Tag Archives: hope

Advent fills hearts with hope; Open your heart to be filled

Today the window above my desk is filled with beautiful snowflakes drifting down with a cedar tree in the background.  The visuals match the traditional images on so many Christmas cards.  

Yes, Advent is here and Christians begin the journey to the manger—all sounds familiar to those who have been raised in the church and celebrate the holiday focusing on the story shared in the gospels and prophesied for thousands of years.  

But what about Advent season for those who are unfamiliar with the Christian tradition of Advent and Christmas?  Are they excited about a season or just about what the secular world has decided is a holiday tradition?  Are their hearts filled with hope?

Admittedly this is a simple line of thought from one who has lived a lifetime wrapped in the Christian tradition; yet, I am wondering why I have discovered how much more exciting Christmas is for me this year versus all the other years.  I think it may be from discovering the true secret to Christmas: hope, love, joy, and peace.

This is the first Advent in over a decade that I have not focused on creating a series of worship services that lead a congregation to Christmas day.  I thought I would really miss the process and the excitement that the work has entailed over the past 10 years.

But as I sit here watching the snowflakes swirling ever so gently around the house, I must admit that I am not missing the work that Advent has meant for these past years. Instead, I am experiencing Advent a bit differently.  I am sensing hope.  

Let’s consider what hope really is:

NOUN mass noun

A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.

  • 1.1count noun A person or thing that may help or save someone.
  • 1.2 Grounds for believing that something good may happen.

2  archaic A feeling of trust.

VERB

Want something to happen or be the case.

  • 1.1with infinitive Intend if possible to do something.

This definition comes from the Oxford dictionary on-line that is my go to dictionary because it also offers the origin of the word, too:

Late Old English hopa (noun), hopian (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch hoop (noun), hopen (verb), and German hoffen (verb).

Looking closely at the various entries for hope, I see the value of opening Advent with the emphasis on hope.  For four weeks, we create an atmosphere of expecting something huge to happen.  

For Christians, that big thing is the birth of Jesus Christ.  At least that is the design of the traditional Christian season.  Sadly, the secular world has invaded the spiritual world and the hope appears to be more for a day of gift giving.

If one can lessen the emphasis on gift giving as the “big thing” of Christmas, the desire or hope shifts from fancy packages under a Christmas tree to the givingof love from one person to another.

I was saddened to notice the second definition of hopeis listed as archaic:  a feeling of trust.  Advent should still focus on that definition.  

For thousands of years, the Israelites had waited, trusted, that God would provide a messiah to “fix” the mess they were in.  They had hope.  

Do we, in the 21stcentury still have hope?  

Advent is a time to re-evaluate that idea.  At times we all experience feeling lost, depressed, alone, guilty, stranded, and the list continues.  At those times, we lose hope.  Turn hope into the verb, not the noun.

The verb places each one of us in an active state:  we want something to happen or something to be.  The Israelites continued to hope.  As bad as things got, they trusted God to provide an answer to their demise. 

Do we, in the 21stcentury hope—actively hope?

Maybe I am not in a pulpit right now, but I am discovering hope again in a new light.  I am making subtle changes in how I celebrate the entire season and finding hopealive in surprising ways.

For instance, I was reading the lectionary reading for this week and discovered an emphasis on trust.  Psalms 25 opens

O Lord, I give my life to you.

     I trust in you, my God!  . . .

No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced,

     But disgrace comes to those who try to deceive              others.

Living in a society filled with all kinds of distressing concerns—personal, health, financial, governmental, global—we need to trust in God.  We need hope that God is with us, that he hears us, that he wants what is best for us.  

The traditions that have developed around our secular celebrations during Advent and on Christmas Day may be well-intentioned, but is in God?

Evaluating the secular traditions through the filter of my Christian faith forces me to redefine the traditions.  My hopeis that the “reason for the season” is more important in my life than the hope that I find packages under the tree just for me.

This Advent, I want to emphasize how trusting in God provides me a hope that extends beyond the worldly scope of my life.  

My hope is the traditions that demonstrate love for one another creates a joy that expands beyond a package wrapped under a tree.

Read the scriptures for Advent’s first week and see if your heart opens, too, finding how those who trust in God have hope that leads to joy:

Lectionary readings for the week of December 2:

  • Jeremiah 33:14-16
  • Psalm 25:1-10
  • I Thessalonians 3:9-13
  • Luke 21:25-36

Dear God,

Give me the strength

     to trust in the ancient words of scripture.

Give me the determination 

     to keep Advent a time of expectation.

Open my heart to be filled with hope.

Guide me in celebrating the birth of your son

     with traditions to reflect your love.

Guide me in sharing the story of Jesus’ birth

     with words and actions to share your love.

Open my heart to be filled with trust.

Thank you for the words of the ancient faithful

     that help us open our hearts to trust.

Thank you for the work of the faithful

     who open our hearts in hope of Jesus’ birth.

In the name of you, the Father, 

In the name of your son, Jesus Christ,

In the name of the Holy Spirit, amen.

P.S. Friends, the snow is still falling outside my window.  What a joy it is as I experience the excitement of the season!  I hope your days are full of the joy we feel as Christmas Day nears.

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Icy morning thoughts on the Tree of Life

IMG_2086Since we had to cancel church due to the thin, but dangerous ice coating, I am thinking about my message concerning the Tree of Life.  The more I read and study scripture, the more I realize the significance of the symbolism.

Today, we are confined due to the ice, but that does not confine our hearts and minds.  The Tree of Life symbolizes two concepts:  The Church that continues to carry Jesus’ teachings on through time and eternal life.

The Church is not the denomination, The Church is the work of the faithful who see all the ways to love one another.  We were watching the news and caught an add from Massachuettes Mutual Insurance.  The entire ad clearly documented all the good that is done all around this country when one loves one another.  It was so impressive.

Sadly, the message had to be funded by a corporation, but the message is worth every penny spent in making and airing it.  Thank you to Mass Mutual for doing so.  We need a reminder of all the good that does exist in our world.

In the stained glass window now installed at Leawood, KS’s Church of the Resurrection, the Tree of Life is surrounded by all the saints that continued carrying Jesus’ message of loving one another throughout history.  The Church is alive and it is something that we are quick to forget or to overlook.

The Tree of Life also has a second symbolic message–eternal life.  This is a sticky subject for many, but as I step outside into the natural world of the ice covered yard, the birds singing, the sun trying to peak out, and the breeze (even when it is only 16 degrees), I am renewed with the knowledge that even in the depth of winter, new life does exist.

Eternal life is no mystery for me.  Eternal life is a life cycle.  There is birth, earthly existence, death and then eternity.  I cannot look up to the night sky and see all the possibility of life beyond my human understanding.  I cannot accept that when this human form dies, the spirit dies.  I believe.

The Tree of Life stands firm in my life.  I look at the Celtic images and see the unending knot woven into their designs and I feel a sense of peace.  I study the Celtic Tree of Life and understand how complex and promising the life cycle that it represents.  And I thank God for getting to live this life and for the promise that remains.

Lent begins this week and I find it difficult to see these next few weeks filled with depressive thoughts and sorrow.  I anticipate the renewal of life as winter ends and spring begins.  Still, I suppose, we all need time to reevaluate our lives and consciously reflect on how we have lived and how we can improve.  Therefore, I will work to prepare sermons based the Old Testament families who struggled to remain faithful and whose life experiences provide us today with lessons on remaining faithful to God and following Jesus’ teaching to love one another.

Winter has its grip on us today with the coating of ice, but the mind never has to be frozen.  Use today to add to your own understanding of God’s messages.  Look closely at the Tree of Life in all its visual representations shared on the web, and find hope.

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Hope: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

Welcome to Advent!  This sermon was given on Sunday, December 3, 2017 as the first of a series based on Moore’s and Armstrong’s book and devotions, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Please read the introduction and the sermon based on what I read in their book.  Many thanks to them for writing the study.  I pray that it reaches into the hearts of the readers as it did for me.

 

All of us have had our hopes built on getting something for Christmas that we thought we just had to have. Maybe you were a kid, but maybe you were even a grown up and just had to have this one thing you wanted for Christmas.

Preparing for Advent, I looked at three different studies trying to find one that I felt expressed or explained the Christmas experience for today’s Christians. Today we begin the study by James Moore and Jacob Armstrong, Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break.

Let me share a story from Moore’s introduction (paraphrased):

Bishop Kenneth Shamblin told a story about his 5-year-old son’s hope to get a particular red truck for Christmas. He did everything he could to make sure that his parents knew what he hoped to get for Christmas. And he did get it. But shortly after dinner that Christmas Day, he came to his dad crying with the broken truck in his hands. The Bishop reported that the truck was quickly fixed, but it raised an interesting question: What are the Christmas gifts that won’t break? (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 7-8)

 

I expect that there is not one of us who has not experienced something similar in our lives. Whether it is a gift that we thought we just had to have or it is one we gave to fill someone else’s hopes. We thought it was the perfect gift, but then it broke or did not fit.

The introduction references one of Jesus’ lessons in Matthew 6:19-21: (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 8)

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

 

What happens when we put all our hope and anticipation into something? How often do we end up being disappointed or find that it is only a temporary good feeling? For many today, Christmas is broken. Truthfully Christmas season is just the wrapping for the unbreakable gift God has for us: Jesus Christ.

 

Hope

 

Advent is a time when we begin to anticipate the celebration of God’s ultimate gift to us—his son Jesus Christ; and today is the first of four Sundays that make up Advent. In our culture, the holiday season is in full swing with the stores all dressed up, with Christmas music playing, and with Santa making stops at all kinds of places. Yet, very little really explains why Christians are preparing for Christmas Day.

The Old Testament is filled with prophetic literature telling the faithful that a savior was going to come fix the problems that seemed so overwhelming that the faithful were losing trust. Yet the faithful continued to hope that God would send a savior. Just like the little boy who put all his hopes into getting a little red truck, the ancient Israelites hoped the prophecies would be fulfilled. Hope kept faith alive.

Why is it important that we celebrate Advent? Are we in the very same crisis as the ancient Israelites? Are we prepared for Christ to appear? Have we lost hope? Advent reconnects us to the story of God’s ultimate gift and during these four weeks let’s look for gifts that never break.

            The Christmas story begins in Matthew with God talking to Mary and Joseph. The circumstances create an awkward situation for the engaged couple, but the story tells us that an angel separately visited each of them to announce that they would be parents to a baby.

Mary had to be frightened, but she placed her faith in God’s angel and accepted her role as the expectant mother. Joseph must have really been shocked when the angel visited him. He knew he was not the father, yet he was given the responsibility to name the baby.

The gospel of Matthew, which is written for the faithful Jews waiting for the ancient prophecies to be fulfilled, explains how Mary and Joseph learned of their roles:

     18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement[a]quietly.

     20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,[b] for he will save his people from their sins.” [Matthew 1:18-21, NLT]

 

Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt? His hopes for a wife and family were dramatically crushed—or at least could have been crushed except for one thing: Joseph believed the angel. Much less he had been given the name for the baby.

Advent is a time to give the gift of hope. When events in our lives seem completely out of control and we have a sense of impending doom, God never abandons us. Joseph may have thought he was alone and all his plans were ruined, but he held on to his faith in God, trusted the angel’s message, and was filled with hope that this child he was given to raise as his own son was the long-awaited Messiah. What a gift!

We have a similar power when we give others the gift of hope. For those who may be trapped by a sense of hopelessness, we can share the story of how much God loves us and never abandons us. We can give them the gift of hope by demonstrating our own faith and how it makes our lives joy-filled.

God’s gift of his son Jesus is the reason for the season (apologies for the cliché); and when Joseph gave the baby the name Jesus, he signaled to the faithful how this child revived the hope for the Jews. The name Jesus is a derivative from the name Joshua who tore down the walls of Jericho. Moore writes that Jesus’ name means “wall-breaker” and he proceeds to explain how Jesus broke down walls that divide us from one another and from God:

“Now, this idea of Jesus being the wall-breaker, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, can better be understood when we see it against the backdrop of the Temple’s physical layout in the time of Jesus. The Temple was a parable in stone, exposing the prejudices, or walls, that existed in society during biblical times—walls that included a few privileged people but excluded or shut out most. As worshipers moved through the temple toward the high altar (the Holy of Holies), they encountered a series of walls holding the people back from God.

“The first wall held back foreigners, people of other races and nations. The second wall held back women. The third wall held back all men except the priests. The fourth wall, a veil surrounding the Holy of Holies, held back everyone except the High Priest, who was permitted to go inside the veil only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Even then the other priests tied a rope around his ankle, so that if he fell or passed out, they could pull him back without going inside!

“The Holy of Holies, which represented the presence of God, was remote, fearsome, austere, and unapproachable. But then came Jesus, and he broke down the dividing walls and made us one. He brought God out to the people. . . .

. . . The walls we build today are every bit as real as those in the Temple. Here are some of them:

“. . . walls that divide nations . . .

“. . . walls that divide men and women. . . .

“. . . walls that divide clergy and laity. . . .

“. . . wall that hold people back from God. . . .

Do you remember what happened in the Temple when Jesus was on the cross? The veil around the Holy of Holies was torn apart, from top to bottom. God did it! God tore it! God broke down that wall!” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 18-19)

 

Sharon shared the explanation about the torn veil earlier this year, and it is so important to review the importance of God’s action in relation to the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born to teach us how to live with one another by breaking down all that separates us from each other.

Christians around the world are celebrating Advent’s first Sunday focusing on the hope that we have “for peace on earth and good well toward all people”. This is the gift that won’t break whenever we give it away to those who feel hopeless.

Are you giving the gift of hope this year?

Whenever you do anything that shares God’s love as Jesus taught us, you are giving the unbreakable gift of hope. Remember that the gift of hope comes in many forms:

  • “. . . the gift of hope for healing.
  • “. . . the gift of hope for refuge.
  • “. . . the gift of hope for deliverance.
  • “. . . the gift of hope for salvation.” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 29-30)

As Moore writes, “. . .become an instrument of hope to others this week. Give the gift of hope to those who need it by giving of yourself. . . . ” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 23)

This is giving hope, one Christmas gift that won’t break.

Closing prayer:

Dear God, thank you for the season of Advent and the gift of hope. Help us to prepare our hearts for your coming and to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Amen (Moore and Armstrong 2017) (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 23)

Works Cited

Moore, James W., and jacob Armstrong. Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.

 

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The Wonder of a Promise

The advent series this year is based on Ed Robb’s and Rob Renfroe’s publication The Wonder of Christmas available through Abingdon Press.  Many thanks are owed them for making this available.  The opportunity to share their work is a delight.

The Wonder of a Promise given on Sunday, December 18, 2016:  Week 4 of Advent series

Sharing the Christmas Story: Matthew 1:18-23 (NLT)

18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement[a] quietly.

20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,[b] for he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[c]
which means ‘God is with us.’”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.

Reflecting on The Wonder of a Promise by Rob Renfroe

The very sight of a Christmas gift all wrapped up in pretty paper and wrapped in ribbons and bows triggers our curiosity. What is hidden in the box? The mere box suggests a promise of something very special just for you.

Wrapped gifts surround us in the stores, on the cards in the mail, and under the Christmas trees, and all suggest a promise. They also represents a relationship from one person to another, one family to another, one friend to another friend, and even one co-worker to another. The practice of giving gifts reflects the value we place on maintaining relationships with one another.

God wanted a relationship with us so much that he decided to join us in the package of the baby Jesus, born under the light of a star, announced by the angels, and named Immanuel. But, he was not wrapped up as anything special, rather he was wrapped up in swaddling cloth and laid to rest in a manger. What a wonder that God would go to such an effort to be with us, to do all that he could to establish a relationship with us.

Our very creator desires an intimate relationship with us. For generations God worked through the faithful in an effort to deepen the relationship; but then decided to be with us. Rather than waiting any longer, God joined us as the gift of the baby Jesus to demonstrate how to be in an intimate relationship not only with God but also with each other. What a wonder that God’s gift continues to be unwrapped generation after generation, by one people after another.

Have you unwrapped God’s gift to you?

Have you shared God’s gift with others?

The wonder of Christmas is that sharing gifts with one another is one more opportunity to affirm relationships we have with one another. Yet, God asks us to live our lives in such a loving manner that our relationships with each other reflects the behaviors demonstrated by Jesus Christ.

The wonder of Christmas is that God’s love is infinite and available to all people. For those who accept God’s gift, unwrap it, and use it, the transformation is truly wonderful. The gift of a relationship with God evolves into the one true gift that keeps on giving and gives us a new name—Christian. The wonder of the name Christian transforms our lives.

God’s gift of Jesus Christ wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is the promise that God is always with us. It is a promise that establishes a relationship with God that we demonstrate in all the relationships we experience in our own lives. Accepting God’s gift turns us into a gift too.

Opening up God’s Christmas gift comes with instructions how to give that gift to others. We just have to follow God’s instructions on living in relationships with people rather than live as though we are against each other or above each other or simply living among others. As Christians we are to live with each other just like God did as Jesus.

Stop and consider the importance of that one small word ‘with.’ The Old Testament stories tell us how the ancient faithful understood the relationship of God to man. In the Advent study, The Wonder of Christmas, Rob Renfroe explains:

The Old Testament reveals that God’s people ‘believed in God.’ First and foremost, they believed in God above us. When they sinned, they believed in God against us. And when they thought they were doing everything right, they were able to believe in God for us. But they did not believe in God with us—at least not in the ways we need most. Not with us as a mother or father is with a child. Not with us as a person who understands what it is like to be human—a tiny being in a monstrously large universe. Not with us as one who knows what it’s like to give your best and see it do no good, to give your heart only to be rejected, or to cry at night because those you love are hurting and you can’t take their pain away.

 

Even today we can know those same perceptions. We can understand how the Israelites and even so many today still express those same beliefs that God is above us, against us, and even for us. Yet, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah:

The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [NLT]

 

In that promise, there is that small word with. In the wonder of a name, God promises that in the birth of a baby, God is with us not above, not against, and not simply for us. God promises to be with us.

Unwrapping God’s gift at Christmas we must read the instructions in order to make sure that Isaiah’s prophecy is a reality. We find the instructions in the scripture, especially in the New Testament that records Jesus’ ministry, the teachings, and the modeling of God being with us. The instructions are quite simple: Love one another, as you want to be loved.

First to live in a Christian relationship with God, we must understand the people with whom we live—not only just our own families but in our community.   We cannot be in a positive relationship unless we live with others. We cannot live as though we are above, against or for others. Maybe we do not co-exist in the same circumstances, but as Christians we have the capacity to with others through empathy.

Secondly, remember that we, too, had to accept God’s gift of Jesus Christ. There are times in our lives that we allow something or someone to separate us from our intimate relationship with God. Once we are separated from God, we slip into the mindset that God is above us or against us. We might be able to say that God is for us; but at those times we are separated from God, it may be difficult to even see that. The wonder of God’s promise is God is with us at all times.

Even as Christians, there are times in our lives that we become separated from God: God does not separate from us, but we make decisions that do separate us from God. Remembering our own human stories gives us the compassion to relate to others who have not accepted God’s gift.

The third set of instructions that comes with God’s gift is that we are to care about others. God knew that living with us as Jesus Christ establishes the intimate relationship that creates a bond of trust. Renfroe states:

When we tell people that God is with them and they can trust their lives to Jesus, we are asking them to trust us. Essentially we are telling them that we can show them how to create a different ending to their story. We are saying and promising, “Trust us with your lives; trust us with your stories. We will take you to the One who loves you. Trust us; we will not disappoint you.”

You don’t earn that kind of trust by telling people how badly they have lived or by acting superior. You earn that kind of trust by caring enough about their stories that you want their hopes and dreams to be redeemed. You earn that kind of trust by demonstrating humility and compassion as Jesus did—who was willing to leave the comforts of heaven and be born in a manger, disappointed by friends, rejected by the masses, and crucified on a cross—so that you can make the lives of others better.

. . . What enables people to trust us is our genuine care for their lives and their stories. And most often, what changes people is love. Most people are not argued into the Kingdom, lectured into the Kingdom, or guilted into the Kingdom. Most people are loved into the Kingdom.

 

The wonder of Christmas is as exciting as all the pretty packages sitting under the tree promising new and wonderful things. As Advent season begins, we experience the hope of God’s promise. Then we get busy in all the preparations and we seek relief from the hustle and bustle of the holiday, and ask for peace in our hearts and in our world. In the third week of Advent, we practice love in all that we do with one another. Each week of Advent we sense the joy of the season as we wait to unwrap God’s ultimate gift—a son to show us how to be in an intimate relationship with one another and ultimately with God forever.

Closing Advent prayer:

Lord Jesus,

Today I stand in awe with a heart full of gratitude at the wonder of your promise to be Immanuel—God with us today, tomorrow, and forever.

You are a God who truly understands our struggles, because you lived in our world and experienced life in the same ways that we do. You have compassion on us, recognizing that we are sheep in need of a tender shepherd.

Help me to have that same compassion for others, reaching out to love them just as you have loved me. With your help, I will seek to “keep” the promise of Christmas—not only this season but all of my days. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hearing Joel’s prophecy for today

given on Sunday, October 23, 2016

Scripture connection: Joel 1:6-7, 2”: 2-13, 32 [NLT] Joel provides hope to all faithful people, but also calls them/us to repentance.:

Opening scripture: Joel 1:6-7, NLT

1: 6A vast army of locusts[a] has invaded my land,
a terrible army too numerous to count.
Its teeth are like lions’ teeth,
its fangs like those of a lioness.
It has destroyed my grapevines
and ruined my fig trees,
stripping their bark and destroying it,
leaving the branches white and bare.

2:12 That is why the Lord says,
“Turn to me now, while there is time.
Give me your hearts.
Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
13 Don’t tear your clothing in your grief,
but tear your hearts instead.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He is eager to relent and not punish.

2:32But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
will be saved,
for some on Mount Zion in Jerusalem will escape,
just as the Lord has said.
These will be among the survivors
whom the Lord has called.

 

Reflection: Hearing Joel’s prophecy today

 

The week certainly has been filled with news that can fill one’s psyche with fear. American troops are again fighting in the Mid East, road rage became deadly, shootings continue, strange cases of assault are reported, weird weather continues to cause flooding and record breaking, and on top of all that the oak mites are irritating all of us as we struggle to understand the political campaigns.

Pestilence: An Old Testament word used repeatedly to share all the life irritations that challenged the faithful. Seems that the word applies just as much today as it did during ancient times. The prophet Joel understood the challenge to the faithful that the plagues caused; yet his prophecy still applies to our lives in the 21st century.

Consider the size of Judah where the tribes of Judah and Benjamin lived and to whom Joel is prophesying: ancient Judah was approximately 2,270 square miles. Missouri is 69,704 square miles, and Johnson County is 823 square miles (Wikipedia). Joel’s prophecy is just as important to us almost 3,000 years later (believed to be written between 835 and 796 B.C., as it was to the ancient Jewish tribes of Judah. Why do we tend to ignore this prophecy? Or maybe we just have not heard it before.

The book of Joel opens with a description of the day of the locusts. The description is filled with images that create visual pictures in our own minds:

A vast army of locusts[a] has invaded my land,
a terrible army too numerous to count.
Its teeth are like lions’ teeth,
its fangs like those of a lioness.
It has destroyed my grapevines
and ruined my fig trees,
stripping their bark and destroying it,
leaving the branches white and bare.

After completing the plague’s description of the locusts’ destruction, Joel adds in the reactions of the people to such devastation. There results of the plague of locusts is described in verses 16-18:

16 Our food disappears before our very eyes.
No joyful celebrations are held in the house of our God.
17 The seeds die in the parched ground,
and the grain crops fail.
The barns stand empty,
and granaries are abandoned.
18 How the animals moan with hunger!
The herds of cattle wander about confused,
because they have no pasture.
The flocks of sheep and goats bleat in misery.

The graphic images Joel shares continues to tell the reader the faithful what happens as a result of the plague of locusts, but then he shifts to share what happens when God’s warnings are heard. He calls the people to repent in those verses from chapter 2:12-13:

12 That is why the Lord says,
“Turn to me now, while there is time.
Give me your hearts.
Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
13 Don’t tear your clothing in your grief,
but tear your hearts instead.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He is eager to relent and not punish.

Do we hear the same warning in these words? We should.

Today’s plague may not be actual locusts, but we all have plagues that cause us damage. Remember the definition of pestilence can be “something that is considered harmful, destructive, or evil.” There is always something that can be harmful, destructive or evil that detracts us from God. Joel’s ancient prophecy can provide his readers, including us today, encouragement and hope in the saving grace God promises:

 

This is what we read in the 32nd verse:

32But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
will be saved,
for some on Mount Zion in Jerusalem will escape,
just as the Lord has said.
These will be among the survivors
whom the Lord has called.

 

This promise is incredible: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord”. That is a promise that has crossed through the millenniums and provides us hope right now, right here—October 23, 2016!

Yes, we are living in difficult times. The pestilence we are experiencing is a plague of words. We are inundated with negative news, tainted political ads, and violent actions in places of war but also in our own homes. We are under attack in ways that Joel would never have predicted. Yet, with God, we are able to defend ourselves from the pestilence.

As our children learn the basic foundations of faith from the Ten Commandments, to the Greatest Commandment, to verses like John 3:16, to the Apostles Creed, we are arming them with the tools to avoid pestilence in their lives. As we join together in Bible study and in worship, we review and continue to develop the skills needed to preserve our relationship with God. As we walk out the church doors, we walk directly into the path of possible attacks on our relationship with God.

Joel warned the ancient faithful, but his words can be read again and again reminding us that we, too, must protect ourselves from the plagues that attack us. In that second chapter, Joel describes how the locust invades the rural environment and destroys not only the crops and the cattle, but even march directly into our own homes. Yet, there is hope.

Joel calls all people to repent. The call is in that verse 12:  “Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.

We, too, are called to repent. God wants us to depend on him, to trust in him, and to do all that we can to serve one another in love.   Joel’s prophecy is for us, right now, right here, and for always.

The prophecy ends with one more promise (Joel 3:21):

 

I will pardon my people’s crimes,
which I have not yet pardoned;
and I, the Lord, will make my home
in Jerusalem[a] with my people.”

 

Joel’s words are guiding words for us today. If we do not invest time in reading the scriptures, we will not find such words of promise to assure us in the most challenging times of our lives. We are not protected from pestilence; we must learn how to live God-centered lives despite all the challenges. We must join in Christian fellowship to strengthen our defenses. And worshiping together, we encourage each other and reach out to others to share in the grace of God provided through belief in Jesus Christ who died for our sins.

 

Closing prayer:

 

Dear Heavenly Father,

 

You are God to Joel and you are God to us.

May we hear your words of promise

over the din of today’s plagues.

 

Let us find ways to defend ourselves

from the attacks on our faith

so we may continue as your disciples.

 

Let us share in study and in worship

so we may strengthen our faith

and to teach others to live God-centered lives.

 

Let us step out to serve others

in ways to strengthen our community

to become part of your kingdom.

 

Thank you for the gift of Joel’s prophecy

and from others throughout history

who share the good news of your grace.

 

May we be the tools of love

guided by the Holy Spirit

to provide others hope of eternal life

by belief in the life, the death

and the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

your son.

 

–In God’s name, through the Holy Spirit, amen.

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Remembering and Trusting in God’s Promise

 

 given on Sunday, May 29, 2016

Scripture connection: Revelation 21:3-7, NLT

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.[a] He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

 

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.

Reflection:

Memorial Day Weekend: our culture has decided this opens summer. The kids are out of school, vacations are planned, family reunions begin, and for a few days work is not a priority. The enormous rains from this week even have the farmers stepping away from the fields.

Yet, Memorial Day was created to remember those who served our country. Our country’s history developed due to the sacrifices of its citizens. War birthed the nation, and the battles that have preserved its declaration of independence and its constitution have filled cemeteries from coast to coast. The red in the flag reminds us of all the blood shed through this country’s history.

The historical significance of Memorial Day is dwindling, though, and it is important for us to remember that the veterans who have died and those still with us answered a call to serve at the risk of their own lives in order that we may live safely as Americans.

Sadly, the Church’s significance is dwindling, too. This Memorial Day Weekend can also serve to remind us of the saints who have also remained faithful to God’s call to love one another. Cemeteries around this world are filled with the bodies of those who died for their faith. Some are martyrs whose death was violent, vicious, unprovoked, or silent while sitting in prisons.

There is absolutely no way to prove to the skeptics the promises shared in the Bible. There is no way to guarantee that certain statements of faith or even lifestyles assure us that life is eternal. Yet, the words captured in the Bible, first shared orally and now translated and printed in every language found in our world, continue to tell us that God does offer us life everlasting even though our bodies do not.

John’s book, Revelation, challenges today’s readers’ perception of God’s promise. The imagery teases us with the beauty promised, but the surrealistic images also cause us to question the truth of the words because they do not match our understanding of reality. Yet we are drawn to read and understand what John is telling us.

Understanding the words depends on our willingness to trust that God speaks to us through these words, but also through our experiences and even those of others. Memorial Day can be one more time that we remember God’s promises while remembering those in our lives who have done all they could for others in all kinds of ways.

In John’s words shared in Revelation 21:3, we hear a promise:

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.

 

These words provide hope for the living. This weekend we hear those words and know that God is with us as we travel the highways, as we work the fields, as we clean our homes, and battle the tiresome routines of living. Our faith in God provides us hope in managing all that we do.

As we remember all those who have lived and died in our lives, we can see example after example of those whose faith made it possible to manage all the trials and tribulations of living. We can take courage in knowing that they lived with God, and even now are still living with God.

Today, celebrate the living by living with God in your lives. Celebrate those who you loved and even those in the generations before you who lived with God in their lives. Celebrate Jesus, too. God did whatever he could to make our faith real. He even stepped down beside us in the flesh as Jesus to demonstrate how easy it really can be to live a Christ-like life, a God-driven life.

We have witnessed faith in others, and we know we can live with faith, too. The trials and tribulations, even the battlefield’s trials and tribulations, can be managed with our faith and the hope that God’s promise of eternal life will erase all the negatives of the here and now.

The words from Revelation 21 continue:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

 

Tears may well be part of this Memorial Day Weekend as we feel the loss of family and friends, but the promise that God provides and has provided throughout history wipes away the tears and the sorrow.

In the study notes from the Life Application Bible, we hear hope in words that share an understanding of John’s revelation:

Have you ever wondered what eternity will be like? The “Holy City, the New Jerusalem” is described as the place where God will “wipe every tear from their eyes.” Forevermore, there will be no death, pain, sorrow, or crying. What a wonderful truth. No matter what you are going through, it’s not the last word—God has written the final chapter, and it is about true fulfillment and eternal joy for those who love him. We do not know as much as we would like, but it is enough to know that eternity with God will be more wonderful than we could ever imagine.

 

We do not know the reality of life eternal, but we have faith in those who have learned the reality. This Memorial Day Weekend is the perfect time to remember that God loved us so much that he gave his only son Jesus Christ so that we might have life eternal, too.

I have had family and friends who wanted me to believe, and I only hope that those in my life know I want them to believe, too. How I share that news may not be as open and honest as it should, but John did not hesitate to share what God shared with him in his revelation:

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.

 

The promise is shared. The promise gives life purpose. The promise is the reason for living and for remembering all those saints who now know that God is the Alpha and the Omega. The saints we honor this weekend are those who now share the cup and the bread with God, the father, the son and the Holy Spirit along with the multitude of saints already there.

Closing prayer:

Dear God, the Alpha and the Omega,

 

Wipe away the tears of those who suffer,

Who feel the pain of loss and loneliness.

Wipe away the tears of those struggling

To understand the promise of life eternal.

 

Use us today to share your love

To provide hope to the hopeless.

Use us today to share your love

To ease the pain and suffering.

 

Give us the words to assure the questioning

That living Christ-like lives gives purpose

To our daily lives and all its ups and downs

And will lead to the ultimate life eternal.

 

Thank you for all of creation.

Thank you for the gift of unfailing love.

Thank you for the saints in our lives.

Thank you for the blessing of life eternal.

 

In your name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen.

 

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Graduating in Faith

sermon given on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Scripture Connection: Romans 5: 1-5, NLT

12 “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. 14 He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’

Reflection

Certainly you have noticed that it is graduation time around our communities. The stores remind us with the displays of graduation gifts, decorations, and cards. Snippets from graduation speakers are shared in the news. And school is out, so kids are sleeping in before heading out to enjoy summer vacation.

Graduation signals transitions from one level of education to the next. For some, graduation closes the door of school but opens the door to the work world. In truth, though, graduation does not signal the end of learning, just a change in settings.

The book of Proverbs is filled with advice. In the eighth chapter, Solomon introduces wisdom much like one introduces a guest speaker at graduation. Graduation speakers are selected because of their experiences, contributions, or relationships with the goal of providing the graduates insights into life’s continuing journey:

12 “I, Wisdom, live together with good judgment.
I know where to discover knowledge and discernment.
13 All who fear the Lord will hate evil.
Therefore, I hate pride and arrogance,
corruption and perverse speech.
14 Common sense and success belong to me.
Insight and strength are mine.
15 Because of me, kings reign,
and rulers make just decrees.
16 Rulers lead with my help,
and nobles make righteous judgments.[a]

These words were written almost a thousand years before Jesus was even born. This year’s graduates will hear words of wisdom that often reflect Biblical truths shared over the millenniums.

Do we acknowledge that developing our Christian beliefs is much like developing academic knowledge? Do we acknowledge that our faith education is a developmental process? Do we ever graduate in our faith?

Solomon’s introduction of wisdom along with the words of Paul in Romans and Jesus’ words in the gospel of John creates a graduation speech for Christians who are developing wisdom in faith. Christians develop a lifetime relationship with God without any formal, published, or prescribed curriculum.

Christian knowledge develops in a very-customized curriculum based on formal and informal learning experiences. Graduating in faith cannot be packaged and prescribed. Faith education is God-driven and no one can predict when graduation will occur.

Even if one graduates in faith, learning does not stop because life’s journey does not stop. And consider this, once the Christian students accepts Jesus in their lives, they accept the gift of life-everlasting even when death ends earthly life. Graduating in faith leads to eternal life.

Education begins at birth and continues throughout our life. I cannot imagine living without faith in God. I see faith as a developmental process that never ends. I was fortunate to be born into a Christian home in which my education began with the love of parents who wanted me to develop the faith that would sustain me throughout life’s journey.

The beginning of faith often depends on the examples of those in our lives. Faith that there is a God, that God is with us despite what life delivers us, and that God experiences the same pains and joys we must experience provides another critical component in our Christian education: Hope.

Hope in necessary. With hope we wake up each morning to begin a new day. What happened yesterday is over, and a new day means new opportunities. Hope is key to continuing our Christian education. Hope becomes a fuel that pushes us to do more and to do it better and to share what we believe with others. Hope is phase two in our Christian education.

Each Christian discovers that even on the worst of days, faith in God provides us hope that even in death there is life. Hope keeps us alive in the moment and pushes us to share the excitement of living with others. Graduating in faith means we continue growing with hope.

Jesus provides hope. Historically, Christian education teaches us that when hope fails, life fails. God saw that the evil in the world was destroying his creation and when no other means was available, he stepped in personally in the form of his son, Jesus Christ. Faith alone needed a tangible example to follow.

Jesus exemplifies hope. The knowledge base provided in the historical teaching and the literature of the Jewish people needed a real-life example of how faith worked. Jesus’ teaching, healing, and modeling of faith provided clear evidence that hope makes living a faith-filled life possible even through persecution as vicious as his own crucifixion. Graduating in faith leads to hope. Hope develops the ultimate degree of faith: Love.

Love is God in action. Love becomes the final product of a faith-filled life. Love is hope-fueled faith doing all that can be done for all who may need it and in as many different formats as possible. Love is good triumphing over evil. Love is personal and can be demonstrated in every facet of one’s life.

God provided each of us the model of living a faith-filled life in the form of his son, Jesus Christ, but even more he provides us the Holy Spirit to live within each one of his faithful servants. The Holy Spirit makes it possible to manage all the trials and tribulations that life hands any one of us. The Holy Spirit transforms wishes into love-based actions.

The words from “Diamonds” remind graduates in faith that God is never done teaching us how to graduate in faith, how to maintain hope, and how to love one another. The lyrics explain how God works in our lives:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

 

Graduate in your faith. The process will take us from being lumps of coal into precious diamonds.

Graduate in your faith knowing hope makes life manageable. Hope polishes us into the diamonds carefully cut and polished into gems.

Graduate in your faith, fueled with hope, and live God’s love in action. The lumps of coal pulled out of the earth, cut and polished with hope reveal the sparkles created by life’s challenges.

Love given is the greatest gift of all. God loved us so much that he gave us life. God loved us so much that he gave us the greatest teacher to provide us hope. God loved us so much that he now trusts us, graduates in faith, to love one another. Graduating in faith means we are diamonds sparkling here in God’s light. Nothing can destroy the diamonds, not even death because as graduates in faith we continue on with life eternal.

Closing prayer

Dear Master Teacher,

We lift up the graduates from our schools.

So many are still lumps of coal

Not understanding how faith works in our lives.

 

We lift up the souls struggling to find hope

Managing lives without faith

Crumbling under life’s pressures all alone.

 

We lift up your faithful

Continuing to learn how faith and hope

Transforms into love sparkling like diamonds.

 

Thank you for the gifts you give us

As faith provides hope

Leading us to share love with one another.

 

Thank you for the wisdom shared in scripture.

Thank you for the wisest teacher, your Son.

Thank you for the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

May we graduate in our own faith

Teaching others how hope sustains

Creating love-filled gifts for others.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Amen.

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