Wednesday, December 25, 2013

God Is With Us

December 24, 2013 –– Christmas Eve Vigil
Matthew 1:18–25
God Is With Us

Christmas takes us into the heart of what it means to be human. Humanity has not changed so much over thousands of years. When the Lord gave the first promise of a “young woman” bearing a son, King Ahaz was worried about enemies that hated him. The threat was destruction and death. We find ourselves threatened the same way today. Whether it is the destruction and death that comes from terrorism and war, the destruction of a natural disaster or bodies that wear out,  or death by accident, local violence or disease, human existence lives under a constant threat. Eventually we die.  We cannot grasp the incredible power of Christmas unless we face the truth of the things that threaten us and our too-real fears.

We have a new baby in our house. Our daughter, who for now lives in a small studio apartment in our basement, gave us our fourth grandchild a month ago. He’s a boy, and we’ve not had a child this young in our house for about thirty-seven years––more than long enough for me to have forgotten how fragile and dependent an infant is. When I prepare his bottle I often think of the many infants in this world who do not have enough to eat. I think about the evil that even now threatens my tiny grandson.

This new baby boy in our home, whose needs (and cries) seem to take priority over everything else, has been a fresh and ongoing reminder to me of the incredible thing God did. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible condensed himself into a human baby. That kind of vulnerability, freely taken by God in order to come close to us and show us his love, is beyond comprehension. God is with us! What does this really mean?

We have come here tonight in the name of Jesus Christ. Christians do not have a “holiday” celebration for its own sake. We are not gathered here merely to add one more thing to a list of seasonal festivities. This is something God promised over 2700 years ago through the prophet Isaiah, and the promise was fulfilled.

Yet we in the Church have heard this all our lives, so much so that we can become immune. The world hears it, and modern presuppositions say it can’t be true―a nice story, maybe, but not true. It’s further complicated because no one can fully comprehend it.... Son of God and Son of Mary.... divine and human. The eternal becomes encapsulated in time. The Creator becomes one of the created. The Mighty One comes as a helpless babe. The Holy One is rubbing elbows with the sinful.

If we are honest, there is something about God getting so close that is frightening. While we want some way to escape a world that threatens and hurts, we would like for it to come so that we are still in control. For all the hope that Christmas offers―and I mean the real Christmas, in contrast to so much of the silliness and materialism that tries to dilute the literal story in the Bible―it seems obvious that an unbelieving world wants to keep this Son of God and Son of Mary at a distance. It’s okay to sing in public about Frosty the Snowman, but not about Jesus the Savior.

When King Ahaz was offered a special baby as a sign of God’s deliverance, he did not want it. When Joseph first heard about Mary’s baby he did not want it; he was ready to break the engagement. What do we do when God starts getting close in our lives? Especially in a way that appears uncomfortable?

Ahaz and Joseph went in two different directions. If you read the OT story, Ahaz went ahead with his own plan for deliverance in spite of God’s word. Joseph, on the other hand, listened and obeyed when the angel spoke to him in the dream: what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:20b–21).

The sign that had been promised so long ago was coming true. A son was about to be born, a baby that was both Son of God and Son of Mary. The result of this is a Savior, the very thing all of us need so badly. God has come, and he has come to save us.

One of the Christmas carols that probably all of us know well has a verse that is a great prayer:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today....
O come to us.... abide with us.... 
our Lord Emmanuel

May that be the prayer of your heart. There is nothing more important. It is what this night is all about. God is with us.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 15, 2013


December 15, 2013 –– Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1–10 / James 5:7–10 / Matthew 11:2–11

Waiting is hard for most people. Waiting for Christmas Day is hard for children. It’s hard to wait when a big turkey dinner is cooking; the smell fills the house, and you are hungry. Waiting is hard when you are in a supermarket and have just a few items, then you get to the checkout and the lines are backed up with people who have full carts. Waiting is hard when you hit some problem on the interstate where traffic is backed up for several miles. For some of us, waiting is even hard when you just missed the green light and have to wait though a whole cycle.

Long-term waiting seems like an extinct species in our culture. It is common for people who want some expensive, but non-essential, item not to wait and save for the money to buy it; they go into debt to have it now. More and more couples who are “in love” do not wait for marriage before sexual intimacy. There is a surrender in our society to a spirit that says, “I want it, and I want it now!” Do we in the Church understand that embracing this attitude is sin?

A major emphasis of Advent is waiting. Throughout the Bible God’s people are waiting more than anything else. God is not in the instant-gratification business (but we might consider the evidence that the devil is). Getting what we want is rooted in selfishness. Satan made selfish desire ultimately appealing to Eve. Getting what we want now compounds it. Because we are broken, waiting is a hard thing. Yet God uses waiting to develop faith and hope in us. Satan tries to use waiting to defeat us―for us to become so obsessed with what we want and when we want it that we allow unfulfilled desire to affect everything else.

Advent is a time to take a head-on look at this issue of waiting. Today’s Scripture texts help us see three ways that waiting can affect our spiritual lives. We are warned not to allow waiting to cause us to be discouraged, distracted or demanding.

Think about John the Baptist. After an initial popular ministry he was put in prison. He had preached that One greater than himself was coming, but sitting in a jail can dampen one’s enthusiasm. Maybe John was waiting for the Coming One to make everything right―including a rescue from jail. Finally he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?

Why did John ask this? He was probably discouraged. He was stuck in prison and waiting. John’s discouragement may have been exacerbated once it was clear that no popular Messianic expectations were being reported. So often we nurture our ability to wait by thinking God is going to work a certain way, but if God doesn’t work the way we think he should, it discourages our waiting.

Is it accurate to suggest that a spiritually discouraged person is a complaining person? How easily little irritants in life turn us into complainers! (I am preaching to myself.) James exhorts, Do not complain, brothers and sisters.... He reminds us of the patience a farmer needs (most of us are so far removed from basic agriculture that the example doesn’t connect). He commends the example of hardship and patience that we find in the prophets. They faced real hardships––like John being put in prison. We live in a world that tries to convince us that life needs to be easy and pleasant all the time, and if it’s not, it is our “right” to be discouraged and complain.

Once we are discouraged, we are vulnerable to distraction. We find other ways to compensate for the pain of waiting. The world will always offer us something that seems innocent, but it can cause spiritual weakness. We may no longer feel “discouraged”―but it’s because we are distracted. Something else can give us temporary comfort and joy, then we are not focused on our Lord and waiting on his promise to come.

And if that state of mind goes for too long, we develop demanding spirits. We embrace an attitude that all but insists that we get what we want and that we get it now. Surrendering to an attitude like this is spiritual death. The person who refuses to wait patiently―the person who demands his own way―is cutting himself off from the Spirit of Jesus.

Advent is a time of expectation. The question today is: What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for God to do things your way? Could it be that God isn’t even part of the equation, but you are simply waiting for what you want (and you’ve decided you can’t be happy until you have it)? Or, on the other hand, are we waiting on the Lord? Maybe it would help to reflect on the idea of Christians as people living in a Waiting Room! Advent calls us to this, and the Church has wisely built this time into the rhythm of our spiritual lives to help us not become discouraged, distracted or demanding. You see, as we live in this world, we can be waiting on the Lord wherever we are and whatever else we are doing.  Advent is waiting.... on the Lord.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Rest & Renewal

Wednesday: 11 December, 2013 –– 2nd Week in Advent
Isaiah 40:25–31 / Matthew 11:28–30
Rest & Renewal

Weariness is a reality. Our bodies get tired.

Sometimes it’s a satisfying weariness. We’ve worked hard and accomplished much, and rest comes easily at the end of a long, hard day.

Too often, it seems, we experience another kind of weariness. It’s the restlessness that comes from worry and stress. It’s the awareness of a foreboding cloud which seems always to be hovering all too near.

It’s to that kind of burden we hear the words of our Lord: Come to me.... and I will give you rest.

This is because Jesus is the Word made Flesh. God has entered our situation. Jesus knows what it’s like to live a human life in a weary world.

At the same time,
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.

The most wearying thing we can do (or try to do) is to control what is beyond our control. So much of our worry and stress is about things we want to direct or change. Those are the things where God invites us to come to him.... and TRUST. I have to remind myself that even if I had the power to control things, I don’t have the wisdom to control things. God has both!

So Jesus says, Come to me.... leave it with me.... believe that my love is big enough to bring life even out of death. Because,
they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Tuesday: 10 December, 2013 –– 2nd Week in Advent
Matthew 18:12–14

....will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?

The assumed answer to Jesus’ question is yes. I am afraid a common answer today would be no. We live in an expendable world.

The military has given us the phrase “collateral damage” –– it usually refers to non-military targets or even civilian casualties which are considered expendable in order to meet an objective. We have become accustomed to “planned obsolescence” –– planning and making products in such a way that they become out-of-date or useless within a known time period. We live in such an opulent society that almost anything can easily be replaced. Matter-of-fact abortion is perhaps the ultimate step of living as if human life itself is routinely expendable.

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol we are shown the ugliness of Scrooge’s disposition in the dialogue:
“I help to support the establishments.... those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can't go there; and many would rather die.” 
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Do we really think that “losers” are worth the time and trouble of our love and care? Do we believe that our Lord desires the conversion of the person who is blasphemous or perverted or cruel? Jesus says, It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.

May our Lord help us to see with his eyes and love as he loves. In the kingdom of God, no one is expendable.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Have To Serve Somebody

November 24, 2013 –– Thirty-fourth (Last) Sunday in Ordinary Time
Solemnity of Christ the King
2 Samuel 5:1–3 / Colossians 1:12–20 / Luke 23:35–43

You Have To Serve Somebody

Back in the late 1970s the folk-icon Bob Dylan went through an Evangelical Christian phase, during which he wrote a song with this refrain: You're gonna have to serve somebody.... Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Yet there’s a protest. There is something in us that does not want to serve. We want to be “free” to make our own choices. There is a brokenness in us that incites us to what Scripture and the Church call “sin,” and that brokenness makes us want to serve ourselves. When the ex-Beatle John Lennon (who esteemed Bob Dylan) heard Dylan’s song, he became so angry that he went into the studio and vented his rage into a long, long song called "Serve Yourself." The power of darkness (using Paul’s term when he writes to the Colossians) loves it when we think we are free to follow our self-interests. It only means we are spurning the rule of God’s kingdom.

Today we come to the final Sunday of the Church year with the Solemnity of Christ the King.  Kingship seems to be an almost universal concept in human history. Earliest civilizations exhibit the phenomenon of divinized kings. This suggests an innate desire in humans to be ruled for the common good––an imprinted recognition that we are not sufficient, by ourselves, to take care of ourselves. We were created to live under a king. Dylan was right: You're gonna have to serve somebody.... But it makes all the difference in the world––and for eternity––who we serve. We live in a world where self-love and abuse of power cause fear and pain and death. Spiritual rebellion is real, and we can be so blind to the real cause of the evils in our world.

Jesus is truly the Messiah of God––the King of the Jews promised in the OT, and ultimately all the earth will bow to the King of kings and Lord of lords (see Philippians 2:10–11 and Revelation 19:16). Ironically, in today’s Gospel we hear those who do not believe––Israel’s rulers, Roman soldiers, and a criminal dying alongside Jesus. They taunt and revile him. They can only see a man who claimed to be a king who is nailed shamefully to a cross. Surely a king would be able to save himself! A “crucified messiah” does not make sense; the power of darkness will have nothing of it. But Jesus did not come to save himself; he came to save us. 

It is by the blood of his cross that Jesus reveals his Kingship––not by saving his life, but offering it as a ransom for ours. In this way God the Father transfers us, in the words of the Epistle, to the Kingdom of his beloved Son. Our allegiance is not to self-assertiveness or raw power, but to a King whose name is Love.

We do not have a choice whether or not to be mastered. You're gonna have to serve somebody....  Yet we do have a choice who our master will be.  Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you're gonna have to serve somebody. On this day when we honor Christ the King, invite him to be the King of your heart.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An Issue Of Heaven or Hell

November 10, 2013 –– Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5 / Luke 20:27–38
An Issue Of Heaven or Hell

Sometimes we need to be reminded that faithfulness to God is worth dying for. When the Scripture reading gives explicit reference, “sometimes” is now. Faithfulness is an attitude of heart that becomes the difference between heaven and hell. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. They were the aristocrats of Jewish society and collaborated with Rome (the power of the day)––not an unusual response for the wealthy of any time or place. They did not wish to lose their wealth, their comfort, and their “place.” The Sadducees were focused with the here and now. They accepted only the Torah (first five OT books) and rejected the Prophets and Writings. The Old Testament gives progressive revelation, so the covenant blessings of the Torah were indeed focused on temporal good. But limiting faithfulness to the here and now has an inherent danger. Comfort and convenience can suffocate spiritual life. Who feels a need for God if it seems everything is going great? Heaven can seem like a nice fairy tale. Life in this world becomes more important than being accountable to God.

Contrast the Sadducees with the seven brothers and their mother in the Maccabees story. Life certainly was not comfortable and convenient for them. Alexander the Great’s empire had extended into Judea and there was a tyrannical demand that everyone be totally unified in their allegiance to the state. There was no place for a religious commitment that conflicted with the unification of the whole society. What do God’s people do when they are forced to choose between allegiance to the state and allegiance to God? Even after being tortured one of the brothers said, It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him....

Some people want to believe that making God a part of one's life is like investing in an insurance policy that will provide an escape from hard and painful things in life. Prayer is made out to be a direct line to a heavenly Santa Claus. This Thessalonian letter written by St Paul almost 2000 years ago an ongoing reminder to Christians everywhere that the world is a hard place––especially for those who give total allegiance to Jesus.

Do you know what kind of prayers God always answers? It's those which are aligned with his will. It is a natural tendency to focus our prayers on things which affect our own convenience.  The Sadducees would have prayed like that. We need to learn to pray for what God wants. Here is the Apostle Paul––the great missionary, a man who knew the power of the Holy Spirit––and his request to the Thessalonian Christians is for them to pray for him and other believers. Prayer is critical for all Christians because all of us are in a spiritual war and we need God's power and protection. So St Paul identifies three things people committed to the Lord should pray for.

First, Paul says, pray.... that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified (v1). Christians are to be witnesses (the root meaning of “martyr”). If we seriously embrace our profession of faith, we are saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the one way to escape eternal banishment from God and punishment in hell, and thus we will live as if hell is something to be seriously avoided. One common slogan I used to hear at missions conferences was This generation of Christians is responsible for this generation of lost people. When Paul asks for prayer that the Gospel will spread, he is calling us to give attention to what is eternally important to God and us.

The next thing to pray is that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith (v2). When people give Jesus total allegiance––when Christians have a passion for the Gospel to extend to the whole earth––there will be obstacles to keep it from happening. It is not happenstance that so much of the world is closed to Christian witness today. Think of the millions of people under totalitarian governments who are hindered from hearing the gospel. Think of false religions. We are in a spiritual war. 

It’s not only human opposition, though. There is also direct opposition from Satan himself. There is a promise here here that implies a prayer: he (the Lord) will strengthen and guard you from the evil one (v3). I wonder how many Christians take Satan seriously as a spiritual foe. It seems that Satan has been reduced to a joke: "the devil made me do it." Satan wants us to be distracted. Satan is happy when we think the most important things are being comfortable and entertained. Or if Satan can bring God's people into shame and ridicule and disrepute, then the spiritual war is going his way. Think about the many priests and other ministers whose failures have been nationally publicized so that Christian Faith itself is ridiculed and dismissed.

When Satan cannot distract or discourage Christians, or keep the Church in scandal, he pours all the power of hell, literally, into the fight. One way he does that is by manipulating wicked people to oppose Christians––even to the point of persecution and death. It’s been that way throughout history. God’s people have sometimes paid for their faith with their lives. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century than all previous centuries combined! It is estimated that in the two millennia of Christian history, 70 million faithful have died for the Faith, and 45.5 million––65%––were in the last century. Satan is real. He does not want the love of the Lord to prevail in Christians’ lives. We are in a spiritual war.

In such a world, what can keep us faithful? How can we not succumb to the numbing effects of seduction like the Sadducees? Well, we have examples of faith like the seven brothers and their mother, and we have the martyrs of the Church. Most of all we have Jesus affirming a life that goes beyond this world because the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is not God of the dead, but of the living. And Paul tells the Thessalonians that the Lord is faithful (v3).

The one thing that remains is for us to live in true faithfulness––to give total allegiance to Jesus. Paul's final exhortation is for the Thessalonians to do two things––two things we need to do as well. The first is to direct [our] hearts to the love of God. That's what Christian living and witness is all about. We're not called to witness to something we don't live, and we're not called to live something God hasn't provided. If we know Jesus Christ today it is because we have come to know God's love. And knowing that love, we are to show love the same way....  to our wife or husband.... to our children.... to our neighbors.... to the people at work. We are to give witness to the love of Christ everywhere we go. When we do that, we are being witnesses of the gospel. When we witness to the love of God, we show that there is something more important than our own desires––our own comfort and convenience.

When Christians live like that, there will inevitably be opposition of some kind, so there's a second thing here. We must always be prepared to direct [our] hearts to the endurance of Christ––to share in Christ's sufferings. Luke sets this Gospel reading with Jesus on the way to the cross (starting in 9:51). Maccabees tells the story of faithful people who paid the ultimate price. We are all called to “martyrdom”––laying down our lives in selfless love. Sometimes it’s “red martyrdom”––laying down our physical lives for Jesus’ sake. More often it’s what the Church calls “white martyrdom”––dying daily to our selfish desires so that the life of Christ in us can grow. We do that through total allegiance to Jesus Christ. We are to pray for that. We are to give our time and our money and remember, if necessary, our physical lives for Jesus Christ. It’s an issue of heaven or hell.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Things Work For Good

Wednesday: 30 October, 2013 –– 30th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 8: 26–30
All Things Work For Good

All things work for good. That is one of the more popular biblical verses that people quote, although I wouldn’t be surprised if many think it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac or some such source. Whether or not the true source is known, what is usually quoted is not by itself true.

“Things” are not animate so that they are able to “work for good.” And in no way are all things good––there are horrible and evil events and circumstances. What is St Paul saying?

First, a better translation of the verse would be, In all things God works for good.... The focus here is on God, not on our circumstances. Second, it is crucial to recognize the qualifiers. For whom does God work in all things for good? It is in the lives of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

What is God’s purpose? It is not what is idolized and pursued by our culture. We live in a society in which the ultimate concern is being happy. God’s purpose for us is to be holy––conformed to the image of his Son....

How can we hope that in our lives all things work for good? We need to love God, and we love God by loving what God loves and desires. The fullness of God is shown to us in Jesus Christ. When we truly want to be like Jesus, then God does indeed make all things work for good.

A great picture of this is shown in the life of the Old Testament Joseph. His brothers hated him and sold him into slavery. After long and terrible years in Egypt, Joseph was eventually elevated to a position second only to Pharaoh. It was then that Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking relief from famine, and Joseph was in charge of all the food. When the brothers realized who Joseph was, they were afraid. Then Joseph modeled what it means to love God and to know this makes all things work for good. He told his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

Yes, St Paul invites us to know that all things work for good. But even more he wants us to know that this hope is for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Is the desire of our heart to be happy.... or to be holy? It is when we want to be holy that all things work for good.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Suffering Unto Salvation

Tuesday: 29 October, 2013 –– 30th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 8: 18–25
Suffering Unto Salvation

Do you know what suffering does in a Christian?  It drives a Christian to prayer.  When we are pulled into the heart of the reality that something is wrong in this world — when the wrongs of this world touch us so that we hurt so deeply that it seems all we can do is groan — we find that God is there. The word “groan” appears three times here in short succession (and only six other times in the New Testament).  Sin is so bad and so pervasive that creation groans (8:22).  On top of that, Christians groan (we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly (8:23). But we do not groan alone: the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (8:26).

There is a popular stereotype that the ministry of the Holy Spirit always produces joy and victory in Christians.  Or the Holy Spirit always makes worship alive and thrilling.  Both of those things are partly true, but that is not entirely. The Holy Spirit also meets us in the depths of our despair. 

It is in those times that we come to a deeper understanding of God. We get drawn into what he has already done; that is why we have hope and that is why we pray. We also become aware of what God has yet promised to do. He has promised full salvation, but it is not yet full reality: hope that is seen is no hope at all — who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (8:24b,25).  Waiting patiently is so hard.  I am terrible at it.  Do you know one reason we can be patient?  God is working his Spirit into those who belong to him.

But in the meantime....  And that is where we are right now, “in the meantime” — living in two worlds:  this seen world that is passing away, but also in an unseen world that promised (yet already here to those who have faith).  If we have this faith it is because the Father is working his Spirit into our life. Can you see this in what Paul says as reading begins? I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (8:18). God is working his Spirit into all who belong to him.... even in the midst of this world and all its suffering.  And God’s Spirit is life.... a salvation that is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Prayer God Honors

October 27, 2013 –– Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 18:9–14
The Prayer God Honors

No matter where we are in our relationship with God, the first prayer of our heart needs to be Lord, have mercy. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” is the one prayer God always honors when it is prayed in sincerity.

If we are not aware of our need for God’s mercy––if our attitude is “I’m pretty good”––then we are too far from God for our soul’s good. No matter what our accomplishments, we need the mercy of God.

Let’s live each day with the honesty to say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Measure Of True Christian Faith

October 20, 2013 –– Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Timothy 3:14–4:2
The Measure Of True Christian Faith

How do we know what it really means to be a Christian? Who are we to trust and follow? Is the smooth-talking “good-life” preacher on TV telling the truth? Do all religious paths take us to a god who, in the end, accepts any and everything? What is the measure of true Christian Faith? This is the focus of Paul’s letter to his young son-in-the-faith Timothy. And now, almost 2000 years later, this question is just as important. What is the measure of true Christian Faith? The Epistle today emphasizes Scripture.

I have been blessed to be part of a heritage that believes the Scriptures to be everything as described in this passage. And yet, the Bible by itself is no guarantee of Christian truth. Christian history is full of people who choose their own “interpretation” of Scripture and become false teachers. Even as Paul gives this special exaltation of the Scriptures, he commends them to Timothy in the context of a believing community that lives the Faith. This is to say there is no Scripture apart from the Church, and no Church apart from Scripture. It is a mystery and a paradox similar to the Incarnation.

Scripture was written by human beings, but it was inspired―God-breathed―by the Holy Spirit. The Bible was written by many authors and yet by one Author. It is a paradox. Because Scripture is the Word of God it is always read in corporate worship. This is a practice that goes back through Church history and into the Old Testament. When we hear Scripture, we are hearing the voice of God. It is not the person doing the reading that is the focus; in the Liturgy of the Word the reader becomes the physical voice of God.

The Epistle reading begins with the context of understanding: remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it... (3:14). This is the importance of the faith community––the corporate nature of the Church. This is where Paul finds wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (3:15).

Then Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.... (3:16). This means that what we believe is based on Scripture––what God has said. This is the standard for our teaching. This means that when something is wrong in our lives, we should not be surprised that Scripture uncovers it and convicts us; it has an authority to rebuke errant belief and behavior. If Scripture and sermons sometime seem “negative” perhaps it is an indication that something in our life is more important to us than being holy. Faith responds to rebuke with repentance―a “turning around.” When Scripture points to something in us that needs changing, we are to obey; this is the “correction” that the Lord does in his people. This is training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work (3:17).

Early in my Christian commitment I wrote this quote on the fly-leaf of my Bible: Either this Book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this Book. It is a devilish temptation to believe there is no use to read the Scriptures when we do not enjoy them. It's like thinking there is no use to pray when we do not feel like it. The truth is, in order to enjoy Scripture we need to continue to read it, just as the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying. The less we read Scripture the less we desire to read it (and the less we pray the less we desire to pray). Each time the Scriptures are read and proclaimed a window is being opened to the light of heaven. In our world of sensational videos and flashy sound-bites, we need to slow down and listen to the Word of God.

In our complex world, what is the measure of true Christian Faith? Paul told Timothy: remain faithful to what you have learned and believed. When we hear the Scriptures week after week in the community of the Church, we can have confidence that we are being given wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How To Grow In Faith

October 6, 2013 –– 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2–3, 2:2–4 / Luke 17:5-10
How To Grow In Faith

The kingdom of Judah was in big trouble. Babylon was invading and even Jerusalem was feeling the effect. Everywhere people looked there was threat and disintegration. When things get bad, people start praying. But this only caused more consternation. Habakkuk’s prophecy expresses a common attitude about prayer: I cry for help, but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence,” but you do not intervene. Why....? Violence and destruction, ruin and misery.... it’s part of a long cycle: we cry out to God and seem to get no answers.

Yet God does give the prophet an answer: The vision still has its time –– in other words, “the answer is coming.” If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late –– in other words, “God moves in his way and time.” We often think God is “late” but faith knows that God is always on time. That is the climax of the Habakkuk reading: the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

This verse is quoted three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38). Faith makes a difference. Faith is what opens us to the reality of God––and his salvation. Faith enables us to “see” differently. People of faith see things people without faith dismiss or even ridicule. Faith is the foundation for living distinctively in the world for Jesus’ sake.

In the Gospel reading we find the disciples saying to Jesus: Increase our faith. (This comes right after a very sobering lesson about forgiveness that evidently caused the disciples to say, “Whoa, you’ve got to help us with this one!” –– which came out as, Increase our faith.) Jesus’ response is the point here. Is the issue really how much faith we have? Jesus says the smallest amount of real faith can do amazing things. So, what is the issue here?

We can be like the disciples. They felt that if they could have more faith, they could be better disciples. We often think like this, too. We look at our life and maybe we are not pleased at what we see. We know that we could be doing better. We wish our prayers were answered more to our desires. So, we say to ourselves, "If only I had more faith. Then I could be a better Christian." Maybe we pray the same thing the disciples said: Increase my faith!

Jesus told the disciples: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you. This was not the answer the disciples were looking for. It seems that Jesus would have commended their desire or even laid hands on them so their faith would suddenly swell like a balloon, but Jesus’ answer implies something else: "You do have faith. And even if it is small, you can still do great things!" –– in other words, "You already have faith.... you just aren't using it!"

The disciples didn't need to ask to increase their faith; they needed to increase their faithfulness. There is a big difference. Faith is a gift from God. He gives us each the faith we need and it is sufficient because it is the gift of God. Faithfulness, on the other hand, is our response to the gift of faith. It's what we do with our faith, and that is up to us. Faith is like a muscle –– use it or lose it! The one way to “increase” faith is to exercise it! We “exercise” our faith by being faithful.

Think of the gyms and fitness centers that have grown in such number over recent years. What if the popularity of physical fitness was matched by a passion for spiritual development? We would have saints all over the place!

When we have faith, we know that God is there. We may not understand. We may wonder “how long?” when we are hurting or things around us are falling apart. We may be tempted to think that what is asked of us is ridiculous. But when we know God is there (that’s faith), then when God says, "Okay, here's what I want you to do...." we need to do it. Then it's not a matter of faith; it's a matter of faithfulness.

There is not one person in this world who is not troubled by something. There is not one of us in the Church who has no worries, no pains, no threats looming on the horizon. Finances, health, relationships, responsibilities.... all these things hover over us, and sometimes rush at us faster than we know what to do. Faith knows that God is here.... but faithfulness has to exercise what we are going to do about it. Are we going to trust? Are we willing to wait? Are we ready to obey?  Trusting.... waiting.... obeying.... these can be some of the hardest things in the world. Faith is always a risk. Scripture tells us that faith is acting on what cannot be proven; our hope in God is to take priority over what is right before our eyes (hope that is seen is not hope....for who hopes for what he sees? –Romans 8:24). An unbelieving world tells us we’re crazy. But when we trust and wait and obey, we exercise our faith.

When we as Christians get the feeling that something is not quite right in our walk with God, it's not that something is wrong with the faith we have been given. The Holy Spirit dwells within us to give us faith. We are to let faith do its work. When hard things threaten.... when it seems our world is falling apart.... when doing the right thing is not easy.... we learn to be faithful. God’s presence invites us to exercise the risk of trusting, waiting and obeying. Then our faith will increase.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Passion for Living

September 22, 2013: The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Luke 16:1-13
Passion for Living

Jesus is making the point that his hearers are in the same position as this steward who saw his imminent dismissal threatening him with ruin. Yet, the crisis which threatens Jesus' hearers (including us today) is even more serious. As Christians, we believe there are two worlds: the unseen world as well as the one that is visible––the world which is eternal as well as the one that is passing away. Some people live as though this world is all there is and ever will be. That means all their values, all their energies and all their hopes are focused on the here and now. Living that way is the essence of unbelief.  To live that way is to leave God and his kingdom out of the picture. It is an attitude which thinks that being “happy” right now is the most important thing––and “security” is the top priority in having happiness.

The man in this story acted "prudently" (v.8). [The Greek word is phronimos, sometimes translated “wisely” (KVJ) or “shrewdly” (NIV, emphasizing the devious side of being “wise”).] He had foresight and recognized the critical nature of his situation. Jesus is not commending his character or what he did; Jesus respects the intensity of the man’s perception and motivation. So he says: For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

In other words, people who live for the here and now know how to go after what they want. Worldly people know how to be worldly. They are shrewd. They know how to get their way. They know how to take care of Number One. A shrewd businessman knows how to manipulate situations to his own advantage. A playboy knows how to seduce. A “shark” knows how to cheat people; their kind goes after their goal with abandon. People consumed with this world know what they want and they know what they have to do to get it. That is how they can be a model to us for how to live with passion for the kingdom of God. The dedication it takes to achieve advancement and pleasure in the here-and-now is the kind of dedication Jesus calls his disciples to have.

We live in a world where most people get things backwards. Beginning with the first disobedience in the Garden, people have always tried to rationalize away God's laws. The Pharisees did it  (see v14). Many “religious” people do it today. God calls for his people to look at life in an upside-down kind of way.

One way to think about our priorities and motivations is through our children (I “borrowed” this example from Msgr Charles Pope; he has a wonderful homiletical blog from the Archdiocese of Washington). Almost all the focus with our children is on worldly success. Little Johnny might know little or nothing about God, Scripture, or Sacraments, but let Johnny bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a problem to get to the bottom of, because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the best college, and then he won’t be able to make a killing––I mean.... a living.

Or, more likely, the kids are taught that sports is the most important thing. Weekly church attendance is not so easy, but daily practice is certainly accommodated. Parents can feel that an hour sitting in church is next to eternity, but most of a Saturday or Sunday (or both) watching games and going to meets is no big deal. Meanwhile Johnny and Susie, who can kick a soccer ball or shoot baskets for hours, barely know the Our Father, have no clue at Mass, and all they know about Adam and Eve is that they were “in the Bible or something.” But those things haven’t been important to Mom or Dad, so maybe they’re not important at all.

One day the father proudly says to his pastor, “Great news! John has gotten a full scholarship to Princeton.” The pastor says “Great!” What he should say to the father is “That’s fine, but how will he get his spiritual nurture there? You know what it will be (like most college campuses)––a moral cesspool of fornication and drinking. If we’re not serious about John’s spiritual life, he may go in there, come out with a great career, and yet be heading straight for Hell. What’s the plan for his spiritual welfare and growth?”

And it’s not just families with kids and young adults. “Mature adults” can spend a lot of hours worrying and strategizing to make sure their retirement income enables them to “live life at the standard they have come to expect” (that line was in a commercial). Retirees can passionately give themselves to the pleasures “we worked for so long to enjoy,” and that’s supposedly the crowning glory of life.

It is so easy for all of us––parents, pastors, families and parishes––not to be responsible in what matters most to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. Of itself, this is not wrong––but their souls are more important. We allow our heroes and models to be sports superstars and entertainers who make it big in this world. What is our focus? Where are our plans and dreams directed?

We all have a God-given capacity to go after what we want.... with abandonment. People around us do it all the time. “Go-getters" usually have the admiration of a lot of people. One exception to that is people who are super-motivated about Jesus.... they are usually looked upon as "fanatics." Think of the most compulsive thing in your life. What holds your nose to the grindstone when almost nothing else will?

Jesus is calling us here to be disciples who are willing to live for his kingdom with the same intensity with which worldly people pursue their own self interests. An unbelieving world cannot easily hear the Church’s moral teachings if Christians are not modeling distinctiveness in their values and commitments. May our Lord have mercy on us all. May he give us, who claim the name of Jesus, the desire and the strength to serve him with passion.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Prayer and the Purposes of God

I wrote two different homilies for this Sunday, one based on the Epistle and the other on the Gospel.  I'll preach the Gospel and post that one later, but here is the one for Sunday's Epistle reading....

September 22, 2013: The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Timothy 2:1–8
Prayer and the Purposes of God

On September 7, 2013, 100,000 people joined Pope Francis for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. Across the globe, millions more participated. It had seemed inevitable that the U.S. would launch some level of attack on Syria, but––dare we say, miraculously––Russia offered an alternative that has prevented a military strike. Is it coincidence that a day of prayer and fasting was called by the Church? Can prayer really have that kind of effect in our world?

Behind the words of this letter is a story. This story has a setting and characters––Paul and Timothy and false teachers in a congregation at long-ago Ephesus. Jesus said and did certain things to reveal God’s truth, and the apostles exercised great care to establish an accurate account of the facts and a right interpretation of their meaning. The words of this letter are part of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom within that story. Once we begin to see God’s wisdom in that context we can try to see what the Scripture is saying to us today.

A close look at these verses brings a focus on the subject of prayer. Prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. One way God’s truth comes to us is through prayer. I say it again: prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. So the work of prayer lies at the center of church life. The work of prayer lies at the heart of personal faith. Prayer undergirds order, both in the church and in the world-at-large.

God created people to have influence––even a measure of control––over what happens on earth. That’s one implication of humanity as special creation, in God’s image. When the Man and Woman disobey God they have a horrible effect on life in this world. Even today there is a sense in which people who disobey God are “praying” to the spiritual forces of evil (some do this intentionally; most do it in sheer ignorance), and this affects the world negatively. On the other hand, people who know God and desire to obey him exercise a good spiritual influence; when they pray according to God’s will, they “cooperate” with God in ways that give life in the world.

This kind of understanding can be found in ancient Christian writings. Theodoret (ca. 393–466) was a bishop who offered these thoughts: “The central purpose of prayer is the cultivation of that good order, peace and godliness that make the authentic practice of Christian faith possible, such that the peace represented in the union of united human and divine natures in Christ becomes manifest in the world.”

This is one reason Paul gives this call to prayer for the civil order. God’s people need to pray for people who have the role of civil authority in this world. As hard as it is for us to grasp the idea, God’s power and mercy and grace are released in a special way to intervene and even bless civil leaders when his people, exercising their God-given spiritual authority on earth, ask him to do this. There is a general good for everyone: that we may live peaceful and quiet lives... (2:2).

There is also a specific reason for Christians to pray for civil order, and it is tied into the ultimate purpose of God for this world: that the people he created to know him can best learn who God is and what he has done to fix this broken world. Here is the heart of God, given with full apostolic authority: I was appointed a herald and an apostle―I am telling the truth, I am not lying... (2:7). What is the heart of God? God... wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (2:4).

How can that happen? Remember that the context here is prayer. Again, prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. We must always start with God, and the undergirding truth of who God is and what he has done is affirmed here: there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men (2:5,6).

So if God has done this through his Son, and if God desires the salvation of all, what more is there to say or do? Isn’t God Sovereign? Won’t God do what he wants to do anyway? Paul says that we are to pray! The Scriptures do not give us a neat formula for how prayer or salvation work. God does sometimes seem to sovereignly “grab” a person and save him. Other times there is a witness or a presentation of the gospel followed by a challenge for people to choose their response. Interwoven in this is the thread of human action on behalf of others―prayer. God has made it possible for his people to pray other people into salvation. We can pray so that the call of God on a person makes him unable to say “no.”

So here are two substantial things where the the prayers of God’s people work in our world. First, prayer releases God to work through the civil process of our world. Second, prayer enhances and expands God’s saving work through the gospel.

What do you expect when you pray? I confess that I am far too weak in this area. But... prayer does not depend on our understanding! The power of prayer is unleashed when we do it!!

Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us some specific things to pray for as he wrote to Timothy so long ago. May the Lord help us to be people of prayer.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Message With Signs and Wonders

Wednesday: 4 August, 2013 –– 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
Luke 4:38–44
A Message With Signs and Wonders

In John's first letter (3:8) we find these words: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. Jesus has power not only over the “spiritual” dimension, Jesus also has power over the more natural and observable aspects of our lives. The people saw the connection. All it took was for Jesus to raise up Simon's mother-in-law, and it seems that everyone who had a physical need was on their way to see Jesus.

Jesus did not heal people merely for their own comfort. Jesus healed them because he loved them, yes, but he healed them also because he was sent to testify to the reality of the kingdom of God.  His mighty words said that God's great day had dawned;  his mighty deeds proved that his mighty words were true.

Often people ask questions: How can I know God is there? How can I know Jesus is real?  Jesus did not come only with the word that God's rule had come to earth, he came with deeds to back up his words. Jesus gave such signs of spiritual reality that people were brought to an issue of decision. Because Jesus performed mighty deeds to prove his mighty words were true, he could not be merely ignored.

So many people in our society ignore the gospel we say we believe. It's easy for them to have a nonchalant attitude about what we say we believe is both true and the most important truth in the world. Instead of Christians today giving unbelievers undeniable evidence that the power of God has been unleashed in the people in whom the Spirit of Jesus lives, we have inherited a generation of people who can casually say:  "You do your thing and I'll do mine." or "Different strokes for different folks."

What would our witness be if there were signs of spiritual power in our lives like it was with Jesus (and the first apostles after Pentecost)? Do we truly believe that the Spirit who lives in Christians today is the same Spirit that lived out a life of obedience and power in Jesus when he was on earth?

I know that what I'm saying is pretty far out to many people, but we have the authority and the example from our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to believe God can do mighty things through us so the message of the gospel will be mighty in this day of unbelief. Jesus brought a message proved with signs and wonders.  Do we truly believe it?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Problem of Pride

September 1, 2013 –– 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 3:17–18, 20, 28–29 / Luke 14:1, 7–14

Sirach and the Gospel draw our attention to pride. Pride is not delight in that which is truly good. Pride is not what we would call appropriate self-esteem. True human pride is something God hates. Depending on which English version of the Bible one uses, the words pride and proud occur a bit over 100 times. Many of the notable Christian thinkers throughout church history have understood pride to be the root of sin. Pride is a major barrier to salvation. Pride does not want to admit that we are not our own center of the universe. Pride does not want to admit dependence. Pride does not want to confess any weakness or wrong. Pride does not want to be indebted to anyone. Jesus is confronting pride in today’s Gospel.

Actually, we all detest pride―in someone else. There is no sin that makes a person more unpopular. We can detect pride so easily―in another person. There is no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves and yet so aware of in someone else. We recognize our aversion to pride in its synonyms: conceit, arrogance, snobbishness, know-it-all, big-head, self-centered. Someone described a proud man as one who "struts even while sitting down." Another picture is that of a person who is often wrong, but always insists he is right. Then there is the person who is always whining that he deserves better than he is getting. Who likes someone who comes across like that? 

Pride is an attitude that each person is his own "number one." Pride is thinking I know what is best, and "best" is always defined by whatever is safe, convenient and comfortable for me. This  is an attitude that displaces God! We may not jockey for the best seats at a church dinner, but we instinctively take the best piece of meat––or more than we should––if we’re in front of the line at a pot-luck. We usually are not thinking about belonging to Jesus when we get angry at the people who “get in my way” while driving our cars. Pride is a spiritual cancer which eats up the possibility of love.... or even contentment. Chaucer called it "a swelling of the heart" which leaves no room for others.

Pride is often about image, and keeping up an image separates us from God. Pride is “being in love with me.” Pride is wanting to be seen and to be praised. It turns everything in life into competition; pride wants always to come in first place. Pride is calculating and posturing and posing for attention and credit. Pride destroys the possibility of the personal intimacy we all long for by being too self-protective―too concerned with what others see―to be real. MTV (and its Video Awards) is pushing an image. The Home & Garden Channel is pushing an image. Almost all advertising is about image. It appeals to our pride, trying to convince us to look successful or sexy or embrace any facade that is rooted in a pecking order. 

Pride keeps everyone at arm's length so they can’t see the real me. Whenever we put ourselves first or project a manufactured image instead of who we really are, we shut others––and God––out. The only way this can change is when we admit that we are not so good in perfectly following God's ways. That is the door to salvation. But it’s no wonder it doesn't look inviting––we have to embrace humility.  Repentance goes against our proud natures.

One of the most powerful shapers in my and my wife’s early spiritual formation was being taught that selfishness––putting self first––is sin. Wanting our own way or not being open to correction is spiritual death. Libby can remember, as a young child, times that her pastor-father––an intense man––would come and kneel before her and apologize for jumping to a conclusion or getting too irritated over some small issue, telling her that he had not modeled Jesus and wanted her to forgive him. Because we are Christians, we should understand the insidious nature of pride more than anyone. Jesus on the cross is a picture of where selfishness will go; he was hated because his life exposed self-worship. No wonder Jesus gives these warnings.

Yet even in the church there is pressure to appear better than we really are. Yes, there is a standard of godliness the church is to uphold and model, but the first way we do that is always to model the truth that God uses broken, imperfect people. The best way to nurture spiritual life is to be honest, and honesty is hard on pride. No matter where we are in our Christian journey.... no matter how far we have progressed in our sanctification.... no matter how much we have grown in maturity.... no matter how wholehearted our obedience, we are still people who fall short of God's glory and we are people who need to pray every day as Jesus taught us, forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This is for all of us, from Pope to peon. This is for me. I preach to myself and let others listen.

We need to see that it is not others who get in our way, but we ourselves who too often project ourselves in ways that we know are not right. If pride keeps us from God by trying to take care of life on our own, then pride is defeated when we believe that God loves us enough to care for us better than we can care for ourselves. This is one way to understand faith.

Jesus invites us to be honest before God―to open wide the door of our heart.... to hold nothing back (God knows it all anyway).... to find the incredible grace of being loved in spite of everything about us that's weak and broken and ugly―and then, in the strength we get from God loving us anyway, to learn to be honest with God and even other people. This is the way to fight pride. And in the overall battle, there is one thing of paramount importance: giving ourselves continually to Jesus Christ. We can't do anything in the fight against pride unless we are inviting Jesus to live his life in ours. Jesus always shows us the way.

Jesus invites us to be honest before God―to open wide the door of our heart.... to hold nothing back (God knows it all anyway).... to find the incredible grace of being loved in spite of everything about us that's weak and broken and ugly―and then, in the strength we get from God loving us anyway, to learn to be honest with God and even other people.  This is the way to fight the sin of pride. And in the overall battle against sin, there is one thing of paramount importance:  giving ourselves continually to Jesus Christ. We can't do anything in the fight against pride unless we are inviting Jesus to live his life in ours. Jesus always shows us the way.

Site Meter