“What Are We Waiting For?”


This was the message I gave at Neon UMC (Neon, KY) for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 13 December 1998.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 35: 1 -  10, James 5: 7 – 10, and Matthew 11: 2 – 11.

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When I read the scriptures for this week, I could not help but think of the time I spent in Missouri and Iowa working on my undergraduate and doctoral degrees. The area around Kirksville is essentially farmland and as you drive from the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa to Iowa City all you see is acres and acres of corn. So I was learning about chemistry and science education, I was also learning a lot about farming and the people who are farmers.

What I did learn was that farming is a job of patience; waiting for events that one cannot control. Many times, it is waiting for the rains to come to nourish the crops, not unlike the first part of today’s reading from Isaiah.

We are not by nature patient; we hate waiting. At this time of the year, it seems like we cannot wait for Christmas to get here so that we can find out what presents we have received.

The idea of today’s scriptures is about waiting. In his letter, James wrote

Be patient, then brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

These are words of patience and firmness. But in this passage, you can almost hear the grumbling of the people crying “When?”

This was a time when Christians were enduring much suffering and retribution for their beliefs. As the believers looked around, they say the rich and powerful seemingly enjoying life while they, the believers, were being punished. To the believers then, the only hope was in Jesus’ Second Coming. But James, in James 5: 1 – 6, had already made it clear what would happen if one stayed with the life directed towards riches and self-indulgence.

Now, listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fatten yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5: 1 – 6)

It is times like this that we are the most vulnerable, when we are at our weakest. John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus asking “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11: 4)

John the Baptist is undoubtedly one of the most powerful characters in all of Scripture. He came to Israel as a prophet, condemning the sin and corruption of the nation and calling Israel to repent and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to him, John knew that he had seen the Messiah.

Yet for all the truth of his words and action, John was in prison, perhaps somewhere east of the Dead Sea. Jail in itself is a lonely experience but it must have been very lonely for John at this moment. No doubt the jailers had put John in a cell by himself and sitting there in his cell, John must have had doubts about not only his work but whether the Messiah was to come. It is often a question that we ourselves ask, “How can I be here, suffering when my enemies are living in comfort and enjoying the good life?”

But Jesus told John’s disciples to look around them. What did they see? Did they not see the miracles that Isaiah had prophesied about? Did they not see the healing that had taken place?

The challenge that Jesus made to John’s disciples then applies to us today. In our impatience, do we miss the signs of God’s presence in our lives? We have to realize that

God presents himself to us little by little. The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.

It is always he who comes, even if he had not yet come in his fullness. But there is indeed one unique moment in his coming; the others were only preparations and announcement.

The hour of his coming is the Incarnation.

The Incarnation brings the world his presence. It is a presence so complete that it overshadows every presence before it.

God is made human in Christ. God makes himself present to us with such a special presence, such an obvious presence, as to overthrow all the complicated calculations made about him in the past.

“The invisible, intangible God has made himself visible and tangible in Christ.”

If Jesus is truly God, everything is clear; if I cannot believe this, everything darkens again. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

The passage in Isaiah this morning is one of hope,

“say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35: 4)

holiness,

The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35: 8)

and the redeemed

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. (Isaiah 35: 9)

Isaiah spoke of the rain that brought life back to a parched dessert land. Jesus spoke of the water that brings eternal life.

Jesus came to a town in Samaria one day. While his disciples were doing some tasks, he sat at the well when a woman came there. The woman at the well was a Samaritan, not welcome in the social life of her town. That is why she came to the well at the time of day that she did; it enabled her to get her water without having to deal with the other people.

Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink.” (For Samaritans do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and his herds?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4: 7 –14)

The gift of everlasting water is part of the gift that God gives us during Advent. No longer should we wonder; no longer do we have to wait. If we listen carefully we can hear Jesus asking each of us if we have seen the signs,

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“’I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

No longer can we stand on the sideline waiting. When people wonder if anyone cares about me or if it matters what I do in this world, we know that the answer, according to Advent, is a resounding “Yes, it matters!” God’s son came to give our life and meaning and hope to all who would trust in him. As we go out into the world this week, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we know that we no longer have to wait for Him.


Cast Aside the Old


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 13 December 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 3: 7 – 18.

I was delayed in getting them posted this week.

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And John the Baptizer called those who had come to watch the baptisms that he was performing a “brood of vipers.” He asked them who had warned them to flee the coming wrath. There haven’t been too many days when I did not feel the same about many of today’s sectarian leaders, those who proclaim themselves to be bearers of God’s truth but whose only interest is in the preservation of their own comfort and power.

And while I may not have thought so in the past, I have come to look at many in the secular world with the same contempt that the Baptizer had held for the religious leaders of his day.

Among the various sites that I follow is a decidedly liberal web site. And how it treats the idea of religion is very interesting. For whatever reason, it treats religion with a certain degree of contempt and ridicule, just as a similar conservative web site would probably treat atheism. And quite frankly, many of my comments on the liberal web site are not well received because I make it quite clear that I am a Christian. And, while I have not posted much to conservative sites, many conservatives have posted their comments on my blog which bring the same degree of ridicule to my statement about being a chemist. It is as if in today’s society that you can be a Christian but you cannot be a scientist or you can be a scientist but not a Christian.

But those who make either of those claims have what I call an appalling lack of knowledge about the other side. And as long as your view is limited, it will be very difficult for progress to be made. Progress can be very limited if one is not open to other ideas or one remains closed to the possibility of new ideas.

I listened to a conversation this past week on National Public Radio that, while centering on Islam, had implications for all religion. One caller to the show identified themselves as a Mormon and commented on the fact that people see Mormonism in light of polygamy, especially the version espoused by the more fundamentalist believers. This person said that the public’s view of religion was based on the extreme edges of the religion.

During the discussion that followed, one of the individuals on the show spoke of a noted Islamic theologian who said that an interpretation of the Qur’an tells you more about the person giving the interpretation than it does about the verse being interpreted.

I am not arguing for a middle of the road approach, for I believe as Jim Hightower has said, the only thing in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. We cannot say the world is full of evil and then turn around and fight it with evil.

When there are people who are hungry, when there are people who are sick, when there are people who are naked or without housing, you do not shut the door on them because of their race, their culture, their belief, or their lifestyle. Yet that is what we are doing today. When you tell people that belief in God is hopeless or futile but you give them nothing to believe in, they will turn away.

The words Paul to the Philippians are very difficult to hear when it seems that those that have will keep what they have and take more from those who have nothing; it is very difficult to hear words of optimism when greed is valued more than thrift.

The words of Zephaniah echo loud and strong today. He spoke of a new age, of a time when the lame and the outcast will be saved and the shame that they felt in a society that ignored them would be turned into praise. Israel at that time was faced with an uncertain future, a future that the people have brought upon themselves by their indifference and self-centeredness. Zephaniah announces that they must change their ways or the uncertainty of the future becomes assured doom.

I cannot help but think that so many of those who proclaim themselves to be the representatives of God on hear, be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim, are similar in nature to those whom John the Baptizer criticized two thousand years ago. And to some extent, the secular authorities of today are no different from the Roman authorities of that time either. Both power groups were only interested in preserving and expanding their power; they worked with each other for mutual growth. But such growth could only come at the expense of the people.

Are we not in the same situation today? Are we not a society so self-centered that we are unable to see the other view; to think beyond and outside the box in which we live? The religious authorities of John the Baptizer’s day are accused by John of being vipers because of how they have treated the people.

I will not let the people off by blaming secular and sectarian authorities. They hold the positions that they hold because the people have let them. We have failed to be the people we should be. Each of the prophets of the Old Testament did not lay the blame at the feet of the authorities but at the feet of the people. And that is so very true today.

The people would rather spend their time listening to reports of the failing of sport super stars or budding Hollywood starlets then spend time thinking about what it will take to save this planet from its destruction by the inhabitants. I heard an interesting little tidbit of information last week; Seattle, WA, is a leading center for recycling. As such, you would think it has a very “green” attitude. And perhaps it does. But at the same time that the people of Seattle are recycling their newsprint, glass, and aluminum, the level of auto emissions has risen. You cannot expect to save the planet by recycling aluminum while having your SUV sitting in the driveway idling for ten minutes. (But don’t stop recycling; just cut down the idling).

John the Baptizer was very clear about the changes that were to come to Israel two thousand years ago. He called for those who came to be baptized to repent of their past and begin a new life. He called for the tax collectors to collect only what was required; he called up other soldiers to treat the citizens fairly. He chastised those whose words were opposite their actions. He spoke of the coming of Christ, clearing away the trash and garbage that was cluttering up and destroying society.

But change can be a fearful thing and those who hold on to power use fear as their primary means of keeping that power. Fear echoes throughout our religious and scientific discussion. A religious fundamentalist will not allow you to question their beliefs because they are afraid of the consequences. A sectarian fundamentalist may be willing to let you question their beliefs but that is because they do not have any beliefs; on the other hand, they have no vision for tomorrow because their vision is totally locked up in the present. It is their own insecurity that prevents them from seeing the hope that is now and has been offered throughout the ages by God.

I also discovered that others hold the idea that I have stated before, that those who are insecure in their own beliefs fight strongest to prevent a questioning of their belief. Dan Dick wrote the following in one of his posts,

The weaker the faith, the stronger the negative passion.  People who feel assurance in their beliefs are rarely threatened by someone who disagrees with them.  I find this to be especially true about ecumenical and interfaith engagement.  When Christians are strong and secure in their beliefs, they joyfully and gladly engage with people of other beliefs and faiths.  The weaker the personal conviction, the more hostility, distrust, disrespect, fear, and judgement define the relationship.  Same goes with secular phenomena as well.  Evangelicals got all up in arms about Harry Potter swaying the weak and spiritually immature.  However, it seems that this was little more than projection — raising the alarm from their own weak faith.  Those who were strong in their faith and intellectually rigorous saw the stories for what they are — stories.  Only those who believe that the devil is as strong as, or stronger than, God had anything to fear.  Doubt is not the antithesis of faith; fear is.  Where people scream loudest against opponents, it is fear that motivates them, not faith. (From “Pushing Buttons”)

I would add to those comments that it is not just faith, but faith and reason that will stand up to fear. It is the confidence that Paul writes of his letter to the Philippians for today; it is the confidence that comes from the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

Jesus never said that following Him would be easier; in fact, He said it would be difficult. And perhaps the most difficult thing is that each individual must change. The call from John the Baptizer echoes throughout the ages, to repent and begin anew, to wash away the present and prepare for a new life. It is a new life that begins when you cast aside the ways of the past, secular and sectarian, and begin anew in Christ.

“What Did You Learn in Kindergarten?”


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 14 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 3: 7 – 18.

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Over the course of our journey there are some things that we just naturally learn. For example, we know

Tribbles hate Klingons and Klingons hate tribbles;

When going out into the Universe, remember to boldly go where no man has gone before;

There is no such thing as a Vulcan Death Grip;

Enemies may be invisible, like Romulans they can be cloaked; and,

Always have your phaser set on stun. (Provided in an e-mail by Keith Shikowitz – Lt. (j.g.), USS Relentless – 9 December 2003)

These sayings come from a poster entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Star Trek." This came out shortly after a book by Robert Fulghum entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Reverend Fulghum is a Episcopal priest out in Seattle, Washington, and he put together in this little book a collection of writings about life and living. It became a national best seller and he has gone on to write a number of other books about many things. In this premier book he wrote,

ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.

And remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Reverend Fulghum went on to see how the behavior of everyone in the world and all the basic tenets of life could be seen through those brief statements. ("All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", Robert Fulghum, Villard Books, 1989)

I have two reasons for bringing up the "rules of life." First, there were a number of articles that I read this past week that pointed out that what we do and how we do things. Second, the people responded to John’s call for repentance with the question, "What should we do?"

Thomas Walters, a Catholic religious educator, reported that a Catholic child spends about 390 hours in parish religious education, from kindergarten through grade 12. Not a bad amount of time perhaps but barely significant when compared with the 11,000 hours the same student will spend in public school education or the estimated 15,000 hours the child will spend watching television. It is not the classroom where a student’s faith will be taught but elsewhere in the student’s life.

As to underscore that very point, Jerome Berryman tells the story about a time when he was a theologian in residence at a Quaker church in Portland, Oregon, when a university student came into the service one Sunday. The student, with the long hair and tattered paints of that time, could not find a place to sit in the sanctuary so he sat down in the aisle. A Quaker with white hair and wearing a three-piece suit then came and sat down beside the young student. Berryman reported that this single episode was so impressive that it changed the student’s life. (From Christian Century, December 13, 2003)

"And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?" (Luke 3: 10) The people heard John’s call for repentance and wondered what they should do, not so much perhaps to prepare for the coming of the Messiah that John was prophesying but to save their own souls.

John’s response to the people was straightforward, "Give to the poor; clothe the naked; take no more than you are owed." In other words, one should treat people fairly. We can see from the reading of today’s Gospel that there was a substantial change in the attitudes of the people who came that day to hear John preach.

At the beginning of the passage, the people were merely going through the motions and their actions did not truly represent their inward attitude. John’s response to them was to call them vipers and to point out that simply by having connections through birth to Abraham and Moses was no guarantee of salvation. The only true salvation involved repentance and a change of heart.

The same is said about the Old Testament reading for today. It is hard to see how a prophecy of doom can be the foretelling of good tidings but that is what Zephaniah is. The opening passages of this little known book of the Bible tell of the impending doom of the Israelite nation, a doom caused by the people’s own actions. They had scorned God’s laws, they worshipped false gods and sinned without remorse. Zephaniah is bringing to them the announcement that they must change their ways or else.

But the words that we heard today are words of hope, promises of protection and promises for the future of those who know God truly. We read that God was going to make all things right; that their enemies would be removed and all those disenfranchised would be restored. And these promises are not made to the nation but to each individual.

I do not necessarily hold to the view of some more fundamental preachers that these are the days preceding the Second Coming of Christ. I do not believe that we can say when that will be since Christ Himself did not know that time or place. I also do not think that there will be any more prophets.

There were prophets in the Old Testament and they were needed in order to announce the coming of Christ. John the Baptizer would also be considered a prophet because he stood there in the wilderness outside Jerusalem calling for all to repent and be saved. He knew that there was one yet to come and that the time of that coming was near.

But there are no more prophets; there is, in my view, no one that can say that the Second Coming of the Lord is near. But that is not to say that we should not be doing things. The people who heard John’s words and believed that he spoke the truth asked what it was they should do.

Jesus told those who saw Him following His resurrection that the signs of His presence were all around them. And when asked, Jesus pointed out the sick, the needy, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, the lonely and all those society would rather forget. Our preparation for Christ’s coming, be it His birth or His Second Coming, is found in how we treat other people.

In writing to the people of Philippi, Paul challenges them to not worry but rather to pray to God in thanks. He is doing so because they have been spending their time fighting amongst themselves over matters that we do not know about. IN the verses that preceded the ones we read today we read,

I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement, also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (Philippians 4: 1)

Euodia and Syntyche were women of the Philippian community who had fallen into some disagreement that was affecting the whole church. Nothing other than what is written by Paul is known about the two women or their disagreement. Paul does not take sides in the issue but rather implores the two to seek reconciliation. For otherwise, the church would be torn apart.

It would be hard to imagine what the actual disagreement was about. But whatever the disagreement was, it was enough to threaten the church and Paul is doing his best to get the parties involved to resolve this conflict. It must have been sufficient to cause grief not just for the two individuals but for the whole church as well, because that is why Paul speaks of rejoicing.

It is not to cover up the disagreement but to reinforce the notion that the church’s existence is so that each member can renew his or her relationship with God. Paul is pointing out that in times of strife and stress, it is most important that we focus on that relationship. It is part of the doom that Zephaniah spoke of because the people had forgotten their relationship with God.

John too is speaking of the relationship the people have with God and the need to renew that relationship. As we prepare for the coming of Christ through his birth, we are reminded of the relationship that was established that last night in Jerusalem.

When he gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room that night before He was crucified, Jesus reestablished the relationship of each person with God. Our partaking of communion today does the same. In this season of Advent, you will be called to do many things, some you may not want to do and some perhaps with persons whom you would rather not be with. It is in those times and those situations that you need to remember what you have been taught, as the disciples were, by the example of Jesus.

It isn’t what you learned in kindergarten that counts the most. It is what Christ has taught you and how well you live those lessons that will determine the preparation for this season of Advent.


Finding the Hope


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28.

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When I first looked at the readings for this Sunday (Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28) and especially at the passages from Isaiah, I saw words of despair and gloom. Perhaps that was because those have been the dominant words and thoughts in my life these past months. But in my second reading of the Scriptures (and we all know how important it is to read any passage at least twice) I found a different take on the words.

When you re-read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, you perhaps get a sense that while there may have been gloom in their minds, there was also a faint glimmer of hope. And it is that faint glimmer of hope that one needs to focus on.

Now Isaiah says, in verses 5 – 7, which are not part of the Old Testament reading for today, that the people of Israel will hire outsiders to herd their flocks and bring in foreigners to work in the fields (verse 5). Isaiah also proclaims that the people of Israel will feast on the bounty of other nations (verse 6).

It is hard to hear Isaiah’s promise of hope contained in verses 1 – 4 and 8 – 11 when you look at verses 5 – 7. That’s because we have already outsourced many of our jobs and we quite willingly let foreign workers work in our fields. We have mostly definitely feasted on the bounty of other nations and on the bounty of this world, to the point that we have become fat, lazy, and self-centered.

Now, I am not arguing against abolishing the various free trade agreements that are so much a part of the global economy. Nor am I arguing for the banning of immigration into this country or a ban on the hiring of undocumented workers. We, as a society and a country, have allowed that to happen because we want the benefits of that cheap labor. We want cheap goods; we will go to any length to keep the costs of our goods low. We do not care about the quality of working conditions in factories in the third world nor do we care about the conditions immigrant workers (legal or otherwise) have to endure while working in some of the worst jobs in this country. All we care about is that we get our goods at the lowest possible price.

It is our unwillingness to demand quality and to pay the price for quality that underlies the economic crisis we are facing right now. We have grown used to cheap oil and we see the only solution in more oil, not other solutions. We have grown use to bountiful harvests, aided by countless pesticides and herbicides, and we care little about what this does to the food or the workers that handle the food.

We certainly do not echo Paul’s words of sharing and working together. Our present leaders will gladly give money to big business without regard for how it is spent; but let the discussion turn to the workers for those companies and they are either cast out into the street without proper remuneration or they are told that they need to sacrifice. We have endured eight years of the rich getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer and we are told by our leaders that we need to keep doing that. I didn’t hear our leaders in Congress or the present administration tell the CEO’s of the Big Three Auto makers to take a pay cut while telling the workers that they had to do so.

My friends, as William Shakespeare might have written, “The fault lies within us.” We are like the Pharisees who come to John the Baptizer seeking a messiah who would lead them out of the wilderness. But those who came to the Baptizer were seeking a messiah for the present time, a political leader who would let them keep their power and their glory. This encounter between the Baptizer and the Pharisees echoes our own blindness, our own willingness to see in many a messiah who will lift us out of our despair but keep the status quo. We seek someone who will lead us as we continue to walk the same paths that lead us into this wilderness of darkness and despair.

The leaders back then were hardly prepared for the Baptizer’s words and we know that later they would not want to hear Jesus’ words either. I am not sure, in light of what is going on, that we are prepared to hear the words of Jesus this year either. We are still a society focused on the now, the present; we are not prepared to deal with tomorrow. If you will, we stand on the shores of a river and want to cross the river at that point in the water. But the point in the water where we focus our efforts moves before we get to it and we are swept aside by the force of the river’s current. Our focus needs to be on the other side of the river and how to cross the river, not how to get through the river.

I have two resources that I turn to when I need to refresh my thoughts. One is Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams; it was given to me by Marvin Fortel, my pastor when I was a sophomore in college. I have the pages of this book clipped together because, of constant use over the past forty years, it has fallen apart. The other book is A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck; this was given to me by John Praetorius, my pastor when I began lay speaking. It hasn’t fallen apart but its pages are dog-eared and it shows the signs of use and age.

And from that second book I found this passage for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

The contemplation of God is not effected by sight and hearing, nor is it comprehended by any of the customary perceptions of the mind. For no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, nor does it belong to those things which usually enter into the heart. One who would approach the knowledge of things sublime must first purify one’s manner of life from all sensual and irrational emotion. That person must wash from his or her understanding every opinion derived from some preconception and withdraw from customary intercourse with companions, that is, with sense perceptions, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature as its companion. When so purified, then one assaults the mountain.

The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb — the majority of people scarcely reach its base. If one were a Moses, he would ascend higher and hear the sound of trumpets which, as the text of the history says, becomes louder as one advances. For the preaching of the divine nature is truly a trumpet blast, which strikes the hearing, being already loud at the beginning but becoming yet louder at the end. (From Gregory of Nyssa)

We cannot see God in the darkness if we are afraid of the darkness; we cannot see God in the world if we see the world as it is. Our despair grows out of our fear of the darkness. And we may feel abandoned by God because we let the darkness overcome and surround us. Those who preach or speak to our fears cannot lead us out of this darkness but only take us further into it. The Baptizer tells us that there is someone coming who will lead us out of the darkness but only if we are prepared to make the changes in our lives. And the change that must occur is a change in our own lives, in our own soul.

From A Guide to Prayer, we read

God is no longer the Friend I meet, the Father with whom I hold converse, the Lover in whom I delight, the King before whom I bow in reverence, the Divine Being I worship and adore. In my experience of prayer God ceases to be any of these things because he ceases to be anything at all. He is absent when I pray. I am there alone. There is no other.

If this experience persists — and is not the effect of the flu coming on or tiredness — it means that something of the greatest importance is happening. It means that God is inviting me to discover Him no longer as another alongside me but as my own deepest and truest self. He is calling me from the experience of meeting Him to the experience of finding my identity in Him. I cannot see Him because He is my eyes. I cannot hear Him because He is my ears. I cannot walk to Him because He is my feet. And if apparently I am alone and He is not there that is because He will not separate His presence from my own. If He is not anything at all, if He is nothing, that is because He is no longer another. I must find Him in what I am or not at all. (From Tensions by H. A. Williams)

The transforming moment of Advent is when we open our hearts to the coming of Christ, not as a moment in time on the calendar. In the darkness and despair of the present times, we will not find God, for God is not there. He has come and is coming into our lives through Christ. A little child will be born and with His birth will come the promise of a new tomorrow and the hope of a better day. It is the hope expressed by Isaiah in the rebuilding of the Israelite nation; it is the hope that Paul offers to the people of Thessalonica when there appears to be none. It is the hope that the Baptizer offered to the people by the banks of the River Jordan when it seemed that there was no hope.

It is the hope found in Christ. We are invited to see that hope in the darkness, to let that hope into our hearts and our souls, and to share that hope with others. We can find the hope we need if we but look to Christ.

Bowling Balls and Bowling Bags


This is the message I presented for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 15, 2002) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28.

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I have a confession to make, “I am not a gracious loser.” I realize that I not competitive in every area where I compete but in those areas where I do compete and excel I do not take losses easily, especially when I can point to errors on my part that contributed to the loss. And John’s statement about not being able to wear the shoes of the one that is coming reminds me of a particularly galling loss some twenty-three years ago. For as I fumed over the loss and walked out of the bowling center, I turned to the person who beat me and just said that he shouldn’t gloat for he couldn’t even carry my bowling bag.

Now, this may not be particularly interesting to anyone but me but a few months later as we prepare to travel to another tournament, he came with a bowling bag on wheels. Not only could he not carry my bag, he couldn’t carry his own.

No matter how it is done, we need to be reminded about what John said that day in the desert outside Jerusalem. We are not worthy to walk in the shoes of Jesus and we shouldn’t even begin to think that we could.

The spring of my sophomore year in college, I went to the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville about taking communion before leaving for spring break. Reverend Fortel was taken back by this request for no other college student had ever made such a request. But he agreed to do so and we met in the chapel just before spring break. The ritual for communion spoke of not even being worthy of collecting the crumbs from under the table. Since this communion was not of a formal service, I asked Rev. Fortel why this was. “Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross give us the right to sit at God’s table?” I asked. Rev. Fortel pointed out that by ourselves we would never have that right and it is only by God’s grace and the salvation of Christ that we are able to come to the table.

There is another thing that you need to know about bowling and its roots to Protestant churches of Europe during the Reformation. Martin Luther was a great proponent of bowling, so much so that a bowling lane was placed in the center aisle of the sanctuary. Every Sunday, members of the congregation would stand at the end of the lane and roll a ball down the aisle towards the pins. A strike was an indication of one’s righteousness and the failure to strike was an indication of one’s unworthiness. It should be noted that the lane at that time was about 10 inches in width and unless you were particular adept at throwing a straight shot down the boards, getting a strike was down right near impossible. So it was that many people were obligated to practice and work on their righteousness each week.

Of course, this theological application does not seem to have been carried through the ages. But the concept of working on one’s righteousness should not have been lost in the passage of time. And, during this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, we are reminded of our responsibility to others so that they can prepare as well.

The passage from Isaiah is not only a reminder that God has not forgotten the people in exile in Babylon but a reminder that the people will be restored. We read that God will “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners.” And it is important to note that it is the people who will build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities and take away the devastation of the previous generations.

“For I the Lord loves justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing” is what Isaiah told the people. And if the covenant between the people and God was to be reestablished, then so too must the people.

John Wesley knew that people could not live without the Gospel. There can never be hope in one’s life if the Gospel is not there. But he also knew that Gospel was meaningless if the people were hungry or cold or homeless. What good does it do to be of good cheer if one cannot feed one’s family? Our responsibility to bring the Gospel to the world means that we must also take care of those in need.

Our own preparation for the coming of the Lord is individual in nature. It is something that only we can do, though we may do it with others. But John’s call for repentance is a call for us to look into the bags that we carry, be they bowling bags or otherwise, rollaway or hand carried, and empty them out. Repentance requires that we start over, without the baggage of our past. We cannot prepare for the coming of the Lord if we hold to our old ways, if we keep looking back to the past.

Paul spoke of what we should be doing. Celebrate that God is present in our lives. Hear the words of the prophets and test them. Hold fast to that which is good but abstain from every form of evil. Isaiah spoke of the rewards that would come with the preparation. People would gain garlands instead of ashes, be anointed with oil instead of mourning and wear a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

This time of year is one of darkness; it can be one of gloom. But as the lights on the Advent wreath increase each Sunday, so too does the hope for the future. Take some time this week and look at the bags that you carry. Take some time this week and consider whether your life can strike out against injustice and oppression. Give some time this week to put away the old ways and look to the future.

Isaiah’s words “as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” ring true today. It is the Holy Spirit that has been given to us and through us shines in this time of darkness. With the presence of the Holy Spirit we are empowered to help others, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free those oppressed by injustice and finally to hear the good news of the coming of the Christ child.

What’s In The Box?


This is the message I presented for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 12, 1999) at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28

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This is probably the time of Christmas season that I like the best. The tree is up (when I have the chance, I like to put on the lights myself), the favorite family ornaments have been carefully unpacked and placed on the tree, and all the decorations have been hung about the house. And the presents have begun to arrive.

Now, some may think that I don’t like Christmas presents. In truth, I like presents. Over the past few years, I have found some enjoyment in getting what I feel that my daughters, grandchild, brothers, sister, mother, wife, and selected others might enjoy. But I will also admit that I am not crazy about Christmas shopping. I don’t like venturing out into the wilderness and madness of the mall at this time of year and I certainly don’t like the hype of buying that comes at this time. Now, how then do I solve that particular problem? Well, if I can, I think about what it is that I am buying all year round and if the opportunity presents itself to get a present for anyone on my list; I get it then and put it away.

But I like it when the presents start appearing under the tree. Because then you get to think about and guess what might be in the box. If you are like me, you take every opportunity to sneak over and pick up a present or two and shake it to see if it rattles (hoping, of course, that is not a broken piece of crystal) and to see how much it might weigh. And when you were little, you might have even tried to stay up all night long, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa bringing in the bicycle or train set that you had asked him for. Try as I might, I never could catch him though.

Rattling and shaking the box may be a good description of what the priests and Levites are trying to do in the Gospel reading for today.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

The problem for them was that they did not know whom John the Baptist was. Could it be that he was the Messiah? Or was he just another prophet coming to stir up the people?

He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you?”

The priests, Levites, and the Pharisees who sent them out to interrogate John were uncomfortable with John’s message of repentance and his challenge directly to them that they repent of their sins and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. They had grown comfortable living in a world defined by the law, even when the law was sometimes contradictory, and this “wild man of the wilderness” was challenging everything that they stood for. They had grown comfortable living in a box.

We all do that at one point or another in our lives. We want our lives to be neat and arranged, knowing what to expect each day. And we get extremely uncomfortable when someone does something to shake up that arrangement. We find it very nice to live in a box.

Living in a box, while safe and sometimes comfortable, can also be very confining. The limits placed by the “walls” of the box define what it is that you can and cannot do and that makes it very difficult to be creative or to see what can be done. Often times, we do not see the possibilities of things that we can do because of the walls the box has put around us. Where would we be today if the disciples, simple fisherman, had not seen their task as becoming “fishers of men?”

The challenges of the world today require that we see beyond what we define ourselves to be. And the very thought of that scares a lot of people. But my friends, the reason for our celebration of Christmas is the coming of the Lord and what He means to our lives.

Jesus’ ministry went beyond what the people, not just the leaders, thought at that time. When you look at his ministry, you see him saying, “Let the children come to me” at a time when children were considered more than just a nuisance and ignored. He had a ministry that included women at a time when they were less than second class citizens. He had a ministry that went out to the poor, the sick, the brokenhearted, and those members of society who were forgotten. As Isaiah proclaimed,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he as sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all those who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

The message that John brought was to say that the time had come to review all that one had done and to repent and begin anew. This very thought of beginning anew, of tearing down the walls that provide us with security, is a scaring one. And it is a difficult one to accept. That, I think, is why Paul wrote the Thessalonians,

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Though John called for us to make straight the path, the journey of faith for us is neither straight nor does it always seem safe. It is those anxieties and fears that keep us in the box, in a life confined by rules and regulations that are often times contradictory. This was the world into which Christ came and which He sought to change.

God offers us not a refuge from life but the courage to live fully into self and life.

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Christ wants us to live outside the boundaries of the box that we place ourselves in. That is why the baptism by Christ was with the Spirit. Because in allowing the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, we gain that which we need to go beyond the walls of the box.

Today we celebrate Communion. It is a chance to bring Christ into your life. But it is also something else. Communion in the United Methodist Church is at an open table. We do not limit access to it to members of just this church or just this denomination. We do not prescreen those who seek to come forward. All we ask is that you come with an open heart, accepting in the Spirit.

So, I ask you today to give every thought you have to “what’s in the box you call your life?”

How Do We Get There?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this weekend.  (I found out that I had posted this particular message twice so, obviously, I deleted the other one.  Also, as it happened, I didn’t make it to Dover on this particular Sunday; there was a rather bad snowstorm the night before and we cancelled the services.

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With the words of Isaiah for today (1) and what Jesus said about John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (2), I could not help but think about the first time I came to preach at Dover.

Like many computer/Internet savvy users, I pulled up one of the map and direction websites and put in the address for the church. The advantage for the modern day circuit rider is that you can get a map with directions from anywhere to everywhere. The disadvantage is that the way that is determined the best way may not always be the best; it may be the most direct but it is likely to be a route that takes you over hills and through the woods. What many computer map systems do not have is a sense of what is actually there. Because I have come back to this church on a number of other occasions, I have come up with a route that gets me here quickly and safely.

The one thing about finding your way to someplace new is that you have to be able to read a map and you have to be able to determine if the information that you have been given is correct. There have been a number of occasions when the information given does not match the actual situation or you have to modify the directions because your knowledge of the roads tells you to find another direction.

There are times, of course, when you just want to follow your own thoughts about where a road might take you. When I lived in Kansas a number of years ago, I noticed something slightly odd or perhaps just quirky about the U. S. highways in the area where I lived. In the southeast corner of Kansas is the small town of Oswego. If you take U. S. Highway 59 south out of Oswego, you eventually run into U. S. Highway 60. Driving eastward on U. S. 60 will get you to U. S. Highway 61. If you are careful, you will eventually drive on U. S. Highways 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. For reasons known only to the highway builders, U. S. Highway 68 runs through Ohio. But from Highway 67, you can get to U. S. Highway 70 which will take you to U. S. Highway 69. And when all is said and done, you are in Columbus, KS and 16 miles from where you started.

Based on this little journey through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, I thought it might be possible to go up to Maine and follow Highway 1 to where it intersected Highway 2 and continue all the way across the country. It turns out that you cannot do that because the number of the highways was not done in such a logical manner. What this little trip through the Ozarks does show is that you can take a journey and end up where you started.

Our lives are sometimes like that. We go through life headed in a particular direction because we think it is the right direction to take and we make the changes when it is appropriate but when the time comes to evaluate what we have done and where we have been, we find that we are where we started and no better off. It is at such times as these that we wonder where we are going to find any meaning to life and how we are ever going to find our way in this world.

It is human nature to seek meaning in life and we desperately want to know that what we do has meaning. Many times, we simply want someone to point out where to go or give us the right direction in which to head. But other times, we simply want someone to get us where we need to be or give us the things that we seem to be lacking.

In one sense, the question that John the Baptist had his disciples ask Jesus is a question that we often ask ourselves. Is Jesus the One who has come or is there someone else for whom we should wait?

John the Baptist is in prison for having questioned the legitimacy of King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow. The Baptist knows that his life is about to end and his work is over; all he wants to know is whether or not all the work that he had done was in vain. He sends his disciples to Jesus and has them ask if Jesus is the One who is to come. Is Jesus the One whom John the Baptist prepared the people for? Even though Jesus is his cousin, John is not certain if what he has done means anything to the people.

Jesus replies by asking the disciples what they see. Do they not see the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the sick healed, and the oppressed rejoicing with the hearing of the Good News? The signs tell them that Jesus is the Messiah and John’s work has not been in vain.

But what does this mean for us? How can we, in the chaos of today’s world, see the signs that tell us Jesus has come or that what we have done has any meaning? Too many people want the church today to give them the answers; too many people want the church to ease the pain of living in this world. They do not want the church to tell them that their work and their lives have been in vain.

And too many churches today do exactly that; they give the people what the people want to hear. They do not give them the truth. Did not Jesus ask the people who were following him if John the Baptist was wearing colorful robes? Did not Jesus point out that John the Baptist came as he was and what he said was, if you will, the plain and unvarnished truth? The truth is often a very hard topic for the church to say and for the people to hear.

Last week, there were two shootings in Colorado. Some said that the killing of the people was part of God’s plan and nothing anyone did would have stopped the killing. I have a hard time with that view of the world because it means there is no hope in this world. It means that you walk a path through life but it is a path that goes nowhere and when the path ends, it ends. What Jesus offered was hope, not despair and I don’t think that God would allow people to die just to fulfill a plan.

There were others who said that these killings were indicative of how society is. Those who died in the school in Arvada or in the church in Colorado Springs died because of society’s indifference to the problems of the world. But, placing the blame on society still does not give us a reason or a solution. If society is partially to blame for the Colorado killings, it is because it has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the young man.

And if society did not hear the young man’s cries, it is because the church has not done its job. Despite what others may say, the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state; it is the conscience of the state. (3) The church is called today to lead those who hear the cries of the lost and the forgotten, not be among those who ignore the cries.

But in too many ways, the church does forget or ignore the cries. There are pastors today who will tell you that it is entirely proper and right for you to seek riches in this world. God has blessed you and you have the right to those blessings here and now. All you have to do is plant the seed and let the seed grow. The more you plant, the greater will be your reward. This is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It does not matter whether you have the money or not; you can always use your credit cards. But it seems to me that the only ones who are being rewarded are the preachers who ask you to send them your money and they are not too happy when you challenge them about their finances.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has asked six prosperity gospel ministers to answer some questions about the money they receive and their clearly extravagant lifestyles. Two of the six have answered his questions; two of the six are thinking about answering the questions. The other two are refusing to do so, saying that to do so would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

There should be no questions whatsoever about one’s ministry. New Testament Christianity is humble, selfless, and authentic. Those who carry the truth don’t do so for selfish gain or to meet an emotional need for attention. We can only hope that God will help us root out the false apostles and false teachers who are making the American church sick with their human-centered, money-focused heresies. (4)

Not all churches preach the prosperity gospel. They just don’t preach the gospel at all. All you hear in so many churches today is what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Again, we hear Jesus rebuking the people who wanted John the Baptist to give it to them easy all over again. And Jesus’ rebuke to the people is a reminder that what He will ask of them is far harder and more demanding than anything John every asked.

It is one thing to have modern music in church today; it is an entirely different thing to take away the meaning of the music. It is one thing to put the Gospel into the vernacular or patois of today’s society; it is another thing entirely to take the Gospel out of the service. It is one thing to expect that we should live well or not lose what we have. It is another thing to say that what we have is ours and ours alone or that we will not share what we have with others who do not have anything. It is one thing to say that we have what God gave us and we do not have to give what we have to others.

God created the world before He created the church. The church is a part of the world but it has moved away from the world as people have sought easy answers. The church has moved away from being a church that faces conflict and suffers persecution, killings, and bombings to one that avoids conflicts and causes persecution. The church has moved from seeing Jesus as liberator to seeing Jesus as a servant of the church.

It is no wonder why people do not turn to the church in moments of crisis or turmoil; they see the church as the reason for the crisis or turmoil.

If we are to find our way again; if we are to get back on the “right” track, we have to make some radical changes in our lives. And we need to be reminded that John the Baptist’s call for repentance is a call for change. Repentance does not simply mean that we say we are sorry for what we have done; it means that we will seek to change and become a new person.

Instead of wrapping an impenetrable barrier around our hearts while we wrap the presents that we will place under the Christmas tree this year, we need to unwrap our hearts and let the Love of Christ come into our lives. Instead of thinking about December 26th as the day after Christmas and the day we return the unwanted gifts, we should begin to think about how we can take the Love of Christ given to us on Christmas Day and give it to others each day after Christmas.

The change may not come that easily but we are comforted by the words of James today who told us to be patient. (5) It is easy for us to do this because we have seen what Jesus can do; we know what we must do.

Christmas has become that time when we think we have to go to Bethlehem. But because of the demands that society places on us, we don’t think that we can get there. We ask how we can get there when everything around us tells us that we can’t get there. But there is no longer a place in our journey; it is a time. And that time is now. How do we get there? We open our hearts and let Jesus come in.

(1) Isaiah 35: 1 – 10

(2) Matthew 11: 2 – 11

(3) Martin Luther King, Jr. – in “A Real ‘Values’ Agenda” by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, January 2008

(4) “The Deadly Virus of Christianity”, http://www.charismamag.com/fireinmybones/Columns/show.php

(5) James 5: 7 – 10