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Sunday, November 30, 2008

God's Coming - Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy New Year. According to the secular calendar, I’m about a month too early. But according to the church’s calendar, this first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year. Advent always marks, for us, a new beginning, a time for us to wait in hopeful expectation for the presence of God to be born in our midst.

In our text this morning, that’s exactly what the prophet is waiting for. He writes as part of a people in exile, a people who have been cut off and destitute, a people who have become strangers in a strange land. He writes as part of a people who have lost everything they have ever known, a people who have become increasingly fearful and uncertain about the future. He writes as part of a people who desperately need some fresh hope.

Given our need for hope in the midst of a fearful and uncertain world, it seems a timely word for us as well. In our post-9/11 world, the threat of terrorism seems ever-present, and Homeland Security reinforces that fear as the threat level moves from yellow to orange to red. Economic policies of greed have led us into the worst financial crisis of the last 70 years, and in the last year, many of you have watched your 401(k) shrink to a 201(k). Unemployment is rising, inflation is picking up speed, and we are uncertain about the future. Yes, there is a word in the prophet’s message for us, as well. May we pray.

In our text, the people of Israel had been conquered by Babylon. Their temple had been destroyed, and the proud people who had once understood their nation to be uniquely blessed by God were humiliated, defeated, despairing, and fearful. Most of the people had been dragged off into slavery to their captors, and those who remained were reduced to eating dogs and rats. It is in this world, this world so desperately in need of hope, that Advent begins.

Israel knew from experience that the journey from fear to hope begins in remembering. They recall God’s mighty deeds in the past, times when they knew God’s presence and witnessed God’s power. They remember. Now, an important note here: memory is not the same thing as nostalgia. Memory says, “1955 was a great time.” Nostalgia says, “1955 was a great time and I wish we could re-create it again.” Nostalgia is a sickness and should be numbered among the mortal sins. Longing for the “good old days,” which, by the way, were not good for everyone, might very well jeopardize the hope of the future because of our emotional attachment to the past. We can spend so much time trying to re-create significant moments and experiences of our past that we are blind to the possibilities God places into our future, and unable to act on them when we do see them.

Let me tell you my experience of the difference between memory and nostalgia this week. On Friday night, I attended my high school reunion. It was 10 years for the graduating class of 1998 from Niagara Falls High School. I was driving over to the school, thinking to myself about who might be there and what they’ve been up to. Yes, I will confess, I was wondering who got fat. I wanted to know who was now bald. Then I looked in the rear-view mirror and thought I’d wonder about something else. I wanted to know who had the most kids. I wanted to know who had become a real success, and I wanted to know who was pretty much where they had been when we graduated.

Now, I remember high school, but for a few hours on Friday night, I felt myself re-living it in some sense. I was there sitting with the same people I ate lunch with for four years, carrying on as if it hadn’t been 10 years since I had returned some of their phone calls. Someone looked across the room at a girl we all used to pick on, and said, “Oh, can you believe SHE showed up?” I was thinking, “Ummmmmm, are we still in high school?” And then someone leaned over to me and said it. “This is great, don’t you wish it was still like this? Don’t you wish we were still in high school?”

I just wanted to scream! Sure, I remember high school, but I don’t want to re-live it! I just wanted to say, “You know, we weren’t as cool as we thought we were. Look, they’re showing the senior class video and slide show right now! Look at us! We weren’t that cool then, and we’re not that cool now! Do you realize how self-centered we were? Do you remember how mean we were to some people?” Why on earth would I want to re-live that?

For some people, high school is a memory. For others, it’s a place they continue to live, holding onto golden memories that never happened. That’s the difference between memory and nostalgia.

For people of faith, memory gives us something we can hang onto in difficult times. Memory gives us a collective story that we can share with one another. Memory reminds us of difficult times during our times of abundance, and it reminds us of abundant times during our times of scarcity. Memory gives us hope when the world tells us to fear. The prophet calls on the past experiences of the people to remind them of the power and presence of God in their lives. Memory gives us a voice for our faith when it seems God is silent.

For the author of Isaiah and the people of Israel, God had been silent lately. Isaiah cries, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” Now, I don’t believe that God is ever silent or stops speaking. I do think that the noise and distractions in our lives, as well as the receptivity of our hearts, can keep us from hearing God. Just as there are radio waves constantly bouncing through this room, we can’t hear them unless we have a receiver and are tuned in to the right frequency.

From the pit of despair, from the absolute bottom of the barrel, Isaiah calls for God to come to earth. We all know that’s exactly what happened 2000 years ago. God tore open the heavens and came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah called for God to come down, and Jesus was the fulfillment of that request.

No doubt, we will hear the Christmas story told many times and in many ways over the next month. In many of those tellings, it will be a sugar-coated sentimental story complete with smiling animals, angelic choirs, and wisemen who racked up a whole bunch of camel caravan miles. But as we re-tell that story, let us remember what was actually taking place. Let us not forget that the baby to be born is none other than God come to earth. The baby to be born is going to bring in a brand new world order. The baby to be born is going to establish a new kingdom whose values are completely opposite the values of the world. The baby to be born is going to save the world from itself.

Jesus’ birth is not going to be an isolated event happening to a poor couple at the edge of the empire. His birth is going to turn his family into political refugees. They will flee for their lives as every existing base of power, every institution, every preserver of the status quo is threatened to its core. Sure enough, as that baby grew, he threatened every power he encountered. If you are comfortably identified with the party in power, and someone comes along and declares a new order, you’d have a lot to fear. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God – that rough places were to be made plain, every valley exalted, every hill made low. He bound up the broken-hearted, he healed the wounded, he offered hope to the hopeless. He proclaimed release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed. That’s good news if you’re one of the captives, the blind, or the oppressed, but it’s not such good news if you’re one of the captors or the oppressors. The kingdom of God comes as good news to those on the bottom, but it sometimes appears to be bad news to those on the top. His kingdom continues to threaten every power and principality of this world.

In that light, it makes it difficult for us to over-sentimentalize the events that will take place in Bethlehem. We are not preparing for the birth of one baby among many; we are preparing for the messy and intrusive introduction of God into the world. We are preparing for everything to be turned upside-down and topsy-turvy.

But a word of caution for us here. When we locate ourselves in the Christmas story, as much as we think we want to be, we’re not in Bethlehem. We’re back in Rome, back in the bosom of the empire, cozied up around the fire with the powers and principalities. As a nation, we have enjoyed economic prosperity and security while other parts of the world have known poverty and vulnerability. We’ve bought into the idea that the more we can buy and the more security we can obtain, the happier we’ll be. We feed a system that tells our happiness is intrinsically-linked to how much stuff we obtain; the more we feed it, the more it demands of us. The more it demands, the more we feed it.

But, don’t you feel a certain emptiness from that system? I know I do. Don’t you feel that system is somehow broken? I know I do, and I think the events of the past few months illustrate this. Our current economic crisis is evidence that our appetite for economic expansion was greater than could be sustained. Advertisers have promised us that happiness lies in the purchase of that new car, that new home, that new electronic gadget, and this time of year we launch into our annual yuletide tradition of overspending, overdrinking, over-getting and over-giving, just hoping that this will be the year our emptiness is filled. Yet, the cold gray of January credit card bills will come, the tinsel will fade and the lights will come down, and once again, we’ll find the promised “Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward all” never materialized, and all we have are a few more trinkets and a mountain of bills. It’s hardly the happiness we expected.

But friends, there is hope. The prophet Isaiah looks for hope in a God who comes to earth, a God who self-empties, a God who, though he is rich, yet for our sakes becomes poor. The hope to which we look forward will be born in a stable in Bethlehem, and will bring in the kingdom of God. Hope that comes not from our political system, or our new toys, or our drugs, or our weapons, or our white Christmas. When the promises for happiness made by the powers and principalities of this world are proven to fail, hope comes to each of us, to the entire world, in fact, in the way of Jesus.

Oh yes, there is hope! Hope, says the prophet, comes not in wealth, security, pride, or the dizzying spiral of self-determinism. It comes when we realize that the prosperity and protection promised are empty and hollow. It comes from repenting of all these things and believing that a new way of healing and mercy can and will be born within each of us and within our world.

Oh yes, there is hope! There is hope when the people of God do the things of God. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, when we forgive, when we welcome, when we heal, when we establish peace, the presence of God is born in our world. Of all the things Jesus did when he was on earth, he promised that his disciples, his followers, including us, would do even greater things than he did. I believe he meant just that!

Oh yes, there is hope! There is hope when the Church acts like the Church– the redemptive community ordained to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We as the Church are not here for our own interests. We are not a country club. We are not a social service agency. We are not solely a non-profit organization. We have been called and established by God to be the agents of healing and hope in the world, to be the hands and feet of Christ, to bring light into dark places, to invite people on the margins of our society right into the center of God’s community, to freely and abundantly share the love of God. We are here not for our own interests, but for the world God so loved that he sent his one and only son that whoever believed in him would have life in his name. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world would be made new.

Friends, the transformation of the world hangs in the balance, and we are the ones called to bring it about. If we’re waiting for the government to do it, keep waiting. If we’re waiting for the financial institutions to do it, keep waiting. If we’re waiting for someone else to do it, it’s just not gonna happen. The hope of advent is that the kingdom of God really will be established on the earth, and this is an active hope that begs our participation.

I ask you, do you want to sit idly by and hope that something is going to happen, or do you want to be part of transforming the world? I ask you, do you want to be part of transforming the world? Somebody tell me, do you want to be part of transforming the world? This Christmas, when we celebrate how God has & continues to tear open the heavens & come down, do you want to be part of transforming the world? You can be.

This Christmas, I challenge all of us to live a little simpler in order that others may simply live. As December 25 draws near, I challenge each of us to cut what we’re planning to spend on Christmas gifts in half. Then, give half that amount to an organization or charity of your choosing that is directly involved in bringing hope into the lives of people without hope. Or, if you choose to spend the same amount on Christmas gifts as before, I challenge you to give an equal amount to one of these organizations. There are many good organizations you can give to. Samaritan’s Purse, right here in Boone, is obviously a good one. We’ve already heard about the Shoeboxes that are sent through Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse is also involved in the Children’s Heart project, sustainable water and agricultural projects, education, and a host of humanitarian services around the world. Several folks in our church work with Samaritan’s Purse, and I know they could tell you some of the areas of greatest need.

For myself, I will be giving half the amount I would normally spend on gifts to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for ongoing humanitarian work in the Darfur region of Western Sudan in Africa. Right now in Darfur, civil unrest, hunger, and disease have taken the lives of between 300,000 and 400,000 people since 2003. More than 2 million men, women, and children are refugees with little drinkable water, food, protection, or hope. The United Nations has identified Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is already in Darfur, working on sustainable agriculture and clean water projects, as well as training teachers and providing education for the hundreds of thousands of displaced children. 100% of what I send will be used directly in relief as administrative overhead costs are funded through other sources. If you would also like to contribute to this cause, tell me, and I’ll make sure you get the information on how you can send your gift in. We can all make a difference in the lives of people without hope.

During this advent season, we prepare for the coming of God into the world. We remember the way God freely and radically gave himself for the salvation of the world. You and I can be part of a solution to bring hope into the places where it is needed most. We pray constantly for God to tear open the heavens and come down into our world, which, in its pain and hurt, forever needs the touch of heaven.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All In - Matthew 28:16-20 (Blackburn's Chapel)

This morning, our Scripture passage is very familiar territory. If you grew up in a church where you memorized Bible verses, this was no doubt one of the earliest passages you learned. We have all worshipped in buildings where these words of Jesus echo in the very design of the building itself, as we exit under banners that read, “You are now entering the mission field,” stone etchings of “Enter to worship, Depart to serve,” or pristinely preserved King James English: “Go ye therefore into all the world.”

An imperfect community

The eleven disciples went to Galilee.” Eleven. It’s a number that just sort of limps across the finish line. It’s an imperfect number. It’s a constant reminder of the betrayal that has taken place within Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus has already lost 8.3% of his close following. At this rate, he’ll be lucky if there’s anybody left by Thanksgiving. Eleven – it’s so incomplete, so imperfect, just begging to be rounded out. “Make me a 12! Even a 10!” it pleads. Anything is better than being an 11.

The weekend before I graduated from seminary, I traveled with ten friends, all seminary students, to see baseball games in New York, Boston, and Baltimore. We called ourselves St. Abner’s 11, named of course, for Abner Doubleday, the originator of modern baseball. Being a bunch of theology nerds, we joked that the purpose of our trip was to search for Matthias, who eventually became the 12th disciple to take Judas’ place. In other words, we were looking for our 12th, for the person who would complete our merry little band. 11 just doesn’t sit right – it seems to need something else added.

And yet, back in our text, that’s who God chose to use. He didn’t tell the disciples to get their affairs in order and then come back. He didn’t wait for them to achieve perfection and then tell them what they were supposed to be doing. He didn’t wait for all their charge conference forms to be turned in. They were an imperfect little community, yet the commission was given to them.

Jesus has to be kidding us here. His timing couldn’t be worse. His selection of people is questionable. And what of the location? Galilee? That little backwater territory, removed from the beaten path, where even well-placed signs couldn’t help someone find it?

That’s just what God does sometimes. His timing is inconvenient. He calls people who, quite frankly, are not the sort of folks we thing would be likely to be working for God. And he even shows up in odd places, backwater places, inconvenient places.

Eleven – it reminds us that this community is imperfect, and that it desperately needs something else to complete it. But what it needs is not something we can provide. Yes, it’s begging for completion, but that missing piece can only be provided by God’s grace. In fact, that missing piece is God’s grace.

And so, God calls imperfect people, places them in imperfect situations at inconvenient times and tells us to work with other imperfect people, and he gives us his perfect work to do. I take this as proof that God does not call the strong, but the weak. God does not call those who are equipped, but equips those whom he calls. I am reminded over and over just how faithful God is, and how committed he is to us.

God loves imperfect people. God’s love and grace are for people who don’t have their act completely together – people like us. We have been conditioned to think of love as a warm gushy feeling. Movies, television, and music all reinforce this idea. In reality, love has very little to do with a certain feeling, but it has everything to do with a commitment.

In the early-90s, when my grandparents were starting to celebrate their second half-century together in marriage, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Papa, then in his mid-80s, became her primary care-giver, and took care to dress her, feed her, take her to the bathroom, fix her hair, get her medication, and tuck her into bed every night. With personality and memory changes, she was barely a shadow of her former self. Even so, Papa would gently stroke the back of her hand as they sat on the couch together, and tell her several times a day just how much he loved her. It was a love that remained faithful to a vow to cherish and keep her, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and he kept it until they were parted by death.

If my grandfather was able to keep this kind of commitment, how much more so will God keep his commitment to us? And God shows his commitment by placing a call on us. God calls us all. He calls us all to be in ministry. This is sometimes surprising to us, and God often operates in ways which we did not expect.

How good that God does not operate according to the way we would expect. God does not operate on our terms. If God operated predictably and just how we would expect, one could make the argument that we are the ones who are sovereign over God. What God is worth worshipping who can be squeezed into a delicate little box that we have constructed according to our own needs?

All that Jesus commanded

But isn’t that sometimes what we do? We construct little God-boxes, where the religious part of our live is tucked away from everything else. But in the type of discipleship Jesus commissioned the disciples to invite people into, that’s not an acceptable option. Discipleship involves obeying everything Jesus commanded. Everything. Not just what particularly resonates with us. Not only what is politically correct. Everything. Is this really the sort of discipleship we want to invite people into?

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means letting God out of the box. The wisdom of the world has taught us that religious activities can be included in your life in the same way that Kellogg’s Corn Pops are part of a balanced breakfast. All things in moderation, they say. You can have a little bit of fun and little bit of faith. Have a little bit of fun on Saturday night, and a little bit of faith on Sunday morning. The world calls this approach reasonable. The world calls this approach moderate. The world calls this approach balanced and healthy. The sovereign God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, calls this approach “lukewarm.”

Poker has enjoyed a real rise in popularity in recent years. Now, because the social principles of the United Methodist Church are STRONGLY opposed to gambling, I know that none of YOU plays or ever has played poker, but you may have seen a Texas-hold-em tournament or something on ESPN. When a player goes “All In,” they’re betting everything they have against what the other players are holding. It’s all or nothing. They’ve picked something to place their faith in, and they’re going to stick with it ‘til the end.

That’s the sort of discipleship Jesus calls us to. He wants us to be all in with him. He wants us to obey everything he has commanded, and not simply pick and choose those aspects his teaching that seem to be the most convenient to us. It’s not the sort of thing that happens overnight. Learning how to be a disciple of Jesus takes a lifetime to learn. When we invite people to a life of discipleship, we are inviting them to a lifetime of learning. Learning what Jesus commanded. Learning how to obey those commands. Learning how to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. That’s right – it takes a lifetime to truly learn how to live.

When we become a disciple of Jesus, we are not adding some new extracurricular activity to our already crowded resume. We are not inviting people to join some social club or civic organization. Church membership is not a substitute for Christian discipleship. There are plenty of people on the rolls of many Christian churches who are not disciples – and I’m not asking you to name names.

Perhaps here is where I may get myself in trouble, but I’m really not interested in how many members a congregation or denomination adds in a year. I’m much more interested in how we’re doing at building disciples. Hear me correctly; I want people to join the church. But I want them to join as a sign of their commitment to the ministry God is doing in that place and through that people, that they have found a home, and are growing as disciples. Increased church attendance and membership is a byproduct of faithful discipleship, but it is never its goal. I’m more concerned with how people are growing in their faith, and what we’re doing to bring people to wholeness and fullness in Jesus Christ.

Discipleship is always a process of growing. None of us ever gets to a point where we have arrived and where we have nothing more to learn about what it means to follow Jesus. His instruction to obey everything he has commanded is a tall order, and one that none of us can possibly live into on our own. But we shouldn’t discourage that. When I was a kid, my mom used to take me shoe-shopping. I remember she always used to press her thumb down onto the toe of the shoe. If there wasn’t room for her thumb between my toes and the end of the shoe, she asked for the next largest size. We always bought shoes that were just a little too big, but sure enough, I always grew into them.

A full life of Christian discipleship is just a little bit too big for us as well, but it’s also something we can grow into. Our ability is less important than our availability. What we ourselves bring is less important than what God can do within and through us. When God’s Spirit moves across and through his people, it is a celebration that God brings about real transformation in the lives of God’s people.

A promise to be with us

Right at the end of the passage are these words from Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always, until the very end of the age.” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last day in the church’s calendar before we begin a new year next week with the beginning of Advent. On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the reign of Christ here on earth and look forward to the consummation of all things at the end of the age.

When we talk about the kingdom of God, we celebrate that it is something to which we look forward, but it is also something we celebrate here and now. Every Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, on earth, as it in heaven. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God is at hand, that is, it is within our reach. If we follow Jesus, if we make other disciples who also follow Jesus, if we go “all-in” with Jesus, we will find the kingdom of God made present in our midst. Going “all-in” with Jesus, following so closely that I do the things did, I might actually love my neighbor as myself, pray for my enemies, forgive not just seven times but seventy times seven, be the light of the world, not be anxious about tomorrow, be merciful as my father in heaven is merciful, that I might serve rather than be served.

Do you long for a world like that? A world in which everyone was treated with the graciousness of Christ? I know I do. And I know it’s possible. This meal we are about to receive, this Communion, is sometimes described as a meal of God’s kingdom. It connects us with a Savior who emptied himself and gave up everything so that the world would have life in his name, and is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God has invited each of us to. My hope this morning is that, as we gather at this table, we gather so close to Christ that our hearts would break for the world God loves, and that the kingdom of God would be known in our midst.