Saturday, December 6, 2014

New beginnings, same story

December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11; Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

I have always been struck by the opening line of Mark’s gospel: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ This week I read that Mark may have intended it to be the title of the book. That makes sense to me. So the first verse of the book is really the quote from Isaiah: ‘see I am sending my messenger to prepare the way.’ John is the messenger promised by Isaiah, and he is announcing that Jesus, the Son of God, brings good news.
There are three different endings to Mark’s gospel. One ends with the empty tomb and the women who ran away, terrified. The second ends with the women telling Peter about the empty tomb and Jesus sending the disciples out to share the good news. The third includes Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and to two disciples walking in the countryside, a commissioning by Jesus to share the good news, and Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
It is believed that the first ending – with the women running away terrified and saying nothing – is the authentic ending. The others were added by later scribes who thought the original ending was not sufficient.
But the first ending is perfect if we remember the first words: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. There is no ending … the story goes on and on and on, throughout history and beyond us to the next generations.
This is a typical story-telling style for that time. Cyclical stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that draws the reader back to the beginning. Our three lectionary cycle serves the same purpose: each year we begin with preparing for Jesus’ coming as a child, and soon after his birth we are preparing for his death and resurrection. For six months we learn of his teaching, healing, and preaching ministry. Toward the end of the lectionary year, we reflect on the coming of the reign of God and the time when he will come again in glory... which leads us back to preparing for his coming as an infant.
For today, the story is about John in the wilderness preaching, calling for repentance, much as Isaiah and Elijah did 500 and 1,000 years before him. Prepare your hearts to receive the one who is to come!
John is here at the beginning, though he doesn’t make it to the end – Herod takes care of that. Yet, every year, at the beginning of the church year, we are called to repentance, because once in a lifetime isn’t enough. Each time we repent, we claim a new beginning. And each new beginning feels fresh and exciting and comforting, and makes us believe that there is good news in our future.
There are plenty of places in our lives that need repentance.
·         The way we talk to each other or think about each other as “less than”
·         The way we treat our bodies as immortal receptacles which can handle whatever we do to them
·         The way we find it easy to put God in the background of our lives
·         The way we think about the poor as deserving to be poor
·         The way we resort to violence instead of the harder work of seeking solutions together
·         The way what we want as individuals is more important than the needs of the whole group
·         The way we are afraid to tell others about our Jesus, because we are afraid we will seem pushy and we don’t want to offend anyone

There are plenty of ways in which we need to repent and begin again. The good news that John proclaimed is that repentance is not the end. The good news is that with repentance, there is forgiveness.
Those of us who grew up with chalkboards, either green or black, know that erasers rarely removed all the writing from the board. By the end of the day, the board could be hard to read, but the teacher could use a clean chamois on the board and clean it to near perfection, ready for a new day.
Repentance and forgiveness is as if our sins were written on a chalkboard and God wiped them clean with an eraser. Most of the writing is gone, but some of the chalk remains. The chalk dust that remains on the chalkboard is the consequences of our sin, traces of the past that are harder to remove. The chalk dust is our old habits, which are hard to break, even though we know the consequences of them.
We need to be persistent in our repenting and beginning again. With enough practice at repenting and making changes, God can take a new chamois and wipe the board clean, with almost no traces of our sin remaining.
This is the promise of the one who is to come, the one promised by Isaiah and by John. God readily grants forgiveness, erases our sins, removes the need for guilty feelings, and frees us to focus on making the changes in our lives that will forever remove the need for repentance. God’s forgiveness brings new beginnings.
Last night I watched one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey believed his life was so terrible, he would do everyone a favor by dying. So, he planned to jump into the freezing river. Clarence the angel came along and helped him see all the people whom he had helped. Clarence led George to accept the love of the whole town, and symbolically, God’s forgiveness. George found a new beginning for his life.
We have heard this good news of Jesus’ forgiveness over and over. We have to work hard at times to believe it and accept it. Yet there are many people who believe in God but can’t understand how what they have done can be forgiven. That’s where we come in. We who believe in and depend on God’s grace have been given the task of telling and showing other people that grace is available for them, too. People who experience forgiveness, who discover it is even for them, also discover a new beginning.  
Let’s not be afraid to examine our lives for the things we need to repent. Forgiveness is readily available for us, if we claim it, over and over again. We can all use a new beginning.  Let’s claim that, too, over and over again.
The joy of Christmas is in admitting that we are not perfect, that we need to repent, and that Jesus, the Son of God, came into our midst bringing forgiveness and new beginnings.
Please pray with me. We are your people, Lord Jesus, imperfect as we are. Lead us to confess, to repent, and then to accept your forgiveness each day. Send us out to demonstrate your love and forgiveness to those who need to know you better. Amen

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Under construction, again and still

Isaiah 40:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

This year, Hope is using the theme for Advent called, “Prepare the Royal Highway.” Tonight’s topic is ‘Highway under construction.’ The prophet Isaiah charges us to build a highway for our God; make a straight pathway through the wilderness.
This can be taken literally. The area of Israel surrounding Jerusalem is hilly – low mountains abound. For example, when Jesus travels from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, he goes downhill and up again. When he is in the Mount of Olives, he can see straight across the Kidron Valley to the city. Not far from the city is the wilderness, a hilly, rocky, barren land, where straight, level roads are not possible without major construction equipment.
As I shared earlier, this worship service itself is a highway under construction. Long ago, I learned this saying: Blessed are the flexible, for they will not get bent out of shape. It’s a good thing to remember, since we also remember that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”
Any time there is a construction project, whether it’s a remodeling of the church kitchen, adding a new church sign, or the building of a road, there are always surprises and delays and cost over-runs. We are not always happy to see barrels and barricades, yet, we all need to be flexible.
I am involved in an Eagle Scout project this weekend, blessing some replacement headstones in an abandoned cemetery in Floral City. The young man shared with me that when the railroad was built through that part of Florida, the crew simply dug up the graves and threw the caskets aside. This actually happened twice to the same cemetery. The second time, the families posted guards to ensure that nothing more would happen to their loved-ones’ remains.
You and I exclaim against such construction practices. We know we would be more careful and respectful with the remains, even in an abandoned cemetery. If we take literally the charge to build a highway for our God, we must be careful to do it God’s way.
… We can think about this call from Isaiah as meaning to literally build a new road, with all its permits and barrels and mess. However, I think this call to build a highway for our God is meant to be a spiritual highway. How do we make a highway in our hearts for God to come to us? How do we take time in December, amid all the shopping and baking and cleaning and decorating for the celebrations we plan for Christmas? What else takes our time and attention this time of year? _____
Cyber Monday helps us at least with our shopping lists. We can shop at midnight in our pajamas and have our gifts wrapped and delivered to far-away places, if we want to. We can close doors on the clutter and dust so our guests can’t see that we have been too busy to clean everything.
But even this is not what God wants. God wants us to be available to notice the glory of the Lord. God wants us to clear our calendars enough that we have time to worship, and to really enjoy the gatherings with our family and friends.
In other words, we are to clear a pathway in our hearts for God’s presence to be revealed and recognized and bring us to rejoicing. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians give us some pretty clear blueprints for how to construct a spiritual pathway to God.
Paul urges the folks to do just what we are gathered her tonight to do. Be at peace with one another. Be patient with one another. Repay evil with good. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Do not quench the Spirit.
On nights such as this, and in many other times and places, we give the Spirit the space in which to move and construct new pathways among and within us. On nights such as this, the Spirit is able to join us as we rejoice in each other’s presence. On nights such as this, we are able to celebrate the gifts God has given us and encourage each other in using those gifts.
Let’s build a highway with many exits: some Lutheran exits, some Baptist exits, some Church of God exits, some African Methodist Episcopal exits, some Assembly of God exits, some Written in Heaven exits, some Roman Catholic exits, some Presbyterian exits. Whose exit did I miss? ___
Let’s show the community that more unites us than divides us. Together we can work to make way for Jesus to be plainly visible on all the highways and boulevards and dirt roads in our community. When we feed hungry people, when we support people in financial and emotional crisis, when we stand up against injustice, we make a highway for our God to travel on. 
Let’s go from here and remember how the Spirit moves among us to share that same Spirit with the world around us. Let’s make a pathway in our community for our God so more people can find God, can know how much Jesus loves and cares for them, and is calling for them to follow him on the pathway.
Such a pathway will always be under construction. That’s OK. Jesus knows we will always need new and different pathways if he is going to reach those he wants to reach.
What new roads will we construct this year as we wait for Jesus coming to us as an infant? Will we open our hearts wider to receive him and all that he came to teach us? Will we welcome folks we used to reject and exclude? Will we reach out to folks who think religion is a waste of their time, folks who realize they are being called to something, but they don’t know what?
Life, even a life of faithful obedience to Jesus, often causes us to construct new roads. We can be secure in the knowledge that Jesus has walked this way before, and walks ahead of us as we travel. Jesus may even be holding the shovel for us to use.

Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, Son of the God we all worship and adore, we ask you to join us on our life journeys. We ask you to rejoice with us as we prepare for your coming again as a child. And we ask that you guide us in constructing new pathways and new highways so we can reach out to those who do not yet know you love them with your whole heart. Amen