#Advent13: What’s in a Name? — Mark Foster

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings. We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us. Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

Rev. Mark Foster

Rev. Mark Foster

Today, we are excited to once again have a special guest post from Rev. Mark Foster. Pastor Mark is the Founding Pastor of Acts 2 United Methodist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma. He married his wife Chantelle in August 1991. They have two sons, John Mark and Noah. Pastor Mark is led by the Spirit and is passionate about seeing people come to know Jesus. We met Pastor Mark in October of last year when we began to attend Acts 2 UMC. We are blessed to call him our Pastor, and are honored that he has written today’s guest post.

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son; They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.

— Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)

The Word of God for the people of God.

​Sometimes what you see or experience is so great, beyond description, beyond expectation, that one name simply won’t do. The baby gets two names. The first is “Jesus” – the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua which means “Jehova is salvation.” Another way of putting it is that Jesus means “The Lord saves.” Or you might even say that the angel commands Joseph to name the baby “Savior” because “He will save!” The New Revised Standard Version puts it, that Joseph being a “righteous man” which can also be translated as a “just” man had planned to dismiss her (Mary) quietly. “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (emphasis mine).

The angel is direct. One, do not be afraid. This is the normal conversation starter between heavenly beings and mortals. We need this instruction daily. Joseph had reason to be afraid. While the Law of Moses required capital punishment in cases like these (Deuteronomy 22:23-27), by this time in Jewish history, the penalty was rarely death. Rather, it would be a severe, humiliating, public penalty. In Joseph’s circles, to be described as “righteous” meant that one did the right thing at the right time and was a follower of every detail of God’s law. Yet, the Spirit is at work with “just” Joseph so that he is already going beyond the letter of the law and acting out of love and mercy on Mary’s behalf.

​The second command from the heavenly messenger is that it is Joseph’s responsibility to name the baby. “You shall name the child, accepting him as your own and adopting him into the Davidic line as an authentic ‘son of David.’” Joseph names him Jesus. This places Jesus in line with the prophecy. Remember that this is not something that by law Joseph would have to do. The voice of God through the angel leads Joseph to name the baby Jesus. This naming reflects the great story line of Moses and Joshua where they save God’s people from Egypt and guided them into the promised land through the Red Sea and the Jordan River.

Jesus too will save HIS people from their sins. But who are Jesus’ people? One might think that it is the Jewish people, but as the plot develops in the gospels, Jesus’ people are ALL people. “For God so love the world (kosmos)” moving beyond any border, culture, race, or time! This turns out to be a point of great conflict that will ultimately lead to Jesus’ death. Jesus’ life was one of inclusion with the poor, with a Samaritan woman, with prostitutes, with tax-collectors, with lepers, and with as many other categories as the religious leaders of the time decided were “on the outs with God.” Simply put, they would say, “he eats with sinners.” When the rest of the religious leaders of the time were running from the hurting and broken of the world so as not be made unclean, Jesus was running to them. He washed them and made them clean.

Ironically, the mother of our Lord and Savior certainly would have been thought of in the category of “sinner” by the religious folks of her time. Mary was an unwed pregnant teenager who in her culture would also be an adulterer due to her status as betrothed. Interestingly, Matthew describes Joseph becoming aware of Mary’s pregnancy, yet not knowing of its divine source. This “in between time” of seeing trouble, but not yet seeing divine action, presence, or proclamation represents the hardest times of life.

​Perhaps this is why Jesus also receives a symbolic name, “Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Never again do we need to wonder, “Where is God in this?” The answer is in every place, in every time of trouble, even when we can’t see it, even when we don’t feel it, and even when we forget it; the truth of Jesus remains that he is “Emmanuel – God with us!” In our feast days of celebration, at the weddings where water turns to wine, at the graves of those we love like Lazarus, in the wilderness, in the garden, when we are on trial, betrayed, denied, beaten, whipped, bruised, alone; we find that we are never alone because everywhere, beyond the end of time, we have received the gift of Emmanuel – God with us that neither life nor death nor anything on the earth, above the earth, or beneath the earth can take away. I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is what the church claims this Christmas Eve. Tonight, light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not and cannot overcome it. Tonight, God is with us. Let the angels sing, the saints rejoice, the demons shudder, for the Lord of Life is alive and well. Jesus “God saves” is with us!

#Advent13: Guest Post – Nathan Kilbourne

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings. We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us. Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

We are thrilled that our friend, Reverend Nathan Kilbourne, has agreed once again to write for us. Pastor Nathan and his wife Pastor Lynn are incredible pastors, people, and friends. In addition to serving on the Advisory Board of Led By The Word, Rev. Kilbourne serves as the Senior Pastor at Vilonia United Methodist Church in Vilonia, Arkansas. He is a graduate of the Duke Divinity School.

Reverends Nathan and Lynn Kilbourne

Reverends Nathan and Lynn Kilbourne

A reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

— Isaiah 7:10-16

The Word of God for the people of God.

Disappointed. I’m certain that is what Ahaz felt when he received the word from Isaiah regarding a child being born named Emmanuel. Ahaz was looking for a little bit more reassurance. He feared the Assyrian kingdom at his doorstep and the power it may be able wield over the Davidic Kingdom. This kingdom had already been compared to a stump by the prophet Isaiah, not a flourishing tree. Even then, a shoot growing from the stump is only assurance that the kingdom has a chance at survival. Who wants survival? Isn’t it best to be powerful? Isn’t it better to have large armies to be able to fend off enemies? A stump and shoot? A child named Emmanuel? What good is this? How does this calm fears and alleviate anxiety?

It is easy for us to overlook the significance of the promised presence of God when facing the giants in our lives. We look for miraculous signs in the midst of overshadowing pressures and problems. We seek calmed storms and straight paths; yet, the winds continue to blow and the paths are rocky. However, during this season, we are reminded that sometimes, what we need is reassurance that God is still looking out for us. Yes, though the powers of Assyrians, Herods, and the like seem to be winning a child will be born named Emmanuel, God with us.

Though we do not get exactly what we want, God is still Emmanuel, who reveals himself in ways we might not expect, for example, in a child. In looking for the miraculous, outstanding, world altering movements of God, we may miss that God just might show up in the vulnerability of a child and in the promise of that life will continue. Sometimes God simply gives us enough to sustain us in the storms and Ahaz missed the message of Isaiah. Though it seemed insignificant compared to the insurmountable evils surrounding him, Isaiah was providing a message of hope, a message that God will continue to be with his people. Isaiah provided a glimmer of light, but Ahaz missed it.

At times, just a glimmering of hope can help us weather the storms of life. As preacher Peter Gomes once remarked, “We are able to bear this present darkness because we believe in the coming dawn…a dawn in which the shadows and shades of night are seen for what they are and are not.” Even when it is only a glimmer of hope, such can be enough to bear the present darkness.

During this Christmas season, as we await again the coming of Jesus the Messiah, let us not forget that often God shows up in seemingly insignificant ways that we might easily overlook. God shows up in Bethlehem, an insignificant place, to Mary and Joseph, insignificant people, placed in a manger, an insignificant place, and brings hope. God may show up in your life in a seemingly insignificant way. Yet, God can take what is insignificant and make it significant. Pay close attention, even the crumbs which fall from the table of God are enough.

 

#Advent13: Even In The Mess

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Gospel According to Matthew.

John, meanwhile, had been locked up in prison.  When he got wind of what Jesus was doing, he sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?”

Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what’s going on: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.  Is this what you were expecting?  Then count yourselves most blessed!”

When John’s disciples left to report, Jesus started talking to the crowd about John.  “What did you expect when you went out to see him in the wild?  A weekend camper?  Hardly.  What then?  A sheik in silk pajamas?  Not in the wilderness, not by a long shot.  What then?  A prophet?  That’s right, a prophet!  Probably the best prophet you’ll ever hear.  He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, ‘I’m sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.’”

“Let me tell you what’s going on here: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer; but in the Kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him.  For a long time now people have tried to force themselves into God’s Kingdom.  But if you read the books of the Prophets and God’s Law closely, you will see them culminate in John, teaming up with him in preparing the way for the Messiah of the Kingdom.  Looked at in this way, John is the ‘Elijah’ you’ve all been expecting to arrive and introduce the Messiah.”

— Matthew 11:2-14 (The Message)

The Word of God for the people of God.

We looked briefly at this story in yesterday’s post.  Jesus, defining for John’s disciples, the Kingdom of Heaven merely by pointing out what’s happening around them.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that Rome—their oppressors—are leaving.  Jesus doesn’t say that they all suddenly have food to eat, clothes to wear, and roofs to protect them.  Jesus doesn’t say that their external circumstances have changed.  

Instead, Jesus points to the things that—despite the external circumstances—have changed.  The lives that were one way and are now another.  Things that had been broken have been fixed.  Things that were missing have been found.

As we mentioned yesterday, it is critical that we understand that the gifts of Advent—hope, peace, joy, and love—are not contingent on the circumstances of which we find ourselves in the midst.  The mess of life does not change the impact of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom comes even in the messiest of messes.  The Kingdom of God can break in no matter the depth of pain that you might be walking through.  

For the early first century Jews, it looked impossible for the Messiah—the One whom they had been hoping for over a millennia would come—to arrive on the scene.  They were oppressed.  They were downtrodden.  Their very cultural identity was—again—at stake.  They were taxed unfair.  They could be forced to labor at the mere whim of a soldier.  They could be arrested for merely talking about how new leadership might make things better.  

And, it was into this mess that John the Baptist was born and began his work.

People had heard the things that John was teaching in the wilderness.  So, they went to see him.  Unsure of what to expect, but surely not expecting camel hair clothes and locust snacks.  Nevertheless, they came.  And in their coming, they learned that the Kingdom was at hand.  They learned that the culmination of thousands of years of prophecies and laws was nearly here.

The Messiah was coming.  Hope was soon to be fulfilled.  

And, then comes Jesus.  Water turned to wine.  Blind people see.  Deaf people her.  Fishermen become followers.  

More important than those miraculous signs of the Kingdom (for the miraculous follows the Kingdom) was the message that He preached.  His message wasn’t merely a message of rescue from hell.  Rather, it was a message of wholeness.  It was a message of completeness.  It was the invitation to begin now to live in the Kingdom.

The Gospel that Jesus preached was the Gospel of the Kingdom.  It was the Good News that Shalom—nothing missing, nothing broken—had come.  

Yet, we must remember that Shalom can exist even when things around us are broken.  It can thrive even when things are missing.  Why?  Because, shalom has nothing to do with the external things that surround it.  Rather it has everything to do with the transformation of our lives.  

And, so, John’s disciples come into the room wondering what they would find.  I wonder if they felt similar feelings to when they went into the wilderness to hear John’s message.  They enter the room.  They ask their question.  

Jesus responds.

They understand.

Kingdom has come.  External circumstances are still pretty bleak.  John is still in prison (soon to be beheaded).  Yet, they understand.

Kingdom has come.

And, now, we’re left with a similar charge as that which John—and his disciples—had.  First, go and proclaim that the Kingdom is near at hand.  Prepare the way for the King to enter into the messes of the world.  Second, go and see how the Kingdom is changing lives in the midst of even the ugliest of situations.

Kingdom has come.  Kingdom is coming.

Drilling a water well in Guatemala with Living Water

Drilling a water well in Guatemala with Living Water

#Advent13: The Kingdom Looks Like

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Psalms.

Happy is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them. He remains faithful forever, executing justice for the exploited and giving food to the hungry.

The LORD frees prisoners.

The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.

The LORD raises up those who are oppressed.

The LORD loves the righteous.

The LORD protects foreigners and helps the fatherless and the widow, but He frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The LORD reigns forever; Zion, your God reigns for all generations. Hallelujah!

—Psalm 146:5-10 (HCSB)

The Word of God for the people of God.

Again, in today’s reading, we’re given a glimpse of the Kingdom. It shows us what it looks like when the King comes. It shows us shalom—nothing missing, nothing broken.

As I read the passages for yesterday in the prayer book that I use (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro), I was reminded of Jesus’ response to the disciples of John The Baptist in Matthew 11. John’s disciples come and ask Jesus if He is the One for whom they had been waiting. Is He the King? Is He the Messiah?

Jesus replies, “Go back and tell John what’s going on: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!” (Matthew 11:4-6, The Message)

The beauty of the Kingdom is that when the King comes things change.

As we look around at the situations in the world where brokenness and pain seem to reign, we pray “Your Kingdom Come.” Because, we have come to learn that the only thing that can set things right is the Kingdom coming. The only thing that can set the prisoners free, make the blind see, lift up the heads of the oppressed, protect the foreigner, orphan and widows is the Kingdom of God.

That is the message of Advent. Advent is a time where we proclaim to the world that a new King is coming—and with Him comes a new Kingdom!

As we walk to the manger, let us walk with our heads held high in hope. We walk in confidence and joy in the goodness of God. God, who is Creator, has not abandoned His creation. Instead, He has invaded it and in His invasion He re-creates it.

He brings newness.

He brings wholeness.

He fixes what is broken.

He finds what is missing.

And, as His representatives—Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)—we are called to bring that Kingdom into every place we go. We are called to speak hope and joy and life to every person with whom we have contact. We are called to live differently.

As we walk the remainder of this Advent journey, let us walk with the knowledge that the gifts of Advent—Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love—are not contingent upon external circumstances. Rather, they stand in opposition to external circumstances. Even in the midst of the most messy of conditions, the Kingdom can still come. It can—and does—still emerge.

Our lives—when lived as citizens of this Kingdom—are to be bringers of the Kingdom. Our Psalm today gives us specific ways in which we can introduce the Kingdom to people.

Free the prisoners.

Open the eyes of the blind.

Raise the heads of the oppressed.

Love the righteous.

Protect the foreigners.

Be fathers (and mothers) to the orphans.

Care for the widows.

Proclaim to the world that a new King is coming—and has already come!

—————

326199: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary RadicalsBy Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro / ZondervanA tapestry of prayer, songs, and liturgy to help today’s diverse Christians pray and worship together! This rich collection makes liturgy “dance”—taking the best of the old and reinvigorating it with fresh energy for contemporary renewal. The music section features over 50 songs from various traditions including African spirituals, traditional hymns, and Taize chants. 512 pages, hardcover from Zondervan.

#Advent13: An Ancient Path

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

The desert will rejoice, and flowers will bloom in the wastelands. The desert will sing and shout for joy; it will be as beautiful as the Lebanon Mountains and as fertile as the fields of Carmel and Sharon. Everyone will see the LORD’s splendor, see his greatness and power.

Give strength to the hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness. Tell everyone who is discouraged, “Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies.”

The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert; the burning sand will become a lake, and dry land will be filled with springs. Where jackals used to live, marsh grass and reeds will grow.

There will be a highway there, called “The Road of Holiness.” No sinner will ever travel that road; no fools will mislead those who follow it. No lions will be there; no fierce animals will pass that way. Those whom the LORD has rescued will travel home by that road. They will reach Jerusalem with gladness, singing and shouting for joy. They will be happy forever, forever free from sorrow and grief.

— Isaiah 35:1-10  (GNT)

The Word of God for the people of God.

Isaiah is writing to a people in exile.  These are a people who have been through it—and most of it of their own accord.  They failed to follow God. They were exiled from the land that was promised them—a land that they never fully occupied.  And, now, on the banks of the Euphrates they wonder how to sing the praises of God (Psalm 137).  The Prophet—the same one who told them they were headed for exile—tells them that a road is being paved on which they will head home.

Isaiah’s prophecy doesn’t just hold hope—confident and joyful expectation in God’s goodness—for the Israelites waiting rescue from the grasp of their captors.  It holds hope for us.

As we travel throughout the world and talk to front-line workers, one of the—almost unanimous—prevailing themes that comes out of those discussions is that they are tired.  The are worn out.  The work is hard.  It’s long.  It’s often without immediate fruit.

One of the things that God has challenged us to do in our ministry to the “give strength to the hands that are tired.”  To speak courage to them.  To remind them of Who is on the throne of the Kingdom in which they live.

On more than one occasion as we have sought out the word of the Lord for where we were to go, this passage has been a part of that word.  A reminder of the call with which God has challenged us.  Go.  Give strength.  Speak courage.

And, that’s what we do.  Our “mission” is to speak life.  To impart blessing.  To pray over.  To give courage.

One of the most important things that you can do for us—and for our friends in the nations—is pray that we readily recognize the “Road of Holiness”—the ancient path.

In another of the exile prophecies, Jeremiah (6:16), tells the people to “stand at the crossroads and look.  Ask for the ancient paths and where the best road is.  Walk in it, and you will live in peace.”  Pray that we will always know which is the ancient path. That we may be able to stand alongside the workers in the nations and help them see the ancient path.  That we may strengthen them as they walk along the path.

It is the ancient path that we walk between the first lighting of the Advent Candles and the lighting of the Christ Candle.  It is the ancient path that leads us from the now to the not yet.  It is the ancient path that takes us from our home in Edmond into the nations and back again.  It is the ancient path that leads us all into the nations—be it physically, in prayer, through finance, or inviting the nations to us.

Strengthen the hands that are tired.  Give strength the the legs that are weak.  Speak courage.  Speak blessings—impartations of life that call one into their God-given destiny.

And, in this, we see the Kingdom come.  We see the now move closer to the not yet.  We see God’s desires accomplished in the nations.

An Ancient Road, Perge, Turkey

An Ancient Road, Perge, Turkey

#Advent13: Celebrating in Suffering

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Epistle to the Romans.

And that’s not all.  We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters.  When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness.  And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love.

When the time was right, the Anointed One died for all of us who were far from God, powerless, and weak.  Now it is rare to find someone willing to die for an upright person, although it’s possible that someone may give up his life for one who is truly good.  But think about this: while we were wasting our lives in sin, God revealed His powerful love to us in a tangible display—the Anointed One died for us.  As a result the blood of Jesus has made us right with God now, and certainly we will be rescued by Him from God’s wrath in the future.  If we were in the heat of combat with God when His Son reconciled us by laying down His life, then how much more will we be saved by Jesus’ resurrection life?  In fact, we stand now reconciled and at peace with God.  That’s why we celebrate in God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.

— Romans 15:4-13 (The Voice)

The Word of God for the people of God.

Do you celebrate in times of suffering?

That’s a tough thing.  When things are going hard.  When the circumstances look dismal.  When there appears to be no good way out.

Do you celebrate?

Paul, who wrote this epistle, knew a thing or two about suffering.  He knew how hard this whole Jesus-Follower life could be.  He’d been beaten a couple of times by this point in his career.  He’s been in prison.  He’s found struggles at many turns.

And, here, he tells us to celebrate in seasons of sufferings.

Rejoice when it’s hard!

A couple of things that we have to establish before we can even talk about celebrating in suffering.

First, when we decide to give our lives—the WHOLE thing—to Jesus, life doesn’t immediately get all happy-go-lucky.  Trouble will come.  The Kingdom is not realized in its fullness at the immediate point of our decision to follow.  Life will be hard.  People will still die.  We will still get sick.  We still have to pay bills.  We still have to walk through dark times.

Second, when we decide to give our lives—the WHOLE thing—to Jesus, we don’t have to wait until we die for the Kingdom to be realized in fullness.  Salvation is more than just a promise to not go to hell.  Heaven is more than just something for which we wait.  It is something that begins at the point of decision.

The Kingdom of Heaven is both now and not yet.  It is both a present reality and a promise to be fulfilled.  And, life is lived in the in-between.

Because, we live somewhere between the now and the not yet, we are assured that sufferings will come.  Yet, we are also assured that we can hope—even celebrate—during those sufferings.

The Anointed One—Messiah—came.  He died for us.  He gave His life that we might live.  He brought us the Kingdom.  He ushered it in—the now—and promised that the day will come when it will be fully realized—the not yet.  The day when lion and lamb lay down in the field together.  The day when earth is reborn into the reality that God has intended for it from the moment of creation.

And, somewhere, in-between the two, we celebrate in sufferings.  We rejoice when times are good.  When things are going in a way that doesn’t hurt.  And, we rejoice in the times when they aren’t.

We rejoice not because we have some warped view of pain, but rather, because we know that the pain is temporary.

It’s in this hope—confident and joyful expectation in the goodness of God—for the fullness of the Kingdom that we can celebrate in our sufferings.  Because, our sufferings build within us character.  They form us into the person who God wants us to be—someone fully dependent on Him.

So, rejoice in your sufferings.  They build character.  They make you dependent on Him and His Kingdom.

What’s all this have to do with Advent.

Advent is a time where we remember with the Israelites the promise.  The promise that says, “A King is coming!”  It is the promise of Shalom—nothing missing, nothing broken—breaking into the midst of our mess.  It is the promise of “orderly order” emerging from “chaos” (John 1).  It is the promise that “what God wants done will indeed be done” (Dallas Willard).

And, so as we walk between the promise and the manger, we walk with our heads up.  We walk with celebration in our step.

Even though, times might be hard.

Even though, we might have lost  a loved one.

Even though, we might have been diagnosed with tragedy.

Even though, we might be faced with uncertainty in our income.

Even though, we might be at the end of our paycheck with bills left to pay.

We rejoice.  Because, we know that the Kingdom is here, and is still to be fulfilled.  We rejoice because we know that even in our heartaches and disappointments God is working out our characters.  We are growing more dependent on Him and His Kingdom.

So, celebrate in your sufferings!  The King is coming!  And, when the King comes, the Kingdom comes with Him!

Sunset in La Vista, Guatemala.

Sunset in La Vista, Guatemala

 

#Advent13: God’s Kingdom Is Here!

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Gospel According to Matthew.

While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy: “Thunder in the desert!
 Prepare for God’s arrival!
 Make the road smooth and straight!”

John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

— Matthew 3:1-12 (The Message)

The Word of God for the people of God.

“God’s Kingdom is here!”

That was the cry that rang out from the river. That man was back. You know him. The one who wears the funny clothes and eats strange things. Yes, that man.

“God’s Kingdom is here!”

I know. We are still under occupation from a foreign army. I know. The soldiers forced me to do their bidding as well. No. The insurrections haven’t worked. We are still in darkness.

“God’s Kingdom is here!”

The that crazy man started talking about someone who was coming. A main character. He is going to give us the Holy Spirit. He is going to give us a Kingdom Life in exchange for our life.

“God’s Kingdom is here!”

He said that the one who was to come was going to show us truth. He was going to replace the things that weren’t true with that which was. It sounded a lot like Shalom. It sounded like the things missing were going to be found and the things broken were going to be fixed.

“God’s Kingdom is here!”

From the inside out, the One who is to come is going to change us. To make us whole. To make us complete. He is going to show the religious the path of righteousness–right legal and relational standing with God.

“God’s Kingdom is here!”

#Advent13: Righteousness and Justice

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

Charla, Elizabeth, and Kurt Gwartney

Today, we have a special treat. Our friend, and one of the Pastoral staff at our home church, Charla Gwartney is offering our Lenten reflection. Rev. Charla Gwartney serves as Executive Pastor at Acts 2 United Methodist Church, overseeing administrative details of the congregation. She is blessed to be a part of a growing congregation with a heart for ministry. Her family is a great blessing to her…husband, Kurt and daughter, Elizabeth. They live in downtown OKC and enjoy the urban life of Oklahoma’s largest city in their free time.

A reading from the Psalms.

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.  May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.  May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.  May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.  May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.  In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

— Psalm 72:1-7 (NRSV)

The Word of God for the People of God.

As I write this, the world is mourning one of the greats, Nelson Mandela. He died on Dec. 5. He was 95 years old. Many people know more about Nelson Mandela than I do. I simply know that he stood for forgiveness when he had every right to stand for revenge.

I know that he spoke words of peace to those who oppressed him (and others who shared his skin color.) I know he was imprisoned unfairly. And, I know that when he was released, his country was able to endure revolution without the bloodshed that often accompanies such change. I know that Nelson Mandela spoke truthfully about justice and righteousness and I know that it brought him trouble.

When the writer of this scripture prays for a king, I think the psalmist is hoping for one like Nelson Mandela. “May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice…May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Leaders like Mandela are few and far between. It is hard to find people willing to speak up for those without a voice and endure the price of speaking up. More likely, those in power are lulled into believing that power is evidence of God’s blessing. This blessing belongs to them, rather than being entrusted to them for sharing with all those God loves.

It is hard to argue with the witness of scripture – God has a preferential option for the poor. And, God asks leaders to care for the poor. This kingdom Jesus teaches us to pray for (…thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven) is a place where all come to the table and share together in God’s abundance.

On the same day that Nelson Mandela died, workers in fast-food restaurant chains were protesting a wage that forces them to rely on government assistance. A recent study found that 52% of fast-food workers rely on government assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid. This news surfaced at the same time that McDonald’s purchased another luxury jet for its executives, costing $35 million. What should we do with that? What should we do with this reminder that the world Nelson Mandela imagined has not yet come to pass? What should we do with this reminder that the world Jesus teaches us to pray for in the Lord’s Prayer…that the psalmist is lifting up…is conspicuously absent?

For me, this is the hard part of Advent. I love lighting the Advent candles and proclaiming that light has overcome the darkness. I love special family traditions, like Advent devotionals and calendars that build expectation. I love the music, food, extra time with family and friends. But, there is this part of Advent I can’t ignore – the call for justice and righteousness. The psalmist prays for a king that will bring a kingdom mirroring God’s priorities. The stories of this season remind us of a babe born in poverty, facing the risks that so many who are poor still face…hunger, danger, no access to basic necessities.

I need to see this side of Advent too. I need to be reminded that vulnerability carries its own power. I need to remember that the blessing God has chosen to give me is intended to benefit all of God’s children.

I am grateful for the life Nelson Mandela lived and for the witness he proclaimed. But, if that is the only witness made, the light can’t overcome the darkness. No! God calls all of us to speak truth to power, to stand in solidarity with those who have no voice, and to care for those the world would rather ignore. May it be so.

#Advent13: When Up is Down and Left is Right

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

Then a shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.  The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him–a Spirit of wisdom and understanding, a Spirit of counsel and strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.  His delight will be in the fear of the LORD.  He will not judge by what He sees with His eyes, He will not execute justice by what He hears with His ears, but He will judge the poor righteously and execute justice for the oppressed of the land.  He will strike the land with discipline from His mouth, and He will kill the wicked with a command from His lips.  Righteousness will be a belt around His waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat.  The calf, the young lion, and the fatling will be together, and a child will lead them.  The cow and the bear will graze, their young ones will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit, and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.  None will harm or destroy another on My entire holy mouton, for the land will be as full of the knowledge of the LORD as the sea is filled with water.

— Isaiah 11:1-9 (HCSB)

The Word of God for the people of God.

Whoa.  Did you read that?  Seriously, don’t run through the text today.  Go back and read it again.  Slowly.

And, one more time.

Here is Isaiah, writing to a people who are about to head to exile.  All that is left of the glorious kingdom of David is compared to a stump.  What was one a glorious oak or linden or pine is now just a stump.

Yet, here Isaiah gives the people a picture of life after exile.  He gives hope.  A Messiah is coming.  He will set things right.  He will begin as a sprout out of a stump, and will grow.  He will grow into the King of new Kingdom.

A Kingdom where what’s up becomes down and what’s left becomes right.

A Kingdom where the last become first.

A Kingdom where men sell everything they have to buy a field with a treasure buried in it.

A Kingdom where a minuscule bit of faith alters the course of history.

Isaiah paints for us a picture of paradise.  A picture of a place where lions and lambs play together.  A place where cows and bears run together.

A place where justice—God’s definition, not ours—is the rule of the land.

A place where the poor aren’t left in (or pushed deeper into) their poverty.

A place where the oppressed are set free.

A place where we judge one another through the lens of what the Father says about them.

A place where we hear not the latest gossip related to people, rather we hear the Father singing over them.

A place where what is missing is found and what is broken is repaired.

This is the Kingdom.

And, it is both now and not yet.

See, when the King—the Messiah, Immanuel, Jesus—comes into our life things change.  We move into a new Kingdom.  We act differently.  We treat everyone (whether they are in the Kingdom or not) with honor.  We seek to serve rather than be served.  We ensure that needs are shared and met.  We don’t wait for people to help themselves before we ask to help them.  We make the ground level for everyone.

We seek peace.

Shalom.

Nothing missing and nothing broken.

That’s The Way of the Kingdom.

That’s The Way of the King.

As we make our way through Advent, let’s seek to live differently.  Let’s seek to walk out The Way of the Kingdom.

#Advent13: Boat Building

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings.  We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom.  Thank you for being a part of this journey with us.  Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

 “But concerning that day and hour now one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark,  and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.  Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

— Matthew 24:36-44 (ESV)

The Word of God for the people of God.

Noah built a boat–“a floating zoo” as the Irish Rovers referred to it.  All the while he was building, his neighbors watched and wondered what exactly it was that Noah was going on about.

Night and day, Noah built.

Hammering.

Sawing.

Until one day, he looks at his boat.  Ponders a name.  Settles on USS Ark.  And, then God brings him animals.

Two.

By.

Two.

“Green alligators, and long-necked geese.  Humpty back camels and some chimpanzees.” (Gotta love the Irish Rovers.)

You know the story.

And, here, in our Advent text for today, Jesus is reminding his disciples of how absurd Noah must have looked to his neighbors.

And, guess what, Disciples?

You might be looking a bit like that as well.

The KINGDOM is coming!

But, we already have a king–Caesar.

See, our proclamation that the Kingdom is coming–and is already here–doesn’t always sit well with those around us.  They either don’t recognize the Kingdom, because they don’t know the King.  Or, they don’t think that the Kingdom can come into the mess that is surrounds us.  Surely, if the Kingdom of God is coming, then first all the bad must be wiped out.

Right?

Well, maybe not.  Maybe, it is within the midst of the messiness that the Kingdom–the rescue from the flood–is built.  It’s in the middle of the eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage that the Kingdom is built.

Slowly-by-slowly.

All the while, God invites us into the Kingdom.  Join it now.  Begin to live out the reality of freedom from the impending disaster now.  The Kingdom sits close at hand.  Sure, the Ark, like the Kingdom, isn’t finished yet.  So grab a hammer and a nail and get to building.

Be a part of the coming Kingdom now.  Because while the Kingdom isn’t fully realized, it is indeed being built.

In every situation.  All over the world.  There are evidences that the Kingdom is being built.  Disciples sent out.  Lights shining as if they were put on a lamp stand.  And bringing light to all in the house.  And, in that light, showing the way to (and of) the Kingdom.  Step-by-step.  Down the path of peace.

It is in this time of the Kingdom not yet complete that we work to build the Kingdom.  We labor–not for our own benefit–but for the benefit of those around us.  Those who don’t understand.  Those who don’t quite get it.  But, who just might pick up a hammer and start building on their own.  Until that day when it all makes sense.

And, we learn that the ark is full of our neighbors.  We learn that it is full of those who didn’t understand at first, but who decided to start building alongside us.  And, as they built, we discipled them.  We prayed with them.  We comforted them.  We were Jesus hands and feet to them.  And, the day will come when they will join the Kingdom and kept right on building alongside us!

So, build your boat. Every where you go. Be building. Be hammering. Be sawing. Be nailing. No matter the funny looks you receive. No matter the heckling. Keep building. Keep doing your part here in between now and the not yet.