Stuck In The Middle With You

Luke 3.1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“Repent of your sins and your debauchery!” 

“Repent, for the end is near!”

The words echoed across the campus. 

He stood on a makeshift soapbox clothed in a suit and tie and was yelling through a megaphone. And yet, it seemed as with every increase in decibels, less and less people paid him any attention. His “crowds” were college students after all, and the last things any of us wanted to hear about at the time were our sins and whatever it meant to repent of them.

Day after day he would stand from his perch in the exact same place spouting off the same words of fear, and challenge, and torment. And I never once saw anyone stop to talk to him.

But we talked about him all the time – whether we were in the dining hall, hanging out in the library, or even in our classes, the “prophet” (as we called him) was a regular topic of conversation: Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he really believe? 

And, like most college students, we spent way more time wondering about the prophet than we did about our classes.

Our best guess was that he was from one of the local baptist and/or evangelical churches, that he might’ve even been the pastor, and that he foolishly believed that by yelling at college students some of them would show up at his church on Sunday mornings.

The weeks and the months went by, and he remained steadfast in his mission. In fact, he became such a permanent marker in the landscape that on the few rare occasions that he wasn’t in his usual spot I actually got worried something had happened to him. But then the next day, he’d be back.

This went on like clockwork until Advent. I went to church on Sunday morning like I always did, hanging out in the back as the one and only token college student, and someone from the church went up to read the words from the gospel according to St. Luke: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.”

And I stopped listening to everything else. Because, for the first time, I saw the prophet on campus in a different light. Instead of assuming he was off his rocker or, at the very least, deeply flawed in his sense of evangelism, I began to see connections between the prophet, and John the Baptist.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then, the following week, I found myself walking over to him on campus while everyone was walking the other direction, and I didn’t even know what I was going to say.

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The season of Advent is all about being in the in-between; in between things the way they are and the way they ought to be. We often experience it as this time set apart that is dedicated to preparations – At home we are cleaning, and decorating, and cooking. We find the perfect Christmas tree and then stress out when all of the old lights fail to work. We pull out the box of ornaments and struggle to keep back the tears as we hold up the popsicle stick reindeer that someone made years ago.

And in the midst of our busyness and preparations, in walks the crazy prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a very different kind of preparation.

It’s important to remember that John was a PK, a preacher’s kid. He knew what he was supposed to believe, what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to dress in front of the religious crowds – His Daddy had been preaching it his whole life. And yet, John saw a very different vision of what it meant to be faithful. 

The people believed that all of the power was held in Jerusalem – John found it in the wilderness.

The people believed that God was on their side no matter what – John knew that everyone needed to repent.

The people believed in presenting the best version of yourself in front of others – John wore camel’s hair and ate wild locusts.

A new word came to John in the wilderness – the time had come to prepare for a new way, one in which every mountain would be dropped low and every valley would be lifted up.

He was bold and crazy with his words and actions: Take a good and hard look at yourselves! Repent of your transgressions if you want to be ready to receive the one who is coming!

Repentance is not something we think about during this time we call Advent. People outside the church are spending this time stringing up lines of popcorn in their living room trees, they are humming along to Bing Crosby while waiting in elevators, and they are sipping on eggnog at night.

But here, in the church, we are listening to a very different kind of tune – the challenging words of a radical prophet who calls those with ears to hear toward a ministry of repentance.

Repentance – its’ one of those words we either avoid or we throw around without really knowing what it means. Repentance, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.

And, as John says, it is in the metanoia that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The people who scream out about the kingdom of God from the street corners of life make us very uncomfortable. We see the cardboard signs, or we see the oblong megaphone, and we start asking ourselves all sorts of questions.

They make us uncomfortable because they are pointing at a reality that we often talk about in church, but they do so in a way that confronts us and interrupts us, whereas we usually show up here already knowing what to expect.

John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable. He joins the story of expectancy at the beginning of the gospel and knows something about living in the in between. He, more than most, understands the need to truly consider the condition of our souls, of our world. He witnesses to the difficult work of looking at our wrongdoings, our regrets, the damage we’ve cause, what we’ve said and done, and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.

John’s words and ministry upset the status quo of our complacency. The kingdom earthquake is shaking all the old expectations of what we should say and what we should do. The fault lines of change are running through the middle of history and God is announcing a new order that carries with it a whole new way of seeing the world. 

John calls out to the crowds and to us through the sands of time: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

These are rather uncomfortable words for us to consider during the season in which we most yearn to be comforted.

I walked across the quad with a focus that I should’ve reserved for my classes, and when we were close enough to see each other’s eyes the campus prophet froze in the middle of his oration. I realized, in that moment, that I was perhaps the first person to ever approach him in the middle of his pontificating and so we both stood there in silence while starring at each other.

I finally blurted out in a way that must’ve sounded as crazy as his message: “Why are you doing this?”

He slowly lowered the megaphone and calmly replied, “We’re stuck with each other in this crazy world, and I’m just trying to save everyone.”

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Our repentance, our metanoia, our turning around will likely involve us taking a hard look at our own lives and the structures/systems/people of the world in new and different ways. Repentance compels us to evaluate how we are living and whether or not we are helping to build the kingdom. 

In a world and in a time where all we want it grace, we forget that we need the grace because we are sinners. Whether we actively make the wrong choice (or make no choice and therefore sin by omission) or we tacitly participate in the powers and principalities around us which profit off of the marginalized, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

And Advent is the wonderfully strange time in which we pause, we reflect, and then we prepare to follow the One born in the manger, hung in a tree, freed from the grace, and the One for whom we are waiting.

Repent! Turn! The prophet from the wilderness of Judea and from my college campus is screaming for those with ears to hear. 

But what does our turning accomplish? Can we hear that challenging word and respond with a repentance and walk in the light to the end of our days?

The end of all our preparing and all of our repentance for Jesus Christ inevitably leads to strange and frightening realizations:

We cannot save ourselves.

We cannot save anyone else. 

And we can never really prepare the way for Jesus. It is only God in Christ who can actually make the way ready for the arrival. 

Jesus’ entering into the world is not contingent on our worthiness or our repentance. Though that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent. It is just a recognition that what we celebrate at Christmas, what we yearn for in the future, is not something that we can accomplish.

It is the power of God for salvation; we only get to witness it.

We are stuck with each other in the middle of time between Advent and the rectification of all things, we are in the middle of the way.

We are sinners, stuck in our sin, and even if we are strong enough to turn and repent, we eventually turn back to our own way again.

And yet we are called to metanoia, John and the campus prophet plead with us to do so. Not because it earns us anything, not because it is the prerequisite for Christmas, but simply because it is a behavior that is normative in the world inaugurated in Jesus Christ.

Repentance is simply something we do in the journey we call discipleship.

Ultimately, John is the least likely person to call us to turn. He is like the campus prophet screaming into the ether day after day. John is the type of person most of us ignore today.

A prophet in the wilderness of life, an unlikely person in an unlikely place.

We never really know from where the Word of the Lord will come, but it always does.

It might even come from a place we would never expect – like a worship service, like the middle of a college campus, or even a manger. Amen. 

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So It Is To Be

Devotional:

Revelation 1.7

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

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The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. I was lost in Chichicastenango, Guatemala and had wandered inside a church hoping that someone from my group would eventually find me. Unlike any church I had been in previously, the ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight. The walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires lit by those who sought to destroy the faith. And the once beautiful paintings and decorations had completely disappeared from view. 

The small of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever seen. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I finally found myself standing by the far wall. There, poised right in front of me, was a magnificent and immaculate sculpture of Jesus. 

In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Jesus contained not a single blemish and almost shined in the darkness – Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders and in one of his outstretched hands he held a crown of thorns.

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In that moment I was confronted, perhaps for the first time, about the reality of what it means to believe that Jesus Christ is King. I was surrounded by decay and disregard and yet Christ stood before me in glory. It was right then that I saw the true paradox of the crucifixion: the King was hung on a cross to die, a nearly abandoned church had no semblance of life, and Jesus is still in charge. 

I used to foolishly believe that I was carrying God with me when I went to different places and encountered different people, but that day I learned that God is the one looking for me, waiting to confront me even in places like a dark and empty church. 

Look! Jesus is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who betrayed him, abandoned him, pierced him, and crucified him. And in response the entirety of creation will wail.

So it is to be. 

As we round out the Christian year, and prepare to start over again with the season of Advent, this final word about the one who is, and was, and is to come sounds frightening and maybe even a little convicting. But Jesus, the King of kings, died on a cross for you and me. He stands abandoned in a cross devoid of light with a crown of thorns in his hand. He calls and searches for us through the Holy Spirit on this side of the resurrection.

How else could we possibly respond except by wailing? 

A New, Old Way To Pray

What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?

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I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

The Future Present

Romans 8.22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

All of creation groans.

            How can we put those words into images?

On Monday 60 Palestinians were shot and killed and another 2,700 others were injured during protests at the border with Israel. Some of those killed were individuals from aid agencies who were providing medical care to the protestors. Some of those killed and injured were children.

On Friday morning a 17 year old walked into a high school in Texas and shot and killed nine students and one teacher.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, while we wait for redemption.

Perhaps the best we can muster in a world like ours, in a time like ours, is a groan, a sigh, and dim hope. We live, as many have noted, in a time of perpetual amnesia – because we know so much about the world, and we know how broken it still is, we are bombarded with story after story to such a degree that we can barely remember what happened a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. Our televisions and newspapers and timelines are filled with such tragic stories and we just move from one to the next.

If we find ourselves moaning and groaning, sighing and crying, then we are on the right track. We hope for a better tomorrow, for a world that does not look like this one. We yearn for what has been promised in faith, but do not yet see.

            All of creation groans.

Paul is right to name and claim our salvation – but we are saved in the hope of redemption. We live in the light of God’s good promise, however, we do not live in the fulfillment of that promise.

We are still waiting.

Like pilgrims in the midst of a great journey, or a woman anticipating her baby’s due date, we are not yet at the goal.

And Paul tells us that while we wait, we do so with patience.

The great missionary of the 1st century loves to do this type of thing, which is to say Paul liked navigating the confusing contours of now and not yet. Paul danced between the present time and the time when all things would be conquered by God.

Most of us are not like Paul. Rather than enduring the days at hand with patience, we want to see change here and now. We are not the backseat Christians who willingly accept the status quo. No, when we see and feel the groans of the world we want it to stop. Now.

There are plenty of Christians in the world who rest on opposite sides of this spectrum. Some sit back and wait, without a care or concern for how things currently are, because one day (whenever that might be) God will fix everything. And for as much as that is true, they are like those who see a building on fire and instead of reaching for a bucket of water they say, “It must be God’s will.”

And then on the far other side there are those who are in denial of present sufferings and are utterly convinced that if they only prayed harder God would make them healthy and wealthy. They might receive a horrible diagnosis, or lose their employment, but they believe that God is waiting for them to pray the right prayer before God drops the perfect cure of the more lucrative career.

But us other Christians, those who find ourselves in the middle, we know that it is no comfort to deny present suffering, nor is it comforting to focus all of our energy on the hope that God will fix everything in a jiffy. We know that reflections on the future must be, at times, postponed. It is not the future that commands our attention but the present.

And here in lies the crux of it all, we focus our focus on the present, not as a denial of the future, but precisely because we know that we don’t know what the future holds.

We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all things in this world will perish; we’ve all seen it happen too many times, but the cross of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of this lonely and broken world and it is the sign of our hope. Easter boldly proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning – Pentecost shows us how we take the first steps.

Today of course is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The disciples spent forty days with the risen Jesus, learning about the kingdom of God, before Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. But then they had ten days of waiting.

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Imagine if you can, though we certainly can’t, what it must’ve been like to not only encounter the risen Jesus, but to lose him again, and to wait. What were those conversations like in the ten-day waiting period? What plans were made in case nothing happened? Were they patient in their hope?

Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, all the disciples were in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire place where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

They immediately went forth from that place proclaiming the good news to all with ears to hear, and on that day the Lord added 3,000 to the growing faith, and they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Many of us, if not most of us, would like to see the Spirit manifest like those first disciples did on the day of Pentecost. We want signs of power and majesty, we want this sanctuary windswept and on fire for the Lord. But, like the readers of Romans, we may not receive the signs we so desperately desire.

Hope that is seen is a limited kind of hope, for if we can see what we want, it is certain to be limited to what we are now able to behold. Do you think those disciples were yearning for the Spirit to give them the strength to speak in other languages? Do you think they prayed night after night for the Spirit to fall upon them like a blazing fire? Do you think this is what they hoped for?

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They had no idea what they were in for! There’s no way they could’ve possibly imagined what would happen ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s no way they could’ve known the Spirit would arrive in such a dramatic way. There’s no way they could have predicted that the rest of their lives would be spent in an illegal community based on the worship of a crucified God.

Something greater was in store for all of the first disciples, greater things were yet to come – and the same holds true for us.

Paul is completely convinced, though he was not there on the day of Pentecost and did not receive the Spirit in the same way, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not really know how to pray as we should and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

There is something majestically powerful in being reminded that even when we cannot find the right words, the Spirit is with us in our sighs. Because how in the world could we possibly pray, in the right way, for those living in Israel and Palestine? What kind of words could we offer to parents who discovered that their children were murdered by a gunman in their school?

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            There are no words except for the deep groaning of the cosmos that can come close to what needs to be said in prayer.

And yet, we have hope. Not a blind foolish hope, but a deeply rooted hope in the one of came to live, die, and rise again. We have a hope, like the early disciples, that what we see and hear and experience now is not the end. And, at the same time, the Spirit is with us to give us the strength to not only yearn for a better world, but also actually do something about it.

That’s the thing about hope – it is meaningless unless it prompts us toward transformation. Hope that remains in the heart and mind alone is nothing more than a clanging cymbal. But our hope, a hope for a world that we cannot yet even imagine, is like a fire – it warms the soul and lights our path.

When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on all the disciples it was like a fire and it spread in wild and unpredictable ways. Those first followers of Jesus, though persecuted and often killed for their faith, are responsible for us having heard the Word at all. They were so on fire in their hope that they went beyond what they could see and hope for, knowing that with patience, the world would begin to change.

In 1969, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had only been a national show for year. And on one fairly typical episode Mr. Rogers entered the screen as usual, but instead of putting on his infamous sweater, he mentioned something about how hot it was outside and decided to soak his feet in a tiny swimming pool. While resting and relaxing, a black policeman name Officer Clemmons walked by and Mr. Rogers invited him to share the small pool. Officer Clemmons quickly accepted, rolled up his pants, and placed his very brown feet in the same water as Mr. Roger’s very white feet.

Today, in 2018, this might seem insignificant, but in 1969 it was everything. In the late sixties public pools became the battleground of segregation to such a degree that it was illegal in some places for black bodies and white bodies to be in the water at the same time, if at all. There are horrible images of the summers in the 60s in which white pool managers would pour acid into pools when people protested by swimming with other races.

But for one episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the country was shown a glimpse of the future, a future of hope, one that few people could possibly imagine at the time.

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John Wesley, the pioneer of renewal that led to the birth of our church, once said that if you light yourself on fire, people will travel miles to watch you burn. Our hopefulness, our yearning for a new day and a new way, should be like a fire that people can’t help but watch.

Mr. Rogers had a fire that was as simple and yet profound as soaking his feet in a swimming pool, but it was exactly his hopefulness that resulted in people tuning in each and every week for decades.

We talk a lot about how we, as Christians, are citizens of a different kingdom – but sometimes we don’t take the next step to imagine what the kingdom looks like. God’s kingdom is one ruled by hope. A hope for things not yet seen, a hope for a time we cannot even imagine, a world in which the fire of Pentecost is present in everyone we encounter.

The Holy Spirit with its bravado and bombastic arrival is always pointing from death to new life, it is always praying with us and through us even when we do not know what to say, and it is always redeeming us for a new day and a new way. Amen.

Devotional – Galatians 1.13

Devotional:

Galatians 1.13

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
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“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.

Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.

The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”

Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.

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All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.

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.

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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.

youth

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.”

youth-ministry

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.

ascension

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.