Advent Oaks

If salvation is not another place and time but the reality of this world as it should be (what we mean when we say the Kingdom of God), then Isaiah asks us to think about how we might participate in ushering in what is, theologically speaking, the “real world.”  Being missional, in light of this passage, means profoundly challenging all forms of cultural Christianity that would make “church” an end in itself, a community of the saved devoted to maintaining a building, a set of programs, and a fellowship of the like-minded.  -Scott Bader Saye

This week’s lesson material encourages you to open class on the third Sunday of Advent by asking what salvation means to each class member:

  • Salvation means God’s deliverance in the here and now
  • Salvation means life with God in heaven after we die.

Of course, there is not a right or wrong answer here.  In fact, both are correct.  For most, however, one or the other receives most of our attention.  And much has to do with worldview, life circumstances, and what we first learned about God.

For some, life has been and remains difficult.  Others see how life is unfair for so many folks.  These may even feel guilty due to their relative ease and others pain.  Heaven offers them a hope that God does have something better and eternal that helps make sense of the suffering here on earth.  Goodness does win out in the end for those who can’t see a different outcome here.

For others, life has been hard and unfair.  Or they acknowledge to have lead a blessed life while acknowledging this isn’t the case for everyone.  Yet, they don’t assign hardship to God’s will.  It is the sin-filled world that works temporarily against God’s desire.  Humanity’s role is to repent for its participation in sin and join God in bringing about the world God had in mind when he called it out of the void.  They believe heaven will one day come, when everything will be set right.  But in the meantime, God’s people are called to be actively involved in bringing heaven to earth through righteousness.

When I say righteousness, I don’t mean for it to sound churchy – that makes it less meaningful and accessible.  Righteousness is really just desiring what God desires.  If heaven is a place where God’s intentions and plans are always met, then as Christians living here on earth, our desire should be that our living matches heaven as much as possible.  That includes how we treat our neighbors – whether they live across the street or across the world.

In our study today, we get to look at salvation in the light of the second group of people.  Salvation happens when a big change takes place in our lives and impacts the way we understand the world and our place in it.  We confess that God, through Christ, bring us salvation when we understand that without Jesus our sin-filled life would have its way in us.  First, we would be separate from God.  Our sinful behavior creates me-focused living that often takes advantage of all of God’s creation for our own benefit.  Sin leads us to abuse relationships – even all of God’s creation – all for the sake of me.

Salvation occurs when the Holy Spirit opens our awareness to the fact that we were made to know and follow God – to be in a relationship with God.  Our new awareness that we are headed down a dead-end path that we were not created for causes us to repent and seek God.  Seeking God leads to righteousness and righteousness leads to desiring God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Which leads us to our passage today.  Isaiah 61:1-4 is a familiar passage – Jesus quotes this passage in Luke 4, when he announces his ministry by reading the Isaiah passage from the scroll and saying “today, the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

So, what does God want?  For Isaiah, it is a people whose communal life is dedicated to God and whose behavior is so counter to the way the world behaves, others have to take notice.  Our society awards winners based on how successful they are.  How much money to you make?  How popular are you?  Do you look a certain way, drive the right thing, live in the right zip code?  None of these things are wrong in and of themselves.  But we have a way of making these things the ultimate – our God – so that we are willing to do whatever it takes to possess them, even at the expense of other people.

Isaiah, and later Jesus, says righteousness is all about wanting what is best for others, sometimes maybe, at the expense of ourselves, instead of what is best for us at the expense of others.  Jesus certainly modeled this as he was willing die on a cross so that our eyes might be opened and we might have life with God.

This is what advent prepares us for.  Are we prepared to welcome God among us who is willing to lay his very life down for our sakes?  And who challenges us to do the same for others?  Are we willing to proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim release for the prisoners, to comfort those who mourn and proclaim the Lord’s favor, at the expense of our getting ahead in the dominant system we live in?

For those who are, they will be recognized as “oaks of righteousness” by our creating and saving God.  Oaks stand strong and live long lives.  They lay down deep roots.  They do not spring up overnight.  Perhaps this means that it takes we humans a long time of growth and training to reach such a counter-intuitive and faithful way of life.  Or perhaps our faithfulness to the things God desires for his creation transforms us into strong, wise oaks.  Either way, to be compared to an oak is a good thing to hear from our Lord.

Finally, our lesson helps us see that God’s desire all along is for all creation to live in a loving, self-sacrificing relationship with one another.  In looking back at Leviticus 25:1-28, 35-43, we see that God sets up a way of living together for the Hebrews that requires concern for one another.  For sure, there are consequences for bad choices or behavior.  If  you don’t manage your resources correctly, and you may lose your land and your income.  But even when that happens, the people of Israel are counseled to not take advantage of people in need.  Rather, in all dealings with people who are in a weakened state, God calls his chosen people to deal fairly and justly.  We even see that God has concern for the land that nourishes life. Every seven years, the people are told to let the land rest for a year (and in doing so, allow their servants rest, too).  And every 50 years, the Israelites are to forgive any their debts of their fellow people and restore them to their former wealth.  They are to give everyone a chance, whether they deserve it or not, and start over again.

Why?  God says, “for the land is mine” Lev. 25:23 and “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.” Lev. 25:38.  God reminds the Israelites that he called them from nothing and gave them a name and a land.  They did nothing to earn it.  So treat each other the way I’ve treated you.

We’d do good to remember the same is true for us as well.  God started this relationship – he made us and gave us meaning.  Sin pulled us away from seeing and realizing our purpose.  God sent us his son as messiah, to redeem us from our sin and set our purpose back on its proper course.  As righteous oaks, we continue to follow in his Son’s footsteps in the present tense, longing after what God desires for all his creation.


Preparing for Christmas

December is the time of year that I pull out what I consider my favorite movie and watch it again and again.  While I like movies, I’m not one to watch movies over and over again or remember the dialogue enough to quote it word for word.  Except for one:  Christmas Vacation.  Christmas Vacation, though rather irreverent, puts a smile on my face every time I see it.  So this week’s lesson, all about preparation and good news, reminded me of a classic scene in the movie.

Christmas Vacation Clip

Clark Griswold loves Christmas.  In the movie, he is determined to give his family “the best family Christmas ever!”  In addition to the perfect experience, he also wants to give the best gift – a swimming pool.  Only problem is, he has to put a large down payment on the pool before he gets his Christmas bonus, a check he has to have to cover the cost.  He grows anxious when, come Christmas Eve, his check has still not shown up.    Finally, a knock at the door reveals a delivery man who has an envelope from the company.  Unfortunately, the gift inside the envelope isn’t quiet what Clark has prepared for.

  • How do you prepare for Christmas?
  • Does it matter how we prepare for Christmas?
  • Do much effort do you give to the secular Christmas and how much to spiritual?
  • Often times, there is a let-down after the busyness of the season?  Why?  Might the amount of attention we give shopping and parties versus the time we give preparing our spirits for Christ have a direct correlation?
  • When have you been disappointed when something you have looked forward to doesn’t work out?

This week’s lesson is about preparing the way to receive the good news about Jesus, the Messiah.  Our text is Mark 1:1-8 and the first verse will set the stage for our lesson.  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”

For Christians who have been hearing “the good news” or “gospel” for some time, this language can seem rather mundane and ordinary.  There is the temptation to get past this introduction and get to the meat of the story.  While Mark’s gospel obliges this request and doesn’t mess around with a lot of details, it also doesn’t include a birth story or any childhood mention.  He gets straight to the point, starting with Jesus’ baptism.  So this Advent season, sitting with Mark as our guide, we are left with John the Baptist’s message of preparation, repentance and forgiveness.  How does this message help us prepare for Christmas?  Knowing a little more about the context of Mark’s audience and the language he employees, even in verse one, will help.

The roots of an announcement of “good news” or “gospel” as a new beginning of peace and prosperity can be traced to the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah’s announcement of hope for the faithful exiles in Babylon (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1).  The herald of good news pointed to a hope that lay in the future.  The Old Testament lesson for Sunday (Isaiah 40:1-11) illustrates this.

In the more immediate context of Mark, “good news” is linked with the announcement of military victories.  During Jesus’ day a Roman messenger bringing good news may have looked like this:

The messenger appears, raises his right hand in greeting and calls out with a loud voice: Greetings…we are victors!”  By his appearance it is known already that he brings good news.  His face shines, his spear is decked with laurel, his head is crowned, he swings a branch of palms, joy fills the city, euangelia (sacrifices for good news) are offered, the temples are garlanded and the one to whom the message is owed is honored with a wreath.

By the time of Mark, the term good news or gospel was closely connected with the acclamation of Caesar Augustus as a divine man who by his victories had inaugurated a new era of peace for all the world.  An inscription from Priene in Asia Minor links the term “good news” to Augustus who is also called “savior.”  Against this background, Mark 1:1 would have been understood as both the fulfillment of the messianic hopes of Israel and a polemic against the cult of the emperor.  Mark’s message is the crucified, not the enthroned, should be worshiped for overcoming evil and ushering in a new kingdom of peace and deliverance.

Knowing this, Mark starts his story of Jesus with quite a strong statement.  This Jesus is significant.  Mark then quotes Isaiah 40:3, Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 when he refers to John the Baptist’s work of preparation:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

What is the significance of this voice calling out for Mark’s audience and why is it important for we modern Christians to hear during advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas?  Mark’s earliest audience would have heard the following Old Testament scripture in John’s voice:

In Exodus 23:20, God promises protection through an angel who will go before them to protect them and guide them as they take the land of Canaan.  God, through the angel, was preparing the way for Israel to be established as a light unto the nations.  The greek word for angel can also mean messenger.

Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and is addressed to a people who had grown indifferent to God’s presence and their role as light to the world.  Malachi’s name is literally “my messenger” and his aim was to stir his audience to a renewed commitment.  Malachi 3:1 portrays a mysterious and unpredictable God that an apathetic people would be fearful of encountering.

Isaiah 40 is a well known advent text that portrays God as comforter to a people who, in exile, have paid their debts.  The messenger asks his hearers to make a way for this forgiving God who stands above and beyond time while we are subject to finality.

Part of John’s call for preparation was baptism.  Baptism does not hold the same meaning this side of the cross as it did for Jews in the first century.  While baptism now reflects a change in status from death to new life in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice, both call for repentance.  Repentance is a recognition of sin and a complete turn from an old way of behavior to a new and different way.  Essenes, Jews who lived an ascetic life of piety and purity in the wilderness, practiced ritual washings that required repentance which brought forgiveness. But repentance had to be genuine – no saying one thing and then behaving in your old manner.  Baptism meant nothing if nothing changed.  Essenes may have influenced John’s understanding of baptism.

Josephus, a Jewish historian alive at the time of Jesus, reports that John the Baptist,

“Exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism.  In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God.”

So what does Mark 1:1-8 teach our modern ears in regards to preparation for Christmas and faithful living?

  1. Jesus is the Messiah.  He may come to us in unexpected ways:  as a baby born into poverty to an unwed mother, in the wilderness, or challenging the people and things which we give priority.  In the end, Jesus – the Son of God – is victorious.  His strength, however, is found in his selflessness, gentleness and his truthfulness.  Unlike other conquerors of the past, there is nothing for Jesus to hide or conceal, making his truthfulness both good news to those who are prepared to receive it and inconvenient for those who chose to avoid it.
  2. Repentance forgives and prepares.  The good thing about a beginning (v. 1) is that it conveys newness.  Genuine repentance recognizes we haven’t lived according to the way we were created to live. We haven’t contributed to God’s shalom (wholeness).  Genuine repentance says, “knowing what I know now about my life, I’m going to live in a different way.”  John’s baptism marked that moment in which folks could look back and say “at that moment, I changed my direction.”  Unlike the people in Malachi, those who sought baptism in the Jordan were ready to give up their apathy toward God and were thus ready to recognize God when God appeared.

So how do we confess that Jesus is good news today?  What stands in our way?  More importantly, does our confession match our action?  Are we genuine? Nothing could be more damaging in 2017 than a confession that is not complemented by behavior and action.  I’m afraid that nowadays, our society expects to be disappointed by our leaders.  How can our confession that Jesus is Messiah overcome the failings of so many leaders in religion, business, government and entertainment?

How might our preparation of the way of the Lord this advent help us recognized God at work among us?

Advent – Hoping and Waiting

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence – as when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot boil – to shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots!  – Isaiah 64:1-2, The Message


Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might; come and save us.

Restore us, O God;
make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

How long, Lord God Almighty,
will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
The son of man you have raised up for yourself.
Then we will not turn away from you;
Revive us, and we will call on your name.
Psalm 80:1-4;17, NIV

I always thank my God for you, because of the his grace given you in Christ Jesus.  For in him you have been enriched in every way … therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.

1 Corinthians 1:4-5; 7  NIV

For most of my life, these kind of scriptures weren’t in the same area code as the joyful Christmas texts.  I would have never associated them with the birth narrative.  As a child, I was too busy dreaming of the gifts I would receive on Christmas day.   As I grew older, I was busy planning what I would buy for those I cared most about or what parties and activities I would take part.  Oh, sure, I knew the reason for the season.  Keeping the story neatly in a manger and under the angels singing kept it tame enough for me to focus on other things.  There was no advent to derail my assumptions of what December was all about.  (see what is Advent for an excellent, succinct explanation)

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Discipleship after Charlottesville

The events of last weekend in Charlottesville have weighed heavy on me this week.  Especially as I read the accounts of that day and the varied responses from leaders of all stripes, both religious and political.   My concern comes in wondering how the will church respond?  And more specifically, how will our church respond?

I know how the church of Jesus Christ should respond.  And it would be unequivocally in step with the witness of Jesus, who proclaimed his mission in Luke 4 to “proclaim the good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

But part of why I am so uneasy these days is due to my worry over whether the church is able to follow Jesus’ witness into the fray of race, privilege and power and have an honest conversation.  Can the church name and confess the times and ways, both past and present, in which it has used its privilege and power for gain at the expense of other people created in God’s image? Are we ready or even willing to stand in solidarity with the minority and the immigrant when they are intimidated and threatened?  Are we able to name it clearly as evil?

Likewise, are we able to also acknowledge there have been large numbers of white Americans who have felt forgotten and hurt – especially as they see their livelihoods closed and sent overseas; as their towns that used to have life and vigor are now empty and impoverished?  Are we ready to hold in tension the reality that race does play a role in who we are, yet should not define our worthiness in the eyes of our neighbor as it certainly does not in the eyes of our creator?

There is real hurt, even anger across our land.  Political activism isn’t the only solution here.  Certainly, violence and intimidation, on any side is the opposite of a lasting solution that has in mind the common good.  What is our solution?  This is where you, the Life Community Leader, becomes important.  Are you prepared to help your group wrestle with these questions?

What is the point of Sunday school, or what we now like to call Bible study or LIFE community groups?  Yes, fellowship, care and support are a needed part of Christian community.  But our main reason for being is to create a learning environment in which disciples learn to:

  • Become critical thinkers who, guided by the Holy Spirit, interpret the Word for themselves, in community
  • Take what they have learned from Bible study and worship and apply it to decision making and action in their everyday life.

Pastors have often said they prepare their weekly sermons with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Which is to say:

Provided what I know about the Bible, how do I, as a Christian, respond to what is happening around me?

How do I lead other Christians to do the same?  This is a responsibility we all must carry – not just pastors or Bible study leaders.  We all have a responsibility to interpret the world’s behavior and our own behavior in light of the entire Biblical witness.

So my prayer for you as we face what could become a prolonged period of social unrest and even violence is that we muster the ability to faithfully guide our groups in interpreting the events around us through the lens of our faith in Jesus Christ.

This is of particular import in light of society’s lack of regard for truth.  Never has the water been murkier.  Today, truth is only what aids someone in furthering their cause.  People, through the power of social media and 24 hour news cycles, have become masters at distraction and confusion.  For Christians, we should be about the transparency of furthering the cause of Christ.

In the case of last weekend, the truth is that anyone who seeks to intimidate, threaten, frighten, or harm another of God’s creation based on creed, nationality, or color is wrong.  Without exception.  It is the truth of Christ and we must protect it from being confused.

I am not asking you to take a political side, to make a judgement call on statues or tell your class how to think.  I am simply commending you to place as the highest value for your class the desire to create disciples who seek the truth together, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.  But I also stand with you and pray for you that our starting point be one that reflects God’s love for everyone.  It must be.  My earnest prayer for myself and all our Christian leaders is that, in love, we humbly guide our church to love everyone – even the perpetrators of hate.  But we must always stand unequivocally against ideology and practice of hate.

Remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…  You are the salt of the earth … the light of the world.” 

I’ve read and processed a lot over the last few days.  Here are a few perspectives that I think really move the conversation forward:

From Richmond Christian Leadership Initiative – a checklist of Christian leadership practices when deciding “what should I do?”

This may be the best example of practicing Christ-like love for everyone in the face of persecution:

A perspective from a young CBF pastor, who also happens to be black, about Charlottesville and the church:

A first-hand account of the events in Charlottesville from an evangelical leader and steps forward.

And from Layne Smith, who has been serving at Chautauqua Institute in upstate NY, a quote from Michael Gerson:

Michael Gerson, conservative columnist for Washington Post said at the Chautauqua Institute this week:

“There is life and death, the Scriptures say, in the power of the tongue. Words can provide permission for prejudice.”

“If great words can heal and inspire, base words can corrupt.”

Our word choice is “…a test of our anthropology.”

“We need a politics that calls us to the common good, not the triumph of our tribe.”

“We need religious leaders who will emphasize the ‘imago dei,’ not the controversy of the day.”

“If people have the traits of compassion and generosity, the ‘thick walls of contempt’ will be broken down.”

“This is the strange alchemy of empathy. We serve our principles best by loving people even more than our principles.”


The Holy Spirit and Humble Leadership

“But there is one thing that has power completely, and that is love.  Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power…. I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” – Theophilus Msimangu, Cry, The Beloved Country

The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

The spirit of wisdom and understanding,

The spirit of counsel and might,

The spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. – Isaiah 11:2-3

These verses are the hinge that Isaiah’s prophecy hangs – that which changes everything in Israel’s world of exploitation, greed and war. It’s the Spirit of the Lord that makes the difference.

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Everyone has a Story

This week’s lesson from 2 Chronicles 15: 1-7 seems especially obscure and challenging. Yet, I think we can find some nuggets to share with our class.So far this month, we’ve determined that:
  • God’s Spirit (God’s Ruach, his breath) is in everyone.  Not everyone is aware of God’s Spirit’s presence – a part of salvation is the awareness that God is in us.
  • God’s Spirit can speak into a community through leaders and community members alike, to help give direction and identity to the people of God.
  • God’s Spirit is absolutely necessary in hearing and responding to God’s call.

So, in today’s scripture from 2 Chronicles 15:1-7, we find the first and last mention of Azariah, son of Oded.  Azariah has a message for Asa, King of Judah, and the people of Judah.  Simply put, if you’re with God, then God will be with you.  If you’re not with God, God will not be found.  While God could be understood as temperamental or this message could be interpreted as an “earn your salvation” theology, we know there must be more to this. After all, if this was literally the way God behaved, what hope would anyone have?

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When the Spirit Pushes Us Out of Our Comfort Zone

Question:  When / How Does the Spirit Speak to the Community of HRBC?  Numbers 11

The scripture lesson for this week, taken alone, will be hard to discuss at any length and then to apply without some further context around the scene. Yet, with some work this scripture is applicable and exciting for us as individuals and as a congregation celebrating our 53rd Heritage Day on Sunday. Stick with me and you will see why:

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