“Fully Rely on God” | Jeremiah 29:11

A Meditation in Honor of Jack Saffle

This is my Jack “F.R.O.G.”  You probably have one too. This was Jack’s calling card, his signature move. Mine showed up one day on my desk in the study of the church where I was a minister and Jack was a member. There it sat on top of a stack of books, surrounded by a thousand other books – big books, serious books, theology books, my books.

By aptitude and appetite, vocation and passion, I’m a thinker. Early in my life I heard Jesus in the Gospels say that we are to love God “with all of our minds,” and I immediately set myself to that task. St. Anselm’s motto in the 11th century was “faith seeking understanding.” It’s mine too, but it’s tricky.

Through the years I’ve learned that it’s easier for me to read, and even to write a book or two about God, than it is to actually know God. Talking about God is so much easier for me to do than talking to God.  And I’ve learned the hard way that thinking about God isn’t even close to being the same thing as trusting God. This is where Jack’s “F.R.O.G.” comes into play.

“F.R.O.G.” stands for “Fully Rely on God.”  At the same time Jesus said that we are to love God with all our minds, He also told us to love God with all our hearts. Jack handed out frogs as a way of keeping the heart front and center.  Some of us need reminding. As much as I am a “love God with all your mind” kind of guy, Jack was a “love God with all your heart” kind of guy. We needed each other. I think Jack and I were both better Christians because we were friends. 

I made Jack think. I could actually see him doing it during the weekly Bible Studies I taught at the church, Bible Studies that my friend Jack never missed. I could see on Jack’s face when he was wrestling with some idea that we had lifted from the text of Scripture to take a closer look at. I could see when Jack was trying to “get” what we were talking about, like steam coming out of his ears, and I could always see when Jack “got” it.

Jack made me get out of my head. Jack was more of a doer than he was a thinker. Jack wasn’t in weekly Bible Study with me to fill his head with ideas, he was there because he wanted to be a better Christian.  James told his readers in his letter included in the New Testament to be doers of the word and not only hearers of the Word (1:22), and that was Jack. If something is true, then Jack wanted it to make a difference in his life. After writing a bunch of books about theology, one of the first thinking Christians that I read wrote a book he called, “How Then Shall We Live?”  This is what Jack’s “F.R.O.G.’s” were about.

The God Jack believed was there, was a God Jack tried to consciously rely on, and he wanted us to try to consciously rely on Him too, fully. That’s the message that I took from the “F.R.O.G.” that Jack left on the desk of my study at the church surrounded by all my books some 20 years ago. And it’s the message that I take from it now in my study at home when I see it on the bookshelf across from my desk where I read, and think, and pray, and write these days.  The God that all those books on those shelves are about is a God who is really there, a God who deeply cares, and a God who wants to be trusted.

Jack’s favorite Bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  I know this because Jack told me so, more than once he told me so. Jeremiah 29:11 fits nicely with his “F.R.O.G.” emphasis. Jeremiah 29:11 is a word from the Lord that the Prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people of Israel as they were being carried off into captivity by the Babylonians. This was not a good day for them. In fact, they had likely never had a worse day.

The walls of Jerusalem had been knocked down and the Babylonian army had streamed in killing people and breaking things as they went. The great Temple of Solomon, the House of God on earth, had been ransacked and defiled. The King, blinded and bound, had been marched off in disgrace, with his people following in tow, exiled and enslaved. It would have been very easy for God’s people to have concluded at the end of that day that God had forgotten all about them, forsaken them. But that’s when the Lord told them – “I still have plans for you, plans for your well-being welfare and not for your downfall, to give you a future and a hope.”

Words like that can sure ring hollow in the ears and hearts of people who are suffering, in people who have sustained a great loss and who are feeling a great sadness, people like us here today. Jack’s “F.R.O.G.” approach to life faces its greatest challenge in places and at times like this. When death comes as the culminating moment of our earthly pilgrimage, will we “F.R.O.G.” – will we “fully rely on God”? Can we hand ourselves and our loved ones over to God when we are standing with both feet deep in the valley of the shadow of death?

I was looking at one of my books last week, an 800-page book about God, and on one of those 800 pages its author asked why anyone would think that fully relying on God was ever a good idea? I found his answer to be extremely helpful, and timely. He said that the Old Testament is full of promises from God about how He was going to send a Messiah, and then on Christmas morning that Messiah showed up in Bethlehem’s manger. Jesus Christ said that He would come again from the dead after He died on the cross, and then on Resurrection Sunday morning He did.  And Jesus promised to send another Comforter when He went away, and through that Comforter to always be present with His people, and on Pentecost He did, and it’s been so ever since. 

That author’s point was that we can “fully rely on God” for the things that God has promised to do for us in the future because of the way that God has already shown Himself to be so reliable with the things that He promised to do for us in the past.  That’s important for us to know because what we’re doing here today, what this service is all about, the foundation on which it rests is a promise. It’s the promise of Jesus in John 6:37-40 –

“Those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them.  For I have come down from heaven to do the will of Him who sent me… and this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me… It is the Father’s will that all who believe in me should have eternal life. I will raise them up…”

I know a priest who says that “every believer should ask to be buried with this page of the Gospel clutched in their hands.” Short of that, he says, no Christian should approach death, their own or that of a loved one, without these Gospel words firmly lodged in their hearts.  Jack gave us frogs to make this same point. In life, in death — “Fully Rely on God.”

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The Noah Cycle (Genesis 6-10)

An Excursus on Judgment

Douglas Skinner (2023)

A Sin-Judgment-Grace Pattern has been detected in the flow of the stories told in Genesis 1-11 (Adam and Eve – Genesis 2-3, Cain and Abel – Genesis 4-5, the Sons of God and the Daughter of Men – Genesis 6, Noah – Genesis 6-10, the Tower of Babel – Genesis 11).

God has an expectation of and sets a standard for human behavior.

That standard gets violated by human beings.

God tells human beings that they will be judged for that violation.

God executes that judgment, but not without some expression of mercy.

Not just in the Pre-history stories of Genesis 1-11, but throughout the breadth of the Biblical narrative, judgment is a standard component of what God does. As George Eldon Ladd (1911 – 1982), a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary during my time there, explained – “It is a clear teaching of Scripture that people are individually responsible for their deeds and must face a day of judgment before a holy and righteous God.” The British Bible Scholar C.H. Dodd (1884–1973) called judgement and grace the two beats of the heart of God, and the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) said that God’s word of judgment was the “no” that prepares us to receive God’s “yes” in His word of grace.

But today we would prefer not to think or talk about judgment at all.  As Stephen Travis, a lecturer in New Testament and the vice principal of St. John’s College in Nottingham, England, notes, “no theme is so prominent in Scripture” and yet “so neglected by Christians today” as judgment is. In my own work with my regional church’s committee on ministry, I have seen just how flustered ministerial candidates can become when they are asked to talk about how judgment fits into their understanding of who God is and what God does, as well as how it fits into their own self-understanding and view of the church’s life and ministry.

Because the notion of God’s judgment is a crucial part of the church’s conversation about both justification (the personal gospel) and justice (the social gospel), it is something that we ought to be able to talk regardless of where we fall on the  theological spectrum. I would suggest that an inability to do so exposes a deficiency in one’s theological formation, while an unwillingness to do so exposes a lack of transparency in one’s convictions. Either way, it’s a problem.

The thought of judgment makes us uneasy, and there are any number of reasons why. One reason for this uneasiness is the church’s unfortunate track record of judgementalism. Romans 2:1-3 is an echo of Matthew 7:1-5. The repetition of such an emphatic teaching of Jesus in the writings of Paul is an indication of pervasiveness of the problem of judgementalism in the early church.

Jesus said –

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement, you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

Paul wrote –

“You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment

on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:1-3)

Dana Carvey’s “church lady” bit on Saturday Night Live worked so well because we all know people like that; we’ve all been people like that.  It is not without cause that Christians are perceived by those outside the church as being small-minded, thin-skinned, hyper-critical, and mean-spirited people. Philip Yancey tells a horrific story at the beginning of his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” about something she did pout of desperation and despair. When she was asked why she hadn’t gone to a church to ask for help, she responded, “Church…Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

St. Ephraim of Syria’s (306 – 373) prayer for Lent, a standard of the Eastern Church, includes the specific petition – “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.”  This needs to be said out loud and repeatedly in the church’s preeminent season of penitential attentiveness because it is easier to look for the weeds in a neighbor’s garden than it is to weed one’s own.

Another reason for uneasiness about judgment among Disciples is a conscious and principled denominational choice. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is not a “hell fire and brimstone” church by conviction. Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, in his essay on “Regeneration” in his “Christian System” (1839) explained why –

“Man in a state of alienation and rebellion, naturally suspects, that if he be a sinner, and if God hate sin, he must hate him. As love begets love; so hatred begets hatred; and if a sinner suspects that God hates him, he cannot love God. He must know that God loves him, before he can begin to love God. ‘We,’ says an Apostle, ‘love God because he first loved us.’ …It is in the person and mission of the Incarnate Word, that we learn that ‘God is love.”’ That God gave his Son for us, and yet gives his Spirit to us – and this gives us himself – are the mysterious and transcendent proofs of the most august proposition in the universe. The gospel, Heaven’s wisdom and power combined, God’s own expedient for the renovation of human nature, is neither more nor less, than the illustration and proof of this regenerating proposition. … The grand principle or means which God has adopted for the accomplishment of this moral regeneration, is the full demonstration and proof of a single proposition addressed to the reason of man. This sublime proposition is, that God is love.”

A helpful examination of the efficacy of preaching judgment versus preaching grace (as Alexander Campbell advocated) in his own Norwegian Lutheran Church can be found in Ole Hallesby’s (1879 – 1961) “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in Awakening and Conversion.” Learning how to speak the two words that God has spoken to us, Law and Gospel, is a challenge.

A third reason for the uneasiness about judgment is the mood of popular religion in our culture these days.  It’s said that at one time the Bible verse everyone knew, Christian and non-Christian alike, was John 3:16. But these days the Bible verse that everyone seems to know and can quote from memory is Matthew 7:1 – “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The shape that popular religion has taken in our day has been described as “moral, therapeutic, deism” (Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers”). It champions 5 big ideas –

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. 
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. 

Theologian David Wells notes that ideas like these lead to a religion of personal happiness that looks to God to solve our problems and get us stuff while not making any demands on us. He describes the God of these ideas as “weightless,” a God “without much cash value,” a God who is reticent to define how people should live, and powerless to enforce any moral expectation. But this God is impossible to square with the stories of Genesis 1-11, and the rest of the Bible for that matter. Two passages of Scripture, one from the Old Testament and the other from the New Testament, are representative of who the God of the Bible is, how the God of the Bible works, and what the God of the Bible wants.

From the Old Testament there’s Exodus 34:6-7 –

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 

And from the New Testament there’s I John 1:5-2:2 –

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

As theologian Emil Brunner (1889–1966) explained, God is not just one thing.  God’s character cannot be exhausted by reference to a single attribute. I John 4:8 is the Bible verse that says, “God is love,” but note that before I John says this, it says that God is light and discusses this attribute of God with reference to sin, separation, confession, forgiveness, and atonement. God is love, to be sure, but not just love.

Taking the Biblical witness about God seriously requires us to hold in tension ideas that pull us in opposite directions.  Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, called this the “paradoxy” of Biblical faith. Rather than artificially and prematurely smoothing out the rough edges of Scripture’s polarities, Luther was committed instead to following “the contours of Scripture wherever they led.” This meant that when he encountered one of the “furious opposites” of Biblical truth – that God is three in one, that Christ is fully human and fully divine, that we are justified and sinful – that he was content to leave them “opposite” and “furious” (Gene Edward Veith, Jr.).

Hosea 11:1-9 bears witness to the “furious opposites” of God’s sternness and God’s tenderness –

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Ba′als, and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught E′phraim to walk,   I took them up in my arms;  but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,  and I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king,  because they have refused to return to me. The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them in their fortresses. My people are bent on turning away from me; so they are appointed to the yoke,  and none shall remove it.

How can I give you up, O E′phraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah!  How can I treat you like Zeboi′im! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy E′phraim; for I am God and not man,  the Holy One in your midst,  and I will not come to destroy.”

Verses 1-4 bear witness to the tenderness God’s affections for His people. Verses 5-6 bear witness to the sternness of God’s judgment on the unfaithfulness of His people. And verses 8-9 bear witness to push and pull of these “furious opposites” in the heart of God. Whenever I see a cross, I think of these verses. I hear them as God’s inner dialogue during the outward offering of Himself in Christ on the cross. “The cross is the only place where the loving, forgiving merciful God is revealed,” explained Emil Brunner, “in such a way that we perceive that his holiness and his love are equally infinite.” And just as they are held together in the Biblical witness, so they must be held together in our faithful understanding of God’s being and doing.

This is hard to do. We like the tenderness of God’s affection. We don’t like the sternness of God’s judgement. And so there is enormous pressure for us to release the tension, to let go of the sternness in our embrace of the tenderness. But in so doing, it is the God who discloses Himself through the Biblical witness that gets misplaced. The “holy love” of God is the phrase that the Scottish Congregationalist Theologian P.T. Forsyth (1848–1921) coined to think and talk about what it was that he found in the Biblical witness about the God who is there. Because “holy” qualifies “love” in this phrase, David Wells has worried that it can create the impression that “love is basic and holiness is secondary.” He says that Christianity “uniquely combines love and holiness because in God’s character they are, and always have been, combined.”  A better way to think and talk about it, David Wells suggests, would be – “God’s-holiness-and-God’s-love-in-their-union-with-each-other,” but quickly admits that such a “cumbersome” phrase would quickly become “annoying,” so he’s staying with “holy love” despite his reservations.

When Scripture speaks about the judgement of God it does not speak of it as a single event. Judgment is not just something that comes at the end of the world, or at end of our lives. God’s judgments occur throughout the entire story that the Bible tells, from the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation. Sometimes these acts of divine judgment bring deliverance and vindication. At other times they bring destruction and condemnation. And often, the very same act of divine judgment results in both salvation and separation depending on where your choices have situated you before God. St. Isaac of Syria (613 – 700), provocatively suggested that the glory of heaven and the fire of hell were actually the same thing, just seen from two different vantage points. The love of God in Christ that warms and purifies those who are receptive to it burns and torments those who reject it. The judgment that some dread, others welcome.

Jiří Moskala, a Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and the Theology Dean of the Seventh Day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University in Michigan, says that while “there is only one judgment of God,” that underneath its “umbrella” there are several different “phases.” I find six of them in the Biblical witness–

The God made known by the Biblical witness is a God who is both holy and loving. Judgment and mercy are both at work in God’s dealings with humanity.  God speaks both Law and Gospel to us. This is why the Creed opens the affirmation of God the Son in the second article by naming His saving work and closes that same affirmation by naming His judging work. The “furious opposites” the Biblical witness are kept “opposite” and “furious” in the Church’s faith.  As P.T. Forsyth insightfully out – “If we spoke less about God’s love and more about God’s holiness, more about God’s judgment, we should say much more when we did speak of God’s love.”

The Judgment of God in History

The Biblical witness tells us that throughout salvation history God has acted in judgment. The stories of Prehistory in Genesis 1 – 11 of the Garden, the Flood, the Tower each have an account of the judgment of God in them, but it doesn’t end there. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18), the Exodus (Exodus 8-14), the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), the Conquest of Canaan (Joshua), and the Exile (2 Kings 24-25) are all stories of God’s judgment in history. And it is not just Israel that God “chastens and hasten His will to make known.” The tour of nations and their transgressions at the beginning of Amos (1-3) bears witness to the fact that the God of the universe has a moral quarrel with everyone, everywhere, always. In the New Testament, it is the church, a people drawn “from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9) that God holds to moral and spiritual account. The opening vision of the Risen, Glorious Christ walking among the candlesticks of the seven churches of Asia Minor challenging and correcting them (chapter 1-3), is a picture of Peter’s observation that God’s judgment begins “with the household of God” (I Peter 4:17).

The Judgment of God in the lives of Individuals

It is not just nations that God brings to judgment in the course of human history in Scripture, but individuals as well. Among the most troubling stories that the Bible tells are those that describe God judging a person in the course of their life for a sin they have committed. In Leviticus 10  Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, kindled a “strange fire” and it consumed them. In 2 Samuel 6 a man name Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it faltered in procession, and he was instantly struck dead. And in what appears to be a New Testament parallel to this “text of terror,” in Act 5, Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead in succession for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” Scripture urges caution in making an automatic and invariable connection between personal misfortune and the judgment of God (The whole premise of the book of Job, Jesus’ teaching about the Tower of Siloam and the Slaughter of Herod in Luke 13:1-9, and the healing of the man born blind in John 9:1-12), but clearly teaches the Spirit’s convicting work in our lives holding us to moral and spiritual accountability (John 16:12-15), the Word’s pruning work (John 15:1-11; Hebrews 4:12-13), and the disciplining hand of God as the proof of our status as children of God (Hebrews 12:3-11).  I have a much better sense of how and when God does this “shadow” work of His love in my life than when God does it in yours. I think it’s best to tend my own garden in this and to stay out of yours.

The Judgment of God on the Cross of Christ

As Jesus made His way into Jerusalem for the last time, He told His disciples – “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:31-33).  One of the ways that Scriptures tells us about the significance of what God was doing in Christ on the cross is to talk about judgement. When we think and talk about Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), we are using the language and imagery of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament Tabernacle/Temple to understand the meaning of Christ’s death. Two of Christ’s “seven last words from the cross” focus our attention on this aspect of God’s saving work in Christ – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), and “It is finished” (John 19:30), and the Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21), Peter (I Peter 2:22-24), and John (I John 3:5) all make reference to it.

Taking Romans 3:26 as his departure point (“It was to demonstrate at the present time his own righteousness, so that he is righteous and he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus”), George Eldon Ladd bore eloquent testimony to the importance of this way of thinking and talking about the cross of Christ –

The death of Christ is both an act of righteousness and an act of love. As an act of righteousness, God in Christ treated sin as it deserved to be treated. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). Before Christ, God had not dealt with sin as it deserved to be treated, God seemed to be blinking at human sin. But in Christ’s death God displayed His righteousness. God dealt with sin as it deserved to be dealt with.

 Here is mystery. What happened in the cross? I do not know; it extends beyond the bounds of human imagination. Bit in his death Jesus suffered my death; he chose my doom. We might even say that he went to hell in my stead. …A cross has become a seat of judgment. The believer is in one sense of the word already on the heavenward side of the eschatological judgment. This is why Paul can write, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).”

It is a mistake to limit our understanding of God’s saving work of Christ on the cross to just this line of interpretation, but it is equally a mistake to eliminate it from the interpretative range that the New Testament offers us. As Richard Mouw explained in his article “Getting to the Crux of Calvary” in the June 2012 issue of  “Christianity Today” –

“The Bible presents the work of the Cross as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on. Theologian Scot McKnight gives us an excellent image for how to see this diversity of atonement images. In his fine book A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology, he says that together these images serve like a bag of golf clubs: Different clubs are needed for different situations. A skilled golfer will know when it is appropriate to use the driver or the wedge or the putter. …It is always important to think carefully about how we reach out to specific individuals and groups with the gospel. We should not assume that we have to present the whole theological picture all at once to unbelievers. People come to Christ for many reasons.”

No single way of understanding the meaning of the cross is enough to capture its full meaning all by itself.

The Judgment of God in the Decision of Faith

Everybody knows John 3:16, but what about John 3:17? The verses immediately following the Bible’s best-known verse are about judgment –

“God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.”

In seminary I was told that every time the Word is preached we are brought to the threshold of a decision.  They called it “verdict theology.” The Word of God is not neutral. As Bernard Ramm explained, Scripture always comes to us by way of a double structure, “the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective, the hearing ear and the burning heart.”  He said, “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word,” and this always brings us to the brink of a decision, the decision of faith. It was what the people asked Peter on the day of Pentecost after he had preached the Word and the Spirit had “cut them to the heart,” “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). And then decisions we make in response to the Word are momentous.

“We live in a real world with real choices to be made,” explains Stephen Travis, and “the way we chose affects our lives now and in the future.” Paul told the Colossians, by their faithful reception of the Word he preached they were “delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). And Paul told the Thessalonians that their faithful reception of the Word he preached “delivered them from the wrath to come” (I Thessalonians 1:10), and theme to which he returned at the end of his first letter to them when at the end of his explanation of the sequence of events at the Second Coming of Christ he concluded with the affirmation, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5:9). This is not something that gets settled far off in the future, but here and now. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

The Judgement of God at the Moment of Death

Some Christians believe that when we die we are dead until the Second Coming when we are raised to face Final Judgment. But this has always been a minority position in the Church. Most Christians have taught and believed that between one’s death and the close of the age that Christians “go to be with the Lord” (Philippians 2:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:6; Luke 23:43). The most suggestive passage in the Bible about this transition is Luke 16:19-31, the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus. At death these two individuals went to separate places, Dives to Hades (16:23) and Lazarus to ‘the bosom of Abraham” (16:22). This division requires a separation, and so Christians from across the spectrum – Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant – with varying degrees of specificity, teach that there is a “particular” judgement of each individual when we die.  This sorting will be based on the choices we make in this life, and on the direction those choices take our lives. C.S. Lewis’ explained it like this –

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

The Judgment of God at the Close of the Age

The Creed makes the final judgment an article of faith with the affirmation – “He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.” It’s said that Jesus talked about this judgment more than did anyone else in the Bible. He certainly talked about it in some of the Bible’s most memorable ways – in His parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13) and the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 25). And if there is a verse in all of Scripture more sobering than Matthew 10:28 – “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” – then I don’t know what it might be. The final judgment is a frequent theme in the letters of Paul (Romans 1:18; 2:1-16; 14:4; 10-12; I Corinthians 3:10-17; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; I & II Thessalonians). And the book of Revelation climaxes with the New Testament’s fullest description of it (19-20).

The right question that needs to be asked is – If there is a “particular judgment” at death that involves a separation into different outcomes as was discussed in #5, then why is a Final Judgment necessary at all? Aren’t things settled before that? Technically, because of #4, it’s actually settled before we die. At death the orientation of our lives has been set. Judgement, particular or final, is simply the confirmation and outworking of the choices that we make in this life. So what is the Final Judgment about?

Many interpreters argue that there are two aspects to God’s Final Judgment. First, there is an indication in the Biblical witness of a judgment of the works of believers with a view to their rewards. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) or Pounds (Luke 19:11–26) is said to describe this aspect of the Final Judgement. It is called the “Bema Judgement” based on the reference to “the judgment seat of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:10. The “bema” refers to the tribunal seat or platform from which judgments were pronounced in the ancient world (John 19:13; Acts 25:22-23).

The” Great White Throne” Judgment is described in Revelation 19-20 and gets referenced  throughout the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 5:22; 30; 11:20-24; 13:24-30; 36-43; 13:47-50; 19:21-35). Revelation 1:7 suggests that the return of Christ at the close of the age “to judge the quick and the dead” is something of a public vindication of righteousness of God’s judgments and demonstration of the goodness of God’s character – “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, everyone who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”

The Psalmist proclaimed that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (19:9), but this is not obvious to us. We object to the way that God runs the universe, and we question where God is and what God is doing in world events and personal circumstances. The Psalms of lament would seem to be our permission to do this. The Penitential Psalms are God’s complaint about how we have not kept faith with God in our covenantal relationship with Him. The Psalms of Lament are our complaint about how God has seemingly failed at this too. It doesn’t always feel like God is keeping up His end of the covenantal relationship either.

I was told in my very first class in seminary that the most frequent theological question  people would ask me as a pastor would be “why?” “Why is this happening?”  “Where is God?” “How could a good and powerful and loving God let this happen?” “Why isn’t God doing something?” One of C.S. Lewis’ books is called “God in the Dock.” The “dock” is the box in a British courtroom in which the accused stands during a trial. The point that Lewis was making by that title was that we feel like God has some explaining to do. He wrote –

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”

There is an anonymous piece of writing called “The Long Silence” that I first came across in Christian College back in the mid 1970’s. It’s a story that has generated serious conversations about God and God’s judgments. Stephen Travis told it in his book 1974 “The Jesus Hope” (58-59), and John Stott told it in his 1986 book “The Cross of Christ” (336-337). John McNeil turned it into short play that can be found @ dramatix.org.nz/archive/Evangelism/Longsilence.html), and it has become a short film that can be seen @ www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIUBHszdqOU).

The Long Silence

At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?” snapped a bold young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”


In another group a young man lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black!”


In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.”

Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.


How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light! Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people have been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.


So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a slave, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, an abused child. In the center of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.


Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.

For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.”

The Seventh Day Adventists have built this vindication of the righteousness of God’s judgment and the goodness of God’s character into their understanding of what happens in God’s judgement.

The Adventists teach that in the act of judging God the judge actually proves the justice of His judgments to those who are being judged. Because in the end there are not just sins that need to be satisfied, but wounds that need to be healed and questions that need to be answered, the Seventh Day Adventists teach that God patiently unfolds how His “judgments are true and righteous altogether” so that there is no question about “the fullness and fairness of His justice.” Everyone will finally see just how “earnestly and patiently” God cared for them throughout the whole course of their lives, and how their acceptance or rejection of God’s care was something freely chosen by them after repeated divine approaches. In the end, no one will be left wondering about how things turned out the way they did, or have room to question the goodness or love of God.

Hans LaRondelle, a Professor of Theology at Andrews University, summarizes the teaching of his church by writing –

The judgment delineates clearly in every case the righteousness of the sentence passed. Thus God’s wisdom, justice, and goodness are placed beyond question forever. The character of God is vindicated before the universe. All creatures in heaven and on earth, the righteous and the wicked, cannot help bowing their knees at the name of Jesus and “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1011). This means the final coronation of the Son of God, exalting Him to the highest place, “above every name” (verse 9). All those around the throne of God respond with the doxology ” ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!'” (Revelation 5:12). All are fully satisfied that God’s ” ‘judgments are true and righteous'” (Revelation 19:2).

Sources

Campbell, Alexander. “The Christian System.” 1939. webfiles.acu.edu

Hallesby, Ole. “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in

Awakening and Conversion?” “The Brotherhood of Pastors Faithful to the Confessions” in Norway. (luc.edu)

Ladd, George Eldon. “The Last Things.” Eerdmans. 1978.

LaRondelle, Hans. “The Millennium: A Revelation of God’s Character.” “Ministry.”

January 1983.

Moskala, Jiří. “Toward a Biblical Theology of God’s Judgment: A Celebration of the

Cross in Seven Phases of Divine Universal Judgment (An Overview of a Theocentric-Christocentric Approach). 2004. http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/old-testamemt-pubs/18

Mouw, Richard. “Getting to the Crux of Calvary. “Christianity Today.” June 2012.

Ramm, Bernard. “The Witness of the Spirit: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance

of the Internal Witness of the Holy Spirit.” Eerdmans. 1959.

Stott, John R.W. “The Cross of Christ.” IVP. 1986.

Travis, Stephen. “The Jesus Hope.” IVP. 1974.

Veith, Gene Edwards, Jr. “The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First

Evangelicals.” Concordia. 1999.

Wells, David F. “God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients the World.”

Crossway. 2914. Yancey, Philip. “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Zondervan

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“All Means All”

In one of his posts John Meunier (johnmeunier.wordpress.com) quoted something that John Wesley said about the “principles of a Methodist” – “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these is the porch of religion; the next, the door; and the third, religion itself.”

I like this way of thinking about Christianity as having a porch, a front door, and an edifice. In an earlier post, John Meunier wrote about how he thinks the church needs to say to people just as clearly and as often as it possibly can – “Come as you are, (but) don’t stay as you are.” This, it seems to me, is the difference between the porch and front door of Christianity, and its edifice.

The front porch of Christianity is as wide as “whosoever” (John 3:16; Romans 10:13; Acts 2:21; John 11:25-26; Revelation 22:17), and the front door of Christianity is held open by the nail-pierced hand of the Savior (John 10:7;9; John 14:6; Hebrews 10:19-20; Matthew 27:51; Revelation 4:1). The wide porch and open door of Christianity invite all and welcome all. I believe that the identity statement of my own denomination gets the Gospel exactly right when it says – “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”

A Lord’s Table to which all are invited and at which all are welcomed because it is the sign and seal of God’s love in Christ for “whosoever” is a powerful witness to what the Gospel is about in a world that is intent on driving wedges between people because of where they’re from, how they vote, what they look like, what language they speak, who they understand themselves to be, where they struggle and are vulnerable, what they value, and where they need healing, and what shape their hope takes. There need to be churches and Christians who, as Sam Shoemaker (1893 – 1963) said of his own life and work, “I Stand by the Door” –

“I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for someone to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that anyone can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to a person’s own touch.”

Because this is how I read the Gospel, I have chosen to be a minister and member of a church with a wide porch and an open door. John Meunier says this same thing about his Methodist identity. “The atonement made by Jesus Christ is for all people everywhere,” he writes, adding, “I will shout ‘amen’ to anyone who proclaims that message.” But then he quickly reminds his readers that there’s more to Christianity than just its wide porch and open front door.

“What confuses me,” he writes, “is when Jesus Christ’s call to all people is treated as if it was the last word rather than the first word.” “People speak of all being welcome,” he observes, “as if Jesus said nothing about transformation and change.” Yes, yes, yes… Everyone is invited and welcomed into God’s kingdom,” John explains, “everyone… No exceptions.” “But we are called to put on Christ,” he adds, “we are called to be new creatures. We are called to holiness of heart and life. We are called to put off sin and put on Christ.” Once we’ve become Christians, once we’ve walked across the wide porch of the Gospel’s “whosoever” welcome and stepped through the open door of God’s grace demonstrated in Christ’s saving work, there then remains a long process of “being” a Christian. This is the “edifice” of Christianity, the new life in Christ into which we grow.

I became a Christian by a conscious decision of faith made in a moment of time nearly 60 years ago. I crossed the front porch of Christianity and stepped in through the open door that is Christ. The Gospel is a message about how all are invited to and will be welcomed in the embrace of God’s grace. I am glad to be part of a church that “gets” this.

But being a Christian is something that I’m still working on even as I now approach my seventh decade of life. It’s been a slow and often painful process. In the language of Colossians, there are things about me that are entirely inconsistent with Christ and what Christ is doing in me, and so I’ve had to change. There are things about me that I’ve had to “put away” and “put to death” (3:5-11). There still are. And in their place, there have been Christ-like qualities that I have had to “put on” because Christ has made His own (3:12-17). It’s taken time for some of these Christ-like attitudes and actions to take root in the sometimes hard, sometimes shallow, and sometimes crowded soil of my heart (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23).

What Chuck Swindoll once said about remodeling his house applies equally to the “good work” of spiritual and moral renewal that Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior begins in us the minute we step across the threshold of faith. It will “take longer than you planned, cost more than you figured, be messier than you anticipated, and require greater determination than you expected.” But it will eventually get finished (Philippians 1:6) because Christ Jesus has made us His own (Philippians 3:12), and God is at work in us (Philippians 2:13).

God in Christ by the Spirit wants to save “all” of us, quantitively speaking. There is no one who is not invited. There is no one who will not be welcomed. There is nobody who is outside the scope of God’s saving purpose or beyond the reach of God’s saving hand. But God in Christ by the Spirit wants to save “all” of us, qualitatively speaking, as well. There is no part of us that God isn’t going to change in us for the better. As the old evangelist put it, “God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us like that.” When we say that “all means all,” we need to be clear that we’re not just talking about the porch and front door of Christianity that stands open to all, but the whole edifice of our lives, every nook and cranny, that God in Christ by the Spirit is going to transform.

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THE LIFE EVERLASTING

“Taken” by God

A “Theocentric” Vision of the Life Everlasting

Genesis 5:21-24, the narrative of the generation of Enoch in a chapter about the descendants of Adam down the line of Seth, is the first indication in the Biblical narrative that death isn’t the only possible outcome to life that’s possible for us as human beings.

Death gets introduced into the narrative of the human family in the second Creation story in Genesis chapter 2. Adam was warned that should he ever eat “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” that surely on that day he would die (2:17). It was this prospect that drove the conversation between Eve and the serpent at the beginning of Genesis chapter 3 (verses 1-4), and the very next story that the book of Genesis tells is a story about the first death of a human being. Cain killed his brother Abel (4:1-16), and when his brother’s blood cried out from the ground against him in accusation (4:10), Cain’s own inevitable demise was brought into full focus for him. The thought of it undid him (4:13-14). Then one of Cain’s descendants kills again (Lamech in 4:23-24), and the march of death is underway.

Genesis 5 is a chapter about “the generations of Adam” down the Seth branch of the family tree. 10 generations are named, and at the end of each entry the same refrain sounds – “and he died” (5:5; 5:8; 5:11; 5:14; 5:17; 5:20; 5:27; 5:31). Only Enoch, the son of Jared who died (5:20), and the father of Methuselah who died (5:27), breaks the pattern.

Enoch “walked with God.” Two times Genesis 5 says so (5:22 & 5:24). God “walked” in the Garden in the cool of the evening with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). I take this is a picture of the communion that God intended for His human image bearers (Genesis 1:26-27). We were created for this kind of intimacy with God. We correspond to God like His own reflection in a mirror. The “death” of Genesis 2:17 is only secondarily physical. It is primarily spiritual. The picture of being driven from the Garden in Genesis 3:22-24 with no way back from our side is a picture of this spiritual death, the breaking of that vital connection, a loss of the immediacy and intimacy of God and humanity walking and talking together in the cool of the evening.

The reference to Enoch who “walked with God” and then “was not” because “God took him” (5:24) is one of the signals of grace that are scattered throughout the stories of moral and mortal decline in Genesis 3 – 11. In a chapter where everyone dies, Enoch doesn’t. He’s the exception. Enoch gets “taken” because he “walked with God.” So, if we “walk with God,” do we get “taken” too?

I think the Enoch exception in Genesis 5 is the Bible’s first whispery witness to the promise that becomes full-throated in Jesus Christ, the One who called Himself “the Resurrection and the Life,” and who told us that “even if we die, yet shall we live,” and that “if we live and believe in Him, we shall never die” (John 11:25-26). If we “walk with God,” we get “taken by God.” That’s not the only thing that I think I can say about what becomes of us when we die as Christians, but it is the most basic thing, the foundation on which every other finally affirmation rests.

The late Pope Benedict XVI argued that the Church’s belief in the continuing, conscious

existence of the individual after death rests not on some imagined immortality that’s intrinsic to us as human beings, but rather on our relationship with an eternal God whose love will not let us go. The best argument for life after death that I know is Romans 8:37-39 that nothing in all creation, not even death itself, has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As Peter preached on Pentecost, God “loosed the pangs of death” for Jesus so that it was impossible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). God did not “abandon” Jesus to Hades (Acts 2:27). And now the Risen, Glorious Christ, our Savior, holds “the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18), so that they can’t hold us either. His hold of love on us is stronger than the hold of death that keeps us in bondage our whole life long (Hebrews 2:14-15).

We are created to “walk with God,” and when we do, God “takes us” when we die. This was Jesus’ explicit promise in John 14 when He told His disciples that when He went away to prepare a place for them that He would come again to “take” them to Himself (John14:2-3). It’s this “taking” that frames the Biblical understanding of what happens when we die.

After passing through the valley of the shadow of death in the company of Christ the Good Shepherd, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6). To be absent from the body is to be “home” with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).  When we “depart” this world and this life, just like Enoch in Genesis 5, we “go to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). This is why in his dying moment, when Stephen saw the Lord, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

In John 5:24, Jesus said – “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” The relationship with God that’s formed now in this life is what carries through death into a fuller experience of that relationship in God’s nearer presence. As someone has put it, salvation is a bridge with one pier driven in this world and the other pier driven in eternity. The witness that Enoch whispers is that when we walk with God we will one day cross that bridge to continue the journey in God’s company forever.

“Gathered” to Our People

An “Anthropocentric” Vision of the Life Everlasting

Mary Lynn and I recently spent a night at the Chisos Mountains Basin Lodge in Big Bend National Park. It was on my bucket list. We sat on the balcony that night and looked at the stars. The night sky in that dark place is stunning. Some of the stars we saw shone bright and close. The light of other stars we saw appeared dull and distant.

Based on one of his favorite verses in the Bible, Malachi 4:2 – “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in its wings” – with its imagery of the gradual dawning of the morning light, Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), one of the founders of the spiritual tradition of which my church is a part, used the variation of the lights in the sky as a way thinking and talking about what’s in the Bible.

His Reformed perspective taught Alexander Campbell to think and talk about the ways that God deals with human beings by using the category of “covenant.” Covenants order the reciprocal relationships that God has with people in Scripture. They spell out the opportunities and obligations that such a relationship entail.

Alexander Campbell found three primary covenants in Scripture – the Patriarchal, the Jewish, and the Christian dispensations – and he was fond of calling these three stages in the development of God’s dealing with humanity – the Starlight Age (The Patriarchal Dispensation), the Moonlight Age (The Jewish Dispensation), and the Sunlight Age (The Christian Dispensation). Alexander Campbell believed that each of these progressive dispensations brought additional light and created different obligations for human beings. Like the different lights we see in the sky, Alexander Campbell believed that an idea that first appears dull as a distant light in Scripture can grow in brightness and clarity as the narrative moves along.

Yesterday I wrote about the Enoch exception in Genesis 5:21-24 as the Bible’s first whispery clue about what becomes of us when we die. Enoch “walked with God,” and then he “was not,” for God “took” him (5:24). When the light of this “distant star” becomes the “sunlight” of the Christ event as the New Testament bears witness to it, it becomes the words of Jesus in John 11:26 about how we who live and believe in Him will never die, and John 14:3 about how He will come again to take us to Himself so that where He is we will be. It’s this idea of a conscious, continuing relationship with God in Christ on both sides of death that universalizes Christ’s promise to the good thief who died on the cross beside Him – “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). As I said in yesterday’s post, this isn’t everything that I think could be said about what becomes of us when we die, but it is most certainly the foundation for everything else that might be said.

It is the experience of a relationship of love, our communion with our Creator who became our Redeemer when we turned away, that carries across the threshold of death and into eternity in the companionship of Him whose love we never lose. But this is just part of the promise.

Another whispery clue from the first pages of the Bible about what happens to us when we die is the repeated phrase about being “gathered to your people” that gets used to describe the deaths of Abraham (Genesis 25:8), Ishmael (Genesis 25:17), Isaac (Genesis 35:29), Jacob (Genesis 49:33), Aaron (Numbers 20:24), and Moses (Numbers 27:13).  Some say that what what this means is that they were buried in a family plot, but others see in it a reference to the way that the bonds that tie us to one another in this life survive death too.

The thesis of Collen McDannell’s and Bernhard Lang’s 1988 book on “Heaven: A History” (Yale University Press) is that two major images have co-existed in the Christian expectation of the life everlasting, what they call a “theocentric” vision that has “centered on God,” and an “anthropocentric” vision that has “focuses on the human.” The “theocentric” vision of the life everlasting imagines it as the fulfillment of our relationship with God. This is the whisper of the promise in the Enoch exception. The “anthropocentric” vision of the life everlasting imagines it as the fulfillment of our relationships with one another. This is the whisper of the promise embedded in the description of death as a matter of being “gathered to our people.” These are not either/or promises but both/and.

Pope Benedict XVI was very clear in his writings on the “last things” that we survive death because we are in communion with God, and His love will not let us go. But he was equally insistent that because our communion with God is not a solitary experience, but one that is initiated in and nurtured by the community of faith, that the life everlasting will be a “fellowship with other human beings” as well, the “communion of the saints.”

Pope Benedict XVI was very clear in his writings on the “last things” that we survive death because we are in communion with God, and His love will not let us go. But he was equally insistent that because our communion with God is not a solitary experience, but one that is initiated in and nurtured by the community of faith, that the life everlasting will be a “fellowship with other human beings” as well, the “communion of the saints.” And so, the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the Church has officially named an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, could envision the life everlasting as a heavenly reunion –

“A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again” (Paraphrased).

I believe that when we die, we go to be with the Lord, and we are gathered to our people. On the other side of death there will be “theocentric” and “anthropocentric” completeness, the fullness of our communion with God and one another, a final realization of the Gospel’s twin commands to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love neighbor as self.

“Further Up… Further In”

I know my wife better than I know anybody in my life. It won’t be long before we will have been married for 50 years. The other day she finished something that I was saying. There are lots of times that I know exactly what she is thinking, and I can tell her so with just a look. We’ve become that couple. And yet, my wife can still surprise me. There are moments when it feels like I don’t know her at all.

In a workshop on counseling that I attended at a ministers’ conference a long time ago, the presenter explained the Johari Window to us as a tool for better understanding ourselves and others. The Johari window is a box with four quadrants in it.  The upper left-hand quadrant is the “open space.”  This is what we know about ourselves that is also known by others. The upper right-hand quadrant is our “blind spot.” This is what others know about us, but that we don’t know about ourselves. The lower left-hand quadrant is our “hidden space.” This what we know about ourselves that others don’t know about us. And the lower right-hand quadrant is our “growth area.” This is what we don’t know about ourselves and that others don’t know about us either. Personal growth, the presenter explained, occurs as the lower right-hand quadrant shrinks and the upper left-hand quadrant expands. The more I discover about myself the more I know about myself and can share with others.  But even in our most intimate of relationships, the lower right-hand quadrant never completely goes away.

As well as I know my wife, and as long as I have loved her, there are still lots of things about her that I don’t know, and I expect to continue to be surprised, at times alarmed, but almost always delighted by the discoveries that I will continue to make in my relationship with this woman with whom I have lived my life, and expect to know and love forever. The only “person” I have known and loved longer in my life than my wife is God who is classically understood by the Christian tradition as three persons [“prosopon” (Greek), “hypostasis” (Greek) or “persona” (Latin) |  “personal reality,” “self-conscious agent,” or “an outward aspect”] consisting of one substance [“homoousios” (Greek) – same in being, same in essence’, from  “homós” | “same” + and  “ousía” |  “being” or “essence”]. And the Eastern Church thinks and talks about our knowledge of God in much the same way that the Johari Window thinks and talk about our knowledge of each other.

The Eastern Church teaches that there are some things about God that we can know, what they call God’s “energies.” Because the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God who “speaks” and “shows,” there’s a box in our knowledge of God for the things that both He and we know about God because God has chosen to reveal them to us. But there is another box in our knowledge of God for the things that God knows about Himself and that He has chosen to keep to Himself. The Eastern Church calls these unrevealed things God’s “essence.” One of the primary ways that the life everlasting gets presented in Scripture is as us finally “seeing God.” In one of the New Testament’s most familiar chapters, Paul told the Corinthians that now we “see in a mirror dimly,” but then we will see “face to face” (I Corinthians 13:12a), that while now “we know in part,” that then we “shall understand fully” (13:12b).

So, does this mean that after death we will know God completely, God’s “essence” as well as God’s “energies”? Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395), one of the Cappadocia Fathers, said “no.” Gregory of Nyssa said that if we understood God completely, that God would no longer be infinite, and therefore would no longer be God. So. using Paul’s description of his spiritual journey in Philippians 3:12-14 about how he had not yet attained it but was always pressing on towards the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, Gregory of Nyssa suggested that the life everlasting will be one of continual growth in our relationship with God. We move into God’s nearer presence at death, but as the refrain that repeats at the end of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia says, it’s “Further Up” and “Further In.” There will always be farther to go. There will always be more to come.

I once wondered about whether I would be bored in heaven? The way “seeing God” was presented to me, it sounded like sitting quietly in front of a painting in a museum forever just staring at it. Now I’m much more inclined to think about the life everlasting like I think about my relationship with my wife. I already know her. I already love her. But even after 50 years of being together, there’s still so much more to learn about her. And even though I already love her completely, my love for her continues to grow. I expect nothing less in my relationship with God.

Wiping Away Every Tear from Our Eyes

When I die I fully expect to be “gathered to my people” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; 49:33; Numbers 20:24; 27:13). This is a very comforting part of the Gospel promise for me. But there is a catch. You see, I don’t get along with all my “people,” and as hard as it is to imagine, some of my “people” don’t get along with me!

My “people” are church people. I’ve been around the church my whole life long, which is why I find Vernon Ground’s description of the church as a pack of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night to be the most accurate one I know. We huddle because its cold and we need each other in order to survive, but when we do, we stick and jab each other because we’re porcupines. And this is the dance of church life that I’ve watched and taken part in now for 70 years. As Robert Thornton Henderson observed, “I, for one, have been hurt, abandoned, betrayed, and discouraged more by my (church) friends, by my Christian brothers and sisters, than I ever have been by non-Christians.” “I have had more thoughtless wounds inflicted by fellow church members,” he explained, “than I can ever imagine by an enemy.”

Lewis Smedes in his defining work for me on forgiveness, said that the deepest wounds we receive and inflict happen when people who are regarded as friends and family behave as strangers and enemies. These hurts trigger hate, and that hate will destroy us unless it heals. Lewis Smedes books on forgiveness provide helpful guidance on how to get to that healing when we’ve been hurt and find ourselves in the hate. The goal of that healing is reconciliation, but Dr. Smedes understood that reconciliation is always tricky, and he admitted that many of our relationships get stuck between the healing and the reconciling in this life, and what this means is that all of us are going to arrive at the threshold of the life everlasting with the wreckage of relationships still unreconciled strewn about our lives.

This was said out loud at the funeral of the German Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann in 1988. Part of the funeral liturgy that was prayed at his service said – “We think before God in silence of the deceased, of those who were closely connected with Ernst Käsemann, of those to whom Ernst Käsemann did not do justice, of those who did not do him justice…” As St. Augustine noted, at death most of us are unfinished. There’s still work to be done when we die.

In one of his sermons, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) described the realm of the life everlasting as “a world of love.”  He developed this proposition in ten points (preaching in the 18th century was not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted) –

  1. Love in heaven is always mutual.
  2. The joy of heavenly love shall never be interrupted or damped by jealousy.
  3. There will be nothing within themselves to clog or hinder the saints in heaven in the exercises and expressions of love.
  4. In heaven love will be expressed with perfect decency and wisdom.
  5. There shall be nothing external in heaven to keep its inhabitants at a distance from each other, or to hinder their most perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.
  6. In heaven all shall be united together in very near and dear relations.
  7. In heaven all shall have property and ownership in each other (“My beloved is mine, and I am his” – Song of Solomon 6:3).
  8. In heaven they shall enjoy each other’s love in perfect and uninterrupted prosperity.
  9. In heaven all things shall conspire to promote their love, and give advantage for mutual enjoyment.
  10. The inhabitants of heaven shall know that they shall forever be continued in the perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.

As we sing, – “Behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified” – Jesus carried His wounds across the threshold of death, but in that transition from this life to the next, they were “glorified.”  They would have to be, and so must ours.

If being “gathered to my people” is to be a joyous reunion, then clearly there’s some work that’s going to have to be done between here and there. Nathan O’Halloran says that this is part of the saving work that is suggested by Revelation’s promise that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” when the Kingdom has fully and finally come (21:4).

When and how this work of “final reconciliation” takes place is a topic of some theological debate in the church. But whether it happens suddenly, in the “twinkling of an eye,” at the moment of death, or gradually as the continuing work of sanctification begun in us now works its way to completion in some intermediate state “between this world and the next,” there’s little doubt that reconciliation is part of the work of redemption that will have to get finished for the life everlasting to be that world of love that Jonathan Edwards so richly described.

Josef Niewiadomski, the Polish-Austrian Catholic theologian, imagines an “inter-human process” after death when “all victims and perpetrators will face each other and in which the evil suffered and inflicted will be fully manifest to each person” with no one withholding forgiveness or insisting on revenge. What keeps this moment from degenerating into “a day of wrath” filled with desperate “self-justification” and angry condemnation, writes Miroslav Volf, is that it all “happens before Christ” who is “at the center of this reconciling work as the judge who suffered the victim’s fate and was judged in the perpetrators place.”

A picture of what this might look can be seen every year at the Vespers service on the Sunday evening before Lent begins in an Eastern Orthodox church. That’s when every minister and every member of that community of faith lines up and begins a miraculous dance of guilt and grace. One by one, one after the other, everyone in the church approaches everyone else in the church, face to face and hand in hand to say, “I’m sorry for all the ways that I have hurt you, and I am asking for your forgiveness.” 

The author of Hebrews said that we must “strive for peace with all people, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Because being fully reconciled with other people and having a degree of personal sanctity sufficient to gain me access to the presence of the holy God are neither likely to be checked boxes in my life when it’s time to go, I must trust the promise that the good work begun in us will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6), because God is at work in us (Philippians 2:13).

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“Why I am a Disciple of Christ”

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Thomas Nelson and Sons published their popular “Why I Am…” series.  The publishers approached high profile ministers and leaders from a variety of denominations and asked them to tell the story of why they belonged to the particular religious tradition that they did.  And so, as you would expect, there were books on “Why I am an Episcopalian,” and “Why I am a Roman Catholic,” and “Why I am a Methodist,” and “Why I am A Presbyterian,” and “Why I am a Baptist,” and “Why I am a Lutheran.”  After all, those were and are the major American denominations.  What’s intriguing is that Thomas Nelson and Sons didn’t stop there.  You see, they also published volumes on “Why I am a Christian Scientist,” and “Why I am Mormon,” and there was even one on “Why I am a Disciple of Christ.”

They asked Hampton Adams to write this book on us in 1957.  Dr. Adams had been the pastor of the Union Avenue Christian Church in St. Louis for 16 years and was to be a president of the Council on Christian Unity.  Dr. Hampton began his book on “Why I am a Disciple of Christ” by explaining that it was because that’s the church his mother belonged to when he was just a little boy.  Almost apologetically, Dr. Hampton wrote, “This book would, of course, be more convincing if it were written by a person who, after a long search, had found his spiritual home with the Disciples of Christ” (8).  And that describes me.

You see, I’m not a “birth-right Disciple;” I’m a convert, a true believer. I’m here by choice.  There’s a bumper sticker for naturalized Texans that says, “I may not have been born here, but I got here just as soon as I could!”  Well, that describes me and my relationship with this church of ours perfectly.  Only, I have to tell you that I don’t believe that I am here by just my own initiatives and effort.  It’s as much a God-thing as anything else. 

On a bookshelf across from my desk in my study I keep a copy of a prayer by St. Augustine that was caligraphied for me by one of the real saints that I’ve been privileged to know in my ministry. The prayer says –

Lord, when I look upon my own life, it seems Thou hast led me so carefully, so tenderly, Thou canst have attended to no one else; but when I see how wonderfully Thou hast led the world and art leading it still, I am amazed that Thou hast time to attend to one such as I.

And I’ve lived the words of this prayer; I view my life as a journey of faith undertaken at the behest of God.  And as I look back over my years I am aware of some defining moments when I believe that God brought me to the crossroad of a decision that set the course for the next phase of my journey of faith.  And one of those moments was in the summer of 1968 when I was 15 going on 16.

I was raised an Episcopalian.  We were an active church-going family.  Dad was on the Vestry.  Mom was on the Altar Guild.  And I was an acolyte. In the summer of 1968 I had signed up to go on a mission trip with the Episcopal Young churchmen of the Diocese of Los Angeles to a Navajo Mission Center in southeastern Utah.  The night before I left, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep, and so I got up and turned on the TV.  Now, I know that it sounds hackneyed, but Billy Graham was on preaching one of his crusades, saying some things that I had never heard in all my years of going to church; things like my needing to be born again, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, and sharing my faith, and looking for the second coming.  I was baffled.  And so I did a rash thing; I threw a King James Version of the Bible into my duffle bag, and I began to read it seriously for the first time in my life while I was away on that trip.

I thought that what I could do by reading the Bible was to conclusively prove my family’s church right and Billy Graham’s preaching wrong.  But by the time I had clumsily made my way through the New Testament for the first time, what I had discovered was that it was all so much more complicated than that. Biblically, I realized that a case could be made both for and against my church, and for and against Billy Graham. I went looking for simplicity, and I was ushered into complexity instead.  I wanted “either/or” but was offered “both/and.”  I wanted clear, concise answers to all of my doctrinal questions; and what I discovered is that the Bible teaches its truths in a different way.

Think of the difference between a geological elevation in Texas and a geological elevation in Colorado.   In Colorado the Rocky Mountains are the high ground; but in Texas it’s the cap rock.  Clearly there’s a difference between a mountain peak and a plateau.  There’s a good reason why people go to Vail to ski and not Amarillo.  Well, Francis Schaeffer, the late Evangelical theologian, used to say that we go to the Bible looking for mountain peaks and find plateaus instead.  You see, the Bible teaches its truths not by giving us single propositions that need to be scaled and claimed, but by providing us with some absolute boundaries between which we have some real room to roam.

Think about it, virtually every important spiritual truth that the Bible teaches is complicated: God is three and one; holy and loving; immanent and transcendent; Christ is God and man; we are saved by grace and faith; we are sinful and responsible; God is sovereign and we are free; we are not saved by good works and we are saved for good works; the Bible is the Word of God and the Word of Man; the kingdom has come and is coming.  I think it was Dorothy Sayers who said that what the Bible does is to draw the lines on the field on which the game of faith gets played.  So long as you’re inside those lines, you’re in the game. And so, when I was 15 going on 16 I had to conclude that both Billy Graham and the Episcopal Church were, even though they were at opposite ends of the field.  And realizing that prepared me spiritually for the road ahead.

You see, the terrain that I’ve traversed as a Christian has been something of a zigzag course between opposite truths on that field of faith that the Bible lays out.  I move back and forth constantly between –

A respect for authority and a desire for freedom;

An appreciation for tradition and an openness to experience;

A faith that was as ancient as the New Testament and as contemporary as the morning paper;

A commitment to the personal gospel of salvation and the social gospel of justice;

A passion for Scripture and a longing for the Holy Spirit;

A careful, analytical head and a hungry, thirsty heart;

Conservative convictions and a liberal way of arriving at them;

A desire for personal righteousness and an aversion to legalism;

A sense of personal responsibility for what I believe and my need to belong to a community;

The recognition that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world and an appreciation for the universal religious longings of the human family;

A love for the outward and visible forms of faith and a refusal to settle for anything less than their inward and invisible realities.

It was reading the Bible for myself when I was 15 going on 16 that led me to the realization if I was going to take what it taught seriously then I was going to have to be willing to “follow the contours of Scripture wherever they led” (Veith 115).  And I knew then that I was going to have to find a community of faith that was comfortable with the kind of diversity that the Bible itself creates if I was ever going to fit in.  I needed a church whose faith would be as big as the Bible; a church that was willing to embrace the wholeness of what the Bible taught; a church that wasn’t afraid of complexity and that wouldn’t try to “dumb-down” the truth to make it popular or palatable; a church that would help me navigate the narrow path between the extremes of those on the edges who made exclusive claims to having the truth; a church with an absolute center that would hold.

And so, when I was 15 going on16 I began a spiritual quest that led me here to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Every Sunday after the early service at my family’s Episcopal Church I was off visiting other places of worship and other communities of faith.  I spent time with Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, Mormons and Methodists, Baptists and Adventists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists.  And while I found things at virtually every church I visited that I could commend and embrace, I never found the Biblical balance, the spiritual wholeness that I was looking for.

I never visited a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in those days.  How I discovered the Disciples was by reading a book.  Spiritually frustrated by my search for a spiritual home and not finding what I was looking for, I picked up a copy of the book Religions in America edited by Leo Rosten.  This book was a collection of the famous “Look” magazine series on denominations.  I was systematically working my way through it as if it were a Sears and Roebucks catalogue from which I could order a church that fit.  And out of the dozens of churches that I read about in that book, the one that made my soul stir was one about “Who are the Disciples of Christ?”  written by James Craig.

I had never met a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as far as I knew. I’d never seen one of their churches.  I’d never attended one of their services.  But what I read about them in that book painted a picture of the kind of church that I knew I was looking for.  These are the words that first introduced me to this church –

The Disciples have no creed but Christ and no doctrines save those which are found in the New Testament or are reasonably to be inferred therefrom.  The Disciples are God-centered, Christ-centered, Bible-centered, with no creed save one – the answer of the Apostle Peter to a question from Jesus himself: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the Living God.” (58)

There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience. (59) 

Disciples base their whole case and their whole appeal on a simple outline of faith (65)… (and) no Sunday morning service closes without an offering of fellowship to any adult who cares to take his stand by the cross of the Risen Christ. (59)

Some will say that the Disciples of Christ are a great Evangelical Protestant denomination.  Others wills ay that they are not a denomination at all, but a pure New Testament Church of Christ.  Still others will prefer to describe the Disciples as a brotherhood, or a communion.  But perhaps the most favored word among Disciples is a movement – a movement back to the New Testament, and forward to ultimate unity under God of all who call themselves Christians. (58)

Reading these words again now more than 50 years after reading them for the first time, I feel them still stirring my soul and assuring me that I am spiritually home.

I am a Disciple of Christ because this is a church whose faith is Biblically balanced.  This is a church that rejects the simplicity of “either-or” ways of thinking in favor of the more complicated “both-and” ways that the Scripture teaches its truths.  I chose this church after a long search because of all the churches I know, this is the one that respects faithful diversity and has a center that holds.

When people ask me why I am a Disciple of Christ, I usually tell them about an adult Sunday School class I taught in a previous congregation I served.  They were a group of some of the brightest and most engaged folks I’ve ever known.  And on Sunday mornings they fought like cats and dogs.  It didn’t make any difference what the topic of the day was; when the class bell rang they came out of their corners swinging.  Arguing Scripture and questioning interpretations they were not content with settling for easy answers.  They wrestled with Scripture, the Spirit and themselves rigorously every week. And a visitor to that class might conclude that these folks had nothing in common. 

But then, after Sunday School, these same people would show up in worship side by side: as elders praying at the Table; as members of the Diaconate sharing communion; as members of the choir joining their voices in praise; as worshipers sitting side by side in a pew joining hands and hearts; and as their pastor watching this each week I always knew that I was home.  This was the church I went looking for when I was 15 going on 16.

E. Stanley Jones used to say that whenever he asked a group of Christians “What do you believe?” that they would faithfully fragment in a thousand different ways with no two people believing exactly alike.  But when he would ask, “Whom do you trust?” he said that they “would come together with one word on their lips – Jesus Christ.”  (144-145).   And that’s why I am a Disciple of Christ.  This is a church where the “what’s” can differ while the “whom” unites.

Look around the room.  We’re different aren’t we? We’re different genders, different ages, different races, different sizes, and all that’s just on the surface.  A little bit of probing just beneath the surface would quickly reveal that some of us here are conservatives and some of us are liberals, some of us are traditionalists and some of us are progressives, some of us are Biblical literalists and some of us read the Bible amore symbolically, some of us are charismatics and some of us are cessationists.  We’re clearly different.  So let me close with a question – “Whom do you trust?” (Expected Response – Jesus Christ!)  And that’s why I am a Disciple of Christ.

Sources

Adams, Hampton. Why I am a Disciple of Christ. Thomas Nelson and Sons. 1957.

Jones, E. Stanley  The Divine Yes. Abingdon. 1975.

Rosten, Leo. Religions in America. “Who Are the Disciples of Christ?” by James

E. Craig. Simon and Schuster. 1963.

Schaeffer, Francis. The Church Before the Watching World. IVP. 1971.

Standish, N. Graham. Discovering the Narrow Path.  Westminster John Knox

Press.. 2002.

Trueblood, Elton. The Conjunct Life. Yokefellow Press. 1970.

Veith, Gene E. The Spirituality of the Cross. Concordia. 1999.

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The Fire and the Fireplace

Acts 6:1-6 ~ Zechariah 8:20-23

When the Amish need an elder, they have a process. They believe that every baptized believer has already said “yes” to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Baptism implies consent. If you agree to be dunked because Jesus said so, then it’s just assumed that you are already prepared to do whatever else it is that Christ might ask you to do. The only task that remains is for a church to figure out who it is that the Lord is asking to be their elder.

The Amish go about this by a process of prayer and discernment. When they’ve finally got their settled list of candidates, they write a scripture on a piece of paper, and they hide it in a hymnal. That hymnal is then placed in a stack of hymnals, the number corresponding exactly to the number of names on the list, and then each candidate goes forward and chooses a hymnal. The one who gets the hymnal with the Scripture in it becomes the next elder of the community.

The Amish will tell you that they don’t choose their elders. The Holy Spirit does (Acts 20:28). And we Disciples laugh nervously, squirm in our seats a little, and look for the door when hear things like this. You see, we aren’t real big on the “woo woo” stuff. As one of those hymns we love to sing puts it –  

“I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies, [just] take the dimness of my soul away.”

“Reasonable” and “Pragmatic,” that’s how W.B. Blakemore described “the mind of the Disciples of Christ” in his famous 1963 essay in the Panel of Scholars Report that resulted in our restructure from a “Brotherhood” to a “Denomination.” We’re a head church not a heart church. If there is something that needs to get done, we Disciples need a good reason for doing it (that’s our “Reasonableness” at work), we want to know the best way to get it done (and that’s our “Pragmatism”), and then we just want you to get out of the way so that we can get on with it.

The very first General Assembly I ever attended opened with a Communion service. There were more than 9,000 of us in the arena that day. It was a powerful experience. But when it was all over, what people talked about was not the spiritual impact of that sacramental moment, that many people celebrating with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of God in Christ at the same time in the same place, but rather the efficiency of the distribution. All over the Assembly floor and in the arena hallways afterwards I heard people saying – “It took less time to serve that many people than it takes to serve a hundred people at my church back home!” We’re a church of engineers not poets, managers not mystics. In my 50 years of local church ministry, I found that it was always easier to get people out for a church workday than it was to get them to a prayer meeting or a Bible Study. This is just who we Disciples are.

Acts chapter 6 describes the first organizational expansion of the church.

1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, brothers and sisters, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Numerical growth had complicated the things that that the church was doing. Some new leaders were desperately needed to make it all work, and Acts chapter 6 tells us about how the early church went about solving this leadership crisis. 

There was a time when we thought and talked about our denominational project as Disciples as “Restoration.” For more than 100 years we were actually known as the “Restoration Movement.” We were in the business of seeing how the church in the New Testament did things, so that we could then turn around and attempt to duplicate it in our own time and place.  And so we have baptized people by immersion upon their confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God, and their Lord and Savior because that’s what we saw in the New Testament.  And we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week as a church because that’s what we see in the New Testament. And we’re fiercely congregational, insisting on the right to order our own life together under the Lordship of Christ, because that’s what we see in the New Testament. And we have elders and deacons as our congregational leaders because that’s what we see in the New Testament.

At times we Disciples have treated the New Testament as if it were a blueprint, and so we come to passages like Acts 6 with a view to church administration, focusing on systems and structures, policies and procedures. We want to know how do we make this (the church) look more what’s in this (the New Testament).

Sam Shoemaker (1893 –1963), the Episcopal priest from the first half of the 20th century, called this the “fireplace” of the church. You’ve got to have one and it’s got to work, to be sure. But fireplaces are not the point. Fire is, and so Sam Shoemaker warned churches about becoming so preoccupied with fireplace design and fireplace efficiency that we forget what fireplaces are for. If we read Acts 6 and all we see are flow charts and job descriptions, then we’re doing this, we’re missing the “fire.” If we read Acts 6 and don’t see verse 3, then we’ve got a classic case of missing the “fire” for the “fireplace.” When it was time for the New Testament Church to expand its leadership base what mattered was not what the new leaders could do but rather who the new leaders were. Their credentials were not a list of their demonstrable skills but the evidence of the vitality of their spiritual lives. They were people who were known (of “good repute”) to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.”  This is how it still works in the Coptic Church.

The Coptic Church is the Oriental Orthodox Church in Egypt.  It traces its origins back to St. Mark the Evangelist, the traditional author of the second Gospel. When a Coptic congregation needs a priest, they look around at the people who are already part of their worshipping community, and they ask their bishop to come and ordain the one who in their judgement displays the most spiritual maturity and vitality.  This is a pretty standard part of the way that Eastern Orthodox Christianity does things. They understand that a theologian is not someone who has read lots and lots of books about God but is rather someone who talks to God regularly, intensely, and personally. 

If the bishop concurs with the congregation’s choice, then the bishop sends the newly ordained priest off to a monastery for 40 days to learn the ropes of performing the sacraments. They believe that in a month and a half they can teach someone everything he needs to know about fireplaces and their operation, but they will do this only after it’s been clearly established that the faith has already caught fire in him, and is burning brightly.

In Acts 6, when it was time for the church to expand its leadership team, it was those who were known to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” who were recruited to serve. The designation “elder” does not refer to chronological age in the church’s usage, but to spiritual maturity.  When Gene Getz opened his Bible to learn what spiritual maturity looks like, he zeroed in on the list of elder qualifications found in I Timothy and Titus. He counted 20 specific characteristics. As he drilled down into each one of these prerequisites for spiritual leadership in the church, he was startled to discover that there was nothing in these lists of expectations for the spiritual leaders of the church that were not found elsewhere in the New Testament as an expectation for every member of the church!

You see, an elder is not some kind of exceptional Christian. You aren’t here this afternoon because you’re better than, smarter than, or stronger than the rest. You aren’t a capital “S” saint with an impressive resume of miracle and sanctity to your name. No, you’re here this afternoon because you have been determined by your fellow church members to be representative of the kind of Christian that they themselves are trying to become. The language that the church once used to describe what it is that you have been determined to be by your spiritual peers is “proficient.”

Martin Thornton, the Anglican spiritual theologian from the last generation, said that what it means to be a “Proficient” is that you are regarded by your spiritual peers to be a spiritual “adult.” This doesn’t mean perfection, mind you. You are not being asked to pretend that your life is free from all of the difficulties, dangers, temptations, tests, doubts,  struggles, and snares that are common to us all as Christians. No, what you are being asked to do is to put your Christian life with all of those difficulties, dangers, temptations, tests, doubts, struggles, and snares at the disposal of the community as a source for their clarification and growth.  You’re a wounded healer, a fellow struggler on the way.

The late Kallistos Ware, the British Orthodox Theologian, said that the “one who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and she needs to have with her, as companion and guide, someone who has been up the mountain before and who is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the ‘elder.’” A “Proficient” becomes a “Pontifex.” That’s the dynamic that I want you to leave you with here today.

“Pontifex” is a Latin word for “priest,” and that word “priest” comes from a Greek word in the New Testament – “presbuteroi” – a word that we translate as “elder.” You see, what some parts of the Christian family calls priests, we call elders. Let that sink in for a moment — You’re priests! You’re a “pontifex,” and what this means is that you’re a “bridge-builder.” “Pontifex” is a combination of a word for bridge – “pons” or “pont” – and a verb – “fex” or “facere” – that means “to build” or “to make.”

A priest/elder is a person with feet planted in two places at once. One foot is planted in a specific community of faith.  You are a representative of the people who called you to be a priest/elder. A priest/elder’s other foot is planted on the holy ground of the presence of God, what is perceived to be familiar terrain for you. You are an interpreter of who God is, and what God wants, and what God has done and is doing in and for the world.  The task of the priest/elder is to bridge this gap, to bring the hopes and fears of the people you represent to God, and the ways, the  words, and the will of the God you know personally to the people who have called you to represent them spiritually.

This is why St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that spiritual leaders need to be both reservoirs and channels. He said that reservoirs are for filling, and channels for flowing. You’re a priest/elder because you are already thought to be a reservoir by this church. Your brothers and sisters in this community of faith view you as being full of the Spirit and wisdom. Now, your ministry as a priest/elder going forward is to become a channel. Your assignment is to open yourself to them so that the Spirit and wisdom that has flowed in and filled you can in turn flow out and be of help to them.

One of my favorite passages in the whole Bible is Zechariah 8:20-23.

20 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, 21 and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ 22 And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.” 23 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”

There’s a saying in the spiritual tradition of Russian Orthodoxy that when a person “acquires the Spirit” that “a thousand people will be saved.” What this means is that a person who truly knows God will begin to spontaneously attract other people who desperately want to know God too. That’s what Zechariah 8:20-23 is describing, people being drawn to Jerusalem and to the Temple because God was known to be there. 

It was his familiarity with passages like this one from the book of Zechariah that led the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelley to observe that the spiritual life has two distinct movements. First, God pulls us deep into His heart so that we can know that we are chosen and beloved, and then God hurls us out of His heart to be part of the way that God holds everyone, everywhere, and always in the infinitely tender love that we know in our own experience of Christ. This is the spiritual rhythm of who a priest/elder is and what a priest/elder does. A priest/elder is a “Proficient” who gets asked to be a “Pontifex.” 

We sang a song in youth group back in the day that I still find to be a near-perfect expression of this ministry to which we have been called –

“Accept Him with your whole heart and use your own two hands. With one reach out to Jesus, and with the other, bring a friend.”

We receive in order to give. We are filled in order to flow. You are a “Proficient” because your hand has reached out to Jesus. You will become a “Pontifex” as your hand reaches out to others.

We are pulled into the heart of God to be filled.

We are hurled out of the heart of God to flow.

Reservoir – hand up to Jesus.

Channel – hand out to others.

Proficient – hand up to Jesus.

Pontifex – hand out to others.

It’s who we are.

It’s what we do.

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“The First Word” – Mark 1:1-4; 14-15; Acts 2:37-38

Do you remember the Groucho Marx TV show from the 1950’s – “You Bet Your Life”? One of its “bits” was the “secret word.” If a contestant said that week’s “secret word” a mangy stuffed duck named “Julius” (Groucho Marx’s real first name) would drop down from the rafters with that word that printed on a card in its bill, and the contestants would split a hundred-dollar prize. It was always great fun when it happened.

Well, I don’t have a hundred dollars to award as a prize here this morning, but I do have a secret word. Three Scriptures were read just a moment ago, two from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, and one from the beginning of the book of Acts, and there’s a secret word that holds them altogether. Anybody? The word’s “repent.”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4). “The first time Jesus appears, in the first Gospel, the first instruction he gives is ‘Repent’” (1:15).  And on the day of Pentecost, right after the Gospel had been preached in the power of the Holy Spirit for the very first time, and people cried out, “What should we do?” the very first thing that Peter told them to do was to “Repent” (Acts 2:38).

“Repentance” has been called the Bible’s “most consistent message” (Frederica Mathewes-Green), and that’s probably not what we want to hear because “repentance” is not a particularly comfortable word for most of us. It’s a word that has been used as club by some of us, on some of us.  We’ve been shamed and scorned by people who have hammered on us to “repent” because they haven’t approved of something that we’ve said, or thought, or felt, or done, or are. For others of us, the word “Repent” is just a plain embarrassment.

My dad worked in downtown LA when I was a kid growing up and I can still remember looking out the back windows of the family sedan at the crazies and the cranks on the downtown street corners with their “Turn or Burn” placards whenever we went down there to pick him up after work. I always associated the word “repent” with “them” and was frankly a little startled the Sunday morning I heard the word “repent” said during a reading of the appointed Scriptures at the proper little Episcopal church to which my family belonged when I was growing up.  I didn’t think that it was a word meant for people like “us.” I thought it was a word for meant for people like “them.” And that’s the problem we have with the word “repent.” We don’t have a very good grasp on its meaning.

The word “repent” connotes emotion to us, feeling the full weight of shame and guilt, and breaking down under its pressure. I’ve sat in evangelistic meetings and listened to the hell-fire and brimstone preacher hammering away at us sinners. It’s a terribly uncomfortable place to be, and it’s that discomfort that we tend to associate with the word “repent.”  

It’s the word we use to describe how we try to address our sense of moral and spiritual failure. It’s the word we use to describe how we attempt to relieve ourselves of the bad feelings that we have about who we are and what we’ve done. It’s the word we use to describe how we try to escape the consequences of all the bad choices that we’ve made throughout our lives.  

We tend to think of repentance as a burst of raw emotion, as an uncontrollable upheaval of self-abasement and tears.  But the word for “repentance” in the New Testament doesn’t refer to emotion at all!  The New Testament word for repentance means a transformation of the mind. It’s what Paul was talking about when he told the Romans to – “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:1). In a popular and important Christian book from the second century repentance was described as ‘great understanding,’ as something that involves a serious ‘rethinking ’ of your life” (Frederica Mathewes-Green).

In one of the most famous stories that Jesus told, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Jesus said that when the younger son had taken his inheritance, gone to the far country, squandered it in riotous living, and  wound up in a pigsty, that he finally “came to himself,” that is, “to his senses.” And that’s what repentance is. It means to stop, to get your bearings, and then to move out in a new and different direction.  John Stackhouse likes to explain it by telling a story.

“Let’s imagine that we are going on a trip. Suppose we intend to drive from San Francisco, in northern California, to San Diego, in the far south. I insist on driving, since I’ve actually visited San Francisco once or twice and I never, ever get lost. You graciously concede the wheel, and off we go. The miles and hours go by. You begin to feel uneasy, however, when we pass what looks for all the world like a sign welcoming us to state of Oregon. I insist that ‘Oregon’ must be a region of California, and that Los Angeles surely must be coming up soon. As we drive through Portland, however, you are convinced that I am heading in exactly the wrong direction. And as the Washington state line comes up, you become rather insistent on the point. In fact, you want very much to convert me to your opinion. What is it, exactly, that you want when you want me to convert?

First, you want me to recognize my error. I can’t take any further steps until I have agreed that I am, in fact, heading north instead of south. But let’s suppose I do that – ‘Yes, by golly, this sure looks a lot more like Pacific rain forest than Californian coastland!’ – and yet I don’t care. ‘Hey, Washington is a beautiful place, too.’ Surely true repentance is what you seek from me. Merely recognizing my mistake is not enough. I must regret that mistake. ‘I’m heading in the wrong direction, and I’m sorry.’ Then I must take further action. I must abandon the path I’m on (taking the next exit ramp); turning the car around by crossing over to the other side on the bridge; and get a new start (by getting on the entrance ramp in the opposite direction).

But suppose I do all this. Are you now satisfied? Have I fully repented? No. Not until I drive us all the way to San Diego, which was the objective of the exercise. It’s good that I’m properly reoriented. In fact, that’s the essential move that has to be made if I’m first heading in the wrong direction. But turning around is not enough. Getting to the goal is all or nothing, and I’m not there until I’m there. This is why saints and scholars, priests and preachers throughout the long history of Christianity have always spoken of repentance as having multiple stages: (1) recognition and regret, (2) a new start, (3) making progress and getting closer to the goal, and (4) finally arriving at the destination.” (Humble Apologetics)

The first mistake we make when it comes to repentance is to understand it as being about feelings rather than about thinking. The second mistake we make when it comes to repentance is thinking that it’s a one and done experience, something that only required of us at the very beginning of the life of discipleship rather as something that’s an on-going process, the very shape of the Christian life.

Years ago, I was part of a regional renewal team doing a weekend event at our church down in Port Arthur. My host for the weekend was an avid sailor, and so one evening after the services, he me took me out for a night sail on the bay. After clearing the marina, he turned piloting the boat over to me for a while, and what I learned almost immediately that sailing a boat is nothing like driving a car.

Sailboats don’t move in a straight line between point A and point B like a car going down the street. The wind and the waves are constantly pulling the boat this way and that. It was all over the place. When the boat owner realized that I really didn’t have a clue about what I was doing, he told me to pick a light on the opposite shore and to use it as my reference point, and then with the tiller in my hand in told me to zig and zag across an imaginary line to that destination on the far shore. When I did, we started making some real progress.

To be sure, repentance is “the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way for it to begin” (Mathewes-Green). There is a threshold that must be crossed in order for the spiritual life to be launched. “The Christian life, the life of grace, begins for each of us at some point” (Griffin). It begins with “the discovery, made gradually or suddenly, that God is real and that this real God knows and loves us personally.” This initial encounter with the saving power and purpose of God is so decisive and defining for us that it becomes the event that “shapes everything that follows.” It sets a direction for the rest of our days. But understand, it’s not the journey, it’s just the first step.

Once the threshold of initial repentance has been crossed, then the lifetime of continuing repentance begins. This is the nudging of the tiller on the sailboat back and forth in your hand, constantly adjusting to keep it on track and moving forward.  As Robert Raines, a prominent American Methodist minister from the last generation used to say, there is not automatic pilot function in the Christian life. He explained –

“The automatic pilot in modern airplanes is fascinating device. Once the airplane is aloft

and directed toward its destination, the automatic pilot is put into action, the controls set, and the human pilot can sit back and relax while the airplane continues perfectly on course, guaranteed to keep on beam.”

Pastor Raines observed –

“Many church people have what may be called an ‘automatic-pilot’ concept of the Christian life. We think that once our sights are lifted, and we are aloft and directed toward Christ, on the Christian way, then we can set the controls to automatic pilot and float into the heavenly city. Being members of the church just about guarantees that we will stay on the beam (so we suppose); we can sit back and relax, taking it easy, assuming that we will be carried safely to our destination. There’s only flaw in the automatic-pilot theory of the Christian life – it doesn’t work! (And) the reason is, there is nothing automatic about the Christian life. One decides for or against Christ every day of hos life in all his decision-making.  It is a crucial decision to have turned  one’s life toward Christ and committed oneself to Him; but that is when the real struggle begins.”

The Christian Life has a beginning in that initial decision of faith to step across the threshold of repentance and move out in a new direction. But if that Christian Life is to continue, then repentance is going to have to become a daily habit, a constant practice, a holy habit.

In this church, our spiritual lives are ordered by the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every week “at the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” Paul told the Corinthians that what keeps frequent communion from degenerating into an empty ritual is how we come to it. “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord,” Paul told the Corinthians in his first letter, “So examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:27-28). The encounter with the Living Christ that the Lord’s Supper promises is available to us each time we come to the Lord’s Table requires us to come to it with prepared hearts.  And repentance is the spiritual discipline of that preparation.

Somewhere I’ve read that the British Navy once had a command they called “Still.” Whenever the “Still” command was issued, everyone on board a ship was expected to stop wherever they were and whatever they were doing in order to get their bearings, to think about where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to be doing, and to take whatever steps were necessary to get them to where they were supposed to be so that they could get on with what it was that they were supposed to be doing.

The Lord’s Supper is our weekly “Still” command. Each week before we break the bread and share the cup, we are asked to stop and think about who we are, and what it is that we’re supposed to be doing, and where it is that we’re supposedly going, and to make whatever adjustments might be needed to keep us on track.  

“Repent,” it’s the first and constant word of the Gospel.

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“Starting Over Again” – Philippians 3:7-14

When I was in Christian College back in the early 1970’s I worked one summer as a student intern at a church in the Mountain West. I was there to do youth ministry. It was supposed to be a couple of months of camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, waterskiing, cookouts, basketball, prayer groups and Bible study with the kids of that church and their friends. But 2 weeks in, things took an unexpected turn when the senior minister suddenly announced that he was going on vacation. He was going to be gone for three weeks, nearly a third of my time there, and he was leaving me in charge. Me. A 19-year-old kid. In charge. What was he thinking?

As he drove away, I remember him waving and reassuring everybody within shouting distance that everything was going to be just fine. It was summer. Things were always quiet during the summer. Ha! No sooner had he hit the state line with his family in the car than the pastoral emergencies began to pile up. There were accidents, heart attacks, and unscheduled surgeries. I did my first funeral within days of his leaving!  And then there was the “sweet torture” of Sunday mornings. A sermon and an order of worship every single week. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. 

On the first Sunday I preached, a woman actually came forward to give her heart to Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior and to ask for baptism! Talk about a confidence boost. I thought maybe just maybe I did know what I was doing!  But then the next Sunday morning, she came forward and did it all over again! Needless to say, I was a little surprised, but not wanting to appear incompetent or unprepared, I just rolled with it. I took her good confession again and baptized her for a second time. I didn’t know, maybe it hadn’t taken the first time. But when she came forward on my third Sunday in charge, I went looking for the chair of the elders for help just as soon as the service was over. 

That’s when he told me, “Yeah, we probably should have told you about her. She does that a lot!” It seems that this woman was well known by that church. She was one of their eccentrics. Every church has them, people who march to the beat of that proverbial different drummer. They’re like your crazy uncle at the Christmas dinner table, you never know what he’s going to say or do, but that’s okay because he’s family, and you love him.

Well, this woman really cared about her relationship with Jesus Christ. It was clearly important to her. All she wanted to do was to be faithful to Him, but she never quite felt like she was keeping faith with her commitment to Him as fully as she wanted.  She was trying so hard to be a good disciple of Christ, but, in her own mind and heart, she just kept coming up short.  And so, the way she chose to deal with it was to try to start all over again, and again, and again, every chance she got. This was why she came forward each week to make her confession of faith in Jesus Christ and to try to recapture her experience of the reassurance of forgiveness and acceptance that her baptism provided.

It was pretty clear to me that the chair of the elders thought this woman was odd, and that her constant coming forward was inappropriate. Today, some 50 years later, I don’t think of her as odd at all. In fact, I think of her as being pretty normal. I mean does anybody here feel like they’ve got this being-a-Christian-thing down pat? Does anybody ever show up here at church on a Sunday morning feeling like they’ve knocked this following Jesus thing clean out of the ballpark the week before? I know I don’t. And in light of our Scripture reading this morning from Philippians chapter 3, I’m pretty sure that if he were here this morning, neither would the Apostle Paul.

In the first part of our Scripture reading this morning Paul described his own initial decision to follow Jesus Christ and what it was that he was willing to put aside in order to “gain Christ” and to “be found in Him” (3:8-9). He said that everything else was “rubbish” compared to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord” (3:8). In one of his books, Michael Green, one of the great English pastors and scholars of the last generation, described the very first Christians in the Bible as people who were “consumed with a passion for Jesus Christ.” He explained that “He was their Lord, He was their first love,” and that “nothing else (in their lives) was as important to them.” Keith Green, the contemporary Christian musician from the 1980’s, put it much more colorfully. At his concerts he liked to say that Christians were people who were “bananas about Jesus!”

Paul was. That’s what he was telling us in the first part of our Scripture lesson this morning. He was all in for Jesus Christ. Paul told us in those first few verses this morning that he was willing to sacrifice everything he was and everything he had in order to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.  That’s how, and where, and why the Christian life begins. We are “seized by the power of a great affection” as they used to say about people who went forward in Gospel meetings to give their hearts to Christ. Without this passion for Jesus none of the rest of this makes any sense at all.

Paul had it, as did that woman in church 50 years ago who kept coming forward.  But there’s something else that our Scripture lesson this morning makes clear that we’ve just got to understand. Paul told us that while this passion for knowing Jesus Christ was the organizing principle of his life, it wasn’t something that he felt like he had already fully attained. Paul didn’t think of himself as someone who had mastered what it means to be a Christian.

“I am not what God wants me to be yet,” Paul told the Philippians. “I’ve not yet reached that goal, but there is something I do. Forgetting what lies behind I press on to what lies ahead,I keep trying to reach the goal and get the prize for which God called me through Christ to the life above.” While following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior begins with an initial decision of faith, the life of Christian discipleship is not something that is completed by that first decision of faith. It’s true, as the old saying goes, that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” But after that first step, there’s still a thousand miles to go, and we’ve got to regularly be renewed to stay on that journey.

This is why the church has two sacraments. One is for the very beginning of the journey of faith, and the other one is for the regular renewing it. Baptism is where the life of Christian discipleship is supposed to formally begin. In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, when the Gospel was preached for the very first time in the power of the Holy Spirit, and people were convicted and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter told them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).

Sacramentally, the Christian life begins in this “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) where an “appeal (is made) to God for a clean conscience” (I Peter 3:21), and we are “raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  This is meant to be a one-time experience for us. As the Creed says, “we believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.”  Believer’s baptism is a stake driven in time as a permanent witness to when and where the journey of our faith began.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that whenever he worried about the certainty of his salvation (something that he did surprisingly often), he learned to answer the fierce assault of his doubt by saying – “I am baptized!” – and that’s right. Baptism is meant to be the bright line marking the personal BC/AD divide in our lives (BC: “Before Christ” ~ AD: “Anno Domini” – “in the year of our Lord”). But once this journey begins in the waters of baptism, there’s a second sacrament that we are given to keep it going.

In the book of Acts, Luke tells us that the people who were baptized on Pentecost Sunday “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). That’s a good description of what the early church did when they got together, and right at the center of it was the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread. They got baptized once. They took communion every week.  That’s how their faith was regularly renewed. Their spiritual well-being was not settled by the single decision made somewhere in the far distant past that prompted them to receive the sacrament of baptism, but by their recurring decision to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was at the Lord’s Table that they found their regular reassurance that they were loved, accepted, and forgiven. That was the bread for the wilderness and the wine for the journey that sustained them, that kept them going.

I don’t consider that woman who came forward week after week at the church I served as a summer student intern some 50 years ago as mistaken in her desire to experience some continuing assurance that she was a child of God through all of the up’s and down’s and the in’s and out’s of her life.  I need it too.  Where I think the church failed her was in not making it clear that what she felt the day when she was first baptized was something that the Lord’s Supper is there to make sure she would feel every time she came to church.

Alexander Campbell, one of our church’s founders, said that the Lord’s Supper “commemorates the love which reconciled us to God, and always furnishes us with a new argument to live for him who died for us.”   We need the Gospel message that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son on the day we first believe as we stand on the threshold of the journey of faith ready to take our very first step, but we also need it every single day of that journey of faith as we slowly but steadily make our way step by step to the house of the Lord where we will dwell forever.

Helen Mallon is a writer. One of her essays is a painfully frank confession of an emotional affair that she had with another author outside of her marriage. When she finally came to her senses, realizing how this was a real betrayal of who she was and what she valued, she was shattered. She wrote, “I’ve emerged raw from a lunatic romance, and there’s a Sunday school song running through my head: ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand.’ “In naked humiliation,” she said she prayed to God using a line from a famous George Herbert poem – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.”

As she began the process of emotionally and spiritually putting her life back together again, Helen Mallon recalled something that she had seen at the beach while on a vacation with her family. There were a group of seagulls “scavenging at the water’s edge.” She said that “they (were) cutting arcs in the wind.” And as she watched, she said that one of them, “its head cocked toward a piece of bread that floated on the shallow waves,” and then it suddenly dropped out of the sky without warning or hesitation to “snatch that crust (of bread).”  Helen Mallon said that she is just like that seagull turning circles in the sky, scanning the surface of the waters, desperately searching for some morsel of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, and diving for it full speed when it appears. We all are, and there (point to the Lord’s Table) it is.

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Praying Advent/Christmas Hymns (2022)

Christianity is a Singing Faith

I have a friend in ministry who told me that he would never accept a call from a church to be their pastor until he first had a chance to sit with them in a Sunday morning worship service and listen to them sing.  He was convinced that nothing reveals the heart of a church better than its singing.

“How a church sings will tell you whether their faith is formal or personal, more a theory than a love affair, something grudgingly borne by them or joyfully embraced,” he told me. “A church doesn’t have to sing ‘well’ by musical standards, the biblical requirement, after all, is a ‘joyful noise’” he explained with a smile (Psalm 95:1-2; 98:4; 100:1).  But following the lead of John Wesley, my friend told me that he would be worried about the spiritual condition of a church whose members sang “as if they were half-dead or half-asleep.” As “Sing spiritually,” John Wesley told the first Methodists,” have an eye to God in every word you sing.”

John and Carol Wimber, founders of the Vineyard Church Movement, said that one of the things that shaped their dynamic approach to worship was paying better attention to who they were singing to.  Carol Wimber says that she noticed that there were some moments in their meetings when she experienced God more deeply than at others.  She started noting when this happened, and she discovered that it happened most when they were singing.  But it didn’t happen with every song.

“We sang many songs, but mostly songs about worship or testimonies from one Christian to another. …We sang about God, but we never actually sang to God… we sang about worship, but we never actually worshipped… But occasionally we would sing a song personally and intimately to Jesus, with lyrics like “Jesus I love you”. Those types of songs both stirred and fed the hunger for God within me. …We began to see a difference between songs about Jesus and songs to Jesus.”

It was Dr. Nathan Pusey, President of Harvard University from 1953 through 1971, said that “what mankind needs most is a song to sing and a creed to believe.”  And when he heard this, E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist Missionary to India, noted, “These two things go together – you cannot sing unless you have a cosmic basis for your singing.”

This is what the Wilbers discovered. Testimony hymns, hymns that proclaim the mighty acts of God in Creation, Providence, and Redemption, have their counterpoint in Confessional hymns, hymns that thank God for what He has done and that praise God for who He is.  This is the rhythm of worship. God speaks and acts, we receive and rejoice. It’s a conversation.

This is why the Biblical religions, both Judaism and Christianity, are singing faiths. The things God does are answered the songs of praise and thanks God’s people sing.

When the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea, the first thing they did when they safely got to the other side was to sing a song of praise and thanks to the Lord (Exodus 15).

When the Lord heard Hannah’s prayer and gave her a son, as she presented him to the Lord, she sang a song of thanks and trust (I Samuel 2).

The longest book in the Bible is the collection of ancient Israel’s songs of prayer and praise (Psalms).

Jesus sang a hymn with His disciples on the night He was betrayed as they made their way from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30).

Paul and Silas sang hymns to God while chained to the wall of the Philippian jail (Acts 16:24-25).

Paul told both the Ephesian and Colossian Christians that singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody to the Lord from their hearts, always and for everything giving thanks, would be sure evidence of the fullness of the Holy Spirit in them (Ephesians 5:19-20; Colossians 3:16).

And in the book of Revelation, when the Savior steps onto the stage of heaven, all creation sings a new song (5:9-11).

Scott Dawson Gerritt, a Presbyterian minister, says that he reads lots of theology books.  He says that it’s his job.  “But every time I pick one up,” he writes, “I raise a silent challenge: “Make me sing.”  But Scott also says that he goes to lots of worship services. That’s his job too.  And as he does the challenge he makes to them is “Take me deeper.”  Scott writes – “The knowledge of God and the praise of God, theology and doxology, belong together. They are dance partners in the fulfillment of our chief end as human beings – to glorify and enjoy God forever. Theology that doesn’t make us sing has failed in its mission, no matter how correct it may be.”

The Biblical religions sing because the Biblical religions have something to sing about, and because we have Someone to sing to.

Christmas is a Singing Season

Despite my son’s vocation and success, I find musical theater to be an odd phenomenon.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it, I really do. “Les Misérables” moves me to tears every single time I see it. Some of my life’s best memories involve having seen “A Chorus Line,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Music Man,” and “A Band’s Visit” on Broadway. And one of my “best days ever” was the Broadway premier of the Tony-nominated musical about a porous yellow sponge who lives under the sea and His best friend ever, the big, goofy, pink starfish who lives next door. I’ve had some pretty big musical theater moments in my life, and still, I find musical theater odd.

I thought about this again just recently while watching the new Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, and Octavia Spencer Christmas musical “Spirited.”  Again, I enjoyed it, I even laughed out loud several times. I’d see it again. Still, I find musical theater odd. I don’t live in a world where people sing and dance their way through life. In my world people trudge and struggle. Nothing’s ever easy, and every day’s a fight. In my world I’m much more likely to hear voices raised in anger, or the sobs of people lost in their pain or loss than I am to hear them break out in a cheery song. I see lots more pushing and shoving than I do people pirouetting and sashaying down the street. I’m not saying that a musical theater world wouldn’t be better than this one that we do inhabit.  What I am saying is that this world is not that world, and then I read the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, and it occurs to me that it could!

The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke, the “Christmas Gospel,” are the “musical theater” section of the Bible.  The narrative is punctuated with songs, songs that the church has been singing ever since – Zechariah’s “Benedictus” (“Blessed be” ~ 1:27-79) every morning, Mary’s “Magnificat” (“My soul magnifies” ~ 1:46-55) every evening, Simon’s “Nunc Dimittis” (“Now lettest” ~ 2:29-32) every night before bed, and the angels’ “Gloria” (“Glory be” ~ 2:14) at Christmastime and during Communion.

If the church sings because it has something to sing about (Creation, Providence, and Redemption) and Someone to sing to (God our Savior), then Christmas has to be one of the church’s primary singing seasons. So, every day for the next four weeks I am going to be using one of the church’s songs as prayer fodder for my personal preparation for Christmas.

Each morning from the first Sunday of Advent (November 27) through Christmas Sunday morning (December 25) I am going to pick a hymn (14 Advent Hymns followed by 16 Christmas Carols), link it to a Scripture, and then prayerfully ruminate on it. I’ll be posting the hymn, Scripture, and prayer each day in order to share the journey with you.

I don’t know that this spiritual exercise will cause me to sing and dance my way into Christmas this year, but I do expect it to prepare my head and heart for one of the critical moments in the saving work of God in Christ, His Incarnation – becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us full of grace and truth.

Somewhere I’ve read that Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians that the United States has ever produced, would always walk across the street from Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he taught to Riverside Church for their Christmas Eve Service.  But he always arrived late, “hoping to miss the preaching but not the singing” he said.

Well, I want to hear Christmas preached, but even more than that, I want to hear Christmas sung.  I once heard the Christian Educator John Westerhoff say that some of Christianity’s truths are better sung and danced than they are explained, and he had Christmas in mind when he said it. There are some profound and pivotal ideas at work in the Gospel’s Christmas message, ideas that need examining and explaining, but they are ideas that are best sung and danced first.

So, I invite you to join me this year in my Advent/Christmas musical.

It starts tomorrow.

ADVENT HYMNS

Praying Advent Hymns

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent – Day 1

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice, rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Ve­ni, ve­ni Eman­u­el (12th Cen­tu­ry)

Chalice Hymnal #119

LORD, I’m not very good at waiting. Stoplights. Sunrises. Dentist offices. Dinner. Election tallies. Test results. Christmas. I like instant gratification. I want it now, but I am a person, and this is a world of gradualisms. Growth is slow. Change plods. Promises unfold over time. We don’t get anywhere fast. Nothing is easy.

Scripture – Psalm 130:5-7

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning – Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD; For with the LORD there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption.”

Prayer

Israel, your first covenant people, our spiritual parents, waited. They’re the ones who taught us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Through long generations they navigated life by orienting themselves with promises of deliverance and a Deliverer who never made an appearance on the stage of history for many of them to see. So, they waited patiently in expectation, never letting go of your promise of their final consolation. And then a day dawned with angels singing, shepherds leaving their flocks in the field to go and see, and wise men following a star to kneel beside a baby’s cradle.

In this season of anticipation, in this middle muddled space between the “already” and the “not yet,” in a faith filled with promises still not fulfilled, teach us how to wait on you, LORD, but also teach us how to rejoice in you.

Praying Advent Hymns

Monday, November 28, 2022

Advent – Day 2

“In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
Long, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.”

Christina Rosetti (1872)

Scripture – Habakkuk 3:17-18

“Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls – Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

Prayer

Trusting you is hardest, LORD, when we’ve exhausted every other possibility, when there is no plan B. It’s easy to confess faith in you on bright and shiny days when our bodies are strong and our relationships secure, when our finances are in order and the future is littered with promise and prospects. It isn’t hard to trust you, LORD, when we’ve got backup. But “in the bleak midwinter,” LORD, when all the props have been kicked out from underneath us and everything’s teetering, right on the verge of collapse, that’s when faith becomes a real test, LORD, and that’s just exactly how things feel right now.  

The world’s a frightening place these days, LORD, and our lives are filled with confusion, cares, and concern. We’ve made our annual observance of Christ’s coming so sweet and charming, so warm and cuddly, LORD, that it’s easy for us to miss how cold and cruel the days were when He was born. Christ came into a world where many lots of people had lost hope, and that sounds a lot like us right now. Christ came into the world knowing that He was their last and only chance. Come like that again into our world, LORD. Come to us.

Praying Advent Hymns

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Advent – Day 3

“Of the Father’s Love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.”

“Corde Natus Ex Parentis” (413)

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius

Chalice Hymnal #104

Scripture – Titus 1:1-3

From Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. I was chosen and sent to help the faith of God’s chosen people and to lead them to the truth taught by our religion,which is based on the hope for eternal life. God, who does not lie, promised us this life before the beginning of time,and at the right time he revealed it in his message. This was entrusted to me, and I proclaim it by order of God our Savior.”

Prayer

Help us catch a vision, LORD, of how the birth in Bethlehem that we will celebrate now in just a matter of weeks was not some spur of the moment decision, a whim, a lark, a wild idea, a random impulse, a quirky choice. “Of the Father’s Love begotten ere the worlds began to be…” Before there was anything else there was you. And there was love. And you had us in mind, in heart, and in view. Startle us with this truth, LORD.

From everlasting to everlasting, we sing and say, you are God, and right from the beginning of that everlasting your purpose was to create and redeem.  That’s what love does. It always moves out from itself. It always expands the circle. It always extends the dance. Begotten in love “ere the worlds began to be,” Christ became flesh and dwelt among us so that we would know that we are loved too. So, pull us into your heart of love, LORD, totally immerse us in your compassion and care in these weeks of preparation, and then, in the weeks that follow, send us from your heart of love, LORD, as instruments of your compassion and care for a world that doesn’t quite get it yet that it’s been chosen and beloved from before time began.

Praying Advent Hymns

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Advent – Day 4

“Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.”

Charles Wesley (1744)

Chalice Hymnal #125

Scripture – Luke 2:36-38

“And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Prayer

We’re looking for redemption too, LORD. We’re waiting for your hand to move.

It’s so much easier just to wallow in disappointment and grievance.  We’ve taken losses, LORD.  We’ve not always gotten what we expected. We’ve not always been treated as well as ought to have been, as we would have liked to have been. We’ve been passed-over and passed-by. We’re not where we thought we’d be. We don’t have what we thought we’d have. We’re not who we thought we’d be. And sometimes, if we can be perfectly honest with you, LORD, we’ve felt like quitting.

But here we are, LORD, in your presence once again. Still seeking your face. Still clinging to your promises.  Still believing that you’re not finished with us or this world yet. Still trusting that you still have plans, plans that include us, LORD, “plans for good and not for disaster, plans to give us a future and a hope.

So, release us from fear and regret, LORD. Become the great desire of our hearts, the source of our strength and consolation, and the reason for our hope and joy.

We’re here, LORD, and we’re watching.

Praying Advent Hymns

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Advent – Day 5

“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With 
Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.”

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen(15th century)

Unknown Author

Chalice Hymnal #160

Scripture – Isaiah 11:1-3

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

Prayer

LORD, as we are making our plans for our families to get together soon for the holidays, remind us that Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, had a family too. We are so focused on the last three days of the last three years of His public life that we sometimes forget about His thirty hidden years in Egypt and then Galilee where He was a brother, a son, a cousin, and a friend. Surely it was in that web of those ordinary human relationships where He loved and was loved that He grew in His deep understanding of your love and first discovered His mission as the embodiment of your love for everyone, everywhere, and always.

LORD, as we make our plans for our families to get together soon for the holidays, remind us that Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, makes us members of a family that’s so much bigger than just those who can fit around the dinner table at home this Christmas. Help us to see how the Lord’s Table at Church, a table to which everyone is invited and at which everyone will be welcomed, is a family dinner table too, only a table that’s never short of room.

In the bread broken and the cup poured at that family table we remember with thanksgiving your saving work in Jesus Christ, and we enter into fellowship with everyone, everywhere, and always who has turned to Christ in faith to receive redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and the power to walk in newness of life.  Bind us to you and to one another, LORD, with the bonds of love at that table this Christmas, and remind us to set some extra places, we pray.

Praying Advent Hymns

Friday, December 2, 2022

Advent – Day 6

“All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows await the seed of God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.

Thus says the Prophet to those of Israel:
A virgin mother will bear Emanuel,
One whose Name is, God With Us.
Our Savior shall be through whom
Hope will blossom once more in our hearts.

“Toda la tierra espera al Salvador” (1972)

Alberto Taulé (1932 – 2007)

Chalice Hymnal #139

Scripture – I Peter 1:23-25

“You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for –

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord abides forever.”

That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

Prayer

Soften our hearts, LORD. Break up the hard, dry, barren soil within. Make us receptive to the good seed of your word of promise sown, LORD, and then bring it to its full harvest of hope, not just so that we can know peace and joy within ourselves, but so that we can be channels of your peace and joy to a “bound and struggling” world.

The Christmas Gospel begins with the news of an “enrollment” from Caesar Augustus when “Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Give us a sense of the dread that these words would have carried for the first people who would have heard them, people who would have been struggling just to survive in places like Nazareth and Bethlehem in the days of Augustus and Quirinius. Life was hard for them, and the world was harsh. It is for us too, LORD. 

Sometimes it takes everything we’ve got just to get up and face the world again in the morning, LORD. There’s such ignorance, hatred, selfishness, cruelty, intransigence, inertia, deceit, and despair in the world these days. It feels like the darkness is engulfing us. But it has felt like this before, hasn’t it LORD? It did in the days of Augustus and Quirinius when a virgin conceived and “hope blossomed.” Plant that imperishable seed in the open furrows of our hearts in these days of preparation, and then bring forth the harvest of hope on Christmas when all who cry out for justice and search for truth catch a glimpse of its reality and certainty in the face of the baby who slumbers  in Bethlehem’s cradle.

Praying Advent Hymns

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Advent – Day 7

“Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ’neath their sorrow’s load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over.”

Jo­han­nes G. Ole­ar­i­us (1671)

Chalice Hymnal #122

Scripture – Isaiah 40:1-5

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

Prayer

I love to hear “the comfortable words” in church, LORD, after making my “humble confession” to you each week, Almighty God, “devoutly kneeling.”

“Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him –

‘Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’  (St. Mathew xi. 28.)

‘So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’  (St. John iii. 16)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith.

‘This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’  (1 Timothy i. 15)

Hear also what Saint John saith.


‘If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.’  (1 St. John ii).”

We need comforting, LORD. We hurt. We’re afraid. We’re ashamed. We’re shattered. We’re confused. We’re hollow. We’re exhausted. We’re both victims and perpetrators of the chaos of these days. We’re wounded and wounding. We’re broken and breakers. We’re alienated and alienating. And what we need more than anything else right now, LORD, is some assurance that you love us despite ourselves, and that you are not giving up on us because of who we are and what we’ve done. In that moment, LORD, when we see ourselves most clearly, let us see you most clearly too.

Praying Advent Hymns

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Advent – Day 8

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.”

Cherubic Hymn, Offertory

The Divine Liturgy of St James (4th century)

Chalice Hymnal #124

Scripture – Psalm 46:10

“Be still then, and know that I am God.”

Prayer

We sing a lot about silence and stillness at Christmastime, LORD.

“Silent Night, Holy Night…”

“O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given….”

“The little Lord Jesus, nor crying He makes…”

“The world in solemn stillness lay….”

“Still, still, still…”

“What child is this, who, laid to rest,

on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

But there’s very little actual silence or stillness in our Christmases, LORD.

Guide us to the to Bethlehem of the heart this year, LORD, to the place where Christ is born in us. And there in its quietness, renew our strength.  Let the manger where Christ slumbered in perfect peace become the still point around which all of the demands, decisions, and desires of these days might be rightly ordered, so that we might be still and know that He is God with us, and in that discovery know perfect peace.

Praying Advent Hymns

Monday, December 5, 2022

Advent – Day 9

“Creator of the stars of night,
Your people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, Redeemer of us all,
We pray You, hear us when we call.

To thee the travail deep was known
That made the whole creation groan
Till thou, Redeemer, shouldest free
Thine own in glorious liberty.

When this old world drew on toward night.
You came, but not in splendor bright.
Not as a monarch, but the child
Of Mary, blameless mother mild.

At Your great name, O Jesus, now
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
All things on earth with one accord.
Like those in heaven, shall call You Lord.

Come in thy holy might, we pray;
Redeemer us for eternal day
From ev’ry pow’r of darkness, when
Thou judgest all the sons of men.”

“Conditor alme siderum” (7th century)

Chalice Hymnal #127

Scripture –

Isaiah 9:2/Matthew 4:16

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.”

John 1:4-5

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”

Prayer

LORD, the day of your tender mercy has dawned “from on high.” This is not our doing. We sat in darkness.  We dwelt in the shadow of death. We ached for you. We groped for what we could not see, hoping to find.  But it was you who broke in upon us. It was you who sought us while we were in the far country. It was you who came looking for us when we had wandered far from the fold of God.  Today we thrive and rejoice in the light and warmth of your love, LORD.

But even as we bask in it today, LORD, we know that there are those who have turned away, who have shut their eyes to your light that shines.  Even though you are the true light that enlightens every person by coming into the world, and even though you are the light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome, still there are those who will not look, who cannot see, who prefer the darkness to the light.

Use us, LORD, as little reflections of your light, to shine your life and love into all the dark places where people we know and love live. Send us into that darkness, LORD, not like lasers that burn and blast, but rather like tealights that warm and glow.

Praying Advent Hymns

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Advent – Day 10

“Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates,
Behold the King of glory waits;
The King of kings is drawing near,
The Savior of the world is here;
Life and salvation doth He bring,
Wherefore rejoice and gladly sing:
We praise Thee, Father, now!
Creator, wise art Thou!”

Georg Weissel (1642)

Chalice Hymnal #129

Scripture s–

Psalm 24:7-10

“Lift up your heads, O gates! 

And be lifted up, O ancient doors!  

That the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?

The Lord, strong and mighty,
The Lord, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!

And be lifted up, O ancient doors!

That the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,

He is the King of glory!”

Revelation 3:20

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Prayer

There are so many things about you, LORD, that astonish and confound us. You are the sovereign Creator, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Your glory and majesty, your wisdom and might are more than we perceive and can possibly conceive.

You alone laid the foundation of the earth. You alone determined its measurements. You alone stretched the line upon it, sunk its bases, and laid its cornerstone. You alone shut in the sea with doors, saying, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther.’ You alone command the morning, causing the dawn to know its place. You alone have walked in the recesses of the deep and comprehended the expanse of the earth. (Job 38)

Who can know your mind, LORD?

Who can understand your decisions, LORD?

Who can explain your ways?

Who thinks that they can give you advice? (Romans 11)

And yet, LORD, you give us choice. You stand on the outside of our lives and ask to come in! You knock on the door and then you wait. You don’t overwhelm us with your majesty, or overpower us with your might. Instead, you come to us as little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!  You make it so that we can miss you, LORD. You make it so that you can be overlooked.  You choose us, LORD, before the foundation of the earth you chose us, and then you wait and work to be chosen by us as well.

Keep us from getting distracted, LORD.

Praying Advent Hymns

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Advent – Day 11

Don’t let us miss you in the hurry and the busy of these days.

“Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav’n, to earth come down,
fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation;
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
true and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Charles Wesley (1747)

Chalice Hymnal #517

Scripture – John 14:23

“Jesus answered him, ‘If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’”

Prayer

LORD, as important as it was that you came to us a long, long time ago as Bethlehem’s baby and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, so that we might behold your glory and receive the gift of eternal life from your nail-pierced hand, it is just as important that you now come to us in the Spirit as the indwelling, empowering presence who makes us new creations and enables us to walk in newness of life. “We will celebrate nativity for it has a place in history,” but it was when we met you “face to face, and felt the wonder of your grace, that we knew that you were more than just a God who didn’t care, who lived a way out there.”

As the world makes its plans to celebrate outward Christmas, prepare us, LORD, for a celebration of inward Christmas.  While others may be satisfied with the pretty paper, the twinkling lights, the grand traditions and lovely decorations of material Christmas, LORD, let us not be content with anything less than you “being born in us” again this Christmas. “Fix in us Thy humble dwelling… visit us with Thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.”

This Christmas may we be “lost in wonder, love, and praise,” as our hearts become Christ’s home, we pray.

Praying Advent Hymns

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Advent – Day 12

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let Earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.”

Isaac Watts (1719)

Chalice Hymnal #143

Scripture – Romans 8:19-23

“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Prayer

The world is broken too, LORD. The earth needs healing no less than we do. We see it now. The storms seem fiercer than ever before. The temperatures are hotter, then colder than we’ve known in the past. The floods are more frequent, the droughts last longer, the property damage is more severe, the viruses are more frequent and virulent, and the climate changes are more dramatic and destructive. The created order feels less friendly than we’ve known before so that now when we sing –

“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.”

We have some frame of reference.

Take us back to the beginning of the story, back to Eden, to that ache we feel somewhere deep inside for the original harmony, for your “Shalom,” for the flourishing and well-being of everybody and everything fit together in a web of perfect beauty, abundance, and peace.

Take us forward to the end of the story, to the new heavens and the new earth, to that promise of the coming Kingdom where your will in heaven and on earth will be perfectly coordinated once again, when “no more will sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground,” when tears will be wiped away from our eyes and the lion will lay down with the lamb.

And take us inward, to the temple of our hearts where your indwelling, empowering Spirit dwells, and stir up hope and help. Let us catch a glimpse of the breathtaking scope of your saving intention. Let us feel the tug of the momentum of the healing of all creation that the coming of Christ initiates. And let us feel the dignity of our identity as your image bearers and the authority of our vocation as your co-laborers to bend the arc of history in the direction of the wholeness that is your will and way.

Praying Advent Hymns

Friday, December 9, 2022

Advent – Day 13

“Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.”

John Bow­ring (1825)

Scripture – Psalm 130:5-7

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

Prayer

What we want, LORD, is for everything to be fixed right now. We want you to snap your fingers, or blink your eyes, or nod your head, or do whatever it is you need to do to make everything better in an instant. We want magic, LORD, alchemy, turning of our tin into your gold. Your Word, after all, tells us that this is in fact what you are doing. 

Salvation is the good seed planted in the hidden depths of our hearts and in the broken-open-wide furrows of hurt, and hate, and hope of this world, and new life is stirring. We are born again. We are new creations. The old has passed away and behold the new has come. But we don’t always have the eyes to see this happening, LORD, or minds that are clear enough to comprehend its workings, or souls so centered that we can bear it patiently, or the strength to hold steady. So, make us watchmen, LORD, watchmen who scan the horizon for signs looking for the dawning of your promises and for some proof that your hands are moving.

Let us see for ourselves some evidence of hope, LORD, and then help us to somehow become the evidence of that hope for somebody else, somewhere else, sometime soon.

Let us see for ourselves some evidence of peace, LORD, and then help us to somehow become the evidence of that peace for somebody else, somewhere else, sometime soon.

Let us see for ourselves some evidence of joy, LORD, and then help us to somehow become the evidence of that joy for somebody else, somewhere else, sometime soon.

And let us see for ourselves some evidence of love, LORD, and then help us to somehow become the evidence of that love for somebody else, somewhere else, sometime soon.

Give our waiting and watching, LORD, something clear and sure to see that proves your presence, power, and provision, and then make us part of the clear and sure things that others can see  and know that you are really there and truly care.

Praying Advent Hymns

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Advent – Day 14

“Awake! awake, and greet the new morn,
for angels herald its dawning.
Sing out your joy, for soon he is born,
behold! the Child of our longing.
Come as a baby weak and poor,
to bring all hearts together,
he opens wide the heav’nly door
and lives now inside us forever.”

Marty Haugen (1983)

Chalice Hymnal #138

Scripture – I Thessalonians 5:6-10

“Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake…”

Prayer

One of our great temptations, LORD, is to sleepwalk through our lives, to slumber through the displays of your majesty and grace, to miss the moments of your visitation. Today we’re halfway to our annual celebration of the nativity, LORD. This is such familiar terrain for us.  We’ve been here so many times before. We know what to expect. And so, we can throw a switch in our souls and just coast into Christmas. We can go through the motions. We can mumble the carols. We can unthinkingly, unfeelingly follow the script. We can “slouch toward Bethlehem.”

Save us from being blasé about your love, LORD, and about what that love has done. Keep us from presuming upon your kindness, from being nonchalant about your coming into the world to save us. Startle us awake with a new realization of what this season heralds, LORD, with a fresh encounter with what it is that Christmas really means –

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  …No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:14, 18)

We’re halfway to Christmas today, LORD. Awaken us. Startle us. Stir us. Surprise us so that we might go to Bethlehem with open hearts and see with new eyes this thing that you have done for us.

CHRISTMAS HYMNS

Praying Christmas Hymns

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Advent – Day 15

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
O come and behold Him, born the King of Angels                                                                      

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him. Christ the Lord”

“Adeste Fideles” (1743)

John Francis Wade (1711–1786)

Chalice Hymnal #148

Scripture – Luke 2:1-7

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’ius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Prayer

We were born too late, LORD, to make the trip to Bethlehem in time and space to “come and behold Him, born the King of angels.” We can sing of it in carols, read about it in Scripture, reenact it in our pageants, and set it up in miniature on our mantles with our creches. But we can’t cross the centuries to sing with the angels, or kneel with the shepherds at the manger in Bethlehem, or bow with the magi and open our gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We were born too late, LORD. Historical Bethlehem is well beyond our reach. We can’t get there from here. But Spiritual Bethlehem, the Bethlehem of the head, and of the heart, and of the hands and feet, that Bethlehem we can reach.

Bring us to the Bethlehem of the mind this Christmas, LORD. Usher us into the mystery of the Incarnation, draw us to the wonder of the eternal Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us so that we could behold your glory and grace. Captivate us with your truth, LORD. Confound us with the complexity “three persons” and “one substance, and then deliver us to the simplicity of Emmanuel, “God with us.” So fill our intellects and imaginations with what Bethlehem means, LORD, that it informs our thinking and being in every moment of our living and dying.

And then bring us to the Bethlehem of the heart this Christmas, LORD. Let the truth of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ slowly dissolve into a deep appreciation for the beauty of your way of being and doing for us and our salvation. Seize us this Christmas, LORD, with the power of a great affection. Move us to feel your love for us and for all anew, and then distill those powerful feelings into a renewal of trust and thanks.

And then finally, LORD, bring us to the Bethlehem of our hands and feet this Christmas. With our heads thoroughly captivated by the truth of Christmas and our hearts completely filled with the warmth of Christmas, finish our annual pilgrimage to Spiritual Bethlehem this year by guiding our feet in the way of reconciliation and peace, and opening our hands in sacrifice and service. Move Christmas outside ourselves this year, LORD, beyond the walls of our churches and the comfort of our homes to all of the dark and difficult places where people strive and struggle, wondering if anyone is really there or even cares? Christmas is the proof that you are and that you do, LORD, and it’s our hands and feet that make us living expressions of the Christmas Gospel for them. 

Here we are, LORD.

Send us.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Monday, December 12, 2022

Advent – Day 16

“God’s love made visible! Incomprehensible!
Christ is invincible! His love shall reign!                                                                                         

From love so bountiful, blessings uncountable
make death surmountable! His love shall reign!”

Iola Brubeck (1975)

Chalice Hymnal #171

Scripture – John 1:1-5; 14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. …And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Prayer

Help us to connect the dots better this Christmas, LORD, between our need and your action. We tend to see things in bits and pieces. We put Christmas over in holiday department of our lives.  It’s a special day for us LORD, one filled with beautiful decorations and beloved traditions. We bring Christmas down out of the attic each year right after Thanksgiving, and then we put it all back by New Years.

Christmas is something we do, LORD. It has its own music, colors, script, and choreography, and we love it.  But you intend Christmas to be something more, don’t you LORD?  What you did at Christmas is not just something that deserves a special day of celebration, but lives that are completely transformed by the fact that your love became visible and tangible in Jesus Christ, and remains vital and empowering by His indwelling presence in our hearts.

As the music of the season gets louder in the coming days, as the pace of the dance speeds up, and the demands of the observance of this season increase, bring us to the still point around which all these festive activities and traditional experiences turn. Let us find our way into the inner meaning of Christmas this year, LORD, and not just its outward celebration. Help us to see your love clearly in Bethlehem’s manger and on Calvary’s cross, and then let us take hold of it in such a way that our lives are based on it and our deaths are approached trusting it.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Advent – Day 17

“O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.”

Phillips Brooks (1868)

Chalice Hymnal #144

Scripture – Matthew 2:1-6

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to worship him.’When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”

Prayer

Bethlehem is now a tourist attraction, LORD. People travel from all over the world to visit it. Mary and Joseph have churches and colleges named after them, and we have little statues of them decorating our mantles and inflatables of them on our front lawns this time of year. We sing about songs about the shepherds and paint pictures of them that hang in museums.

There’s nothing little or small about any of the details of the Christmas story for us anymore, LORD. We’ve puffed it all by our devotion, but they were all nobodies when it first happened, and Bethlehem was a nowhere place. Herod had to ask where the Messiah was to be born when the wisemen showed up looking for him. He had to get his experts to look it up. There was nothing special about Bethlehem on that first Christmas night, and Mary and Joseph couldn’t get a room there even though she was pregnant and at full term. And those shepherds, LORD, they probably stank to high heaven.

Take away the filters that warm and soften the hard and harsh details of that first Christmas for us, LORD. Get it off the pretty cards that we send to each other and put it back into history so that we can see it in all its griminess and severity because that’s where we live too. And push the Christmas cast off their pedestals for us, LORD, so that we can see them as the real people that they were, people with problems and promise, people just like us.

Use Christmas this year to teach us, LORD, that there are no “little people,” no unimportant places, and no insignificant moments. It’s because you don’t despise the day of small beginnings, but rather rejoice to see a work begun (Zechariah 4:10), that we can even begin to consider that your plans might include us, and risk the lowering off our guard just enough to let a little bit of your love and light in so that it can begin to do its astonishing work in us, and through us.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Advent – Day 18

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.

…The cattle are lowing, The Baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, No crying He makes.”

Anonymous (19th century)

Chalice Hymnal #147

Scripture – Luke 2:15-16

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

Prayer

Because you are God, we expect you to show up in big, bold, and unmistakable sorts of ways. But at Christmas you come to us in such a small and hidden way. Instead of grandeur, you came to us at Christmas in simplicity. Rather than high and lifted-up, you came to us at Christmas lowly, emptied of your majesty and might. Instead of parting the clouds and stepping into time and space with power and glory on full display, in Christ you “slip into town completely unnoticed, in the womb of a virgin, on the back of a donkey, to be born in a manger because there was no room at the inn.” 

This is not the “earthquake, wind, and fire” that we expected of you, LORD, but the “small, still voice,” and to be perfectly honest, we’re not all that good with the small and the still. We aren’t very good at paying attention, LORD, and even when we are, it’s not easy to see you in the shadows or to hear you in the whispers. So, use this Christmas to teach us where to look for you, LORD, and how to find you. Bring us to the manger in the still of the night, LORD, and open the eyes of our hearts to see you there in the newborn baby who slumbers in peace. In that moment, in that place, in that way, make yourself known to us. We’re paying attention.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Advent – Day 19

“Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby in a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little Child.

Christ came down to earth from heaven, love incarnate for us all,
And His shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.

And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love;
For that Child who seemed so helpless lives and reigns in heaven above;

And He leads His children on to the place where He is gone.”

Cecil F. Alexander (1848)

Chalice Hymnal #165

Scripture John 14:1-6

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.

Prayer

You came to us in Christ, LORD, so that we might get to you. Don’t permit us get so caught up in the sentimentality of the baby’s birth in Bethlehem that we miss its point. This is easy to do. The candlelight glow, beautiful music, beloved traditions, warm feelings, and sweet memories flood our souls in these festive days. We want them to last but we need them end so that the rest of the story can be told.

We want the little town of Bethlehem, but we need the place prepared for us.

We want the manger, but we need the Upper Room.

We want shepherds and the magi, but we need the Garden of Gethsemane.

We want the star, but we need the cross.

We want the singing angels, but we need the empty tomb.

We want Christmas, but we need the Kingdom come.

So, after we kneel for a while beside the crib, LORD, get us up and on our way so that the One for whom there was no room in the inn can make room for us in your house forever.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Friday, December 16, 2022

Advent – Day 20

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on’ry people like you and like I…
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Traditional Appalachian Carol

John Jacob Niles (1934)

Chalice Hymnal #161

Scripture – Luke 2:19

“But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

Prayer

Grant us the gift of wonder, LORD. Bring us to that moment when the beauty, and the

power, and the profundity of something brings us to our knees in a place of astonished stillness.

We live in an age of easily accessed information, LORD. We are bombarded with data and ideas all day long.  We are never very far outside the loop with our smart phones in our hands, our fingers constantly scrolling, and our eyes endlessly scanning.  We’re always connected, LORD, but we’re rarely moved anymore. We consume enormous amounts of content, but it leaves us largely unchallenged and unchanged. We take note, and then we move on. We are sated and jaded, LORD. Nothing surprises us. Nothing stirs us. Nothing slows us down. Nothing makes us stop

So, stagger us LORD with the angelic announcement: “I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people;for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). May this be the truth that brings us up short, LORD. Let it stop us in our tracks. Use it set us to wandering and wondering, pondering in our hearts what it would mean if what the angel said was true: a savior — born — for us.

Clear some space in our schedules and our souls in the coming days, LORD, so that we can sit and let this truth soak deep into our heads and hearts.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Advent – Day 21

“What Child is this, who laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ, the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

This, this is Christ, the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!”

William Dix (1865)

Chalice Hymnal #162

Scripture – Matthew 1:20-23

“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

Prayer

You are my Redeemer.

You are my Liberator.

You are my Salvation.

You are my Wisdom.

You are my Righteousness.

You are my Sanctification.

You are my Redemption.

You are my Purification.

You are my Sacrifice.

You are my Lamb.

You are my Great High Priest.

You are my Advocate.

You are my Mediator.

You are my Teacher.

You are my Shepherd.

You are my Example.

You are my Comfort.

You are my Consolation.

You are my Joy.

You are my Helper.

You are my Benefactor.

You are my King.

You are my Bridegroom.

You are the Physician of my maladies.

You are the Healer of my Passions.

You are the Destroyer of my sins.

You are the Birth-giver of my Soul.

You are the Ultimate End

Of all my desires and happiness.

You are the Rehabilitation of my Blessedness.

You are the Restoration of my life.

You are my Eternal Delight.

Cyril the Elder

Patriarch of Constantinople

(1748 – 1751; 1752 -1775)

Praying Christmas Hymns

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Advent – Day 22

“Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
You who sang creation’s story,
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
Come and worship, Come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Though an infant now we view him,
He shall fill his Father’s throne,
Gather all the nations to him;
Every knee shall then bow down:
Come and worship, Come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King.”

James Montgomery (1816)

Chalice Hymnal #149

Scripture – 1 Peter 1:10-12

It was concerning this salvation that the prophets made careful search and investigation, and they prophesied about this gift which God would give you. They tried to find out when the time would be and how it would come. This was the time to which Christ’s Spirit in them was pointing, in predicting the sufferings that Christ would have to endure and the glory that would follow. God revealed to these prophets that their work was not for their own benefit, but for yours, as they spoke about those things which you have now heard from the messengers who announced the Good News by the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. These are things which even the angels would like to understand.

Prayer

Christmas is crowded with angels, LORD. 

We’re told to “hark” them, to listen to them sing, to join them in the song, to bring you “laud” with them, to “behold” with them, and to go with them to Bethlehem to adore the newborn king. Their “watch of wondering love” as they “bend on “hovering wing,” teaches us the steps of the dance of adoration. Angels are everywhere in the Christmas stories the Bible tells, but I’ve never seen an angel, LORD, or heard their voices sing. Still, I trust they are there, and that they see us.

Your word tells us that angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to serve for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation” (Hebrews 1:14), and hints that each of your “little ones” has one who “beholds your face” (Matthew 18:10). I believe they rejoice the day we first believe (Luke 15:7; 10) and will form the retinue to carry us home to you on our last day when we close our eyes in death (Luke 16:22; Matthew 13:39).

But more important to me than the reality of these messengers, LORD, is the truth of their message. Their whole existence points to you. Their whole purpose is to make you and your ways know to us. So, while the thought of angels is exciting to us, and the stories of their appearances in the Christmas stories dramatic, help us to push past their roles as  supporting cast and their place among the stage decorations of the nativity scene, to stand on tiptoe with them to peer into the Christmas crib and to see the salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, and to join them in the song of praise.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Monday, December 19, 2022

Advent – Day 23

“’Twas in the moon of wintertime,
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wand’ring hunters heard the hymn:

Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born! In excelsis gloria!

Within a lodge of broken bark,
The tender Babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapped His beauty round;
And as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high:

Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born! In excelsis gloria!

O children of the forest free,

The angel song is true;
The Holy Child of earth and heav’n
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy,
Who brings you beauty, peace, and joy:

Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born! In excelsis gloria!”

The first Christmas Carol composed in North America

Jean de Brebeuf (1643) – Jesuit Missionary to the Hurons in Canada

Chalice Hymnal #166

Scripture – Revelation 5:8-14

The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying –

‘Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on earth.’

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Prayer

It’s the first, and for many of us, the only Bible verse that we know by heart, LORD – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). We know these words by heart, LORD, now teach us the truth of them, the truth that you love us, but not only us; the truth that you intend to save us, but not only us; the truth that you’ve given yourself for us, but not for us only.

Enlarge our vision to catch a glimpse of the scope of your love, and stretch our hearts to take in the way that in Jesus Christ you are gathering your family from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Just as the Magi traveled from a place faraway to the baby in Bethlehem, drawn by the light of a star in the sky, so now draw everyone, everywhere into your family by the light of the Risen, Glorious Christ reflected in the lives of His people.

Your saving work in Jesus Christ broke down the walls that divided Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, Greeks and barbarians, men and women, rich and poor, young and old when the church was just beginning. Now that the church has been around for a while, recall us to that first work of reconciliation. Where the world is fracturing today, LORD, use us to pull together the pieces that are flying apart. And where people have been banished to the margins because they are different, empower us to be the demonstration of your love that was born in Bethlehem, crucified on Calvary, and raised on the third day to make all things new.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Advent – Day 24

“And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!”

Edmund Sears (1849)

Chalice Hymnal #153

Scripture – Hebrews 2:14-18

Since the children, as he calls them, are people of flesh and blood, Jesus himself became like them and shared their human nature. He did this so that through his death he might destroy the Devil, who has the power over death, and in this way set free those who were slaves all their lives because of their fear of death. For it is clear that it is not the angels that he helps. Instead, he helps the descendants of Abraham. This means that he had to become like his people in every way, in order to be their faithful and merciful High Priest in his service to God, so that the people’s sins would be forgiven. And now he can help those who are tempted, because he himself was tempted and suffered.

Prayer

You didn’t sit in heaven faraway, LORD, uninformed, unmoved, and uninvolved. Instead, You came to us in Christ. You became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld your glory and received your grace as a result. Help and hope are ours because you came.

Life’s “crushing load” was not just something you heard about, it was something you experienced firsthand. You knew loneliness and marginalization. You knew hunger and thirst. You knew the pain of loss and the wound of grief. You knew the exhaustion of labor and the heavy hand of oppression. You knew the sting of betrayal and the anguish of abandonment. You knew the schemes of the devil and the desires of the flesh. You knew the fear of death and brutality of crucifixion. There is no part of our human experience, LORD, to which you are a stranger.

Christmas means that you are “Emmanuel,” the “God who is with us.” So, come alongside us in our struggles and our suffering, LORD. Comfort us in our afflictions. Carry us in our weakness. Bind our wounds and fractures. Heal our bodies and our souls. And then, LORD, make us instruments of your comfort and consolation. Send us alongside those who are struggling and suffering, LORD, just as you came alongside us. Allow us to comfort the afflicted, LORD, just you comforted us in our afflictions. Help us to carry people in their weaknesses, LORD, just as you carried us in ours. Use us to bind people’s wounds and fractures, LORD, just as you bound ours. And make us part of the way that you bring bodies and souls to wholeness, LORD, just as you are making us whole too.

The real gifts of Christmas, LORD, are not the things that can be bought at a store, wrapped up in pretty paper, and put under a tree, but are the things you do in our hearts and are doing in our world to set right what’s gone astray. We rejoice that this is the kind of God we know you to be, LORD, in Jesus Christ.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Advent – Day 25

“Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the new-born king.’”

Charles Wesley (1739)

Chalice Hymnal #150

Scripture – Philippians 2:6-11

He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross. For this reason, God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name. And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world belowwill fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Prayer

Though “in the form of God,” Christ did not cling to His divinity, but emptied Himself, became a servant, and was obedient “unto death” for us, LORD (Philippians 2:6-11).

“Mild He lays His glory by,

Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.”

Christmas is our celebration that this happened, LORD, and it’s our contemplation of its results in our lives and the world. Now, use this Christmas truth to change the way we make our way through the world.

We’re told that –

Happy are the pushers:

for they get on in the world.

Happy are the hard-boiled:

for they never let life hurt them.

Happy are they who complain:

for they get their own way in the end.

Happy are the blasé:

for they never worry over their sins.

Happy are the slave drivers:

for they get results.

Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world:

for they know their way around.

Happy are the trouble-makers:

for people have to take notice of them.” (J.B. Phillips)

But you tell us that –

“Happy are those who realize their spiritual poverty:

they have already entered the kingdom of Reality.

Happy are they who bear their share of the world’s pain:

in the long run they will know more happiness than those who avoid it.

Happy are those who accept life and their own limitations:

they will find more in life than anybody.

Happy are those who are ready to make allowances and to forgive:

they will know the love of God.

Happy are those who are real in their thoughts and feelings:

in the end they will see the ultimate Reality, God.

Happy are those who help others to live together:

they will be known to be doing God’s work.” (J.B. Phillips)

Help us to empty ourselves of ourselves this Christmas, LORD, so that we might be more Christ-like as our Christmas gift to others, we pray.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Advent – Day 26

“Infant holy, Infant lowly, For His bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Swiftly winging angels singing, bells are ringing,
Tidings bringing: Christ the Babe is Lord of all,                                                                               

Christ the Babe is Lord of all.

Flocks were sleeping, Shepherds keeping
vigil till the morning new, Saw the glory,
Heard the story, – tidings of a Gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow praises voicing,
Greet the morrow: Christ the Babe was born for you,                                                           

Christ the Babe was born for you!”

“W Żłobie Leży” – A Traditional Polish Christmas Carol

Translated by Edith Margaret Gellibrand Reed (1925)

Scripture – Isaiah 53:1-3

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Prayer

I think the odds are pretty good, LORD, that I would have missed you at your incarnation.  Lowliness and divinity are just not synonymous in my mind. When I think God, I think big. When I think God, I think majestic. When I think God, I think powerful. When I think about God arriving on the scene, I don’t think about a little baby in the corner of a dirty barn in the middle of a cold night with nobody else around. What I think about instead are fireworks, spotlights, an entourage, and full network coverage.

So use this Christmas to adjust our expectations and perceptions, LORD, not just of you and your ways of being and doing, but of ourselves as well, of who and how we are as reflection of Him. Make us comfortable with the slow and quiet workings of grace, and eager to serve you in hidden ways and places. In our annual recital of the events of the first Christmas, LORD, cause us to reflect on how you made your way into our world and then on how you made your way through it. Make this more than just a matter of curiosity and religious devotion, LORD. Use it to inform our minds, to form our hearts, and to transform our actions. Make us lowly as you were lowly in Christ. Make us patient as you were patient in Christ. And make us gentle as you were gentle in Christ.  Make us reflections of Him of whom the angels sing, the shepherds proclaim, and the Magi adore.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Friday, December 23, 2022

Advent – Day 27

“Her baby, newly breathing,
with wailing needful cry,
by Mary kissed and cradled,
is lulled in lullaby.
Long months of hope and waiting,
the thrill and fear of birth,
are crowned with exultation,
and God is on the earth.”

Brian Wren (1987)

Chalice Hymnal #158

Scripture – John 14:5-11

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.”

Prayer

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” we sing in church this time of year, LORD, and some of us will stand and say that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made.” We sing and say these words, LORD, but the staggering truth of them, that you, the unseen, eternal, and almighty God has come to us in Jesus Christ to reveal yourself to us, to redeem us from our bondage to sin and death, and to reconcile us to yourself barely registers. 

When you made yourself known to Abram and invited him into a special covenantal relationship with yourself, he took you at your word and made a costly sacrifice to signify and seal it. You’ve made a costly sacrifice for us to be a special covenantal relationship with yourself, LORD, and we just go through the motions of the sacred meal that signifies and seals it.

When Jacob wrestled with your presence all night long at Jabbok, he refused to let go until you blessed him. We can barely get out of bed for church on Sunday morning, LORD, and yet we still expect to be blessed.

When you showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, he took off his shoes because he knew that he was standing on holy ground. We are too, LORD, but are shoes are still on our feet.

When you ushered the children of Israel through the middle of the Red Sea, they broke out in song. You usher us through death and despair, LORD, but we aren’t singing.

You spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, and he girded up his loins and stood to face you. You speak to us all the time in the swirl of our circumstances, commitments, and concerns, LORD, but we aren’t listening.

You spoke to Isaiah when his world had collapsed about him, you showed him the deepest truth about himself, offered him a way to fix it, and then invited him to participate in your eternal purpose, and he opened his heart and hands to receive what you were offering. We live in a world no less shattered and shattering as Isaiah’s, the deepest truth about him is the deepest truth about us, and the offer to fix and send him is exactly what we need as well, but our heads and hearts are, if not closed, then at least wavering.

Our spiritual ancestors in the journey of Biblical faith were instrumentally and irrevocably confronted, challenged, and converted by their encounters with your presence, LORD. May we be too. May this Christmas be the moment when the full import and impact of your coming to us in Jesus Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem, will push past our defenses and excuses and change us fundamentally and permanently, we pray.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Advent – Christmas Eve – Day 28

“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!”

“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (1818)

Scripture – Galatians 4:4-5

Franz Xaver Gruber (1787 – 1863)

Chalice Hymnal #145

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

Prayer

This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, LORD – Christmas Eve!

This is the evening for feeling all the feelings, LORD – all the love, all the peace, all the joy, all the hope – that the coming of Christ brings. The preparations are made. The floors have been swept and the pews polished. The choirs have rehearsed. The organist has practiced. The preacher has pondered and plotted the proclamation. The candles have been counted and strategically prepositioned, and the communion trays filled. It’s ready to go.

For 28 days now we have been getting ready inside ourselves for what we will celebrate outwardly tonight. May our patient, expectant preparation now bear the fruit of faithfulness. Not so much our faithfulness, LORD, for it is far from perfect, but yours, which never falters or wavers. The whole sweep of the story that the Scriptures tell is one of you making promises, LORD, and then keeping those promises, but never as fast as we would like or quite in the way that we expected. Your faithfulness has always and only come in the fullness of time, and you have shaped our souls by the patient ferment of waiting and watching, LORD.

So, be known to us this night in the singing of the hymns, the telling of the story, the preaching of the Gospel, the breaking of the bread, the gathering of the body, the hanging of the banners and the greens, and the glow of the candlelight.  Open the eyes of our hearts that we might behold your saving presence in our midst this night, and be renewed by the light and love that we behold so that in the days to come we might be reflections of that light and love in a world that’s lost in darkness and division. Be present not just in the worship of this night, LORD, but in the hearts of each worshipper, we pray.

Praying Christmas Hymns

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas Day – Day 29

“Good Christian friends, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice;
Now ye need not fear the grave;
Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain his everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save!
Christ was born to save!”

Latin (14th century)

Chalice Hymnal #164

Scripture – John 3:16-21

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Prayer

A Christmas Prayer 

Robert Louis Stevenson

Close the door of hate

Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, 

that we may share in the song of angels, 

the gladness of the shepherds, 

and the worship of the wise men.

and open the door of love 

all over the world. 

Let kindness come with every gift

and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil

by the blessing which Christ brings, 

and teach us to be merry with clean hearts. 

May the Christmas morning

make us happy to be Thy children, 

and the Christmas evening

bring us to our beds

with grateful thoughts,

forgiving and forgiven,

for Jesus’ sake.

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“Finding the Lane” (I Timothy 2:1-7)

Tuesday is election day, and in churches all over the country this morning, both conservative and liberal, preachers are telling their congregants how to vote. Oh, they’re being careful. Since 1954 the Johnson Amendment has required churches to refrain from participating in political campaigns if they want to keep their tax-exempt status, and so they’re being very careful, but their implications and inferences will be unmistakably clear.  In some churches the message this morning will be that you can’t be a Christian and vote for the Democrats, and in other churches the message will be that you can’t be a Christian and vote for the Republicans.

Well, I’m not that kind of preacher, and we aren’t that kind of church, in fact, go back just a little bit in our denominational history, and the sermon that you might very well have heard preached from the pulpit of a church in our spiritual tradition on a Sunday before an election day would have been -“Don’t!”  David Lipscomb (1831 – 1917) was one of the really important second-generation leaders of our Movement.  He didn’t think that Christians should vote, and he arrived at that conclusion by reading his Bible with his distinctively Christian Church head and heart.

First of all, David Lipscomb said that he couldn’t find a single chapter or verse anywhere in his Bible that told him that God wanted Christians to vote.  Have you heard that old Disciples of Christ slogan – “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; Where the Scripture are silent, we’re silent”? Well, believing that the silences of Scripture were just as inspired and instructive of God’s will as its words, David Lipscomb believed that if God had wanted His people to vote, then God would have told us so in His Word, and God didn’t, so we shouldn’t.

Second, what David Lipscomb did find on the pages of his Bible were some clear teachings that his citizenship was in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and that he was not to love this world and its ways (I John 2:15-17).  Instead, David Lipscomb’s Bible told him that he was to seek the things that were above, where Christ is and not to set his mind on the things of earth (Colossians 3:1-3). In fact, in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ explicitly told His disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and David Lipscomb believed that political wranglings could only interfere with this clear Christ-given priority.

But the biggest reason why David Lipscomb didn’t believe that Christians should vote was because he knew from his own experience – he lived through the Civil War – how political disagreements could shatter the unity of the church, and the unity of the church was the key to the church’s mission. This is one of the clearest and most important things that our church says it believes.

On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus Christ prayed that His disciples would be one so that the world might believe in Him (John 17:20-21).  What God is doing in Jesus Christ, Paul told us, is bringing things that have flown apart back together again, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10), and if we, people who know that this is what God wants and is doing in Christ and by His Spirit, and who say that we know and trust Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, if we can’t get along with each other, then our message about how God in Jesus Christ is in the business of bringing separated things back together again is just not very believable.

I wasn’t raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). You’ve seen that bumper sticker about Texas that says – “I wasn’t born here but I got her just as fast as I could”?  Well, that’s my story with this church. Just as soon as I woke up spiritually when I was a teenager, I went looking for a church that would nurture my newly stirred-up spiritual life, and it was an article on the Disciples of Christ in the famous “Look” magazine series on the denominations in the United States from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that got me here. 

In his essay in that magazine on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?,” James Craig memorably wrote – “There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper [in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ], each is responsible for his own belief and each has an obligation to serve God according to the dictates of his own conscience” – and instinctively I knew that this was the kind of church that I needed, the kind of church that was clear about what mattered most, and that was committed to keeping it the main thing while allowing people freedom of thought and conscience.  

David Lipscomb’s biggest concern about voting was that the way it has the power to get in the way of us being that kind of church.  He knew how partisan politics can stir passions and drive wedges between people, and how those passions and wedges can get carried into the sanctuary of the church and get in the way of who we are as Christians and what it is that we are called to do.  He wasn’t wrong.

Unlike David Lipscomb, I think that Christians should vote.  In a representative democracy like ours, I think that the New Testament’s instructions for Christians to love their neighbors, to be subject to (social) institutions, and to honor the governing authorities implies voting (I Peter 2:13-17).  But I hear David Lipscomb, and I think that his concerns about Christian’s voting have some merit. Paul counseled the Galatian Christians right before he named “enmity, strife, anger, dissension, and a party spirit” as attitudes and behaviors that are completely antithetical to the Spirit of Christ who was at work in them (5:20-21), that they needed to “take heed” lest they “bite, devour, and consume” one another (5:15).  Well, “biting, devouring, and consuming” is the political order of the day. If you vote differently than I do, it’s not just that we have different concerns and perspectives, it’s that you’re stupid, or evil, or disloyal, or want to destroy our country, and so I don’t want anything to do with you. It’s hard to be church when you feel this way about the people you are taking communion with every Sunday.

Believing that being a Christian means that you have to be politically conservative or politically liberal, depending on your interpretations and associations, churches are increasingly becoming caucuses of the Republican or Democratic parties. Christians and churches are choosing sides, withdrawing into their own walled-off fortresses, and launching broadsides of soundbites, half-truths, insults, false witness, and proof-texts, thinking that this is what faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord requires of them, and failing to see that Christ is actually being pushed away by the things they are saying and doing that they think are serving Him.

Oh, I think Christians should vote, but I strongly believe that there’s a Christian way of voting, and our Scripture lesson this morning, I Timothy 2:1-7, is the text from the Bible that has been most instrumental in shaping my own understanding of what it is that my vote as a Christian is, and what it can do,  and how that voting fits together with what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ.

I Timothy 2:1-7 begins with a call for prayer. “First of all,” Paul told Timothy, “I urge that prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1). There’s another sermon, or two, or three in just this verse!  There are lots of things about prayer I don’t understand, but here’s what I do understand. God does some things whether we ask Him to or not.  But there are other things that God won’t do unless and until we ask, and even then, God is going to do them in God’s own way and in God’s own time. So, when Scripture tells us to pray about something for somebody, I’ve learned to pay attention, to follow the directions.

In our Scripture lesson this morning Paul told Timothy to lead the church in praying specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions” (2). Now understand, that would have been the Emperor Nero when Paul wrote this I Timothy. Nero would be the Roman Emperor who in a couple of years would have Paul put to death for being a Christian.  Nero was not a good and godly ruler.  I would never have voted for him. Still Paul told Timothy and the church to pray for him. There’s simply no room for politics in prayer. Vote on Tuesday, and then pray for whoever wins the election regardless of who you voted for. That’s how I Timothy 2:1-2 works.

What Paul told Timothy and the church to pray about when they were praying for those in authority over them, was that they would do their job. Pray for those who rule, Paul explained, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (2). “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God” Paul told them (3). 

“It is the sad duty of politics,” the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr explained, “to establish justice in a fallen world.” In Romans 13, another passage where Paul told the church to pray for the state, he explained that the state exists to promote the common good, what makes for social order, and to suppress evil, what creates social chaos.

I don’t want or need city hall here in Dallas, or the government down in Austin, or over in Washington D.C. to preach the Gospel for me, or to write my prayers, or to teach the Faith, or to go around baptizing people.  That’s not their job. Their job is to be part of the process of  “forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That’s the state’s assignment, and when I vote, I vote for those who I think can do those things wisely, and competently, and fairly. And if it’s a Muslim, or a Jew, or an atheist, or a Republican, or a Democrat that I conclude can do these things best, then that’s who I will vote for.

Beginning in verse 4 of our Scripture lesson this morning, Paul told Timothy and the church to pray for the government to do its job so that they could get on with doing their job.  God wants all people to be saved, Paul told them (verse 4). God came to us in Jesus Christ to do what needed to be done to save us (verse 5-6).  And now, Paul said, it’s our job as the church to be telling people about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ so that they might know that they are loved, accepted, and can be forgiven too.

There’s just one God, but that one God is doing more than just one thing. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that with His left-hand God works to establish order in a world that is prone to coming apart at the seams, so that human life might flourish, while with His right-hand God works to restore people to a right relationship with Himself, so that people might receive the gift of eternal life.

It’s understanding these different things that God is doing in and through the church, and in and through the state, that informs my understanding of what my vote as a Christian is, and what it can do, and how it fits together with what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ. Just as I don’t go to the bank to get a loaf of bread, or take my cat to an auto mechanic to get his annual rabies shot, or go to the Meyerson to see a football game, so, while I believe that God is at work in and through both the state and the church, I don’t believe that God is doing the same thing in both places. They each have their own lane, their own assignment, and it is incumbent upon me as someone who lives in both lanes to understand which is which, and what is what, and who is who.

I don’t want or need my politicians preaching, or my preachers politicking. When I vote it’s with a view to what will make life better in this world here and now.  My commitment to Christ certainly informs what I think that means, what that looks like, but it’s the Constitution and not the Bible that’s my primary text for this assignment. And when I go to church it’s with a view to what will make life possible in the world to come.  My vote is not going to bring this Kingdom, and no political candidate is ever going to save us.  What our votes and candidates can do is to serve the common good and promote the general welfare so that the church can be safe and free to be the church, preaching the Gospel and inviting people into the embrace of His love.

So, let’s close by doing what Paul told us to do in our Scripture lesson this morning. On this Sunday morning before the election, let’s pray for those who are in authority over us, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, knowing that this is good, and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who wants everyone everywhere to be saved. And then on Tuesday, let’s vote our carefully considered concerns, convictions, and conclusions. This is a privilege and a responsibility that not every human being gets, and we should not take it for granted. And then on Wednesday, let’s remember who we are, make that – whose we are – and like light let’s shine for Christ in the darkness of the world, like salt let’s be a distinct spiritual presence on the earth, and like leaven let’s be a transforming power for good in society. This is our lane. This is our job. Let’s pray…

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