Devotional – Isaiah 43.18-19

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.18-19

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Saturday morning I gathered with a few hundred United Methodists from all over the Virginia Conference for the Bishop’s Convocation on prayer. I was asked to teach a class on spiritual disciplines, but before we broke off into small classes we all met in the sanctuary to hear from our plenary speaker Dr. Fred Schmidt (Reuben P. Job Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.)

Dr. Schmidt’s lecture was focused on the need to reclaim a sense of prayerful discernment. He admitted that countless churches will often use prayer in worship, or at the beginning of committee meetings, but rarely do churches actually strive to discern the will of God through their prayers. He set up this distinction by comparing the church of the 50s and 60s to the contemporary church; a half-century ago the church was comfortable with its role in society but as the church has diminished over the decades we have tried to reclaim that popularity. He mentioned that we now have things like “Ashes-to-go” on Ash Wednesday, we hand out coffee in our narthexes, and we fill worship with things like “how to be a better you.” Year after year we initiate new programs in the hope that they will bring us back to the heyday of the church. Then Dr. Schmidt brought the whole point home: “Part of our problem is that we’ve been seeking to rebuild our attendance and influence instead of rebuilding the body of Christ.”

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The Lord once spoke through the prophet Isaiah and said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing;” Many of us fall prey to the temptation to make things “just like they once were” and we want the church to be as popular as it once was. However, God does not call us to be popular. God calls us to be faithful.

This week, let us consider how we can discern God’s will in our lives and in our churches. Instead of just assuming that if we water down our ministries more people will show up in the pews on Sundays, let us earnestly pray and wait for God’s will to be revealed. Instead of limiting our faith to “how to be a better person,” let us earnestly live out our faith and pray for God to make us more like Jesus.

Eyes On The Sky – Sermon on Acts 1.6-14

Acts 1.6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All there were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

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I was sitting in the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Lexington, VA for my first district event as a pastor. The room was filled, as you would expect, with older Christians (lay and clergy) dedicated to the kingdom of God as made manifest in the UMC. We listened to our District Superintendent discuss the challenges facing the church in our contemporary period and how similar they are to the problems that John Wesley faced in England when he initiated the Methodist movement of scriptural holiness.

All of the districts that make up our Annual Conference are required to gather annually for the purposes of restoring our souls for the adventure of doing church, and to discuss business matters as they pertain to our locality. Reports are filed annually for our review and approval as well as a new budget that needs to be considered by the body of Christ gathered together.

As far as I was concerned, the budget appeared fine. Sure, there were a few minor changes; some programs needed more money, and some programs had been receiving too much without being fruitful for the church. The only noticeable and significant change was found regarding the budgetary needs for “district youth.” I can’t remember the exact figures but it was a noticeable decline in funding for the young people of the district.

One representative present noticed this significant change and decided to make it abundantly clear to everyone how upset she was that the money had been decreased. She said, “I want to know why we lowered the district youth budget. The youth are the future of the church, and if we don’t invest in the them, the church will disappear.

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A worthy comment, don’t you think?

Our District Superintendent then calmly responded to her comment: “I appreciate what you are saying. We do need to invest in our youth. But I want to be clear about something; the youth are not the future of the church, they are very much a part of the church right now. The mentality that “the youth are the future of the church” prevents us from treating them as the church in the present. We will gladly restore money to the youth district budget, but for the last few years we have done nothing with and for them. I would love to hear ideas about what we can do right now for them, and then we can responsibly apply money to the District Youth.”

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After Jesus’ resurrection, he spent 40 days with his beloved disciples speaking about the kingdom of God. This forty day period was a great pause in the dynamic actions of God in the world; after the resurrection but before the day of pentecost, Christ had fellowship with his brothers and sisters to teach them about the coming days of ministry and service.

When they had come together after Jesus had completed his teaching, some of the disciples asked the question that was still on everyone’s mind: “Lord, is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection, they were so caught up in the drama of Roman occupation that their vision of God’s kingdom was limited to political ramifications alone. So Jesus did what all great teachers do, he ignored their question: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had finished saying this, he was lifted up toward heaven and a cloud took him out of the disciples presence.

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The disciples stood transfixed, as any of us would have, with their eyes on the sky, perhaps held is disbelief. Suddenly two men in whites robes appeared and said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return in the same way” So, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer.

Jesus made three promises to his disciples before he ascended into heaven: the gift of the Holy Spirit would come, they would spread their witness to the ends of the earth, and Jesus himself would eventually return. They had been given a job to do before he left: wait for the Spirit in Jerusalem and then spread the gospel, but when he was lifted up the disciples stood paralyzed with the eyes on the sky. Can you blame them? Jesus had come back from the grave, resurrected and clothed in the glory of God to teach them about the kingdom, and now he had left again. Their friend and Lord had departed, entrusting the future of the church and the kingdom to this group of uneducated, poor, and often ignorant community.

While standing with their necks craned backwards two men appear to remind the disciples of their purpose, a reminder that we need to hear as well: “Why are you looking up to the heavens?” You have a job to do. There is work to be done.

When the woman stood up to question the budget as the District Conference I could understand where she was coming from. Reducing the money from the youth budget sounds like a bad thing to do. But her notion of “youth as the future of the church” is just like the disciples stuck with their eyes on the sky. One of the greatest problems facing the present church is our inability to see the present. We become so consumed with the future of the church that we lose sight of our mission right here and now. 

It astounds me how often people ask me about the future of the church. And I don’t mean what the church will be doing next year. People want to know the long term hope for the church of the distant future. The questions I hear are regularly oriented to a future that is beyond our ability to grasp or imagine: Where are all the young people? How can we convince the millennials to attend church? How can we build 250 churches in the next 30 years? …

This is how many of us live our lives, consumed by the distant future of all things, not just the church: we think about the next war, the next financial rise or decline, the future of democracy in America and abroad, the survival of the “perfect” family model of a husband, wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. We no longer look at the horizon, instead we want to look over the mountains and imagine the great fields and grasses beyond our vision.

Jesus, however, was of a different mind. Begin now! Get your eyes out of the sky and start focusing on the present. Right here and now our task is to transform the present by witnessing to Christ, to the kingdom, and to his Word. This is not to say that we are forbidden from planning for the future; we can, but not at the expense of the present. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When the angels reproved the disciples for their transfixed gaze on the heavens, how did the disciples respond? They waited and and they prayed.

In an age of activism and instant gratification, we would expect the disciples to something a little more “useful” than wait and pray. We would expect them to meet together in different committees to implement action plans like: creating contemporary worship services. To ask questions such as:“how can we build 250 churches in the next thirty years?” or “how can we convince the young people to start coming to church?” Yet, when they were told to witness to the ends of the earth, when they were tasked with spreading the Word of the Lord, their first response was prayer. While the world was ready to keep spinning, to forget about the political problem that was squashed when they crucified Jesus, ready to get back to life as usual, the disciples met in the upper room and devoted themselves to prayer.

Gathering to wait and pray are often depicted as the two primary actives of a faithful church. It amazes me how far I, and we, have fallen from this blueprint. When the church encounters a crisis we treat it as such and we immediately implement plans and programs to fix it. When I am asked about how I intend to get more people to start attending church, people want to know what I’m going to change in order to make church appealing immediately. Imagine, if you can, how people would react if, after they asked the question, I responded, “I should pray about it.

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We don’t want to wait. We want things to happen immediately. Thats why people still ask, whenever I introduce myself as the Pastor of St. John’s, “how many people do you have in worship?” We want numbers, and figures, and diagrams, and growth, and tangible results as soon as possible. Christ, on the other hand, wants patience and prayer.

Waiting and praying is a heavy burden for those of us caught up in the technically impatient world of the present. We live in an age of instant everything, and so many want the church to be exactly the same way. One of the toughest tasks that will face us as a church, and I really mean us, the people of St. John’s, will be to be a people of prayer, when the world expects us to be a people of instant results.

In life, all things come and go. Where there is life there is always death, where there is love there is loss, where there is hope there is sorrow, where there is joy there is pain. So too, Jesus came to be with his people, and then he left; he ascended into heaven. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes there is an unrecognized good that comes with the going.

Jesus wants persons, not puppets. We are not here to be controlled by the great puppet master in the sky who moves us to where we are supposed to go. Instead Jesus has left us to be his body for the world, to be true and full persons who are prepared to go and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Sometimes we have to be left on our own to really learn who we are, and whose we are.

A parent can never be there for every single thing their child ever does. If they were, the child would never learn how to grow, blossom, and mature into their true nature. A boss can never oversee everything their employees do, otherwise the business would lack the great imaginative capabilities of numerous minds, rather than a solitary and isolated vision. A pastor can never lead as a perfect disciple for everyone else to follow, because all pastors are like everyone else, sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.

Christ ascended into heaven so that the church could become his body for the world, so they we could become his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samara, and to the ends of the earth.

So, how do we begin? How do we live into this call that Christ has placed on our lives? How can we start being his body for the world and have a vibrant and life-giving church?

We begin by waiting and praying.

Like the disciples, we need to be patient before we jump into “fixing” all of the “problems” that we see. Imagine a church that prayed fervently for the needs of our faith community in the hope of meeting the needs of so many on a regular basis. Imagine what this place would look like if we spent the first fifteen minutes of worship every Sunday in silence, waiting and praying to the God who calls us and knows us by name. Imagine what our family lives would look like if we spent five minutes with our children praying for them and their friends every morning before they left for school. Imagine a faith life where we prayed not just for what we want, but for the needs and hopes of the people who bother us the most.

It would be strange. For many it would be uncomfortable. Waiting and praying are no longer natural habits for the people who live in the world today. We have become so habituated into expecting “instant everything” that we rarely relish in the joy that is patience and prayer.

Today, let us become a people of waiting and prayer. As we take the steps to this table we are reminded that even though Jesus ascended to heaven, he never really left us. For he is here with us in the bread and the wine. He becomes manifest in our lives when we participate in his kingdom on earth. Do not let yourselves be burdened by the worries of the future, instead let us all get our eyes out of the sky and start doing the work of the Lord here and now, work that begins with prayer.

Apocalypse When? – Sermon on Luke 21.5-19

Luke 21.5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

 

            The disciples have gathered together with Jesus. They’ve probably shared some bread, fish, and wine while sitting around and talking about the latest news from Galilee and the recent happenings in Jerusalem. Peter, ever extraverted, decides to change the conversation to the majesty of the temple: “Oh how lovely it was, adorned with remarkable stones and the gifts dedicated to God. Have you ever seen such gold in your lives?” The other disciples nod in approval, while Jesus remained silent. Bartholomew furthers Peter’s claim: “The temple of God is indeed a witness to God’s majesty in the world. Only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could have such a place!” They all begin to agree with one another, affirming the glory and might of their God, the God of Israel, worthy of such a temple.

            But then, in sharp contrast to their excited exclamations, Jesus speaks up, “All of these things that you see, the temple in all its glory, the days will come when not one of these stones will be left upon another; all of them will be thrown down.

            The disciples have been around Jesus long enough to know that when he says something like this, its important to pay attention. “But how could this be?” they wondered; the temple was a sign of God’s glory. So then one of the disciples, perhaps Peter, asked on behalf of the whole group, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

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            What a question. Its stories like this one that help to remind me how similar we all are to the disciples. Because that question is the same one I would’ve asked. Okay Jesus, things are going to get rough, when? What will happen to let us know that this is about to take place?

            How appropriate and funny is it that Jesus’ first warning about the apocalypse is directed toward the would-be-prophets who predict the end of the world? Just within my lifetime I can think of a number of examples of the self-affirmed prophets who claim to know the exact date of the approaching end of the world. And even though Jesus has clearly warned us against them, when they come forth with their predictions, they never fail to get a hearing, media presence, and air time.

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And people listen to them! Droves of people go to the bank and withdraw their life savings, bunkers are dug and filled with emergency supplies, and some even take their own lives rather than accept the coming doom and gloom predicted by these would-be prophets. Jesus looks out at his disciples, and therefore every one of us, and declares, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

            There always seems to be some other form of allegiance in the world that appears better than what we learn to live into from God’s Word. Some affiliation more fruitful, some path through the trials of life that seems more certain and secure. We would rather rely on reason than faith. We would prefer to deal with material possessions than with spiritual growth. The tragedy of the history of God and God’s people is that we have continually been a people running off like that, generation after generation, in pursuit of other, perhaps easier, gods.

            After this first warning, Jesus continues his diatribe regarding the eschaton: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famine and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons; and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

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            I have often heard non-Christians remark about how easy it is to be Christian. Those with a limited knowledge of what it means to be a faithful people often charge the church as being a means of escape from the harsh realities of the world. “It must be so easy to be Christian, you don’t have to worry about what really goes on in the world, just waiting for your heavenly reward.” However, in sharp contradiction to these claims Jesus very bluntly puts forth how very difficult it is, and will be, to be Christian. In a way, being Christian, is in some sense, an escape, not our of life, but right into the depth of it; from meaningless into meaning, from futility into purpose, from bondage into freedom.

            The Good News of Jesus Christ has always been paradoxical in its ability to disturb the ways of the world. Those with privilege look on it with suspicion, those with power look at it with disappointment. The Jewish leaders were shaken by it and fearful. Rome outlawed it. The first disciples all suffered persecution and condemnation. Jesus did not get killed for loving too much, but for turning the world upside down; for changing the perspective of what it means to be first and last, for defeating death, and removing power from the powerful.

            “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

            When Jesus addresses the disciples, describing for them the very trials and tribulations that they were to face he makes it clear that these are the hours of opportunity. When the world shouts No, the church responds with a resounding Yes!

            Our faith is not a creed, not a way of thinking about life, not 5 steps to make a better you; it is the I and Thou of a God who calls us by name, addresses us, seeks us, a moment of meeting, the time for hearing and becoming. Our faith is about confronting the problems of the world, living into them, and transforming the world for God’s kingdom. The Bible, God, and our faith is never on pause. The time is now!

            What Jesus describes in this passage is what we often call the apocalypse. What kinds of images come to your mind when you think about the apocalypse? Death? Destruction? Zombies? Though these are the popular images often associated the apocalypse, apocalypse deals with a revelation, which discloses the realm of God behind the world of historical and interpretable events.

            Timing is important when we talk about revelation from God. What Jesus describes, the events surrounding the suffering of his followers will happen in the future. There will come a time when Christians are called to testify to their faith when everything around them will argue the contrary. The apocalypse is coming in the future.

            However, most of the events that Jesus described took place within the 1st century of the church. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the disciples were called before synagogues and governors to witness to their faith. They were rejected by the world and suffered because of their association with Jesus Christ. Nations rose against nations and wars took place. The apocalypse happened in the past.

            What becomes real for us today, though, is that God’s revelation, the apocalypse, is happening right now! What Jesus described in his apocalyptic descriptions helps to show how what is going on is mixed with what is really going on. Events set in the larger context of God’s purposes in the world. We have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory and therefore we are surrounded by symbols, signs, and mysterious elements regarding what is really taking place. As strange as this may seem to us as enlightened, modern, and rational people, it is a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God.

            “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

            How easy is it to be Christian? Apparently, its not. What is at stake for us in this passage is the commitment and call to be faithful witnesses under unusual stress and frustration. For us, here in Staunton, it might be hard to imagine suffering for our Christian identities. But faithfulness and endurance under threat and disapproval (and even penalty of death) are the qualities of discipleship during the time of witnessing. Disciples, and that means all of us here, are not exempt from suffering. If there is any doubt of this period of testing and testimony is still present, you need only look to what recently happened in the Philippines, or the dozens of Christians who were recently executed in North Korea for having Bibles, or the suffering of members within this church right now. Some of you might know of the suffering within the church, perhaps its even happening to you, just look around.

            Jesus’ address to the disciples regarding the apocalypse, the revelation of God, calls us to reflect on our own discipleship. I have been told again and again that if people are not complaining about me in the church I serve, than I am not doing my job. Being Christian implies a willingness to be pushed into the discomfort of discipleship in order to live into the new reality that Christ initiated with his death on the cross.

            Are we almost Christians? Are we content to arrive on Sunday mornings in order to go back to work on Monday without any change in our lives? Are we comfortable with seeing all of the suffering around us and letting it pass by our vision without stopping to question why? Are we ready to witness God’s kingdom transform the world without our participation?

            Or are we fully Christian? Have we felt the love of God in our hearts and we are ready to respond to that love with our commitment to faithfulness? Do we sit in the shadow of the cross while awaiting the glory of the resurrection? Are we ready to witness to the goodness of God even amidst our own suffering?

            I love the question the disciples ask: “When is this going to happen?” But there’s another question I feel compelled to ask: “Why is it going to happen?” If our Christian lives are comfortable and easy, perhaps we’re not doing enough. If the amount of suffering the first disciples went through was part of God’s revelation, then maybe we should be going far enough to disrupt the powers of the world. What would it take for us to believe so fervently, that we would live such faithful lives worthy of persecution from those around us?

            We have to know that what Christ is talking about is the end. And we have to know with equal knowledge that it is also the beginning. That the God of grace and glory is bent on rescuing his own from the misery that finds us in life, and continually working toward that salvation. That God is committed to saving us with the Good News according to Christ, and eagerly doing it by means of every life that will give itself away to him and his kingdom.

            Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place? The apocalypse, the revelation of God, is now.

            Amen.