Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Psalm 24

Today’s reflection is a hymn. Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates was written by Georg Weissel and only appeared in 1642, seven years following his death. It was written during the terrible Thirty-Years’ War between the protestant leaders and the Catholic Emperor. The suffering of war, the disease, and the famine of that age are legendary.

(you can read more about the history of this hymn here)

The lyrics are profound for us as we face the darkness today. They speak of gates … not gates in literal walls … but gates to our hearts. Pay attention to the words as they reveal how we ourselves are vessels of God’s incarnation through us.

(for those who prefer to sing (or hum) with accompaniment, you can find organ/piano accompaniment here)

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
behold, the King of glory waits;
the King of kings is drawing hear;
the Savior of the world is here!

Fling wide the portals of your heart;
make it a temple, set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ,
adorned with prayer and love and joy.

Redeemer, come, with us abide;
our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel;
thy grace and love in us reveal.

Thy Holy Spirit lead us on
until our glorious goal is won;
eternal praise, eternal fame
be offered, Savior, to thy name!

As Weissel shares these beautiful words amidst a darkness unlike he could ever have imagined, so too, we are invited to hear them in our own personal and collective darkness.

O Light Who Shines in Darkness: May the gates and portals of our hearts be open to the revelation of your Christ! Amen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Matthew 1:18-25

Fear and the potential for harm. Human history is full of stories of conflict, abuse, war, and greed that begin as fear. And fear is what engulfed Joseph in this narrative.

Initially, it didn’t appear to be fear. We aren’t really clear on Joseph’s reasoning or his feelings when he he had discovered that Mary was pregnant and they had not been sexually active with each other. He could have made this fact known, and it was very possible that the religious zealots would have taken up stones to kill her. Even his decision to “quietly dismiss her” would have doomed her to a life of poverty and marginalization for having birthed a child outside of marriage. At this point in the story, Joseph is holding all the cards, leaving Mary in an incredibly vulnerable place.

Matthew begins his gospel focused on Joseph and the critical role Joseph will play in the narrative of God’s ultimate love. Then an angel appears in Joseph’s dream and tells him that the child born is holy and will be named Jesus … Yeshua (or Joshua) in Hebrew … literally “God Saves.” And then the angel cites the prophet Isaiah in saying that this is the one who will be known as Emmanuel … “God with us.”

If Joseph gave into his fear, it would have created hardship and cut short the story of God’s redemptive love. Could God have still worked God’s plan even without Joseph’s cooperation? Yes. But Joseph’s “yes,” is a sign of God’s incarnate love that overcomes our fear. Because Joseph lived beyond his fear, he became an instrument through which God’s redeeming presence would be made known.

I often wonder what our world would be like if we could hear the angel speak. What if we thought all children were gifts of God’s Holy Spirit? What would happen if we saw the Christ in every child? In every person? I’m thinking this is the broader definition of the incarnation. I think even Jesus thought God was fully made known in each child when he instructed his disciples to go beyond their fears and get out of the way of the children to let them come to him.

“God-Saves” and “God-With-Us” is made known through us, you see, when we live beyond our fear. When we are able to do this, we will have then discover that we have the Christ even within us!

God who saves us all: May we live beyond our fear and partner with you in making your redeeming presence felt in the life of every child. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Romans 16:25-27

As Paul closes his epistle to the Romans, he uses an interesting phrase that translates “according to my gospel” or “according to my good news.” The Greek uses the word that literally translates as “the proclaimed good news,” and here Paul refers to the mystery that is made known both in the person of Jesus and in the proclamation (or witness) of that new reality.

As we continue our journey toward Christmas with this theme of “incarnation” … God made flesh in Jesus … I am continuously reminded of the multi-dimensional truth of the story of Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. It is not just the story of Jesus, but it is also the story of the followers of Jesus … who first were called “the people of the Way.” The place of witness among the disciples of Jesus through the millennia is vitally important.

For the first 17 years of my pastoral ministry, the vows we took as members of the United Methodist Church had only four parts. We vowed to uphold the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. We committed ourselves to these four different aspects of our commitment as members of the church. It wasn’t until 2008 that the General Conference saw fit to add the fifth significant way we support the church: witness.

It wasn’t that we were failing in the sharing of the story, but we often found it easy to leave the “witnessing” either to the clergy or people whom we often thought stood at the fringe of the mainline part of our church. What happened was that we finally awoke to the reality that it is not only the work of Jesus, but our corporate proclamation of the work of Jesus, that must be held in tandem. And it is a job for all of us! Now there are five commitments. We pledge to support the life and ministry of the church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness!

God is not just enfleshed in Jesus alone; God is also enfleshed in our proclamation of the gifts of light, hope, and life that we experience in the faithful community we call church.

Paul understands the need for witness in community, as well. It is not just about how dedicated people are to their own piety … how much they attend corporate worship … how much they give … or even what they do to care for others. These things are all important, but we finally cannot leave it at that. God is not just enfleshed in Jesus alone; God is also enfleshed in our proclamation of the gifts of light, hope, and life that we experience in the faithful community we call church.

The reality we have discovered and now proclaim as Methodists is that God is actively and vitally alive in us. We move a step closer to the truth of Christmas when we claim, with Paul, that God is made known in our own witness of the Good News!

O God, who is made known in Jesus: We pray that you will be made known in our proclamation of this Christ who lives among us. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Throughout my life, I was taught never to think too highly of myself. I was encouraged to be strong, but I also was taught a great deal about humility. I was taught from the earliest I can remember about this odd thing called “Christian perfection” (more wholeness and completeness than flawlessness), and I was taught proclaim that boldly. Yet there was also always this admonition never to let it ever be about me and my own ego because “pride goes before the fall.” It was a true tightrope for this young man still learning what faith was all about yet being the one who was preaching g faith.

Today’s message is about how much God sees in us and how God intends to use us to bear Christ to the world. Paul is reminding us about something important. It is about readying ourselves for the advent of Christ in our lives. We are those who are called to be the Body of Christ, and as such, the reason for us to be sanctified, keeping our spirits, souls, and bodies sound and blameless, are because these bodies of ours are the place where Christ is made known.

To be a witness is not to recall factually the story of Jesus. It is to LIVE the story of Jesus … to tell the story of Christ through our own bodies, with our own voices, and by the ways we are present in the world. The purpose behind Paul’s moral imperatives here is to provide for people a cleaner lens through which they may see Christ living in each of us.

So as we move into the last days before the celebration of Christmas, we will experience the harried shopping and preparation that so often define this season, and it will likely bring more frustration as we try and envision our celebrations in the midst of a pandemic. We are given an opportunity, however, to reflect a Christ of light and hope into a world full of darkness and despair.

So today, friends, you are the vessel God is choosing to reflect this Christ into our world. May Christ be born in you!

Lord, you are always faithful, and we hear your call to a faithful representation of the Christ who lives among us … as we prepare ourselves for the advent of your love. Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Acts 1:1-11

My grandchildren have learned the art of surprise. When they have something they have prepared and then created the scene for an unveiling, they will say, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” Often they draw it out dramatically saying, “Waaaait for iiiiiiiiiiitt!” And then when whatever they are unveiling finally comes into view, they turn their eyes fully expecting to see a surprised, happy smile come across our faces. They have all figured out at an early age that a part of the revelation of something of great value is in the drama of waiting.

A text that is about the ascension of Jesus, as we have in Acts 1, is hardly what we think would go with Advent and Christmas, but the question we would be wise to ask is, “What does the end of the story have to say about the beginning of the story?”

What does Jesus’s departure have to do with his arrival?

This is where the incarnation becomes a bigger, more important part of what Christmas is all about. As I have lived through a lot of Christmases, I have discovered upon reflection that most of them are defined more by culture than by gospel. I love listening to the music of the season, but most of the music I hear is based on romanticized notions of time with family, gathering around the Christmas tree, roasting chestnuts on an open fire (which rarely is a thing in Texas), and giving gifts to one another. The gospel story of the birth of Christ is in there, but it is often pretty covered up with our cultural customs of this holiday.

Please know that I am not a harsh critic of the secularization of Christmas, and I am not out shouting to “put Christ back into Christmas.” I’m just pointing out that there is greater gift that we miss when we keep Jesus as the precious little (harmless) baby in the nativity sets. We often fail to see the true gift of his coming as Emmanuel … God with us!

The gift of this incarnation, you see, is that it is shared with each of you. As disciples of the living Christ, we are challenged to own that it is the Spirit of God that dwells in us. If we truly see ourselves as the Body of Christ, then we must see that we ourselves embody this incarnate God in ourselves. Luke tells us in Acts, that the disciples had gone out with the resurrected Jesus to the place where he told them that they would receive the power to be witnesses … to be the Body of Christ … to bear Christ to the world in tangible, radical ways.

And as they watched him ascend, they suddenly were joined by two men in white robes who asked, “Why do stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus whom you saw leave will come back to you in the same way.” In other words, Christ hasn’t left you. Christ will come back to you and dwell in you as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

This Christ who is born to us at Christmas is the Christ that is enlivened and awakened in each of us!

So wait for it! Wait for it!

Now open your eyes! God’s incarnate spirit is born in us!

God of Holy Surprises: We find it so easy to let the power you give us be encased or enshrined or put away when Christmas is over. But we hear you calling us to wait for the greater gift … the gift of your incarnate presence embodied even in us. Amen.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Ezekiel 34:11-16

As I helped my daughter put together the nativity set, I was confused. It wasn’t hard finding the larger parts of the set. The stable, the manger, the magi, and the animals. I found Mary, and set her in her place. But where was Jesus? Ahh, there he was in Mary’s arms … one of those radical nativity scenes that doesn’t have Jesus laying in the manger.

I was also confused in my search for Joseph. We had to look it up online. I mistook him for one of the shepherds. And then there they were: the shepherds. The ones who were in the fields and who, according to Luke’s gospel were the first to hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus brought by the angels. Their faces gave them away. The warm gaze of care that we expect shepherds to have.

Then today here comes Ezekiel shattering the beautiful nativity put together so carefully. He talks about shepherds that don’t look like our shepherds. He tells about shepherds who have not fed the sheep, but instead fattened themselves with what was intended for the sheep. They wear the sheep’s wool, and the butcher the healthiest among the sheep. For the most part, however, the sheep are weak and helpless against the predators. The shepherds are not focused on the sheep, at all.

In the last several years, I have read that we are suffering crises of leadership. In civil government … in the corporate world … in institutions of higher learning … in our churches, just to name a few. While there are many different ways to talk about the leadership vacuum, one of the keys to understanding ineffective leadership is found in this passage.

The shepherds against whom Ezekiel prophesies are the leaders of Israel … the religious leaders many of whom are also those who govern politically. Ezekiel seems to be writing about 30 years after King Josiah discovered many of the Hebrew scriptures that had been lost to the people. When Josiah realized how far his people had strayed from the laws of God, he instituted what would come to be known as deuteronomic reforms (meaning “second law” or “second telling of the law”).

The people of both the southern and northern kingdoms of Judah and Israel were astray like lost sheep, and when these reforms failed to bring the people back to God, Ezekiel saw the complicity of these “shepherds” who had failed to care for God’s sheep.

Leadership that becomes focused on the leader, you see, is not leadership. Sir John Dalberg-Acton, in a letter to Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton dated April 1887, wrote that doctrines of infallibility of either Pope or King was irresponsible. “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Shepherds and leaders who make it about themselves and their own infallibility are destined to be corrupt.

Where, then, is God in this narrative? We have a God, you see, who is all about being poured out. We have a God who is focused on the poor and the most vulnerable among us. We have a God who is fulfilled when the children of God experience fulfillment. We have a God who cares for the sheep and who comes to claim the sheep.

The True Shepherd is the one for whom we wait. In the meantime, perhaps it would do us well to practice shepherding by pouring ourselves out for God’s sheep, no matter who they may be.

God Our Shepherd: Bless us as we seek to find our place among the sheep in your fold. Empower those who lead to lead with your shepherd’s heart as shown to us through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

John 1:14-18

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” John gives us such an incredible image of God in the opening chapter of the fourth gospel. It is an image of this divine Word (“logos”, in Greek) that exists from before the beginning and will exist forever after time, as we know it, will exist. This is the Alpha and Omega of the Revelation to John that we shared yesterday.

This is the Alpha and Omega made known in human flesh. It is the story of the incarnation of God.

Incarnation, as appears in the subtitle for each day’s devotional, is the theme of the season. It is about God who dwells with us as Emmanuel … which means “God is with us!”

It has taken me most of my life to make sense of this unfolding reality, but the incarnation is not just about the Christ poured into the person of Jesus. It is also about how Jesus poured that Christ out upon his followers. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to our understanding of Jesus.

Fr. Richard Rohr says that, for Christians, “Jesus is the central reference point.” This is where we get this profound image of Jesus as the Christ … the child of God that brings us into an intimate relationship with God. But we tend to want to leave this understanding of Christ at that level … just housed in the person of Jesus.

John tells us that this Word that has become flesh in Jesus is poured into us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. (see John 20:22) And in this passage we read: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The gift of grace … the presence of Christ … is manifested in all of us.

We are challenged to awaken to the presence of Christ all around us. God is enfleshed in the eyes of children as they soak up the wonder of the season of waiting and hope. God is enfleshed in the faces of those who so lovingly pour out their gifts and lives serving as frontline healthcare workers in a pandemic as severe as we are experiencing. God is enfleshed in first responders who often risk their own safety to care for those stricken with disaster.

And the gospels tell us that God is deeply enfleshed in the eyes of the poor and marginalized. God is made known through people who are struggling in a downturned economy, and God is made known through you and me.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us!” Is there any news greater than this?

Lord, you come to us in the person of Jesus, and you come to us in the face of so many. Awaken us to your presence made incarnate throughout your creation. Amen.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Revelation 1:1-8

I wear it on my right hand. It was a gift Leah bought me years ago, and it has been one of three pieces of jewelry (not counting my watch) that I consistently wear. It is a James Avery ring with the two Greek letters, Alpha and Omega, intertwined together.

It has sparked some interesting conversations over the years. Each time I am asked about it, I take time to reflect on its meaning. It is so easy for me to get preoccupied with challenges in my life, and by comparison, they don’t always measure up to the true tragedy that so many people encounter in this life.

We have certainly known grief as we have experienced unspeakable loss in our family, but I have also known people whose lives have more resembled Job … who have endured plague after plague of suffering and death. I have witnessed people who have suffered losses that I am afraid would have been my undoing.

Yet the witness of so many of these people God has placed in my life is that God is bigger than their suffering. They witness to the reality that they would not have made it through suffering had they not been sustained by God.

God, for them, is what envelopes their lives, both the bright days full of comfort and the dark days full of suffering. They speak of an indescribable comfort and a strength that comes only through their faith.

John of Patmos, as he sets out to share what was revealed to him, is writing to the whole Church (identified as “seven churches,” which would indicate the number used to signify “whole” or “complete”). The primary message he has for all of us is that God is with us, sustaining us through the darkest hours of our lives. The message that we are not alone is powerful, and when we grow weary of the darkness, it is God who shows up as Alpha and Omega … the One who is and was and is to come.

It is a concept that is greater than our minds can grasp. As the earliest church grappled with persecution and suffering at the hands of Rome, it was more than conceptual. It was the source of their hope! Their God was made known through fellow followers of The Way, and they knew that, if they could stand with one another in the face of suffering and death, then God was most certainly with them from before the beginning and well beyond the end.

When we stand with one another in this way, we are practicing incarnation in its purest form!

God who is made known through your Church: Remind us always of your love that hems us in and that sits before us and behind us, above us and below us. You are our Alpha and Omega. Amen.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Luke 21:25-36

Apocalyptic passages, as we continue to discover in the season of Advent, come as unwelcome harshness into the midst of our hopes for a season that is beautiful and peaceful. Instead, we continue with these images that stand in stark contrast to our decorations, cards, and traditions of the season. They come as a reminder that, despite our denial, we still live in a world where darkness comes abruptly amidst our celebrations.

Luke picks up on this same theme that we find in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, and again we hear the voice of Jesus challenging us to look at the tumultuous events occurring around us as signs of the penultimate reality of the reign of God. It is about a choice we have.

My own doctoral work has to do with brokenness and darkness in the ministry of the ordained. Those who lead our churches as clergy often find themselves experiencing a brokenness that is unexpected in that part of life where we sense the call of God to lead the people of God. It comes through some harsh political realities and power structures that exist in the church. We have dreams of what it will be like to pour ourselves out in ministry, and through our modeling, create churches full of people who, likewise, set aside personal gain for the glory of God.

Then the reality sets in, and we realize that people are people. We live in a world where there will always be people who feel the need to exercise power over other people in the life of the church. We find ourselves forced into the dualism I mentioned yesterday. We are either winners or losers, and quite frankly, winning feels so much better to us. We draw lines of battle over everything from doctrine to mandates of who’s in and who’s out to what carpet and furnishings go in the sanctuary.

Like the proverbial Civil War soldier who thought himself safe to wear a Union jacket and Confederate trousers, clergy often find themselves standing on the field of battle being shot from both sides. Amidst the darkness and brokenness, clergy experiencing brokenness are left with a choice: we can either let the brokenness annihilate us or we can use it as a sign to a greater reality. In the midst of the darkness, we might just find God.

So Jesus challenges us to let go of the trappings of this world (the ones that feel like debauchery and drunkenness) and the worries that leave us spread too thin with too little energy for such an encounter with God. When we let go and boldly stand amidst the darkness around us, we will discover a God who stands in the darkness with us … waiting to wrap us in the arms of hope!

God of All Hope: Give us the calm assurance that we can stand amidst the darkness, and having let go of all worldly distractions, may we sense your presence. Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Hope in the Age of Darkness: Gifts of the Incarnation

Mark 13:1-13

I didn’t intentionally choose this passage for today, so it comes as a gift and a way to reflect on what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.” America had largely stayed out of the war in Europe and was seeking to work with the Japanese Empire for peace in the pacific. Then on December 7, 1941, the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor.

When our son-in-law was alive, he and our daughter, along with our granddaughter, lived on the Aiea ridge looking out over Pearl Harbor. We could stand on the small back deck of their home and look and see Ford Island and most of the harbor itself. As I learned more and more about the attack on Pearl Harbor (having now spent a good deal of time in that area), I realized that part of the attack came from the west, but there were some of the Japanese planes that flew low through the pass below the Aiea ridge from the north. From the vantage point of their house, one would have been looking down to see the planes flying through the ridge attacking Pearl Harbor from the north and also would have seen the planes then attacking from the west.

As I have read personal accounts of those who survived the attack, they would have understood Mark 13 in an intensely different way than we often think of it. They would have understood the falling structures and the burning ships as “not one stone being left upon another.” They would have understood where rumors of wars suddenly become violently real. They would have understood the darkness.

Throughout that war and through other wars that have followed, we have heard story after story of the abuse of people (no matter the country they serve) and the devastating tolls war takes on their lives, the lives of their families, and the world we all share together.

Wars seem to make us less human as we live with the notion that either we are the conqueror or the conquered … the victors or the victims. This darkness is perpetrated in many ways in our world. As we continue to deal with the social ills among people around the globe, we continue to dualistically divide ourselves into winners and losers, victors and victims, conquerors and conquered.

God made known in Jesus comes to break down our dualism by an act of solidarity with the losers … the people who suffered that terrible attack 79 years ago today … the innocent lives that have been lost in every war … the people who are victims of genocide, hate crimes, and domestic violence. Jesus comes to stand with us as we fall victim to inadequate healthcare policies and economic devastation. Jesus comes to stand with us as we face a deadly virus that continues to tragically affect our world.

And Jesus says that, when we are called to speak truth to power … to stand before the powers that be, we have no need to fear. God will be with us … incarnate in us … and we will be able to speak truth without perpetrating or fearing violence.

O God who stands with us in the darkness: Give us courage to face the darkness and a voice to speak the truth. Amen.