advent candles

We are in a season of Advent.  Expectant waiting.  It’s an exciting time!  Preparations are made.  Presents are wrapped.  Menus are planned.  Travel arrangements are put into action.  The month of December passes relatively quickly, yet it’s meant to remind us of the long wait of God’s people for their Messiah.  “How long will you hide your face from us?” the psalmist put to music the heart cry of Israel.  When he finally came, Jesus’ entry, in the humble form of a peasant babe, was surprising to say the least!

As Jesus prepared to leave the earth, he alluded to another long wait. (Matthew 25:1-13) He will return, he said, but we will not know the day or the hour.   He launched another season of Advent, one in which we are still expectantly waiting.

A Jewish wedding feast was worth the wait, an all out celebration!  The custom dictated that a groom and his friends would leave his home in a processional to the home of the bride where the marriage ceremony would take place, often at night.  The entire party would travel back to the home of the groom where a celebratory feast ensued.  Jesus told the story of ten girls waiting for a wedding party to arrive.  Because it was very late at night, they fell asleep while waiting and their lamps ran out of oil.    The five who had planned ahead and had extra oil, relit their lamps, went to meet the bridegroom and went into the feast with the entourage.  The five who did not plan ahead, had to rush to town to buy more oil and missed out on the party!

The crux of the story is the plea these less prepared five made to the bridegroom, “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”  These words were reminiscent of words in another famous sermon of Jesus. 

The disciples would surely remember…“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’  (Matthew 7:21-23)

Some of the last words Jesus gave to his beloved disciples were to “Keep watch!”  Our admonition is the same.  Observe Advent.  Wait with expectation!  Anticipate the arrival.  Be ready, not by adding good deeds to your repertoire, but by just being present, in relationship with the groom.  Knowing Jesus is the key. 

As beautiful as it is to remember his infant entrance into the world this time of year, he longs for you to receive him as Savior and Lord, the greatest gift of grace you will ever receive!  To know and be known is the greatest desire of every human being.  Jesus knows you completely and longs to be known by you.  He left his own Spirit for you, the deepest part of Him.  He’s revealed himself in numerous love letters, right at your fingertips.  May you dive into the greatest love story of your life this holiday season and for the rest of your days!  Spend time with Him.  Talk to him.  Listen.  He’s prepared a place for you at His table.  Be ready.  The celebration will be well worth the wait!

A Special Place

PicMonkey Collage

I have a special place, a mountainside in New Mexico.  I’ve thought a lot there.  I’ve prayed and communed with God in unique ways there.   Important transitional events in my life are marked there.  God revealed the way I should go forth from there.  Community was formed and still exists because of my time there.  My daughter has met God there too.  My son was baptized by my husband on that mountain, in the icy cold stream that runs through it.  A special place indeed.  If I had to choose one place to leave my final words, it would be on this mountainside, surrounded by the people I cherish most.

I love the scholarly title of Jesus’ last long speech recorded in the gospel of Matthew.  It’s called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25).  That means that he spoke these final words at his special place, the Mount of Olives, to his peeps, his cherished disciples.  Perhaps, this was no accident.

The Mount of Olives overlooks the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem.  The Kidron Valley divides these two mounts.  Many private gardens were found here, as gardens were not allowed in Jerusalem proper during Jesus’ day.  Perhaps it was a beautiful respite.  Jesus often found refuge and rest there, a place to commune with his Father in prayer.  (Lk 21:37, Jn 8:1)  He frequently gathered with his community, his disciples, on this hillside to regroup and commission.  (Mk 13:3)  Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem would be from this mount. (Mk 11:1)  He would anguish in prayer before his crucifixion in a garden at the foot of this mount.  (Lk 22:39)  His ascension into heaven was from the top of this mount. (Acts 1:12)   A special place indeed.

As Matthew 24 commences, Jesus’ disciples were confused.  Jesus was preparing them for the events that were about to transpire, but they still didn’t understand that he would die, raise back to life, and then ascend to the Father.  The kingdom he spoke of was still ambiguous, at best. The temple, across the valley, was still God’s dwelling place, in their minds.  Little did they know, He would soon make his home inside each of them.  They asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3)

Have you ever felt like that?  “Jesus, just tell me what’s going to happen and when this will all make sense.  Give me a sign.”  They asked the right person.  He gave them some specific answers, but I wonder how much they really understood?  As hard as it is for us to make sense of the details (I will leave the bulk of this chapter to your own interpretation), I think the disciples were even more confused, and emotionally stressed out! 

Jesus understood.  I think his most encouraging words were, “But concerning the day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only…Therefore stay awake, for you don’t know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt 24:36,42)  Jesus essentially said, “Look guys, I don’t even know.  Let’s stay awake, and watch and wait together.” Jesus, was listening and waiting for his Father’s direction to lead him to the cross, out of the tomb, and back to heaven.  He’ll just as patiently wait for his direction to come back to the earth, in the manner and timing of the Father’s choosing.   From his special hillside, Jesus encouraged his close friends with practical advice.

He follows with three simple stories to show his followers and us today how to watch and wait for Jesus’ return, as we follow our Lord and Savior in the meantime.  As we close out the year, we’ll reflect on these stories.

The Olivet Discourse.  Specially chosen last words from a very special place.  The last words of instruction by Jesus on his way to the cross.  Perhaps we should hang on every word.

Do We Really Have to Forgive?

debt free

Tit for tat.  It’s the American way.  I work for you, you pay.  You hit my car, you pay.  You hurt me, you pay.  You take something that’s mine, you pay.   You cheat me, you pay.     We are an individualistic society so the center of every dispute is the individual.  We want what is fair, for the person wronged, especially ourselves.

When Jesus finished up his discourse on community life with his closest followers in Matthew 18, it seemed to ruffle Peter’s feathers a bit.  Read Matthew 18: 21-35.  “Wait a minute…” you can almost hear him say, “Community life is hard.  Surely I don’t have to deal with difficult people forever.  Let’s simplify this.  Just tell me how many times I have to forgive my brother.  Surely seven times would be a good, Scriptural number.”

Jesus must have chuckled.  “Not seven, but seventy-seven.” (More like to infinity and beyond my friend!)  Then, in typical Jesus fashion, he puts this in words that his followers, to include Peter, can understand.  He tells them a story. 

Basically, one man owes his master what it would take 20 years of working every single day to repay, a lifetime of work for a Galilean fisherman.  The man knows that he cannot possible repay this, but he begs for more time to try to work and pay it off.  The master takes pity, compassionately empathizes with the man, and goes from ordering him to be thrown in prison to canceling the debt for good, and letting him go free.   Jaws would have dropped, for this was an extravagant act of mercy.

Then, Jesus continues, this same forgiven man goes out and demands one day’s worth of wages from a man who owes him this measly amount.  The forgiven man refuses to forgive, and instead throws the poor man in prison until he can repay his small debt.  This would have seemed outrageous to Jesus’ audience!  How could that man do such a thing?!

So the original merciful master, the one who had been so compassionate and forgiving, hears of what has happened and is outraged!  He harshly rebukes the man who refused to forgive.   He takes back what he said, and throws the first man into prison to be tortured until he can pay back every cent he owes!

“This,” Jesus said, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

What it boils down to, friends, is that forgiveness is God’s prerogative.   We want it to be fair, but our perspective is skewed.  We’re the sinners.  We’re the ones that brought shame to the reflective image of a perfect God when sin commenced.  He restored honor to his name by canceling the debt we owed but could never, in a million years of trying, repay.  He scorned the shame of sin on the cross, his way!  He cancelled the magnanimous debt, himself, in the form of Jesus Christ.  What was left was a family of believing recipients, adopted children, living together now as a collective unit, no longer individual entities.  He left his own Spirit to convict and transform each person so that together, they would form a collective whole, his very body, the church, for His glory!   We die to ourselves in God’s economy.  Our life is now hidden with Christ in God. 

Individualistic societies care about what is fair for each individual.  Collectivist societies don’t function this way.  The center of the dispute is the family unit, and honor for the family name takes precedent over what is fair for each person individually.  As honor bearers for our Father, forgiven beyond measure, we accept abundant grace so that it overflows from a receptive heart to others around us.  Forgiveness is God’s way.  As ambassadors, we are the forgiving ones.  We’re debt free, so we invite others to live debt free alongside us!

Lighten up, Peter.  You’re going to be forgiving for a very long time!

The Gift of Community

th (25)

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have
gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be
established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[f
] in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Matthew 18:15-20

We are entering the Christmas season, a season of giving and good will, a reflection of the great gift of God to mankind when he incarnated himself in the form of a baby, Jesus, and took up residence on earth. This gift, however, kept on and keeps on giving.

Not only did Jesus grow up to pay the penalty for sin that every sinner deserves, a vile death on a cross, but he rose again and punctuated every example and teaching that he lovingly gave to all who would follow him. He proclaimed good news to the poor and oppressed.   He healed and set people free!   He left part of his divine self, the Holy Spirit, to continue his work, to indwell each person who would believe in him and trust his saving work on their behalf! These Spirit led believers thus make up Christ’s body left on earth, the church, who exist to bring God glory and honor for the sake of the world. What amazing gifts!

Christian community, the church, is a gift. Do you believe that? It’s not as cute as a baby Jesus in a nativity scene, but it’s God incarnate nonetheless. In Matthew 18, Jesus highlights the way community life, in Christ, should function.   As children, dependent on a good Father, and with a healthy respect for sin, we look out for and care for one another. We gather in Jesus’ name, and he promises to join us, then in the flesh, now in the Spirit. We read Scripture together, wrestle with it, and apply it to our lives…TOGETHER. Inevitably, sin will be revealed. Jesus taught earlier in Matthew 7 that when this happens, first, you look at yourself and deal with the “plank in your own eye,” but not for your sake alone! You do that so that you can see clearly to remove the “speck in your brother’s eye.” This is a good way to live. You humbly care for one another, attacking sin together, aware you are forgiven only by the grace of God through Christ.   This is a gift! Even when the defenses go up, Jesus keeps it fair. There is no place for false accusation in the church. Even if it comes to treating an unrepentant sinner like a Gentile or tax collector, this isn’t a license for cruelty. You treat them like any other non-believer, seeking to reconcile them to God with love.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, Life Together, put it this way…

Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ? Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words or deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 36)

As you think about gifts this season, will you thank God for the church? Will you treat your own sin with honesty and repentance? Will you care enough about your brother or sister to point out sin that is destructive or harmful and seek forgiveness together? Jesus longed for his followers to do life together, to draw out the best in one another, and in so doing to make Him known by our love.