The TV is littered with all sorts of shows where people perform in front of a table of judges for a shot at becoming America's Next...(fill in the blank). There is all sorts of criteria involved, but at the end f the day it really does come down to a personal, gut-feeling by the judge. They not only have to evaluate the raw talent, but also go with an instinct that will determine if this person has what it takes to be a star. In some of the shows the audience can participate by voting for their favorite performer, and other times it's just booing or cheering on the judges. We have very little power to judge others, because the criteria (and criticism) to us will be equally applied.
Holidays often bring out the best and the worse in people; especially around our own families. We like to sit in our high chair and judge the food, the gifts, the neighbors, etc. I am guilty of falling into this trap around my own family. But in our secret, comfortable spot is where we are also the most vulnerable. We can be tempted to judge or we can learn how to reconcile our feelings that make us judge one another.
Henri Nouwen wrote, "To the degree that we accept that through Christ we ourselves have been reconciled with God we can be messengers of reconciliation for others. Essential to the work of reconciliation is a nonjudgmental presence."
He goes on to remind us that we are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label. "When we walk around as if we have to make up our mind about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we will only create more division."
Jesus says it clearly: "Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge; ... do not condemn; ... forgive" (Luke 6:36-37). And there is good reason behind this statement. Jesus points out that we too will be judged, we too can be condemned by others, but we can also be forgiven.
This is a very powerful call to show compassion to those who we are most intimate with, as well as people we know nothing about. It frees us from being snarky or ill-tempered, jealous or petty, or any other negative emotion that will tear at the core of who we are and what God has called us to be. Most importantly, it frees us to live with joy and compassion, love and forgiveness, and gives us a front row seat to the greatest show on earth...life.
I believe Nouwen sums it up best when he said, "In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation."
Nicky Gumbel of HTB and Alpha in London gives us this reminder:
”I am far from perfect. I sometimes find it hard to believe that God really loves me – especially when I mess up, fail or make bad decisions. Actually, no one is perfect – apart from Jesus. But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son to die for us (John 3:16). Therefore God must love imperfect people. In fact, ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). God knows that perfect people do not exist. We all fail. God’s love for you is bigger than your mistakes. God loves imperfect people. Everyone knows that their marriage partner’s not perfect, their children are not perfect, their parents are not perfect but we love imperfect people and if we love imperfect people perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that God loves imperfect people even more.”
If ever there were a perfect gift to give and to receive this Christmas it is this reminder. God doesn’t want us perfect in our obedience to rules and regulations but to be perfect in our faith. We are made perfect because of our imperfections. Not by our own doing but by all that God does for those whose faith has been placed in God’s love and care.
From the devotional Bible In One Year 2017, Day 257. (Acquired 12/24/18).
This week, Christian churches around the world are celebrating the third week of advent with messages of joy. The first two candles are lit to remind us that God’s hope and love is with us and within us. A great reason to rejoice if you ask me.
We’ve also learned that advent is a time of waiting. And our waiting is not passive but active. Therefore as we light the candle of joy we are reminded that God’s spirit of joy is with us. And that we are to live it loud...singing and shouting and rejoicing...even on those days when it feels like joy is missing from our lives.
I confess the closer we get to Christmas, JOY seems to take a back seat to anxiety and the pressure to be happy. This year seems to be no different. Oddly enough, the week started out amazingly well. On Monday I met with a group of people who filled my heart with so much hope and love that I had trouble sleeping that night.
I woke up Tuesday still feeling great but some time in the afternoon something or someone just snuck in and robbed me of that good feeling. Has that ever happened to you? You’re on top of your game, and then something happens that knocks you down? It’s not something you rejoice over.Needless to say it was hard to find the inspiration to write about joy...knowing I struggled to find it in myself.
But God’s Spirit has a way of rekindling that light from within – bringing hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless...and yes… joy to the joyless. This leads us to today’s reading from the Apostle Paul who writes in Philippians 4:4-7 these timeless words:
Because he chose to follow Jesus, Paul not only had the hope of God’s promise and the light of God’s love... he also had God’s eternal joy burning within him. The Holy Spirit lit up in Paul like a roaring fire – allowing the Apostle to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ without fear or worry. Paul is a living witness to the power of God who is reordering human hearts from the inside out. So it doesn’t matter where Paul is, or what he is facing. With God’s joy inside him, he can’t help but rejoice.
That is what I want you to take away today:
With God inside you, you too have God’s joy! So “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say Rejoice!”
Our challenge, of course, is finding it in our daily lives. In a materialistic world, joy and rejoicing are often synonymous with happiness and celebration. This might explain why we get more anxious this time of year. As my friend pointed out, joy and happiness are not the same thing. “Joy” she said, “is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. As long as we have God’s Spirit in us, we always have joy...But it doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy.”
We have all heard a parent say it doesn’t matter what their kids chose to do in life as long as they are happy. It seems like a good thing, right? Who doesn’t want their child to be happy? But this notion teaches us to believe that a pursuit of happiness will lead to joy.
Happiness is conditional. It’s something we pursue and find through other means. And that’s not always a good thing; especially when your pursuit of happiness is a vice... that harms you and your relationship with God and others. Drugs, work, exercise, material wealth, and even religion…can offer temporary happiness of some degree…but only God can give you eternal joy.
God’s joy is not conditional. It’s a gift given to us out of great love for us.
Paul sat in prison, content and rejoicing, because he knew what God’s love meant to him. Like Paul, our joy comes from the gift of love that was made manifest in Jesus Christ. It’s a gift that when opened makes us shout and sing and rejoice.
I know my joy is not based on ‘if’ God loves me...but ‘because’ God loves me. And Jesus is the proof of how much I mean to God. Jesus is God’s greatest gift for us– given without condition. If you want it, all you have to do is to make the choice to receive it. The gift of Jesus that God has given to you and me, is the hope we seek,...the love we desire,... and a joy that can never be stolen or taken from us.
Corrie Ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place illustrates this point. She and her sister, Betsy, had just been transferred to Ravensbruck,...the worst German prison camp they had seen yet. They were put into a barrack that was dangerously overcrowded and infested with fleas. Believing in the promise of God, they clung to Paul’s words: rejoice always, do not fear, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances.
Betsy and Corrie tried to thank the Lord for every detail of this prison... but Corrie had trouble thanking God for the fleas. As her sister persisted, Corrie eventually gave in and thanked God for the flea. In a Nazi prison camp, Corrie and Betsy openly share their faith. They held bible studies and prayer meetings without interference from the guards. Many months later Corrie learned how God made this possible. You see, the guards would not enter that particular barrack...because of the fleas!
“Rejoice in the Lord always...and do not worry about anything.” Sound advice to ponder and practice during our time of Advent wait. Taking these words to heart, I was able to find my joy again.
My long, dark week ended on a high note. On Friday we had a church outing to see the remake of...the Christmas classic, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It’s a tale of a curmudgeon whose tiny heart...is not only transformed but triples in size...by the kindness and love of another.
In that movie theater, the Grinch and I discovered that the joy of Christmas is not all the material things we have around us. Instead it comes from a deep connection with our spiritual source. True joy comes from God in whose image we are made. It is an unconditional gift that God gives out of deep love for us. And Jesus is proof of the length God is willing go to redeem us and reclaim us back to that Divine love.
With Jesus in our life, lighting the way home to God, we will find true joy in us no matter the situation we might find ourselves in. Best of all, when we choose to share that light of joy, we have reason to be happy and to rejoice. And so too does God.
Come let us embrace this light of joy...and to let it burn so wildly and fiercely in the world that all who look at us will see the light and love of Jesus...and be drawn to his joy and rejoice in his name, now and forever, Amen.
”Often hell is portrayed as a place of punishment and heaven as a place of reward. But this concept easily leads us to think about God as either a policeman, who tries to catch us when we make a mistake and send us to prison when our mistakes become too big, or a Santa Claus, who counts up all our good deeds and puts a reward in our stocking at the end of the year.
God, however, is neither a policeman nor a Santa Claus. God does not send us to heaven or hell depending on how often we obey or disobey. God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision, God gives us the freedom to move away from God's love even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God's choice. It is ours.”
Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, 1997.
Advent seems to be a time for prophets. Like John, they come to prepare the way of God’s salvation. They bring messages of hope, like we learned last week from Jeremiah.
But unless they’re on a sitcom, I can’t say prophets are always fun to be around. Biblical prophets, especially, like to point out our flaws...and demand we do more for the poor and downtrodden. It seems like all they say is repent and be righteous, help the widows and orphans, seek justice and don’t do bad things. It’s no surprise people go out of their way to avoid them.
John the Baptist was different. People came to him. We might think of him today as both a prophet and a pioneer. The son of a temple priest, John left his rightful place in the church for the wilderness. He abandoned the ceremonial purification pools of the Temple for the wild, flowing waters of the Jordan River. Part rebel, part unpredictable wild man John broke the barriers of religion and ritual to pave the way for the coming Messiah.
John the pioneer knew the walls and rituals of the Temple could no longer contain God’s movement. So John the prophet cried out in the wilderness, “Repent. God’s on the move. Everything’s about to change.” No longer was God sitting around waiting for us to visit. God was coming to us. So, we better be prepared.
Like any good prophet, John called us to “Repent, turn away from sin and return to God’s loving arms.” And in doing so, John the pioneer, ushered in a new relationship between God and humanity. He knew that “God’s relentless love would not allow a mountain or hill, an ideology or ritual to get in the way of God’s salvation.” If you listen carefully you can still hear his voice echo in the wilds of life.
Repent. Come clean. And come home.
We need prophets and pioneers like John whose message “breaks into our world with deafening silence and shatters the dark of despair with the light of love.” We need prophets like John, Isaiah, and Jeremiah to tell God’s salvation “to a world longing for hope and love in their lives.” They are the pioneers who will lead us into a future where no one will lack or have a need for more.
We need to tune our ears better and listen to what they have to say, because their words matter. Their words matter to those who have no voice, no rights, no hope. Their words matter to the people who sit in darkness and despair. Their words matter to all who suffer from having made poor life choices or squandered any opportunity to make it right. To anyone who doesn’t feel worthy enough, or good enough, or simply enough to be redeemed in God’s love John is calling out you.
Repent. Come clean and come home.
I know that these words can be hard to hear, or understand. For many, the word repent can seem judgmental... making you feel ashamed and filled with guilt. But repentance isn’t a punishment. It’s the opposite. It’s the good news of God’s redeeming love and grace that frees us of our sin and shame. Repentance empties us of our world, and fills us with God’s unconditional love.
John is inviting you to turn around, and walk away from you’re doing and return to what God is doing, and has always been doing since the beginning of time. The world needs prophets like John to remind us that God’s got this. God is our strength and our hope that gets us through the wilderness of life.
I think it’s safe to say our communities, and nation, and world need more prophetic and pioneering voices. And that’s where we come in. As Christ followers, it’s up to us to share the good news – to go into the wilderness and be the voice of the voiceless, the hope of the hopeless, the love of the loveless.
Advent is not just a time to wait for Christ to come again, it’s a time to actively participate in the reason he came in the first place.
So, my challenge to you is simply this: Are you willing to be a prophet?
Are you willing to walk out in faith and love people where they are, without judgment or making them feel ashamed or less than? Are you willing to show the world what it means to hold on to real hope, to experience real love, and to forgive even the unforgivable?
Advent is a time to live out your faith in new and groundbreaking ways, so people might see Christ in their midst, right here and right now. And so Advent is a time to profess and practice the good news that has come and will come again.
We are given this time of wait to tune our ears to the crying voices in the wilderness. And to go be among them and help them to prepare their way home. The world needs more prophets and pioneers because the world needs more hope...and more love. The kind of love God has given to us through Christ Jesus.
We light the second Advent candle this week to remind us that as we prepare ourselves to meet the Christ, who has come and will come again, God’s love is and has always been with us. As we watch the flame flicker, we are reminded that God’s love is always in our midst, moving through the wind of the wilderness and flowing in the water of the wild, raging rivers. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit, calling us to Repent. Come clean. And come home.
Anderson, T. Denise. "Living by the Word." Christian Century 132, no. 24 (Nov 2015).
Charles, Gary. Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion. Edited by David Barlett, & Kimberly Bracken Long Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Johnson, Deon. "Who Needs A Prophet Anyway?" episcopaldigitalnetwork.com. 12 3, 2018. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2018/11/06/who-needs-a-prophet-advent-2-c-december-9-2018/ (accessed 12 5, 2018).
Roberie, Joshua. Relevent Magazine. Nov 17, 2015. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/when-god-leaves-you-waiting (accessed Nov 25, 2015).
Last week we were in San Francisco for Thanksgiving. We took Highway 1, which is a small two lane road that hugs the Pacific coastline. While the rain and falling rocks slowed us down a bit (averaged speed was 25 mph) we had plenty of time to see how in the damage from the past few years of wildfires have not only changed the landscape, but are also showing some new signs of growth. Resurrection!
We took the Interstate 5 home (average speed was 80 mph), and instead of rain we had darkness because we chose to drive home late at night to avoid the traffic. And in that darkness I was reminded of the black earth and the dark feelings that one must feel losing their home in a fire, or someone they love. But then I thought of those patches of green up the coast line, the sign of hope that broke through the scorched ground and remembered how God works. Resurrection!
The next morning, as I was sifting through the mail in my kitchen, I received a great card (and a tithe) from a friend of the church. For a second, I thought maybe Betty had forgotten what season it was, for on the cover of the card was a painting of a tomb – complete with an angel standing outside of it and Mary walking towards it. But Betty wasn’t losing her mind. She realized that the season of Advent is the beginning of the Easter ending. Incarnation! Resurrection!
Julie Polter describes the season of Advent best when she wrote, “Advent. The ending that is the beginning...when we ponder the second coming of Jesus before we celebrate the first.”
I like how her definition makes us look backwards and forwards at the same time, all while dealing current challenges right in front of us. We look forward and find hope that came to us long before we even knew what hope was, or that we needed it. This is important because it is here, in the now, when in our darkest places we are able to come through the fire to find God. Christmas. Easter. Incarnation. Resurrection. Hope. And Joy.
We experience hope in many different ways. When you guess at a multiple-choice question...you hope that you guess right. If you ever smiled at someone you’re attracted to… you do so hoping they’ll smile back. And what kid has ever made a Christmas wish list and not hoped to get everything on it?
Hope is applicable in nearly every aspect of life. We hope we get into our first choice college. We hope a company reads our resume and hires us. We hope our kids turn out the way we hope they would.
Which leads me to this next point. Each time we hope, we can pretty much assume that there will be a time of waiting. Hope and waiting go hand-in-hand. We wait for the test to be graded, the resume to be read, or the kids to eventually behave.
Sometimes what we hope for is quickly resolved, the person immediately smiles back at you. Other times it’s painfully long – leaving us with a sense of longing or hopelessness. Can anything good come out of hopelessness?
The stories of Advent are not of sugarplums and toys that spring to life. They are, as my friend Dawn suggests, “stories from the soil of human struggle and vistas of broken dreams.” Yet in the bleakest of circumstances, Jeremiah offers hope when it seems all hope is lost.
Held captive in Babylon, God’s people are tired, angry and afraid. They’ve watched their homes be reduced to ash. And their beloved Temple completely destroyed. And then they are dragged off and forced to live in a foreign land, and ruled by corruption and injustice. They cry out in anguish and pain, hoping God hears them, but feeling completely hopeless to say the least. They abandoned God and perhaps believed God abandoned them too.
With all the mess that’s going on in our country and around the world, you too might feel like one of these ancient captives, trapped in a world devoid of God and wondering if there’s any hope left.
But the words of Jeremiah reminds us that whatever is going on in life, whatever is bringing you down or causing you grief and pain, whatever people might be inflicting on you, the days are surely coming, when the promise to God’s people will be fulfilled.
If God’s promise is real, then so too is our hope. Salvation is coming. But we have to wait – with either a feeling of hopelessness or hopefulness to keep us company.
I remember the day I sat around waiting for the surgeon to come into the examination room to look at the cancer that had bloomed in my throat. His schedule was full that day, but the office staff was able to fit me in. They were kind enough to give us a private room to wait in. And wait we did. For over four hours I sat there with Kathleen and my dad – hoping and waiting.
I tried to use that time to prepare myself for the reality that was to come. A reality I didn’t want to face. My head was swimming with all sorts of emotions and thoughts of despair. But, believe it or not, my heart was reasonably calm. I knew the promise God made to me. I knew it was real. I knew in my heart that no matter the outcome, I would be okay.
Being present with God in that room helped me realize that I am God’s beloved child. I am an heir to the promised salvation of Jesus Christ. And so are you. We have real hope we can count on, because God’s presence is already in us and all around us. God has never abandoned us, even if we have abandoned God.
“Sometimes what God does in the waiting room of our lives is more important than our future...our part is not to figure out God’s path for us, but to trust God while we’re on it” (Roberie, 2015) This is active waiting – being present with God in the now as we “wait for the second coming of Christ before we celebrate the first.”
Which leads us to why Advent is an important time for us and for today's church.
Advent is a time to hope. If we believe in our hearts what God says is true, then we must also believe in God’s greatest revelation – the greatest gift given to the world on that first Christmas morning. Through Jesus Christ, hope comes alive and walks with us, and heals us; teaches us how to love and care for each other without fear or hesitation. It frees us to give of ourselves faithfully, knowing we’ve already attained our reward.
Advent is also a time to wait. If we believe God’s promises are real, then we can wait with joyful expectation...trusting in God and being with God, knowing our future is already secure. The hope that Advent brings is essential to growing the faith that frees us to travel the road upon which we are walking.
Advent is a time to fully participate in God’s eternal vision of peace by “executing justice and righteousness in the land.” Even as his world came crashing down, Jeremiah pushed his people to see God’s future, and to continue to lean on the promises that God made to them and their ancestors. As we actively wait through Advent, we too must not lose sight of what Jesus has called us to do, to stand up for justice and seek peace, while clinging to God’s righteousness and promise. No matter how dark the world might seem, there is still work to be done.
Advent is a gift for each of us. If we believe God means what God says, then we know Jesus is our salvation. Our hope is not based on what we’ve done, but on what God has done and is doing through Christ Jesus – the infinite goodness and mercy of God who is with us.
Jesus is the grace given to anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord. He is the promise and the proof that God has never left us in the dark or ignored our cries. Instead God came to be with us, in the flesh, and suffered alongside us and celebrated with us. Jesus, our Emmanuel, is God’s gift to the world. The gift we get to open again, and again.
We can always hold on to hope because we know something greater has come. And something greater is coming agian. We just have to wait, anticipating and trusting in a promised future despite our current circumstance.
Whenever you feel discouraged, especially when you feel despair over some wrong in your life, remember that God is always waiting for us – here and now – with unconditional love because God’s promise is real.
And so we can actively wait and participate through the darkest of days because we know how the story of life ends and how it begins again – with Jesus the Christ, our Emmanuel, and God’s redemptive gift to the world.
Advent is a time to remember that Jesus is our hope, our joy, our love and our peace. He is light that that breaks through and overcomes the darkness of the world. That alone is something worth waiting for.
Charles, Gary. Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion. Edited by David Barlett and Kimberly Bracken Long Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Keating, Thomas. Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit. (Lantern Books; 2007) pp. 71-73.
Polter, Julie. A Whirlwind in a Fire. Sojourners. December 2018.
Roberie, Joshua. Relevent Magazine. Nov 17, 2015. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/when-god-leaves-you-waiting (accessed Nov 25, 2015).
My theological friend and spouse to an amazing minister and brilliant Hebrew scholar believes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. At least that’s Norm’s motto for me. I prefer to think that means live life with passion, avoiding drama as much as possible.” Come to think of it, passionate would be a word I would use to describe her if it wouldn't cause too much drama among the friends.
My dear friend since childhood loves to workout and can lift double her height in weights wants you to know that “Life is easier when you take the high road.” She is tiny, but she is mighty. Her high road would be difficult for most humans to walk upon. But some how she has figured out a way to make it look effortless.
A spiritual mentor, master sermon writer, and all-out great gal-friend believes you should know this about her, “After careful consideration, I have learned, I really could been one of the desert mothers, content to be a hermit.”
This supermom, loving wife, excellent sister, and wonderful daughter not only invited me into her family life but also asked me to baptize her when she turned 40. I did. And it was beautiful like her spirit and soul. So it’s should be of no surprise that she would like the whole world to know what she discovered a while back, “That I believe there is hope.” Me too, my friend. Me too.
There are some people who come into your life with little meaning, and then there are the one’s that make you hang on to every word. She is one of the latter. Actress, Writer, Fighter, and Deep Thinker offers us this, “I question the me that could answer this question.” I too question everything, for it's in those queries that we find the answers.
My lover, my best friend, and my entire world wants to share this with all of us, “I am a work in progress, imperfect and okay with it.” Ironically, she married me. So I have to wonder if she wants the world to know that about her or me? Either way, I too am okay with it.
I have cried with her. Laughed with her. And cried with her. And celebrated with her. And laughed and listened and now learn “My Faith will continue to see me thru all of life's challenges.” Sister, there will be more challenges ahead. And I hope to be there for them as they come up. Together we will laugh, and cry, and cry and laugh about it all again.
And finally, this guy. So much to say but could sum him up in one word. Love. He both reluctantly and religiously showed up to church every Sunday, and somewhere along the way he taught me how to speak Wookie, Klingon, and Michigander. He’s an excellent baker and a love maker, but for some reason this teddy bear of a man wants you to know him like this, “I'm a fighter. My motto I have on my arm is ‘Never Quitting. Ever Changing.’ Yes, you are. You are also a friend forever. So don't go changing too much.
My business card used to say "a guy who likes to write stuff" underneath my name. Perhaps now it ought to read "a guy who likes to right stuff." I work hard, and fail just as hard, to find the Divine Light in each and every single person. I try not to judge. I try not to hurt. But when I do, I am quick (or so I hope so) at reconciling the problem. I hate lying because I have a bad memory. So I try to tell the truth. Or I just keep my mouth shut. I love to do all sorts of things but am not proficient in anything. But love. I am a Jesus freak and try to live accordingly.
As you can see I want the world to know me better. Meeting 30 new people in 30 days was a bit of a challenge, but one that came with a great reward. I was constantly surprised at how much strangers can have in common with one another. I encourage you to share your story with others. Or just ask them about theirs. You never know what you'll learn about them. Or about yourself. #KNOWvember
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”