Advent Devotion, December 14

The Means of Grace: Radical Generosity
By the Rev’d Keith Huffman 

Generosity in terms of our talent, time, and treasure is not something that comes to most of us very naturally or comfortably. Giving may be even harder for us if our generosity in times past has been spurned or left us feeling like someone took advantage of us. There is also a significant fear factor in giving that goes something like this: “If I give, then I am afraid I will not have enough for myself, my family, and other life obligations.”
This past year, Andy Stanely’s book, “Fields of Gold” truly challenged me concerning generosity. The basic idea in the book is this: Those who sow generously in the Kingdom of God can expect to reap bountifully in order to sow generously once again. Now if you are thinking, “Ah ha! So if I sow generously I get to reap generously, and I can go on a wild shopping spree to buy all the excesses I want . .  . yeah the book is not about that at all! It simply advocates that Christians sow generously out of a deep and sincere desire to share in the generous service of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom purposes. And if we do so, we can expect to see a bountiful harvest.
I finished the book and had a conversation with myself. “Well, I don’t have a lot of money (seed) to be generous with right now—that’s just the facts, and Lord, I want to give (sow) generously to Kingdom purposes.” It was not long after that thought, that I remembered a sermon series from Church of the Apostles, Raleigh concerning giving where giving was not limited to just finances. Instead we learned that our resources to us by God are: time, talent, and treasure (finances.)
“Hmmm. I do have some time on my hands these days and God has given me a few talents in life  . . . . Good Jesus, how I can be generous with these?!”
“Keith, give all of yourself away!”
“But Lord, you know I am not good at that.”
“Have you tried?”
“Yes. Well no. But well, not exactly, but Lord there are some things . . . you know that have happened to me in doing that in times past and . . .”
“Keith, why are you holding back?”
“Because . . . Lord, I am afraid. I am inadequate in every way and, . . . .”
“Is my grace not sufficient for you? Am I not sufficient for you? Did I not make you? Create you? Shape you? Form you? Place you where you are in life right now and placed people around you?”
“Yes.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know how to give myself away Jesus. How do we do that?”
“Look at me on the cross—that’s how you do it.”
The Lord Jesus gave himself away on the cross as the ultimate act of radical generosity and he calls us to do the same:
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him  deny himself and  take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life  will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Matt. 16:24-26 (ESV)
Every Christian is a son or daughter of the most High King—King Jesus. And He has made each of us to be a unique person, uniquely equipped, and uniquely gifted by God to sow generously in His Kingdom. What is it that God has uniquely given you in terms of time, talent, and treasure? What is God asking you to be radically generous with right now? Maybe your time? Your gifts? Talents? And abilities? Or maybe your spouse, kids, or family, would just like the gift of YOU this year—friend don’t hold back—God does not hold back from you.
God The Father withheld nothing. He radically gave His all to us when he gave us His only begotten Son Jesus Christ whose life, death, burial, and resurrection overturned the curse of death and started putting the world back to right by first saving those who call on his name to be saved —friend this is an amazing act of radical generosity. May we, as we look to His Coming this Advent see that He withheld nothing from us, but was, and continues to be a radically generous God; and He desires us to be radically generous with ALL that we are too.

Generosity in terms of our talent, time, and treasure is not something that comes to most of us very naturally or comfortably. Giving may be even harder for us if our generosity in times past has been spurned or left us feeling like someone took advantage of us. There is also a significant fear factor in giving that goes something like this: “If I give, then I am afraid I will not have enough for myself, my family, and other life obligations.”

This past year, Andy Stanely’s book, “Fields of Gold” truly challenged me concerning generosity. The basic idea in the book is this: Those who sow generously in the Kingdom of God can expect to reap bountifully in order to sow generously once again. Now if you are thinking, “Ah ha! So if I sow generously I get to reap generously, and I can go on a wild shopping spree to buy all the excesses I want . .  . yeah the book is not about that at all! It simply advocates that Christians sow generously out of a deep and sincere desire to share in the generous service of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom purposes. And if we do so, we can expect to see a bountiful harvest.

I finished the book and had a conversation with myself. “Well, I don’t have a lot of money (seed) to be generous with right now—that’s just the facts, and Lord, I want to give (sow) generously to Kingdom purposes.” It was not long after that thought, that I remembered a sermon series from Church of the Apostles, Raleigh concerning giving where giving was not limited to just finances. Instead we learned that our resources to us by God are: time, talent, and treasure (finances.)

“Hmmm. I do have some time on my hands these days and God has given me a few talents in life  . . . . Good Jesus, how I can be generous with these?!”

“Keith, give all of yourself away!”

“But Lord, you know I am not good at that.”

“Have you tried?”

“Yes. Well no. But well, not exactly, but Lord there are some things . . . you know that have happened to me in doing that in times past and . . .”

“Keith, why are you holding back?”

“Because . . . Lord, I am afraid. I am inadequate in every way and, . . . .”

“Is my grace not sufficient for you? Am I not sufficient for you? Did I not make you? Create you? Shape you? Form you? Place you where you are in life right now and placed people around you?”

“Yes.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I don’t know how to give myself away Jesus. How do we do that?”

“Look at me on the cross—that’s how you do it.”

The Lord Jesus gave himself away on the cross as the ultimate act of radical generosity and he calls us to do the same:
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him  deny himself and  take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life  will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” Matt. 16:24-26 (ESV)

Every Christian is a son or daughter of the most High King—King Jesus. And He has made each of us to be a unique person, uniquely equipped, and uniquely gifted by God to sow generously in His Kingdom. What is it that God has uniquely given you in terms of time, talent, and treasure? What is God asking you to be radically generous with right now? Maybe your time? Your gifts? Talents? And abilities? Or maybe your spouse, kids, or family, would just like the gift of YOU this year—friend don’t hold back—God does not hold back from you.

God The Father withheld nothing. He radically gave His all to us when he gave us His only begotten Son Jesus Christ whose life, death, burial, and resurrection overturned the curse of death and started putting the world back to right by first saving those who call on his name to be saved —friend this is an amazing act of radical generosity. May we, as we look to His Coming this Advent see that He withheld nothing from us, but was, and continues to be a radically generous God; and He desires us to be radically generous with ALL that we are too.

Advent Devotion, December 17

Newtown, the News, and Prayer
By the Rev’d Ben Sharpe

This past week witnessed one more in a string of senseless atrocities (Columbine shooting, Virginia Tech shooting, Utøya Norway massacre, the Colorado cinema shooting, Wisconsan Sikh Temple attack, etc.) with the slaying of twenty elementary students and another six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.  To say that this was “shocking” or “tragic” seems to resort to easy clichés that are grossly insufficient to describe the evil that was done.  There really just aren’t words to describe this except for… “evil.”

What is our immediate response as believers to an event like this?  If we allow ourselves to get caught up with the spirit of our media saturated age and the twenty-four hour news cycle that drives the cable networks we are liable to spend countless hours in front of a screen.

Some of what we are presented with seems like earnest and sincere reporting.  Other segments are the emotional equivalent of picking the scabs of other people’s wounds.  There is a certain level of voyeurism that masquerades as concern in those that produce, and yes, those of us who consume news media.  And maybe we need to be a little uneasy that someone is actually cashing in on the misery of others as images of Mercedes Benz autos and the promotions of precious metal brokers intersperse the stories of tiny victims.

Please permit me to ask you a question: As a follower of Christ, why is it necessary to watch hours and hours of this kind of reporting?  Examine your spirit, your heart, and see what the effect of this is on your life.  Yes, we must be informed – it’s our obligation as Christians who are citizens of a democratic republic.   But how is our consumption of the news affecting our attitudes?  Our passions?  Our worldview? Part of the seduction of being a news junkie (I am in recovery, by the way) is that we succumb to the illusion that we are actually productively involved in the situation by our emotional participation in what is reported.  In reality, we aren’t.  We are merely absorbing information that has been shaped by the producers to provoke a certain response in those who consume the news.

The reality is that even with a very cursory knowledge of the events in Newtown we know enough to do the one thing that actually can effect this situation: we can pray.  We can pray for the families that lost loved ones.  We can pray for the community of Newtown.  We can pray for the children who survived this horror.  We can pray for the churches of Newtown to be embassies of the Kingdom of God and outposts of healing grace.  We can finally commend the lives of those who died into the hands of a merciful, just, and almighty Savior.

In short we can do what we were exhorted to do in the words of the Epistle Reading from the Third Sunday of Advent:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:4-7 ESV)

Time spent being mesmerized by the media’s inevitable sensationalizing of misery could be time spent in actually taking these events to God the Father, in the Name of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, in prayer.  Doing so brings God’s peace into our lives in such a way that creates the potential for truly productive, Spirit-led action in the future.  Doing so invites the presence of the Good Shepherd into the lives of those who have truly been devastated in Newtown.

Advent Devotion, December 15

Waiting for Our Blessed Hope
By Pr. Jeff Weber

Have you ever noticed that the anticipation of something good is often sweeter then the actual thing itself–that the best moments are those leading up to the actual moment?   Such is the paradox of delayed gratification, and such is the beauty of the season of Advent.  Through Advent we rehearse in our collective memory the journey from our Father’s first promise of a Savior in Genesis 3:14-15, to its culmination in the birth of our Messiah.  It is the story of waiting, of hope, struggle, fear, and finally, fulfillment and joy.   It is THE story in His story.

From the beginning of time, God has made his gifts sweeter by the delay we so often pray to avoid.   God rarely gives us gifts or pleasure in their instant form. When he wanted to give us fruit, he gave us seeds, wine through fermentation, birth through gestation.  What mother cannot recall the wonder of carrying life within her and the joy of holding that child for the first time?  It seems, the greater the gift, the longer the wait.  When our Father chose to give us a Savior, He grew silent for 400 years while His people hoped, prayed, expected and anticipated centuries long prophetic promises.   It was at the peak of that silence that God broke thorough with the wonder of the incarnation.  And, as described in the Gospel of Matthew; the people which sat in darkness saw great light.

As you contemplate and rediscover the mystery of our God becoming flesh this season, find encouragement in knowing His delays in your life are just one of the many ways he loves you.  And, as the people of God did a few thousand years ago, welcome Him afresh to our world—to your world, and live with the centuries long expectation, for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

Advent Devotion, December 18

Another Yes?
By Mrs Pat Weaver

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.  (Matthew 1: 24-25)

In a previous meditation, I wrote about Mary’s “yes” to God’s call in her life.  In Matthew 1:18-25, in the Gospel reading, we read about Joseph’s “yes”.  Joseph had made a good plan of his own after finding out that his betrothed was “with child”.  He had every right to expose her and have her stoned to death, but he had decided not to do that and instead to just quietly slip out of the picture.  It was a loving plan.  He was giving up his rights and protecting Mary.  Wasn’t that a loving and noble and “Godly” thing to do?  How could that not please God?

I can identify with Joseph’s initial response.  I hate to make a “fuss”.  I love harmony and peaceful environments.  I want everyone to be happy and get along.  I’ll give up my “rights” if it will bring harmony.  “You choose the restaurant”….it doesn’t matter to me”.  Let me just quietly slip into the background.  Joseph could just go back to carpentry and throw himself into a project of some kind.

 

But that was not God’s plan.  Not every good thing is God’s thing!  God was not asking Joseph to give up his rights.  He was asking him to give up EVERYTHING!  Yup, that big a risk.  Trust God’s word as delivered by the angel in his sleep.  Mary would know within a few weeks that she was pregnant. What reassurance did Joseph ever have that what the angel said was true?  And yet he said “yes”.

God may be asking us to take a big risk too. Not just do the good thing but to do His thing.  Fr. Tom asked our life group recently what we were willing to risk for the Gospel.  In soul searching, I am afraid I discovered “not enough” was my answer.  I pray that this Advent will be a time of repentance and increased willingness to do “God’s thing” as the Christmas season and 2013 unfold…

Advent Devotion, December 19

Savoring the Story
The Rev’d Stephen Linkous 

Read Mark 1:1-8

I don’t know about you, but Advent seems to be one of the most busy times of my year.  So many of us are pulled in a thousand directions trying to do all the ‘normal’ stuff while putting out Christmas decorations, making food (lots and lots of food), buying presents, visiting family, and the list goes on.  We’re just too busy to slow down.  But it’s kind of odd, huh?  Our lives move at such a pace that we can scarcely remember what is really important.  We get so caught up in preparing for the festivities of the Christmas season that we have a tendency to lose sight of who it is that we are celebrating!  In the chaos of all this busyness the wonderful reality that we are celebrating – the incarnation of our Lord, the Savior of the world – easily takes a backseat to all of the stuff we get busy doing.  If our lives read like a book, it would have way too much filler material and not enough real plot.  That doesn’t sound like any book that I would want to read.

However, the story of Jesus is refreshingly different.  It moves with the feel of an epic drama.  His story is so incredibly wonderful it is near impossible to keep it fully in view.  Here in Mark 1, we learn that the beginning of the epic drama that is the life of Jesus doesn’t begin with his birth.  John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, tells us that the story of Jesus goes back even as far as Isaiah’s time, and representatively in Isaiah to the whole of the Old Testament.  What John the Baptist tells us about that story here in the first chapter of Mark, as the whole of the Old Testament proclaims, is that the Messiah, the promised deliverer, will give us the breath of life itself.  Jesus’ legacy throughout all ages will be the gift of life, which is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This gift is far greater than any other we could ever hope to give or receive this Christmas.  The message of the Incarnation is a story too glorious to be too busy to miss.

Perhaps we have heard, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” too much, so much in fact that we simply nod our heads in affirmation while continuing on in our busy lives.  May God grant us the grace to slow down long enough to savor the Savior’s story this Advent season, so that in all our preparations for the coming celebration the true Joy of Christmas is not missed.   May we truly prepare the way of the Lord this Advent, in our homes, in our communities, and in our hearts.

Advent Devotion, December 21

Pity the Fool…
By Sam Fornecker, Christ Church Simeon Fellow 

One of the best ways to hold the Holy Spirit at arm’s length is to choose a tiny passage from Scripture and to read it regularly, but to neglect whatever surrounds it. It’s a bit like going for an afternoon swim at the pool with a lily pad instead of an inflatable bed. The lily pad will stay on the water just fine, but lean into it, and you are going to sink right through. We need fully-constructed inflatable beds if we’re to float: full of pieces that we enjoy and see the need for, as well as of pieces that we don’t particularly find attractive or sensible.

That’s why it’s important not only to pick Scriptures that seem obviously applicable to our lives, but to receive all that the Lord has provided for us in his Word as equally applicable. For instance, it can be easy for the believer to draw a foolish confidence from a brief passage, like Psalm 53:1. “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.” On its own, this verse seems to commend to the believer a certain smugness in his or her position. But what about the rest of the psalm? Go on reading Psalm 53, and the author continues to say that all have fallen away. Imagine that! This great big world, and all have withered, like sunflowers that just can’t seem to face the sun.

Psalm 53 peaks with a rallying cry of hope to Israel: Look to the Lord for salvation! God’s exiled and beaten down people will be restored. Restoration for God’s faithful remnant, the “Israel within the Israel” – obedience is the issue here! The fool who didn’t believe in God was not an atheist, in our contemporary sense, after all! The fool is one who denies the authority and majesty of God by living in conscious rebellion against him. The one who looks for ultimate fulfillment in the unfulfilling things of this world.

During Advent, we ask ourselves: Am I living in conscious rebellion against God? What am I saying in my heart?

Indeed, verse 3 says, “There is none who does good, not even one.” Folks, stuff doesn’t get fluffier in the New Testament, either. Paul does not let us off the hook. What does he say in Romans 3:23? “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” You and I probably share intellectual knowledge about what we believe. But you and I also share the human condition of the Fall. Adam and Eve chose to define right and wrong their way. We live into those decisions every day, and even repeat them. We function as if there is no God.

That is why Advent is such good news to everyday foolish people like us. During Advent we continue to proclaim the coming of the very salvation that Psalm 53 ends just hoping for. We eagerly await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in glory. We celebrate the “three-worded Gospel,” as J.I. Packer put it, that “God saves sinners.” We prepare our lives in gratitude for his making at-one-ment with his Father on the cross on our behalf; for clothing us and bringing us into his righteousness; for sending another Helper, the Holy Spirit, who alone enables us to live in the kind of obedience that testifies to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

So if you, like me, might read certain passages with a little smugness, remember Paul’s words shortly after in Romans 3:27-28, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Andre Trocmé, an inspiring French pastor who minister during the years of World War II, called himself “a violent man, conquered by God.” Maybe that awareness of the unruly nature of the human heart seems deeply familiar to you today. Know that the Lord, who has come and will come again, has conquered sin and death, as well as the violent human heart. The part of our hearts that stands in conscious rebellion against God gawks with confusion at Christ crucified, and thanks be to God, finds there its resting place.

Advent Devotion, December 20

Waiting…
The Rev’d Keith Huffman

“DUDE!!! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!!!?????” I said out loud at a lady who refused to move at the four-way stop. She had the right-of-way, but would not go. (Her car must have suffered paralysis or something.) About the time I eased off the clutch, she started to go. I stopped. She stopped. I motioned her on. She looked at me. I started to go. She started to go. Thinking she was going to hit me, I floored it leaving the intersection with a long screeeetch of tires in good ‘ol southern boy style. (“Good Lord, that’s no way for a priest to act…..well she must only get out one time of year or something….why am I in such a hurry anyway???”) Lord help me!
Waiting.
I am not by nature a very patient person. (I am sure my wife will agree.) And it seems this time of year that everything takes longer than it should. It takes more time to get things done because of all the gatherings and to-do lists. It takes more time to get through the checkout line at any store. Traffic is slower and more congested everywhere you go. And if you are anywhere near Tanglewood Park on NC-HWY 158 after dark on the 3rd week of Advent and need to get somewhere fast and don’t have a helicopter . . . well you’re going to have to just get over it and wait.
Advent is about waiting. The people of God had to wait. “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) was written around 500 BC. The people of God had to wait a very looonnngggg time (400 plus years) before the Apostle Matthew could preach and write, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us). Three extra minutes of waiting in the checkout line is nothing in comparison to the 400 years between Isaiah’s prophecy and the prophecy’s fulfillment in the Birth of Jesus Christ. Waiting on the Lord is a big part of Advent.
What are you waiting on the Lord to do in your life this Advent?
Waiting on the Lord is not always easy and it takes great faith. A person who had this kind of faith was Simeon. He is described in Luke as a righteous and devout man filled with the Holy Spirit and waiting for the consolation of Israel. When he saw Jesus Christ he took him up in his arms, blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your  salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32.
What are you waiting on the Lord for this Advent?
For those who wait on the Lord, Isaiah 40:31 offers amazing an amazing promise: “But they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on with the wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
To be honest I grow weary of waiting at times. But I have found that when I feel the agitation creeping in because something is not happening fast enough to suit me, or impatience flaring up inside, or when my “get-this-done” spirit is putting me in a sour mood, I must ask myself, “Keith are you waiting on the Lord in this?” Almost 100% of the time I find myself perturbed at having to wait on something, I have to answer, “No. Lord, I have not been waiting on You in this.”
Isaiah promises it is best to wait on the Lord and His timing.
So again, what are you waiting on this Advent? Are you expecting things to happen on your schedule and timetable, OR are you waiting on the Lord? . . . . . . . .

“DUDE!!! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!!!?????” I said out loud at a lady who refused to move at the four-way stop. She had the right-of-way, but would not go. (Her car must have suffered paralysis or something.) About the time I eased off the clutch, she started to go. I stopped. She stopped. I motioned her on. She looked at me. I started to go. She started to go. Thinking she was going to hit me, I floored it leaving the intersection with a long screeeetch of tires in good ‘ol southern boy style. (“Good Lord, that’s no way for a priest to act…..well she must only get out one time of year or something….why am I in such a hurry anyway???”) Lord help me!

Waiting.

I am not by nature a very patient person. (I am sure my wife will agree.) And it seems this time of year that everything takes longer than it should. It takes more time to get things done because of all the gatherings and to-do lists. It takes more time to get through the checkout line at any store. Traffic is slower and more congested everywhere you go. And if you are anywhere near Tanglewood Park on NC-HWY 158 after dark on the 3rd week of Advent and need to get somewhere fast and don’t have a helicopter . . . well you’re going to have to just get over it and wait.
Advent is about waiting. The people of God had to wait. “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) was written around 500 BC. The people of God had to wait a very looonnngggg time (400 plus years) before the Apostle Matthew could preach and write, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us). Three extra minutes of waiting in the checkout line is nothing in comparison to the 400 years between Isaiah’s prophecy and the prophecy’s fulfillment in the Birth of Jesus Christ. Waiting on the Lord is a big part of Advent.

What are you waiting on the Lord to do in your life this Advent?

Waiting on the Lord is not always easy and it takes great faith. A person who had this kind of faith was Simeon. He is described in Luke as a righteous and devout man filled with the Holy Spirit and waiting for the consolation of Israel. When he saw Jesus Christ he took him up in his arms, blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,according to your word;for my eyes have seen your  salvationthat you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,a light for revelation to the Gentiles,and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32.

What are you waiting on the Lord for this Advent?

For those who wait on the Lord, Isaiah 40:31 offers amazing an amazing promise: “But they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on with the wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

To be honest I grow weary of waiting at times. But I have found that when I feel the agitation creeping in because something is not happening fast enough to suit me, or impatience flaring up inside, or when my “get-this-done” spirit is putting me in a sour mood, I must ask myself, “Keith are you waiting on the Lord in this?” Almost 100% of the time I find myself perturbed at having to wait on something, I have to answer, “No. Lord, I have not been waiting on You in this.”

Isaiah promises it is best to wait on the Lord and His timing.

So again, what are you waiting on this Advent? Are you expecting things to happen on your schedule and timetable, OR are you waiting on the Lord? . . . . . . . .

Advent Devotion, December 22

A People of Unclean Lips
By the Rev’d Tom Bost 

132574782750322450_eiomj5qf_bToday, I listened to an episode of This American Life, a radio show out of Chicago.  If you’ve not listened to This American Life, I’d highly recommend it (though I don’t support all their views).

The episode I knocked out today on my morning commute deals with the rather unknown Dakota War fought in the northern plains of the U.S. in the 1860’s.  The episode uncovers the history behind the this war, how these years of violence were essential to the formation of the state of Minnesota, and how most Minnesotans have never heard of it before.  One thing that comes out in the show is the way in which our government repeatedly lied to the Dakota/Sioux tribe in order to get their land. This, of course, is not a unique story. A survey of U.S. history makes it seem like swindling and murder were the government’s modus operandi with the native nations of our land.  There were exceptions, of course, but in general, it is a shameful story.  And as I drove westbound on I-40 this morning, hearing about this again, it hit me just how unjust the realization of Manifest Destiny really was.  Our country, and even the very road I was driving, was built upon unjust dealings, oppression, and at times, murder.

I could not help but see the connection to the Old Testament reading from the Daily Office for this Friday in the third week of Advent.  In the latter part of Isaiah 10, God talks about how He used the Assyrian kingdom as an instrument of judgment and discipline on his wayward people.  God’s people had become so evil they themselves needed to be stopped and dispersed, not unlike the Canaanites before the conquest of the Promised Land.  (Or, if you’re not familiar with biblical history, like the Allies had to stop the evil of the Nazi’s in WWII.) God’s means by which he chose to stop them was the Assyrian army.  But the problem with the Assyrians that they themselves were very evil, and God eventually judged them for their pride.  (See Habbakuk)

This is how Isaiah portrays the Assyrian’s attitude:  “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of nations; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” (Isaiah 10:13-14)

And indeed the Assyrian’s bragging wasn’t empty: they swept across the Ancient Near East and gobbled up nation after nation and made servants and slaves of everyone they didn’t slaughter. And for a couple hundred years, they seemed unstoppable.

But their success went to their head and their sins did not seem like much in their own eyes.  They did not wonder at their own success and prosperity (“by the strength of MY hand I have done it…”), and where God gave them power, they used it to oppress and exploit, committing atrocious acts that would be considered war crimes today. In this, they were like most empires.

In Isaiah, God has a word for nations who act like this:

“Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it? … Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing flame.  The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers.” (Isa 10:15a, 16)

Essentially, God is saying:  “Your time is short unless you repent.” Success is no excuse for sins and not a sign of divine approval.  Power does not exempt a nation from the need to repent.   Just as God judged Israel, so he judges Assyria and Babylon, for the destruction of innocents, the oppression of peoples, and disobedience to his laws.  All these nations practiced child sacrifice, worshipped false gods, and used their power to oppress the poor and the needy.  And our nation has been guilty of all these things as well.

 As Americans it would behoove us to heed Isaiah’s words and to drop our national pride for a moment.  Yes, we have been used by God for great good in the world, but that does not excuse our sins.  Yes, there are many believers in the true God among our nation (I am one), but wasn’t this true in Israel, God’s covenant nation (which the USA is not), and yet God judged them?

Advent is a season where we seek the gift of repentance.  Usually, we think about this on an individual level, but this is something we should also seek as a city, a nation, and as the Church.   Where have we participated in the things God hates?   (See also the shopping mall, our history, our war-mongering, our abortion industry.)

Repentance means acknowledging a sin against God and our neighbor, and turning from it.  What must we turn away from as a people?

Of course, this must lead to individual repentance.  There is no social holiness without personal holiness, and vice versa.  After hearing again the story of how our nation oppressed other and lied to take the land of others, I realized that I had known this for years and not let it hit my heart.  If this were happening today, it would make the nightly news and there would be international outcry.  But even then, even as this very thing still happens around the world, I am cold hearted.  My heart does not drip with the passion and anger that is in God’s words as he calls out his own people and other nations.  I need the gift of repentance from my indifference, callousness, and passivity.

“Woe is me! For I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5)

Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blogging towards the Parousia – December 1, 2013

parousia : noun \ˌpär-ü-ˈsē-ə, pə-ˈrü-zē-ə\  physical presence; arrival, the second coming of Jesus Christ

The return of the Season of Advent gives me the opportunity to reflect on something that God has been working in me over the last few years: the virtue of patience.  In the New Testament a couple of words are translated as patience.  One has the sense of a patient, steadfast waiting for something.  The other connotes patience and forbearance with other people.   Taken together these meanings have particular application for the Season of Advent.

We all know that Advent is the annual reminder that we should always be prepared for the Jesus’ return in power and great glory at the end of the age.  For me, this year this season means waiting for the Lord to sovereignly and independently act.  As God’s people patiently waited for him to act by sending the Messiah at the first Advent we are similarly placed in a posture of humility and submission as we wait for God to act again in Christ’s Second Coming.

waitingThe people of God could not make the first Advent happen.   Likewise we stand in a posture of expectation and longing for the return of Christ, but we don’t make it happen.   Yes, the Scripture infers that we can “hasten” the Lord’s appearing (2 Peter 3:12) but we aren’t really given any metrics by which we can measure this hastening.  The result is that we have to wait patiently.

This kind of patience means that I trust that God is at work in the world today, guiding history to its fulfillment in Christ even though our epoch is described as “this present darkness.” (Eph. 6:12)   I confess that when I consume a steady diet of the news as it highlights natural disasters, crime, religious persecution, and lawlessness among leaders and nations I am tempted to the sin of despair.   But this is not the story of Scripture.  The Bible never shies away from the reality of natural and human evil, but it does point us to a deeper truth that “though the wrong seems oft so strong God is the ruler yet.”

So Advent patience is laced with hope and confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of God.   By God’s grace this Advent I choose to believe that, “The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.”  (Psalm 145:13 NIV)

I have also seen God work a new patience regarding my disposition towards people.  This is especially true in my vocation as a priest.  Years ago I was much more keen to “fix” people – to “straighten them out.”  I wanted to force crisis moments where people would come to their senses and repent of sinful and destructive patterns and behaviors.  I am just as ready to confront people as I have always been, but in recent years I have become much more comfortable with letting God work the outcome.

One reason for this is that I have witnessed God’s great patience with me over the course of my life as he has gently moved along his gracious work of sanctification in me.  There have indeed been moments of crisis in which God called me to repentance for a particular sin.  But the process of changing my character continues to be a protracted (and often painful and frustrating) work of the Holy Spirit.

If God deals with me with this kind of patience and mercy, what kind of arrogance would it take for me demand higher standards from others?  God has been so patient in incrementally dealing with the “log” (maybe even cordwood!) in my eye how I can demand an apocalyptic moment of sanctification in others?

And when I am frustrated with the slow pace of sanctification in my own life, I am reminded in Advent to take a step back and look at the trajectory of God’s work in me over time.   God really is conforming me little by little into the image of his dear Son. (Romans 8:29)

In the same way I can trust God to use the slow and messy process of forming disciples in the community of the local parish to continue his redeeming work in the lives of those I serve.  A friend of mine once said that the art of ministry is knowing how to tell people just enough truth so that they do not run away.

I think I know what he means: We can be patient with people as we help them take the small steps of holiness that lead to a lifetime of progress towards theosis.  We don’t have to dump the whole load of our expectations on folks in order to “fix” them all at once.  Instead we can trust that our sovereign, promise-keeping God is doing an Advent work seeing to it that Christ appears in their lives as well as ours.

As a pastor this means that, as St Paul says, part of my work is to bear the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in those I serve. (Galatians 4:19)  But the reward is that there are frequently glimpses of the Lord Jesus in faces of those to whom I minister.  And each time that happens, it’s a beautiful glimpse of Christ’s second Advent.

Longing for his appearing,

Ben+

Christmas Eve 2013

From “The Birth of God,” by Olov Hartman (1906-1982)

Matthew 1:18-25

“Do not fear to take Mary your wife. . . .” How can a man have God in the house without being afraid? Just think of lying awake at night, hearing your wife breathe, and knowing that the world’s heart is beating in her womb! The angel was fearsome, but in the presence of him who lay under Mary’s heart the angels covered their eyes. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear.”

It is this nearness which we have made into a mere detail in our Christmas observance. For his nearness in the gospel is not a pretty picture; it is a nearness equally as earthy and manifest as in Bethlehem or Nazareth. A word on our lips, bread on our table, wine in our flasks. But the angels do not dare look upon him, the worlds quake at his name. Immanuel! What would happen if all those for whom he is a beautiful legend, a sentimental condiment at Christmas, discovered his true identity?

Our text contains a mystery which elicits both a smile and some fear: The Almighty desired Joseph’s protection. He lit the stars over Joseph’s house, but Joseph had to provide him with a refuge in that house. From this distant God came angels enough to cause Herod’s entire army to grow faint; yet they say that Joseph must flee to Egypt for safety, for the government is out to get the child who is David’s son.

We know little about Joseph’s thought; we know him best by what he did. . . . the Joseph of the Bible took Mary along first of all to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Israel. Could even a refugee family in our time make such a wilderness journey without an excess of strength and determination? So the texts for today refer not only to Mary, the mother, the church. They also speak of Joseph, the descendant of a king, a man of skillful hands, of firm will, of indomitable powers, a guide through unknown lands. The fact that God is with us is not, therefore, just a salubrious concept for those who think we are dealing here with a pretty idea or childish dream. It summons us to the defense of the gospel.

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