Archive for December, 2014

Matthew 12:33-37

December 10, 2014

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:33-37

Who comes to mind when I say “evil person”?

For many years, Adolph Hitler was our embodiment of evil. More recently, Osama Bin Laden became evil’s poster boy. Drug kingpins, gangsters, human traffickers, pedophiles, mass murderers…they and many more obviously make the list.

And yet something tells me that these were not the people that Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words. In fact, he was talking to a group of Pharisees who had already decided amongst themselves that Jesus himself was the embodiment of evil. As Matthew says, they were already conspiring about how to get rid of Jesus.

What was Jesus’ most recent offense? He had cured a demoniac who had been unable to speak or see. The Pharisees were convinced that “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.”

To accuse Jesus, the Son of God, of being in league with the devil is about as low as it gets. Jesus responded with language that would live forever – a house divided against itself will not stand, the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit – both of these phrases come from this chapter.

Yet these words are directed, not at our list above, but at a group of well intended religious leaders who clearly thought themselves among the good guys of the day. They knew they had the best interests of the people at heart. They weren’t violent like Roman soldiers or hedonistic like Roman rulers. They were the good guys. Jesus was the problem.

So it goes. To listen well to Jesus’ warnings against the evil that flows from our hearts through our words we do well to resist the temptation to project evil “out there”, locating it “in them”. The truth is, there is a little evil in the best of us and a lot of good in the worst of us. The cosmic battle between good and evil rages inside of us, all of us.

To all of this Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, words matter. Your Word slices into us, revealing our sin and our complicity with evils small and large, reminding us of your love which heals and forgives. Our own words can cut and slice into others, and they can offer comfort, encouragement, and support. Words matter. Open our eyes that we might see, heal our tongues that we might speak the truth in love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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John 1:19-28

December 9, 2014

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. John 1:19-28

“It’s not about you, it’s about Jesus.”

John the Baptizer was clear about that principle. He did what he did because he knew it was what God called him to do.

A long-time reader of these devotions, a retired pastor named George Truett Moore, wrote a book about John the Baptizer entitled “The Scrolls: John’s Voice in the Wilderness.” In that book, partly based on scripture and partly imaginative fiction, John has a deep sense that God is up to something in his life, but he doesn’t fully understand what it is. It isn’t so much that he blunders into his calling, it is more that God continues to reveal it one small step at a time. With a few surprising side steps thrown in to keep the dance interesting.

John points beyond himself. Yes, he drew crowds. Yes, people showed up to hear what he had to say. Yes, he faced opposition. Yes, he paid the ultimate price for his devotion to God’s purposes in the world. The whole time, he knew it wasn’t about him. It was about Jesus.

This is a good lesson for all of us, especially at this time of the year. Various voices in the church get all up in arms in December. People fight about manger scenes in public spaces or the appropriate greetings to share with one another. Congregations pull out all the marketing stops, make preparations for the big Christmas Eve crowd. It is a good time to remember that John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus – thus the focus is not on his finger as the tool that did the pointing, but on the powerful One who was to come.

I get this but sometimes I forget it along the way. Physically, I’m a big guy with a loud voice. Every time I turn around it seems that someone is expecting me to know what to say. This past weekend I wrote five sermons and preached six times. Three funerals and three different Sunday worship services. Over and over again I kept reminding myself, “It’s not about you, it’s about Jesus. Point the people to Jesus.”

We’re not perfect in that. We’re not perfect in anything. We’ll never be Jesus. But we will always be our own god-given versions of John the Baptizer.

Let us pray: Lord, we are so prone to looking for love in all the wrong places. We pin so many of our hopes and aspirations on people, places, and things that can never deliver what we really need. You alone are our hope, our deliverer, our redeemer, our guide, our Savior. May we so clearly keep our focus on you that we are free to point to you in what we think, say, and do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-8

December 8, 2014

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:1-8

In the old days, when we were in the car, running late to get wherever we were going, it was almost inevitable that an argument would ensue.

“Why don’t you just stop and ask directions?”

“I don’t need to ask for directions, I know where I’m going. (unspoken thought….I just don’t know exactly how the road we are currently on will get us there but I am certainly not going to admit that to you!”)

And so it would go, back and forth, until you finally got where you were going or gave up and just went home in a huff.

Thus the old joke that the children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years because Moses refused to stop and ask for directions.

Today, we just plug the address into the GPS and follow the yellow brick road.

Here in Isaiah, the promise of the new freeway through the desert, valleys lifted up, and mountains brought low, is spoken as a word of comfort to Israel. It is speaking, of course, of the promise that the exiled community will be released from bondage and allowed to return home. We tend to forget that.

When these words come to us through the voice of John the Baptizer, we assume that God is going to make a way for us to get to some place new. But I think the promise remains what it is – that God will take us back home down a road that makes the low spots bearable and the high spots surmountable.

We will get there, not by feats of marvelous engineering, but by trusting the God Positioning Spirit that whispers directions and invites us to courageously follow.

Or, as T.S. Eliot put it:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, light the path before us, that we might walk as you lead the way, bringing us back to a place of freedom, justice, and the beloved community you would create among us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.