Friday, December 08, 2006

Advent Devotion for Friday, December 8

December 8, 2006
Luke 22:14-30 (read it here: )

I am continually amazed at this passage of Scripture. I am first amazed at the disciples’ selfishness. Jesus speaks to them, breaking the bread which is his body, pouring the wine which is his blood. We can almost read in these verses the tremble in Jesus’ voice, the hush over the disciples, the crumbs tumbling to the floor as Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you.”

And the disciples choose this time, this holy moment, to argue about who is the greatest. An argument about who would have betrayed Jesus degenerates into this contest of who is greatest in God’s eyes.

I feel as if I’ve been here, at times when I have stared God’s grace, goodness, and self-sacrifice in the eye and still managed to justify myself. I have seen Christ on Calvary and turned away, congratulating myself that I of all people understand and live for this man I see dying. And I forget that it is his blood that brings life, not my cleverness; it is his priceless gift to me that grants eternity, not my cheap gift given with greedy intent. For all intents and purposes, I live like these disciples, staring love Himself in the face and still completely missing it.

I’m amazed at the callousness of the disciples.

But I’m even more amazed at Jesus’ response.

Jesus watches the disciples, and his heart melts. Here he is, giving away his very life, and all the disciples can do is bicker about how great they are. I would have thrown the cup to the floor, smashed the bread to pieces and said, “You think you’re so great? Well, you’re not! You’ll never amount to anything!”

But this is not what Jesus does. Yes, he gently chides the selfish disciples, but then he says this: “...I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom...and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

He looks at these men, the ones who think they’re so great, and he tells them they are greater than they possibly could ever know. Their dream about being the greatest on earth is sinful not because it’s so grand, but because it’s too small. These men, these bickering, fallen men, had thrones with their names on them hidden away in heaven. These men were kings but didn’t know it, couldn’t see it. And because they couldn’t see it, they beat each other up rather than preparing themselves, and each other, for glory.

You know, we too are called to believe that we are kings and queens in the sight of God. Perhaps this is not in the same way as the disciples, this is true. But Romans 8:19 says that “all of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” All of creation, every pulse, every electron, every tree, every star, every unexplored galaxy, waits holding its breath for the priceless creation that is us, the children of God. They look to us, waiting, with baited breath, to see creation as it was meant to be, redeemed, righteous, joyful.

This is what we are, Christians–not what we could be if we work hard enough, but what we are. My hunch is that we think we are less than this. My hunch is that we would settle for being pretty good and getting a nice place in heaven, but God says we are so much more; we are a part of a celestial, eternal body of people that the universe desperately needs. My hunch is that we would settle for being a bickering band of disciples, but God says that we are royalty.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Advent Devotional for December 7, 2006

December 7, 2006
Luke 22:1-13 (Read it here: )

The whole plan to put Jesus to death had its roots in one phrase: “...because they were afraid of the people.” The chief priests and the scribes were the religious power brokers of the day. And yet here came a rebel teacher who, among other things, restored the dignity of every individual believer and challenged the religious system of their day down to its core. And the people were empowered and energized by the rebel Jesus. The leaders feared losing their power and prestige.

When people fear losing power and prestige, strange things happen. Things that used to seem wrong now start to seem right. When you need to protect your position, you can explain away the most ungodly behavior; given the right circumstances, you might even think it’s OK to kill someone. So the leaders set the process in motion to kill an innocent man, so sure that the ends determine the means, so certain that they are serving a greater good by doing so.

When have you done this? We all have. When our sense of power or identity is threatened, we can be downright ruthless. With scalding words, we attack those we perceive as threats, even when they are people we love, our spouses, our families. With passive-aggressive rage, we cut off relationships with those we disagree with so we don’t have to feel threatened. We brandish daggers of gossip and kill another with the cold words we utter to a friend. Or we may even retreat into ourselves and refuse to be loved by another when we think that person threatens us.

Fear makes us do crazy things. Fear makes tearing down a friend to build yourself up seem proper. Fear makes starving a relationship to death seem necessary. Fear makes killing God seem logical.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod, and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4

Communion with God, remaining close to him–this is the way to live without fear, fear that makes us kill others, fear that ultimately ends up killing us.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Advent Devotional for December 6, 2006; John 7:53-8:11

This story is certainly one of the most beautiful, and grace-filled, stories in the New Testament. Jesus looks at a woman who has been caught in adultery. There is no doubt as to her guilt or the facts of the situation. She is simply, totally, guilty. And some Pharisees drag her before Jesus and say, “Moses said when we caught women in adultery, we were to stone them. What do you say?” As the Pharisees often did, they tried to drive a wedge between the ancient Hebrew religious tradition and Jesus. They wanted to show that he was a false teacher, that he was essentially different than Moses.

But Jesus did what he often did: he put the question back to the Pharisees. He said, “I think the one who is perfect among you, the one who has never sinned, should be the one to cast the first stone.” And, one by one, the crowd ambles off, until it is only Jesus and the woman remaining behind. And Jesus says, “Isn’t anyone left to condemn you?” “No one.” “Then neither do I condemn you,” says Jesus; “go and sin no more.”

Now there’s just one problem with this text: it likely was not in the book of John in its original format. Most Bibles note this somehow, with brackets or an asterisk. Yet even though it may not have been in the original book, we can be fairly certain it is historical. It was part of the collection of oral stories passed around about Jesus; various other books written shortly after the book of John talk about the story, and so we can safely say it was one of the stories people told about Jesus, even though it may not have been in the Bible originally.

So why was this story not in the original text of the Bible? It’s impossible to know for sure. But St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, may give us a hint. He claims that it was left out, among other reasons, “to avoid scandal.”

Augustine basically says that John left this story out because it showed Jesus being almost scandalously gracious. Here was a woman who had been caught, no doubt, doing something wrong, something understood to deserve stoning, and he let her off scot-free? Sure, he warned her not to sin like this anymore, but come on? No punishment at all? If people saw how gracious Jesus was, they might just take advantage of his grace and keep on sinning. So, Augustine believed that John left it out because he didn’t want people getting the wrong idea and taking advantage of Jesus.

I’m glad that later scribes saved the story and put it in, even if it doesn’t make much sense right here in the book of John. I’m glad because I worship a God who is scandalously gracious, who once saw me accused and rescued me with sheer, undeserved grace, and gave me the hope that I could go and change my ways. I’m glad because I know Jesus to be that kind of person, one who stands right by those who want to be changed by God and gives them the strength and dignity to do it without fear of condemnation.

And I’m even more glad that, if John did try to suppress this scandal, he could not do it completely. For what we see here in part, we see in full on the cross, as the bleeding Christ says, “Forgive them, Father; they do not know what they are doing.”

A scandal of grace: this is the kind of scandal I could get used to.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent Devotional for Tuesday, December 5 on Luke 21:29-38

Do you know how many people sleepwalk through life? I’m just astounded at how many people live a day-to-day existence, in essence “working for the weekend.” It’s amazing, and disheartening, to see people live without real goals, without any awareness of the sad stories they are writing with their lives.

Jesus tells the crowds to “be on guard” and to “be alert” for his return. Otherwise, he says, the day will come as a surprise and they will not be prepared.

Even if we assume that we are not living in the last days (and who really knows?), we still should pay attention to Jesus’ teaching. So much of a life well-lived is being “on guard” and “alert” to the fact that time is not infinite. Whether or not Christ returns to us during our lifetime, we can be safely assured that we will return to Christ upon our death. This is a moment few of us prepare for; in fact, we often take great pains to hide that fact from our minds, afraid of facing our own mortality. And yet, to truly live well, we will recognize that our time here is not forever and that we must give ourselves as servants of Christ while we still can be a sturdy instrument of the Kingdom of God.

When we are aware that our time here is not infinite, we also realize that we have to stop sleepwalking through life. We can’t allow our lives to be about pursuits of dangerous pleasures; we can’t allow our lives to be about preserving our pride, or about just getting by. We have to invite God in and make our lives about discerning what he has for us, the good gifts and the adventurous life he freely gives us.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent Devotional for Monday, December 4

Remember, I would love to hear your comments!

Monday, December 4
Luke 21:20-28

Part of the reality of Advent is that we are not only preparing our hearts for a Baby; we who live today also prepare our hearts for the Second Coming of Christ. And so here, right off the bat in Advent, we find ourselves struggling with this great text of apocalypse.

People generally have one of two responses when it comes to the apocalypse. Some are convinced the apocalypse is imminent. For many years, “prophets” have foretold the date when Jesus will return. William Miller, founder of an obscure religious sect, predicted that Christ would return on March 21, 1843; when that date came and went without incident, undaunted, he predicted a date in late October 1844. More recent was the book by a prophecy teacher, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur in 1988.” And lately, Dr. Harold Camping of Family Radio predicted the world would end in September, 1994; that failed and he now predicts a 2011 date. I won’t hold my breath.

The other response people typically have about the apocalypse is a certainty that whenever it is, it isn’t coming soon. Perhaps because of people like the ones we looked at who are so sure when it is coming, these people tend to think that it really isn’t coming at all. With all the false prophecies, they don’t believe this day could come anytime soon.

I, of course, plead total ignorance. I have no idea when Christ will come again. But there is no doubt that passages like this one are meant to fill us with a sense of urgency. We are to be urgent about living out the gospel, about sharing Christ with others; our lives take on a deeper sense of meaning. We are not simply living out our days, but we are always living under the specter of Christ’s potential return. “What if it were today?” the old hymn goes; and it challenges us to think of how we are living in light of the fact that, for all we know, it could be today that Christ returns and we are called to account for the way we think and live. Rather than driving us to search for dates and times, rather than making us throw up our hands, a text like this one is meant to make us realize that our lives are urgent, that our time here isn’t infinite.

And when we live this way, with a realization that Jesus could come again at any moment, we are of course empowered to see the ways that Jesus is already present here to us. When we realize that life is not just existing, but urgently carrying out God’s plan for us, we see Christ in the face of those we are called to serve. We see Christ in the poor and the poor in spirit; we see Christ in “the least of these,” all those we serve. When we anxiously await his return, we are more attuned to the ways in which he’s already here!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent Devotional for Sunday, December 3: Luke 7:28-35

HI all! For the next few weeks, through the season of Advent, I'll be posting here devotions I wrote for our church in Exton. I'd really like to get folks commenting, because I feel like we can learn better from each other than we can on our own. So, please--if you have a thought on the devotion of the day, please leave a comment and share it with us!

As we sit here in the beginning of Advent, we’re aware that preparing our hearts is a counter-cultural activity. Christmas displays have been in the stores now for at least a month, as long as six weeks in some instances. You may already be getting tired of some Christmas songs, and there are still three weeks and a day until Christmas actually arrives. To celebrate Advent, though, is to acknowledge that to “get” Christmas, we need more than store displays, and even more than the Christmas story itself. We need to prepare our hearts–even though our culture generally is a little bit confused by this idea.
The result is that we often are being called to do a holy and godly work of preparation at the same time as our “secular selves” are already celebrating. We are called to say, on one hand, “I must do a work of preparation before Christmas;” while on the other hand, we make the customary rounds of Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, Christmas songs, etc. In a sense, to be a Christian on Earth means having a foot in two different worlds.
Today’s passage perfectly illustrates this point. John the Baptist was quite ascetic–this means that he understood the calling of God in self-denial. He lived on his own; he ate locusts instead of bread; he forsook wine completely, an oddball in his culture. Jesus, however, had no such concerns: he ate and drank freely, and was unafraid of mixing with other people, even notorious sinners. Yet the Scriptures make perfectly clear that both–despite their differences–were important characters in the work that God did in the world at that time.
Jesus points out that the people of his generation, the people that didn’t accept him, ironically also rejected John. They looked at John’s asceticism and said, “He must be like this because he has a demon.” But then they looked at Jesus’ feasting and drinking and they found fault with that too, saying he was a “glutton and a drunkard.” You would think that if they didn’t like the fasting of John, they would like the feasting of Jesus! But no–they managed to find fault with both John and Jesus. Rather than accepting both of them and realizing how the tension between the two could point right to God, they did the exact opposite–rejecting both of them.
For those of us who must prepare and celebrate at the same time, perhaps we can see something in these differences of Jesus and John. Jesus calls both celebrating and preparation good, and important, and wise. They are quite different tasks, but at the same time, each is rewarding. So celebrate with the gusto of Jesus, and prepare your hearts with the intensity of John.