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Gen. 37:1-111 Cor. 1:1-19Mark 1:1-13

Today is all about new beginnings.

We begin the gospel of Mark today, my favorite gospel, not just because of its brevity, but because of Mark’s quirky details which paint a stunning and imaginative picture of God’s grace.  Unlike the other gospels, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” does not begin with a birth narrative or with the beginning of time, but rather with John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness.

Like a good journalist, he paints a picture with quotes, memorable details, and keeps it brief.  Today is not just about a baptism in the wilderness but a baptism of fire.  Only 13 verses in and Jesus is already tempted in the wilderness.  Mark moves it along, sowing the seeds of expectancy and mystery.

 

Many of us are yearning for new beginnings this Lenten journey.  2018 has been hard already.  The Lenten journey is built for this!  We enter this Lenten journey, knowing that the end of the journey is a cross, but knowing that as we live into the penitential and centering aspect of these 40 days, that our journey does not end at the cross.

And so we slow down and focus on things one day at a time, not knowing what the future may bring, but knowing who holds the future.

-Matt

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In God’s Time

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Hab. 3:1-10(11-15)16-18Phil. 3:12-21John 17:1-8

Habakkuk can be a very upfront and personal kind of prophet.  His first person narrative is almost auto-biographical, and he seems easy to get to know and relate to.  He recounts his direct dialogues with God.  And today we read his concluding prayer as our Old Testament passage.

Here he paints God’s intervention as profound and in cosmic terms.  He continues his complaints and questioning of God’s wisdom, but answers his own questions in amazing amounts of trust and affirmation of God’s reign.

Last night at the Ash Wednesday service, we encountered the importance of confession and honesty to God.  I had the privilege of inviting you to a special commitment to prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving, but also to come to grips with the purging and repentant nature of the ashes themselves.  Well today’s Habakkuk passage provides another dimension of that honesty toward God.

As we move into this spiritual journey of Lent, it is important to know our place.  Yes Lord, we have fallen short.  Another key component of that is knowing God’s majesty above it all.  “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.  In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known.”  In conjunction with realizing the cosmic and awesome nature of God, he is able to know his place in the whole created order, and that provides enough humility and trust to move forward with his petition.

It is hard to ask God for something if you don’t believe God can actually do it!

Habakkuk knows God’s power.  He trusts in God’s power, and is renewed in that.  And he does it in beautiful poetry which I cannot recount here.  From pierced arrows to quivering lips to fruitless vines to the sun raising its hands, it is simply a passage you must encounter directly.  Click the link above to read it yourself!

-Matt

Ash Wednesday – 6:30pm @ FPC-Duncan

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AM Psalm 95 [for the invitatory] & 32143; PM Psalm 102130
Amos 5:6-15Heb. 12:1-14Luke 18:9-14

Today marks the beginning of Lent. These are the 40 days that lead up to Easter which mimic the 40 days that Jesus wandered in the wilderness. It is a season of preparation, a season of purging. Traditionally it can be a time of prayer, fasting, or almsgiving.

Lately many Presbyterians have been “giving something up for Lent” or taking on an additional spiritual discipline. Something that only Lutherans and Catholics did, it is good to see an air of intentional spiritual discipline in the Presbyterian Church.

Have you thought about giving something up? Some give up chocolate, or alcohol, or meat, or white bread. Perhaps now is the time to give up smoking, or cursing. Others give up Facebook or Snapchat, or television, or the PS4, or Family Guy. In this sense, giving something up isn’t so much giving up their favorite whatever just to deny themselves, but to open up time in their schedule for God to enter their lives in new ways. To rededicate the time they would have spent on that PS4 to pray or volunteer at a community center.

Fasting is something that I don’t hear about much anymore. I wish we would rediscover the power of fasting. In college I was the chair of the Campus OXFAM Program. Almost the entire campus at Westminster College would fast for 24 hours, only drinking water, and we would raise money for hunger. I helped contract with the cafeteria to cut back their meals and staff, or shut down completely, and the money we would save would go to OXFAM. Some, because of their medical condition, couldn’t fast, but they would give up their cafeteria plan for the day too, and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their room.

Fasting can be a powerful thing, that wakes the senses, and awakens the soul. It can put one in touch with one’s body, and in touch with their dependence on God and the earth. It was even more powerful to fast as a whole group, like at Westminster.

Fasting is a willingly abstaining from something. Over time, the church has expanded this…it could be food, or water, or sex. It’s something to think about.

Almsgiving is an opportunity to “take on a spiritual discipline” rather than give something up. Perhaps it means giving more money to church. It may mean volunteering one day a week somewhere. Giving an extra hour a day to God.

I hope you consider Lent for your daily walk. Today we mark the beginning of Lent with ashes on our foreheads, remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We places ourselves in a mindset to reconnect with God in new and deeper ways.

Join us at 6:30 tonight for the Imposition of Ashes.

-Matt

Mardi Gras

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Prov. 30:1-4,24-33Phil. 3:1-11John 18:28-38

Get your partying in now.  Today is Mardi Gras!

Today is also a good time to reflect on our Proverbs passage. Proverbs sits as a part of the Wisdom Literature, which I have referenced in the last couple sermons, but not a usual topic for Presbyterians.

The Wisdom Literature of Israel is complex and rich.  Its main goal, in my estimation, is to give a cross-section of sayings for the plethora of human experiences.  If you have been reading Proverbs slowly and deliberately, you may have realized that some contradict one other.  The wise person knows which to apply at each certain time.  Thus is the dilemma for the reader of Wisdom Literature.  You gotta know it all for it to be any use!

Today we near the end of Proverbs.  It provides comforting words to those of us who feel we have just begun our journey into wisdom.

Today’s reading also helps frame Mardi Gras—that despite our foolishness and foibles, we are merely God’s creatures.  And it frames our celebration as part of the human journey.  We may not know all the secrets of life, but we are merely human, and celebrating our journey with God along the way to perfection.

“I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.”  The writer is saying, “That’s OK… it’s OK to fall short and not have grasped the breadth of all of these sayings.”

Verse 4:   “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?  Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand…?  What is the person’s name?  And what is the name of the person’s child?  Surely you know!”

This may perhaps be in the form of a riddle, a riddle that perhaps no one can answer.  At least I can feel smart knowing that no one knows it!  This verse brings me comfort!  Others have argued that the answer to this riddle is “God.”

I personally believe this may also be a way to put the know-it-alls in their place.  Provide me with his name, and his children’s name, knowing full well there is no such person.  Of course then God comes to earth, his child who is literally the know-it-all Messiah.  Perhaps there is something along these lines too.

It is important to treat the Israel Wisdom Literature in the context in which they were written.  This passage is not meant to befuddle, but to put us in our place, coming to know the source of all wisdom, the Lord, our God.

So today let us celebrate our journey with God, and rest in the one who holds all the secrets to life.

-Matt

Humble Pie

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Prov. 27:1-6,10-12Phil. 2:1-13John 18:15-18,25-27

Humility is a tough lesson to learn.  It is perhaps one of the toughest to learn in a culture that values domination and achievement.

Humility is the order of the day in all three of our readings today.  In Proverbs: “A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”    In John, just as Jesus stands before the High Priest Caiaphas in his humble state, Peter denies Jesus three times.  Philippians also dwells on the topic.

Philippians second chapter is one of ultimate humility.  It is the famous Christ hymn, riddled with pre-Pauline thought, that is most likely borrowed by Paul for his later arguments about obedience into Christ Jesus.  Material from the earliest Christian tradition, well before the gospels were written and even before Paul’s letters, often focus on Jesus’ obedience and character of humility, the same characteristics of slaves.

This follows right to the cross, where resurrection is thought of as an obedience to the Master’s will, rather than a destruction of evil forces.  In this sense, it is God’s power that is important.  “[he] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

Paul goes on to talk about Christ being exalted, which is where the rubber hits the road – for Paul picks up on this ancient hymn with his own thoughts – that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Not only do we experience the benefits of Christ’s humility, nor do we simply ride the wave of it, but we are able to join in his self-emptying and his humility, becoming servants ourselves.  This is a good thing to Paul!  In it, the whole body is lifted up.

For Paul the world is turned upside down by Christ.  To obey is a joy.  To serve is not a burden, but the ultimate gift.  And this is the irony of the Christian life.  Ultimately love of neighbor doesn’t make sense to those who do not understand the cross.  It is more understandable to stomp all over people to get ahead – but we Christians revel at being at the back of the line, emptying ourselves so that others may be glorified.

-Matt

Jacob’s Ladder

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Gen. 27:46-28:4,10-22Rom. 13:1-14John 8:33-47

Jacob senses he is in a bind today.  So do Isaac and Rebekah.  Plans are made for Jacob to escape Esau’s fury.  He is sent outside the land of Canaan to find a wife – to the house of Laban, Rebekah’s sister.

Isaac once again blesses Jacob, which Esau comes to know.  The wedge between these two brothers grows deeper and deeper.  Esau’s anger becomes like poison.

Then God comes to Jacob in a dream – his first vision from God – of a ladder set up on the earth, reaching toward heaven, with the angels ascending and descending.  The Lord stood by and declares a similar promise to Jacob that God gave to his father and grandfather: land and progeny.

The whole sequence of events, in fact the whole cycle of Jacob is one of progeny, of blessing through generativity.  God chooses life, and chooses to move in mysterious ways, bending or breaking human rules.  We see God’s wisdom in hindsight. Who would have wanted angry Esau to rule the people?  God saw that coming.

In today’s world, stories like this seem antiquated and odd.  But if one is going to talk about a God of life and a God of blessing, what better way to see that than spilling forth from generation to generation.  With twists and turns, somehow God’s grace marches on, eventually getting all the way to us.

May God’s grace march on, through the struggles and travails of life, and show us the way – a way of blessing and abundance even though we may not see it yet.

 

-Matt

Jacob and Esau

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Gen. 27:30-45; Rom. 12:9-21John 8:21-32

Jacob steals the birthright from Esau today.  Verse 30: “As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob… his brother Esau came in from his hunting.”

Jacob prepares a savory meal, so that Isaac may bless him.  In his confusion, Isaac asks, “Who are you?”  Ultimately, the jig is up!  Isaac and Esau realize they have been deceived by Jacob.

This story is trickery, and what is frustrating about it is that God seems to bless that too!  I want to scream from a mountain, “Just take it back, Isaac!  Take back the blessing!  Jacob lied!  He betrayed you!  Don’t leave him with blessing!  Leave him with a curse!”

But no.  There are some things that can’t be recalled.  When it happens, it happens.  Nothing can recall it.  Part of the story’s message is that: Nothing can change the facts of the past.  Words go out like arrows and cannot return.  This is the power of blessing (and of curse).

What a dark story of betrayal, lying, and conspiracy.  As we know, this will inevitably lead to suffering and alienation.  Terrible consequences will split this family apart.

As a chaplain, I saw first-hand the power of blessing.  Each of us carries with us the power to bless or curse, to accept or deny those who come in our path.  I reminded the Deacons of this at our retreat this past month, “When you walk into a hospital room, you are no longer just that person’s friend, but a representative of Almighty God, and of the church.  You carry with you the powerful story of the church – to bless, to heal, to comfort.”

Certainly we know the standard of blessing and acceptance that Jesus set.  And when I walk into a hospital room, or into a community event, or into a store, encountering strangers, I have to remind myself: God has given me the power to love and bless, or turn from this person.  The burden is on.

Are our families any different?  Is being part of the family of God – our church family – any different?  This is the faulty human vessel that God is using to show God’s intention for blessing.  At times it seems messier than we might imagine.  God even uses crooked people and devious ways to bring about the divine blessing.  In fact, none of us are perfect.  We are all trying our best (well most of us).

Jacob and Esau isn’t the kind of story or the kind of people we think of when we imagine the righteous people of God.  But this is what God uses.  This is God’s story.  This is the way God brings new blessing to the earth.  A PG-13 version at least.  The squeamish and scrupulous better change channels.

And the imperfection of blessings is our birthright as well.  So it is to be human.

-Matt