Friday, December 15, 2006

Advent Devotion for Friday, December 15

Based on Matthew 11:2-15 (read it here: )

There is tremendous pathos in this story of John the Baptist. John has been so self-confident from the start, so certain that he was called to prepare the way of the Lord by blazing a trail for Jesus in the world. The self-assured, almost cocky prophet looked the religious leaders in the eye and called them a brood of vipers. He spoke of unquenchable fire which awaited all who were “unfruitful trees” or “chaff.”

Could this be the same man? Sitting in prison, John’s cockiness melted away. And he began to wonder–desperately wonder–if it was actually true. Was he really blazing the trail for the Messiah? Or had he been duped? Had he duped himself? Had he thrown his life away, insulting all the respected religious leaders, taking the side of an unknown from Nazareth? Had it all been in vain?

In his desperation, John sent messengers to find Jesus. And they came with John’s desperate question: “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus, who it seems hardly ever answers a question directly, says, “Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are clean. The deaf hear. The dead are alive again. The poor have good news.”

Any honest Christian I ever have known has struggled with doubt. Imprisoned as we are in 21st-century modern life, unable to physically be with Jesus, we sometimes wonder if this could all be true. Could a dead man live again? Could God really become a baby? Is there a God at all? Are we wasting our lives, worshiping every week, finding ways to serve, sharing our money generously and freely, trying so hard to walk the right path and bear fruit? Is Jesus really the one we should give our lives to, or should we wait for another?

This is why Jesus created a community called the church. Because, in isolation, doubt can cripple and paralyze us. Why do you think modern American culture is at once terribly lonely and terribly cynical? Because when we are alone, doubts can take root, and what we once knew was real can melt away when we are alone.

And so it is when we doubt, we must be like John the Baptist and seek Jesus out–in his community, the church. And just like John’s messengers, we will see healing there. We will see marriages healed and persevering. We will see people growing out of crippling selfishness into generosity. We will see captivity to old ways of living being broken and a new way of life entered into. We will see God’s people learning to love even the most difficult people and we will see people becoming more than they ever thought they could be.

Your doubts, which seemed so crippling when you were alone, melt away when you see what Jesus is still doing among his people today.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Advent devotion for Thursday, December 14

Based on Matthew 3:1-12 (read it here: )

Repentance is a tremendous change to make in a life. Most of us know that repentance means a turning around (as in the Old Testament), or a decisive change of mind (as in the New Testament). Either way, it is a significant thing to repent, to consciously let go of one way of thinking and living and to take up another that is quite the opposite.

Here came the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders, warring factions in the religious debates of the days. Remarkably, they had come to be baptized by John, one who “baptized with water for repentance.” This is quite amazing if you stop to think about it–religious elites coming to be baptized by this wild outsider. It is sort of like imagining the Pope, the head of the National Council of Churches, and the patriarch of the Orthodox church repenting to the crazy guy on the street corner wearing a sandwich board that says “The End is Near” and then begging him for baptism. Here they were, pledging a complete change of life to this eccentric man.

You would think that John would be happy, would feel that he had accomplished something. And yet he challenges the Pharisees and Sadducees still more, saying, “You brood of vipers!...Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John is not simply happy that they have repented; but a natural result of such a complete change of life ought to be “bearing fruit.” Repentance is a huge step in life, but in isolation it is rather meaningless–without fruit, that is, it is rather meaningless.

A lot of us treat the Christian life as if it were solely about repentance. With good intentions, we seek to see what sin is in our lives on a daily basis, or even many times a day. We try to weed out sin, to purify our lives, to live in the way Christ called us to live. And please hear me–this is very good. This brings God glory. But the Christian life can never be only about repentance. Those moments of repentance must lead to a fruit-bearing life. We do not weed out sin so there will be a barren field in our hearts; we weed out sin so that something that honors Christ can grow there! Repentance clears our lives of old ways of living so something new can flourish there.

True repentance and bearing fruit come down to availability. The more available we are to Christ, the more fruit we bear. If we make ourselves completely available to be used by Christ wherever we are, we will bear fruit. We will treat others with kindness, we will use our gifts to care for others who are hurting, we will be able to speak a word of liberating truth to those living in debilitating lies. All this fruit comes with availability.

And so when we repent, we must do so with an eye to becoming available to Christ. We don’t clean up our lives for the sake of being clean so that the world will honor us. We repent in order to break the shackles sin keeps us in so that we are truly free and available to Christ in all situations, bearing much fruit.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advent Devotion for Wednesday, December 13

From Mark 1:1-8 (Read it here: )

What do we make of this wild man, who lived in the desert , eating locusts and wild honey, dressed in a camel pelt? He came among the people and demanded repentance, demanded that the people turn away from a reprobate way of life toward a type of living that was truly alive. And to drive the point home, he baptized those who were willing to change, dipping them beneath the water to symbolize cleansing and new life.

It’s impossible to know what we would have made of John the Baptist. But we can get a pretty good idea by looking at how we treat the John the Baptists of our lives. Who are the John the Baptists of our lives? They are those people who are on the margins, people we don’t find respectable, who challenge us to change something in our lives.

For some of us, the homeless may be John the Baptist. We think the way they dress and smell and look and live are beneath us. Yet their way of life can profoundly challenge us to repent, to turn around. They challenge us to live differently, to re-evaluate what’s really important in our lives, to ask hard questions about what we truly need and want in life. The homeless have much in common with John the Baptist–and if we ignore the homeless, we probably would have ignored John.

For some of us, John the Baptist may be found in people who are more conservative or more liberal than us. In our society, conservatives are challenged to stay pure, to listen only to conservative voices. To associate with liberals is to risk one’s purity. Liberals are also tempted to think conservatives are backward and beneath them and thus not worth associating with. When we expose ourselves to other ways of thinking, we let in John the Baptist-like voices from the margins, which can challenge us to repent. If we ignore Christians who believe differently, we may just have ignored John.

Finally, for some of us, John the Baptist may be found in those people we like the least. Often times, when a person is especially irritating to us, it is because that person has a lot to teach us; we are threatened by this, and experience that threat as aggravation. It is precisely by becoming vulnerable and listening to that person that we can grow and change and repent sometimes. We may not agree with all or even much that that person says. But when we make ourselves open to those voices, we open the possibility for our own growth into Christ’s image. If we ignore those who bother us, we may just have ignored John the Baptist.

Don’t ignore the John the Baptist in your life today!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Advent Devotional for Tuesday, December 12

Based on Luke 22:54-69 (read it here: )

December 12, 2006
Luke 22:54-69

Jesus stood before the council at daybreak, having been beaten and bruised. We can hardly imagine at this time of year that the Baby of Bethlehem could be so cruelly mocked, so viciously stripped and striped. Finally, having beaten him (so they thought) into submission, they said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” And Jesus said, in essence, “You have already made up your mind who you think I am. If I tell you, you won’t listen. If I ask you questions, you won’t answer. Your mind is already made up and nothing said or done now can change it.”

Have you made up your mind who the Messiah is? Be careful how you answer. One of the most tempting forms of idolatry is to worship our conception of Jesus as opposed to Jesus himself. It is so tempting because it feels so pious to worship our conception of Jesus; it feels so good to do it, like it couldn’t possibly be wrong.

In the Bible, we get many pictures of Jesus: Jesus the liberator who came to set people free. Jesus the holy prophet who fearlessly took on false religion and lived a perfect moral life. Jesus the truth who came to guide us into all truth. Jesus the life who came to give us abundant life. You can go to the gospels and find evidence for Jesus being understood as all of these things and many, many more.

Yet in the hands of our fallible humanness, we always seem to find one of those labels we like and we make it the label. Suddenly, Jesus is the truth at the expense of his love. Jesus is the liberator at the expense of the truth. Jesus is the life at the expense of self-denial. Jesus is holy at the expense of the fact he ate with sinners and prostitutes.

When we do this, we face the cold fact that we set ourselves up like this council, so sure that we know who Jesus is, utterly unprepared to let him surprise us. When Jesus can no longer surprise us, when our understanding of Jesus is so calcified that nothing new can come in, then even if Jesus tells us something we did not know, something new, we will be unprepared to hear it.

And if we are unprepared to be surprised by Jesus, we are totally unprepared to answer any questions he might ask us. When Jesus says, “If I question you, you will not answer,” you can almost hear a faint hope that they still might allow him to ask those amazing questions: the questions that bore through to your deepest soul and make you turn everything upside-down while showing you love like you’ve never known.

But if we can’t let Jesus surprise us, if we insist we know everything, every question will be heard as a threat. We will hear Jesus’ questions that would bring us life and instead, foolishly, we will fight them defensively or we will run away in fear.

Be surprised by the Man before the council this year; be surprised too by the Baby of Bethlehem.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Advent Devotion for Monday, December 11

Here is the Advent Devotion for today, Monday, Dec. 11. It is based on Luke 22:39-53 (read it here: )

“This is the power of darkness!” says Jesus as the temple police come to arrest him. What does that phrase mean?

At its root, “darkness” has to do with a lack of integrity. Jesus says that in the daytime–for weeks, for months, for years in the daytime–he has preached in the temple and they have not ever touched him. In the light, he was untouched if not entirely unmolested. But now that darkness has come, with its seductive promise of secrecy, Jesus is threatened with swords and clubs.

In the darkness, people act in a way they never would act in the light. This is “the power of darkness,” then: the darkness gives people license to act in ways they usually would not, ways that run counter to their professed morals. This is why I say it has to do with a lack of integrity. Integrity implies a person acting with consistency, unafraid to be who they are, always, without exception. But darkness reveals hidden motives and desires we would never profess.

“Never do anything you don’t want on the front page of the New York Times,” my dad always said. Not that I actually can do it–in fact, neither could he! Nor can you simply avoid bad behavior by trying. Darkness is that powerful–it feasts on willpower, it demoralizes good intentions.

We humans were created “very good” by God, and deep down, we still long to live out that intention. Something in us still yearns to be “very good” in spite of the darkness. But it is not something we can do on our own, with our own power. It is God’s gift; as Peter says, it is God “who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It is he alone who can make us more than we know we can be; it is he alone who can break the power of darkness.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent Devotions for Dec. 9 and 10

Oops! Sorry that I forgot to post Saturday's devotional yesterday. As you can see, it's about failure anyway, so it's strangely appropriate.

December 9, 2006
Luke 22:31-38 (read it here: )


The word burns like acid in our spirits, eroding our sense of self, eating away at our self-confidence, devouring our will to try again. When we fail, we bury it as quickly as we can, afraid to look at our failure again for fear it will consume us anew. Most of us are terrified to admit we’ve failed; if we do so, others will know that we have not always been everything we’ve intended to be.

Jesus looks at Peter. Peter will deny and abandon him; Jesus knows this. Peter will stand in front of a lowly servant girl, terrified, and will say he has never met the man who has shaped his life these last three years, the man who he once confessed was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Inside, the travesty of justice ensues: Jesus is brought before the court and convicted in a sham trial. Yet Peter remains outside, scared to enter, scared to run, scared and failing, failing, failing.

Jesus knows this will happen. And so he says to Peter, “...once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Once you have turned back–once you have sinned and returned, once you have failed and been restored, you must use your failure to strengthen your brothers. That which you dare not even name for fear it will tarnish your reputation and hurt you again, that failure–that is precisely the instrument that God, in his amazing nature, will use to strengthen your brothers. It is not your successes that will strengthen others. Your successes may only discourage the other disciples, make them feel like they’re not capable of being like the great Peter. But your failures, your failures, these are things God can work with.

I wonder what this means for leadership in the church today. Maybe in years gone by, the church was led by Robert Schuller types: grand men in grander buildings, with grand pipe organs and orchestras and Powerpoints and fountains and doctorates and voices like thunder and thousands and thousands and thousands of followers who think they can do no wrong. But maybe today–and tomorrow–the church will be led by people who are not ashamed to say that

we fail.

Maybe today and tomorrow the church will be led by people who know that the only way failure can kill you is if you leave it buried and let it eat away at your mind. But if you expose your failure to the air, it dissolves, and indeed, the air is charged in a new way because of it; and those around you breathe the new air and find strength. When they know you have failed, they will be unafraid to try new things that might fail, but might just bring glory to Jesus in a way that has never been done before. When we share our failures, we strengthen each other. Maybe the church today will be strengthened because you were honest and humble and courageous enough to say

you failed.

Strengthen your sisters and brothers, failures.

December 10, 2006
John 3:22-30 (read it here: )

In a famous poem, Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”

Consider John the Baptist’s dream deferred, or perhaps gone altogether. Preparing the way of the Lord was his vocation. It was the name inscribed on its heart. It was what he was, quite literally, born to do. What happens to a man who lives to prepare the way of the Lord when the Lord actually arrives?

In John the Baptist’s case, this means that suddenly he has an awful lot of free time on his hands. Jesus is across the stream baptizing convert after convert, and John is suddenly baptizing no one. John–John the Baptizer, for goodness’ sake–has no one to baptize. He could no longer do what he was born to do.

The Jewish religious leaders are quick to point this out, hoping to drive a wedge of jealousy between Jesus and John, perhaps anxious to recruit the charismatic locust-chomping leader to their side. “How is it, John,” they hiss, “that Jesus is over there baptizing and you’re, well, alone?”

John’s not taking the bait, though. He says, “Perhaps I am not the groom at this wedding. But I am the best man–the friend of the bridegroom. And it would be a very foolish best man who would disrupt the wedding in order to draw attention to himself. After all, this is the bride and groom’s show–he must increase, and I must decrease.”

What happens to you when the dreams you have for your life are not realized? What happens when you hit thirty and realize that, despite your best efforts, you’re not going to play pro basketball for a living? What happens when you hit forty and realize that you’ve got a family to feed, kids to put through college, and the dreams you had of writing the Great American Novel fall by the wayside? What happens when it becomes obvious that the thing you always dreamed about doing, that one thing, is just not going to happen? Not today, not tomorrow, not ever?

It’s my prayer that in those times, you will know the same peace that John the Baptizer knew. Though he could no longer baptize, though he could no longer do what he longed to do, he took comfort in the fact that his deepest dreams were indeed being realized: Christ was increasing. Though it meant he must decrease, still Christ was increasing. When your dreams have failed to come true, take solace in the fact that Christ has overcome the world.