Advent – Jesus Came to Save the World

Advent Devotion  for the First Sunday of Advent,    December 3, 2017  

Read John 3:16-17

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:17

One of the first verses I learned was John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”    It would be years before I realized the importance of the verse that followed it. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:17    The writer of the gospel of John  wanted us to know that Jesus was sent into the world, not for destruction, but to save the world. The world, as God claims this world, includes not only human beings but everything in it.

God’s care extends to the whole of creation. Every creature, every plant is cared for by God. Jesus referred to the lilies of the field being clothed by God, reminding us that not even a sparrow falls, without God’s loving concern. I find great comfort in knowing God’s intent in Jesus was to bring about the salvation of the world and all that is in it. We hear that yearning expressed in John Wesley’s Advent Hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”

“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.”

Prayer: God, you called this world into being. In the birth of Jesus you came to proclaim your love for the whole world and all of its people. May we carry that same vision in our mind and spirit as we begin our Advent journey. May we love as you love. Amen

 

Counting Blessings One By One

In one of the churches I served it, was the tradition on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving for the children to sing the song “Count Your Blessings One by One, See the Great Things God has Done.” They would walk past the altar singing the song, and placing gifts of food there. I was always enchanted by this song and it caused me to take stock of my blessings.

Counting our blessings does not come naturally to most of us. There have been moments in my life when I have found it hard to give thanks. Yet, when I began to count the blessing which were mine, I discovered a multitude of ways that God was alive and working in my life. Most of all, I learned that in difficult and painful times God reaches out to us through God’s people. Groceries arrived at my door when I was not sure how I would manage the rest of the month. There were notes of support and encouragement and people who listened. Little things, which meant a lot, for they told me that God was still watching over me.  They told me God’s love was real.

The Apostle Paul expresses his joy that God’s love is touching him through old friends as he writes to the people of Thessalonica, “During all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith . . . How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before God because of you?” (I Thessalonians 3:7,9)

Paul knew how to count his blessings. He opened his eyes to see the good that God was doing in his life. He valued the prayers of his friends. He cherished memories of special moments. He rejoiced that even in times of suffering, God’s love was made known to him, by the simple care of friends. May your eyes be opened to the many ways God’s love and light are surrounding you today, and then give God thanks.

God’s Saving Grace

My kitchen is overflowing with pots of flowers – my latest rescue attempt to push the cold of winter away for a few more days.  On the deck is a new experiment to keep other flowers alive. Every year I go through this same ritual . . .  trying to keep my flowers blooming just a little longer.

I am a rescuer by nature. When I was sent to small churches in rural Minnesota, I was convinced that churches in a spiral of death, had life still in them. It’s written into my DNA to encourage the life force,  whether it is a plant staving off the cold and snow of a winter day in mid fall –  Or a church giving up before their work is done – Or a person going through the pain of loss, heartache, addition or failure,  ready to give up.

It was in the midst of failure, poverty and despair that God rescued me. I couldn’t keep a dying marriage from failing. My rescue attempts were futile. But God’s rescue of me out of it was real. I look back on that time in my life as one of grace. God’s love and care was greater than I believed possible. And while I constantly condemned myself – I found encouragement in some of the most unusual ways. One day, while doing some work in the church library, I came across these words in a book, whose name and author I do not remember. The words were these, “When you refuse to forgive yourself, you are refusing to forgive a child of God and that is wrong.” I needed those words that day, as I have needed them since.

Today, I look at pots of flowers on my table. I see how much beauty is there and I know that this is how God sees each of us, when we are about to give up on ourselves. God sees the beauty in us and wants us to know that we are God’s beloved and precious children – Loved more abundantly than we can imagine.

“God rescued me out of the miry pit, out of the mud and clay; God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing.” Psalm 40:2 REB

Love Draws the Circle Wide

Westboro Baptist Church planned some picketing in my community today. If you have somehow missed Westboro’s hate-filled speech, consider yourself fortunate. Fred Phelps, who started the church, found fame when he and his people started to picket the funerals of soldiers around the country. They held up signs with hate messages aimed at people who were gay or lesbian, using derogatory terms.   The targeting of soldiers was a warped logic which tied the war against terror to what the Westboro people believe, is the country’s willingness to have gay and lesbian members in the armed services. In their arrogance, they cheered the deaths of those who gave their lives for our nation.    Choosing to intrude on the heartbreak of  parents, spouse and children, they  brought their hateful agenda  and picketed funerals.  Westboro’s goal in Minnesota today, was to protest decisions by the University of Minnesota Hospital as well as a local high school related to transgender youth.

What has always stunned me about the Westboro Baptist church are actions which are antithetical to Christian Love and compassion. As a pastor I find it hard to reconcile the Jesus of the gospels with the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Westboro church.  I found myself  praying that our young people were protected from the hate speech and that the Westboro people had changed hearts. Ironically, at the very end of his life, Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church he founded, because he came to see the world more compassionately than his followers. He pushed for reconciliation with two of his granddaughters who had been shunned by the church. The church he grew became even narrower in their ability to love and accept people than he had been. There was no longer room for Fred Phelps in his own church.

Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”  is a favorite of mine, for its insistence that God loves all of the world’s people and wants us to do the same.

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

God is the one that keeps drawing us into the larger circle. God pulls us from the isolation of judgmentalism, arrogance and self-righteousness into the greater truths of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, gentleness and humility.

I’ve heard no news coverage of Westboro Baptist Church today. The community made a decision not to confront or encourage a counter-protest in the places Westboro chose to picket, so the group would be denied the publicity they wanted. I don’t know if they came and picketed or not. I do know that the community decided to work together and silence their message of hate, by simply ignoring it. It was a teachable moment to remember that the greatest commandment,  after loving God with all our heart, minds’ soul and strength,  is to love our neighbor as ourself.

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

The question of suffering is deeply troubling. We want the very best for those who are precious to us. When a loved one hurts, we hurt. When they suffer, we suffer. Part of what makes us human is this connection of suffering love. So, we wonder how a good and loving God, can allow the grief and pain we see in our world. We don’t understand why God allows a September 11th or the shooting of little girls in a small Amish school.  Mudslides, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis all come with their own “Why.”

 

Especially, we wonder why God allows painful things to happen to ourselves and people we love.      If nothing else- we at least want to make some sense of our suffering.  A young woman from a congregation, that I had left weeks earlier, was murdered by a man who had just moved into her apartment building. As I searched and prayed for words of comfort and hope for the family, this passage of scripture began to fill my mind, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known..” I Corinthians 13:12

At the deepest level of faith, we trust that God will take our broken hearts, our deepest questions, our gut wrenching grief and weave them into our life in such a way, that some good will shine through. Today, we do not understand the “why” of suffering.  Till then we are comforted by God who chooses to be involved in our world, in our lives.

The apostle Paul’s affirmation in Romans encourages us. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:39

The mystery remains . . . as does God who is with us and from whom, nothing can separate us in Jesus Christ.

Stumbling into God’s Arms

It is comforting to recognize that all of Jesus’ disciples, followers and friends slip. We flounder just after we’ve received the fresh insight, just when we think we’ve figured it out. We falter just at the time when we think we’ve come to terms with life and with God. Even those first disciples of Jesus swung between great insights and a certainty that Jesus was the Christ to the other side, of thinking that he had come to reclaim the power of a king in Jerusalem, replacing Herod. They had it together some days and others – not so much. One day they were faithful followers, the next doubting Jesus altogether. John Procotor, says of them “Enviable though their place in time may be, these disciples still flounder between insight and failure . . . their journey involves both progress and stumbling.”*

As do our journey’s. The grace-filled thing about this is that when we stumble, we stumble into God’s arms. We stumble between insight and failure. I think we feel this more, the greater our love for God is. We may see failure. God sees an opportunity for us to learn and grow. We get another opportunity to learn about kindness and grace. We are reminded of forgiveness and mercy. Humbling moments carry their own lesson on true humility.

There are times when we look to the giants of the faith, comparing ourselves to them. Yet, even they were not perfect. Mother Theresa had her moments of doubt. Others had issues with anger, relationships or grudges. Each of us carries a set of vulnerabilities. Some days we fail miserably and other we know we’ve done our best. We are frail human beings who need friendship, compassion, affirmation, love, encouragement and companionship. We need to know that we are both loved and loveable. God reminds us that no matter how high or how low our status, God loves each of us. God loves us in our fragility, woundedness, dysfunctional behavior and everything else. God loves us when we are at our worst and at our very best. God’s love never fails. But whenever we stumble, God gently and quietly draws us forward, pulling us back to places of healing and rest. For this I give thanks.

*John Procotor, “Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Volume I” Reflection on Matthew 13:10-17

Shaped and Formed in the Wilderness

IMG_7697Whether it is the Redwood Forest, Atlantic Coast, the mountains of Colorado or the forests of Lake Superior, I love to spend time close to nature. But just because I love these places doesn’t mean I want to get stranded in most of them. There is the wilderness I visit, and the other wilderness moments which come unbidden and unwanted. Biblical images of wilderness are that of a harsh and inhospitable place. There is little joy in a wilderness adventure you haven’t chosen. Our wilderness journey can be frightening leaving us disoriented and uncertain. Kathy Beach-Verhey writes, “The wilderness is unfamiliar. It is uncomfortable. It generates fear . . . yet it is often in the wilderness that God does something transformative, renewing, or inspiring. God often uses the wilderness times of life . . . to remake God’s people.”*

Getting shaped and formed in the wilderness may be an enriching experience eventually, but hard to recognize as such in the moment. Our time in the wilderness forces us to rethink who we are and who we are becoming. It is there we hammer out what is important and vital. At times, we are forced to learn more about ourselves than we want to know. Tears water the land. Yet shed tears bring healing to our spirits. God takes our brokenness and works to renew and restore our lives.

One Sunday, after a particularly hard week, when I was feeling both inept and discouraged, the words of a hymn broke into my discouragement. Words came as a healing balm encouraging me with a message that God was working even then to nourish my life and restore my spirit. Rather than inept, God was fitting me for the work in front of me. What I was experiencing was more difference of opinion than lack of giftedness. I heard the promise of a God who comes with the speed of a mother reaching out to her wounded, broken child.**

I’ve learned in the wilderness that God is always there. God comes to us in the quiet whisper touching our hearts. God draws us through gentle leading and in comforting assurances of love. God reminds us that in spite of all that may have happened to us or the mistakes we have made, we are never outside the realm of God’s love. In God’s care the “how we got into the wilderness” is not nearly as important as “getting us through it.” For just like a mother races to her hurting child, so God races to us with arms of compassion and love.

*Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 1, pg 64

**“Praise to the Lord, who doth nourish thy life and restore thee;
Fitting thee well for the tasks that are ever before thee.
Then to Thy need God as a mother doth speed,
Spreading the wings of grace o’er thee.”
Rupert E. Davies in 1983 added verse  to the hymn “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”