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

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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

Blessing

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Zech. 10:1-12; Gal. 6:1-10; Luke 18:15-30

The readings this morning transported me all the way back to Taizé, France where there is a monastery of world-renowned importance.  I had the privilege of spending a couple continuing education weeks there almost 16 years ago.  I got to interview Brother Roger, the founder of the community, and really live in the midst of them for a while.  I was honored.  Some of the key words you would hear over and over again from Brother Roger were “reconciliation” and “community”.

People these days are hungry for togetherness.  I deal with people on a daily basis who are profoundly lonely.  What we have seen is that having a family does not guarantee avoiding loneliness, no more than solitude necessarily leads to loneliness.

In both our New Testament readings, there are examples of the Christian’s value of community and togetherness in new and profound ways.  Jesus blesses the little children.  Paul speaks of bearing one another’s burdens.

For Paul, being together in community means something much deeper than restoring a transgressor, and righting a few wrongs, but of a mutual responsibility and forbearance.  Being part of the family of faith means sowing seeds of community and responsibility into the fabric of our lives – so that we reap from the Spirit.

Today is a great day.  This week has the potential to be a great week.  For wrapped up in this season of thanksgiving is the ability to make it a season of togetherness.  And this year is an opportunity to do it in a new and special way – to mend fences and experience the joy of giving thanks.  This is not mere lip service, but a call to the renewal that Paul speaks about and the blessing that Jesus speaks of.

We are called to bless one another.  In doing so we value each other in our mutual brokenness.  It is not “I will love you if you fix all your flaws,” but “I love you despite all your flaws.”  This is the blessing we give to children, and the blessing we are called to give to others as well.  In that blessing carries great power, but also great responsibility, for the two way street of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood means that blessing will come back 10 fold.

-Matt

The Power of Words

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Hab. 3:1-10(11-15)16-18; James 3:1-12; Luke 17:1-10

Our readings today are glimpses of God’s kingdom.

Habakkuk launches into one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible, painting a picture of the mighty acts and wrath of God, but also expressing a deep trust in God.  From the bright rays of the sun to the deadly pestilence, from the rivers and the mountains, to even the moon standing still in its exalted place at the “light of your arrows speeding by, at the gleam of your flashing spear.”  Indeed, Habakkuk trusts in God’s power.

James, as well, is filled with fiery language.  His rhetorical attack on the sins of speech personifies the tongue.  “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.”  He focuses on the power of people’s words to do harm – words that are used to slice and dice the community, poison it and destroy the Body of Christ.

Jesus speaks a number of miscellaneous sayings in Luke.  From forgiving those who have wronged you seven times a day, to explaining that “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you,” Jesus focuses on personal responsibility as well.

Sometimes I wonder why the church in America declined to where it is today.  Is it the culture of scientific inquiry?  Is it that people these days are demanding proof when faith is required?  Or is it the repercussions of a Christian Education philosophy of the 50s and 60s that cared little for personal faith and instead focused on lectures on theology and Biblical knowledge?  Is it simply God’s will that we be tested in this way?

All of our readings, in some way, focus on personal responsibility.  Habakkuk is a prophet, someone who is attempting to persuade and cajole.  James and Jesus are both directly addressing where the person fits in the community, with appropriate behaviors and actions.

And this is where I think we got off track.  So much of what I see the church focusing on is, “It’s OK to do whatever you want with your body or each other, as long as at the end of the day you know that God loves you.”

James and Jesus confront this kind of flimsy ideology you hear today head on.  They focus on the poison and destruction that words can provide, or inaction.  One cannot sit idly by and expect the kingdom to come.  It is clear that we play a part in this.

We must do our best.   And yes, we must ask for forgiveness if we fall short.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t continue doing our best.  Forgive each other along the way.  But get through the bumps in the road, and work for the coming of the kingdom of Christ.  Ready….Here we GO!

-Matt

Faith Without Works Is Dead

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Hab. 2:1-4,9-20; James 2:14-26; Luke 16:19-31

“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Many of the Reformers, like Martin Luther, thought James should be thrown out of the canon.  They thought this because of the complex way it deals with faith as it relates to works.  On the surface it seems to stand against a central claim in the rest of Paul’s writings.  On the surface,  James seems to go against salvation by faith, not works.  But it’s not true.

James provides a richness and completeness to Paul’s argument.  There are a number of differences, or expansions of thought here.  First, we are not talking about salvation, but about the transformative nature of a life of faith.  Second, James concentrates on works of charity, not works of obedience to the Jewish law.  Third, James also includes what I consider to be a central statement of Jewish belief, “God is one” and that that statement expands the meaning here.

If we are living as members of Christ’s faithful community, would not acts of charity be a natural outcome?  In other words, works are a great marker of whether or not someone truly has faith! If we proclaimed to be Christian, and then spent all our time trampling all over the poor, others would very clearly see that we weren’t really Christian.  It reminds of the cute little tune, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…by our love.”

Works aren’t going to save you.  James never claims that.  But what he does state is that if you aren’t backing up your faith with works, you have lost your mind!  Christianity is not a religion of lip service.  This is not something we do on Sunday morning and ditch the rest of the week.

James helps us with focus.  He helps remind us that all that we do, all that we say, all that we believe, feeds into the overarching belief that God is one.  When we take this seriously, we come to know that the brokenness of this world, the heartache of our neighbors, all feeds into honoring God.  There is no divide of God’s character, and as James spins out his theology on demons and their work as the enemy of God, we see a God that firmly stands against the tyranny of poverty, brokenness, and hopelessness.

In other words, God demands our allegiance – our belief and our power to transform.

-Matt

Feeling Lost

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Joel 2:21-27; James 1:1-15; Luke 15:1-2,11-32

In Luke’s passage today, through parable God welcomes the lost.  It is a compelling metaphor of God’s extravagant love and acceptance, especially for those who are alienated or lost.

How often have you felt lost or alone?  Have you felt overwhelmed by the details of this life?  Have you lost God?  Or have you felt that God has abandoned you at any difficult chapter in your life?  If so this parable is for you.

In many ways, each of the characters in this story is lost.  The father has lost hope.  The younger son has lost his way, lost his home, lost nearly everything except one – the courage to repent.  The elder son has lost his temper, feeling cheated and betrayed and like their father owes him something.

At times in my life I have felt like and related to each of these characters.  Often I have felt akin to the elder brother, and his frustration.  How would I feel if after making wrong turn after wrong turn, my father had such extravagant love with one of my siblings?  Would I be jealous of the celebration?  Or would I be able to have the courage to join in the celebration and welcome the prodigal home?

Where has the extravagance of God’s love filled your life?  How has it come to you, but you subtlety missed it?  How can you reclaim the celebration that God offers in the midst of stressful and difficult times?

-Matt