This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, Luke 4.14-21). Todd is the lead pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, age differences, textual reverence, liturgical moments, the gift of rediscovery, the equity of the Law, restoration and reconciliation, new gifts, pulpit shadows, and Martin Luther. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take It Up And Read
Tag Archives: Gift
Jesus Ain’t Santa Claus
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
The words of the dreadful Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” sum up perfectly how we all too-often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” We take those words to be Gospel truth and we believe that it will be like this into the dark night of all the tests that our broken world will never ever pass.
We do it with children this time every year with threats of the Elf On The Shelf returning to the North Pole to report certain behaviors to Mr. C.
We have it reiterated to us over and over again with movies and shows and songs asking us to discern whether or not we’ve behaved in such as way as to make it on the Nice or the Naughty list.
But Jesus (thanks be to God) ain’t Santa Claus.
Jesus will come to the world’s sin with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. He has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little girls and boys, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of this world who He, in all of his confounding glory, sets free in his death.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully reminds us, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But it all sounds just a little too good, doesn’t it?
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not inadvisable. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hold over the heads of those who follow Jesus Christ, what will possibly keep them in line?
Part of the problem stems from the fact that most of us have our theological wires crossed. We assume that we’ve got to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (or watch worship on Facebook) and read our Bibles and say a few prayers and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to justify life everlasting.
And yet, so many of Jesus’ parables, and teachable moments, and healing miracles have nothing AT ALL to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
They’re not about how we justify ourselves, but about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and wine to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and chooses to forgive (rather than condemn) the world from the cross.
We don’t strive to change ourselves to get God on our side, but we are transformed by God who chooses to be for us when we deserve it not one bit.
That’s what grace is all about – the unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved gift from God.
And, when we see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works or as an expectation that good works will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.
This Is The Day…
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
I ran a half-marathon yesterday afternoon. 13.1 miles in roughly two hours all over the Woodbridge area. I was supposed to the run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC last Saturday but it was canceled in light of the Coronavirus. However I had been training for long enough that I figured, “Why not just go out and see if I can do it?”
The weather yesterday was perfect, giving extra meaning to the “this is the day that the Lord has made” and I decided to rejoice and be glad in it by putting one foot in front of the other until I put in the requisite miles.
Now, a day later, I can tell you there wasn’t much to rejoice about.
Or to put it a different way, my legs are sore!
During the months of training I was looking forward to being surrounded by scores of people all running toward the same goal. I was excited about the prospect of passing the finish line to be embraced by my family in celebration. I even anticipated the proud feeling of wearing around the medal for the rest of the day.
Yesterday was different.
I ran all alone for two hours. I didn’t even tell my family that I was going to do it. And the only prize for completing it was knowing that I did it.
A lot of us have been experiencing profound feelings of isolation as the Coronavirus has forced us to remain physically separated from one another and forced us to limit our interactions outside of our homes. For some of us we’ve retreated into new or familiar books, we’ve binged terrible and incredible television shows, or we’ve picked up the phone to call people we’ve needed to reconnect with for a long time.
But for others of us, we’ve retreated further into our minds and our worries and our anxieties. We keep checking out bank accounts and wonder how we’re going to make it through all of this. We see updates from others on social media that make it seem like they are having a vacation while social distancing while our time have felt nerve wracking.
And yet, as Christians, we believe that each new day is a gift from the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we have to force ourselves into optimism, but it does call us to rejoice knowing we’ve been given another day. The season of Lent, the season we’re in right now, is an ever-present reminder that tomorrow is never promised and that the bell will toll for us all. We didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us of this but it certainly has helped to focus our attention on that which we cannot take for granted.
I for one am grateful that I was able to get outside yesterday and run, even if my body feels miserable today. I am grateful I have another day to spend time with my family. But most of all I am grateful to know that God has not abandoned us to our own devices.
The season of Lent always ends with Easter – a reminder that death is not the end.
If nothing else, that is certainly worth rejoicing.
The One Thing Needful
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
This is not a sermon I wanted to write, nor is it one I wanted to preach.
I’ve been doing this pastor thing for a good while now and, full disclosure, I’ve only preached from Proverbs once and it wasn’t very good. Proverbs is one of those overlooked and forgotten books in the Bible filled with nothing but short and brief aphorisms that sound like something your great-uncle muttered under his breath while getting his third helping of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.
“Listen to your father’s instruction; don’t neglect your mother’s teaching.”
“Listen to me and do not deviate from the words of my mouth.”
“Happy are those who keep to my ways!”
“If you stop listening to discipline, you will wander away from words of wisdom.”
That’s all in Proverbs.
And they’re good and fine. There are plenty of times that I’d like to just look someone in the eye and say, “If you would just do what I’m telling you to do, you’d be fine.” But that’s not really the way it works.
And then we lift up this collection of sayings from the middle of the Bible and assume they can speak something new and fresh into our lives about what it means to be followers of Jesus.
I was heard someone describe Proverbs like this: “Reading from the Book of Proverbs is like being stuck on a long road trip with no one but your mother-in-law.”
The Word of God for the People of God all right.
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
Years ago, when I was in my first month of ministry, hot off the heels of receiving my degree, soon after arriving at my first church, I reached out to a number of other clergy people in my community. I figured, at the time, I was only 25 years old and I could use all the advice and wisdom and help I could get, and why not receive some of it from those who had been doing it as long as I had been alive.
So I drove around town and started knocking on the doors of the churches. I spoke with pastor after pastor and invited them to join me for breakfast the following week. Nothing more, less, or else. And sure enough, the next week I found myself sitting around a table with 7 other pastors, representing a variety of denominations.
At first we exchanged pleasantries, we talked about seminaries and recent sermons, I learned about different ordination procedures and different clergy robes. And eventually I got to ask the question resting most on my heart: “I am about to embark upon a lifetime of ministry and I want to know what advice you would offered to yourselves when you were my age if you could go back in time. If you could go back, what would you say?”
For a while none of them said anything. They scratched beards, and twirled hair, they furrowed brows and considered the ceiling. And then one of them said, “If I could go back and tell myself anything it would be this: start saving money.”
And immediately the entire table erupted in affirmation exclaiming they all agreed with that pastor’s advice.
Maybe it was my naiveté in the moment but I assumed they would have offered me wisdom about what book from the Bible to avoid, or how to properly pray for those who were sick, or even what kind of hymns to sing at particular moments. But I was wrong. This ragtag group of pastors had only one piece of sage-like wisdom they wanted to offer: Start saving money.
I’m fairly certain that if any of us here were to encounter a genie in this life, one (if not all) of our wishes would be for more money, for gold or silver. And there’s good reason for that – economic prosperity is at the heart of the American Dream, it’s what motivates us to wake up early every morning to go to jobs we don’t really care about, it’s what keeps us awake at night as we worry about having enough of it.
It is so dominating in fact, that I read an article recently that claimed a significant portion of younger people in this country associate George Washington first with being on the one dollar bill and only secondarily with being the first President of the United States.
I mean, for crying out loud, my three year old has a piggy bank in our house and he LOVES to put coins in it. What in the world is he going to do with 78 cents?
Money is at the heart of just about everything we do.
On any given week we will receive upwards of 40 calls here at the church from people in our local community who are looking for only one thing: money.
I’ve counseled couples who brought unfathomable amounts of debt into the marriage without telling the other person and now they are fighting about one thing: money.
I’ve prayed with more people than I can count who have racked up so much credit card debt that they have to start making decisions about what pills and doctors they can afford all because of one thing: money.
And then scripture has the gall to tell us that wisdom and knowledge are far greater than any measurement of wealth in this life.
Now, that’s not to say that money or wealth are inherently bad. However, the love of money really is at the root of evil and those to whom much is given, much will be expected. So, you know, be careful what you wish for.
Which makes the Biblical witness all the more interesting because Jesus has a whole lot to say about money and its almost always bad. Which is not at all how we talk about it today. Money and Finances and Economics are all things that dominate our daily living and they are, at the same time, all but absent in church. Sure, I might stand up here week after week asking for you to consider offering more of your wealth to church, but other than that, it’s almost like we pretend money doesn’t exist when we’re in this place.
This might sounds like we’re in an unprecedented place, but we’re not really. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that eventually led to a church like this, was deeply concerned with the theology of money and what it meant for Christians to consider economic gains.
The 18th century was a time of major economic and social change in England. The economic inequality between the comfortably wealthy and the poverty-stricken lower classes was growing larger and more tenuous. The well to do had nothing to worry about the poor had nothing but worries. The political class was dictating all of the rules and all of the power dynamics while the rest of the people were just worried about how they were going to make it to next week.
And then the very first Methodists started popping up with this crazy proclamation about God’s grace being sufficient to upend and reorient one’s life. John Wesley himself practiced a number of methodical disciplines (which is where the name Methodist came from) and he taught those who were economically desperate about what it would look like to become more responsible, better educated, and eventually prosperous.
And it worked, so much so that John Wesley inevitably had to preach a sermon specifically about money in order to help the people called Methodist figure out what it would mean to be a people who lived under the rule of God in a world ruled by money.
He said that the right use of money is an excellent branch of Christian wisdom. It grieved him that money was a subject talked about in the world all the time, but not discussed by those whom God had called.
And yet there are times we discuss money in church, but when we do it is almost under the auspices of another fundraiser, or helping the church meet her budget. However, for Wesley, this was not the case. His concern was not to raise more money for Methodists, but to equip the people called Methodists to manage and use their money in fruitful and effective ways.
Wesley broke it down as simply as a Proverb: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
If, Wesley said, if we can adopt a three-fold approach to money by gaining, saving, and giving we then will approach a Godly and faithful way of handling our finances.
Which is an ominous and precarious place to be in the middle of a sermon. I mean, when was the last time you heard a preacher talk about money by first saying that you, the people, need to gain all you can? Doesn’t that go against the parable of the man who gained and gained so much that he had to build extra store houses for all his grain only to have it all taken away from him in the middle of the night?
This is a three-fold call but you cannot have one without the others. Earning all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not saved. And saving all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not given. And giving it all will mean nothing if you haven’t earned anything to give in the first place.
In order to approach and adopt this kind of theological discipline, we need wisdom more than anything else.
And where does wisdom come from?
Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but Wisdom will, more often than not, show up when we least expect it in our daily lives. Wisdom appears in the busy streets, in the public squares, and in the bustling intersections. Wisdom arrives in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance. And, very rarely, wisdom can even come in a sermon.
As I look back on that moment in the earliest days of my ministry, when those pastors told me the greatest piece of advice was to save money, I am grateful for their witness as I started saving from my very first paycheck, but I’ve also thought a lot about what wisdom in the church really looks like. Sure, a good piece of Wesleyan wisdom is to earn all you can, and save all you can, and give all you can. But wisdom is about more than just what we do with our money!
Wisdom is knowing what really matters in this life. Wisdom is someone thirty years ago looking out on our community and saying, “I think we need to start a weekly Flea Market.”
Wisdom is taking stock of our own life and our own gifts and starting to consider how we might use those things to better the lives of other people.
Wisdom is knowing that despite what the cultural narrative tells us, we cannot lift ourselves by our bootstraps because we have all been blessed because someone else chose to help lift us up.
Wisdom is being able to look at the situations of our life and knowing when to stay and when to leave.
Wisdom is believing that no matter how many mistakes we make and how many sins we commit that God will never ever abandon us.
Wisdom, ultimately, is not something we arrive at on our own. Wisdom is a gift from God. Much like the gift of God’s Son. It comes to a people undeserving, in strange ways both seen and unseen. It can completely upend our lives in ways we care scarily imagine. But in the end, its the only thing that really makes a difference.
Wisdom, much like Jesus, is the only thing we really need. Amen.
Long Live The Revolution!
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I love going home to visit family. There is just something special about visiting the old haunts and showing off a baby to make me really nostalgic for the past. Last week Lindsey and I spent some time up in Alexandria with my family, and it felt like nothing, and everything, had changed. For instance: When I went to the grocery store I bumped into a couple people I used to go to church with, but then when I drove out on Route 1 all the old buildings were gone and were replaced with town homes. Time, like a river, moves and though it looks the same, everything changes.
But perhaps the thing I enjoy most about going home is spending time with my grandmothers; Gran and Omi, both of whom are now great-grandmothers to Elijah. I know I’m biased, but I do have the best grandmothers in the world. One represents all the good southern hospitality that Petersburg, VA has ever had to offer and the other represents the refined qualities of old Europe with her charm and presence. They could not be more different from one another, and yet they are incredibly close.
Anyway, whenever I head home, whether it’s for a day or a week, I always plan on swinging by both of their homes unannounced. And last week was no exception.
Both visits were similar – we had the usual chit chat, we caught up on all the other family members, we shared stories about Staunton, and then we watched Elijah crawl all over the place. During our time together we learned about different health concerns, new aches and pains, and were unable to confront the reality that one day, perhaps not for some time, but nevertheless one day, they will no longer be here.
Each visit ended with both of them asking us to stay longer, while Elijah fussed for food or for a nap. And both visits ended with the exact same words from both of my grandmothers: “I just wish I had something to give you.” To which one looked around the room as if to give us something off the coffee table, and the other went upstairs and literally took a painting off the wall and put it in our hands.
I just wish I had something to give you.
“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
Inheritance, being an heir, is always a complex matter. I wish it wasn’t true, but I’ve helped families prepare for funerals when more of the conversation around the table was focused on who was receiving what than what hymns or scripture would their now dead loved one want in their Service of Death and Resurrection. At the moment when a family needs to be together almost more than ever, they were already marking the territory of their hopeful inheritance.
Most of the time, we can’t choose what we inherit. Our parents or grandparents might think something has special significance for us, and therefore leave that item for us in the will, but rare are the times that we get to declare what we shall receive.
And there are others things that we have no choice about inheriting. We get the good and the bad, the responsibility and the privilege, the shame and the pride.
Frankly, three of things that determine our lives more than anything else come to us without a choice at all: We do not choose the family we are born into, we do not choose the color of our skin, and we do not choose the economic status of our families. We inherit all three without any action of our own, and those three things set us on a trajectory that we can rarely alter.
And of course there are things we inherit through the sands of time that we’d rather erase; like the celebrities who get their DNA tested for television shows about genealogy only to discover that their ancestors were part of the Nazi regime, or were slave owners, or participated in the near-eradication of the indigenous peoples in this country.
Inheritance is a complicated and confusing thing. Are we nothing more than the genes and the history we inherit? Can we break from the tyranny of expectation and what it means to be an heir? Who are we really?
St. Paul says that we are children and heirs of God!
Our inheritance, unlike that which we receive from our families, is totally different from anything that has ever existed. Moths and rust do not corrupt it; thieves cannot break in and steal it. It cannot be lost in the fall of the stock market, or burned in the night, or taken by the government in the so-called death tax.
Our inheritance is our hope while everything else appears to fail. It promises a future when we cannot imagine there being anything left for us in this life.
It is nothing short of the glory of the Lord.
However, and this is a big however, there is more to this inheritance than smiles and rainbows and resurrection. It comforts AND it afflicts.
We receive something so remarkable and inexplicable as heirs with Christ, but it also comes with a cost. Receiving this gift puts at risk our financial security, our reputation, our social position, our friends, our family, our everything.
This is the revolution of faith.
We are fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, we shall receive resurrection, but we also suffer with the Lord.
The time is coming, and is indeed here, when the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be raised high. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and do not put your trust in things that will fade away with the blowing of the wind. You need only faith the size of a mustard seed. Ask you shall receive. Those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will live.
Have you ever heard anything more revolutionary in your lives?
Everything about our existence changes with the inheritance of the Lord: Our finances change when we realize that all we receive first comes from the Lord. Our families change when we realize that all who do the will of God are our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Our worldviews change when we realize that God is contending against the powers and principalities here and now.
All that we held so near and dear before will wash away when the tide of life comes in. Moths will eat away at the fabric of our perspectives, thieves will steal the wealth that we think determines everything, but there is one thing that endures forever: Jesus Christ.
This is nothing short of revolutionary. And to be honest, it’s gotten a lot of people killed throughout the centuries, including the One in whom we lie and move.
That’s one of the things we struggle to remember, here in our comfortable Christianity; Jesus was a revolutionary. He was not killed for loving too much. He was killed for calling into question who was really in charge, for confronting the elite about not taking care of the poor and the marginalized, and for telling the truth.
Jesus was a revolutionary and calls us to join the revolution.
But here in Staunton, we don’t feel very revolutionary.
We like what we have: good schools, perfectly manicured lawns, children that come home to visit, vacations, golf courses, solid retirement portfolios. We can’t imagine being called to leave our families, or go to prison, or even lose our lives for the sake of the gospel. Why do we need to risk anything when we already have everything we want?
We, the people who have this remarkable inheritance through the Lord, can take all kinds of risks that the rest of the world fears. We know where all of our gifts really come from and that we can give them away, we know that our time is a fleeting and precious thing that we can give away, we know that even our lives are worth giving away because they were first given to us.
We can, and should, be reckless with our lives because we can afford to be. We’ve been given the greatest inheritance in the history of the world. Why aren’t we doing anything with it?
There was an uncle who had amassed a great fortune throughout his life, he started his own business and invested wisely, but had no children to leave his wealth to. However, he did have a couple nieces and nephews who patiently waited with baited breath for him to die so they could reap the benefits of the inheritance. While they should have been committing themselves to their educations and their careers, they just daydreamed about what they would do with the money as soon as their uncle died.
And then he did.
The siblings all met with the family lawyer after the funeral, trying their best to appear mournful while hiding smiles of utmost glee. The lawyer took his time reading through the important legal jargon until he came to the inheritance: To my nieces and nephews I leave… they gripped the leather chairs with anticipation… my library.
“Library?” they all thought silently though one of them accidentally shouted it out loud. “What about our money?!?!”
They all left in a storm of rage angered beyond belief, but the youngest nephew waited behind, and he signed for the inheritance library, and gave the lawyer the address of his house.
For days he unpacked box after box of books and started stacking them wherever he could. It began feeling like the books were becoming the new wallpaper, and for years they just sat their collecting dust. And the longer they remained, the more the man resented the books.
His life continued on, he got married, had a few kids, got divorced, lost the job, and started spending all his time at home. As he aged he felt like the books were there to taunt him, mocking him from every corner. And then one day, it a fit of built-up rage, he ran to the nearest stack, grabbed the top-most book and threw it across the room.
WHAM! The hardback left a perfect rectangular indentation in the wall from the force of the throw while the aging man breathed heavily with his hands clenched tightly together. He then slowly walked over to the wall to pick up the remaining remnants of the book to throw them away when he noticed something strange on the floor: a couple $100 bills.
It only took a moment, the slightest measure of time, before he realized what he had just discovered. The missing fortune of his uncle was in the library of books, hidden in between the covers, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
We are joint heirs with Christ, and have received an everlasting inheritance that is our present and future glory! Are we letting this inheritance gather dust on the bookshelves of our lives? Do we know what we’ve received?!
God is bold and generous with reckless abandon to the point of giving his only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life. God is concerned with the cries of the needy and plight of the marginalized. God brings down the mighty and raises the lowly.
And so should we.
Long live the revolution! Amen.
The Gifts of God – Truth
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my soul or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Happy New Year! As I mentioned last week, today is the beginning of our year as Christians. We have reset the calendar to rediscover the love of God in our lives and in this place. From now until Christmas Eve, we will have a sermon series on the gifts of God. This is particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we will be reflecting on what God has given us. Today we begin the sermon series with God’s gift of truth.
Make me to know you ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
One of God’s greatest gifts to us is truth. God provides for us a way and a path for Christian living and they all point to the truth. The psalmist confesses the beauty of this truth and pleads for God to maintain the truth in all times and in all places.
Advent is a wonderful and strange time for us Christians. In four short weeks we, as a church, are expected to make time and space to prepare our lives for God’s indwelling. All the while, many of us want to quickly break out the carols to accompany the dizzying whirl of parties and purchasing the usually precede Christmas. We want Christmas morning to be here so badly, that we forget about the anticipation of Advent.
True confession: My Christmas lights were up three weeks ago. We had a particularly balmy day and I decided that I might as well get outside and string up the lights, even if I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I have almost purchased all of my Christmas presents. I keep a notebook with me throughout the year and whenever Lindsey makes mention of something she likes, I make a note of it so that I will be prepared for Christmas. And even this morning, while I was praying in our sanctuary and on the front lawn, I caught sight of a particularly beautiful Christmas tree that I will probably bring home this afternoon.
I am impatient. I get so excited about a particular time and event that I often lose sight of the time leading up to it, precious time to be savored and enjoyed. But here’s a truth that God provides for us impatient people: the anticipation is just as important as the thing itself.
If couples went from engagement immediately to the wedding they would not have the important time of really learning what their in-laws are like.
If young people were given a driver’s license without having a learner’s permit for nine months there would be a tremendous amount of fender benders in Robert E. Lee’s parking lot.
If we jumped straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas morning then we would believe Christmas is more about gifts under the tree than God’s gift of Jesus for you and me.
The anticipation is just as important as the thing itself.
The psalm describes a profound trust in the Lord, a trust in the Lord’s paths, ways, and truths. God reminds us of these truths through different people and events, and when we confront them we can’t help but admit how true they really are.
The psalm also proclaims an important truth that we all need to hear right now: God is the God of our salvation.
In our contemporary culture, people often use the language of salvation when referring to politicians. President Roosevelt was considered by many to be a savior as was Kennedy and Reagan. Today we still look at our politicians with a messianic lens.
I was walking down Beverley street a few weeks ago when I overheard a couple in front of me discussing Donald Trump’s political astuteness. One of them said, “If only he was president, he would fix all the problems that the democrats started!” I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard what they had to say and I kept on walking. But then when I got in the car and started to drive back to church I heard someone call into NPR to claim that Hillary Clinton has the power to unite all people and will bring us, as in Americans, to the Promised Land. And then I got an email from someone who asked me to use the pulpit as a means by which to convey to all of you that Ben Carson was handpicked by God to bring about infinite prosperity and a return to Christendom here in the United States. And then someone sent me a picture that said, “We should elect Bernie Sanders as a socialist Jew, because we worship another socialist Jew every Sunday in church.”
In a matter of hours, I heard about how four different political candidates would bring about a peace and wholeness in America that sounds impossible. Politicians cannot save us. They can advocate for us, they can institute law that can help us, but they cannot save us. Donald Trump cannot save us. Hillary Clinton cannot save us. Ben Carson cannot save us. Bernie Sanders cannot save us. Only Jesus saves.
This is one of God’s truths: only God can save. Yet, we all fall to the temptation of believing that political leaders are like messiahs who should be the ultimate objects of our trust and allegiance. Just drive around Staunton for an hour and look at all the political bumper stickers and yard signs covered in red white and blue. Countless Americans will contribute untold sums of money to political campaigns, they will use their precious free time to attend rallies and knock on doors, and they will jump at the first chance to get into an argument with someone who has a difference in political opinion.
Can you imagine what our community would be like if we actually worshipped Jesus like we worship our politicians? Can you picture what Staunton would look like if we put crosses on our cars (letting everyone know what we are supposed to act like) instead of political bumper stickers? Can you imagine what it would be like if we put up mangers in our front yards letting everyone know we worship the kings of kings instead of political banners?
We need politicians for our country. But we only need God for salvation.
That’s what God’s truths are like. On some fundamental level we know them to be true, but life tries to convince us otherwise. Getting excited about Christmas isn’t a bad thing; it’s only when we let the material become more important than the spiritual that God needs to remind us of the truth. Wanting politicians to make substantial and important changes isn’t a bag thing; it’s only when we start worshipping politicians like we are supposed to worship Jesus that God needs to remind us of the truth.
On Thursday evening I was sitting around the table at my parents house in Alexandria, VA for Thanksgiving. Family members had worked all day to get the food exactly the way we wanted, decorations had been set up across the house, and we were finally about to go around the table and share what we were thankful for this year. One of my cousins got the waterworks flowing as he shared that he was thankful for the new life that Lindsey and I will be bringing into the family in April. Both of my sisters expressed thankfulness for our family that has supported them throughout their lives. But then my grandmother started to share.
She told us about a family that lives across the street who has been through the ringer over the last few years: Divorce, unruly children, uncertain employment, etc. The mother of the family has grown close with my grandmother and they were out in the street talking a few weeks ago. The woman asked my grandmother what she would be doing for Thanksgiving and she described the very feast and fellowship that we were currently enjoying. The woman listened patiently to all the things my grandmother described and then said, “Do you know how blessed you are?”
My grandmother began to cry and she exclaimed how she takes so many of her blessings for granted: Good health, a family that loves one another, food on the table, her faithfulness. The joy and exuberance of the day quickly transformed into a brief time of silence as we all pondered about the blessings that we take for granted.
Want to know one of God’s truths that we miss the most? We are blessed. Amidst spinning truths and impending threats we have a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Amidst all of our fears and frustrations we have a savior who was willing to die on a cross to save us. Amidst all of the uncertainties and hypocrisies we have a Spirit that breathes new life into us each and every day. We are blessed.
Good and upright is our God. He patiently instructs us through his Word in the way that leads to salvation. God leads the humble in what is right and teaches each of us the path to follow. All of the Lord’s ways are steadfast love and faithfulness so long as we remember the truth.
In a moment I’m going to invite us to encounter and confront one of these truths. Some of us will still wish it was Christmas day today, some of us will still worship politicians like we should worship Jesus Christ, but one of the things all of us can do is be thankful for the blessings in our lives. I would like each of us to pair up with someone in the church, someone that we don’t normally spend time with, and I want us to just have a conversation about how God has blessed us this year. Take a few moments to share, perhaps like you did on Thanksgiving, what you are thankful for right now.
One of the gifts of God this advent is the truth. The truth of God’s love made manifest in a baby born in a manger, a baby that embodied the Good News, a baby that carries the promise of transformation of life from sin to salvation, from slavery to freedom, from injustice to peace, and from death to resurrection. We are blessed. Amen.
Weekly Devotional – 12/9/13
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
I love to ask questions. For years I have always been “that guy” at dinner or at a party who can orchestrate the direction of the conversation just by asking a few well placed questions. Depending on the season, or company present, some of my favorite questions include: How did you two meet? What was your favorite halloween costume as a child? What was the last best book you read? All of these questions are geared toward opening up a conversation for all people to respond accordingly. It allows for everyone present to reflect on something and then share it with everyone present. My favorite question to ask during Advent has always been: What was the best Christmas present you ever received?
Its a perfect question. Everyone loves to take a few moments to go through the catalogue in their memory banks of all the presents they received as children, you can detect a positive change in the atmosphere because the memories elicit such joy, and the discussion will continue from that first question toward a full and fruitful conversation.
What was the best Christmas present you ever received? What memories do you have of gathering around the Christmas tree with your family preparing to rip apart the wrapping paper?
I love to ask that question, but recently I’ve begun to wonder whether I should be asking it at all. The celebration of Christmas (according to the ways of the world) has so trumped the theological convictions of Advent that Santa Claus has become frighteningly synonymous with Jesus Christ. Moreover, practices like “The Elf on the Shelf” have led children (and some adults) to grossly misunderstand the depth and breadth of God’s prevenient grace in the world.
When I read from the 146th Psalm I wonder if instead of asking everyone about their favorite present, I should instead ask: “When was the last time you gave food to the hungry?” Or “How are you keeping your faith?”
I know those questions are tougher to swallow, even for me, but I believe they really get at the heart of the Christmas message. How are we living out our faith, particularly during this season of giving? How are we reaching out to those in our community who need to feel the love of Christmas more than anyone else?
So, as we all gather in the shops to find the perfect present, and even as we sit around our perfectly lit and decorated Christmas trees, let us remember the true depth of Christmas. Let us recall that Christ came not to be served but to serve. Let us ask ourselves the difficult and life-changing questions in order that we might live fruitful lives in God’s kingdom.