Archive | December, 2018

How to bring righteousness to the world [Second Sunday of Advent, part 5]

14 Dec

In this series on the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, we have been following the life and ministry of John the Baptist and the message God was proclaiming through John: a huge roadwork project.  What is that project?  God wants us to repent, so that he might bring righteousness on the world.  And that brings us to the fourth reading, Philippians 1:3-11, which explains what this means for us.

There we read Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, a writing which would have been 25 years or so after the events of John the Baptist’s ministry. 

Very much like the church we heard about last week, in the city of Thessalonica, Paul had started a church in the city of Philippi, which like Thessalonica, is in modern-day Greece.  But unlike modern-day Thessaloniki, which is a bustling city, Philippi is now just an archaeological site.  In Paul’s day, it was another important city, however, not far down the road from Thessalonica. You can read about Paul’s visit there in Acts 16.    

We learn in his prayer in Philippians 1 that Paul had great affection for his friends there.  Take a look at Verses 3-5 and 7-8, and there we see Paul’s thankful and joyful prayer because of their partnership in the gospel. In verse 6 he expresses his confidence that God, who began good work in them, will carry it to completion. Sfter that encouragement, he concludes with some teaching and goals for them in verses 9-11.  It is a prayer for four things:

First, that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.

Second, that they would be able to discern what is best.

Third, that they would be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.

Fourth, that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.

The anchoring phrase of these verses is that first phrase of Paul’s prayer: that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.  In the language Paul originally wrote this in, ancient Greek, this is a very vivid phrase.  It carries the idea of an overflow of love that just keeps growing beyond what can be contained.  What happens in that extremely loving atmosphere of a church family is that they will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, which is the day of the second coming of Jesus.  This is a love that knows no bounds, and a love that is getting to know one another more and more.

Paul is once again, like he was last week with the Thessalonian church, looking forward to second coming of Jesus, now teaching the Philippian Christians how to act in preparation for that day.  They are to love one another with a growing, overflowing love, that is marked by knowing one another more and more.

That raises an interesting question: Is it possible to love someone who you barely know?  You may be aware of them, but it cannot be said that you love them.  Love requires knowledge.   And knowledge boosts love.  When they love like that, growing in their depth of knowledge for one another, Paul says, there will be residual blessings.  They will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless as they wait for Jesus to return.  Love for one another ,then, is foundational for a church family.

Finally, take notice of last phrase of Paul’s prayer: “that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.” This is the word that ties all our passages together: righteousness. 

Paul wants the people to be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus.  From Malachi’s prophecy of the two messengers we learned about God’s desire for his people to be righteous. Then from Zechariah’s psalm in Luke 1, we heard Zechariah, the father of the first messenger, talk about God’s plan for rescuing his people so that we could serve him in righteousness all our days.  Next we looked at the ministry of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, who fulfilled the role of the first messenger, calling people to repentance and lives of righteousness.  Now we conclude with Paul teaching the people how this righteousness flows from Jesus.  Paul will teach in many passages that we do not have a righteousness of our own, but instead we can only accept the gracious gift of Jesus giving his righteousness to us, at one point describing it like putting on the clothing of righteousness.

After we take on Jesus’ righteousness, waiting for Jesus to return, we are called to lives of love, demonstrating the righteousness that Jesus came to give to us.  That is the amazing gift of Malachi’s second messenger, who is God himself, that he wants to cleanse us of our unrighteousness and give us his! 

What is this righteousness?  I mentioned that it is very much connected to the idea of justice, of making things right, flowing from a heart of love.

As we wait, then, for Jesus to return, we are to be a people so filled with love, abounding with love, that we work to make things right in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us.  That is the fruit of righteousness.  That is how we live and work and prepare for Jesus to return.  That is the work of clearing the debris, making straight the crooked paths, smoothing the hills and filling the valleys.  By loving one another with so much abundance, we are bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

To this concept of justice, I think of the recent report given at our local ministerium about homelessness in our school district, Conestoga Valley. It is rampant. CV has more homeless students in our school district than any other in the county except for the school district of Lancaster. This is why we support CVCCS and the Ministerium and Homes of Hope.  I encourage you to consider what role you can play, especially at Christmas, no matter where you live. Get to know your community.  Can you find any evidence of injustice?

Addressing injustice in our communities is just one example of how we can bring justice and righteousness and prepare the way for the return of the King.  Think about that return of the King.  What will he see when he arrives?  Just like the dignitaries that visit Jamaica, will Jesus find a road with potholes and debris, or will he find a road that is paved and cared for?  I’m not talking about actual roads, in case you were wondering!  I’m talking first and foremost about his church, but also all people, society, and culture. Will Jesus find broken relationships, people stuck in addictions, ravaged by injustice?  Will he see his church striving to love and to bring righteousness to the world?

God’s road construction project [Second Sunday of Advent, Part 4]

13 Dec

Road construction, as we said in part 1 of this series on the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, is usually a nuisance.  Today we learn that God wants to do a major road construction project.  Will it be a nuisance?  Do we need it?  Let’s move to the third reading, Luke 3:1-6, and find out. Who do we meet there? Zechariah’s son, John, now an adult.  Remember Zechariah the priest from the second reading?  Review his story here.  He had a son, John, and now that son is grown up, and we find out that his son is quite a character.   Let’s take a look at how John fits with the readings so far this week.

We start with verses 1-3 which is simply a historical placement of John’s ministry in the First Century Roman Empire, and we read in verse 2 a familiar phrase, “the word of God came to John.”  That phrase is used frequently in the Old Testament describing the prophetic ministry of many people whom God spoke through.  Luke is clearly saying that this John, the son of Zechariah, was a prophet.  He tells us that John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, exactly like his dad, Zechariah, in his psalm Luke 1 which we studied in part 3, said John would.

Luke goes on in verses 4-6 quoting one of those Old Testament prophets, Isaiah 40:3-5, showing John as fulfillment of the prophetic words in Isaiah 40.  We’ve already seen how John was the first messenger prophesied in Malachi 3, and now we hear a bit more about the first messenger’s prophetic task. 

Remember how the first messenger prepares the way for the second messenger?  In Isaiah 40, that ministry of preparing the way is illustrated with amazing images. It is a massive earth-moving project used to depict personal repentance. 

Look at the images in Luke 3:4-5: “Make straight paths, Valleys filled in, Mountains and hills made low, Crooked roads straightened, Rough ways smoothed.”  That is some serious demolition work done by this first messenger. But that’s what you do to prepare the way for the king.  You don’t want the king’s vehicle to be driving down a road with potholes and crazy curves and dangerous debris.

When we lived in Jamaica, we experienced some of the roughest roads ever. But what was interesting was that the road from the airport into the city was really nice.  They took care of that road.  They wanted visiting dignitaries to think that Jamaica had nice roads. 

How does this relate to people?  The first messenger wasn’t a road construction worker with dynamite and a jack hammer, a paver and roller.  Nope, John preached to people a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

The messenger’s ministry was one of helping people smooth out the rough patches of their lives. He encouraged them to get ready spiritually for the coming of the king. That is what the Season of Advent in all about.  And that is what the first messenger was doing to help people get ready for the arrival of the second messenger, the Lord.

Why? As we read in Luke 3:6, so that all mankind will see God’s salvation.  God wants all people to repent and come to him and be saved.  It doesn’t mean that all will.  It is still a free choice.  But God is saying that he desires all to repent.  What that means is our theme continues.  Though the word isn’t used,God wants all people to experience righteousness.

In part 5 of the series, we’ll look at our fourth and final reading, examining how the theme of repentance and righteousness matters to our lives and our world.

A New Testament Psalm [Second Sunday of Advent, part 3]

12 Dec

Normally, our second reading from the Lectionary is from the collection of Psalms in the Old Testament.  But for this second Sunday of Advent, the Lectionary takes us to the New Testament, to Luke 1:68-79, and guess what we find there?  A Psalm!  A New Testament Psalm.  And one that I think you’ll find is very prophetic.

We read that this psalm was given by Zechariah the priest who ministered in Jerusalem in the very early part of the first century AD.  More than 400 years had gone by since Malachi wrote our first reading, and life had changed once again for the people of Israel.  The Persians in Malachi’s day were defeated by the Greeks, and then the Romans conquered the Greeks.  The Romans did massive building projects, including a huge new temple in Jerusalem.  And that is where Zechariah ministered.

In Luke 1, we find out that Zechariah had a problem.  He couldn’t talk.  He was made mute by God as we read in verses 19-20.  He was silent for nine months!  Nine months…what happens in nine months?  Babies are born.  There was a pregnancy.  Who’s pregnancy?  It was his wife, Elizabeth, who was pregnant.  She and Zechariah were old, and thought they were past child-bearing age, but God came to Zechariah in a vision and said they were going to have a baby, and get this, God said their baby was going to be the first messenger God promised in Malachi 3!  Zechariah was an upright man, Luke tells us, but he was blown away by this news.  He and his wife were old, so he questioned God, “How can this be?”  At that moment of Zechariah’s disbelief, his mouth was closed by God.

After nine months of silence, what are the first words out of his mouth? As we read in verse 64, his first words are praise to God.  No anger at such a longtime.  No bitterness.  But praise! Filled with the Holy Spirit, here is what Zechariah said.

First in verses 68-75 he is rehashing the covenant promise God made to David, about God freeing Israel from their enemies.  He uses the Old Testament phrase, “a horn of salvation” which indicates strength, like the strong horn of an animal.  Then he prays, “enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”  There’s that word again, righteousness.  Zechariah is praising God that his prophecies are being fulfilled right before his eyes.

Where the prevailing idea of the people was that the way God would fulfill his prophecies was to boot the Romans from their land and turn Israel into a regional superpower again, like it was in the days of Solomon, Zechariah understood that God had a much bigger vision that than, and it had to do with righteousness.

Zechariah continues this flow of thought in verses 76-79 which are a commentary about his son John as the fulfillment of the first messenger of Malachi 3.  He says his son, John, is the first messenger who will prepare the way for the second messenger, and here again we read about the big plans God has!

What are God’s plans?  Zechariah says the plans are to give people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of God.  What great news! 

He then uses imagery of the skies when he says, “By which the rising sun will come from heaven, to shine on those living in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” 

So in the first two readings we have heard the prophecy of the two messengers, how it will be a new covenant based on righteousness, and we have seen that Zechariah believed his new baby son John was the first messenger. 

In part 4 we’ll move to the third reading, and I think you’ll see very quickly how it connects to the first two.

God wants to set you on fire [Second Sunday of Advent, part 2]

11 Dec

Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash

People are waiting for God to return.  He is coming, and he tells us it could be surprising.  He doesn’t mean “surprising” in the sense of us not knowing the timing of his return.  We learned in part 1 of this series on the Lectionary readings for the second Sunday of Advent that God’s arrival will be surprising and ominous.  The first reading is Malachi 3:1-4, and the prophet goes on to describe God’s arrival in more detail.  He says it will be like two things: a Refiner’s fire and Launderer’s soap. 

Think about that.  God’s arrival will be like fire that burns away impurity, and like scrubbing of soap that forcefully washes away dirt.  In the ancient world Malachi lived in, people didn’t have soap that gently bubbles up and purifies.  No foaming dispensers.  Launderers in the ancient near east used substances like alkaline salts to scrub away dirt, and they would roughly scrub the clothing over rock, grinding the salts into the fabric to remove stains. 

Is that what the people in Malachi’s day are seeking?  Is that what God’s people desire?  No way.  They want the Lord to come and bless them, prosper them, and make life easy.   

But they are hearing that the arrival of the Lord will be a rough process of cleansing!  They are hearing that God wants to set them on fire!

We see this further described in verses 3-4.  “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”  That’s the fire.  “He will purify the Levites like this.”  The Levites were the priests, and they needed to be cleansed of their sin.  And then, finally, he says that “the Lord will have men who bring offerings in righteousness.” 

There’s a word we’ve heard recently in our Deuteronomy series.  Righteousness.  This is a word that refers to justice, to what is right.  To do what is right.  God wants his people to be cleansed so they can do justice and do what is right! 

He concludes our first reading at the end of verse 4, saying that after this cleansing process, then and only then, will “the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable.”  That means they had been performing sacrifices at the new temple they had built, but those sacrifices were not acceptable because their hearts were not with the Lord.

They needed to go through a cleansing process, and turn their hearts to God, to do justice and righteousness. Then only after that cleansing process would God accept their sacrifices.  See that? God doesn’t want us to go through religious rituals if our hearts aren’t right with him!  Pursuing righteousness starts with a cleansing process.

So there will be two messengers one day in Israel’s future.  One to prepare the way, and the other to usher in a new covenant which will bring justice and righteousness.  From this Old Testament prophecy, we jump to the next reading in part 3.

God’s surprising arrival [Second Sunday of Advent, part 1]

10 Dec
Ruining a perfectly good road

How many of you love road construction?  I mean how many of you get excited when you’re driving and the traffic slows to a stop, and you look at your phone and it tells you there is roadwork ahead?  We recently had roadwork outside Faith Church as they were working on curbs for a new complex going in across the street.  From my house, if I took the long way, I could skip most of the roadwork, but I would often forget, and end up waiting in a long line that backed for more than a mile.  It is very normal hate road construction, but this week, we’re going to get a whole new viewpoint on road construction!

With this post we start a week-long series studying the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent…and road construction?  And first up is a reading from another Old Testament prophet, Malachi 3:1-4.

Remember last week when one of readings was from the prophet Jeremiah, and the reading told us of the time Jeremiah bought a field when the armies of Babylon had surrounded the city of Jerusalem with siege works?  Today, we travel 150 years or so after the time of Jeremiah, and we come to the ministry of the prophet Malachi. 

A lot happened to the people of Israel in that 150 years. They were defeated by Babylon, exiled, and their land was ravaged.  Eventually the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and allowed people to return to Israel.  You can read about it in the books of Haggai and Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah, where we hear stories of the people clearing the land and starting to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem and the temple. 

Nehemiah was a Jew who had risen in the ranks while in exile in Persia.  He was cup-bearer to the Persian king, who allowed Nehemiah to return to Israel to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.  Nehemiah was an amazing leader and under him the people returned not only to Israel, they also returned to the Lord.  Eventually Nehemiah had to go back to Persia.  Some years went by and Nehemiah traveled back to Jerusalem to find the people had turned away from God yet again.  Malachi is writing somewhere close to that time.

So think about this:  Israel has its past memories of glory.  Memories of prominence, and especially memories of their God residing at the temple. But that is no more.  God removed his glory and presence from the temple. Thus the big question on the people’s hearts and minds, then, is, “When will God return?”  They have returned to the land, they have started to rebuild.  But when will God show up?  That brings us to Malachi 3.

What word do you see repeated in verse 1?  Take a look, and you will see there are two instances of the word “messenger” in verse 1. The first messenger we read about is one who will prepare the way for the Lord’s arrival.

Then suddenly the Lord will come to his temple, and we find out that the Lord is the second messenger.  But where the first messenger has a job of preparing the way for the Lord’s arrival, the second messenger, the Lord himself, has a job of being the messenger of his covenant.

God had his covenant with Israel long before this.  We have been studying that covenant in our Deuteronomy series.  He made the covenant with Israel, under the leadership of Moses, but Israel broke the covenant, and God allowed their nation to be destroyed and exiled, and God removed his presence from them.  Through God’s prophets, like Malachi, though, God introduced the idea of a new covenant. 

Here in Malachi 3 we are hearing about two messengers that will arrive in the future to usher in this new covenant.  One messenger prepares the way, and the next messenger is the Lord himself.  Malachi says that the people are looking for the arrival of these messengers.  The people are described as seeking and desiring the arrival of messengers. 

But look at verse 2 where we read the description of the second messenger’s arrival. In verse 1 Malachi has already said that that the second messenger will arrive suddenly.  Now he asks some disconcerting questions about his arrival: “Who can endure it? Who can stand when he appears?”

Do those questions make you feel good or bad about his arrival?  When we think of the Lord arriving, we think of cheering crowds and salvation and hope and joy.  But this description in Malachi 3 is not like that at all.  These questions verse 2 sound ominous!  Endure it?  Who can stand it?  It seems like the Lord is telling the people, “Brace yourselves, people, because I’m about to come in like a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami.”  Is that the kind of arrival you want God to make?

While it sounds uncomfortable, it might be the best thing for us.  But how? Tomorrow we’ll learn more about this surprising arrival of the Lord. And what about road construction?  We’ll get back to that too!

How TO wait during hard times [First Sunday of Advent, part 5]

7 Dec

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

In this series of posts on the Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent 2019, we’ve been learning how to wait during hard times.  In the previous post about the fourth reading, Luke 21:25-36, we heard from Jesus how NOT to wait.  Now we continue in that passage, and Jesus teaches the proper way to wait.

We can summarize Jesus’ teaching as: watch out in prayer.  When we are struggling with pain, anxiety, and God seems far away, and our world seems to be crumbling around us, Jesus says our response should be watchful prayer.  Jesus mentions two requests we should pray for: escape and stand.  The word “escape” is not to be understood as fleeing or running away, but as avoidance.  It is okay to pray, “God please don’t let me go through this.”  Jesus himself prayed that very thing before he went to the cross! God might say, “Ok…I will take that away.”  But God might not.  He didn’t take the cross away from Jesus.  This is when the second prayer request is so important. Stand.  And in particular Jesus says, “stand before the Son of Man,” which is him.  What he is referring to is that we are praying for strength to stand in the midst of trial and pain, to stand in such a way that we remain faithful to Jesus. 

When we are going through hard times, our response should be pray.  Pray for the difficulty to be taken away, but if it is not taken away, pray that God will strengthen us to remain faithful.

Here we can look to Jesus as our model.  Constantly we see him, especially in the Gospel of Luke, getting away for prayer. In Matthew 6 he tells us to go into our closet and pray.  That’s what Jesus did.  It might not have been a literal closet for Jesus, but it had the same effect when he went all by himself on a mountain to be alone with God. I don’t have a prayer closet, but I do like to find a quiet room in the church.  Often I walk into the dark sanctuary, sit in the front and pray.  Sometimes like Brother Lawrence, I pray while washing dishes, seeking to have a conversation with God all day like Lawrence did.

We need to learn to get away from our phones, from TV, from the internet, from people, and spend time sitting in God’s presence. 

I know waiting can be so hard.  But the one place we will find the strength to watch for Jesus and be faithful for his return is the place of sitting in his presence.  It might be while you are driving, and you turn off the radio or the podcast, and you just talk with God and listen for him.  It might be while you are exercising, and you remove the headphones from your ears, turn off the music and listen.  Or maybe you keep the headphones in and listen to music that helps you pray!   Or maybe an app that guides you into listening to God.  It might be in the quietness of the morning before people awake, or after they have gone to bed.  It might be on lunch break in the park, in your car, in the bathroom.  As we saw in Deuteronomy 18, God says that we need to learn to listen to Jesus. 

When we listen, when we bask in his presence, we find strength to remain faithful, even in the dark times, even in the waiting.

Watch, and pray, the days are coming.  Maybe for some of you, the days are here.  You are living through pain right now.  Maybe for some of you those days are coming.  What is your practice of prayer?  Do you need to increase the time you spend in prayer?  Do you need to spend time working on the quality of your prayer? 

Anthony Bloom, in his book Beginning to Pray, gave an illustration that really hit home with me.  He said, consider your relationship with your spouse or significant other or maybe even a close friend.  What would that relationship be like if the sum total of your communication with that person was you going up to them for five minutes each day, pulling out a list of stuff you want them to do, running down the list, and saying, “Great talk.  Please do all that for me.  Talk with you tomorrow.”  The next day, you do the same talk again.  Sometimes you skip days, thinking very little of it, but when you resume talking to that person, it is more of the same, your five minute wish list.  And that’s it.  How would that relationship go?  It would fail very fast. 

When I was on sabbatical, and I was learning about listening to God, that story really convicted me.  I started practicing listening prayer.  But I will tell you that since I have been back from sabbatical, with the busyness of life, it is so easy to think, I don’t have time for listening to God.  Jesus reminds us in Luke 21 that nothing is more important.  Right before he was about to encounter the most momentous event of his life, which was his crucifixion, you’d think he would be taking every last second to teach his disciples, to help prepare them for what was coming, give them tools to succeed. But he doesn’t.  Instead he prays.  At the moment of crisis Jesus is praying.

How can we be a people of prayer?  Are you in a moment of crisis?  Are you praying, listening for the voice of God, basking in his presence?  If this resonates with you, but you are not sure where to begin, I recommend that you read Bloom’s book, and another one called Into The Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.  Study those books.  Then find your closet, watch and pray.

How NOT to wait during hard times [First Sunday of Advent, part 4]

6 Dec
Photo by Maia Habeggar on Unsplash

We have been studying the concept of waiting during dark times in this series of posts on the Lectionary passages for the First Sunday of Advent.  In part 3, we introduced the fourth reading, Luke 21:25-36, where Jesus prophesies his second coming.  Christians throughout the ages have been waiting for his return. That waiting can be difficult.  Jesus remarks that in the watching and waiting we should be on guard against the temptation toward dissipation, drunkenness and anxiety. 

Personally, I’ve had periods of hardship where I have actively felt and prayed, “Jesus, I am ready for you to comeback!”  But those have been far and few between.  As we age, though, or as we go through hard times, we are more apt to long for his return. 

But in a wealthy, privileged society, with so many opportunities available to us, I think the opposite happens.  We might not want him to return.

I remember thinking as a teen, “Lord, Please don’t come back until I get my driver’s license.”

And then as a college student, “Lord, please don’t come back until after I get married.”

And then as a young adult, “Lord please don’t come back until after we get to meet our kids.”

Have you had thoughts like this too?  There are so many reasons why we might not want Jesus to come back.  Reasons that have us focused on the opportunities of life, whether good or bad.

In verse 34, Jesus warns his disciples about losing focus on him and his return, and having their attention in life drawn to things that could potentially harm them, or worse, harm the mission of God’s Kingdom.  He refers to three dangers in particular: dissipation, drunkenness and anxieties of life.

We don’t use the word “dissipation” much.  I had to look it up. Actually I looked up the meaning of the Greek word that Jesus uses here, and I found that the word refers to the bad things people do when they are very drunk. (Louw & Nida)

So of course that relates to the next word Jesus uses, “drunkenness.” Drink too much alcohol, and you are no longer fully in control.  In the ancient world Jesus lived in, alcohol was pretty much the main drug.  In our day and age, we have so many options for losing control, don’t we? All kinds of substances.

With the words “dissipation and drunkenness,” we have a clear teaching from Jesus: do not overindulge in anything that takes you out of control of your life. Here’s the thing, though, when you are going through hard times, the temptation to escape the pain and get lost in a substance or an addiction is a powerful force in our lives that can lead to much evil. Jesus is right to warn us about it.

The third concept he cautions us about is, “anxieties of life.” And this one hits me square between the eyes.  I struggle with anxiety.  I wrote about my battle here. Jesus says be careful or you can be weighed down or burdened by it, and I know exactly what he means. Anxiety can become all-consuming.  It, too, is a powerful force that can be hard to battle. Jesus is right to warn us about this too. 

How about you?  In the times of darkness in your life, while you are waiting, have you struggled with dissipation and drunkenness?  How about anxiety?  Please know that you are not alone.  Many people battle as well, and there is hope!  What is that hope?  Check back in tomorrow for part 5 of this series, as Jesus has a very practical suggestion that can give us all hope.