Prepare the way?

Does God need us to prepare the way of the Lord?

Today’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 is a text Christians see as pointing to the ministry John the Baptist did. God called a person to bring God’s word of comfort and challenge to all of God’s people. But this text is more than just a prediction of something that happened 600 years after it was written. It’s a passage that also tells the story of a prophet preaching to the Jewish community in Exile. The Babylonian empire had destroyed Jerusalem, burned God’s Temple, and forcibly relocated the survivors to what is now Iraq. The people felt abandoned because the war destroyed their homeland. They wondered where God was because it seemed as if God broke all of God’s promises. Their faith, identity, and sense of self are in turmoil. And that’s when God brings all of them a word of comfort and hope. At first, this new prophet wondered why they should preach at all. The people, the prophet proclaimed, are like grass and flowers – they might pay attention to God’s word when it suits them but, eventually, they will turn away. God, however, responded by reminding the prophet of who God is. The value and worth of God’s word does not depend on what people do once they hear it. Instead, God’s word matters because it comes from God. And even in our moments when we feel abandoned and all alone, God is still with us and will never let us go.

There are times in our lives when we think we can convince God to something on our behalf. We bargain with God, making promises of our own. We tell God we’ll go to church each week, hoping that we will be blessed. We promise to pray every night, and hope God will make a health crisis pass. We see a preacher on tv and send him money because he promises that God will reward us with more money than we give to him. And we sometimes act as if we can force Jesus’ return if we make some kind of political or religious event happen. But does God, the creator of the universe, need us to do that? Can we truly bargain with the one who is the past, the present, and the future all at once? Our God isn’t a God who believes in “pay-to-play” kind of realities. Our God, instead, just loves. Our God, instead, keeps God’s promises. We worship, study, pray, and live generous lives because, in Christ, we discover that is exactly who God is. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned. He knows what it’s like when people don’t believe the stories he shares. He knows what it’s like when the powerful try to shut him down, refusing to listen to his experiences. He knows what it is like to cry out to God in pain, suffering, and hope. Jesus knows what it’s like to be like us. The story of God isn’t a story where people someone convince God to be on our side. God’s story is about discovering how God is with us, no matter what. When we know Jesus, we see God more clearly. And when we live a Jesus-like life, we discover who God wants us to be.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Second Sunday of Advent, 12/10/2017.

Quake: When God Shows Up

When God shows up, what do we expect will happen? Today’s reading from Isaiah 64:1-9 is asking this kind of question. This section of Isaiah was probably recorded immediately after Israel’s captivity in Babylon ended. For almost 70 years, many of the people from Jerusalem lived in exile in Babylon. They built new homes and created new communities in the heart of the empire that defeated them. When the Persian empire destroy Babylon, the people of Jerusalem were invited to return home. Most decided to stay home in Babylon but some moved to Jerusalem, a city they never knew. The city was in rubble and God’s Temple was gone. Food was scarce. Conflict was everywhere. As the community started to rebuild, they lamented and prayed to God. They wanted to God to be God and cause the world to tremble.

I’ll admit that this image of God is a powerful one. Wouldn’t it be great to have this kind of experience of God? Imagine the heavens opening up and God landing in Northern New Jersey. The hills would quake and move. The Pascack Valley would rock and roll. God would show up and everyone would know God is here. A God who does this is a God who is easy to see, experience, and share with others. It’s a God who expresses strength and might. A God who shakes mountains is a God we want on our side because nothing on earth can compare.

And yet this is the first reading from scripture we hear this Advent season. We are in a period of waiting until Christmas, a story about God coming down, finally comes. But when God finally does come, the mountains do not quake like we expect. Instead, God enters the world as a baby named Jesus. The cries of this baby do not shake buildings. Instead, his cries bring his mother and father to his side. In Jesus, God chooses to live a human life, from birth to death and beyond, because that’s the awesome deed no one would reasonably expect.

As Christians, we are invited to lament like the prophet in Isaiah does here. God wants us to call God out, telling God to be a promise keeper. But we are also invited to open our eyes and see the ways God is already here. Sometimes the most powerful experience we need is a whisper of hope, a shoulder to cry on, a person who says they care about us, or a baby who spends his first night in a manger.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for First Sunday of Advent, 12/3/2017.

Christ the King or Reign of Christ?

You did it! You survived another church year. Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a new holiday in the church calendar, established less than 100 years ago. In 1925, Pope Pius XI established this day to encourage Roman Catholics to recognize Christ’s authority in our lives. Christ the King was originally scheduled for the last Sunday in October (which might have been a way to push back against Lutherans and their Reformation Sunday) but was moved to the last Sunday in the church year in 1970. Many different protestant churches (including Lutherans) adopted this feast day because its central question is important for all Christians. We know Jesus is important and we commit ourselves to follow him. We celebrate his presence in our lives and sing hymns calling him the “king of kings.” Jesus matters – but does our everyday life act like he does?

Over the last few decades, a debate about name of this Sunday has emerged. Should we call this Sunday Christ the King when the word “king” is so problematic? There are plenty of kings in scripture that give the word “king” a bad name. In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel describes what kings actually do. They value power more than anything. They want to keep everything for themselves. They oppress the poor, fight wars, and bring ruin to entire communities. They demand the obedience of others while filling their bank accounts with other people’s wealth. Kings in scripture are not a good thing. Even the kings we celebrate (like King David), have immense personality flaws that lead to their downfall and destruction. All of us think we know what a good king looks like. They are full of power and majesty. They are wise, caring, and give hope to others. They live lives worthy of being in a Disney animated film. And they are a king that looks nothing like Jesus did when, broken and battered, he died on the Cross.

I still call today Christ the King Sunday because that’s a name other people use. But, in my own devotion, I prefer to call today: “Reign of Christ Sunday.” Because that’s what we’re really celebrating. We are, through out baptism, called to live as if Jesus really matters. We are to recognize his love for us and love others just as much. We are to celebrate service rather than power and to always cling to hope. We are to live as if Christ truly rules over our lives because, through the Cross, we know he already does.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Christ the King Sunday, 11/26/2017.

A Reflection on Zephaniah 1

This reading from Zephaniah 1:7,12-18 is terrifying.

It begins with a command from God demanding silence. This phrase lets us put this text in context. This command is used when something is taking place in the Temple. In ancient Israel, the Temple was where heaven and earth meet. It’s where God truly is. By demanding our silence, the prophet Zephaniah tells us that these words are spoken in the place where God is present and where God is being worshipped. These words take place as people gather to pray and celebrate God. The people are participating in rituals, telling stories, and experiencing God. As we will discover, the people expect to be blessed when they worship God. Instead, they are challenged and undone.

We don’t worship in the Temple but but we do worship in our church. Within these eight walls, we pray, sing, and experience Jesus’ presence in a holy community. We gather here on Sunday morning because this is where Jesus promises to be. In the stories we share and in the rituals we participate in, we experience a vision of what God’s community of welcome, love, and hope actually looks like. We are living and expressing what God’s reality truly is. Our rituals are both ancient and new. They are designed to help us experience the presence of God. We are invited guests, brought here to find comfort and joy at God’s table.

But imagine Jesus speaking these words to you. What do you hear? What do you feel? The metaphors in the passage are centered around vines, vineyards, and wine. God, in the verses around this passage, is the tender of a vineyard, making fine wines and drinks. This drink is designed to be life-giving to all who consume it. In this metaphor, God’s people are not drinking the wine God created. Rather, the people are the wine itself. God stored us, tending us carefully, and waiting for us to mature. Yet the wine grew complacent in dealing with God and each other. The wine sought out its own comfort at the expense of others. The wine went bad. And so, in the presence of the God, the wine is destroyed. The people trusted their strength as a nation and a culture so that is the first thing God takes. They did not see God living in their community, so God takes their sight. They did not live lives believing that God will do both good and harm. They didn’t believe that God keeps God’s promises. The people just lived, assuming they were good people, and that’s all they need.

When we are in God’s house, we expect God to brings comfort and joy. But this text doesn’t do that. This is not a text meant for other people. It’s a text spoken to the people God claims as God’s own. It’s a text meant for us. Prophets bring us words that are harsh. Their words challenge us and terrify us. They can turn us defensive but they are here to change us into the people God wants us to be. Zephaniah wants to know, when it comes to daily life, do we live as if the vision of welcome, love, and hope that God proclaims is what we strive to be or do we pretend that our point of view, expectations, and perspective is the only thing God actually wants?

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/19/2017.

Declare: Making a Statement

Cats rarely listen to me. The two that live at my house, Finn and Flotus, never respond well to my verbal commands. When I tell them to stop sleeping on my jacket, they purr. When I order them to jump down from the kitchen counter, they crawl into the kitchen cabinets above. I don’t consider my two cats as pets. They’re really small and furry roommates. Finn and Flotus live their own lives and they enjoy not listening to a word I say. It can be frustrating to live with two cute fuzzballs who ignore everything I declare to them.

As I reflected on our text from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 today, I’m struck by what Paul declared to the community he was writing to. Scholars believe that this is the earliest letter from Paul we have. And since Paul’s letters were the first pieces composed for what became our New Testament, this letter is the first written record of what the gospel is all about. Paul is writing to a small community who are worried. They were expecting to Jesus to return very soon. But there was a delay and people, in their community, have died. The question was: did the ones who die miss out on Jesus?

Paul answers by doing something we don’t always get to do. He stated clearly and forcefully that our union with Jesus transcends life and death. This promise is a promise God made to us in our baptism when we, through no strength of our own, were united to the entirety of Jesus’ story. Paul declared what he knew to be turn and he invited the community to do the same. Imagine, for a moment, making this kind of declaration in your own life. It doesn’t matter if someone (or some cat) listens to you. Paul, in this text, doesn’t tie this promise to anything that the people in this community have to do. The promise is true because God is true. And this promise is something we all have. Part of our life in faith is to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, make these kind of declarations to our family, friends, and even strangers. We don’t always know what the declaration will look like but we know what the declaration will be about. It will be words, actions, and deeds centered in a hope, and a love, that does not end.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11/12/2017.

Seals: Revelation

This summer, my family and I visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. To escape the constant thunderstorms, we took shelter in a fake structure designed to look like a cave. One side was made up of a large piece of glass. Half of the glass was submerged under water, showing us animals swimming inside. We stood there for awhile, watching two sea lions dart around the water tank in circles. They would swim by us quickly, as if they were saying hello to us. They then swam as fast as they could to the other side of the tank and we could no longer see them. They circled like this over and over again. We were mesmerized by their speed, agility, and grace. My kids loved that they seemed to know we were there. We watched them. They played around with us. And, for a moment, our perceptions, viewpoints, and realities danced with each other.

When the bible mentions seals, I instantly think of these kinds of animals. But I’m always wrong. In the bible, seals were emblems and symbols used to mark letters, packages, and other containers as being authentic and true. Vases were marked with a seal representing the ruler who owned it. A letter would have a little ball of melted wax shaped by a specific mold to show it came from a specific person. If the letter was opened, the seal would break. A seal was a sign that something (or someone) was authentic, unbroken, and tied to a specific lord or ruler. A seal showed who this item was from and who it belonged to.

Our reading from Revelation 7:9-17 today is a vision of what it looks like to be sealed by Christ. In our baptism, our forehead is marked with the sign of the cross. We are declared, in a very public way, as being someone who is authentically and materially part of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn this kind of declaration. None of us can ever be as perfect we should be. Instead, we are sealed in this way as a gift from Jesus himself. This seal is a promise that we do not live this life alone. Instead, we carry Christ with us no matter what. Like watching a seal swimming in a zoo, there are times when we cannot see Jesus. He might be on the otherwise of the tank that is our life. But he is never as far as we think he is. He is always just around the corner. He will meet us, challenge us, and change us with a love that can never be undone. And that love is a love that even death cannot break.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for All Saints’ Sunday, 11/05/2017.

Covered Up: Hoodies and Shrouds of Death

I am all about those hoodies. As I write this reflection, I’m wearing my bright red hoodie with Ocean City written down one sleeve. Later tonight, you’ll find me in another hoodie with the Denver Broncos’ logo on the side. I love the season of Fall because I wear hoodies. And these hoodies are, in some ways, my security blanket. I spend this entire season in the warm embrace of a comforting piece of fabric. A hoodie does more than keep me warm. A hoodie makes me feel safe. And it’s something I rarely want to shake off.

Isaiah, in our first reading today (Isaiah 25:1-9), imagines death as a shroud. A shroud is a piece of fabric wrapped around us but this one brings no comfort. This shroud is one we cannot shake off on our own. In this passage, death is more than just something that we know will happen to us “eventually.” Instead, as Walter Brueggemann writes, “death here is an active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being.” Death is the “power of diminishment,” doing everything it can to interfere with our sense of wholeness and our relationship to each other and to God. Isaiah does recognize death as passive. It’s not only something that will happen later. Death is active right now. And God promises to take everything that limits life and swallow it up. God is active against death because God is, at the core, life-giving.

This reality of death as an active force is not something everyone experiences in the same way. If we own our own home, have health insurance, and know where our next meal is coming from, death feels a bit far away from us. But if we are vulnerable, poor, or suffering, death’s activity (as described by Isaiah) is very real. Isaiah raises up the promise you were given in your baptism and it is the same process the world was given in through the Cross: you will not be defined by a world that diminishes you. Your value rests in the One who holds you forever. “Biblical faith is not a moral system; it is not a mode of holding on or staying in control. It is rather an act of yielding in the present to the assurances given for God’s future.” You are already part of God’s future because you are already part of God’s world. But we need to remember that God’s world is not the same as our own. Inequality and the ways we diminish and dismiss each other is not life as God imagines it to be. We are called to work against the forces of death because we are wrapped up in something more. We are clothed in the person and body of Jesus Christ. And this Jesus is more than just our security blanket for something that will happen later. Jesus is an active right now, transforming us and our world to make God’s future a reality in our lives.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 18th Sunday After Pentecost, 10/15/2017.

Oriented to the Son: Isaiah 5

What do you always get when you go grocery shopping? For me and my house, we get grapes. Each week, I make a pitstop at the crates of grapes. The crates are usually stacked and taller than me. The grapes are black, red, green, seedless, and seeded. When grapes are on sale, I celebrate. When they are not, I buy them anyways. My youngest and I love grapes. And we both know just how wild grapes can be.

In a previous life, my landlord grew grapes in his backyard in Queens. They crawled up a lattice, forming a canopy over a concrete deck. Those grapes were green, plump, and sweet. When I moved to Paramus, my yard was full of wild grapes. Vines choked trees, bushes, and the house itself. Those grapes were small and tasted awful. The well cared for grapes in Queens and the unruly ones in Paramus both, however, chased the sun. The spots on the ground where the rays of the sun touched were the places where grapes sprouted. Without the sun, nothing grew.

Vineyards take work. It takes time and effort to make grapes grow the way we want them to. In ancient times, vineyards were a sign of wealth and prestige. They were also a metaphor for love, fertility, and relationships. The care needed to make a vineyard work was a stand-in for the care needed to make a relationship blossom. When Isaiah starts our first reading today (Isaiah 5:1-7), people think they know what he is talking about. They look for words of love but they are met with something else. Isaiah is speaking to the entire community, including its political leaders, priests, and those with enough food to eat. He shows them the world they’ve created. God, who cares for God’s people, is not seeing God’s people care for each other in the same way. Where God expects justice and help for the vulnerable, God is seeing oppression, violence, and death. God expected God’s people to share a love-song with each other but there’s only injustice instead.

So how do we sing a love-song for each other? This isn’t easy. Disagreements are a normal part of life and hurting each other is something we are good at. We do not usually notice the ways we harm the people around us. We can become lost in our own vineyard, focused only on ourselves. But we also have a way to move past this vineyard of one. We have the Son. Through the gift of baptism, we are united with the one who knows how to keep God’s love at the center of everything. When we keep close of Jesus, the fruit of our work is changed. What we do becomes life-giving to those around us. When we stay oriented to the Son in a conscious and intentional way, justice, healing, and wholeness becomes all that we do.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 18th Sunday After Pentecost, 10/08/2017.

A Reflection on Philippians 2: Knowing Our Own Authority

Following Jesus (i.e. faith) takes work. Now as Lutherans, we are (rightly!) always suspicious when the words faith and work are next to each other. Faith is always a gift from God. We cannot, through our own effort, ever say “I believe” and mean it as much as we should. Instead, it’s the Spirit that reveals Jesus’ love and care for us and the world. This gift changes us. We are different and it takes work to live a different kind of life.

I believe Jesus expects, and knows, we can do this. God provides ways for us to grow. The Spirit guides us, Jesus’ presence holds us, and the Scriptures help reveal who God is and what a relationship with God looks like. Part of our work is being interpreters. We read Scripture. We analyze the world we live in. We reflect on our own experiences. A faith-filled life is a life of interpretation and a life that knows change. We know life isn’t constant. Situations change. Relationships change. Our own bodies change. Our faith can change. But Jesus’ love doesn’t change. Faith isn’t easy but if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t follow Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading from Philippians 2:1-13 includes the earliest Christian hymn we know. Verses 6 through 11 are a song. The song is more than a description of Jesus. It’s lyrics put to music because Jesus is an experience. And part of that experience is reflecting on who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and how that makes a difference to them. Jesus knew he was God but emptied himself of his power, authority, and freedom to be human. He chose to be like a slave, one who had no control over the violence inflicted on his body. He lived out loud what God’s kingdom looks like. And the government and spiritual authorities killed him for it.

Jesus is an experience and a model for our lives. This way of life puts the interests of others before ourselves. And this isn’t easy. To put others first means we need to know who we are and what our interests are. We need to know people different from us and what their interests are too. We need to know what experiences are foundational to who we are. We need to learn about experiences we don’t have but other people do. We might not think we have any power or authority but our gender, race, social class, and wealth give us different kinds of authority that explicitly and implicitly impacts the people around us. This kind of reflection, observation, and interpretation will make us uncomfortable. But Jesus knows we can handle it. Jesus knows we can live a different kind of life because we are not doing this work on our own. We have the Spirit. We have each other. We have Jesus. And even when we are uncomfortable, we are still called to love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 17th Sunday After Pentecost, 10/01/2017.