Sunday, January 8, 2017

An Ant, A Bee, And Man

"An Ant, A Bee, And Man"
Isaiah 42:1-9

A fellow minister stood up in his pulpit one Sunday and started his sermon by saying,

One of the unquenchable truths about our world is that we are all going to die.  It just so happens that some of you may already be dead.  It's just that we won't get around to burying you for 20 years or more.

The point he was making in his sermon was that there is a lot more to being alive than just walking around in an upright position, or breathing, or being able to keep your eyes open at the appropriate times.  There has to be something else.  Something not in the way of physical activity, although that's important.  But something intangible, yet very real.

I think the best word I can think of that can act like a peg on which I'll hang everything else I have to say this morning—that word is "purpose."  Purpose.  That intangible reality, that strategic ingredient that must be in the recipe of everyone's life in order for there to be life, must be purpose.

The problem is, so few know their purpose.  So few have a purpose.  Too many live life without purpose.  One motivational speaker once said, "You've removed most of the roadblocks to success when you've learned the difference between motion and direction."  So many go through the motions of life, but have no idea what direction their lives should be taking.  "Life," whatever that is, is making the decisions for them about their direction.  This happens not just for young people, but to all of us at different stages of life, such as when parents get to the "empty nest," or at the time of retirement.  At those times you have to define, again, your direction and purpose, not just be in motion.

The most basic questions about individual purpose are attempted to being answered in flurries of activity and motion.  You go no where and in the end accomplish little.  Or, more importantly, such busy, busy, busy-ness doesn't give a person a sense of accomplishment in life.  That kind of busy activity doesn't allow a person to look back on their lives in any measure of time and feel a sense of fulfillment about the purpose they served.

Dr. Will Menninger of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka once wrote,

It is so easy just to drift along.  Some people go through school as if they thought they were doing their families a favor.  On a job, they work a long in a humdrum way, interested only in their paycheck.  They don't have (purpose).  When anyone crosses them up, they take their marbles and walk out.  The people who go places and do things make the most of every situation.  They are ready for the next thing that comes along on the road to fulfilling their purpose.  They know what they want and are willing to go an extra mile.

At our "Grow the Church" team meeting this past week, I asked the team to watch a You Tube video that was a talk about millennials—that generation of people born after 1985.  In the "Vivid Vision" the team wrote at the start of our process, we decided we wanted to grow our congregation with a percentage of millennials.  So we better know who we're talking about.

In the talk, the speaker said most millennials want to have a purpose, they want to make a difference, they want to have an impact on their world.  But the reality is, this generation has the least joy of any generation.  I would define joy as the fulfillment of having made an impact, of making a difference.  Instead of joy, when asked how their lives are going, millennials simply say, "Fine."  But it's different than when most of us reply, "fine."  It's more like the millennial generation is fine with fine.  Even though they want to make a difference, if they aren't, that's "fine."

Somehow, we in the church need to help the millennial generation realize fine is not fine.  That we are ready to stand by them and work with them to have the kind of impact on the world they dream about.  To fulfill a purpose that makes life good, and joy-full.

The trouble is, that as humans, unlike the animals, we have choices as to purpose.  The ant knows its purpose.  It is instinctually born into it.  Build the anthill.  Gather food.  Protect the queen and her eggs.  The same is true for bees.  Build a hive.  Collect pollen.  Protect the queen.

Ants, bees and all other animals don't have to bother with the big existential problems of purpose and meaning we humans face.  Only people are confused about his or her purpose.  We all live under the same sky, but as humans we don't all have the same horizon.  Therein lies the trouble.  There are so many purposes in life we could choose.  (Vanessa wanting to be a doctor, but what kind of doctor?)  But we get so easily overwhelmed with the enormity of choices we could make, and thereby make no choice at all.  We settle with, "fine."

When Jesus rose up out of the waters of baptism, he had a purpose.  He knew what it was.  He saw the Spirit of God descending, he heard the Voice and everything was clear.  The same statement that is spoken to Jesus is also spoken by God in Isaiah read from chapter 42 earlier.

Most people expect that their purpose in life will be communicated to them in some way.  That they won't find it within themselves, but that it will come from outside themselves—hopefully from God.

The Biblical story is consistent in presenting God as the one who speaks, and Israel or the Church as a people who listen.  But how can you hear if you're not paying attention?  If you're not listening?  If you haven't for a long time?

It's important to realize if you are feeling purposeless, and if you are waiting for God's Voice to speak, those who hear God's Voice have taken the time to develop a real and intimate relationship with God.  What they hear comes out of that relationship, not out of the blue.

What can you expect to hear, in terms of your purpose from God?  Specifically, I can't really say.  Generally, based on my experience and that of others with whom I have talked, I think there are a couple of things you can expect.

First, you will hear that you will have to make choices and concentrate yourself and your efforts.  Discovering purpose means coming to terms with the fact that you can't divide yourself amongst many purposes.  Divided concentration will never bring one to a sense of accomplishment as does a single-minded purpose.

In Isaiah 42, God says of the special Servant:
…he will make sure
that justice is done.
He won't quit or give up
until he brings justice
everywhere on earth.  (vs. 3-4)

Notice the single-minded mission that creates the purpose in the Servant's life.  "Bringing justice" is that single minded mission.  Because the Servant is single-minded in that mission, he will be able to have a global impact.  Things will happen.

In the Peanuts comic strip, Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels, threatening him if he didn't.
"What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?" asks Linus.
"These five fingers," says Lucy.  "Individually they're nothing.  But when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold."
"Which channel do you want?" Linus stuttered.
Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, "Why can't you guys get organized like that?"

Purpose can be an effective power in life if there is a sense of cohesive singularity about it.  Purpose is hard to find when there are a lot of little purposes all clamoring for attention, or going in several different directions.  Dwight L. Moody once said, "I'd rather have a man who says, 'This one thing I do', rather than, 'These hundred things I dabble with.'"

But there is a grief process involved here.  Some purposes, around which we would like to build our lives, which may be noble in their own right, must be let go of in order to pursue a singular purpose.  There is grief in coming to terms with the fact that we can't do all the things we wish we could.  (Back to Vanessa and her future choices.)

I was talking with Benton about this over Skype last month, when we were having one of our deep discussions.  If you choose this purpose to give your life to, then that means you can't choose something else.  By choosing this, you have excluded that.  By grasping this as a noble purpose, you have to let go of your grasp of that as a noble purpose.  There's where the grief process comes in.  You end up grieving the loss of a choice you can no longer make.  But you have to do that if you are going to concentrate on one, singular, noble purpose for you life.  As the Lord's Servant chose:  bringing justice everywhere on earth.

And the other thing I think you will hear from God about your purpose is that it will be action, outward, other oriented.  God's purposes for people are not primarily for their own self-fulfillment.

At one point in this message to the Servant, God said, "…and I sent you to bring light and my promise of hope to the nations."  Do you hear anything in there about the Servant finding his own self-fulfillment?  The Servant is to be outward oriented to the nations (which is a code word for the other heathen, non-God believing people).  Not only is God asking the Servant to be other oriented, but those others are people who have nothing to do with God.  Doesn't sound very personally fulfilling, does it?

At another point in this message of God in Isaiah 42,
You will give sight to the blind;
you will set prisoners free
  who sit in darkness.

One of the first times Jesus preached in a synagogue, he opened the scroll of Isaiah and read these very words.  He told the people, "This is my purpose.  I am that Servant whom God spoke about.  This is the purpose to which I call all of you who want to follow me.  To extend yourselves beyond yourself to meet the needs of others.  To help people really see, and to set people free from their own self-imposed darkness."  In other words, a self-centered purpose does not qualify as a noble purpose.  Nor a Godly purpose.

What God promises is that you (yes, you) have the power to effect other people's lives in an eye opening, freeing, and releasing sort of way.  The poet, Swinburne, had a line in one of his poems:

…sealed as the voice
of a frost bound stream.

It's a wonderful image.  Image a running stream, but in winter time, the water is frozen over on the top so you can't hear the chattering of the water as it flows over the rocks, underneath that layer of ice.  The "voice" of the stream is still there, but can't be heard because of the ice on the surface.

Just like this stream, so are many people's lives.  Some kind of coldness covers the voice of their purpose.  They need someone like you to start chipping away at the ice, so they and their greater purpose can be released and heard.  You can free them from their frost-bound stream and help them move towards their singular, Godly purpose.  Your purpose, given by God, will not be for yourself, but for others.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Your Time Is Now

"Your Time Is Now"
(by Jennifer Barten)
Esther 4:14; Job 8:7

During Miss Kansas week, I had the opportunity to meet the CEO of the Miss America Organization and hear him speak twice. At each speaking event he said something that stuck with me.
During one speaking event, he met with Miss Kansas contestants and board members. At that time he told us to make two list. One with everything we like about ourselves and a second list with things we would like to improve about ourselves. He said to be brutally honest because no one would ever see this list but us. He then told us to pick one thing to work on improving from the side where we want to improve and once we feel that we have accomplished that starts on another item and that eventually we would become the person we want to be.
The other speaking event was on Thursday evening, which was just two days after my interview for this job. The one thing that stuck with me during his time speaking was when he spoke about how he became the CEO of the Miss America Organization. When he was asked, he was going to turn it down until his wife quoted the book of Ester asking him ‘what if you are here for such a time as this?’
As I said at the time I was two days past my interview for my current position here. I was obsessing over each question asked, how I answered the question and what I should have said.
The question I was just sure I screwed up the worst was someone had asked what part of the job I thought I would have the most issues with. I don't even remember what I said but after I answered Alan then said 'so you won't have issues preaching on Sunday if Steve is ever gone?' When Alan said that I said something about well I'm sure I can but I have nothing to say the congregation doesn't already know. You always do a great job Alan. Alan then talked about ANTS, which is an acronym for Automatic Negative Thoughts. Him giving me that talk during my interview, convinced me later that I said the exact wrong thing and that I wouldn't get the job.
Going into the interview, even though I was nervous and a little scared about it, I was pretty sure it was where God wanted me. I was sure enough that I had turned down another job just days before that I was more qualified for and was in my field.
After the interview though, as I said I let the negative thoughts work through me and the longer I waited for an answer, the more nervous I got.
On Thursday night though, hearing the CEO talk and him quoting Esters uncle, I knew if offered the job, my time was now.
Since that Thursday night in the Dennis Lesh Sports Arena, I have heard the verse said many times, in many different situations and I have realized God is telling me my time wasn't just then to take the job but that my time is NOW. Daily. As is yours. It is our time to be a better friend or family member, to be a volunteer, to step out of our comfort zone and do whatever it is God is calling us to do now.
For those of you who don't know the story of Esther, it is unknown who wrote it though, many believe Esther’s uncle, Mordici wrote it around 470 B.C.
Ester became queen to Xerxes of Persia in 464 B.C. after Xerxes has his first wife banished. Missing his wife, it is decided that a beauty contest, of sorts, will take place.
Esther, who was raised by her uncle had to go.
When they come to take her to the palace, Mordechai, a Jewish leader, insightfully instructs her not to reveal that she is a Jew or who her family is and after a lengthy process Esther is deemed the fairest of them all.
While Mordechai does not reveal his relationship to the new queen, he frequents the palace gates to hear news of Esther’s well being. One day he overhears two men plotting to murder the king and he quickly sends word to Esther, who reveals the plot to the king in the name of Mordechai. The plotters are caught and executed, and Mordechai ‘s name and deed are written in the king’s Book of Chronicles.
In the meantime, Xerxes appoints Haman as Prime Minister, who issues a decree that all should bow to him. Mordechai refuses to bow down before Haman.
Mordechai’s refusal infuriates Haman and so he goes to the King and asks for permission to destroy the Jews.
Mordechai quickly sends word to Esther that she must go to the king and stop this horrible decree from becoming reality. Esther, however, is afraid to approach the king. It is known that anyone who approaches the king without being summoned faces the chance of death. But Mordechai sees the bigger picture and tells Esther that maybe this is why she was put in this position and that her time is now.
Summoning all of her courage, Esther agrees to go to the king but she first asks Mordechai to request all the Jews to fast for three days and repent for their own sins while praying for the decree against them to be reversed.
After being granted to see the King she request  dinner and eventually ask that the decree be lifted, which not only does the King agree to lift the decree but after reading the Book of Chronicles makes Mordechai the Prime Minister and hangs Haman.
There is so much more to this story and if you don’t know it, I suggest you read the Book of Esther. It is a quick read.
The story has many different lessons but in my opinion the heart of the story lies in these echoing words “Perhaps you have come to this place, to this moment, to these people, to this challenge, for just such a time as this.”
Since these words were said by Mordecai, many people have said words similar to help motivate people. Martin Luther King Jr. wanting equality, Susan B. Anthony when she was helping women gain the right to vote and so many more.
While you may never be a name everyone knows or fighting a law or discrimination, we can all be a change in the world.
When Mordechai first goes to Esther she doesn’t think she is has enough power to change the decree, even though she is queen she doesn’t have right to go to talk to her husband, unless she is called upon. It takes her gaining courage and strength to decide to stick up for what she knows is right, even though she knows she could die for doing it.
We’ve all had that moments like this.  Where we know God is calling us to do something but we are afraid for some reason or another. The question is how did we respond? Did we respond with an open heart saying ‘Yes God! I am ready to serve’ or did we tentatively say ‘ok God if this isn’t too hard, I can help you.’ I know I’ve been both those people at some point.
We are all told to serve God and let him work in our lives. Allowing him to use the gifts and talents he has given us but sometimes that is more difficult than it sounds.
Along with it taking her courage, it also took her asking for help. She asked the people to pray and fast before she went to the King. We often think we can do things on our own and forget that we have many people in our lives willing to help. God put them in our lives for a reason. All we have to do is ask and they will tell us if their time to step up and help us is now.
Job knew better than most about his time being now, even though he didn't know what the situation was besides that he had lost everything.  He had no idea that God told the devil, take everything from him and that Job will still worship and praise God.
After losing everything, Job did just that. He turned to God with an open heart and mind and said he was ready for a new beginning because he knew God would provide for him.  And that is where we are at, a new beginning with the new year so open your heart and mind and ask God what you can do to walk like Job and Esther.
Maybe God won't say it's your time to face a king or prove to the devil that you will turn to God in all situations but will say that you should read the bible more or connect with an old friend or spend more time on you.  
No matter what he says this new year remember that each of us has a purpose and that your time is now. Daily.

Monday, December 26, 2016


Matthew 1:23; Psalm 23

Human beings all share a common fear.  It is the greatest human fear.  It seems to be a part of the human condition and it doesn't matter what gender, race, or nationality you are.  We all have to deal with this fear.  If we don't get through this fear in a healthy way, it will effect us for the rest of our lives.

It is the fear of abandonment, particularly the fear of abandonment by our mothers, who are usually the primary caregiver.  Another name psychologists give it is "separation anxiety."  We start going through this stage in our lives when we are just a few months old.  It begins to subside when we are around two years old.

The famed psychologist Erik Erickson called this first stage of human development, "Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust."  We need to know, as infants, that we can trust our environment.  That we can rely, without question, on our primary caregivers.  We need to be sure, if we are going to have a firm foundation for the rest of our lives, that our caregivers are familiar, are safe, and can be relied upon.

If we are left alone for too long of a time, or untouched, or our primary caregiver is out of sight and and out of range of hearing for too long of a time, infants begin a foundational feeling that life is unsafe.  We, when we were babies, will begin to assume that life is unsteady and threatening.  Without that assurance that we can rely on our environment and primary caregivers, we will feel alone and fearful.

By the time they are two, toddlers will have made up their mind if their environment is safe and reliable.  Or unsafe and unreliable.  They will have made up their mind if they can trust their primary caregivers so that when they leave the room, leaving the toddler alone and is out of sight, that child knows the caregiver will return later, and everything will be OK.

As I mentioned, Erik Erickson has proven that if we don't get through this initial stage well, it will effect all the subsequent stages of our human growth and development.  As you have listened to me describe this primary stage of Basic Trust vs. Mistrust, you may be thinking of people who fit this description.  People who have never been quite trusting of others around them, and never feel completely safe and secure.  It's a terrible way to have to live.

I think we go through the same development process in our Christian life.  When we give ourselves to Christ, it is like being spiritual infants.  Paul says the same thing when he wrote his letter to the Corinthian church—that we start out with spiritual milk, so to speak, until we can move on to more substantial "food."

We start out asking ourselves if we can trust this God that we have decided we believe in.  We start testing the boundaries of God's supposed caring, just like infants do with their new parents.  We want assurances that God won't abandon us, especially when we feel we need God the most.  That this God is not only the great mind behind the universe, but also the great heart who somehow cares and loves us each individually, as mind boggling as that is.  Will our assumed caregiver God leave us alone?  Can we get to the place, as human beings, where we feel safe under God's care?  That we are confident when we need succor and embrace from God, God will be there?

That's why Jesus, and this name, Immanuel, is so important.  As the gospel writer Matthew, tells us, the name Immanuel means, "God with us" or "God is with us."  Calling Jesus, Immanuel, is God's signal to us that, in Jesus, and through Jesus we work through the primary stages of our faith development.  That Jesus is the one, God has given us to establish our spirituality beyond our anxiety and attachment issues.  That when we ask the basic questions about familiarity and safety, in face of an unsure and scary existence, Jesus is the one, God has given us to establish that faith.  That when we feel most unsafe and threatened by what the world throws at us, Jesus is the one, God has given us to provide the safety and security we need to grow more and more secure.  That we can get to the point in our faith that even when it doesn't feel like God is in the room, or out of sight, that, in Jesus, God is always near, always with us.  That when we are trying to decide if the world is a place we can trust or mistrust, Jesus is the one, God sent to be the one we can ultimately and constantly trust.  That Jesus really is Immanuel, God with us.

Hanging in the US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a series of four paintings by Thomas Cole. The series is called “The Voyage of Life”. Each painting depicts a stage of life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age.

The first painting is of childhood. It shows a mountain with a dark cave at its base and a river flowing out of the cave. A beautiful timber boat glides out of the cave into a world of lush vegetation, flowers in bloom and a peaceful, gentle surface on the water. Inside the boat is a laughing baby with a Guardian Spirit standing right behind. The painting shows childhood as a time of wonder and joy.

The second painting is called “youth”. We see the same boat now travelled further downstream. The baby has grown into a teenage boy. He stands in the rear, confidently steering the boat towards a majestic white castle off in the distance. The riverbanks are still lush and green and the Guardian Spirit stands on those banks, watching the young man boldly chart his course. The painting shows youth as a time of dreaming and absolute self confidence that nothing can hold us back.

When we look at the third painting the scene has changed dramatically. The youth has become a man, the river is on the verge of becoming a raging torrent, and the sky has become dark and threatening. The castle of dreams is nowhere to be seen and the boat’s rudder has broken. Up ahead lie treacherous rocks, with white water crashing all around them. The man in the boat is caught up by forces he can’t control. With the rudder broken he cannot steer his boat. All he can do is look up to the sky and pray. Meanwhile the Guardian Spirit sits somewhat hidden in the clouds, but is still watching over the man. Cole is picturing adulthood as a time when the joy and wonder of childhood have been tamed by the difficult and tragic experiences of life, when the confidence and boldness of youth have been swept away by the harsh realities of life, but yet the presence of God is there.

The final painting is called “Old Age”. The battered and weathered boat has finally reached the ocean. The dark clouds remain but the water is still. The boat’s occupant is now an old man, and his gaze is fixed firmly on the clouds out there in front of him, clouds pierced by the glorious light of heaven, the light pierced by angels coming to and fro. For the first time in his life the man sees the Guardian Spirit that has accompanied him on his journey. It comes, takes him by the hand and prepares him for his journey into the heavens.

What an amazing picture of Immanuel.  What I noticed in the paintings, and maybe you did too, is that in each of the three paintings, the person's face, while in the boat, is turned away from the presence of God.  The boatman doesn't realize he is being watched over and cared for as he goes through each stage in life.  Not until the end does he finally recognize the Immanuel, the God is with us presence of the protecting Spirit.

There are lots of places in the Bible that point to this Immanuel, God is with us theme.  But none more clearly than the 23rd Psalm.  There are two affirmations in this Psalm that affirm the Immanuel character of God.  The first affirmation is at verse 4:

I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
    but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me…

When I was younger I read this wrong.  I read it as if the Lord were at the end of the valley, calling us on, encouraging us to keep going through dire circumstances, by ourselves.  That's what the person in the boat may have thought—that he was alone. But that's not what this verse in Psalm 23 says.  It says, "I won't be afraid (because) You are with me."  Which is the word, Immanuel.  Immanuel, God is with us, takes away our fear when we feel we are alone but are not.

The last verse of this well-loved Psalm is:

Your kindness and love
will always be with me
    each day of my life,
    and I will live forever
    in your house, Lord.

Notice, there are those words again:  "…will always be with me…"  It's the word, Immanuel.  Kindness and love speak to the deep and enduring commitment between two persons.  What I like about the paintings is that it shows this relationship of commitment starts when we are born.  Whether we realize it or not, whether we desire it or not, God has committed God's-self to us at our birth.  The psalmist—and the painter, Thomas Cole—recognizes that God's kindness and love will be shown in this steadfast presence of relationship throughout our lives.  That's why the coming of Immanuel at Christmas is so important for us to see and celebrate.

We will never go a day without the ever present kindness and love of God in Jesus.  God sent Jesus to let us know that Immanuel, God with us, is determined and intentional when it comes to showing love and kindness.  Of being with us, no matter what, no matter when.  May be you feel the Immanuel, not just at Christmas, but through every part of your life.

Monday, December 19, 2016

When Push Comes To Love

"When Push Comes To Love"
Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph needed to talk to someone.  He was getting nowhere on his own.  But who could he talk to?  Whoever it would be needed to be a good listener.  He could talk to his brother, but his brother would have flown off the handle.  Joseph could talk to his mother, but, well, you know how Jewish mothers are.  All problems, no matter how awful, can be solved with a good meal.  "Eat, eat; you'll feel better," she would tell Joseph.  But eating was the last thing on Joseph's mind.

Who could he talk to, then?  Suddenly, he thought of the perfect person.  She would be just right in a weird sort of way.  When Joseph and Mary were just children, they were matched with each other by a matchmaker.  Yeshiva had made the match and negotiated the deal with Joseph and Mary's fathers.

So Joseph went back to Yeshiva the Matchmaker.  Maybe she could help him find some insight into his awful dilemma.

Yeshiva was a contradiction to her craft.  She had never gotten married.  The boy she was matched with was killed when he was 12 years old.  He had been kicked in the head by a mule, so Yeshiva never married.  She turned her life over to God and the holy work of matchmaking, making her assignments, just as God had assigned Eve to Adam.  She spent most of her time watching the children play, and the insights she gained were uncanny.

Joseph had always thought of Yeshiva as old when he was a child.  He had no idea how old she was now, but ancient was a good description.  She wrapped her long, thin, gray hair into a faded head scarf.  She wore so many layers of wraps and tunics, it was hard to tell what shape her body actually was.  She blended in with the children so well, because she wasn't much taller than most of them.

Yeshiva had "welcome" written across her face by the way she smiled.  You could tell Yeshiva anything without fear because it was like she had heart it all before.  She had the wisdom of God, knowing exactly what to say or what not to say.

Joseph found Yeshiva sitting near the well watching the children play in the water.  He sat down beside her on a low wall and didn't say anything for a while.  He had a longing look on his face as he watched the children—a look that wished for those simple times again.

"Why are you not happy, Joseph?" Yeshiva asked, still with her eyes on the children.
"I didn't say I was unhappy," Joseph replied.  "In fact, I haven't said anything at all."
"You don't need to say anything," Yeshiva said.  "Your face says it all.  And the way you walk.  Your whole body is telling me something heavy has been lain across your spirit."
Joseph exhaled through his nose.
"See!  Even your breathing tells me," she said.
Joseph was silent for a time.  "It's Mary," he finally said.
"What, you don't like the match now that you are betrothed?  She is a great match for you!"  Now, Yeshiva turned to look Joseph in the face.  "In fact, your match was one of the best I have ever done.  Schlem and Hannah, not so good of a match.  But you and Mary—the best!"
"It has been good—until now."
"What, did you have your first fight?  Poor Joseph.  You are finally finding out what married life is really like.  Not all this kissy, kissy, giggly stuff."
"It's more than a fight, Yeshiva."
"Tell me," she said more softly.
"She's pregnant," Joseph murmured.  "Pregnant!" he almost shouted, to the point that the children stopped playing and looked over at him.
"Congratulations!" Yeshiva brightened.  "How could this be such a problem?"
"The baby's not mine," Joseph replied with his head hanging down.  "There's no way I can be the father, because we haven't, uh, you know."
"Oy, vey," Yeshiva said raising her hands in the air.  "This isn't the first time in the history of the world that such a things has happened."
"I'm afraid it is," Joseph replied dryly.
"What, you are trying to tell me a girl hasn't come up with child out of wedlock before?  Where have you been living?  I just didn't think May would ever be that kind of girl."
"I don't think she is either," Joseph said.
"Well open your eyes, young man.  Her belly will soon be telling you she is."
"She told me she's still a virgin."
"Yah, sure, and if that's true, I'm still a teenager," Yeshiva giggled.
"She said God has made her with child."
Yeshiva let out a loud, one-syllable laugh.  "HA!  That's a good one.  I have not, myself, heard that one before.  Blame it on God!  HA!  At least she is creative, this Mary is."
"It's awfully outlandish, isn't it?" Joseph replied.
"Her brain has become dried up like figs," Yeshiva said with a bit of anger in her tone.  "She will not make a fool of you, Joseph.  I will take this marriage contract away.  You will be free to find another."
"I don't want another," Joseph said with a sad but determined look on his face.
"What!?" Yeshiva exhaled.  "What are you saying?"
"I still love her."
"But you can't go through with this," Yeshiva said.  "I can understand you have feelings for her.  So, you want to spare her disgrace; I see.  You are a good man, Joseph.  She doesn't deserve you.  We can do this quietly, then.  I can find two witnesses, have them sign the document, and then…"
"No!" Joseph interrupted.  "No, no.  I don't want any documents.  I don't want to put her away."
"What!?" Yeshiva exhaled again, but this time with a sly smile on her face.  "Certainly you are not telling me you believe her story?"
"That's just the problem," Joseph said, hanging his head, staring at the little pile of dirt he was pushing together with his feet.  "I do.  I think I do believe her."  Yeshiva just sat and stared at him.  "I know, I know," Joseph went on.  "It doesn't make sense; and at the same time it makes all the sense in the world."  He sat silently for a while and finally said, "Because when it comes down to it for me, it's about her.  It's about Mary.  I don't know about all the God stuff.  I don't know if I really believe God is making her have this baby.  I don't know what I believe about God.  I only know what I believe about her.  Is she true or not?  Does she have the kind of purity of heart to back up such a claim?  I ask myself those questions over and over, and every time I come up with the same answer:  Yes.  Yes, to both questions.  I just know I believe in her."

Yeshiva shook her head in affirmation, and put one of Joseph's calloused hands in hers.  "Sometimes," Yeshiva said, "believing in another person is the beginning of belief in God.  If you can't trust God, or you can't believe, then trust in Mary's trust in God; believe in Mary's belief, and let that carry you for the time being."
Yeshiva gave Joseph's hand a squeeze, and then said, "Let me tell you a story.  A long time ago, I was sitting in a spot like this one watching children playing.  Most of them would point their fingers and laugh.  They would imitate my walk, and they would find a boy and a girl and make them stand together.  They would raise a stick over their precious heads, pretending it was my cane and say, 'The deal has been sealed.'  Then they would giggle and run off to play house or something.
"Most of the children were afraid of me, except one little girl.  She would come and sit beside me and tell me about her dreams.  One day, she came and sat as usual.  She said, 'Yesuva (she couldn't pronounce my name), Yesuva, I had such a dream last night.'  I said, 'Tell me about it child.'  She said, 'I dreamed that God came down from above and woke me up.  God picked me up and took me up to heaven, where we played and played.  I had so much fun.  Then, when I was tired, God brought me back to my bed, and waited until I fell asleep.  Then God went back to heaven.'
"Then she jumped down from the bench and ran back into the circle of children to play.  She didn't ask me what the dream meant like she usually did.  It was as if she already knew the answer and she had, in her childish innocence, accepted the wonder of it."
Yeshiva and Joseph sat on the low wall watching two little boys throwing rocks, to see who could throw the furthest.  Joseph asked, "And that little girl was…"
"You know who that little girl was," Yeshiva replied.
"So all along you have known that God would do something powerful through her; that in her dreams God was preparing her for what was to come?"
"Yes," Yeshiva replied.
"And when you made the match when we were children, you knew."
"So why did you choose me for her.  What could you have possibly seen in me that would befit such a person as Mary?" Joseph asked.
"Because, my dear boy," as Yeshiva patted Joseph on the arm, "you have always been someone who has done the right thing, no matter how difficult.  And I knew when the day would come when God would place his hand upon Mary again, that you would be the only one who would think long enough to do the right thing."
As Joseph smoothed out the little mound of dirt with his foot, Yeshiva finally asked, "So, Joseph, what are you going to do?"
Joseph thought for half a second, smiled, stood, straightened himself, and replied, "The right thing, Yeshiva.  I'm going to do the right thing."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Are You The One?

"Are You The One?"
Matthew 11:2-6

I'm going to do a little name dropping.  Back when I was in college, at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, I met a girl by the name of Leilie Weyerhauser.  My girl friend (who would eventually become my wife), in fact was roommates with Leilie in the dorm.

So I got to know Leilie and her future husband pretty well.  So well, in fact, that I and my future wife got to be in her wedding.  Leilie had talked about her father a lot.  He was the CEO of Weyerhauser Lumber, a multinational company, that at that time, controlled most of the world's lumber supply and lumber-related products.  Through my conversations with Leilie, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of her father.  He was a huge benefactor to Whitworth College, and many other charities.  He was a Presbyterian, and active church goer with his family.

I got to chat with him a few times during the wedding weekend.  They were good conversations, but something seemed to be off.  He didn't quite measure up to what Leilie had told me.  I began to see a different kind of man than the one described to me.

After the wedding, held on their huge family estate in Tacoma, Washington, just south of Seattle, I was leaving.  I was saying goodbye to different friends and some of Leilie's family.  I shook hands with Leilie's father George and said, I don't know why, "Let's keep in touch."
He replied, "I don't think so."
What do you say after that?  Like I said, I'm not sure what I was thinking, or assuming when I said that to George Weyerhauser, CEO of this huge conglomerate, multinational corporation.  He knew I was headed into the ministry, so I wasn't hitting him up for a job in the head office.  It was just, "I don't think so."  In other words, "We're done here."

I walked away feeling like an idiot.  But I also walked away understanding my friends father a little more and a little less at the same time.  He certainly wasn't the person that Leilie saw.  And that's OK.  I understand that.  A daughter will see her father much different than just some guy like me who happened to be in her wedding.  I learned, also, not to let my preconceptions of someone determine how I saw them as a person.  It's better to figure that out through actual experience.

Most of us probably are like my experience with George Weyerhauser.  We form these ideas of how we think people are based on what we've heard, or read, from reliable sources.  Maybe you did that with your future spouse—you acted towards them based on your assumptions, and then found out they were totally different.  You can do that with a boss or a co-worker.

I've seen parents do it with their own kids, acting towards their kid as if that child was a certain kind of person.  Or a parent acts toward their kid based on how they want their child to turn out, and totally misread who they are as a person.

I've done that with other ministers I've worked with, totally misreading them, for the better and for the ill.  Some who I thought were morons ended up being insightful and fairly competent.  Others I thought were extremely gifted ended up being narcissistic nightmares in their churches.

It appears this is what's going on between John and Jesus.  Something happened to John's evaluation of Jesus between a time early in Matthew's gospel, and here in the middle of it where John asks his question:  "Are you the one…"  At first, John said of Jesus that this was a person he, John, was not worthy to even carry Jesus' sandals.  That Jesus was more powerful.  That Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  John sounds really sure about Jesus, who he is and what he's about.

But now, in the story read this morning, John's not so sure about this Jesus guy.  "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"  John is wondering if he's misread who Jesus is.  The stories John was hearing about Jesus weren't meeting his own, personal expectations.  John seemed to be expecting a different kind of Savior.

John's views of Jesus as the Messiah would have been forged by his many years spent in an Essene community.  The Essene's were a strict Jewish religious community who lived in caves around the Dead Sea.  The Essene communities started up around 2 B.C.  Only men were allowed in these severely monastic and communal groups.  It took a year or two of rigorous practices to even qualify to be a part of an Essene community.  The Essene's believed they were the true Jews, separating themselves from normal Jewish society, especially the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.

The main area of study for the Essene's was the coming Messiah.  They had huge expectations of what they thought the Messiah was supposed to be like, based on years of study in the Jewish scriptures.  The Essene's believed that there wouldn't be just one Messiah, but two who would appear.  There would be a King David kind of Messiah who would be a royal and military leader of the nation of Israel.  And the Essene's believed there would be a High Priestly Aaron type of Messiah, who would restore the Jewish Temple to its rightful place of prominence in Jerusalem.

So John the Baptizer had these many years of severe study and expectation behind him.  He's looking at Jesus.  He's hearing stories about Jesus.  And Jesus the person is not measuring up to the Messiah expectations piled up in John's head from being an Essene.  Jesus didn't seem to fit either of the two Messiah expectations of a David King or an Aaron priest.

It seems John has two choices here.  Either John has to throw all his expectations from past Essene teaching out the window, and, by faith believe Jesus is the Savior.  Or, John can keep his Essene teachings and expectations, and throw Jesus out the window as not the Messiah.

We all have that choice when we meet someone new.  If we are unwilling to let them be who they are, we have to jam them to fit into our box of expectations.  If we are willing to let them be who they are, we throw the expectation box away, and roll with the relationship—with the person as they are.  That's John's dilemma.  That's what John is dealing with here in his question of Jesus.

We're dealing with the Savior.  We probably didn't have many, or any clear-cut and entrenched expectations of the Savior, like the Essenes did.  We may not have had someone tell us about Jesus way ahead of time, so we could build up these expectations over time.  And I wonder, which is better?  Going into belief in Jesus with a lot of specific expectations, or having none at all?

Just like the Essenes had expectations for two kinds of Messiah's, based on their years of study and religiosity, I think we are expecting two kinds of Messiah's as well.  Both Messiah's are based on two very strong and popular mythologies in our culture.

The first Messiah/Savior mythology is the super hero.  Think of how many there are:  Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Thor, The Flash, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Aquaman, The Silver Surfer, Iron Man, and on and on.  There are over 100 Super Heroes.  Many of them come from other worlds into our world to live among us and save humanity from evil.  Sound familiar.

We have this understanding that our world is in a mess beyond our control to fix it.  Or there is an evil force in the world that threatens to take us all over, and put us under its control that is more powerful than we are.  So we need some super hero to enter our realm and clean up the mess, or vanquish the evil force.  That's what our collective mythology, similar to the Essene theology, expects of a Savior.

The other popular mythology about a Savior in our culture is the Thinker.  This is the one who we expect to help us make sense of our lives.  Some Thinker, maybe the author of a self-help book on the current bestseller list, or some pop psychologist, with ideas and views that will finally help us see and experience the Truth about ourselves and Life.  We embark on reading such a book with the thought in the back of our minds:  maybe this will be "the one."  Maybe this will be the Thinker or the paradigm (as I explained last week) that will put my broken life back together.  Some Dr. Phil, or Dr. Oz, or Joel Osteen who will, with their schlocky bon mots of wisdom put it all together for us.

Both mythologies—the Super Hero, and the Thinker—are strong in our culture.  Just as strong as the Essene beliefs were about the Messiah.  We measure Jesus by those expectations.  We still ask John's question:  "Are you the one who is to come?"  The super hero who will save us from the grip of evil; or, the great thinker who will put all the broken pieces of our past together and help us finally feel whole?

Jesus' answer to John is also his answer to us:  "The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them."  Does Jesus' answer, answer John's question?  Or ours?  Jesus' answer was probably disappointing to John.  And to us.  Does Jesus' answer speak to the King David royal conqueror expectation, or the High Priest Aaron temple builder expectation of John?  Does Jesus' answer speak to our Super Hero Messiah expectation, or the Great Thinker truth finding Messiah expectation we have in our day?

That's why Jesus said at the end of his answer, "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."  In other words, anyone who doesn't think Jesus' answer is the wrong answer.  The Greek word for "taking offense" is scandalon, where we get our word scandalize from.  It means that Jesus hopes that we don't stumble in our faith in him because of his answer to John.  That we don't begin to distrust him based on our expectations of him rather than who he really is.  That we don't feel cause to fall away from Jesus because we don't understand his own self-definition.

Is Jesus' answer a long "yes" to John (and us); or a long "no"?  Or neither?  If you were blind, lame, a leper, deaf, dead, or poor, then, yes, this is a great answer.  But if you're just trying to figure out what it means to be a human being in a tough world, it may not be so helpful.

There are really two questions in John's question.  First, "Are you the one who is to come?"  That's a question with a yes or no answer.  Either you are, or you aren't, Jesus?  Tell us, yes or no.

The second question is, "(If not) shall we look/wait for another?  The implication of this question is, Shall we look/wait for someone who is substantively different, in a different class, or by nature, different?  Shall we look for someone who will measure up to OUR expectations?  As I said earlier, Jesus and his answer is forcing John to decide between throwing his expectations for a Messiah out, or throwing Jesus out.

I want you to ask John's question as we journey through the rest of Advent towards Christmas:  Are you the one, or should I look for another?  This question forces us to think about what our individual or collective expectations really are for a Savior.  "Are you the Savior I'm expecting?  Are you the Savior my extensive or limited biblical reading has formed.

The point we may need to think about, also, as we try to answer those questions is that Jesus often answered a question that wasn't asked, but should have been.  Based on Jesus' answer, what is the question John should have asked?  It would be more along the lines of, "If you are the Messiah, what kind of Savior are you?  How are you defining yourself as Savior, that I need to either accept or reject?"  "Who is really in charge of your self-definition about what kind of Messiah you are—you or us?"

That's what Advent is about—struggling with those questions of the Savior's identity, and any subsequent answers we get.  May God bless you as you ask, and as you hear his answers.

Monday, December 5, 2016

At Hand

"At Hand"
Matthew 3:1-12

The college basketball season is at hand.  That builds my anticipation, but also my frustration.  As a lot of you know, about 3 or 4 years ago, I gave up television.  I decided I was just watching too much TV in my spare time, and my brain was turning to jello.  So that makes this time of year really tough for me—college basketball is the only stuff on the "tube" that I really miss.  Realizing that the college basketball season is at hand, then, creates some mixed feelings for me.  (I listen to all the KU games on internet radio, which is actually kind of fun.)

Anyway, that the college basketball season is at hand, is nothing compared to a statement like, Your surgery is at hand.  That kind of statement makes the anxiety level escalate a bit.  Having a surgery date get closer and closer—being at hand—is a bit unnerving.

At hand.  Those two small, simple words, are so good at building anticipation or anxiety or both.

For something to be "at hand" it means that it is approaching, and that approach is closer and closer.  To be "at hand" means that something is coming near.  Either the good or the bad can be at hand.  A final exam.  A house closing.  Your mother-in-law coming for a visit.  A dentist appointment.

It's an interesting word in the Greek language in which Matthew wrote his gospel.  The word, "at hand" literally means, "to join one thing to another."  When John the baptist used the word here, he was making the point that an event in the future is going to be joined to this present moment.  The present and the future are getting closer and closer to each other, until one day they will be joined together--they will be at hand.

What is it that John the baptist says is "at hand"?  It is the "kingdom of heaven."  The kingdom of heaven, that time when God brings all things to fulfillment, is at hand.  That is, the kingdom of heaven, that promised future is getting closer and closer and, behold, has already invaded this present moment.  At a time of God's own choosing the future promise and this present moment will come together in the kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of heaven holds within it all present moments, and all of God's moments to come.  The kingdom of heaven is yet, but not yet.

The kingdom of heaven is a huge change in the way of the world.  Time--past, present, and future--have always been separate.  In this present moment, you can't go backwards.  Even by a minute.  The second I started this message became a second in the past.  Neither you or I can go back to that precise second and live it again.  It's gone.  It's left behind by this present moment.

And the future is unknowable.  Even the next word I'm going to say.  None of you know what that word will be.  But I just said it.  It was the word "none."  I just said it in my last sentence.  And now it's in the past.  The unknown future to be lived into.  All separate.  Unmixable.

Except as the kingdom of heaven.  The "at hand" of the kingdom of heaven does the impossible, mixing the future and the now.  In order for that to happen, in order for that huge change in God's world, God's order of things, God's kingdom of heaven to happen, a huge change has to happen to us and in us.

When the kingdom of heaven, the yet/not yet, the present and future of God begin their mix, three things happen  repentance, baptismal cleansing, and winnowing.  All three of these have to happen to each of us if we are going to be God's new people in God's new world where times blend—where present and future are blended together.  These three qualities of God's yet/not yet mix will have a huge impact on who we are as believers and generally who we are as human beings.

First, repentance.  We all know what repentance is, right?  Basically it's a reversal of direction of your life.  Repentance is what we do when we have made a life choice or decision, and we realize that was the absolute wrong choice.  So we choose, with God's guidance, to go in an entirely different direction.

It can be a change of mind, also.  You make up your mind to do such and such, or be a certain kind of person, and you realize that wasn't the right thing to do, so you change your mind.  Or you adopt a way of thinking, a point of view, a frame of reference upon which you hang all other things in your life.  But then you realize that frame of reference has gotten your thinking all muddled up.  So you make what's called a paradigm shift.

A paradigm is basically a framework upon which you build your way of thinking, your values.  It's like the stud work of building a house.  A carpenter can't put up the sheet rock for the walls if there is no frame work there to hang it on.  The studs are that framework.  But what if the framework of your way of thinking ends up being all wrong?  That framework doesn't allow you to build a life you're proud of, and you just keep getting deeper and deeper into a mess.

That's when you need to do the hard work of making a frame shift, or a paradigm shift.  In my mind that's just a fancy term for repentance.  It means having to tear down the old framework so you can rebuild.  That's the work of repentance.

John the baptizer is making a further point about why we have to repent, and why repentance is a major part of the kingdom of heaven.  At verse 8, he says, "Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives," (Common English Bible).  So, to repent is to effect a certain result in your life that could be called "fruit." What you recognize, prior to repenting, prior to making a paradigm shift, prior to rebuilding your life's framework, is that you aren't bearing fruit.  Your life may be a lovely tree, but you're an orange tree, and you haven't ever produced any oranges!  It's time to do something very different so you can produce fruit as you were meant to.  It's time to repent.  Reframe.  The kingdom of heaven, which is at hand, demands you do so.

Secondly, John says if we have repented, if we're ready to reframe our lives to bear fruit in a way that's pleasing to God, there is a ritual by which you signify that inner paradigm shift.  It's called baptism.  John told the people, "I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives" (vs. 11, CEB).

Interestingly, the word that John uses for "baptize" doesn't mean just once.  It doesn't mean "once for all time," as we believe as Presbyterians:  "Once baptized, always baptized."  Here, John has used the word to mean dip repeatedly for the purpose of cleansing.  It's more in line with the Jewish rite of baptizing or ritual washings.

For example, in a Jewish household, you have to wash your hands ten times before each meal.  It's like baptizing.  You have to wash your hands, then have someone pour water over your hands as a baptism, then repeat the process nine more times.  There were all kinds of ritual washings for purification like that in the Jewish religion.  It was a repeated dipping or pouring of water for the purpose of ritual cleansing.

Baptism, or ritual water washings, then became the norm for the Christians to signify they had repented.  Baptism as we now have it as a sacrament of the church is an action by which God signifies to us that we are his own--that our sins have been forgiven, once and for all.  But baptism which was the daily ritual washings were the way people signified to God that they had repented, and were now ready to make that shift in their lives to become a kingdom of heaven person.

And let's face it, we mess up--a lot.  We may end up repenting on a frequent basis, as we continually make those shifts after each mess up.  We need a way to ritualize our promise to God that, this time, our lives, our life direction, the stud work holding up our lives, is really going to change.  And so we dip repeatedly in the cleansing waters, for the purpose of signifying our inner cleansing promise.  That we are now ready to live as a kingdom of heaven person.

Third, and lastly, to be a kingdom of heaven person we need to do some winnowing.  With the kingdom of heaven "at hand", that is, approaching and preparing to mix its time with our present moment, we get ready by repenting, by signifying that repentance with cleansing, and then winnowing.

Farmers have big machines to do their winnowing for them.  They're called combines.  And they cost a lot of money.  Back in Jesus day, they did all that work with a shovel--a winnowing shovel.  The dried wheat stalks would be laid out on a large cloth on the ground. Those stalks would be beaten to release the wheat from the heads.  Then, on a windy day, the farmer would take his winnowing shovel, scoop up the wheat and throw it straight up in the air.  The lighter chaff, or husks, would blow away, and the cleaned, heavier wheat seed would fall back down to the cloth.

Using this imagery, John talked to the people about the final process by which the coming Savior would prepare the people for the approaching kingdom of heaven:  "The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands.  He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn.  But he will burn the husks with fire that can't be put out" (vs. 12, CEB).

The kingdom of heaven, that yet/not yet moment, that major work of God's future ushered in by the Savior that will become mixed in with our present, is a time for God's people to get rid of that part of our selves that really doesn't matter.  There is a part of us that really does matter to God.  That's what God wants to hold on to in us.  That's the part of us that God wants to save, the part of us that God says is worthy.  The fruit, if you will.

But there is a part of our selves that is husk.  It's worthless.  It did it's job of protecting the fruit.  But now that the Savior has come, the Savior will protect our fruit--those worthy, God-saved parts of us that will become the kingdom of heaven.  Those husks need to be let go of.  They need to be cast to the wind.  They need to be burned away.  They aren't the part of us that will go with us into the kingdom of heaven with the Savior.

Only the Savior can do that.  We can't.  We would try to hold on to too much that is unnecessary and useless.  We have to let the Savior do his shoveling work so that we can be totally released and ready to become kingdom of heaven people.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  The Savior is coming.  A big change is on the horizon.  The changes that God is making come near will as of us to make some major shifts so that we will be ready:  Repent,  a paradigm shift;  baptize washed, a constant dipping into God's cleansing waters;  and let God use the winnowing shovel on us so we will finally let go of the chaff in our life.

Sunday, November 27, 2016



Do you remember all those disaster movies that were hits a long time ago?  One of the first was the movie, "Earthquake" that came out in 1974.  It was the first film that came out in sensuround, a kind of stereo sound that was supposed to make you not only hear the earthquake, but feel it as well.

The storyline of the movie began with introducing the audience to a number of characters.  We watched and became involved with their individual stories.  We saw how their everyday routines were lived out each day.  As the audience, though, we knew the secret the characters on the screen did not.  We knew an earthquake was coming.  The people in the movie just went on with their everyday lives.  But we in the audience wanted to shout out the secret, "Watch out you idiots—an earthquake is coming!!"

That's about the way every disaster movie since then has been developed.  Whether it was an alien attack in several movies, like "Independence Day," or a volcano erupting out of the La Brea Tarpits in Los Angeles in the movie, "Volcano", we first get to know characters carrying out their everyday lives until the huge unexpected event drops in their laps.

That's also what is so scary about all the terrorist attacks that go on every day around the world.  You never know.  People are carrying on with their normal everyday lives.  They are going to work.  They get on the subway.  They get on a school bus.  They are standing around the coffee pot having their normal morning banter.  Then the subway train starts gaining speed and the brakes don't work.  Or a bomb goes off.

Each day, people look at the mounds of work on their desk in their cubicle, wondering when it would get done.  They were thinking about the argument they had had with their spouse that morning across the breakfast table.  And then everything starts shaking.

They were looking through their iPhones and iPads, sending texts and tweets, updating Facebook.  Then a spaceship shows up, shoots a death ray into the building, imploding it.

They were kissing loved ones at the airport terminal and boarding what they thought would be a routine flight.  They were asking stewardesses for a pillow for the long flight ahead.  They were opening their laptops once the OK was given by the pilot to turn on electronic devices.  Then the unexpected happened:  Snakes on a Plane!!

The movies and the real life events people have faced in our country lately have all served to remind us of the reality that none of us knows what's going to happen in the next moment.  We assume life is a stable progression of events, mostly predictable with few if any surprises.

But the truth is, we really can't be sure what unexpected things might be dropped into our lives at any one moment.  Possibly the very next moment.  As the bumper sticker from the late 1960's stated, "One atomic bomb can ruin your whole day."

Jesus was making the same point about the unexpected return of the Savior.  Jesus likened it to the time of Noah.  People went about their everyday lives.  They carried out their ordinary kinds of tasks.  From small, routine matters to big ceremonies they lived through their predictable, ordinary lives.

Then the rain started falling.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing unexpected.  Everyone saw the rain clouds forming.  Lots of people probably looked up and said to someone else, "Looks like rain."  Rain was a normal kind of occurrence.  Except this rain didn't stop as expected.  "It rained and poured for forty daysies, daysies…" until all life on the planet was drowned except Noah's family and their floating zoo.  That was totally unexpected.

That, said Jesus, is what the Second Coming of the Savior will be like.  People will allow their lives to be lulled into predictable routines.  They will become numb to the holy.  They will go on with their treadmill lives, with no Godly pursuits happening.  They will make their squirrel cage existence go round and round, but never make something happen with the Lord..  They will continue to live like rats in a maze, scratching down alley after alley, looking for a reward that doesn't even matter in the larger scheme of things; or maybe giving up on the idea that there ever was a reward somewhere in the confusion.

And then, BAM!!  The Lord will return unexpectedly, sweeping up the faithful and leaving the rest behind to face their fate.  No one will see it coming.

Jesus used the story of Noah for a very particular reason.  That reason was because he wanted us to see that this is the way God likes to make things happen.  The biggest events God has made happen, and will make happen were totally unexpected.  It's just the way God does things.

Let's use a couple of pieces of the story of Moses that I've been telling the kids.  Moses, out in the wilderness taking care of sheep, doing, day after day, whatever it is shepherds do.  And then, whoa!, there's a suddenly a bush on fire nearby, but it's not burning up.  Moses couldn't have expected that, no matter how creative his mind may have been.

Or, standing at the edge of the Red Sea, Pharaoh's army coming like a dust storm down upon them.  Had they escaped, just to be slaughtered?  But then God tells Moses to hold up his staff, and when he does, the sea parts before them, and the Hebrew people walk across on dry ground with two huge walls of water on each side of the procession.  Totally unexpected.

Or, moving to the birth story of Jesus, Mary's life unfolded with the normal, small town, Middle Eastern culture predictability.  She was arranged by her father to be married to Joseph, a man from a family on the good side of town, with a respectable occupation.  As a carpenter, Joseph lived by the rule, "Measure twice, cut once."  It applied to every part of his life.

Mary would have a stable life (pardon the pun) being a wife, and, God-willing, a mother of several sons.  Well, God was willing, only a lot sooner than Mary was willing.  In an unexpected way and with an unexpected message, God dropped his world-changing plan into her lap.

But more than that, God dropped the Savior into the lap of an unsuspecting, unexpectant world.  In one of the smallest of Israel's towns, in a cattle stall, while the rest of the world carried on, or slept on, God was birthed into his world.

With the same kind of unexpectedness, Christ will come again to end and remake all of creation.  That's how God likes to make things happen, says Jesus.  So you better be alert.  Those least alert will be left totally clueless.  You don't want to be one of those, Jesus added.

Or, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've heard Jesus is supposed to come again, but I'm not going to wait around for it.  I'm going to go on and live my life and not hold my breath.  I've got places to go and people to see."  According to Jesus, those kinds of people were drowned in the flood.  Or, will be left behind at the second coming of Christ.

Queen Victoria was one of the most loved Queen's of England.  She would make unexpected calls on the farm folks who lived in cottages or small villages across the British countryside.   Any day might be a royal day, and the humble Brits would put a chair at their table prepared for a possible, yet surprise, visit.

They would keep their houses spotless. They were a clean and wholesome people, but the Queen's surprise visits added to the joy of keeping their homes lovely. The old people who remembered her visits in their youth charmed visitors by the expression used in the residences across the countryside. They would say, "Perhaps today, she’ll come my way."

Or, as Christians, we should say, "Perhaps today, the Lord will come our way."  The people, with the first coming of the Savior, had all but given up that God would send such a one into the world.  They were already amending their expectations that God would usher in a "Messianic Age" but that an individual Messiah probably wasn't a part of God's plans.

Then, surprise, Jesus the Savior is born, and all their expectations went out the window.  It was God, who had to say, through Jesus' coming, "Perhaps today, the Savior will come your way," so that they could get back on track with what God was doing.

The kinds of questions you need to be asking yourself, this Advent, are questions like, How could the Lord catch you the most unawares?  What kinds of activities do you get so wrapped up in that you would miss today—the coming of Christ or the Second Coming?  What kind of qualities do you have that would make you "takable" rather than being "left behind?"  When are the times you are most attentive to God?  Most inattentive?

What I'm thinking is, if God is important to you, you better be ready for the unexpected.  You better be ready for anything.  And, especially, you better be ready to have God impose his agenda and his schedule upon you.  Because, in the end, ready or not, that's how it's going to come down.

"Maybe today, the Lord will come your way."