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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent Advice

A colleague recently concluded that most charitable donations arrive in December because charities get busier asking for money. The last month of the year is the busiest for charities and businesses. In fact, December is the busiest month for everyone. After Thanksgiving, we get busy preparing for Christmas. Before you get too busy, I ask you to take time to enjoy Advent. In order to enjoy Advent, heed three words of advice – Wait, Word and Work.
Wait. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. The word ‘advent’ is from two Latin words: ad, meaning "to" and venire meaning “come.” Advent focuses on Christ's coming to us in the flesh; however, His coming manifests itself among us in three ways – past, present and future.
In the past, Christ came to us in the flesh, an infant who grew to a man. In the present, he comes to us in Word and Sacrament. In the future, he will come again in glory.
On the first two Sundays of Advent, we focus on Christ’s Second Coming. On the third and fourth Sundays, we focus on Jesus’ birth. Advent ends when we gather for evening service on December 24. Only then does the Christmas season begin.
Christ’s coming evokes urgent excitement for the believer. We wait on tiptoe of expectation. We sense His presence is near. We sense His presence is here. Each day brings us closer to the reason for our waiting, the reason for our being.
This will help you understand what I mean about waiting. In January 2014, our daughter-in-law gave birth to our first granddaughter, Emma Jade. Cindy and I were so excited that on the day we left to see her, we could not sleep, and left two hours ahead of schedule. Good news stimulates excitement.
As a Christian, are you excited as you wait for the liturgical celebration of Christ’s coming and the final celebration of His return? Are you excited about His presence here and now as He comforts and challenges you in Sacrament and Word?
God comforts and challenges you in Sacrament and Word. Hence, we move from Wait to Word, my second point.
In today’s Word, we see God’s plan of salvation moving quickly toward completion. Remember, we focus on Christ’s Second Coming on the first two Sundays of Advent. Jesus prepared for his last Passover by exercising control over the events that were about to occur.[i] He told his disciples what to do and what to expect when people questioned their actions. Then the events unfolded exactly as Jesus predicted.
All the Evangelists chronicled Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The differences of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem according to Luke are not accidental, but purposeful. Through details often overlooked, Luke reinforced certain aspects of our salvation as Jesus’ actions fulfilled prophecy.
Luke opened his Jerusalem narrative by focusing attention on a colt, which had never been ridden. Luke’s description contains two main verbs (“you will find” and “bring”), two references to the colt, and two participles (“tied up” and “loosing”).
Luke closed his Jerusalem narrative by focusing on the tomb “in which no one had yet been laid.”[ii]Both the colt that had never been ridden and the tomb where no one had been laid were set apart for the purposes of a holy person.
As priest, prophet and king, Jesus must receive all privileges reserved for such a person, for as the Son of God, He, not the Temple, is now the center for God’s holy presence. Therefore, he must enter the city as a king, for, as we read in Malachi: “The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,”[iii]
While only lambs and unyoked cows were slaughtered for sacrifice and carried the ark,[iv] the point Luke made in a series of acts – find a colt, loose it, bring it to Jesus – reminded hearers of Jesus’ ministry of release. Jesus released those bound by sin.
Read Jesus’ actions in chapter 19 in light of chapter 4 where He applied Isaiah’s words to himself: “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”[v] Jesus set free the oppressed or, as another version translates the phrase, forgave those shattered by sin.
However we word the phrase, the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a colt that no one had ridden; a colt that represented the rider’s royalty and humility.
Jesus’ ride fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”[vi]
As the colt represented Christ’s royalty and humility, Jesus embraced and embodied the tension between king and humble servant when he was crowned king on the cross, the focus of his humiliation and shame, and our salvation.
While the cross shows Jesus’ humiliation and shame, it also shows us salvation. As I gaze upon Christ crucified, I recall my salvation and destiny. As Luke wrote his Gospel for Theophilus, friend of God, that he might have certainty concerning the things he was taught,[vii] he also wrote it for us – that we might have certainty concerning our faith. We may not understand why things happen to us or why people reject us, but as we gaze on Christ crucified and meditate upon certain moments of his life – his journey into Jerusalem where he is cheered and jeered, praised and persecuted – we realize that Luke wrote his Gospel not simply to tell a story about Jesus Christ, but to encourage disheartened disciples. For as Christ was cheered and jeered, praised and persecuted, tried by men and tied to a cross, so were his followers – friends of God.
Luke recorded that as Jesus overlooked the city from the summit of the Mount of Olives and came into view of the Temple, an entourage of disciples – not simply a throng or crowd of people – rejoiced and praised God with a loud voice for all his mighty works.[viii]  That the disciples focused not on what Jesus taught, but his works showed that they were slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke. Among those disciples was Cleopas, whom we meet on the Road to Emmaus.[ix] Like Cleopas, who saw Jesus as a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,[x] the other disciples who rejoiced and praised God on the Jerusalem Road said the right things but did not yet believe the right things.
They grasped that Jesus was king, but did not understand the humility implied in his actions. Like Cleopas, they did not understand the prophets or the Psalms. They did not understand Zechariah who wrote, Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; humble and mounted on a colt.”[xi] Or the Psalmist’s words, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[xii]
Jesus understood exactly what it meant for him to approach the Temple on a colt amidst acclamation. In chapter 13, after some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod sought to kill him, Jesus lamented Jerusalem saying, “I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”[xiii] Jesus knew as he entered Jerusalem that he must be rejected before he received his honor, for in the Old Testament and in the Kingdom of God, suffering precedes glory.
The reception of the Gospel is divided. Some received and accepted Christ and others rejected him. This divided reception comforted Jesus’ disciples as they later experienced a divided reception. … With that divided reception of the Gospel, we move from the Word to Work, my final W.
One of my pleasures in ministry has been visiting the elderly and infirmed in homes, hospitals or institutions. I close my visits by reminding these friends of God that the Lord has not released them of their most important ministry – the ministry of prayer.
The Christian life is prayer and action, worship of God and love of neighbor. In Matthew, Jesus repeatedly said, “Learn the meaning of this phrase, ‘It is mercy, I desire, not sacrifice.’” … I learn and live mercy through meditation, a life of prayer. A Christian without an active daily prayer life is like a candy cane without stripes.
Petitionary prayer is important, but there are other forms of prayer – thanksgiving, repentance, adoration and praise. Bible phrases tell us that praying to God can include “call upon,” “intercede with,” “meditate on,” “consult,” “cry out to,” “draw near to,” “rejoice in” and “seek the face of.”[xiv]
For me an active prayer life includes these forms as well as meditation and contemplation; however, the mere mention of meditation and contemplation unnerves some Christians. Some pastors rail against meditation and contemplation, while others promote them. I suggest one never engage in any prayer or practice that leads away from Christ.[xv]
For me meditating on Scripture is simply having a conversation with God. Since God is wise and merciful, I sit silently and wait for God to speak. Meditation is that simple. I wait for God to speak a word.
In his Simple Way to Pray, after prescribing an organized method of meditating, Martin Luther wrote, “If in the midst of such thoughts the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honor him by letting go of this written scheme; be still and listen to him. Remember what he says. Note it well and you will behold wondrous things in the law of God.”[xvi]
In Meditation on Christ’s Passion, Luther wrote, “We say without hesitation that he who contemplates God’s sufferings for a day, an hour, yes, only a quarter of an hour, does better than to fast a whole year, pray a psalm daily, [or] hear a hundred masses. This meditation changes man’s being and, almost like baptism, gives him a new birth.”[xvii]
Meditation, almost like baptism, gives us new birth. In short, Luther encouraged meditation as a way to deepen our understanding and appreciation of God’s Word. Meditation relates well to our Gospel in that worship at the Temple was replaced by worship through the new place of God’s dwelling, the Christ.[xviii]
As Christians, we are not promised exemption from suffering, trial or even death for the sake of the gospel. We live in the in-between time of Christ’s coming in the flesh and his glorious coming, but we do not know when he will return. The Christian, like a waiting doorkeeper, is never off duty.[xix] We must live mercifully and pray actively.
I close by asking you to check your calendar. Between now and Christmas, how many parties will you attend? How many school functions and Christmas pageants? When will you find time to mail cards and wrap gifts? Will you be so busy that you sneak away from the office early?
My point is that in the busyness of the season, we are easily distracted. We lose the sense of wonder and contemplation, unable to read the signs of the times because of our distractedness. Spiritual laziness often manifests itself as busyness in the form of distractedness. Distractedness is a way of not paying attention to oneself or the needs of others or the voice of God because we are so busy doing nothing important – shopping for bargains and checking our smartphones, catching up on small talk and on social media, attending parties and festivities.
If you do not know how to stay awake – how to pray – use Portals of Prayer. Each day there is a Scripture passage and a meditation. As we begin Advent, I ask you to do one thing – pray daily – so that when the Day of the Lord comes, He may find you waiting, working and in the Word. And as you pray, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.[xx]

[i] Arthur A. Just, Jr. Luke 9:51-24:53. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1997), 743f.
[ii] Luke 23:53
[iii] Malachi 3:1
[iv] Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3; 1 Samuel 6:7
[v] Luke 4:18
[vi] Zechariah 9:9
[vii] Luke 1:1-4
[viii] Luke 19:37
[ix] Luke 24:13-35
[x] Luke 24:19
[xi] Zechariah 9:9
[xii] Psalm 118:26
[xiii] Luke 13:35
[xiv] Margaret Dorgan, “Prayer,” HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard McBrien. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco (1995), 1037.
[xvii] Paragraph 10 -
[xviii] Eugene LaVerdiere, Luke. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc. (1980), 207
[xix] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2002), 546.

Monday, November 23, 2015

How we can enjoy a happier Thanksgiving

Having worked four years as Director of Development at Berkeley Food and Housing Project in California, one of the state’s largest homeless service providers, I can tell you that not everybody spends the fourth Thursday in November with family. Thousands of Americans eat Thanksgiving dinner at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, church basements and other fine establishments. Pilgrims from every side of the political pendulum serve these down-and-out diners. That said, we put aside politics to look at Thanksgiving’s history, a leper’s healing and how we can enjoy a happier Thanksgiving. History, Healing, Happy.
First, Thanksgiving’s history. For some, Thanksgiving commemorates a heritage of false memory. Internet myths of Thanksgiving range from fundamentalists’ invention of a fake 1623 Thanksgiving Proclamation – to prove that God was being thanked and not the Indians – to Libertarians, who used the same fake proclamation to claim that “the real reason for Thanksgiving is that Socialism does not work.”[i]
Puritan Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. The feast lasted 3 days. 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims attended. The Pilgrims were accustomed to regularly celebrating thanksgivings – days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.
Thanksgiving became an official Federal holiday in 1863, when, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our Father … in the Heavens.”
As a faith community, we celebrate thanksgiving when we gather for the Lord’s Supper. Eucharist means we give thanks because the gift is nothing less than forgiveness of sins for which we can never atone. We give thanks because we have nothing else to give but gratitude.[ii]
When we genuinely receive God’s gracious gifts, we cannot help but be eucharistic or thankful to God. Such thanksgiving shows up in our worship, and in daily life – an attitude of gratitude revealed in how we live with those around us. Let us take that attitude of gratitude and turn to the Gospel where health and salvation go together like turkey and stuffing.
To the 10 lepers requesting that he have mercy on them, Jesus replied, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus was following the Law, specifically Leviticus, chapter 14. Was the Samaritan, who lived outside the requirement of Judaism, included in the command to go to a priest? Moreover, why did Jesus reproach the other nine for following the Law and his command? Furthermore, why did Jesus say, “Your faith has made you well,” when all were cleansed?[iii]
Questions demand further exploration because the Gospel of Luke is richer than pumpkin pie and Cool Whip – but not that fat free, sugar free kind that my wife buys. Note that Luke opens this story by telling us that on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee. Mentioning Samaria is significant, since only the Samaritan responded with grateful faith and praise.
Initially, the Samaritans rejected Jesus’ disciples because he was going to Jerusalem; but when the disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to destroy them, Jesus did not allow it. In fact, a Samaritan showed the Jews how to be a good neighbor according to the law.[iv] And now, by contrast with nine others, a Samaritan embodies the conditions of salvation.
For salvation to be realized, the healed person must respond in faith, a gift that is open to all. The grateful Samaritan reminds us that salvation is not limited to the Jews, but is universally offered to all people.
Like the nine lepers who did not return to praise God and Jesus, the Pharisees failed to recognize that the kingdom of God was already in their midst. It was manifested in Jesus’ healing, but they looked elsewhere for it. Without faith, miracles are opaque. If the other nine and the Pharisees were not blind, they certainly suffered from glaucoma.
Whatever the case, something prevented nine lepers and many Pharisees from seeing the Kingdom of God in their midst through the words and deeds of Jesus. Imagine how happy they would have been if they grasped that insight. Well, we can do nothing about their happiness, but we can do something about our own happiness. That leads me to my final point – how to enjoy a happier Thanksgiving.
How do I recognize the kingdom of God is in our midst? Through a recent healing? When encouraged by seeing down-and-out diners served by well-heeled waiters? By confessing my sins and receiving absolution through the pastor? When I show mercy to another sinner, as Jesus showed mercy to the lepers? Even when we mourn our losses – as our family did last month – we recognize that the kingdom of God is in our midst.
Folks, when we recognize God is truly in our midst, and we praise Him for that, our thanksgiving feast around the table of our home and around the table of the Lord will be truly happy.
Notice, Jesus instructs the grateful leper, “Rise and go on your way.” After our final hymn, as you rise and go on your way, journey to your homes and dinner destinations, and journey with Jesus. Let the Holy Spirit move you where God wants you –Pennsylvania, California, Oklahoma or Illinois. For when you go with God, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[ii] Larry Vogel, Toward a Theology of Worship That Is Pastoral and Sacramental. Model Theological Conference on Worship January 11, 2010, 20
[iii] Craddock, 202f.
[iv] LaVerdiere, 215