Saturday, December 24, 2011

John's Genealogy

We're going to do something really exciting this Christmas! We're going to look at genealogies! This is a homily, so I will be brief. If we look at the first chapter of Matthew, we find a genealogy going from Abraham to Jesus. The whole gospel exhibits the Jewish Messiah. This is the point of Matthew, and the genealogy is the keynote in this gospel.

Mark begins with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We are going in a completely different direction here. This is confirmed in the gospel of Luke, when we follow a genealogy backward in time not to Abraham this time but to Adam, the original son of God, and Luke is a gospel that lifts up Jesus as the savior of mankind.

Now, we get to John, and the genealogy is carried back to all eternity. John goes deep. Jesus has a Divine eternal existence with God. Not separated: WITH God. Not just WITH God, but doing things, performing functions. Little things like CREATION, LIFE, and LIGHT. John's gospel isn't just dogma. He's revealing that Jesus' earthy life is just a continuance of something that had been going on behind the scenes for all ETERNITY. So, all of John's gospel show a Jesus who is simultaneously with God as he is with men and women.

John's gospel is the WHY of Jesus, the word made flesh. John's gospel is the WHY of Jesus' death on the cross. Voluntary surrender—pleasing to the Father—freely rendered on His own part. When we accept John's picture of Christ's earthly life as the visible half of a duplex whole—fully God and fully man—all our puzzles about Jesus vanish.

This is the most powerful lesson of Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Reminder

Just a reminder that we will be having Midnight Mass on Saturday, Christmas Eve, at 11pm, carrying over into the wee hours of Christmas Day. The service will be a Lessons and Carols service with Holy Communion. We will NOT be having a Christmas DAY service at 5pm on Sunday, but we hope to see you all at the Christmas Eve service!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wondering At Nothing

I want to study three different people today and examine how they react to supernatural events in their lives. These are their situations and how they respond to God suddenly being present. I also want to look at our own day and see how we compare to these three people.

The first person is Sarah, Abraham's wife in the the Book of Genesis. She lived in a time of turmoil. The Tower of Babel had been destroyed and God had scattered all the people to the ends of the earth. She is the wife of a nomad, and during the famines they go into other people groups, like Egypt, for food and water, and they lie about who they are, because they don't trust other people. So the people of the earth are in a dark place. The nations of the earth are at odds.

Now Sarah is pretty much a queen. Abraham has lots of servants and slaves and cattle and sheep and money and things. When they travel around the land, the caravan is probably enormous. He has enough resources where he can amass an army and go and overtake and wipe out the armies of four other kings, in order to rescue Lot. Sarah herself has handmaidens and servants. Abraham has to lie to people about her being his sister instead of his wife, because he is afraid the people otherwise will kill him and steal her, because she is so beautiful. Let's say she's very well off.

She's also a woman who takes things into her own hands. When she cannot bear children for Abraham, she offers her servant girl Hagar to bear his child. This is not something God told her to do. She knows that God has promised Abraham descendants, and so she is going to take matters into her own hands. We end up with the birth of Ishmael, and his descendants are still at war with both Judaism and Christianity to this day.

Now, the Lord comes to Abraham and tells him that Sarah will have a son. She hears this from the tent, and her secular-logical-non-supernatural thinking tells her that this is impossible. She is a worldly woman, and she knows how life works. She is too old to have children, and so she laughs—probably contemptuously—at the prospect of having a child in the next year. Then when the Lord questioned her, why she laughed, she denied that she had laughed. Not a very graceful reaction to the Lord.

The time of Abraham is about 2000 BC, and now we will go forward in time to about year 0. Just like in the time of Abraham, the world is in turmoil. Never was there a time when it seemed that the promises of God had failed. The house of David—Gone! Unknown! Forgotten! Israel was under the bondage of the Romans. The Jewish people had no worldly power, but they did have influence within their own group.

Zacharias was one such person. He was a Jewish priest, and it was his turn to go into the Holy of Holies this year. It is an honor, so we can say that Zacharias was in a good place, with his people, within the priesthood, with God. So, he goes into the private place with God, and he is visited by an angel, who tells him . . . that his wife Elizabeth will conceive in her old age. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Well, how does Zacharias react to this news? Does he laugh like Sarah? No, he doubted. He actually said, “How will I know that this is so?” Essentially, “How do I know that you are telling me the truth?” He was corrected in his thinking by a sign—his going mute.

Staying in year zero, still the same world in turmoil. The Jewish people are ruled over by the gentiles. And we have Mary in our gospel reading. We read the Magnificat together tonight, too. Was Mary powerful? Nope. Was she a queen like Sarah? Nope. Was she a high priest? Nope. She wasn't of any significance whatsoever. She was impoverished. She was obscure. She would be considered the “least of these.” She was humble. When the angel praised her, she was troubled. Why? Because the truly humble are troubled when they hear their own praise. The Angel doesn't tell her that she is going to give birth in her old age. She is young and pure—untouched. He tells her that she is going to give birth to the son of God.

In Mary we see perfect faith, humility, and submission. She is calm and thoughtful, like a morning cloud that reveals the sun, like the first star that appears in the sky after the storm has passed. Compare that with the way the others react. Does she laugh like Sarah? Does she doubt like Zacharias? No, Mary is composed and reflective, just like someone who wonders at nothing from the power and goodness of God.

Mary did not doubt. She only inquired as to the mode of the accomplishment. Now, think about it: a poor, village maiden amid her humble daily duties shows a more ready faith in the face of a far more startling message than the aged priest in the Holy Place amid the Incense. She doesn't laugh, because she is not worldly. She knows that with God all things are possible. She doesn't doubt it for a second. She's more like Sarah's husband who does not question the Lord when he is told to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He knows that god will not let Isaac die.

Now we zoom forward 2,000 more years to the present day. What kind of world do we live in? Again—one of turmoil, almost the same turmoil. We are anxious, and we think along the lines of, “God, where are those promises? You said to not be afraid, that you were going to handle all this. You sent your son Jesus, and he did this amazing thing on the cross, but that happened 2,000 years go, and there seems to be no sign of the evil in the world letting up!”

When I look around and see how little influence Christians have in the secular world—we still have to sneak around and do things behind the scenes, not out in the open for fear of persecution. Satan is said to be the ruler of this world, and even though we know he has been defeated on the cross, there doesn't seem to be any sign of his slipping from power. Christ's victory may seem like a slight wobble in the rear wheels of the tractor-trailer, but there's no sign of the truck tipping over and crashing. Just as the people felt 2,000 years ago and 4,000 years ago, so we feel now.

But in our helplessness, God finds opportunity, and nothing is lost in his sight. We're not slipping through the cracks. He's not off doing something else. He has not forgotten us. He is working on the fulfillment of all things, just as 2,000 years ago the fullness of time had come. This is Advent, and it is not just a remembrance of baby Jesus but of Christ coming again.

God has promised, and what do we do? Do we laugh like Sarah? Yes, because we know better. We will figure things out on our own. We will rather give our handmaiden up than wait for God to do it his way. We choose the worldly way. Do we doubt like Zacharias? Yes, because we have the truth already. We get wrapped up in religion but forget that the supernatural realm has power in the natural realm. We separate the two, and so when we meet an angel, we imply that he is a liar. We choose the isms over the spirit-filled life.

Are we composed and reflective like Mary, like someone who wonders at nothing from the power and goodness of God? No, but things are not hopeless. We have Christ, who took on flesh and died on our behalf. We make our paths straight so that he can live in our hearts. If we put him in the driver's seat, he will compose us. He will make us reflective like Mary. We will wonder at nothing from the power and goodness of God. We will look at the world in turmoil, and merely wonder at what God will do next, and we will be eager at his coming. We will keep watch and await his coming in glory.

The Living Church

I'm studying John Stott's The Living Church this week. Here are some of my thoughts on the first part:

Are we a Radical Conservative church? Radical means that we connect with the culture. Conservative means that we conserve the scriptures. Many churches do one of these things or the other, but seldom do they do both. A church that connects to the culture and doesn't conserve the scriptures becomes worldly, no different from a secular charity or social service group. A church that conserves the scriptures and doesn't connect with culture becomes elitist, ritualistic and cultish. Both ends of this spectrum lack faith. Does our church have the balance of connecting with culture and conserving the scriptures?

At the end of Acts 2, we see the church engaging in 4 activities: apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers. Let's take each of these things in turn, to see what a church should be:

1. A Learning Church: Pastors teaching the congregation is understood, but parents should also be teaching their children. This happens throughout the week. Finally, members should be teaching themselves and each other throughout the week as well. The pastor is included in this, too. As Diedrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, Christian community involves someone, regardless of role in the church, understanding something about scripture in a new way and unpacking that concept for the rest of the church. We teach each other. More on Life Together in future postings...

2. A Caring Church: This is outreach, serving the community, creating welcoming and safe spaces for people to go, harvesting relationships within other communities and forming new communities through those relationships.

3. A Worshiping Church: A church that worships properly has both formal and informal elements. For example, we can read the Nicene Creed together in unison, and then, ten minutes later, stand up and give individual testimony about a unique way the Lord has worked in our lives. A church that worships properly has both joyful and reverent elements. We kneel before the cross and then elevate our hands toward that same cross.

4. An Evangelizing Church: As Christians, we already have the Holy Spirit, but we still need to humble ourselves before God and seek the fullness, direction, and power of that same Spirit. As it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:19: "Quench Not The Spirit." We may not be able to stifle God's spirit. We may not be able to prevent God from doing his will in the world, but if we are not seeking God's fullness, direction, and power in our lives, God will be a gentleman and back down, allowing us to live lives as we wish. As I've said before, God is not a stalker. He won't follow us around and shout after us, "Why don't you love me?" He allows our hearts to change toward him. He reads our intent, and when he knows that our hearts intend to do his will, he unleashes his holiness upon us.

More thoughts to come on The Living Church.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rewritten for Flow

In the spirit of Thomas Cranmer, master of prosody, I have rewritten the two prayers for building and growth. They now have better rhythm and flow. I print them here for your private devotionals and to become familiar with them for corporate worship:

Heavenly Father, who takes households of faith and leads them through the wild to the place they need to be: lead us through this quest to the place where you need us, for worship, service, and light. Make us into beacons and found us on Your rock: Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Almighty God, gathering branches and grafting them onto the vine of Christ, mold Good Shepherd into a strong branch, filled with the life of your Spirit. Gather the lost and broken branches of the Banks, who need your loving Word and Sacrament. Graft us all together. Grow Your church and abide in us, as we abide in You, in the Holy name of Your blessed Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Party Potluck

After next week's service, on December 18, we will be having a Christmas Party potluck downstairs. Please bring a dish of your choice and join in the festive occasion. Invite a friend, too, so they can see Good Shepherd at its most hospitable.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prepare the Way for the Lord

Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord! Ever heard that song with all the angels clapping in a gospel choir? Everyone is dancing and smiling and singing? What a grand old time! And yet, what does preparing the way of the Lord mean? Well, it's not creating a little space in a field, like for a spaceship to land and for Jesus to pop out! It means something that will shake your soul to the core and won't make you dance and clap and sing and smile. It's not gospel choir stuff! It's get yourself into a quiet room and start praying to God with all your might stuff! Preparing the way for the Lord means to repent among other things!

From this passage about John the Baptist in the first chapter of John's Gospel, we learn a few things, but the first and primary thing is that first, before Jesus comes into a community, before he lifts us out of the depths of our despair and into salvation, there comes a loud cry of repentance. Essentially a John the Baptist must come before Jesus can. Someone has to help the community remove the massive boulder of sin that is weighing the community down. The community just sits there, thinking to itself, “something really heavy is pressing down, but I just can't figure out what it is!” Somehow the message gets through that the boulder needs to be removed so that Jesus' salvation can work. We have to clear the boulder out. We have to roll it away before we can plant the seed that will yield a harvest. Like those fields in Ireland you see that are lush and green and perfect and level and pure: they once were overgrown and weedy and rocky and uneven. Someone had to get on his hands and knees and pull all those rocks out by hand. Someone had to level the ground and plant the seed and water the land and nurture the soil. That's why the land looks that way.

After the hurricane there was a brick house on Colington that was ruined. I hear the owners donated the land and house. The bricks were removed from the foundation and the sides until there was only a wooden frame. Then the fire department came and burned the wood to the ground. Now there is a bigger and better place being built there as we speak. It looks like it is going to be huge and beautiful, but it wouldn't be possible until the old, ruined house had been completely and utterly destroyed. We can't just add Christ to our old house. We have to raze the old, sinful house, and allow Christ to build his new house on our foundation. No trace of the old house can be left. Our own foundation, too, is inadequate. Christ must come and level off the ground and remove the stones and establish a firm foundation upon which we can build.

Before Jesus can save us, we need to repent, and there needs to be a call to repentance. There needs to be someone who will say, make straight the way of the lord, get those rocks out of the way, level the ground! When we say make the paths straight, we are not saying that we need to remove our own sin first. We are saying that we are so protective of our sinful lives that we create little mazes around ourselves, so that Jesus will have trouble navigating the mazes to our hearts. When John exhorts us to make our paths straight, we are opening up a direct path to our hearts for Jesus, and then he can get in there and to the work that we are unable to do. Aside from all the metaphors, though, what does it mean?

Repentance takes a complete change of mind. It means that we have realized with our whole beings that we were on the wrong path and we are taking active measures to get ourselves on the right track, even if those measures are preparing the way, making God's path straight to our hearts. This is why planning to repent on our death beds won't work. We may be able to repent so late in life, just as the thief on the cross repented, but to plan to repent does not work, because our hearts have to change due to Christ's grace. We can't just force our hearts to change at the last second.

This is also why sandwich board preaching doesn't work. Seeing a sign on someone saying “the end is nigh” is not going to change our minds with the true, deep changing that the grace of Christ does. It takes a full-fledged change of our natures from head to toe. We are creating an environment for Jesus to do his work. We are making his path straight, his efforts easier. He could navigate the mazes we have set up in front of our hearts, but he sees the intent behind them, the intent that says, “I don't WANT you to come into my life, Christ.” He sees that intent, and he backs down, because he loves us. He doesn't try to beat love out of us. He won't abuse us. We won't stalk us like a rejected boyfriend who cannot understand why his girl doesn't want to be with him anymore. Jesus Christ is the perfect gentleman, and he backs down when we ask, because he actually loves us.

So, we make the environment, and we try to make a space for Christ to descend and do his work. I send out an email or two each week to almost 200 people on our newsletter list. Each week I get at least one person who responds that the message that week really moved and touched them. It's a different person each week. Something I write one week won't resonate, and then the next week, I put something out there, and someone really gets it and writes to tell me. One thing removed an obstacle for one person, made the path straight, and another thing removed someone else's obstacle.

The second thing we learn from this passage is that when Jesus does come to a community to save it, we recognize his presence by the descent of the Holy Spirit. John saw the Spirit descend and testified to it. Jesus received the Spirit with a prepared heart for the sacrifice that he would undertake. Do we see the fruits of the Spirit manifesting themselves among us? We healed a woman in this very room by laying hands on her. She had chronic headaches and after we lay hands on her, the headaches stopped and they didn't come back. We have served the community successfully a few times this past year, and each time we did it, we knew that we were doing what God had called us to do.

John the Baptist tells us, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” We may have seen the Spirit descend in this group, but has he remained? We may have a testimony of our fruits to the outside world, but do others see the Spirit manifest in our group when they see us? Does anyone say, Good Shepherd is the Spirit-filled church?

The third thing we learn from this passage is that in order to experience Christ's saving power, we must accept him as a sacrifice for sin. John the Baptist saw Jesus coming and said aloud, “Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world.” Now John was the son of a priest, and he may have been a priest himself, so when he said these words, there was only one meaning to his words: that Jesus was to be the lamb of sacrifice under the Mosaic law, and that all previous animal sacrifices were figuratives, and his sacrifice was the only REAL and TRUE one.

Finally, the last thing we learn from this passage is that wherever Christ is saving people, the attitudes of those people are altered in such a way that they wish to follow him with the deepest part of their being. John the Baptist never played himself up but always pointed to Christ. He always took the attention from himself and put it where it rightly belonged—on Christ. Christ was to be magnified, and we disciples, we apostles, must always stand in the shade. We must shrink as we grow him. Because when Christ begins to save a community, we are naturally inclined to draw near to him, not for our own glory—not to be celebrities by association—but to become small and cling to him like little mites. When we say things like, “God spoke to me and told me to tell you,” or “God is speaking through me,” or “I am God's messenger,” we are magnifying ourselves and not God. It's a sign that Jesus is NOT working in the community.

John pointed out Jesus to the disciples, and they immediately began to follow him. Jesus even turned to them and asked them what they were looking for. The response? Not, we are looking for salvation. Or we need redemption. Or even we don't know what we need. They merely responded, “Teacher, where are you staying?” We don't care what we are looking for, we just know that you, Jesus, have it! That's why we don't need to stress out about what programs we are offering or what strategy we have for reaching the community. If Jesus Christ is in the process of saving this community, he will be followed. People on the Outer Banks will have this undying urge to live life IN him. They will follow. They will cling to him. If and when Jesus saves this community, the church will grow and revitalization and awakening will take place.

So, four things happen when Jesus is going to save a community. One, the community is called to repentance. Two, the Spirit descends. Three, the community recognizes Jesus as the only true sacrifice for sin. And four, the community follows him and grows in him. Let us pray for those four things to happen not only in our church but on the entire Outer Banks.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Midnight Mass

Announcing that Church of the Good Shepherd will be having a Christmas Eve service at 11:00pm Saturday Night, December 24th at Grace Lutheran By-The-Sea. We will worship into Christmas Day. All are invited, and it promises to be a warm and welcoming time. Christmas Day service will be determined, depending on who is going to be available. We will poll our membership over the next few weeks.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How To Be Incarnational

My thoughts on The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay.

We know that God wants us to have a relationship with other people. We know that God wants us to participate in his kingdom, not to just “do church.” Lack of conversions is only a symptom of the larger problem. The problem is that we are hiding behind the walls of the church, and we WANT to be relevant to the outside world, but we are afraid that we will compromise the gospel message. We have something valuable here in Jesus Christ, and we don't want it to be corrupted, but we know we need to share it with the world. The answer is missional, and I don't mean becoming a missionary on the traditional level (traveling to poor countries and digging wells is not for everyone) but to be incarnational, which is a missional state of life, no matter where we are. Here are some tips on how to do this:

1. Have Jesus' Heart. Jesus attracted people. His personality, his charisma, his “being” attracted people. His message, however, repelled people. Today we soft-peddle the gospel message in order to attract people, but then the way we live our lives repel those people. This is essentially the opposite of what Christ did. Jesus had a heart for people. As it says in Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We need to have a heart for people, too, and when we are AROUND the people we are serving, we begin to have a heart for them. Studying about people groups does not give us a heart for them. Being around them does. When we have hearts for different people, we begin to bring in the kingdom of God on this earth.

2. Share the gospel first through behavior. What is being incarnational? First, it is about supplying a place for discovery, where people can see the truth in action before they hear about it. It's about creating an inclusive community and modeling the life of the kingdom in contagious ways. It's not about conversion as much as modeling Christ. Everyone transforms together. By living the kingdom life, people are drawn to us. When we verbally share the gospel with someone, we are pursuing them, and its easier to be rejected. This is not to say that the gospel isn't important. However, it is the MYSTERY of the gospel that prompts curiosity and not a direct, stripped-down attack of the gospel on a stranger. Instead, we bring heaven to earth and our behavior becomes the gospel. If we live the gospel first, then we will have plenty of opportunity to share the gospel in words.

3. Let God do the converting. By creating a belonging community, the believing members of the community will influence the unchurched of that community, creating new believers. The belonging has to come first, which is the model of the early church. God does the “converting” thing. He is God, after all, and he is perfectly capable. Community then becomes the human part of the missional/incarnational approach.

4. Don't try this alone. When attempted alone, the goal becomes getting people into church. Any great relationships we foster alone, no matter how wonderful, will dead end, because we haven't created a community of belonging. Alone, we are trying to attract them into our churches. The attractional way of doing church (come participate in our programs!) does not have communication nor discipleship nor belonging. However, when we reach the unchurched in missional groups, the unchurched will eventually convert into missional people. This is not an instant conversion but gradual. The end result is a deeper faith than the kind that comes with instant conversion. Creating a Third Space, or a discovery zone, will allow both unchurched and missional people to be together in a place, where the missional people will wear off on the unchurched, and eventually the unchurched will become missional people. When having a “discovery” event, make sure to invite missional people as well as the unchurched, so this blending of natures can take place.

5. Belong to other people's circle of friends as well as your own. You don't have the be the “leader” of your circle of friends. You can be part of another's circle. Jesus lived life for 30 years before announcing his message and becoming a leader. We, too, can belong to another's exclusive group. If they trust us and consider us “one of them,” then it will be easier for our friends and their friends to connect.

6. Adopt the habit of “leaving.” Leaving is another word for being “out there,” as opposed to squirreling ourselves away in our study. Have regular dinners with the unchurched. When you are doing what you love, try to include others. Go out of your way to build relationships. Look for chances to talk to others. Holiness is not the same thing as avoiding the world. We need to be IN the world, even if we should not be OF the world.

7. Be a listener. This essentially means being sensitive in our responses to others. Be sincere. We listen with our eyes, not our ears! Sitting in a coffee shop with someone and talking about their needs is better than performing a cold, demographic survey. Each individual is different and has different needs.

8. Bless people without strings attached. Love others, expecting nothing in return. Invite people INTO things. This is another way of serving.

9. Share your spontaneous life. God works in the interruptions. Share just being with another, even if you never talk. Even if you are just praying on your own or reading on your own or studying on your own, share the space with someone else. Monks in a monastery don't talk with each other, but they are constantly together. Provide a place for spontaneous connections.

And finally, to make this list ten items long...

10. Model your community after the Trinity. Each community should contain three equal aspects of life together: a) it should engage in social activity and fun “life” growth, b) it should engage in outreach and mission to the outside community, and c) it should worship, read the scriptures, and pray together. These three elements comprise a balanced, healthy life for the individual, so it should also apply to community—the body of Christ.