It’s the beginning (again), not the end!

beginning is nearWell today is the last day on the ancient Mayan calendar, so I expect there will be a lot of jokes and memes all over social media. Since the doomsday prediction is coming from a different religion, I doubt that the far-right fringe of the Christian community will embrace it. I did see a new phrase that has been coined by the Daily Beast: the Barackalypse, which refers to the way that Obama’s reelection has sealed the world’s fate. I remember when the turn of the millennium was approaching, there was a lot of excitement in the fundamentalist Christian community that some members of my family are connected to. They were stockpiling food and digging private wells, yearning so hard for Y2K to bring about a global computer crash. I’ll bet that more than half of the American middle-class secretly wants for the world to end. We have intractable social problems; we have few authentic friendships; our jobs are tedious; life feels like an exhausting treadmill. The thing is, this world which seems like an inevitable dreariness really can disappear without volcanoes and meteors and seven bowls of wrath. Jesus began a new world a long time ago; it’s just that very few of His followers actually live in the kingdom He created. Continue reading

Jesus come back (’cause we’ve gotten off track)

This is Advent translated into hip-hop for Christians who are able to admit that we don’t always do a good job of taking up our cross to follow Jesus and want to try again to serve our king by marching for His kingdom. Lyrics are below.

Continue reading

Occupy the manger #8: A season of peace?

Yesterday, I had to do the devotional for our church staff meeting so I chose Isaiah 9:2-7 which is the Old Testament reading for this final week before Christmas. This is the passage that describes Jesus as the “prince of peace.” We pondered together what it means to understand peace as the agenda for Christmas. Continue reading

Waiting on God’s revolution (2 Peter 3)

Sermon preached at Lifesign, Burke UMC 12/3/2011
Text: 2 Peter 3:8-15

Have you ever wanted to hit the reset button on life? I remember the original Nintendo had two buttons: power on the left and reset on the right. And whenever my friends would talk too much smack about beating me at a game, I could always hit the reset button so that the score would disappear and we would start over from scratch. I’ve had a similar feeling in adult life whenever my wife and I clean house together and the hopelessness of our clutter makes me want to hit reset. I say, “Honey, can we just burn the whole thing down, collect the insurance, and start over?” (She doesn’t think it’s funny.) Continue reading

Occupy the manger #3: the eternal Word (Isaiah 40)

Isaiah 40 is our Old Testament reading for Advent this week. Isaiah 40 is famous for being the prophetic text about John the Baptist: “the voice of one calling in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,” etc. But I was drawn to a different aspect of the passage when I read it:

All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them…
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever. [Is 40:6b-8] Continue reading

Occupy the manger #2: a landscape of glory (Psalm 85)

The word “glory” is one of those Biblical words that we use a lot without necessarily contemplating what it really means. I know there’s a movie Glory about black soldiers fighting in the Civil War that I’ve never seen. In one of my favorite childhood Disney Channel movies, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, Prince Hugh says before the climactic battle, “The greatest glory shall go to him who takes the greatest risk.” And then of course, there’s the popular church hymn that says, “To God be the glory for the things He has done.” Continue reading

Occupy the manger #1: God’s poverty

For the duration of Advent, I’m going to be focusing my blog posts on the concept of “occupying” the manger of Jesus, or making it our central focus in a time when so many things are competing for our attention. Every week in Advent, there is an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a gospel reading, and an epistle reading. I will be looking to these for inspiration as well as Mike Slaughter’s book Christmas is Not Your Birthday, which we are reading together as a congregation. My first devotion comes from Mike Slaughter’s book. Continue reading

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Sermon for Advent, 12/4/2010
Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Let me just be honest. John the Baptist frustrates me a little bit. He’s like the crazy uncle you invite to your Christmas party since he’s good for some laughs, and he ends up going on an awkward, angry rant that makes everybody leave. Instead of telling stories about his adventures in the desert eating locusts and honey, John calls the guests a “brood of vipers” and says that God is ready to cut them down with an ax if they don’t have “fruits worthy of repentance.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been putting in long hours this fall, so John’s prickly speech feels like getting kicked in the stomach after running a marathon. What do we do with John the Baptist? According to Isaiah, he’s supposed to be the voice in the desert who prepares the way of the Lord. So how do these words of his prepare our hearts for our savior King to be born in Bethlehem?

Preparing the way of the Lord means that something’s got to get cleared out of the way for God to come through. It seems like that’s what all this talk of axes chopping down trees and winnowing forks separating wheat from chaff is about. Highways don’t just fall down out of the sky and roll out across the earth like a red carpet; somebody’s got to bulldoze some land and blow up a few mountains to prepare the way for a road to come through.

I had first-hand experience with this once on a smaller scale. 10 years ago I spent the summer in a little village called Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Chiapas in southeast Mexico. One day the town gathered to clear brush out of a meadow so they could walk through it. The way they swung their machetes looked so natural and effortless. So I asked for a machete and starting trying to cut with it but it was quickly confiscated. They said, “No sirve, gringo. You’re going to cut your legs off with that thing.” I begged and pleaded until they gave it back, and it only took about 15 minutes for me to get a nice fat blister on the inside of my thumb. Life is brutal in a world without bulldozers where you have to blaze trails by hand.

So I wonder if preparing the way of the Lord is the same kind of vigorous labor on a spiritual level. Do we need to have achy muscles and blisters all over our hands to feel like we’re doing enough to build God a highway? John the Baptist says that the trees that don’t bear fruit need to get cut so that God can come through. Well, what counts as fruit? And what needs to get cleared away? Our interpretation of John’s words hinges upon how we answer these questions. Let me share one way of reading this that is natural to pastors like me who are always trying to get more people here and get the people who are here more involved. What needs to get cleared away is whatever creates scheduling conflicts in other peoples’ lives that keep them from all the things that we want them to do for God’s church. And the fruit is whatever those wildly successful mega-churches do that causes them to grow bigger just as many Methodist churches get smaller.

These past few weeks we’ve been very involved in outreach. We went out to the VRE station at 6 in the morning to hand out hot chocolate the week of Thanksgiving. This morning we hit the neighborhoods around here with door-hangers about everything that Burke UMC is doing for Advent. Several evenings this past week, I flipped through our church phone directory and called anybody whose face I hadn’t seen in worship to invite them to come out to our Advent activities. Does preparing the way of the Lord mean spending more hours doing church work and clearing out the rest of our busy schedules? Maybe it does, but I’m not sure, because putting in longer hours doing church work hasn’t made me more excited about the coming of the Messiah. How is it that we can spend more and more time doing church work but still not feel like we’re spending any time with God? Why do we long for Christmas to be over and done with already rather than savoring the excitement of the birth of our savior?

Maybe the fruit God is looking for is something different than achievements. And maybe the dead plants that need to get cleared away are not so much our scheduling conflicts but our unhealthy attitudes about our achievements. The Pharisees that John attacks in his speech were not slackers. They spent all their time trying to be perfect according to their stringent interpretation of God’s law. If anybody had fruit in their lives, it would have been the Pharisees. If they were around today, they would be the rock star church people who have time for three Bible studies a week and two mission projects and sing in the choir and serve on four different committees. So why did John the Baptist attack them so viciously and suggest that their fruit was unworthy?

John says to bear fruit that is “worthy of” or “fitting for” repentance. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia. It’s a combination of two Greek words – meta, which means “after” or “beyond” and noeō, which means to “think” or “perceive.” We oversimplify the concept of repentance in English when we say that it means proving we’re sorry by fixing our mistakes. Metanoia is not necessarily tied to a specific sin or mistake. It just means that something has happened to completely change our hearts and compel us to perceive our lives much more deeply than how we saw it before. The fruit of which John speaks is not so much evidence of doing a lot as it is a changed way of being. John is telling us to show with our attitudes that our hearts have really been moved. And if we want to be moved by God, then we have to stop moving first.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached that “true religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness. For it is not only ‘righteousness,’ but also ‘peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’… This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled… ‘the kingdom of God’ [or]… ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ It is termed ‘the kingdom of God,’ because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. [When God] sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ It is called ‘the kingdom of heaven’ because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.”

The four candles of Advent stand for hope, peace, joy, and love. When we open our souls to the reign of God, these are the fruits that it yields. As Wesley said, heaven opens up inside of us. We cannot “work on” having hope, peace, joy, and love; these fruits are gifts of God and the only thing for us to do is receive them graciously. God doesn’t want our achievements; He just wants us; and He wants us to experience the hope, peace, joy, and love that abound naturally from living in complete trust of Him. When we don’t trust God, then all of our efforts to serve Him and bring glory to His kingdom become like barren trees that we need God to be merciful enough to cut down. What are the barren trees in your lives? I’ve been worrying so much about proving myself as a pastor that I forgot to be a vessel of the One whose plan completely exceeds our understanding. The garden of my heart is so cluttered with dead plants that there’s no room for a manger in which a baby king can be born. I need for God to cut off the dead branches and toss my soul around with His winnowing fork until all the chaff has been shaken out from the wheat.

Preparing the way of the Lord is not a backbreaking act of labor for us to do; it is what God does for Himself in our hearts if we trust Him enough to let Him. And so the real question this Advent season is not “How are you getting ready for Christmas?” We should be asking ourselves instead how we have opened our hearts to the reign of God so that the hope, peace, joy, and love that only God can give will be what we feel as we wait by the manger for the birth of our King.

Lust, Advent, and Foucalt’s Panopticon

Seven Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 7 out of 7 –11/28/2011
Text: John 3:19-21

So what do you do when your seven deadly sin sermon series spills over into Advent? And the only deadly sin that hasn’t been addressed yet is lust because it’s the most awkward one to talk about? Advent is the G-rated time in the Christian calendar. It’s about angels and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes and petting zoos with three year-old shepherds. It’s about Mary’s giddiness upon having her first child that caused her to rush out and tell her pregnant cousin Elizabeth so they could be pregnant-silly together. How can we bring an R-rated sin like lust into the G-rated world of Advent? It is pretty awkward timing, but I think this creates a unique opportunity for us to rethink Advent. Not to sully the warm and fuzzy side of it, but to reexamine the question we often fly past: why do we need a savior to be born to us in Bethlehem this year? Advent every year puts the coming of Christ in the present tense, because Christmas is not just a holiday; it’s a new chance to really make Jesus our king. We need Jesus to be born into our lives this year every bit as badly as his birth was needed 2010 years ago.

Why? Because we’re captives just like the Israelites were, and we need a messiah no less than they did; only we aren’t held captive by foreign emperors; our captivity is to a culture that makes money off our sin, a prime example being the way that it ramps up our otherwise natural instinct to make babies into a socially devastating frenzy of lust because that’s the best way to sell the most products. Lust makes money, lots of it, not only through the use of sex in advertising, but through the expectations engendered by this advertising, which bolster the fashion industry, the diet industry, the workout industry, the plastic surgery industry, and of course, the industry that creates dirty pictures and videos which are the most lucrative form of e-commerce today.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that modern life is like an 18th century prison in which the prisoners’ cells are organized in a circle around a central guard tower in the middle called the panopticon. The panopticon has a 360 degree window that is back-lit in such a way so that no prisoner can see where the guard is looking, which creates the illusion of always being watched. The guard is always invisible, and the prisoner is always exposed.

This metaphor applies perfectly to the way that lust has shaped our society. On the one side, there are those of us who are imprisoned by the pressure of always feeling watched and having our bodies evaluated, which causes us to spend far too much time and money on our appearance and even develop eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. On the other side are those of us who sit in the dark and obsessively watch other peoples’ bodies, whether this happens at the gym, on the subway, or on our laptop screens late at night.

Both sides live in an imprisoning nightmare, the watchers no less than the watched. A culture of lust has caused both sides to be completely lonely and isolated from one another even within relationships in which we come together to do the one physical act that is supposed to make us feel loved and accepted. Thus, the gift that God created for us as a perfect means to experience intimacy and belonging has been corrupted by the world to become the very reason that we feel lonely. And that’s why this Christmas we need a Messiah to rescue us!

A traditional scripture used for Advent is taken from Isaiah 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Advent is the season that invites us to step into the light of Jesus Christ. This is how we are rescued from captivity to lust and all the other sins that our world uses to its profit. Walking into Jesus’ light is not an easy thing to do, but it is the most liberating thing that we will ever do. What Jesus says in John 3:19-21 captures the predicament we find ourselves in: “This is the verdict, light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done by God.’”*

When we’re living in sin, we prefer darkness to the light, especially if we’re enslaved to an ugly sin like lust. So we keep our struggles in the dark, stuffing them deeper and deeper into our souls while wearing the mask that everything’s just fine everywhere we go, especially when we go to church. The darkness feels safe – like sitting on the inside of the panopticon’s watchtower rather than being tormented by the spotlight of judgment on the outside. But the light of Jesus is not the spotlight of judgment; God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.

We see how Jesus’ light is different in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The story is grounded in a basic paradox about light: this woman went to fetch water in the brightest, hottest hour of the day because that was the best time not to be seen by anybody else. While our society might not make a big deal about a woman having five marriages, in Jesus’ day, this would have been scandalous behavior! And so this woman, hoping not to find anybody at the well when she gets there, runs into Jesus, and not only that, he’s a Jew, and Jews hate Samaritans like her. So what a surprise it was for Jesus to break multiple social rules at the same time by asking this serially polygamous Samaritan woman for a drink! And how much more of a surprise it must have been when it turned out that Jesus knew everything about her and still asked her for a drink!

Now let’s consider carefully what Jesus says. He tells the woman the truth about her life, but he doesn’t condemn her for it. He’s not fishing for repentance; he doesn’t try to get her to apologize for how she’s lived. Jesus’ approach is to give the woman a glimpse of a better way to live. The Samaritan woman has spent her life throwing herself at all these different men, chasing after a form of water that will never satisfy her thirst. So Jesus tells her about the eternal living water that He has to offer. It’s not a rebuke; it’s not a judgment; it’s an invitation to an infinitely more nourishing form of life. The world of lust sees beauty as a cheap and tacky thing – a set of measurements – how wide your waist is, how high your heels are, how short your skirt is. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to leave the world of lust behind, we discover a beauty we never could have imagined, because we learn to see things not according to their surface-level appearance but according to how they express the love of the God who created them. This Advent, Jesus invites us to drink the eternal living water that only He can offer and see the world with new eyes that only He can give us.

So what kind of Christmas season do we want to have? Will it be just another shopping season in which we let the marketplace tell us what stuff we’re supposed to buy to show our love for other people? The same profit motive that corrupts the meaning of Christmas is what has created the epidemic of lust in our culture and the prison of social expectations that has so many people in chains. And if we come to church as part of our duty to these same social expectations, then we’ll have the same pleasant, shallow conversations here that we do everywhere else while the wounds of our sin languish in the darkness of our souls. Or are we willing to step into the light of Jesus Christ, where His grace removes the need for anyone to hide in darkness?

If we want for this Christmas to really be Christmas, then it’s time for us to live in the light of the kingdom that is established by Christ’s birth. This call to step into the light comes to us not only as individuals imprisoned by sin, but as the community of people called to create a safe sanctuary for anyone who has been trapped by lust and other sins so they can come clean and step into a new life of freedom. As the body of Christ, this is our most important task, and it’s not something we should put on the backburner during Advent. Everything else we do this season – Christmas tree sales, live nativity scenes, or mission projects – is relevant only insofar as it contributes to our basic task of making Christian disciples and supporting each other in our battles with sin. It is sin’s secrecy which binds us in captivity. When we can confess our sins to people who love and support us, then Satan loses his power. So my challenge to you this Advent is to not let it come and go like every other Christmas season but make this the Christmas in which you make Jesus your king as you never have before by stepping into the light to receive your freedom. Amen.