Eternal Preparedness

God of captives and pilgrims,
you brought your people home from despair
and gave them a land of freedom and plenty.
Look in mercy on us your servants,
deliver us from the prison of selfishness and sin,
and bring us home to justice, sharing, and compassion,
the realm you promised all the world
in Jesus Christ the Savior. Amen. (source)

 

Today we are going to examine our lives in light of eternity. The four lectionary texts call us to recognize our need for God (Psalm 70), to be hopeful in salvation through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (I Thess 4), and to live out God’s heart for justice (Amos 5) in order to be eagerly prepared for Jesus Christ’s return (Matt 25).

 

Psalm 70 Verses 4-5 in the NRSV

4 Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”

5 But I am poor and needy;
hasten to (help) me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!

 

David, the Psalmist, is in some serious dismay. He has vengeful enemies who scoff at him and delight in shaming him. But he turns his gaze from those who “seek his life” to the One who can save his life. He recognizes his need for God and delights in his salvation. Verse 5 speaks of David’s humility. He says, “But I am poor and needy;”

 

Friends, I think humility is our first step toward God and I think it’s required of us each and every day. How often do we go about life without recognizing our need for God? (snarky) We feel a bit proud of the Christian life we’ve been living, of the way we’re caring for our family, or that at least we don’t have “those” problems (whatever problems we most despise in others…). And with these attitudes we    reject    God.

 

So ask yourself as honestly as you can manage:

Do I need God?

How am I poor?

How am I needy?

 

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (page 836) Paul gives us the abbreviated version of the Gospel good news of Jesus. He says in verses 13 -14  

 

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

 

Paul is saying, LOOK! THERE’S HOPE! Death is the not the final straw! We will be raised again to new life to spend eternity on the New Earth in which Jesus will reign as Lord! Amen and amen! Let it be so!

 

In verse 18 Paul closes by saying, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” That sounds all fine and dandy, I mean, hope is a good thing, but I wonder, is it actually encouragement if we’re not prepared? Do we have hope if we’re not living in humility and seeing our constant, desperate need for God and for building his kingdom?

 

Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 (page 702) depicts a bleak picture of those who claim to be his followers and yet neglect to be prepared for his return. Ask yourself honestly, “Is this me? Am I unprepared?”

 

I have never really understand this parable before reading the the IVP Bible Background Commentary on it this week. First I learned the word translated “virgin” in the NIV is actually referring to bridesmaids in a bridal party. “Being a bridesmaid was a great honor;” the commentary says, and “to be insultingly unprepared and shut out of the feast was the stuff of which young women’s nightmares were made.” The pinnacle of the wedding celebration would occur at at night. After 7 DAYS of wedding festivities (yes, DAYS), it was the bridesmaids’ supreme duty to stand prepared with large torches (not small, handheld lamps like I pictured before) waiting for the groom. The Groom would arrive to be escorted by the bridesmaids’ torchlight back to his bride, whom they all in turn would escort to the groom’s house. Five of these 10 women fell asleep and didn’t bring extra oil to keep their torches lit, resulting in their excommunication from the party.

 

In this parable Jesus implies his divinity to the listeners, referring to himself as the Bridegroom, and exhorts them to be anticipating his return. He was indicating that one day he would ascend back to heaven to dwell with the Father, and until the day of the New Earth when He would reign as Lord, we must be busy preparing his for his return.  

 

But what does that preparing look like?

 

Well, the Prophet Amos tells us what it’s not.

 

Amos 5:18-24

18 Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light. (if you’re not prepared)

Verse 20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me. (do we stink?)
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps (or pianos or guitars).

I think this prophecy is as applicable today to our middle class American churches as it was in 755 BC. The lands of Judah and Israel were disgusting God by their mechanical, religious celebrations and their mistreatment of the poor. In my Life with God Bible one of the notes says, “Although the Israelites performed their rituals of worship, their lack of love for those around them revealed the superficiality of their worship.” Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that’s like a punch in the gut for me. How often do we worship in this place and then go out and avoid those who disgust us or focus on our own goals in life or neglect to extend hospitality? Too often.

 

Remember that message of humility from Psalm 70, recognizing our need for God? I think we’ve gotten too comfortable, much like Judah and Israel. Material wealth abounded in their day and their kingdoms were expanding (sound familiar?) Again a note from the Life with God Bible: “This prosperity led them to forget their God and his laws.” Is our prosperity leading us to apathy in our love for God, a lack of love for others, concerning ourselves instead with our “American dreams” of owning a house and nice cars and 47 inch plasma tv and the new iPhone 10 retirement plans?  

 

Do    we    even     need    God?

 

Verse 24 of Amos 5 is the linchpin of our salvation, it’s how to be prepared for eternity:

 

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-ending stream!

 

The Life with God Bible, says, “God cares about how we live our lives. By protecting justice, by generosity, simple living, and holy relationships, we will find ourselves living with God and extending his Kingdom” rather than our own.

 

As we enter the season of holiday hubbub, of overspending, and over-decorating, perhaps you will join me in practicing the discipline of simplicity. Let’s decide to have our hearts be singly focused on God and his kingdom, rather than pursuing our own dreams and desires. We don’t need to keep up with anyone else’s standard of Christmas presents. Let’s go against the grain of American Christmas. Let’s simplify our gift wrapping by giving more to the poor and needy like ICCM and Heartbeat. Talk with your family about changing the standard and having a simple Christmas, honoring God.

 

Let’s live out our salvation and be prepared for Christ’s return by getting rid of the excess and repenting of our pride, and turning humbly to God in our daily need.

 

As we go today, I send you with this benediction:

 

May the Spirit of God disrupt us in our comfort and force us from our apathy,
May He form in us Christ’s perfect love,
And fill us with authentic desire to worship God and build his kingdom
Until the day of his return. Amen.

Homes of Hospitality

I’m going to suggest something crazy: what if God’s call for his people – for us – is to create lives and communities of hospitality? From the time of creation, through the covenant with Abraham, to the sending of the Spirit: all of these pivotal moments in the story of God’s People has had to do with responding to God’s invitation to be part of God’s own self and to join God in his work. What does this look like? Well, Rev. Marjorie Thompson says,

“The essence of hospitality is receiving the other, from the heart, into my own dwelling place. It entails providing for the need, [the] comfort, and [the] delight of the other with all the openness, respect, freedom, tenderness, and joy that love itself embodies.”

Based on today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis 18, I see hospitality as three things: as paying attention, as responding to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, and as giving of yourself – your space, your time, your home, and most importantly your love. This is the story of Abraham and the Three Visitors at the Oaks of Mamre. This passage is called the “Hospitality of Abraham” and it’s an incredible story of God himself – God as three strangers – showing up. Verse 1 says,

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

By this chapter in Genesis, Abraham has a history of responding to God’s prompting, having made a covenant with God and willingly taken his son Isaac to be sacrificed. God knew Abraham would be paying attention, and so God himself showed up. Abraham notices the strangers and felt the prompting to invite them to his home. He responds by giving of himself, asking to serve them. This hospitality wasn’t a hand-out, it was a loving invitation to spend the day getting to know these strangers and serving them. Abraham’s invitation included choosing a choice calf, having it slaughtered and prepared for a meal, asking Sarah to bake bread (which takes hours alone), and conversing with his guests. The beauty of the invitation is that Abraham is served by his visitors: the Lord said to Abraham in verse 14:  “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Because Abraham was paying attention, responds, and gives of himself, he receives this precious message directly from God. God initiated the process, Abraham responds, and God continues his work. Because of Abraham’s hospitality, we are a part of God’s chosen people – a people chosen to show God’s hospitality.

The Hospitality of Abraham is depicted in this icon of the Trinity. Now, if you’re like me and you’re unsure about icons or just plain unfamiliar with them, fear not! One of my favorite resources, the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook describes them this way:

Icons are not a work of art that people worship – they are a sort of visual shorthand for what matters most. This visual language is not drawn or painted, it is “written” for it communicates unchanging truth about spiritual realities.

The spiritual reality being depicted here is the hospitality of the Trinity and the invitation of God to join him at the table.

In the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham we see the three “strangers” depicted as the three members of the Trinity. While every member’s clothing contains similarities in the blue coloring signifying their deity, there is also a unique element to each person’s garb. The Son (in the center) has a dark brown garment which correlates with his earthly existence along with a gold sash symbolic of his royal priesthood. The Spirit (on the right) is clothed in grassy green, the color of new life and growth. The Father’s garb is largely gold referencing his place in heaven. In the tilt of the shoulders, the position of the feet, and the angle of their heads, we see the mutual dynamic of love and respect shared between these three sitting down to a meal. In the foreground, we notice a not-so-subtle opening at the table. It is to this seat which God invites each of us. There is not a hierarchy nor a prerequisite to joining into this sacred setting. As the Trinity shows hospitality within himself, so God invites us to be a part of his hospitality and to invite others with the same hospitality we have received.

One of my favorite spiritual authors, Henri Nouwen, says this about this icon of the Trinity:

The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.  The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…

We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love.

When I say the word “hospitality” your minds are probably turning with your own definitions of what that looks like. Maybe you think of hospitality as creating elaborate meals and making sure your houses are spotless. Perhaps you get excited at the thought of inviting people into your home or maybe you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Our culture’s definition of hospitality has become exquisite event-planning or perfect Pinterest parties. I’d like to invite you to redefine hospitality. I believe our call to hospitality involves an inner attitude and a way of life. Hospitality is about paying attention to the others around me, responding to the Spirit’s prompting, and giving of myself to make space for those “others.” When we practice hospitality, we are saying to someone, “I see you. I want to make time for you. I want to meet your needs and show you sincere love.”

This type of hospitality can take many forms. Certainly it is having friends or family over for dinner or taking care to set out the food you know someone will love. Hospitality might look like inviting someone to take up residence in that spare bedroom or giving a stranger a ride to work. Hospitality can also be found in a conversation with someone, giving them your full attention. You can create space for the “other” in your home, in your time, and in yourself.

In my January grad school residency, one of our assignments was to lay out attainable goals for our churches for creating lives and communities of hospitality. First, Church, I have to tell you how incredibly moved I am by the type of hospitable community you all have created over the past couple of years. Most every person who comes to worship with us comments on how safe and welcomed they feel, and how they can experience the love of God and a complete lack of judgment. This is an outstanding testament to the work God has been doing in us as a people.

Today, I want to challenge you to take this a step further. I believe God is wanting us to expand our church’s hospitality by creating homes of hospitality. Dr. Christine Pohl of Asbury Seminary writes,

Recovering hospitality will involve reclaiming the household as a key site for ministry and then reconnecting the household and the church, so that the two institutions can work in partnership for the sake of the world.

We want to become a church that continually and casually welcomes both friends and strangers into our homes, breaking down our barriers of insecurity and pride. This means inviting people into our space no matter how much or little we have to offer, despite our messy living rooms and our dirty bathrooms. It doesn’t matter if we live in a an old farmhouse, a modest ranch, a tiny apartment, or a cozy trailer. Our homes are a gift God has graciously given us and God himself dwells with us; therefore our homes are a sacred space for hospitality. This means letting strangers become friends as they see the pictures on our walls and eat our cooking and watch us bicker with our spouses over how to load the dishwasher. It means holding each other’s babies, helping the elderly up the steps, it means sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows or playing a rousing game of euchre. Hospitality is anytime you welcome another.

I hope the Lord has already been prompting your heart this morning, giving you ideas and bringing people to mind. I challenge you to join me this week in creating homes of hospitality.

Let’s hold one another accountable to creating homes of hospitality. Let’s ask each other each week, “Who have you welcomed and how? Where did you respond to God’s prompting?”


 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Cor. 13:14

 

 

Living Disciplined in the Dark

In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline. In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline.

According to the author of this Psalm, we must raise glad exultations to God for He has done marvelous things. “But what are these great deeds?” one could ask. “Why should I give praise to this God?” In the first portion of the Psalm, we read depictions of how the entire world is already lifting a chorus of praise to God for they observe the works of their Creator. “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). The people of Israel know the deeds of God in the way He parted the Red Sea and led them across dry land as they escaped brutal slavery in Egypt. Time and again this God of theirs executed justice in the ways He protected his people from rebellious nations. Surely for these acts alone He deserves praise.

The call to praise God becomes a bit convoluted as we move to the central verses in this Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 beckon us to bless God because “he has kept us among the living” (NRSV)  and “he has preserved us” (NIV). This language of preservation make me think of the to meticulous storage techniques involved in canning fruits or vegetables. It’s essential to follow the recipe precisely and to time the heating process perfectly in order to keep the lids sealed and the foods stored safely (and deliciously) for later use. Here in the Psalm the use of the word “preservation” in conjunction with the reference to human life points towards the fullness of life to which God is inviting us. As his people we have intrinsic value and we find our purpose in the work of his kingdom. Thus we are worth protecting and preserving with the utmost care.

This detailed work of preservation is extended in the way in which God does not “let our feet slip” (verse 9). The Lord keeps a careful eye on his loved ones, being sure our feet are firmly planted on the path before us. In my role as a mother,  I share a similar watchfulness over my young daughter on the playground (Stoneco, Vienna, St Mary’s). I sit back and allow her freedom to explore and exert her independence. Up and down she climbs, my attentive gaze always following her. My stomach churns as she creeps close to an edge, but I cheer when she wisely decides to take another route. The moment her foot begins to slip, however, I spring into action and catch her, keeping her from injury. The Lord does the same for us, his sons and daughters.

That sounds well and good, yet we find ourselves reading the words of verses 10 through 12 with shock and frustration, jolted out of our loving image of God.

10 For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;

Here we find the psalmist reflecting on the afflictions the Lord has brought his people through. In the Message paraphrase, verse 12 says “He has road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back.” Not only does it seem we have been deliberately put through the flames of refinement, but we were led into a trap and intentionally burdened. In these verses we find ourselves moved from a place of praising God for the way He led His people out of slavery, to lamenting the way God’s own hand directed us back to prison. “Why would God allow these painful trials and tribulations to face the children He supposedly loves?” we could ask.

The process of spiritual transformation happens in the fire or the rough waters, the darkest times of our journey. Our tendency is to run from pain and ask God to keep us from ever experiencing difficulty. The great surprise of the spiritual life is not that it is free from burden or challenge, but rather that we find ourselves nearest to God’s heart in those moments. When we read the psalmist’s metaphorical description of trials as the refining process of silver, we must examine the greater purpose of this pain. In the refinement process the goal is not to alter the silver, but to bring it to a more pure version of itself. Spiritually speaking, our own journeys toward God are not to lead us further away from who we are today, but toward a more holistic – more sanctified – a more Christ-in-me – version of ourselves.

In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr say, “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.” (Rohr, 100). This summary of the Christian spiritual formation process is an invitation to embrace the pain of life as a way of communing with God. Psalm 66:12b alters our perspective of the turbulent times when we see the welcomed conjunction “yet” changing the scenery. “yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” Suddenly we realize our Good Shepherd has not kept us in the pain for no purpose, but has led us toward a “spacious place” of freedom and abundance. Our hearts can be at rest in this place of “green pastures and quiet waters” as its put in Psalm 23, and we begin to recount the ways God has been faithful through the trials.

If our spiritual journey will take us deeper into the heart of God in the midst of hardship and affliction, we must have a plan in place to endure these times and deliberately call our attention to the presence of God with us. Psalm 66 is a hymn of discipline. Kevin and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I can’t help but think of how perfectly our wedding vows suit this Psalm. We are called to praise God in times of plenty and in times of want, in joy and in sorrow. In order to praise God in the midst of darkness we must live disciplined lives, using the tools of spiritual discipline to place ourselves before God and ask that our eyes be opened to his grace.

The ways in which we cultivate a life whose soul-soil is ready to receive the difficult work of the Holy Spirit is through faithful love and obedience to God. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We express our love for God by intentionally being present to Him and noticing his presence with us. In this Psalm alone, multiple spiritual disciplines are laid out as examples to us. First we practice the discipline of celebration, being deliberate in our praise of God for all of the goodness we have already experienced. By practicing the discipline of contemplation, where we stop and pause (as seen in the “selahs” of this Psalm),  meditating on the character of God or on his good works. This discipline of the mind helps us to notice more readily the ways God is being gracious to us in the midst of our present circumstances. In verse 13-15 the psalmist writes:

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

We can commit to bringing elaborate sacrificial offerings into God’s house even when we find ourselves facing hardship. This turns our hearts to generosity and allows us to better receive the generosity of God. We read the guttural cries of the psalmist in verse 17 when he says 17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue;” we too can commune with God in honest prayer through the suffering. God listens to our prayers and responds, and verse 18 indicates our prayers are most effective when we have practiced the discipline of confession. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Being blameless and righteous when we come before God is an important starting point to all of our prayers and humbly ushers us into the transforming work of the Spirit.

The final steps in our rhythm of spiritual formation is to declare the great things God has done to all who will hear. Verse 5 says, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals” while verse 16 echoes this by declaring, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” As we experience the saving work of God and his gentle presence with us as we endure difficulties, we must tell everyone who will listen the story of God. God’s invitation is for all people to be with him, communing with him and joining in his creative work in the world. Our role is to notice his presence with us in the fiery times or in the times of spacious safety and to glorify his good name always, beckoning others to experience this great grace.

The road of spiritual formation is winding, not linear, being led by the Spirit of God as we place ourselves in a posture of receptivity to his work. By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, contemplation, celebration, confession, and generosity, we are better able to respond to the work God is doing in our lives. Through his work we become more like Him as our impurities are washed away refining our character, drawing out the image of God already stamped on our souls.

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

In her Lenten Reflections booklet, Ruth Haley Barton says,

During Lent we are called to enter more intentionally into prayer, self-examination and repentance for the purpose of restoration and renewal. As painful as it is to be exposed at this level, awakening is evidence of God’s Grace.

Using the story of Jesus and this Samaritan woman we’re going to explore awakening to God’s grace. I want to invite you to join me in the process of restoration and renewal of our souls and to experience the belonging Jesus offers us. 

Last Sunday we read the verses 16-17 of John 3, which say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In Chapter 4 of John we see Jesus putting his teaching about salvation into practice. Without using words Jesus shows his disciples that THIS is what he meant by loving the whole world, giving love and belonging to this woman, this Samaritan woman, this abandoned Samaritan woman.

Most of the sermons I’ve heard about this Samaritan woman describe the forgiveness of Jesus and the sinfulness of the woman. But there is no mention of forgiveness or promiscuity here – we have read that into the text. Perhaps this woman’s story is different than that. Perhaps her story is more like ours than we’d like to admit. Though the details may be unique to her story, I believe each one of us is longing for relationship and acceptance, just as she was. And I believe that Jesus offers the same belonging and salvation to each of us as he offered to the Samaritan woman.

This woman had been married five times and she has been abandoned five times…abandoned through death of a spouse or divorce, likely due to her barrenness. The ability to bear children in ancient times was seen as the primary purpose of a woman, carrying on a male’s lineage was the entire point of marriage. If this woman was incapable of this “basic biological function”, she would surely be rejected. Thus when she meets Jesus at the well, she is thirsty for more than water. This woman is in need of acceptance, of relationship, of belonging.

My own story is not unlike this Samaritan woman’s. As a young married woman, I wanted nothing more than to have children. I had framed my future and my sole purpose in motherhood. Thus, I was completely shaken when my body’s functioning wasn’t “normal” and healthy. I, too, was barren. I spent five years of sorrow and darkness and questioning my worth and belonging. My friends were having children, women’s retreats would gather and discuss their kids, and I was on the outside. My infertility was even used as a weapon against me when some people questioned my effectiveness in church ministry if we didn’t have children. How could we possibly connect with the community without kids? These types of statements were both cruel and untrue. Though we knew these words were not of God, the shaming from outsiders was hard to bear.

Gradually my darkness began to transform me. I turned to God with more intensity than ever before. Gently and graciously, He began to unravel the strings I had tied up in my worth as a mother. He began to reveal to me the truths: I was valuable… apart from whether I had children or not. Kids would not fulfill me, my husband could not fulfill me, a job or ministry could not fulfill me. Jesus told me I was loved and I had belonging in him, no strings attached. This is the message of salvation for each of us – love and belonging.

So back to Sychar…there’s Jesus interacting in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely people. Meeting at a well was somewhat scandalous in itself, for wells were often the place where love-matches were made. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and others like them met their spouses at a well. Jesus’s Jewish heritage came with an unspoken rule to not interact with their rebel-cousins, the Samaritans. And as a man, Jesus was ignoring all sorts of social protocol by interacting with a woman, going as far as to ask her to share her drinking vessel with him. He was risking his reputation in order to share the refreshing streams of God’s love with this thirsty woman.

Even in the Exodus passage we read about how physical needs drive us to God. In chapter 17, the Israelites are complaining and arguing with Moses about how terrible their living conditions were. They were so overcome with their selfishness and their thirst that they went as far as to complain that they were no longer slaves in Egypt! Moses was afraid their rage was going to result in his stoning. (Talk about “hangry”!) In verse 6, God provides the miraculous water from the rock at Horeb and Moses commemorates the occasion by naming the location Massah and Meribah which mean “Test and Quarrel.”

But the thing about each of us, and the Samaritan woman, and the Israelites is our thirst is so much deeper than a dry mouth. Our physical symptoms or outward actions are often an expression of an inward spiritual need.  How often do you find yourself acting out in anger or impatience when the real problem isn’t really your kids or your husband or the barista or the guy in the car next to you. The real cause of your turmoil is something inside you. The stress or selfishness or jealousy causes us to act out, and those feelings are all rooted in a need to be filled with the living waters of Jesus. When we look inside ourselves and begin to dig through the mess we’ve created – the broken relationships, the poor self-image, the fear about money or anxiety about future plans – we find that at our core we need belonging. We try desperately to fill ourselves and take away the ache of belonging…that dream job, the perfect house, that friendship, the 401K, the fairytale wedding, the marriage, those kids, that college degree…none of it works, friends. All of this can just mask the problem unless we let Jesus walk us through the process of releasing our desires and our inadequacies and to be filled with him alone. It’s terrifying, I’m not gonna lie. But what I know for certain is that Jesus wants to save us from ourselves. He wants to give us living water that wells up to eternal life. By believing in him and following him, we find the belonging and we find salvation. And we, like the Samaritan woman, can’t wait to share this truth with everyone we meet.

This woman kept asking more and more questions of Jesus. “How can you be asking me for a drink? Where do you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors? Will you condemn me for the life I’ve lived? Where should we worship you? Are you really the Messiah?”

And she believes him. She knows he must be the Messiah and runs to tell everyone in her city that very day. The truth sets us free, friends! And this woman was changed from a shamed barren reject of society to a missionary for the good news about Jesus.

So how does Jesus want to save you? What shame or struggle does he want to free you from? What does he want you to release to his care so he can fill up your real need, your need to belong.

This is salvation, friends: to find acceptance and belonging in Jesus.

 

Enduring Presence,
goal and guide,
you go before and await our coming.
Only our thirst compels us
beyond complaint to conversation,
beyond rejection to relationship.
Pour your love into our hearts,
that, refreshed and renewed,
we may invite others to the living water
given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

source

 

Sermon given at Monroe Free Methodist Church based on the texts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

 

An Advent People

This morning I have the privilege of ushering you all into the New Year…the new liturgical year, that is. At Monroe Free Methodist Church, Pastor Kevin and I have chosen to follow the Revised Common Lectionary and today is the beginning of Advent, the start of the new Church year. To begin, we’ll spend some time breaking down these “church-lingo” terms, then I’ll share a bit of my personal story, and finally I’d like to challenge us to become an Advent People.

12_07_13 Advent Candle

Ok, so backing up a bit…the Lectionary. What in the world is it? The root of the word is “lection” which simply means “reading.” The Lectionary, then, is a predetermined way of reading through the Scriptures. Back in the 60s, the Catholic Church made the groundbreaking decision to begin following an organized plan or reading the Bible. The Revised Common lectionary came about in the 80s and 90s when a long list of non-Catholic Christian Churches tweaked the original reading schedule. Each week we read a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, an Epistle (the biblical term for “letter”), and a Gospel (the biblical term for one of the four books teaching on the Good News, the life of Jesus.) Many Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Mennonites, Anglican and Free Methodist churches follow the lectionary together. That’s one of my favorite parts about the lectionary – knowing that on this Sunday I’m reading the same passages that many other churches are across the country, and around the world. The reading unifies the Church across space and time.

The cycle of readings begins in “Year A” with Matthew and it’s correlating Old Testament, Psalm, and Epistle. Then, we start over again with a new set of passages for Year B (using Mark), then Year C (in Luke). Thus…we travel a three year journey through the whole story of the Bible. Though not every verse or chapter can be read during this time, we as a church are able to get a better taste for the beautiful story of God’s redeeming plan for creation, a story that spans Genesis to Revelation. 

Following the Lectionary is not required of our church. It is a decision Kevin and I have made out of conviction; conviction that our personal plans for sermons will never surpass the wisdom of God. Sure, we could be determining our sermon series based on our own agenda, but we’re pretty sure our creativity would run out, our biases would show through, and we could easily steer the church on our own insight. In reading the Lectionary, we trust that the Holy Spirit works outside of time, believing that even (and perhaps especially) predetermined Scripture readings are exactly the message God has for us today. We choose to submit to the authority and study of the men and women who’ve gone before us, as opposed to sticking to our favorite books of the Bible or using the trusty “open your Bible and blindly point” method. It’s exciting to watch how God has used these pre-planned Scripture passages to weave together sermons at the proper time. He is so faithful.

Ok…so now that we understand the Lectionary a bit better, there’s this concept of the Church Calendar (also known as the Liturgical Year or the Christian Year). This is yearly progression through the life of Christ, a calendar of seasons – of feast days and fasting – adhered to by nearly every Christian church. We begin now with Advent, then follow the arc of scripture through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Season. With each changing season, we are offered the opportunity to reflect on how God worked in us and we’re invited to become aware of his leading into the coming season.

Which brings us to today. The cool thing about today?! It’s the first day of the New Year in Year A! So if you’re just hearing about this for the first time, you’re getting in on the “ground floor.” (But don’t worry, we’ll come back around to Year A in 2019).

Today we are entering into the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The origin of this Christian season dates back to 480 AD and perhaps even further…to the times of Peter and the Disciples. The word “advent” simply means “to come” and so this season is an opportunity to prepare and to wait with baited breath for the arrival of the newborn King. We wait, as Mary did, for Jesus Christ to be born. We wait, as the prophets did, for their long-awaited Prince of Peace. But as followers of Jesus on the “other side” of his birth, we have a different invitation to wait. Knowing that the celebration of Jesus’ birth is imminent, we now wait for his second coming. We wait for the day when Christ will come to bring his perfect peace to earth as it is in heaven…for all eternity. We wait with hope and angst for the day when he will make all things right, restoring relationships, repairing sick bodies, aligning healthy governments, abolishing poverty. We wait with excitement and perhaps dread, for his day of judgment, knowing that our trust in him brings salvation but that a detailed account of our lives will acknowledge the moments when we failed to follow faithfully. But we wait.

After years of following Jesus, I only recently began to embrace the seasons of the Christian calendar. A few years back, a friend who I deemed my “spiritual mother” invited me to join her intimate small prayer circle. Each Wednesday evening, five of us would gather in a chilly, candlelit sanctuary for an hour of stillness. We prayed the vespers service together, reading Scriptures and praying written-out prayers. Spending this type of quiet time together was new to me, but became deeply transformative. Together we were experiencing the life-changing lessons contained in the liturgy and the communion of saints.

And it was there that I met Advent. Along with my dear vespers sisters, we read Ruth Haley Barton’s Advent Reflections to guide our focus during this season of faith. Ruth’s writing and urging, combined with the lectionary Scripture passages offered the opportunity for self-examination, for refocusing, for shifting my perspective. Yes, this is the very same devotional guide we’ve offered to you. (Which, side note…the orders are in, and we have two extra, if you’re interested!)

Advent is such a beautiful, yet challenging time in life of the Church. It is at this time of year that we are reminded of our need to wake up to the coming of Jesus in our lives, to become an Advent People.

This Advent-waiting is so difficult because we are invited to sit in this in-between space: a space where we are no longer experiencing the comfortable, oh-so-familiar life, yet neither have we seen the resolution of the waiting…the answer, the direction, the “ahhhh yes” everything-is-turning-out-just-fine moment. We are in the time of holding our breath, left to wait. We can choose to gasp for air, fight for our lives, flee the fearful expectancy. Or we can seek the Lord Jesus Christ in this uncertainty, looking for his movement, listening to his voice. Because even in the waiting, especially in the waiting, there is Jesus.

When I first started observed Advent in 2013, I was in the middle of one of my darkest winters. It was our third year of infertility and that combined with other life circumstances made the dark winter nights a reality in my heart. But during that time, I prayed this prayer:

Lord Jesus, As hard as this is to admit, I thank you for this long time of advent in my life. This journey of infertility may continue for many more years, I don’t know, but the grace, the blessing has come and is coming in the ways I’m learning to seek you. I imagine where my focus would be right now if I had gotten “my way”…and it’s not likely to be totally on you. Teach me now how to keep company with Jesus, how to kindle communion with Him, that it may be an inextricable part of me in years to come.

Advent is so much more than a countdown to Christmas. It is an invitation to wait with God on God in our everyday lives. The process of Christian growth – of spiritual formation – is slow and ongoing and, quite frankly, beyond of our control. Friends, my challenge for our church is to become an Advent People: a congregation who responds to God’s invitation every day; a people who hold vigil with Christ each day – keeping the candle burning in our devotion to prayer and to scripture and to one another; a humble group of Jesus-followers becoming increasingly willing to change, willing to step out of the control seat and willing to let God do his transformational work.

Come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord together! (Isaiah 2:5)

Single-mindedness

At the end of Luke chapter 9, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It is with this resoluteness that Jesus continues the rest of his ministry: a singleminded focus on the plan of redemption for which God had sent him. He is determined to do the will of his Father and to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. It is through his determination that he heals the broken, confronts the authorities, questions loyalties and meekly endures scorn and shame, all on the journey to the cross.

This is the meaning of discipleship, a resolute following of Jesus to ministry of the Kingdom of God. This call to be disciples of Jesus requires a radical commitment. It is a call on each of our lives and it may result in alienation, in setting aside cultural norms and in making choices that go outside of the boundaries of family expectations. You have been warned.

And what is our task? What is this ministry of the Kingdom of God? Our singleminded focus is to live in step with the Spirit of God so that our submission to his will may result in fruit. Yes, the fruit (singular) is the result of our submission to the Spirit, our following of Jesus with resolute courage. Our individual lives will begin to be characterized by this Fruit which only the Spirit of God can make grow in us. And this fruit is not for us alone, it is for the transformation of our community, for the common good.

So root deeply into the community to which God has called you and begin calling out the Fruit of the Spirit in one another. Make it a common and resolute purpose to follow Jesus undistracted, pedal to the metal, and watch that Fruit multiply.

The call from God for each of us is to follow Jesus in the singleminded task of the ministry of kingdom of God: to Love one another. Our focus is to submit to the Spirit of God and allow his Fruit to grow in us and transform our earthly community into the Kingdom of God on earth. 

Persistence in Prayer

Very often, it seems that our spiritual lives can be marked by seasons. There are seasons of action, seasons of waiting, seasons of darkness, seasons of sadness, seasons of joy, seasons of peace. In seeking what the Lord would have me to do right now, his answer was PRAY. I reiterated my question to him, thinking that perhaps he didn’t understand; I was asking what it was he wanted me to do. I even wrote down a few tasks, good and righteous work, that I thought I should be spending my time doing. My spirit quickly course-corrected as I felt that prompting from His Spirit, “No, you’re not going to do that good thing. You are going to pray.”

“That’s it, Lord? Of course I’ll be praying, but what do you want me to do? I really prefer action and crossing things off of my to-do list. Praying seems so inactive.”

But friends, the Lord is teaching me that prayer is exactly the opposite of inactive. Prayer is active. Prayer is where we meet God. Prayer is where we step deeper into trust and faith. Prayer is where we pour out our truest longings and come to know more of who God is calling us to be. Prayer is where we sit in the presence of God and enjoy him. Prayer is when we listen quietly to his voice. Prayer is where we wait and watch and know God will do the work. Prayer is humility. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is God on the move.

And so the Lord has called me to a Season of Prayer. Seasons can be days long or months long. I don’t know what this season will look like, but that is the beauty of prayer and staying in touch with His Spirit – He will tell me where and when to move next. And He will do the same for you.

In this Season of Prayer and through these lectionary passages of Scripture, God is revealing to me three essential aspects to a life defined by persistent prayer.

First of all, a life defined by persistence in prayer involves boldnessLet us then approach the throne of grace with confidence that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16). In Luke 11 Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray and he uses a story of a rather demanding friend to demonstrate the generosity of God. Imagine a friend banging on your door well after your family is asleep, seemingly desperate for loaves of bread to share with another friend who showed up at his house. He persists, even after receiving a rejection and eventually, this good man likely wakes up his entire household to get to work baking bread for a friend of a friend. Let us be more bold and more brazen than that man when we approach the throne of grace. Let us knock incessantly on the door of God’s throne room, beseeching him for help even in our darkest hours or with our most basic needs. Even when we could probably conjure up a solution all on our own, baking our own loaf of bread rather than pestering Almighty God, let us set our pride aside. God is waiting to give us what we need, and not only meeting our needs with good gifts, but giving us the Holy Spirit, his very presence to be with us always.

Abraham was bold and brazen, too, when he continued to bargain with the Lord for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. He cried out again and again for the Lord to save the city if he could find even 5 righteous individuals living among the sinfulness. God could have rejected Abraham’s request or refused to listen, but Abraham refused to give up and God honored that tenacity.

Secondly, a life defined by persistent prayer involves consistency. Keep knocking, keep asking, no matter how trivial or how out of reach your request may seem. As I mentioned in my last sermon, spiritual disciplines such as prayer are not to be acted on once or twice or even occasionally. These disciplines produce righteousness in our hearts and connection to God’s Spirit through our continued practice. Prayer involves consistency, invoking the name of Jesus again and again and again. Sometimes it seems redundant, like once we’ve prayed for so and so or for this request or that, we should cross it off the list and be done with it. But persistent prayer means consistent prayer. The more we come to God the more bold we become. Verse 3 of Psalm 138 confirms this: When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me.

Finally, a life defined by persistence in prayer starts with thanksgiving. I will praise you, I will bow down to you, O Lord, the psalmist says. We have endless reasons to offer thanksgiving to the Lord – for his marvelous deeds throughout history, for traces of his grace and goodness in our own lives, for his faithfulness and love and great mercy. It sometimes seems impossible to find reasons to be thankful, particularly when we’re in a season of darkness and despair, where the Spirit of the Lord seems silent and we can’t find any answers. But in those dark days, press into the Lord even harder. Begin to hunt for evidence of Him in your everyday life. Find his grace in simple things, like the reflection of a rainbow in the bubbles of your kitchen sink or the way a baby giggles in the grocery store aisle or finding your favorite comb you thought you’d lost forever…thank God for those things. Thanking him in the small, seemingly meaningless moments of life, will root you firmly into his character and carry you through those dark days. Everyone who seeks finds, right?

Two aspects of my own journey of prayer stood out to me as I studied these passages and contemplated a a life defined by persistent prayer. Concerning the call of God to step into a season of prayer, I thought I would share what that’s been looking like. When I was at annual conference, I spent a lot of time in the church nursery with my baby girl. Across the hall was a room designated as a prayer chapel to be used by anyone during the day. There was a pastor who was stationed there and spent most of the day alone. At one point in the afternoon, through two closed doors, I heard this pastor literally crying out in prayer for at least an hour. He was likely praying through the book of reports, covering each church and each pastor in heartfelt prayer. I was in tears listening to his tenacity, his boldness, his sincere intercession for people he’d never met, believing God’s will would be done in our Southern Michigan churches. I began to pray that way more consistently. I take walks almost every day and when I walk by myself I take the time to pray. I choose a 3 mile path that is mostly secluded so as to pray all the more boldly. I find that praying out loud helps me to focus my thoughts. And so I pray.

I probably look like a crazy person walking through the cornfields of Keegan Rd, talking to myself, sometimes crying, other times grinning like a fool. Those are my very real encounters with God. It takes a while to set aside my conscientious pride and put away my flippant thoughts and truly focus on intercession, but once I do, man, it is the most emboldening experience. Almost always I begin by praying for my church – our church. The ministry I am a part of in this congregation and in this town is a gift that I am incredibly passionate about. I believe God is at work in our church. I believe He is changing our lives and drawing many of us into a lifestyle defined by prayer, transformed by Scripture, committed to honest relationships and conflict resolution. I believe He is freeing us of our dependence on finances and moving us into effective ministry to the hurting and the lost. I believe wounds are being healed – wounds inflicted by church, by friends, by spouses and children. I believe God is pulling our little congregation out of a place of frustration and desolation and into a land of passionately pursing holiness…together. I pray for all of those things.

I pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to change us in ways we never imagined. I pray for each of us to be pliable under His firm but gentle hand, willing to endure whatever formative encounters He may have for us. I pray for the state of our church finances; that we would step into a new mindset of budgeting and be willing to give to missions and ministry first, above and beyond what we could possibly afford on our own, believing God will honor this Kingdom-use of money. I pray for miraculous things to happen through our generosity – that our hearts would be changed and become increasingly trusting of God’s goodness, and that we would give God all the glory for the way He will surely provide and even multiply our resources. Oh, may we be faithful!

Then I start to picture these pews and I begin to see your faces. I name you before God praying for fervor for whatever needs I know of and interceding on your behalf for needs that the Holy Spirit brings to my mind. I pray for each of us to be so in love with Jesus and completely committed to weekly corporate worship. I pray that we’d each be moved with compassion for our coworkers, our neighbors, our waiters, and our cashiers that we would begin praying earnestly for each of them and inviting them to join us in church, to be a part of our congregational experience of God.

I begin to pray for needs of my other friends and mentors. I pray for my husband, for wisdom as he pastors this congregation, for passion as he seeks Jesus through prayer and study, and for continued strengthening of our marriage. I pray for my daughter that she would grow into her name – to be a follower of Christ by the grace of God.

And on and on.

Secondly, I thought I’d bring a visual example of how I’ve prayed and encourage you to do the same. These are my prayer journals from March 2014 to now. I use these not only for prayer but also to guide my time with the Lord. I read the daily scripture passages which are included in our bulletins. As I read I write down passages or words or phrases that stick out to me. Sometimes I write out my thoughts about those passages or spend time rereading those lines and ask the Lord what it is that He wants me to hear. If I’m also reading a devotional or a book about the spiritual life, I write important quotes down so I have a mind-body connection to the words and the time to let their meaning steep in my soul. And throughout those types of journaling, I write out my heart’s prayers.

In preparing for today, I read through many of these pages. I was looking for excerpts to share with you and in the process I experienced God all over again. As I reread my petitions, I was struck by the persistence of prayer. There were pages where it seemed I confessed the same sins again and again, pleading with the Lord to deliver me. My heart remembered the heaviness of those sin struggles. And then suddenly I recognized the freedom the Lord had given me. Two years ago I was in bondage to a sin I couldn’t seem to shake. And today I stand to testify to the Lord’s faithfulness to the faithful. Even in the privacy of my own bedroom I was embarrassed to read some of my own confessions and remembered what it felt like to write them down over and over again. But, friends, we must persist in prayer. We must be bold even if we look ridiculous and feel bothersome. We must be consistent even if it seems repetitive and pointless. We must begin with thanksgiving because there is always evidence of God’s work around us. When we persist in prayer, we will be able to look back, maybe months or years from today, and say PRAISE THE LORD.