Happy 5th Day of Christmas!

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Isa. 12:1-6; Rev. 1:1-8; John 7:37-52

Today we hear the beginning of the complex revelation of Jesus Christ to John: Revelation.  And while it is in many ways typical apocalyptic literature, to my knowledge it is the only letter of its kind that begins with this strange blessing: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”

From the beginnings of Christianity, it was standard to gather early in the morning, before dawn, in a secret location, and read from both the Old and New Testaments.  This was at a time when the New Testament was still begin put together, and it becomes clear to me that John knew this practice.  This was intended to be used in these services when it was written, a secret tale that not fulfills scripture, like many of the other New Testament readings, but one that allows for the fact that there are still mysteries yet to be fulfilled.

John knew and understood that the human condition was not still perfect.  People lived in persecution.  Chaos abounded.  He was providing an antidote to this, by allowing for the possibility that God’s kingdom has not come to complete fulfillment yet.  There is a better time around the corner.

This may sound like standard thought to our ears, but to some of the Christians at that time, this was a novel idea.  They had grown up learning that Christ had come and death had been conquered.  Now people that had followed Jesus were dying but they were not being raised.  A new theological understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection was needed.

How true this is for our time as well.  We are called to speak words of hope and comfort to a broken world – and a world that scarcely believes that Jesus is coming.  Each day I encounter people who need more than a tank of gas in their car or their electric bill paid – they need the assurance that the world has not forgotten about them, and that Christ has prepared a place for them as well.  The struggle has become seeing that joy in this life.

But First Presbyterian gives me hope.  FPCOKC truly knows how to celebrate the Advent/Christmas cycle.  The message of joy and hope and peace is being proclaimed!

Merry Christmas!  May your day be filled with the joy of new birth.

-Matt

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Christmas Love

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Tuesday, Dec. 27, St. John:

AM Psalm 97, 98; Proverbs 8:22-30; John 13:20-35
PM: Psalm 145; Isaiah 44:1-8; 1 John 5:1-12

On this Third Day of Christmas, some surprisingly difficult words come to the disciples, especially in John’s reading.  If you are expecting the Christmas readings to be all “meek and mild” or lovey dovey, dream on.

“Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”  Peter whines a bit and says that he would lay down his life for Jesus.  Before the rooster crows, we learn that Peter will deny Jesus three times.

The command is also to love one another.  This all comes about in the midst of future denials and betrayals.  A new standard of love emerges.

Think about the these disciples for a minute – not exactly the cream of the crop.  Many would have laughed at the stupidity of choosing a bunch of fisherman for the task of changing the face of Judaism or, much yet, founding a new religion and spreading it around the world.  God comes to earth and is denied by his own people.  And the fisherman around him aren’t much better.  One betrays him.  Another denies him at his most vulnerable.

And yet…this band of disciples manage to spread Christianity around the world, with a little help from Constantine and others.  It is amazing what the human spirit can do when it puts its mind to something.  This is where the Christmas gift within our readings is illuminated.

The message is one of LOVE, which is an appropriate Christmas gift our readings deliver to us this day – the Feast Day of St. John.  John spoke much about love, especially in his epistles.  It is not just a message of love, but that God’s love extends even to those we thought were left out of the story – us!

The principles of this new religion are a little quirky – a little backward to those who don’t understand.  Many don’t even believe they will last.  After all, one of the main tenets is to turn the other cheek – to love your enemy.  How long can we refrain from revenge, before it takes back over our lives?  But our call is not to war with others, but to war with evil itself – to crush death and destruction, and sow seeds of love in this light, even if that means dying oneself.

So here we are!  God-with-us has saved us from the tyranny of life!  Merry Christmas!  God is with us on this journey!  And that, my friends, is part of the miraculous Christmas message for us – a message of incarnational grace and the journey of the Spirit – God with us.

-Matt

Consumerism and Xmas

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Monday, Dec. 26, St. Stephen

AM Psalm 28, 30; 2 Chronicles 24:17-22; Acts 6:1-7
PM Psalm 118; Wisdom 4:7-15; Acts 7:59-8:8

On the Second Day of Christmas we remember Stephen, the deacon and the first martyr of the Christian Church.  His story is told in the 6th and 7th chapters of the Book of Acts.

What on earth does Stephen, a martyr, have to do with Christmas, you might ask!

Originally St. Stephen’s Feast Day just happened to coincide with the Second Day of Christmas, and originally the two had nothing to do with one another.  But as time has gone on, more connections have been made between the two, and I think it is a good thing.

One of connections between Christmas and Stephen in the word DEACON.  A deacon is one who cares for others.  Stephen was one of the first deacons, and was called upon in the Book of Acts to assist with helping the needy widows and others who were being neglected.

Have you ever heard of Boxing Day?  In the United Kingdom it is actually a nationally recognized holiday, traditionally the day following Dec. 25.  Although it has become a day when employers give gifts to employees, it historically was a day when people would “box” clothing, food, and other items to give to those in need.  These were Alms Boxes or Christmas Boxes.  As a deacon in the 1st Century Church, St Stephen had this same responsibility, distributing such items to widows, orphans, and the poor and afflicted.

St. Stephen is a good reminder that Christmas is not all about us.  It is not about amassing as many material goods as one can, which is often the pervasive drive of our greed-driven consumeristic culture.  The undercurrent of sin/greed lurks in the shadows.  Somehow our culture has traded in the truth of the gospel for a lie: that we can find happiness by gathering as many worldly possessions as we can.  St. Stephen flies in the face of that.

The world does not want us to remember St. Stephen.  They want us to forget about his spirit, and horde, and consume, and keep consuming.  We as Christians stand diametrically opposed to that culture.  We are more interested in giving.  We are more interested in losing our lives, than building up for ourselves treasures on earth.

The world is not about GIVE GIVE GIVE, but about GET GET GET.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how Stephen died.  He was martyred.  And why?  Because he threatened the establishment.  Because the truth of the gospel is radical, and it affects every fiber of our being.  It transforms lives.  Stephen, with his transformed life, sought to turn the tables on those who had power and influence, and arm those who did not.  That threatened those in power.  And he paid for it with his life.

Is it not the same for us?  Does Christmas not transform every fiber of our being?  Does the gift of the Christ Child not lead to such ecstatic joy that goodwill overflows from us, and needs to be shared?

Is the gift of Christmas only for us?  Or is it for all the world? Let’s get to spreading that Gift.

-Matt

A Grand Vision of God’s Love

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AM Psalm 45, 46;
Isa. 35:1-10; Rev. 22:12-17,21; Luke 1:67-80

Christmas Eve:
PM Psalm 89:1-29
Isa. 59:15b-21; Phil. 2:5-11

It is Christmas Eve.  Tonight we remember a central pillar of our faith: that of God’s incarnation.  It is a story of terror and amazement.  It is a story that has shocked generations.  But it is also a story that brings together heaven and earth, and is a time of hope and joy for Christians.  The readings leading up to the 12 Days of Christmas are always full of such hope and joy.

Isaiah 35 is a good example.  The barren wilderness of Israel’s wanderings burst forth in a desert bloom.  The eyes of the blind are opened, the deaf hear, the lame leap, and the burning sand gives way to pools of water.  It is a time of hope and redemption – the restoration of the people of Zion.

Revelation, which has had some strange chapters, culminates in the blessing of Almighty God, and the declaration that Jesus is the “root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”  Here, anyone who wishes to take from the water of life is welcome to it.  It is the final painting of a picture of true peace, resting in the One who made all things.

Another passage abundant in blessing and extreme hope is the prophecy of Zechariah.  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a might savior for us in the house of his servant David.”

In the midst of the often craziness of this season, we are asked to take pause, and reflect on the extreme and extraordinary stories of God’s grace.  Some of them come to us as grandiose visions of the world redeemed.  Others come to us as tiny visions – of infants in a manger.

At its most basic level, the Christmas story is shocking. Think about it: God came to us in the form of a fragile little infant, wetting his pants, dependent on his 13-year old unwed mother for nourishment and care. God could have come as a mighty king, or from a chariot of fire from heaven, or at least from a royal family of husband and wife. But he didn’t.  God surprises us by turning the notion of a mighty Savior on its head. His life, his ministry, his death all reflect that, welcoming those whom others had thought God had cast out, redefining family, and forgiving sins.

So don’t let the meekness and mildness of Christmas fool you! In that tiny manger is another grand vision of God’s love. It is a vision that includes the whole world.  It is a vision of radical love – unexpected and unbridled. In that manger holds the hope of the future, the Prince of Peace, and the joy of the whole world, intended for ALL.

A Merry Christmas to all of you!

-Matt

Living Upright and Joyful Lives

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Isa. 28:9-22; Rev. 21:9-21; Luke 1:26-38

It is good to be back in the saddle again, although I am not sure I am glad to be back to the cold weather.  It was 81 degrees every day on my Central American cruise.  I’m not rubbing it in, I am just saying….  It is hard coming back when it is this drastic a difference.  My day doesn’t feel ordered yet, but more of a mash of emotions, trying desperately to remember how to do laundry (can you say “obstinate”, anyone?)

The Letter to Titus jumped out to me this morning.  The writer is exhorting them wise up and be more self-controlled.  He is looking for order beyond the chaos

Most scholars believe this letter to be written by an unknown author, written in the tradition of Paul.  His concern is the leadership of the early church in Crete, and uses Paul’s name as a mark of his authority.  There is conflict within the church and among its leadership.  It is hard to know the nature of the conflict, but the letter drives home the importance of creating stability in the congregations by upholding good leaders and condemning false leaders.

In other words, the letter encourages good order, something the Presbyterian church spends much time talking about, but often struggles with.

Today’s passage is particularly problematic, telling the old men how to live into God’s teachings, then the older women, the younger men, and finally telling “slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.”  This passage, and others like it, have been sadly used to support slavery for centuries.

The author of Titus was speaking to the people of his time, and attempting to get them to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.  Remember, this is also the same good news that reminds us in Christ there is no male nor female, no slave or free, but all are submissive to Christ.  What would it mean to live upright lives today?  What would that look like, now that the Spirit is no longer speaking to the people of that time, but to our time?

Imagine how this letter might look if it were written today.  My last church had crafted their vision statement to model much of Titus’s trajectory: At St. Paul’s we strive to: worship weekly, pray daily, learn constantly, serve joyfully, live generously.  

As we think about our service to God and our practices, what needs redemption?  Critique your practice and describe what faithful service looks like.  I agree with St. Paul’s; I think God would start with our worship, our daily prayer, our work of formation, our service of outreach and inreach, our stewardship.  He would encourage us toward mature self-control and discipline.

And what a proper time for this type of reflection, as we move into a new year.  It is a wonder time to turn over a new leaf, and recommit ourselves to living, learning, and serving with a routine of joy and generosity.

How can we more faithfully worship weekly, pray daily, learn constantly, serve joyfully and live generously?

As our Luke text foretells of the birth of Jesus, Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  God can do miraculous things.  God alone can transform our stagnant spirits into joy.  We must be willing to trust and follow, and give God a chance to work.  I have a feeling a daily routine of prayer and worship would be a good start.

-Matt

 

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