes a brave soul to see the severity of sin we call it Confession

Isaiah then asks God to relent … don’t punish us as our sins deserve … “our cities are in ruin, our temple has gone up in flames … all is lost” … it takes a faithful soul to ask God to go lightly - especially with others.
A bit light the LORD’S Prayer here - Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil … and we might be very good at asking God to go lightly with us, to give us the second chance, and the third and the fourth … yet how easily we turn around and look at the neighbor, and hope they get what’s comin’ to them! “Go hard on ‘em, LORD; they have a lot to learn,” and then we pray, “Oh LORD, go easy on me; I’m trying my best.”
To stand in the breach for others … even the enemy as we learn from Jesus … who cries out from the cross, Father, forgive them.”
We call it Intercession.

The last piece of faith: we are the clay, God is the potter.
We cannot fathom all of God’s doings - we have two choices: live in bitterness or put ourselves into God’s hands.
Job learns that surrender is the only key to peace … in the midst of his suffering and loss, his friends blame him, and Job blames God … and then one day, Job is too tired to blame anyone, and Job surrenders - “I don’t understand, but I trust God, and God will work it out - no matter how long, no matter how hard, I know that my Redeemer lives, and God will work it out” - from that moment on, Job has peace in the midst of the storm.
We call it Surrender.

The Long Road of Advent - Confession, Intercession, Surrender - not always an easy road - but if stay with it, if we keep on keepin’ on, one step at a time, the Long Road of Advent leads us, all the way, to Bethlehem.
Even from afar, if we hush the noise within us, and pay no attention to the noise around us, we’ll hear the cry of the Child and the song of angels in the midnight clear.
The Long Road Advent!
All the way to Bethlehem.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 20, 2011, "God Takes Responsibility"

Ezekiel 34.11-16

Welcome to the last Sunday of the year … the Church Year, that is. 
Our year began 12 months ago with Advent … what a journey it’s been for us … we’ve seen death; we’ve seen life; our souls have been dark; our spirits bright.
Times when we didn’t know God, and times when God was crystal clear … times when trust was hard; times when trust was easy … we’ve all grown in Christ, and we’ve stumbled in our sins, as well … we’ve been faithful to the LORD, and sometimes we’ve been a lot like Peter or Judas … sometimes we got it wrong, and sometimes we got it right.
What a year it’s been for us.
A year that ends today, ends with Christ the King.
And so it ends well … alls well that ends well … because everything ends with Christ … the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End … the Eternal Shepherd.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want … 
Jesus says to his disciples, I am the Good Shepherd … when others run, I don’t … when others think only of themselves, I think only of you … when others take, I give, and I lay down my life for you!

In Ezekiel’s story, who are the shepherds?
They’re the leaders: priests, prophets … kings, queens … scribes, Levites.
For us here, - pastors, deacons and elders - shepherds of the flock, if the elders and deacons would please stand … congregation, put your hands together to honor them … extend your hands toward them, as I pray:
These are your shepherds, O God, the shepherds of your people … your people here at Calvary on the Boulevard.
We pray for them, O God.
Their tasks are many; their burdens heavy.
Stand by them, we pray, in every way.
Give them grace, mercy and peace … faith, hope and love … and the joy of Jesus Christ.
That they may lead us, and lead us well.
In Jesus’ name. Amen!

Part of Ezekiel’s story is sad - Israel’s shepherds failed.
Sometimes shepherds fail … and every shepherd knows it when it happens … we all know when we fail.
And why did they fail?
They forgot their central purpose: to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays or seek out the lost.

I could fill a book with my failures …  things I’m not proud of … decisions that were wrong … when fear and anger took control.
We all fail more than we care to admit … 
Reality check: failure is a part of the program … that’s why we need to keep our expectations in check - what we expect of ourselves, and what we expect of others.
There’s nothing wrong with high expectations.
But expectations have a way of getting out of hand, and nothing worse than expectations out of control.

Many of us live with a psychological mommy or daddy still scolding us, wagging their finer at us, grounding us and sending us to our room without dinner - years later, we’re still feel small and resentful.
And to compensate, we expect too much of ourselves, still trying to win the love of mom or dad … we push ourselves too hard, and judge ourselves too harshly … and we only feel worse for the effort.
Or we turn it around, and we expect too much of others … and when others fail to deliver what we want, what we expect, we get all over them - we confront them, we wag a finger at them just like some angry parent did to us, we send nasty emails, and carry grudges.

We can rightly expect a lot of ourselves, but we’re not God, and we’re not perfect … no one can deliver all the time … not you, not me, not the baker, the butcher or the candlestick maker.
That’s why, at least in the church, we try to live by grace.
We practice forgiveness and acceptance.
We’re gentle with one another … because we’re all in this together … and we’re all carrying heavy burdens.
We watch our tongues and our emails … and when we overstep ourselves, we practice the needful art of apology, apology pure and simple, “I’m sorry! Please forgive me.”

This is a timely reminder for all of us - if we take it upon ourselves to “counsel” a fellow Christian - we have to be sure that we’ve dealt with ourselves first of all.
I’ve learned the hard way: when I’m upset with others, if I really think about it, I’m mostly upset with myself.
When I fail, my first response is to pin the blame on others.
Maybe you do that, too.
But it doesn’t help us, or anyone else.
We have to deal with our junk first.
Jesus said it well:  before trying to take a speck out of a neighbor’s eye, be sure to remove the log in your own.
We all have plenty of logs.
If we work on our log jam, it’ll keep us busy for the rest of our life - and by the time we’ve got the logs removed from our own eyes, the world looks will better to us, and we’ll be better equipped to let our light shine. 
We don’t have to remove anyone else’s speck from their eye … we just let our light shine, so they can do their own log-removal.
In the end, it’s God who removes the logs from our eyes, and the specks from our neighbors’ eyes, it’s God who deals with all the junk of life … by his stripes we are healed!

And that’s the gospel
The good news in Ezekiel.
The Eternal Shepherd takes up where we stop.
The Eternal Shepherd takes responsibility … what we can’t do, God does; what we fail to do, God accomplishes; what we mess up, God restores.

The Eternal Shepherd.
Who repairs, restores and makes all things new.

The Eternal Shepherd leads us to a better place of living.
The sunny side of the street … good pastures and quiet waters.

When our hands grow weak, God’s hand is upon us.
When we lose sight of the big picture, God heals our eyes. 
When we hurt someone, the Holy Spirit disturbs us until we get it worked out.
When we’re tired and wanna call it quits, and just go home and hide our head under a pillow, God give us the energy to keep on going.

For EVERYONE here today, we’re all shepherds, are we not?
Responsible for the care of at least one other person!
Husbands shepherd their wives; wives shepherd their husbands … parents shepherd their children, and when the children get older, sometimes the children shepherd their parents … friends shepherd one another - in school and at work, and all around the town … there is always the need for care, kindness, mercy, love, hope-inspiring words, wisdom, witness and work - the stuff that builds up our world and gives everyone a second chance - Zacchaeus up a tree, the woman at the well, blind Bartimaeus - who doesn’t need a second chance now and then?

We have our work cut out for us.
Business, politics, education, religion - the world needs shepherds - women and men who have the wisdom and grace of God, who live the ethics of the LORD’S Prayer, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
The world needs shepherds who are light and salt - light to point the way, and salt to make people thirsty for the love  and justice of God … 
The world needs you and me - shepherds of grace and goodness, shepherds of wisdom and fortitude, shepherds led by the Eternal Shepherd, Christ the King!

That’s how our year ends … it ends well, beloved Christians … it ends on an upbeat note, because it ends with Christ, the Eternal and everlasting Good Shepherd!

He is the Alpha and the Omega, he is the beginning and the end.
Alls well that ends well.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

November 13, 2011, "Downs and Ups!"

Judges 4.1-7

Today, we mark Veterans’ Day … celebrated on Thursday, 11.11.11, with ceremonies at Arlington Cemetary, precisely at 11 AM.
11.11.11 … some folks get excited about numbers - on TV this week, all of sorts of numerologists and fortune-tellers, but days and weeks and months and years are just so much passing time, the rising and setting of the sun … we assign numbers, arbitrary numbers, to help us keep track of time.
Numbers are fun.
My birthday is 7.7 … and that’s the name of a drink, if you will … for years, Doc McCrory and I sent cards to each other - he was 7.7, as well … and then, as is the case with numbers, he reached the end of his calendar.
So I no longer have a 7.7 birthday partner.

When I was in Normandy, France a few years back, we went to the American Cemetery … Ten Thousand graves … powerful, emotional … I walked row upon row and found what I was looking for … the grave of a young man who died on the day I was born - July 7, 1944 … I took a picture and made some notes, but I’ve lost track of them.
I remember standing there … thinking: as I was coming into the world, he was leaving … my family welcomed me with joy; his family wept.

There a lots of ways to write history … and no matter how we write it, war is very much a part of the human story.
We know how to kill one another.
And we never seem to run out of reasons for pulling the trigger.

Sometimes there are good reasons … and sometimes, it’s all too confusing … and sometimes human beings just go to war because we don’t know what else to do.

Israel’s story in the Bible is no different.
Page after page - the spilling of blood … 
From Cain’s murder of his brother Able to this very day, the dogs of war roam the earth devouring us.

As we celebrate Veterans’ Day, we do so with thoughtfulness.
Rightly, we honor our Veterans … 
And rightly, we pray for peace.
And more than prayer, we wage peace.
Because we are followers of the Prince of Peace.

We must always be reluctant to call for arms.
If we must send young women and men to war, then let us do so with sorrow.

If war is part of the human story, so be it.
But let us be mindful:
If America has been in the right at different times, and I believe it has been, I also believe that America hasn’t always been right … if America has been a nation of peace, and we have been a nation great for peace, we have also been a nation of war … 
As Christians, we need to be thoughtful.
And wise, when it comes to war.

Our story this morning is simple … 
Israel failed to live up to its own story of goodness and faithfulness, so Israel, per God’s judgment, ends up under the thumb of King Jaban and his army, a powerful army with 900 iron chariots, commanded by Sisera.

After twenty years of oppression, Deborah the prophet, summons Barak and tells him to marshall the troops and prepare for battle, because now is the time for victory - God will deliver Israel and free her from King Jabin.

And then the fine print: It won’t be Barak who wins the day, but a woman.
Like a fingernail on a chalkboard … a woman?
Yes, a woman, without sword or shield, without chariots and soldiers.
The nations meet in battle, as Deborah said they would … Israel prevails; Sisera flees to friendly territory, or so he thinks, and seeks refuge with a family
After some refreshment, Sisera lays down to sleep; he’s exhausted. 
Jael, the woman of the household, covers him with a blanket.
When he falls asleep, she takes a tent peg and a hammer, and does him in … 

When Barak arrives - was he following chariot tracks? … how did he know? … anyway, Barak arrives, and Jael shows him Sisera’s body … and the story becomes a national story - a great poem of Israel’s struggle - her sin and defeat, her prayers and deliverance … and a women of the tent, Jael, takes the only tools she has, and wins the day for Israel.

With Veterans’ Day and the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera and Jael, we give thanks for God’s presence in our muddled world, God’s love at work in ALL things.
Bloody as it was.
That day, the tide turned for Israel.
King Jabin was defeated.
And Israel was free of tyranny.

With the only tools available to Jael, she saved the day.

All of us can save the day.
Little moments … big moments, when God hands us an opportunity to build something good, to help someone, to make this a better world.
Like our story, things are never entirely clear or clean.
We do the best we can … with the tools we have in hand.
And God is at work in ALL of it.

That’s the real story behind every story.
God at work in ALL things.
In the mess and confusion … the sad and the broken … and the wars we fight … 
Our story from Judges is never a warrant for war.
It is our assurance, however, that in a world often violent and dark, opportunity comes our way to win the day and make the best of a hard time.

Hats off to our Veterans … and encouragement to those who seek peace … and three cheers to those who are not afraid to act, like Jael, to cease the moment and win the day for good!
And to God be the glory. Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

November 6, 2011 - "Are You Sure?"

Joshua 24.1-3, 14-25

“Are you sure?” we say to a friend who’s just announced that she’s going to quit her job and take a long trip to Greece.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

It’s a question we’ve all been asked a time or two: “Are you sure?” … “Is this what you really want to do?” … “Have you thought about it?” … “Are you sure?”

There have been times when I’ve decided, “No, I’m not sure.” 
“I haven’t thought about it enough - maybe I should do something else.”

We’ve all been there!
“Are you sure?”

Joshua put the question to Israel:
Are you sure you want to serve the LORD?

I can imagine folks saying, “Josh, what do you mean? Here we are in the Promised Land. We’ve done it; we’ve fought the good fight. Of course we want to serve the LORD.”

Joshua says, “Be careful … if you say one thing and do another, it won’t go well with you.”
“If you say, ‘We’ll serve the LORD,’ and then turn around and serve other gods, and get things all mixed up, a little bit of Yahweh, a dash of Baal, a few fertility gods, it will end badly for you.”

The people protest.
“Josh, this is what we want. We WILL serve the LORD.”

“If that’s what you want,” says Josh … “then do it!”
Put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the LORD, the God of Israel.

There is no room for half-hearted faith in the Promised Land.
No room for faith all mixed up with other gods and powers and principalities and half-baked ideas.
The Promised Land requires clear-headed thinking and full-blown dedication.

Joshua calls the people to a serious level of faith.
By the way, when the name Joshua is translated into Greek, it become Jesus … Jesus is our Joshua.
Jesus leads us into a NEW Promised Land, as Joshua did of old … 

Come and follow me, says Jesus to the fisherman in their boats.
To Zacchaeus up a tree, Come on down; I want to have dinner in your home tonight.
To Lazarus in the tomb, Come out from among the dead and live.
To Saul on the Damascus Road, I have plans for you - to be my missionary to the Gentiles.

Yet Jesus offers words of caution to those who would sign on too quickly:
Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but I don’t have a place to lay my head. In other words, I won’t give you a rose garden; I don’t promise an easy go of it. They will do to you what they do to me. Think twice about it; don’t jump in too quickly. If you put your hand to the plow, don’t look back. If you want to build tower, first figure out what it will cost.

Several things to keep in mind:
Our walk with Christ is no Halloween Party.
As I write these words, I’m watching Head Start kids all dressed up for Halloween - Darth Vader and Lady Gaga and Spider Man … for a few hours, they are the costume, and the costume is them.
But when they get home, the costume comes off and into the closet with it.
And then they are what they are - little kids by the name of Johnny and Heidi and Amy and Jimmy.

We have to ask the question: Are we clothed in Christ, or just wearing a Christian costume? 

There’s a costume store on nearly corner of every town across the country … we call them churches … go to church, and someone will put a costume on us … it may even fit real good … we look at ourselves in the mirror and are pleased.
Sing the hymns, say some prayers, do a few good deeds.
But then we have to ask the Joshua question: “Are we sure?”
Are we clothed in Christ, or merely wearing a Christian costume?

How do we know?
If it’s a costume we’re wearing, we’re proud of it, and like to show it off.
The sign of the costume is the pride with which it’s worn … the pride that puffs us up and the pride that judges others: “My costume is better than your costume.”

Hear what Jesus says:
Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention.
Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet.
When you fast, don’t put on a sad face.

In other words, don’t call attention to ourselves.
Whatever we do, do it quietly, without fanfare, without pride, without judgment of others … do it well, do it with love.

Are we wearing a costume or are we clothed in Christ?

A good question to ask on St. Andrew’s Day … Andrew died a martyr at the end of the First Century … Peter’s brother, one of the disciples, he became a bishop, a leader in the early church.
Andrew lived in a world where there was no room for pretending. 
At the point of a sword, or on a cross, a costume simply won’t do.
Andrew had to be real.
That’s why we call him a Saint.
And we have to be real, too.
And when we’re real, then we’re saints, just like Andrew.

Joshua’s question to the people is a good question.
“Are you sure?”

Dear Christian friends, with the people of the Promised Land, with one voice, heart and mind, let us swear allegiance to Jesus Christ our Lord. 
No costumes here; only saints, who love the LORD! Amen and Amen.