Break time!

Morning Reflections takes its usual mid-December break.  See you in a couple weeks!

If you are looking for a good devotional to tide you over, check out the Advent Devotional we did as a congregation. http://www.fpcokc.org/Websites/fpcokc/files/Content/4620229/Advent_DEVOTIONAL_2016_all_pages.pdf

-Matt

Isaiah and the Live Coal

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Isa. 6:1-13; 2 Thess. 1:1-12; John 7:53-8:11

One of my favorite passages of Scripture comes to us today in our Old Testament lesson:  the call of Isaiah.  There is arguably no greater vision in terms of imagery.  If you don’t have a Bible handy, let me remind you:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne…and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  “Seraphs were in attendance…each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.”  “Holy, Holy, Holy!”  “The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  “Then one of the seraphs flew at me, holding a live coal…and the seraph touched my mouth….”

And who will go for us?  Isaiah said, “Here I am; send me.”

Each time the Confirmation Class rolls around, I get the privilege of talking with our 7th and 8th graders about prayer.  Some of us, especially at that age, can get lulled into a sense of one-dimensional prayer – that it is only talking to God.  To break the Confirmation Class out of that, and expand their definition of prayer, I often teach the Ignatian method of praying.  It is a good one for Presbyterians, and for others who need permission to “pray with scripture”.  The Ignatian method not only uses scripture in prayer, but involves the imagination and all the senses.  7th and 8th graders are great with this!  Through that method, you become a part of the story.  What did you see?  What did you hear?  Smell?  Taste?

I was enchanted by the seriousness that confirmads undertake this.  They all become a part of the story, each noticing and feeling different aspects of this grand story.  Some felt fear as the seraph flew at them.  Some tasted the coal – others felt the heat or the purification.  Some had been local bystanders, looking in on this scene in which the hem of robes filled the temple.  They were in awe.

The last section is often the most powerful: Here I am; send me.  Isaiah was beginning his ministry.  He had a lot of unpopular things to say to the people, who were trapped in their mediocrity.  This was an acceptance of the burning coal from the altar and what it represented.  Isaiah may now speak for God.  He had been washed clean, and was ready for service.

This is one of the reasons we offer a confession very near the front of the service in most Presbyterian worship services.  We come to God as we are, which means accepting our brokenness and wanting to do something about it.

As you encounter this passage today, whether you sink deep into the rich imagery, or whether you find the confessional aspects most alluring, may Isaiah’s vision inspire you to greater appreciation of the depth and beauty of the Old Testament.

-Matt

Social Injustice

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Isa. 5:13-17, 24-25; 1 Thess. 5:12-28; Luke 21:29-38

Social inequality and social injustice plague our society.  It seems it has always been so.  This is nothing new.  Even as I turn to our passage from Isaiah today, I realize this Old Testament prophet was standing against social injustice, and I fear we have learned little in the millenia that followed.  Not sure if that should give me solace or make me hopeless.

Isaiah paints quite a picture.  He doesn’t just denounce injustice, but paints a picture of what it looks like and how we got here.  “The multitude is parched with thirst,” we hear.  Hunger, thirst abound.  And we hear of a land in ruins where even the pasture doesn’t function for food. But if you back up and read carefully, the reason for this is quite astounding.

“Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge; their nobles are dying of hunger.”

It turns out the real hunger is for knowledge.  This is knowledge of God, and this has led to their rejection of all that is right, and led to people being hungry, afflicted, and destitute.

Today is no different.  And oh how I wish we could reclaim and understanding of sin that sees this.  The effects of sin on the community.  Today our leaders are given an easy pass.  “Oh, the world is in a shambles….”  Rather than holding their feet to the fire and saying, “Those of you in government have a duty to take care of the poor, the afflicted, the aging, the dying.”

It turns out that just just by a society having poor people – that is an indication that the community has sinned.  And I say TRUE.

Furthermore, we all bear the responsibility in a representative democracy.  We elected these idiots.  They have failed to understand God’s law, or they have failed to enact it.

Instead they spend their time with worthless idols, like 10 Commandment monuments, and unconstitutional bills which have no chance of helping educate or care for the poor.  They spend their time spitting in the face of God.

And how different are we?  We bear the responsibility of holding them accountable.  And instead we sit idly by, droning on with words, but failing to march down there and demand to talk to our legislators about how disastrous their leadership has been, and how God himself is offended by their lack of compassion.

Social justice means just that.

“There, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”

Let’s activate ourselves, and stop sitting around waiting for God to fix this.  He put us here, emblazened with the Holy Spirit, to do his will.  GO.

-Matt

Redefining Family

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Isa. 2:12-22; 1 Thess. 3:1-13; Luke 20:27-40

Into our violent and racially-charged country comes words from Paul in 1 Thessalonians today.  In many ways family is redefined.  We hear about Paul and Timothy suffering persecutions, and about how the Christians in Thessaloniki have remembered them in their distress.  The mystical bond that they share does more than encourage hope, but transforms their entire relationship to brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are no longer merely friends, but family.

Do you recall Eric Garner’s death – the “I Can’t Breathe” at the chokeholding hands of a NYC police officer?  Or the shooting of Michael Brown a couple years ago?  More recently the young man at OSU with the butcher knife, shot dead by police.  Many of these incidents involve justice, which also calls us to a renewed sense of compassion, listening, understanding, and frankly understanding the dynamics of mental illness better.  I am thankful for Ted Streuli who lifted up these issues last night at Kirknight, challenging us to a new awareness of mental illness/brain disease.

Things change when we regard one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and get to know peoples’ struggles, not just dismiss each other as “thugs” or “villains” or “crazies”.  This is what Paul is addressing.  He reminds us to not just encourage hope, but view our relationships as fundamentally changed.

How does the world become a different place when we view each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of the color of their skin?!?  Everything!

Then in Luke we encounter one of the most radical statements from Jesus to our contemporary ears.  You will never hear this preached in “traditional conservative” churches, for it flies in the face of the very heart of their argument of “family values.”  Here we hear Jesus holding up singleness as the new standard, and ranking marriage as something inferior and “of this age.”

“Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’”   Why doesn’t our culture talk more about this aspect of Scripture?  Because it flies in the face of their lifestyle.  Many want to encounter the Bible only as so long as it comports with their already held values.  They use it to justify their values, rather than let Jesus challenge us, liberal and conservative alike, with his words.  This kind of cherry-picking of Scripture is dangerous and unorthodox.

God calls us to look at the entirety of Scripture, and discover what the Bible principally teaches and how that impacts our lives.  I read much about covenant and love, and I wonder why that gets lost among the cherry-pickers of Scripture.  What I see here in our Gospel reading is not a throwing out of marriage as much as a lifting up of the new relationships we have in Christ, as we all become brothers and sisters in the faith.

In many ways, Jesus redefine family values here.  At the heart of this is a separation from his own Jewish values, which believe that in procreation is blessing.  Jesus is saying no, that procreation is no longer necessary for those who inherit eternal life in the age to come.  This is a radical departure from the thoughts of his time.

Instead Jesus invests himself in the same kind of brotherhood and sisterhood that Paul and Timothy speak of in 1 Thessalonians.  We seem to be in a new world, where relationships of those around us trump the future, potential relationships of generations to come.  We are being encouraged to value togetherness in the here and now.

This, too, is a prominent theme of Advent.  As we look to a better world, we huddle in togetherness to wait for its coming.  We plan for the future, but in radically different ways.  We look for the harmony of the coming age, while we also help to increase harmonies in the present age.

It is mystical and unbridled.  It is strange and hopeful.  It is new life, but in a very different way.  May these challenging and unsettling words of Scripture rest in your soul and challenge us all, as we face God’s new future for us.

-Matt

It’s All God’s

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Isa. 2:1-11; 1 Thess. 2:13-20; Luke 20:19-26

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This often quoted phrase of Jesus is a perfect example of what is going on in the later parts of Jesus’ ministry.  The scribes and Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus.  But like a brilliant lawyer, Jesus responds in a way not to trap himself.  The question “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” has no good answer!  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay!” then he is guilty of sedition.  If he says, “Yes, pay taxes!” then he is guilty of breaking God’s law, for it involves graven images and a sense of Rome being put above religion.

Instead, Jesus attacks their question with an assertion that the money is evil (Give to Caesar that which has his picture on it!) and also that God owns everything anyway (Give to God what is God’s).

Is not everything God’s?  Of course!  But the deeper question – is that how we live our lives?  Do we go about our daily business understanding that everything is the Lord’s?  Have we come to a settled place about how we spend our money?

Here we are in the midst of America’s celebration of Christmas, which I have named Consumerism Christmas.  Somehow our Christmas spirit is often judged on how many presents we buy, how many parties we have, how many times Santa shows up at the parties we attend, how many cards we mail out, and how many decorations we put up.  The problem with those standards is that they all center around consumerism.

We are called to a renewal of Christ’s incarnation.  That means a renewal of understanding that God is close to us, and that all we do and say is wrapped up in the marvelous gift of God With Us.  To have God in our midst means to put all our energy in that which was important to him.  As someone who came and reached out to the poor and afflicted, it would seem that if Christmas is going to be about gifts, it will center around alms to the poor, not gifts to other family members.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  This is our call – to turn from the bizarre incongruencies of our lives, and turn to the truth of God’s radical gospel of love and light.  There is hope and joy wrapped up in that little gift – enough for the whole world.  Lord, let it be!

-Matt

Advent comes

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Isa. 1:10-20; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Luke 20:1-8

Advent has arrived, and with it a new year of readings.  So today the readings shift, and there are many new beginnings.  We begin to encounter Isaiah, who jumps right in by giving the people an ear full about worship.  He argues that God rejects their ritualized worship if it is not accompanied by genuine inner change – a change in one’s moral compass.  In many ways this is what Advent is – a shift in our compass, a focus on new things, and a renewal and preparation for Christ’s return.

 

In Luke, the shift is very different.  In tone and outreach, the words to us are stark.  We pick up the story right after Jesus has purged the temple.  Folks are trying to entrap him.  The reading is one of these dramatic conflicts in the temple where Jesus authority is questioned.  Jesus is evasive.  They ask him point blank where he derives his authority, or from whom.  He fires back with a question, instead of an answer: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Advent is about decisions.  How are we going to spend our time?  Shopping?  Getting caught in the hustle and bustle of the world?  Preparing for the cold winter ahead?  Preparing our hearts and minds too?

Following Christ is not easy.  Being a faithful follower is not easy.  If it were, everyone would do it.  It would be second nature, and there would be no reason to provide the Bible in the first place.

I like to think of the Bible as a mystery novel – with twists and turns.  And only if you read the whole thing do you have the possibility of discovering some of its secrets.  One can spend a lifetime in the Bible and not crack all the code.  Those who quote individual verses out of context are so often beginning Christians who have not yet come to understand the breadth and depth of following Christ.

Some of my non-Christian friends wonder what exactly it means to follow Christ.  Or why?  Or how?  In my youth, I would try to answer them to the best of my ability.  Now, I say to them, “You wouldn’t understand.  It’s a secret.  Might as well give up before you start.”  It turns out, this gauntlet-throw-down challenge is some of the best evangelism I have done!  Everyone wants a challenge – to break the code, and be part of a secret society.

Perhaps we should be making it harder to become Christian, not easier.  Then we would be more like the First Century Church.  It was really hard to become a Christian then!  It was an underground secret society.  First you had to find these supposed Christians.

These days it is so easy to say, “I accept Jesus into my heart.”  And I find a church full of folks who have no inkling what that means, nor the desire to figure it out.

As we prepare for Advent and Christmas, let us also commit to the deep, rich, complexity of the story, and yet the simplicity of it as well.  And if anyone has any questions, don’t be surprised if I go into “challenge mode” and become evasive and answer it with another question.

-Matt

Chosen

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Zech. 12:1-10; Eph. 1:3-14; Luke 19:1-10

Chosen by God.  Paul speaks like a Presbyterian today.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world….”  Speaking as though God adopted us, Paul also makes it known that in addition to redemption and forgiveness, that God in Christ has made known the “mystery of his will.”

What a powerful opening!  We have been chosen!  We have insight and wisdom, almost secret knowledge!  We have understood, or at least glimpsed, the mystery of the divine!  We have been adopted, and accordingly, inherit as full-blooded children.

Paul is also speaking like a Jew.  This whole section is a thanksgiving, a standard way to open a letter.  Many of his words evoke images of Temple worship: heavenly places, chose, destined, blameless, redemption, fullness, seal, pledge, gather up.  By reading’s end I also wonder if I, like the sacrificial animals of the Temple, have been “set apart” as a chosen, blameless sacrifice.

What I find comforting about this passage is its emphasis on God’s initiative: I did nothing to be in this situation.  It was God’s sovereign rule.  God decides.  God asserts.  God not only protects me, but believes in me – has redeemed me and pledged an inheritance.  Just like the birth of a child, that infant has done nothing to earn the inheritance, except being born.

Occasionally I am accosted in the mall or outside an OU game by the shouts of a crazed Christian, who is convinced that “You all are going to hell unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior.”  I always want to fire back with this passage from Paul, that God “Chose us before the foundation of the world!  There is nothing I can do to undo my baptism!”  I also find it ironic that Jesus never spoke like these folks.  Paul, in fact, says very much the opposite.  It appears there is nothing we can do to resist the grace of the almighty.  It is not a matter of going to hell, but being bathed in the gospel of salvation.

I want to remind that person shouting that I have been adopted by the almighty, and so has he.  Furthermore, I question the methods.  Is he really helping Christ’s cause?  Is this what Jesus would do?  It is no wonder Christianity has taken a hit in this country recently.  What we really need is a dose of good news!

If we find ourselves speaking words like today’s epistle lesson – words like chosen, redemption, fullness, pledge, seal, inheritance – then they might hear the good news – that God has already made a place for them, and life is not just around the corner, it is here right now, among us.

-Matt