Sunday, December 21, 2014

CHRISTISNOWHERE: How Can Jesus Be King Of Your Christmas? - Fourth Sermon of Advent

Lectionary Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent: 

Advent is that season of the church which precedes Christmas. 

It's when we remember a time when Christ was nowhere. We are the Christmas people, believing and giving witness to the world that Christ is now here. But there was a time in the world when Christ was not. And that is how it still feels for too many people. It can feel that way in the church too. 

Often it feels like Christ is nowhere, but we choose to believe that Christ is now here. 

There is a word that describes this Advent experience. Prolepsis. 

Prolepsis is not a word used much around my house. Never, actually. 

For those in speech or debate class, you may be familiar with prolepsis. It's the anticipation and answering of a possible objection to a point you are making in your presentation. 

For those that are story-tellers, we use phrases that are tap int prolepsis. When we use a phrase like: "he was a dead man walking" - he's not really a dead man yet, but he will be, and he is seen as a dead man now, though he is not yet. 

I was in jail the other day, thinking about prolepsis. Following my sermon study, I made a visit to the county jail. While waiting for the inmate to be brought out for our visit, I was standing against the cement wall pondering how to explain prolepsis. 

I got to thinking of all the inmates I have visited in jail. There are some inmates who are truly imprisoned. For them, the past, present, and future are wrapped up in being imprisoned now. They feel trapped, they don't know how to avoid being jailed, and though they don't want to stay in prison, they don't know what to do different to stay out of prison once they get out. 

But there are the prisoners I visit with who are free. They may be on the other side of the glass, but they are with me in spirit. When we talk, we talk about what will be different, and what is already different. They are ready to do the work that will both lead to freedom and keep them free. 

They are not just living in the future, they are doing now what they will need to do in the future to be and stay free. Though they are not as free as they want to be, they are as free as they can be. They are so certain of becoming an staying future, that they live and act now as if they are free. 

That is prolepsis. The future present now, but not yet. The present that is yet to be. The future unfolding in the now. 

Prolepsis in Scripture is scripted by promises. 

Prolepsis helps us see the Christmas story anew, because Christmas is about promises made and promises kept. Christmas is about the present that is yet to be, about a future that is unfolding in the now. Christmas is about Jesus as king now, but not yet. 

You can see this so clearly in Mary the mother of Jesus, as written down in the Gospel according to Luke. The messenger of God proclaims good news to Mary: you shall bear a son who will save his people from their sins. You will name him Jesus, and he will lead his people out of exile. Jesus will become king of Israel, he will sit upon the throne of his ancestor King David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom shall come and it will never end. 

What does Mary do? A few things. First she wonders why the angel is even there. Then she wonders how all this will happen. But then, in wonder and delight, she responds with faith and faithfulness: "May it be to me as you have promised."

Then she hurries off to hang out with her cousin Elizabeth, who had a similar encounter with a messenger of God. While there, Mary bursts into song, and it's full of prolepsis. 

Mary's song envisions a world where what God has promised has already come to pass. All the angel did was announce the birth of a king, and Mary is singing about the downfall of the proud. Mary believes a savior will be born, and now she is lauding the Lord for having lifted up the poor and humiliated. She's not even pregnant yet, and Mary acts as if the promises to Abraham and David have already been fulfilled. That is prolepsis. Believing a promise so strongly you behave as if it is fully true now.

King David had a promise-making moment with the Lord, one that is very relevant to Mary's song and our proleptic examples.

He finally had rest from warring against his enemies. David sat firm and secure on his throne. But as he looked out from his palace, he realized that God dwelled in a tent. Whereas David sat in royal splendor, God's house was a stitched together of animal skins. Maybe David felt guilty? Maybe David felt bad for God? Whatever the reason, God wasn't impressed. He didn't need a new house, didn't want a new house, and didn't ask David to build anything for him. 

Actually God put David in his place: who are you to decide what kind of house is good enough for God? But then God followed up with a string of promises to David: God will build a house for David that lasts forever. The God of Israel who established David's kingdom will cause it to never end. It's an extraordinary promise to David, who is completely humbled by this turn of events. David breaks into song and prayer, praising the Lord for making this promise to his house, to Israel. But David sings as if the promise is already fulfilled, he prays as if the kingdom is an eternal one already. 

It's like when a bride and groom pledge to uphold their vows to one another, promising fidelity forever. In that moment, they are caught up in savoring an eternal promise. Right there and then they experience the feeling of a promise of forever fidelity. 

For sports fans out there, everyone knows that elite athletes practice prolepsis. The basketball shooter at the free throw line can see himself putting the ball through the hoop before he actually does it. The future point is already present in the now, but not yet. The quarterback can already see his wide receiver making the catch in the end zone before the throw has been made. The sprinter has already crossed the finish line in first place before he is out of the starting blocks. In their minds they are victors before the contest has begun. They practice in prolepsis, seeing themselves holding the trophy while they prepare for it as if it had already come to pass, but not yet. 

This is what the church does when we share in Eucharist together. The bread and the cup of communion is a present experience of a future reality, the Great Banquet with the King. We eat and drink now as if the Great Banquet has already started. We believe we are having a communion with the Lord now as if he had already set the table. 

Or take baptism: we go under the water and are brought up from it as if we were dying and being resurrected from the dead. Baptism is death and resurrection now, but not yet. It is believing the promise so strongly, we live now as if we have already died and been raised bodily from the grave. 

Prolepsis is powerful and transformative. Prolepsis is the name we give to the experience of believing the promises made to us, and living in the light of them. 

Advent is a proleptic event. It reminds the church that we are a proleptic people. If you have been baptized, you are living in prolepsis. If you partake of Eucharist, you are doing prolepsis. If you believe the promises God made to Israel were fulfilled in Jesus and are given now to you, you are doing prolepsis.

Christmas is prolepsis. The First Christmas being prolepsis of the Last Christmas. Jesus coming to Israel as their king was a now - not yet reality. He was God reigning over the world in Jesus of Nazareth, who was king of Israel and lord of all nations, but not yet. The crucified, resurrected, ascended Lord Jesus Christ was, is, and shall rule in truth and grace forever; he does so now through the church, but not yet. 

He has promised to rescue us from sin and death, we experience it now, but not yet. He are so confident in Jesus keeping his promise to save us, that we act as if it has already happened; the future present now. Our trust in the Lord is so strong that we live now as if our forgiveness on Judgment Day has already occurred; the present that is yet to be. The faith we have in God is so vibrant, we believe that his reign has already begun on the earth;  

Christmas is about promises made and promises kept. Christmas is about prolepsis. Do you believe?

For those with searching eyes and yearning hearts, it too often feels like Christ is nowhere. That's what it felt like to the inmate I visited in jail, as she poured her heart out to me. How does God feel so far away? Why doesn't he feel close?

But to those who have heard the promise and believe it, Christ is now here. 

That is prolepsis. 

And that is what Christmas is all about.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

CHRISTISNOWHERE: How Can Jesus Be King Of Your Christmas? - Third Sermon of Advent

Lectionary Reading for the Third Sunday of Advent: 

"For as the earth brings forth it's bud,
As the garden causes the things
that are sown in it to spring forth,
So the LORD God will cause 
righteousness and praise to spring forth
before all the nations."

What a beautiful and compelling vision of the future. For Israel, righteous justice and joyful praise was most definitely not sprouting among the empires of the world. It seemed as if God was no where - not in the temple, not on the throne, and not amongst the people.

Though Israel knew they had sinned against the LORD and broken their covenant, they wondered when the punishment would end. It seemed that returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding their life in the Promised Land was the beginning of a new era with God. 

But now a new empire was directing the affairs of the nations, and injustice and sorrow marred the gardens and cities. Which is why Isaiah's sermon resonated so deeply with Israel. When would righteous justice flourish - not only in Israel, but also in the surrounding nations?

How long, O Lord, until all the peoples of the earth praised you instead of their idols? 

Isaiah reminds Israel who it is they worship, of how great and good is their LORD. He announces to them that the Spirit of the LORD God will descend upon an anointed servant who will come to Israel. This anointed servant will preach good news to the poor and heal the brokenhearted.

The LORD God will send his servant to proclaim liberty to the captives and the Jubilee year of the Lord. The LORD God will have his day of vengeance, and God will comfort all who mourn, giving them beauty for ashes, oil of joy for mourning, and a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. 

If Israel is a garden, the LORD will plant righteousness that the people may be called oaks of justice. And through this rebuilding and replanting, Israel shall rejoice and God will be glorified. Through the LORD's faithfulness, he will make an everlasting covenant with a people who are continually unfaithful to him; BUT, the Lord God will direct their work in truth.

Through what the faithful LORD God does with unfaithful Israel will result in all the world acknowledge that surely Israel is blessed of God. 

Isaiah is so sure of this planting, of these oaks of righteousness, of a world rejoicing at the justice and faithfulness of God in how he rebuilds Israel, that he declares himself already clothed in salvation, already putting on a robe of righteous justice, like a bride and groom all decked out in their finest beauty. Isaiah is so confident in the LORD God, he believes with every bone in his body that justice and joy will spring forth before all the nations.

It will happen as sure as when the garden causes the things that are sown in it so spring forth.

Isaiah wrote to the people of God during the Advent of the First Christmas. As the people of God, we are now reading Isaiah during the Advent of the Last Christmas. We read of Isaiah's confidence in the LORD God almost twenty five centuries later. Sometimes it seems, on this side of that first Christmas that the robes of righteousness are wearing thin and the coats of salvation are getting threadbare. 

We need Isaiah's sermon now just as much as when Israel needed it then. They were ready and waiting for the anointed King, their Messiah, their Christ to come and cause justice and joy to spring up from the parched earth. But Israel crucified their king, cutting down the gardener with all the injustice and hate that we are all to familiar with still today. God brought comfort to all the people of God who recognized Jesus to be the Son of God and the Son of David. 

Through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God signaled his faithfulness to Israel while vindicating Jesus as the LORD and King of Israel and all the nations of the world. But through the crucifixion and resurrection we also begin to see how the LORD is going to sow the seeds of righteous justice and joyful praise throughout the world.

He's going to do it through the church scattered throughout the whole world. In every city of every nation there will be a gathering of men and women who are faithful to the LORD Jesus Christ. 

Because of their confidence in the coming of the Lord to establish the kingdom of God, they live now in light of a future that may not come in their lifetime. They rejoice always, praying constantly, giving thanks to God in all things, for they believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is both with them and coming again to reign upon the earth. And when he does, the justice and joy that the church has been striving to sow in their community will become true of the whole world.

The justice and joy of the church will become seeds for that nation, and God will cause justice and joy to spring up from what was sown in that place. 

Maybe you are having a hard time imagining what it will look like for justice and joy to spring up from the earth. I want to show you a small three minute movie where you will see men springing up from the earth in justice and joy at Christmas time. You may have already seen this chocolate commercial. 

It's a story known as the Christmas Truce and it took place exactly one hundred years ago this Christmas, during the first five months of the Great War, of what became known as World War One. It helps to know a bit of history to appreciate the beauty of this compelling event.

The first five months of the Great War was the worst warfare the world had ever seen. The world had seen many horrific wars over the thousands of years of recorded history. But none like this. Prior to World War 1, great battles lasted one day, maybe three days. No battle had ever raged on everyday for a month. 

When the battles started in August between Germany and the Allies, France expected the war to be over by the end of September. So when December came and there was no end in sight of the war, the nations became gravely worried about the new world of chaos they were descending into.

Though the truce only lasted for a day, and though the war raged on to consume over twenty million lives in the next four years, there was a moment where justice and joy sprung up from the earth. It's a picture of what could have happened had the rulers and authorities turned away from their fear, pride, and greed. 

That Christmas Truce was a brief picture of what the Last Christmas will be like, when the LORD God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up, conquering the dark powers and evil forces that enslave the nations in a kingdom of war and darkness. 

We are not living in World War I, but we are still living in the aftershocks of it, one hundred years later. You may not be living in the trenches, but you are living in a time where it seems like Christ is no where. There is so much injustice in our nation. There is so much loneliness and despair. There is so much violence and death. 

There is the every day grind of having to work with people who suck the joy out of the air; of living every day in pain or hardship or the constant struggle to survive with no end in sight. Maybe it's the nagging feeling that for all you have accomplished, there is still an emptiness that cannot be filled. Maybe you need your own Christmas Truce: to rise up out of your trench and choose to rejoice in the LORD and believe that Christ is now here. 

It's important to note how Isaiah ends his poem: "As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations." 

In your hardship, in your grief, in your sadness, in your difficulties, in your uncertainty, in your anxiety, in your sufferings: what are you sowing? When the evil one seeks to sow bitterness and despair in your heart, do you join him in it? When the devil speaks lies to you, do you add to them? When evil strikes you, your family or friends, when death unfairly strikes down those you care about - do you let the shadows of death creep in and drain your life away in despair and anger? 

Isaiah writes to Israel, reminding them that it is the Lord who causes righteousness and praise to spring up, but we must sow things into the garden in order for anything to spring up. There will always be death in this world, but are you sowing life? There will always be injustice and wickedness, but are you sowing righteous justice and goodness? There will always be sorrow and despair in our world, but are you sowing kindness and faithfulness anyway? We plant and water, but it's the LORD who makes it grow. 

There is an old Israelite myth that if you wept over the seeds that you sowed in the spring, you would thus be able to rejoice as you reaped a bountiful harvest. 

Sometimes it's in pain that we continue our faithfulness, sometimes it's with tears that we do the next right thing. But we look to the coming of the LORD, whether in our lifetime or in the generations to come, and we believe that he will come and cause justice and joy to spring forth before all the nations from all the seeds that we sowed with our tears. 

"In that year of the LORD, he will comfort all who mourn, giving them beauty for ashes;
the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; 
That they may be called oaks of righteousness, that He may be glorified."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

CHRISTISNOWHERE: How Jesus Can Be King Of Your Christmas - Second Sermon of Advent

Lectionary Reading for the Second Sunday of Advent:
Isaiah 40-1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Why do we need to prepare for Christmas with Advent?

Advent means "to come"; it implies waiting for the arrival of someone or something. It can also be an impetus for preparation; much like the work we do around the house to decorate and clean for Christmas Day festivities.

But Christians know that Christmas means much more then family and food, it is also about the bedrock of our faith. But what, exactly, does Christmas and Advent have to reveal to us about our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

It helps to retell the story of Christmas - not just the one that starts in the Gospel according to Matthew or Luke, but the one that we discover in the sermons of the prophet Isaiah, or the stories of King David in books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. And even further back to Joshua and Moses, Abraham and even Adam.

Matthew and Luke give all sorts of obvious cues that we need to know the OT stories to make sense of the Christmas story - the genealogies kind of give it away! But each gospel-writer also makes it clear that Jesus is to rule over Israel as a descendant of King David, that he will sit on the throne of the twelve tribes of Jacob and his reign will never end. If this identity of Jesus as King is central to our understanding the Christmas story, then how did Jesus become King at Christmas?

Delving into the story of Jesus will help us discern how Jesus can be the king of our Christmas.

There is a very interesting story in 1 Samuel 8, where the elders of Israel reject God as their king and demand for the Lord to provide for them a human king, like all the other nations, to lead their people into battle when attacked by their enemies. God's kingship hadn't been overt over Israel, like having a human king would be. God was the king they couldn't see, but he was the most powerful king in all the universe. And they would rather have a limited human king they could see then an almighty king they can't see.

How long had God been the king of Israel? When did it happen? Why did they rejected him?

For a few hundred years God had been appointing judges to rule over the tribes of Israel. These judges were his representatives, servants of the king, so to speak, to dispense justice and deliver the tribes from the surrounding enemy nations. Over the centuries the judges became more corrupt and the people often did what was right in their own eyes.

At the end of the story comes Samson, the worst of the judges, and then Samuel, the best. But Samuel's sons were completely unfit for judging, they took bribes and abused their priestly duties in the tabernacle. It was Samuel's sons that the elders were rejecting, but they were also rejecting God's judges, and thus rejecting God as their king.

God was the one that had delivered the twelve tribes from slavery in Egypt. There God had a showdown with the king of Pharaoh, who considered himself a god. God won the duel with Pharaoh, establishing himself as a more powerful god and king. His people were released to go worship God in the wilderness, and there God made a covenant with his people, much like a king covenants with the subjects of his kingdom.

Prior to God's people becoming enslaved in Egypt, they had been the descendants of the powerfully wealthy and blessed patriarch Abraham. God had appeared to the Abraham, calling him out of Ur and promising to bless him with land and descendants, a nation and kingdom through whom God would bless the world.

Abraham believed God, and he followed the call and did become a blessing. Though Abraham reigned as a king in his portion of the promised land, it was clearly God who was the one with the authority and power, making him the ultimate king over Abraham.

But Abraham wasn't the first man whom God called to serve as a king on the earth on his behalf. We read in the book of beginnings, Genesis, of God calling Adam and Eve to serve together as his kings and priests in the world, ruling with goodness and blessing in God's name, for the flourishing of all creation. From the beginning, God's relation to humanity was like that of a king and citizens of his kingdom.

But we know how the story still goes, the citizens rebel and reject their God and king, again, and again, and again. Sometimes because of envy or jealousy, other times because of pride and ambition. But it also happens because we are incited to sin, we become deceived with half-truths and are led to doubt and mistrust God as king. That's what happened with Adam. And it's what happened with the people of Israel towards God and Moses. It's what happened with the twelve tribes and the God-appointed judges.

When the elders of Israel rejected Samuel's sons as judges and God as their king, the Lord was used to this pattern of rejection. But, because of God's covenant with Israel, he was going to stay faithful to them no matter how unfaithful they became. But the covenant relationship bound Israel to their God, thus faithfulness resulted in blessings and unfaithfulness resulted in curses. God warned the elders of Israel that if they rejected God as king and followed a human king, they would still come to the same fate: their covenant unfaithfulness will destroy them.

The elders went with a human king, and God worked with the kings to ensure that they still kept the covenant. The first king was a flop, but the second king, David, and his son Solomon, were two of the best kings Israel ever had. During their reign, Israel seemed to be fulfilling the promise to Abraham: the nations were being blessed by the justice and wisdom of the kings.

But then David and Solomon were enticed to sin, to commit adultery, to murder, to enslave, and for Solomon to fall into idolatry. Injustice descended upon the royal families, and the human kings of Israel were no better then the judges who had ruled earlier. Go sent prophets to the royal and priestly families, warning them to turn away from their idols and return to serving and worshipping only God.

God warned them that their injustice, immorality and idolatry would result in them becoming defenseless against the Assyrians and Babylonian empires. The kings and priests of Israel were sent into exile for 70 years for their sins. Eventually some of the ruling and priestly families were able to return and rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem. Thought they came home, they had no king, there was no one on the throne, and they were not able to rule their own land as they saw fit.

And so the laments and groans continued, the cries increased in intensity: O Lord, turn your face to us, come and save us! Send us a king, like you promised, that our land and people may flourish! Restore us and the land!

The lectionary readings of last week focused on these cries for deliverance while they waited in continued exile. The legionary readings for this week, though, point to God's call to his people to prepare for his coming! Good news! Behold, your God shall come to you! Prepare the way with righteous justice!

You can hear the hopefulness in the words of Isaiah 40:1-11.

Notice the power of the words of the poem: "Behold the Lord God shall come with a strong hand!"

This is the gospel announcement of Christmas! The prophet proclaims: you who bring good tidings!

This is what the shepherds heard from the angels. Good tidings, good news, the Gospel of the coming king to reign upon his throne, to end the exile and establish righteous justice and peace. Believe the good news that the king is coming, that God himself will take up the throne of Israel again and rule in a new way!

This is what Jesus himself announces as he begins his ministry! What had been announced to exile Israel at his birth was now being fulfilled, following his baptism by John the Baptist! Today's Gospel reading complements today's first Scripture reading - Mark refers to this whole passage when he quotes it in the beginning of his gospel of Jesus the King of Israel.

What is Christmas? It is the good news of the arrival of the king of the kingdom of Israel who are the people of God, set apart to be royal priests to bless the world through their righteous justice.

Isaiah was calling Israel to prepare for the coming of their God and king. The angels did the same thing on the night of our dear Saviors birth, John announced it on the dusty hills of the flowing Jordan. Jesus did it as he crossed over the hills of Galilee and the mountain of Jerusalem. And it was the early Christians believed in as they looked for the ascended king of kings to return from the heavens and establish his kingdom on earth.

So how can we let Jesus be the king of our Christmas?
When we let the first Christmas prepare us for the last Christmas. We are part of the same people of God, just as Israel was preparing for the Lord and King to come in power (which Jesus did, but not in the way they expected...), so we also as the people of God prepare for King Jesus to return and fully establish his kingdom on earth.

Like Israel, the Church looks for a day when righteousness will rain from the sky and truth shall spring up from the earth; when righteousness and peace kiss. That is what the first and last Christmas are all about.

Don't let this Christmas be only about nostalgia, or religious piety about that first Christmas. Let the first Christmas, which was for Israel, reveal to you what the last Christmas will be about, which is for Israel.

The church is the people of God in-between the rejection of their Lord in the past, and their embrace of their Lord in the future. The Lord is the God of Israel, and we Gentiles are adopted into the family of God through their rejection of their king and our allegiance to him. Jesus is the crucified king of Israel who was resurrected by the God of Israel, and he know reigns over the people of God at the right hand of the Lord Almighty. That is the season in which we are celebrating Christmas.

So how can you prepare for the last Christmas through letting Jesus be king of this Christmas?

Pay attention. It's not hard to notice the injustice that swirls around us. The temptation is to notice but not pay it attention. It's over there, it's not my problem, I already have enough on my plate, I don't want to get involved, etc.

But it's paying attention to the wickedness in our world that makes us groan for deliverance, it's what prompts our prayers for Hosanna and Maranatha. But paying attention isn't about fueling despair. It's about fueling faith: we believe that this wickedness will one day end, justice shall triumph over injustice some day - and we will prepare for that day by participating this day.

We believe that the good news which Isaiah preached and Jesus fulfilled is still at work today in our generation: the gospel of the kingdom of God is continually breaking into the world through the people of God, the church, the body of Christ, the students of King Jesus who imitate his ways and obey his commands.

The Psalm that will be read for Communion ends with these words: Righteousness will go before him, And shall make his footsteps our pathway. Our righteousness prepares us for the return of the Lord.

The epistle that Karen will read by 2Peter builds on this theme: the apostle writes that our holiness and godliness can actually speed the day of the return of the Lord. Why would't we want a kingdom of righteous justice to flourish in our world? The wickedness is so prevalent and blatant, whether oversees or in our own cities, injustice and immorality reveal that there is massive idolatry.

Peter goes on to write that the Lord is putting off his return so that more people have time to repent, to turn way from their sins and turn towards his salvation. It's ironic: the more unrighteous the church is, the longer the Lord tarries; the more righteous and just and holy the church becomes, the sooner he will return.

It might sound a bit odd to put it that way, but think about it: if you don't really want justice to prevail on our earth, you don't really want God to return, for when he does he will judge everyone according to their deeds. If you really do want justice to prevail on our earth, then you are preparing yourself and our world for his return, and you are eager for his return.

How would you know that you are ready for God to return and establish justice upon the earth? By doing your part to establish righteous justice in your world, in your church, in your workplace, in your home, in your heart.

You want Jesus to be king of your Christmas? Then pay attention to the wickedness in our world. Let the overwhelming evil that infects everything and everyone prompt you to get on your knees and thank God that he is rescuing you from it.

Hear the gospel and believe it: Jesus is King and he has come to establish the kingdom of God through the church, through all those who will be loyal to him and do as he instructs for the flourishing of humanity, blessing the world with righteous justice and enduring peace.

The wickedness of the world now can cause despair, but it can also prompt us to cry out for salvation. Just like Israel in exile, so we, the church, today, hear the word of the Lord: Behold the Lord your God shall come with strength to rule! Turn away from your folly and turn towards the Lord! Commit to holiness and godliness, mercy and truth, faithfulness and justice.

Idolatry is when you turn away from God and turn towards anything else besides God to give you guidance or protection, strength or help, blessing or deliverance.

Immorality is when you turn against God and do with yourself whatever you want, doing right in your own eyes; unrighteousness always leads to valuing self above others, which leads to using and abusing others for your own gain and preservation. Your immorality is connected to your idolatry; whatever you worship you become, whatever you serve becomes your master, whatever you desire will demand your life.

Injustice is when you turn against your neighbor, it is the outcome of our immorality and idolatry.

Injustice takes on systemic forms, becoming embedded in our governments and institutions of education, health, law, public works, science, art, and all else political and cultural. It becomes a kingdom of darkness with a power all it's own that transcends and yet it immanent throughout humanity.

But God has been at work to destroy the works of darkness through this kingdom of priests. Though it may seem that the darkness of sin and death are prevailing, we believe the gospel of the kingdom of God, that the light of the son is shining through, that his goodness is overcoming evil, and that he is preparing the church, his people, for his return to the world, where he will restore all things.

We prepare for what only he can finish.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

CHRISTISNOWHERE: How Jesus Can Be King Of Your Christmas - First Sermon of Advent

Lectionary Reading for the First Sunday of Advent: 
Isaiah 64, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1Cor 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

What is Christmas?
What is Christmas really all about. Sometimes we can become so familiar with a story that we forget or forgo the details of the story, which is what originally made it so compelling and transformative.

And that's what the Advent season is for in the church calendar. There is wisdom in the church taking a few weeks to prepare for our Christmas celebration. And if you think that odd or overkill, then that may be a sign that you've become unfamiliar with some of the key elements that make the Christmas story so enduring.

What is Christmas? It's the story of Jesus coming to fulfill the story of Israel in the most radical and unexpected way possible: their God will become their king to personally deliver them from exile and place his Word in their heart that they might become the nation they were called and created to be: a blessing and light to the world. And so God emerges into the world through the infant Jesus, born into scandal and poverty, into a diminished, oppressed, and powerless family of royal descent. 

But what is the historical situation behind this Christmas story? Why does Israel need a savior? Where is their king? Why are they in exile? Where has God been? Why has he been absent? 

In the days of Caesar Augustus, the people of Israel were enduring their fourth empire, and it seemed to them that God was no where. So when the angels announce that in the birth of Jesus that God is now here, it was good news indeed! And yet the arrival of God was not like they had expected, nor did it initiate the rescue they had prayed for. 

In our day, the church is the new Israel, we are the people of God, those who pledge allegiance to Jesus as King, our Lord, Savior and Christ. We are into our 21st century since the ascension of Jesus to his throne at the right hand of God the Father. And though God the Father and Jesus the Son sent the Holy Spirit to be in us, it still feels at times like Christ is no where. Christ came unexpectedly and saved his people in an unexpected way. And now we who yearn for Christ to return can begin to empathize with the waiting of Israel as they waited for God to rescue them. They had no idea how much longer it would be until God came to save them. We have no idea how much longer it will be until Christ returns and set the world right. 

Do you ever get tired of waiting for God? Do you ever lose hope about all that is wrong in our world? In your life? Do you ever grow weary of waiting for Christ to show up and save you from your troubles? You do and Israel did. The season of Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. What is preparation? Active waiting. You work while you wait, you prepare as you anticipate. And our four weeks of preparation and anticipation are to be a picture of what our larger life is to be like as we wait and work for Christ to return. 

When it seems like Christ is no where, that's when faith becomes crucial and you choose to believe that Christ is now here. We can all be like Thomas, and refuse to trust that Christ is here; and yet like Thomas, we need to hear the words of Jesus to him: you believed because you could see, blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. 

I don't know what you're waiting on this Christmas. I don't know what you are waiting on God to do for you this Christmas. I don't know what what you are praying and pleading Christ to fix for you. Maybe it's health, or your job, or family, friends, your habits, your heart? Maybe you want Christ to do something about the loneliness of Christmas, the grief and sadness of Christmas, the hassle and hustle of Christmas, the unfulfilled hopes and expectations of Christmas, the stress and busyness of Christmas, the commercialism and shopping of Christmas, the pain and suffering of Christmas. 

To prepare properly for Christmas is to be honestly aware of what you want rescued from in your life.  For Christmas to be a proper preparation for our anticipation of Christ's return, we must be clear on why we yearn for Christ to come back now and not later. 

The people of Israel had word that was both a cry of suffering and a cry of hope: Hosanna! Lord save us! It's a word you pray, it can be a word you shout, it was a word on Israel's lips and hearts as they labored and lived under the oppressive cruelty of the empires - Rome, Greece, Persia, Babylon, Assyria. 

The early Christians had a word for that pain and yearning: Maranatha. Come Lord! It's the perfect word for Christians at Christmas. Depending on how you see and say the word, you can say it Marana tha: Come Lord Jesus! Or you can say it Mara natha: Our Lord has come! The first Christians looked back to Christmas and declared: Mara anther: Our Lord has come! And then they would look ahead and declare: Marana tha: Come Lord Jesus. 

For you, when you begin to feel like Christ is no where, you can cry out like Israel, Hosanna, Lord save me! You can cry out like the early Christians, Marana tha: Come Lord Jesus! And when you have been reminded that Christ is now here, you can declare with faith, hope and love: Mara anatha: Our Lord has come! 

And this begins to get at the heart of what it means for Jesus to be king of your Christmas. It means understanding his story and the story of Israel so that you can grasp the first story of Christmas. By delving into this original story of Christmas, you begin to remember what Christmas is all about, and thus you can prepare and anticipate properly. Christmas is not about celebrating a day, but an event.

But more then that, it's celebrating and remembering the one who caused the event, and the one about whom the event is about: the God of Israel who becomes King through Jesus. Christmas is the beginning of the reign of God through Jesus in the world. That's what we are celebrating: the genesis of the kingdom of God where Jesus becomes Lord and Christ and establishes the church through whom he will be present in the world. 

No wonder we need words like Hosanna and Maranatha at Christmas. 

If God became present in the world through Jesus, and now God and Jesus are present in the world through the Spirit, and if God, Jesus and the Spirit are present in the world through the Church, which is the body of Christ, no wonder we despair and feel like Christ is no where. It's easy to see how the church has failed God and humanity and us in so many ways. But we must remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against dark powers and evil forces throughout the heavens and the earth.

The church is the one people on earth where God chooses to dwell by the Spirit of Christ to demonstrate his redeeming love. God's design for the church is that they be a people on earth through whom he can bless all the peoples of the earth.

The church is to be a light to the world of what the kingdom of God can look like - a community where righteous justice prevails alongside humble mercy.

The church is the one people on earth that calls on Christ as their Lord, learning to be led by him, learning to serve him, and be his servants of blessing and rescue from evil.

When the church fails, we cry out Hosanna,  and when the the church gets it right, we can cry out Maranatha!

When we lose our way, we can look back to Christmas and remember where our story begins, but then we can also look ahead and remember where our story goes: just as God come once through Jesus to renew the kingdom of God through the church, so God will come again with Jesus to fully establish the kingdom of God on earth, and finally justice and peace will kiss. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

We Can Overcome Evil with Good?

Scientific thought through skepticism and curiosity to attain knowledge of reality have historically undermined religious or spiritual claims for how or why the world works. This mode of thinking ought to continue upon science and religion and all other thought-systems, including itself. 

In the personal experiences of real life that evoke fear and injustice, suffering and hopelessness, how explain it on a mass scale despite educated efforts to unmask truth? Why does evil still persist? 

Is it merely education? A matter of desire? From whence does evil come, despite best attempts to do good, to love the neighbor next door and all neighbors in the world? 

Until science reveals a rationalistic and materialistic explanation that reverberates with reality, religion will continue to expand its presence with observations and lessons on why. But religion and science have both been a source of evil. 

Is God the mere personification of what is the ideal good across all humanity of all time? Is evil personified by Satan? We may doubt the existence of a being named "the adversary" but we do not doubt the pain and agony of evil as it wrecks our world and homes and hearts. 

So how do we begin to grasp the magnitude and depth of evil that persists, generation by generation, a ill-fated metamorphism, from the crawling barbarianism of swords and spears to the winged terrorism of jets and drones which pollinate the flowers of the earth with scorching devastation? We look within, and despair. We collaborate for a solution and become enmeshed in a net of violence guised as justice and peace-keeping. We name the evil that pervades and perpetuates throughout the whole world as the scheming of a being adversarial to all that is good and true, to love and all that is beautiful. 

The ancients used many names, we still use the devil, the evil one, the Satan, the accuser and tempter and liar, trickster and deceiver. We may doubt his existence, but not the evil we feel and see and do and suffer. What to do about the evil we see and feel and do? 

We must name it, bear responsibility for our part in it, be humbled and broken by it, and then overcome it with good. But what is good? Who will decide? What is the truth of what is good? Who will we follow? Who will we trust? Will we make it up as we go along? With the pervasiveness of evil, what confidence do we have that our skepticism and curiosity won't be infected by evil, co opted so that our conclusions are just one more variation of deceived, tricked, missing the mark of truth and reality. 

This far in humanity, we have an extensive historical list of human atrocities committed against our enemies and the innocent - it is vile and absurd, disgustingly revolting and scarily re-emergent in successive generations. Who will save humanity from itself? Is there anyone on earth who could show us, lead us, help us overcome evil with good? 

It is shameful what men have done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He who demonstrated a unique response to evil, he who unveiled a radical and yet reality-rooted wisdom about life and love, of what and who is good. While we may wonder why Jesus does and says -or is recorded and remembered as such - and in light of the countless perversions leeching to his Way, it takes faith to trust him, his words, his ways. 

Every generation must survive the evil thrust onto it from the prior generations, and Jesus of Nazareth must be rediscovered as a King unlike all others who can subvert evil, heal the wounded, bring together communities of shalom amidst a world at war with itself. 

It is glaringly obvious the ways the strong and privileged enforce and expand their wealth and power, exploiting any who are weaker then they. It is evil and the way of the world. And Jesus defies it, seeking to destroy it on his terms: with existential truth proclaimed in word and deed with love that seeks to redeem from evil, establishing a justice that heals rather then perpetuate injustice. 

Why does it seem that evil is more powerful then good? Why doesn't Jesus overcome evil with good now? Why put off tomorrow what could be done today? Unless Jesus can't do it today. Unless he has bound himself to time and flesh, he has entered into our world to work within it.  

He is seeking to quell a rebellion while desiring to rescue those who rebel against him. There are those in each generation who lay down their arms and surrender, ending their rebellion to King Jesus. For every man and woman who joins Jesus, they become like leaven in the world, like candles of light in a stormy dusk, seeds of hope. Striving against the evil within and the evil out there, they join with Jesus in their counter-rebellion of truth in love, grace with peace, standing firm amidst the whirlwinds of madness and chaos. 

Jesus sent twelve men, then seventy two disciples, and then hundreds of men and women into the world to call everyone to repentance and the forgiveness of their stupidity, their brutish or sophisticated arrogance, their insatiable appetites of the flesh and so on. To repent is to wake up, to see the evil within and emanating from and around and infecting you and to rebel against it, to reject evil in all it's forms. 

This requires a return of sorts to Jesus, which implies he has always been with you, striving unceasingly to free you from the bondage and lies which enslave you and us. To turn, or return to Jesus begins a new way of humility in light of truth as you come to ascertain it. We learn to live by the light we gave been gifted. 

With it begins a new chapter in the stories of our life, of our generation, amongst humanity across the ages. We are glorious characters in a dramatic story unfolding with every sonrise. Evil mars and distorts every one who emerges in the story, poisoning the gloriousness that is written into every life. 

Jesus emerges from the story of Israel, a somewhat obscure nation caught up in the rising and raging empires. In his historical and narrative context he lives and leads humanity into a new way of loving in the face of terrifying evil. 

Much like you can doubt Satan, you can doubt the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There is enough historical veracity to support belief, which also leaves room for disbelief. In the story of Jesus his resurrection is a vindication by God that Jesus is who he claimed to be, that his words are right, his way will lead to life. 

For all who trust Jesus, like him we seek to make the most of every day in this brief but glorious life. Like him we stand firm together in a world gone mad, sowing seeds far and wide of subversive truth, radical love of enemy, faithfulness amidst tribulation, and a vision of the reconciliation and renewal of all things. 

We believe in this story where good overcomes evil, within us and through us. We confess our ongoing temptation to evil, we continually repent and stand firm again in our rebellion against the evil one who seeks to devour and pervert all that is beautiful and good. 

The church ought to repent of our complicity in the worst evils of our history. For initiating them. Sustaining them. For doing nothing to end them. For joining them. We repent. And go forth humbled and chastened and deeply aware of the allure and lusts of evil, but we also remember the rot. No more violence, or coercion, or injustice or hate.

We now have a vision and experiences of hope for overcoming evil with good, striving in our generation to bring peace in the way of Jesus. By his Spirit which forges unlikely unity and fuels scandalous hospitality, enabling us to continue what God started in Jesus of Nazareth. Until he himself returns in the same way he left, we stand firm by his Spirit in faithfulness and love, truth and grace.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Move Forward In Your Understanding of the Bible: the Exodus stories (part 3 of 5)

'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be more me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'

What a fascinating summary God has of the exodus experience!

He glosses over the whining and doubt, the resistance and fear while re-emphasizing why he delivered them from slavery and to what end he envisions the purpose of their new life.

To move forward in our understanding of the Bible, we need to go deeper in understanding the connection between the exodus story and the rest of the stories.

There are five big over-arching narratives in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures): Creation, Covenant, Exodus, Kingdom, Exile.

The story of God and Israel is always moving forward: in relationship with God, each other, and the world. It grows more complicated as more people join the story, and it grows more intriguing as we wonder how God is going to continue to move his plans forward in light of the real people he is choosing to work with.

There is so much to be said about the Exodus story and how it undergirds the Hebrew Scriptures (or First Testament) and the New Testament (or New Covenant). It reveals so much to us about the God of Israel: he is the initiator of deliverance, he calls men and women to serve, he works with real people, he influences without forcing his will, his work is rooted in justice/righteousness/goodness, he is faithful, loyal, patient, understanding - but he is also angered by blatant and repeated mistrust and rebellion. As we would be, and He should be.

Below is a brief overview of the exodus: an exit from and an entrance into a place, participation, and perspective. 

PLACE: Exodus From Egypt; Entrance to Promised Land
In Exodus chapter one we read and discover the centrality of place to this story. It recounts the original place Jacob's family sojourned from years ago. They had come from Canaan and settled in Goshen to escape famine and be cared for by Joseph. But the years pass, the famine ends, and the people of Abraham stay in the place of abundance and safety. Eventually a new dynasty comes to Egypt and the place becomes dangerous for the Israelites, they become a threat to the new rulers. What was once a place of peace and prosperity becomes a place of slavemasters and empire construction projects.

By Exodus chapter nineteen Moses has led the children of Israel from a place of slavery to Mount Sinai, the place where God is waiting for them. Here he will instruct them and re-covenant with them as the descendants of Abraham, the nation promised to him long ago. This is preparation for entering the Promised Land, which is part of the covenant-promise. The Promised Land: a place of prosperity and flourishing, where they will be a light to the nations and kings of the earth will come to this place to see the glory of God.

PARTICIPATION: Exodus From Pharaoh-slavery; Entrance to YHWH-covenant
In chapter six of Exodus God explains to Moses why he is being sent back to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery. God initiated a covenant-relationship with Abraham many years ago. God intends to keep the promise he made to Abraham - not just about place and a people, but about a special kind of relationship. God would be there God, and they would be his people. God intended to bless all the world, and he wanted to do it through the people of Abraham. They would be like a kingdom of priests, mediating between the nations and God. As a holy nation set apart for this purpose, they would be an treasured instrument in the hand of God by which the nations of the world would be blessed and praise the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The covenant wasn't just what God could do for Israel, or what Israel ought to do for God, but about participation together for the blessing of the world.

It's a beautiful plan, and unique. The Ten Commandments (or 10 Words) in Exodus twenty are an example of what the covenant-laws were for Israel, defining a way of life that made them holy or different from the other nations. They were laws that also shaped them into a way of life where justice, mercy and humility would prevail amongst the people. These laws would direct them into a way of life that resulted in prosperity and flourishing for all, which would inspire the other nations to come and learn from them. The laws shaped the kind of participation required of Israel in order to produce the blessings that God had promised to Israel and through Israel to the world. What a stark contrast the YHWH-covenant with Israel is compared to the expectations and plans Pharaoh had for the house of Jacob.

PERSPECTIVE: Exodus From Godisnowhere; Entrance to Godisnowhere
At the burning bush, which you can read about in Exodus three, Moses is introduced to God. It's maybe more dramatic then when Noah or Abraham meet God, but it's probably just as startling and disturbing. And unforgettable. There Moses perspective is completely changed about himself, God, and reality. Moses is eighty years old, forty years a shepherd in the Sinai peninsula, having been an exile since he was age forty when he became a murder. Moses had no idea he was being prepared for anything. But his perspective is radically altered: the God of Israel had been non-existent to him - and now the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is here present and calling him to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

It would be a similar radical introduction for the people of Abraham - when Moses announces that their God had sent him to rescue them, they doubted it. For them, Godisnowhere. But Moses was proclaiming: Godisnowhere! Even though they couldn't see him, touch him or smell him (in contrast to the Egyptian gods and goddesses they had become accustomed to) - here is wild and dangerous Moses returned after forty years to declare deliverance. It's actually what they had been praying or, crying out for, but with no idea on how it would occur. So even though Moses is announcing the good news that Godisnowhere, it still seems like Godisnowhere.

For those that eyes of faith, they begin to see God at work in the plagues (Exodus seven), but they never actually see him until they actually leave Egypt (Exodus thirteen) and God leads them as a pillar of cloud by day to shield them from the desert sun, and a pillar of fire by night to light their way. Israel's perspective changed - they were introduced to the God of Israel, the Creator of the heavens and the earth how keeps his covenant-promises. There was no other kind of deity like this in the world. Their perspective changed about the gods and the goddesses, about themselves, about their future, and about their purpose.

Most nations have a god by whom they seek to defeat enemies and expand borders and subjugate others into slavery so that they might enrich themselves at the expense of other peoples. But here is a God who wants to establish a nation where justice and shalom prevail, where hospitality marks their politics not just their homes. Their perspective changed on what kind of nation they were to be, what kind of people they were to be, what kind of world it was to be. And they learned that even when it seems dark and it looks like Godisnowhere, Godisnowhere just as surely as the sun will rise in the morning.

Questions from SermonSequel - Exodus 19:3-6
A helpful way to read the Scriptures is to approach it with curiosity. Presume that there is plenty that doesn't make sense. Seek to make connections, to understand by asking questions. During SermonSequel on Sunday I asked the congregation to text in questions they would have about the following text, a central one to understanding the Exodus story.

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be more me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.

What does it mean "on eagles wings"?
What does it mean "I brought you to myself?" Sarah

Why didn't he offer the covenant to everyone? - Nate
Why the Israelites? - Jason

Why would he favor one nation above the rest? Jeff
Why does God pick favorites? - Dave

The text says that we will be his treasure. Does that mean everyone or just those who obey him? - Adam

How are we not being Jews now see that we are his treasured possession outside of Jesus - anonymous

How do you know if you are fully obeying God? - Tomi and Marisa

How do you think Moses felt when God chose him to lead his people? - Gary

What did God do to Egypt? - anonymous

What is an Israelite? Sheri

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