Author Archives: Sandy Bach

Searching for Jesus

29 As soon as they[a] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.  (Mark 1:29-39 NRSV)

Jesus began his ministry as he intended to go.  He was a Jewish teacher, so it was natural that he went to the synagogues to teach and to heal.  His message was refreshing to those who were sick and tired of living under Roman rule and Herod’s thumb.  His words were as healing as his touch.

He made sense of scripture.  He interpreted it in ways that many didn’t.  He brought it home to those who felt themselves living outside the faith.   People who tried to live by the rules, were set free from legalism.  He showed them freedom in their Jewish faith where others saw only rules.  He taught them the common sense behind the law so that the people could live in community with each other and in deeper relationship with God.

His healing made equal sense.  He didn’t make a big deal of it.  There was no hocus-pocus.  He used words to forgive sins, rebuke evil spirits or to calm a broken soul.  His touch lifted up, as in the case of Simon’s mother-in-law.  He wasn’t afraid to touch. Not even the lepers.  Often, a guided action on his part and healing took place.

Here was the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry.  Here was Jesus himself.  Yet, Simon and the disciples had to go searching for him.  What some saw as a man of God caring and healing and teaching, the disciples saw as opportunity.  They would be Jesus’ advisers and public relations men. That’s why they came to that deserted place: to let him know that the next healing event was ready to begin.  They were disturbed that he wasn’t up and dressed and ready to go at the crack of dawn.

Do we go searching for Jesus because of our need to be with him?  Or because we have a to-do list for him to take care of?  Are we honest enough to admit that we try to control Jesus?

That to-do list isn’t a bad thing.  In quiet meditation we can sit with the Master and share our yearnings and worries and hurts.  Jesus didn’t come to earth only to desert us to earthly worries.  This is the One whom we can trust to understand and to help us with the demons.  That to-do list for Jesus can often turn into a list of what to hand over to God and let go of; what we can do ourselves; and what we will wait on Jesus to handle when the time is right.

We all try to control Jesus.  “If only X would happen, my life would be so much better.”

The disciples did quite a bit of searching for Jesus.  Yet, there he was: walking beside them every day.  Waking up near them every day.  Eating and drinking with them every day.  What about us?  How do we miss seeing Jesus?

We miss Jesus when we fail to feel the power of a touch; or presence; or relationship.

I live near one of the busiest streets in town.  It’s three lanes in either direction near a large medical complex.  When we moved there we knew that we would have to work with our terrier, teaching her not to run out the door and head for that street.  She chose to get out one early morning while I was trying to handle too much.  An hour later, I gently lifted her dead body off the busy street and carried her home.

My neighbor, the dog rescuer, saw me and came out to meet me.  “Would you like me to take her to the crematorium?”  All I could do was nod my head as the tears fell.  We laid her in the back of her SUV and then she turned to me and held me as I cried.  She had never touched me before.  And hasn’t since.  But that touch spoke volumes.  It said she understood about losing a pet; that she was a friend who cared.

The power of touch brings Jesus front and center.

When have you found yourself wanting to console the inconsolable, only to discover that your quiet presence seemed enough?  As Job lay in sackcloth and ashes, having lost his home, his children and grandchildren, his livelihood and his health, his friends came and sat with him for seven days.  For seven days they said nothing.  It was only when they began speaking that they made things worse.

Jesus is present in the quiet moments when words can do nothing.  Jesus is present to make inadequate words say so much more.

Relationships can become a time of presence with Jesus.  A conversation with a stranger while waiting to check out can become a message of insight; a call to a friend out of the blue turns into a moment of peace and tranquility.

Touch, presence, relationship.  Touch, intimacy, nearness.  These have to power to make whole; to bring peace, God’s shalom.

Use these with care.  Be prepared to restore yourself often.  Jesus needed retreat, so do we.

Jesus retreated while it was still dark.  Think about the previous day.  He taught in the synagogue, healed Simon’s mother-in-law and spent the rest of the day healing.  That’s tiring work.  Each person we touch, each person we reach out to fills us and depletes us.  We need quiet and meditation and prayer to nourish our souls.  We need good food to nourish bodies.  We need laughter and tears.  We need to decompress.  If we don’t find a way to do this, we’ll burn out.

In this particular text, Jesus retreats in the dark.  He must have been worn out.  Yet, he seemed to need time with God more than he needed sleep.  Was he praying for direction?  Trying to decide if he should remain in Capernaum or move on to other parts of Galilee?  Was he looking to recharge his batteries?  Whatever it was, it was a time to get away from everyone to do his own searching while his disciples were searching, even hunting, him out.

Preaching and healing.  Healing and preaching.  The saying goes, “Preach the Gospel.  If necessary use words.”  It’s a statement that reminds us that silence can be golden.  Preaching without words is modeling Christian behavior.  We are good at doing that.  But, we don’t necessarily realize that silence and presence and touch can make huge impacts on the lives of others.  You don’t have to know the Bible by heart.  You don’t need cliches.  Use real words, if you speak.

Searching for Jesus?  Look for him in the solitude of the early morning; look for him in the conversation with a stranger; look for him in the touch of a friend; look for him in the news; look for him wherever you are.  He’s as close to you now as he was to the disciples 2,000 years ago.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Fishing with Jesus

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[a] of God,[b] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[c] repent, and believe in the good news.”[d16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.  (Mark 1:14-20 NRSV)

It seems like a scene out of a zombie movie.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Simon and Andrew leave their nets and follow him.  Just like that.  Not a word is spoken.

James and John, not only leave their nets, but their father and the family business!  Just like that.

I used to interpret this as a scene where these prospective disciples had known about Jesus’ reputation.  Perhaps they’d even met him, spent time with him.  It’s a possibility.  Jesus was used to meeting people where they are.  That’s why he walking through some fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee.

Why is there not a longer conversation recorded?

I spent six months hiding from God.  I wore out before God did, and finally gave in.  In silent prayer I said, “Okay. I’m listening.”

I heard one word.  “Ministry.”

But there was more to it than that.  I recognized the voice.  I knew it was God calling me into ministry.  My response was amazement, questioning God’s choice of sinner.  But, I couldn’t say no.  The call was that compelling.

When God, in Jesus, calls it’s compelling and carries authority.  Simon and Andrew and James and John couldn’t say no.  They knew that voice.  Their choices became clear.  They acted spontaneously, trusting in the prompting of their Lord.

From that day forward they were never the same again.  And neither are we.

They received a new identity.  Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  This wasn’t a new task they would learn that they would add to their fishing skill set.  Jesus called them into a new identity.  They would always be able to go fishing, but they would forever be known as “fishers of people.”

It didn’t happen overnight.  It took awhile.  They had much to learn from their teacher.  They would watch him; be astounded by him; misunderstand him; lose track of him; look for him; betray him; deny him.

Sound familiar?  We do it often, ourselves.  The miracle? Jesus hangs in there with us, because he’s bigger than this world.  His aim is ushering us further into the God’s reign.

Sometimes, our call yields an immediate response.  And when it does, we tend to enter it in need of training and testing.  The disciples had much to learn.  They would misunderstand often.  And they would backslide.  It’s what we do.  And Jesus picks us up and puts us back on track to serve, having learned from previous experiences.

Perhaps you have had experienced a call similar to the disciples.  If you did, you remember it well as the high point of your life.

If you can’t remember that kind of call, you might remember the dozens of times you acted without thinking.  Later, you couldn’t say why you responded as you did.  There was no way to predict how it would work out.  You probably didn’t have much of a plan.  You just did it.

Those are calls from God.  Compelling, fascinating, captivating.

Can’t think of any?  I trust that this week, you’ll remember.  I also trust that there will be more.  They may yield small or large results.  That part doesn’t matter.  Fishing with Jesus is about working in the kingdom.

How has your identity as a child of God changed?  When have you fallen down?  How did the Great Fisherman pick you up and set you back on your feet?  How has your life been different as a result of answering the call?

Enjoy your week remembering those fishing expeditions.  Enjoy those moments with the Master, when you answer the call and make a difference.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Eyes to See. Ears to Listen

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,[b] and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. (I Samuel 3:1-20 NRSV)

The “lamp of God had not yet gone out…” (vs. 3)  The lamp was lit in the evening and kept burning throughout the night until morning.  It burned in God’s presence as a symbol of God.  Pure oil of beaten olives was provided by the people of Israel.  Was the lamp about to go out because it was nearing dawn?  Or had the people failed to bring enough oil to keep it burning?  Or was God tired of the direction Israel was taking?

Does it feel as if our lamp is sputtering out?  Is God done with us?  We see the decline of the mainline church.  Mega churches continue to grow, but they can’t keep the back doors closed.  As new people arrive, others go elsewhere or stay home.  We’re a society of itchy ears.  Perhaps we need some tingling.

God comes to Samuel to share with him something new.  Something new created out of nothing.  Samuel’s mother was barren and prayed hard for a son.  Eli heard her plea and told her that God heard it, as well.  Hanna became pregnant and raised the child as a gift back to God.  Literally.  When he was weaned, she took him to the High Priest, Eli, and “lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” (1:28)  Out of the nothingness of a barren woman, God created a new way for Israel.

God could have called a lot of people: adults who worshiped God and knew God well; adults who lived on the fringes of their faith.  Instead, God chooses a boy who hasn’t experienced a relationship with the Lord, yet.  Out of the nothingness of faith, God creates a new relationship for a new way for Israel.

God’s plan includes tingling ears.  Ears tingle when good news is heard.  Ears tingle when bad news is received.  Ears tingle and we often hold our hands over those ears trying to shut out the news.  We don’t want to hear any more.  Perhaps it’s time to find a quiet place and listen for God to tingle our ears in a new way.  Is it possible that God can come to you out of nothingness with a new message?  Or even an old message with new and deeper meaning?

God begins with Samuel as God means to go.  He gives an adult and difficult message to Samuel about his mentor and father-figure.  Samuel doesn’t go back to sleep, but lays awake until dawn trying to make sense of what he’s been told.  He is reluctant to share the news with Eli.  It will hurt the old man; maybe anger him and turn him against Samuel.  But, if Eli is a poor father to his sons, he’s a wise and caring man in other ways.  He demands that Samuel tell him everything.  From that day forth, Samuel will speak truth to power without remorse or fear.  God and Eli prepared him well.

In this text Eli loses his power and authority to a boy.  He will teach and train Samuel, but it is Samuel who will rise to power and authority.  Eli will die shortly after his sons are killed on the battlefield.

Does it feel as if God’s lamp is going out?  Is God calling someone or multiple someones out of nothing?  Is God making our ears tingle?

I believe the answer is yes.  I believe that God is always at work and that in this day and time, we can use the tingling as a spiritual tool to bring us closer to God.

No matter your age, from whom do you learn?  Are you comfortable?  Seek the uncomfortable.

Are you running from the tingling?  Take courage, pause and listen to it.  Use the words that Eli gave to Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

I pray that your tingling, and mine, will take us to new, Spirit-filled places.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Order Out of Chaos

In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  (Genesis 1:1-5 NRSV)

Before humanity walked the earth;  before cattle and creeping things and wild animals were brought forth;  before the waters held swarms of fishes and sea monsters and the birds of the air flew through the sky; before stars dotted the dome of the sky to give light to the earth; before summer and winter and spring and fall; before plants and trees; before the dry land emerged out of the waters; before the dome of the sky was put in place; before night and day was formed into what we call time; before the formless void and darkness: there was God.

Before Abram and Sarai and Joseph’s coat of many colors, there was God.

Before the great Exodus out of Egypt and the creation of a nation in the wilderness, there was God.

Before anything in history as we know it, there was God.

God was present in history, active in history.  God is still active today and will meet us in our tomorrows.

I turned off the news a couple of weeks ago.  I needed a break from politicians, world leaders and weather changes that require new words to describe them.  I needed these words from Genesis to put me back where I belong: within God’s loving arms, living out this life that is difficult at times but always filled with gratitude and joy.  I needed the reminder that whatever happens God is still in charge.  Politicians have the potential for good and harm; weather can be cruel or good; but God is good all the time and God never changes.

I think many of us need that reminder.  We need that reminder every time we tune in the news or pick up the newspaper.  It was God who created this earth we live on and God who continues with humanity and all of creation.  God hasn’t given up ever.  God isn’t giving up now.  That’s the promise of the Bible.  That when God’s people are in slavery in Egypt, or captivity in Babylon, God goes with them.  God loves this world so much that God sent God-self to be with us and teach us.  God is still with us as Father-Son-Holy Spirit; Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

We need the reminder that God creates order out of chaos.  Out of a formless void and darkness, God created something spectacular.   In fact, God does God’s best work in chaos.  If we believe ourselves to be living in a chaotic, fast-paced time, then we can look for God’s redeeming work among us all the time!

First there was water.  Dangerous and beautiful water.  It was water that John used to baptize Jesus, who stepped into those waters, not to wash away his own sin, but to enter into our sin-filled world.  As he stepped out of the water, the heavens were torn open and God spoke.

Second, God called for light and light shone on this new planet and time was created.  It was Light who entered our world as a baby and grew up to show the darkness for what it is and bring light into the corners of our lives.

Water and light.  We need them to live.  They are more than mere symbols of our faith, they are life-sustaining.

In the beginning God.  God’s Spirit moved across the waters of a formless void.  God said, “Light” and light happened.  And the beginning of order out of chaos was marked by the very first day on earth.  In the beginning of our redemption, Jesus stepped into our world and made order of a chaotic world.  God spoke and things happened.

Before humanity walked the earth;  before cattle and creeping things and wild animals were brought forth;  before the waters held swarms of fishes and sea monsters and the birds of the air flew through the sky; before stars dotted the dome of the sky to give light to the earth; before summer and winter and spring and fall; before plants and trees; before the dry land emerged out of the waters; before the dome of the sky was put in place; before night and day was formed into what we call time; before the formless void and darkness: there was God.

We are part of that creative order.

We are a part of God’s creative ordering out of chaos.

And, God is still at work.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 


Mission:Impossible — Love

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my[a] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of[b] Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  I Corinthians 1:3-9 (NRSV)

 

Imagine the Apostle Paul sitting down at his desk to write a letter:

Dear First Church Corinth,

What in the name of heaven are you doing out there?  I’ve heard all kinds of stories about how you’re fighting over spiritual gifts, allowing factions to get in the way of fellowship-

He stops, reads what he’s written, tears it up and throws it away.  He’s been trying to write to them for some time.  He’s disturbed by what he’s heard.  Some of the members are getting high and mighty with their knowledge and lording it over the others.  It’s one thing to disagree on faith, it’s quite another to announce yours as the only way.  They are squabbling over their spiritual gifts as if one gift and talent is more important than another.  These and other issues are tearing them apart instead of uniting them.  2,000 years later, we’re not much different, are we?

There is a host of issues to discuss with them.  They’re a fledgling congregation in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth.  There are gods on every corner inviting worship in a culture that is wide open.  This little Christian church worships only one God and they’re known as atheists because of it.  Word is out that they eat the body and blood of Jesus.  They’re not only atheists, but cannibals.

Paul wants more for them.  They’re letting the culture get in the way.  They’ve reached the tipping point and need guidance.   They need Paul.  They’ll have to settle for a well-worded letter from their leader.

Paul turns back to his task with pen in hand.  He loves this congregation.  They have so much going for them.  So, that’s where he begins: with what is right about them: God’s gifts bestowed on them.  He writes of his gratitude to God “because of the grace of God that has been given to [them.]” (vs 4b)  As we continue to read through this lengthy letter we begin to realize that this short paragraph is also a list of discussion points he’ll touch on later.

The more I study scripture, the more I see our culture in it.  We live our faith through our culture — it’s second nature.  It’s not all wrong, either.  But sometimes we get carried away.

A friend and colleague of mine heard this on the radio recently:  67% of adults surveyed would rather not give gifts during the holiday season.

Why is this?  There are probably many reasons, but I suggest one of them is, the responsibility for perfection.  Gift-giving is a burden.  Do I buy the latest electronic toy for the kids and risk them becoming spoiled and entitled?  Does my elderly parent with dementia care about that new bathrobe I bought her when she has three perfectly good ones hanging in the closet?

Come Christmas Eve or morning when we open our gifts, what’s it like?  Is it fun and filled with surprises?  Or overwhelming?  Or, worse…underwhelming?

It’s impossible.  Impossible that I’ll get the perfect gift for everyone on my list; that my house will be perfectly decorated; my entertaining will be perfectly elegant; that my cooking will be perfectly superb.

It’s impossible.  No matter how much I spend and decorate and cook, it won’t be enough.  Does that mean I’m not enough?

What would it be like to decorate and shop and cook and clean, knowing that there’s something important happening that is beyond our ability to totally understand: that God loves this world so much that he sends his Son to us?

What would it be like to focus on this gift from God as a way to acknowledge our own longing for love and acceptance Just. As. We. Are.  What would it be like to feel the freedom and rejoicing in the profound love expressed in the manger?

Just. As. We. Are.  How often do you hear someone say, “I love you just as you are?”

Impossible?  Not with God.  Look below your own surface to your spiritual gifts.  These aren’t from our culture; they’re a part of you in and through the Holy Spirit.

Impossible?  The only thing that’s impossible about this is that God is gracious and endows each of us with that grace and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

Only eight more days until we celebrate the birth.  In the meantime, we smell the Christmas cookies and furniture polish, listen to the carolers and the vacuum cleaner.  And we also feel God’s love surround us and the Spirit’s gifts that make us what and who we are.  And we trust that nothing is impossible with God.

Impossible: Love?  God sent his only son to a God-hating world.  Now there’s a gift you can’t purchase.  Perfect. Sacrificial. Filled with more love than we can possibly imagine.

I pray that your Season of Advent is filled with the knowledge of this love and a stronger sense of the gifts endowed within you by God.  When that happens, the rest of the season takes its place where it belongs.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Mission:Impossible — Peace

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has 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 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.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
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.
10 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.
11 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.

(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV)

My Jewish friend, Ira, shared a story with me that goes like this: A disciple ran in to wake up his rabbi, calling out, “Rabbi, the Messiah has arrived!”  The rabbi opened one tired eye and said, “Wake me when we have peace on earth.”

Does it seem that way to you?  That peace on earth is what we sing, but don’t get?  That peace on earth isn’t here, yet?  That God is letting God’s people down?

Perhaps you’d like to do as the rabbi did: go back to sleep.

These words from the prophet Isaiah are Jesus’ mission statement.  He spoke these words in the synagogue in his hometown Nazareth.  The first couple of verses are absolutely loaded:  “bring good news to the oppressed; bind up the despairing; proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; comfort all who mourn; provide for those who mourn; give a garland instead of ashes.”

That’s a tall order for one man to take on.  So tall, that Jesus had disciples and followers who took on his mission as their own.  That mission has been passed down to you and me today.

And it’s still a tall order.  We’re the wealthiest nation in the world and can’t figure out how to ease poverty, find a solution to gun violence, or even get along with those with whom we disagree.  It’s easy to identify the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned.  What to do about it is the hard part.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”(1) 

In this season of the year when we sing “peace on earth,” we see too much of the captives and oppressed.  We drop our coins in the Salvation Army buckets.  We send checks off to those charities that we believe do the most with our money.  We listen to the news faithfully, trying to understand what’s happening.  We’re a world on edge; a people on edge.  The TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?” This week we ask, “What’s outside of me?”

We seek peace on earth and peace doesn’t come.

We are also the oppressed and despairing, the captive and imprisoned.  We yearn for peace.  We listen to the news with heavy hearts.  We see pain and suffering and we grieve.  We even feel guilty for having it so good.  Where’s the peace in all that?  Our hearts are breaking and the Beatitudes speak to us more than ever:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  (Matthew 5:3-6 NRSV)

Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with blessings for the poor in spirit, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Doesn’t that include you and me?  We’re yearning for peace and comfort and seeing no peace and very little comfort.

Peace is found in prayer with God.  Peace settles upon us in the form of grace: sitting quietly and feeling rested and peaceful for a few minutes; looking upon a newborn baby and seeing one of God’s multitudinous miracles; gazing at a sunset; having lunch with a friend.  Isaiah suggests the power of a seed that falls to the ground and dies in order to become a growing and thriving plant.  Peace arrives when we least expect it.

What if we took Flannery OConnor’s words seriously?  What would that look like?  Perhaps we’re sitting on the sidelines, waiting for Jesus to do something.  Anything.  What if we got in there with him?

Where to begin?  I suggest we begin where our hearts are breaking.  Write it down, draw a picture (yes, even a stick-figure image.)  Write about it, dream about it, pray over it.  Ask for insight, to see it from different angles.  Pray for those who make the situation worse and those who are trying to make it better.  Pray for yourself.  What can you do?  Where can God use you?  Why does this issue hurt so much or make you so angry?  Keep asking why until you hit the core of it.

Isaiah spoke to the captives in Babylon that God was at work and that Isaiah was the messenger of this good news.  God would bind up, bring liberty, comfort and provision.  They could trade in their ashes of mourning for a garland of joy.  How will you trade in your ashes?  How will you walk into the difficult issues that cause you to run away in order to feel the peace of God?

Is it impossible that God can make a difference in the world?  Is peace on earth possible?  The Psalmist wrote about “sowing in tears and reaping with shouts of joy.” That “those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps 126:5-6)

Will you resist grace?  Or will you allow it to change and transform you?  Will it be any more difficult to pray your way through this than it is to run from it?

God’s peace is waiting for you.  Name your issue.  Pray.  Research it.  Pray.  Seek out information.  Pray.  God is waiting for you where it hurts the most.  God will use your tears to transform you and your corner of the world.

Grace and peace are ready to change your life.

Do you have the courage to move into it?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

(1) (Flannery O’Connor,  “Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being” [New Yoir; Vintage Books, 1980], 307 As cited in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Volume 1 [Lousiville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008] page 54)


Mission:Impossible — Hope

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f] water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

“Excuse me, Pastor.  But I think you printed the wrong scripture lesson.  You see, this is Christmas.  We want to hear about Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and Magi.  Why are you bringing John the Baptizer into this?  He isn’t part of the Christmas story.  Is he?”

It’ll be two more weeks before we read a “Christmas Story.”  You see, this is Advent.  The four Sundays before Christmas Day when we do two things at once: prepare to meet the child in the manger and prepare to meet our Lord when he returns again.  That’s a tall order for just four weeks.  So let’s begin.

This is the Sunday of Hope.  And what better way to look at hope than to read about the Baptizer.  He’s nothing like Jesus: dresses like the prophet Elijah, lives in the dessert, eats honey and locusts (yuck!)  Strangest of all, he doesn’t announce himself.  He doesn’t have a cover band to warm up the audience, he doesn’t send out PR people to prepare for his arrival.  He simply arrives and does his job of pointing away from himself to the Messiah who will arrive soon.

He calls for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He preaches being right with God.

“Do we have to?  Really, Pastor.  Let’s do this later.  How about the Season of Lent?  That’s a good time to get all sad and do this  forgiveness stuff.  Right now, I’m pretty busy, you know.  Christmas gifts and parties and preparations.  Let’s set John aside for Lent.”

John will appear several times between now and Easter.  Today, we begin with John.  We begin our journey to the manger with repentance.  We remember that Christ will come again with repentance.

You see, these are two big moments in our Christian world.  Christ is born.  Christ will come again.  How can we NOT repent and turn, once again, to be right with God?

That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  Repenting.  It’s like peeling away the layers of a smelly onion.  These layers are thick and they encompass our hearts, telling us that we can’t live without, (fill in the blank): money, anger, war, hate… The popular TV commercial asks, “What’s in your wallet?”  Today we might ask, “What’s in your heart?”

Of what do we repent?  Repentance comes to us in many ways.  It is personal repentance when your confession is between you and God, alone.  There is also corporate confession when we confess together our sin and receive the assurance of pardon.  I have found repentance in watching the evening news.  I have found healing in stories that show humanity at its best.

But, seriously, is the world worth it?  It’s god-forsaken.  It’s unlovable.  And I’m unlovable.  We’re all unlovable.  Talk about a smelly onion! It’s impossible!

Impossible that God could be at work today in this godforsaken world; that God doesn’t see the smelly onion and see anything of worth in our hearts; that God would be the least bit interested in inviting us to walk with God.  Impossible that we could hope for peace on earth; an end to hate and anger; a newness of life that leads us to righteous living.

Is anything impossible for God?  I mean, we’re talking about God, here.  God, who intervenes in history and sends himself to live among us.  God, who frees us from our worry and hate and anger and all that gets between us and God.  God, who is at work today as diligently as ever, not noticing the smelly onion, but seeing the beauty of what God has created us to be.

We’re free.  Free to open our lives to God, so that God can seep into the corners and crevices of our hearts and minds to show us how to live out the Mission of Christ in this godforsaken world.

Mission: Impossible — Hope.

Yes, it’s alive and well.  We live in that hope that we can be freed from it all because someone (God) knows all that stuff about us, and so much more.  We live in the hope that we can be freed from it all because God loves us: smelly and sinful though we may be.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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