There’s a story behind why I couldn’t stand up to preach today…in short, I had a case of vertigo this morning and wasn’t physically capable of standing to deliver my sermon this morning. So at the last minute my wife volunteered to do deliver it for me. She had heard me rehearsing it the night before and fortunately I had a manuscript of what I wanted to share. So she courageously stepped in and delivered this text that I had prepared for this first Sunday in Advent.

The primary Scripture was Isaiah 64:1-9, and I used the Common English Bible, which was crucial to illumine a couple of points that were made in the sermon. Here is the video of the service:

So today begins a new church year as we kick off the season of Advent this morning. I’ve come to cherish Advent more and more as the years go by. It’s not that it is my favorite because it means Christmas is so close, which was likely what I felt growing up, but because, as I see it, Advent is the season that probably gives us the most honest assessment about the way things are in the world. At its best the season of Advent and its relationship to Christmas mirrors that of Lent and its relationship to Easter. Advent, for some time, had seven weeks (not four), and was designed to be a season of repentance, fasting and preparation for the great mass, or worship celebration, for Christmas. But it was and is also a season that prepares us for the second coming of Christ, when all things will be summed up and the new heaven and new earth are joined together at last.

Now, if we can learn to fully appreciate a season of anticipation, of expectation, and waiting and not rush to December 24-25 as we are so prone to do, then we will be able really allow the sense of aching and hope to linger long enough for us to get genuinely thirsty for the coming of the Lord. For this reason, in recent years I have found myself drawn toward the words of the prophets who so frequently spoke as people in waiting, longing for God’s appearance, during the season of Advent. So this week’s sermon text comes from Isaiah; next week Dan’s message will relate to the prophet known as John the Baptist; and the following week we will return to Isaiah as we continue to prepare the way for Christ’s coming.

Simon and Garfunkel quipped that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence.” At the beginning of the song, they sang, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”Advent meets us in the darkness, in the silence. So do the prophets.

Polish born Jewish rabbi, Abraham Heschel, who lost many family members because of the holocaust, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wrote what is in my mind the best summary work of the lives and writings of the prophets. Here are a few of his comments that I thought fit particularly well given the context and content of our passage from the prophet Isaiah from this morning:
• “This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible.”
• “Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster…Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria.”
• “The prophet’s ear is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others…The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.”
• “Instead of cursing the enemy, the prophets condemn their own nation.”
• “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
• “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

There are many more that are worth quoting, but something Heschel challenges is the notion that has gotten in some of our minds that prophecy has to do with a distant, impersonal, implacable God who serves as judge and who uses these obscure persons to serve as a sort of mouthpiece, which renders the work of the prophet as a mere technical function. Heschel wrote, “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God,” and that what is behind the message of the prophets isn’t merely an emotionally detached discussion about justice, but is rather the pathos, or feeling, of God with regard to the events of the world and the behaviors of God’s people. Heschel continued, “It is more accurate to see the prophets as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice. Divine concern remembered in sympathy is the stuff of which prophecy is made.” Indeed, “God’s role is not spectatorship but involvement…The God of Israel is never impersonal.” If this is true…if God is so concerned with the plight of the people and passionate about the cause of justice and at the same time is all powerful, then the question that rises to the surface is what is behind the complain of Isaiah this morning, “If only…” or “Why haven’t you torn open the heavens and come down? All would be settled, mountains would quake, enemies would flee or at least tremble.”

It comes as a cry from a people who have experienced the redeeming power of a God who overtook oppressing enemies to make things right. So where is this God? Heschel said, “In a stricken hour comes the word of the prophet. There is tension between God and [humans]…In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.” So Isaiah reminds God of the former deliverance that the Lord procured for his people. “From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” That was the distinguishing mark of the God of Israel: patience and deliberative involvement in acting for those who wait on God. As far as the prophet could tell, there weren’t any other gods who were patient or longsuffering. And this has been evidenced in cultures throughout history as the greatness of a god was directly related to the greatness of the king and his army. When the people of a god were conquered, that god would disappear and usually the survivors wouldn’t hesitate to wreck the images of the gods in whom they had previously trusted.

So in a stricken hour, will we wait on the Lord? I don’t mean sitting down twiddling our thumbs. Nor did Isaiah. John Oswalt said it well when he wrote, “Biblically speak, ‘to wait’ is to manifest the kind of trust that is willing to commit itself to God over the long haul. It is to continue to believe and expect when all others have given up. It is to believe that it is better for something to happen in God’s time than for it to happen on my initiative in my time.” It is an active type of waiting that seeks to live rightly with relation to God and neighbor.

To get there we have to come to grips with something about ourselves that is really quite difficult, and this is the part no one really enjoys preaching or hearing about. But it’s something that is absolutely necessary and is evidenced in what Isaiah admits about the behaviors and attitudes of the people – sinning and doing wrong, being unclean – to such a degree that all our righteous deeds have become like filthy cloths, or as you heard it read this morning a menstrual rag.

I didn’t read this version to gross you out, but there is something in this statement that illumines our own brokenness as we approach the God of compassionate mercy and justice. You see ‘sin’ is like a contaminant that infects the whole body and it had become such a problem among the people of God that it infected even those things that we would typically deem as righteous acts. Even those had been contaminated to such a degree that the works weren’t signs of new life coming, but of the lack of conception (hence, “menstrual rag”), because all they do is self-serving and self-enhancing. They’d become a charade of the real thing.

Okay, I think I’m done with that analogy for the day. I suspect my email inbox will be filled with many messages from parents letting me know their children will be coming to ask me some questions that came up because of today’s Scripture.

Now let’s get really uncomfortable and see where this passage really addresses the darkness that remains in our world – Ferguson. What is the response of the people of God to the tragic death of Michael Brown and the events that have unfolded there and elsewhere since? Chances are when I simply mentioned the name of the town just now, there were several different internal reactions and emotions among the people in this congregation. Yet let us be honest that while our political ideologies and opinions on this and related problems are various within this church, we are nonetheless a rather affluent congregation comprised primarily of white people. We also ought to recognize that systemic injustice still exists despite our lofty dreams and naïve ideas that we have somehow arrived at a utopian society where all are equal. It is true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than white men. And if that causes us to shrug our shoulders in apathy, then we are not in tune with the God of justice. If we think it’s no big deal, we are tone deaf to the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote from a prison cell that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we are numb to the reality of privilege and of the responsibility that comes along with it, then we are a far cry from our movement’s founder John Wesley, whose last letter was written to encourage William Wilberforce to persevere in his cause of championing the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. If we remain apathetic, or even worse hold onto prejudices and fear of others because of the color of their skin, then we will be like the people Isaiah and the prophets wept for because they did not call on the name of the God of justice.

If only…if only you would come, God, Emmanuel. The cry of Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas, it is really the final cry of the New Testament in the Revelation. “Maranatha! Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!” If only you would come; I mean fully and really come all this would be reconciled. No more death, no more need for protests or riots, no more destruction…just the fulfillment of all our hope – a place of eternal shalom!

But as we cry, “Maranatha!” let us at the very least be the people who actively wait. And that involves listening – for God, to our neighbors – for they have a story to tell and experiences to share that are often very different than our own. Are we willing to be clay in the potter’s hands in this season? Take us, mold us, use us.

To close this morning, I want to share with you a blessing, adapted from a Benedictine prayer. It’s not any normal blessing, though; it is one that carries with it a challenge to be a prophetic witness in a world that doesn’t often care much for the prophets. So here goes:
May the Spirit bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that you will live deep in your heart.
May the Spirit bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May the Spirit bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.
May the Spirit bless you with foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.

In the name of the Father whose pathos, love and compassion burned hot for the people of God to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God; and of the Son, who didn’t consider his privilege as something to use for his own gain but emptied himself to become human and really the lowest of the sorts—a slave; and of the Holy Spirit, who with open arms embraces us and welcomes us into the holy mystery of being the children of God. Amen.

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Writing about baptism, my experience of it and its relationship with our understanding of time, has been very enjoyable and has been a subject of discussion not only in the comments on those posts but also in the churches where I am serving. I’ve promised to write more about the doctrine and practice of infant baptism, and in the previous posts I wanted to give just a few introductory thoughts and lay a little groundwork to prepare the way for a more substantive explanation and defense of the practice. In the next few posts I want to delve into what is probably the most common critique of infant baptism, namely, its supposed absence in Scripture. Folks who oppose the practice of baptizing infants are quick to point out that there is never an explicit example of an infant being baptized in the Bible.

The validity of that critique could be challenged (more on that later), but even if the statement is true, I could simply say, “Psh. There are a whole bunch of things that all churches do that aren’t explicitly done in Scripture.” Nonetheless, given the central importance of the rite of baptism in the life of the Church (it is, after all, a one-time only event for every Christian), it is worth giving a biblical explanation for why we United Methodists recommend to administer the sacrament to a person “as soon as possible and practical,” which means that infants are appropriate candidates for receiving the sacrament.

Examining the etymology of the term “sacrament” reveals that the term means a “sacred oath” and is meant to draw our attention to God’s action in making a covenant of grace with us. When we use covenant terminology and envisage the sacramental expression of the salvation of God’s people through water, our minds may go to several different parts of Scripture. The chief one, though, is the Exodus story and proclamation that God brought God’s people “out of Egypt,” words that we find throughout the Scriptures that identify and tell the story of the deliverance of God’s child(ren) from the bondage of slavery. Similar to what I said in a previous post about the “when” of one’s salvation, if you asked any Israelite or Jew in the post-Exodus era, “When were you saved?” the response would be something like, “When God led Moses and our predecessors out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.” The stress, again, is on God’s action and intent to save a people prior to any decision, experience or response on our part as individuals. In this post I want to point out three occasions of the “out of Egypt” phrase, one from each the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels.

First, let’s look at the opening line of the covenant established in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus. In treaties or agreements in the Ancient Near Eastern world between two people groups, if the more powerful party wanted to indicate their benevolent intent toward the other people group, it would be stressed in the opening line, or what we call the preamble. What are the introductory words to the Ten Commandments, which is at the very beginning of the covenant made at Sinai? “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” In this covenant and in the UMC baptismal covenant, one recognizes the action of God in the saving acts, not primarily the decision or response of the people (or person). In the Exodus story, the LORD acts as the people’s cries for help reach God’s ears (Exodus 3:7-8). And when we think of the initial cries that humans offer up in search of help or grace, these may come from any person, including infants. (We might also find some significance to Moses’ infancy narrative in that it was in and through water that he was named and drawn out, or rescued! See Exodus 2:1-10)

Credit: bible.ca

Credit: bible.ca

Next, let’s turn to the Prophets, where we see perhaps more than anywhere else the pathos, or emotive expression, of God’s compassion towards God’s people. Behind the sharp words offered from the fearless spokespersons we find God’s concern for justice and compassion as well as the Lord’s desire that the people turn from their faulty ways and recover their identity as God’s children and mission of being God’s light to the rest of the world. This is especially seen in Hosea chapter 11, which describes God at the point of weeping in compassion as God’s children drift further away from their identity and purpose. And that passage begins this way: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” In this warm expression of divine compassion, God calls attention to when God showered love and grace on the people from the earliest stages of their life:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

God’s children are beckoned to remember the covenant made in faithful, parental love by their sovereign deliverer. The image of the people in this is that of an infant being brought into covenant relationship which God wrought through the waters of the Red Sea and continued in growing the people in grace.

And it is precisely the Hosea 11 passage that Matthew quotes in 2:15 in saying that the flight to Egypt and back to Nazareth by Joseph, Mary and Jesus “was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.” Matthew’s account of Jesus’ infancy is filled with details that are meant to remind the reader of the narrative of God’s people in Egypt: the prominence of a person named Joseph who has prophetic dreams, folks coming from far off to pay homage, and of course from Exodus, a paranoid tyrant who being afraid that his power may be in jeopardy orders a slaughter of all male infants. The point: it is in Jesus’ infancy when he embodies and fulfills the story of God’s people being called and delivered “out of Egypt,” which occurred through the waters and the covenant established by God with them.

More to come…

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

And he shall be the one of peace- Micah 5:4-5a

I’ll never forget the first and only time I was referred to as a “fine young chap.” I was sitting up in the balcony with a few friends at Barlow United Methodist Church during a cluster revival meeting of the UMCs of Ballard County, Kentucky. The visiting preacher had this very distinguished British accent with an inviting tone and compelling stories that drew his audience (or at least me) in to try to capture the vivid details and concepts he was portraying. The visiting preacher’s name was Dr. Reginald Mallett and he was from England. Unlike most ministers with the prescript “Dr.”, Dr. Mallett was a medical physician, not a doctorate by means of a Ph.D.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician. Dr. Mallett passed away on September 8, 2010. You can read more about his ministry in a lovely article written in the wake of his death. See http://www.lakejunaluska.com/reginald-mallett/

After the service was over, I went down to shake his hand upon my departure, and he said, “Oh, you were one of the attentive fine young chaps in the balcony today! I hope you will come to some more services during the week.” That is what I just did. I took in every message and found myself compelled and confirmed in my recent direction to answer the call to ministry I had been perceiving. I found his sermon delivery very appealing as he would repeat the same Scriptural text or line from a hymn to serve as transitions throughout his sermons. This is a practice I have employed as well, though at times I perceive I have much growing to do in making the transitional phrases flow much smoother.

For those of us who cherished Dr. Mallett’s sermons, we are grateful that he set several of them to print. Last year, I checked out a copy of a book with a collection of his sermons delivered at Lake Junaluska. One of the sermons in that collection was about shepherds and when I read the Scripture from Micah, at the top of this post, in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I remembered an anecdote he relayed to his readers…

Edward Rogers told us how on this particular Sunday as he and the family were just about to begin lunch there was a loud knocking at the front door. It was one of the farmer’s neighbors. “Quick,” the neighbor cried, “Your sheep are in the wire.” It was obvious that this was a fairly common emergency to which the family was accustomed. As if on cue they all immediately rose from the table and rushed out to rescue the sheep. Edward Rogers confessed that, wearing a clerical collar, he could not sit idly by so he reluctantly offered his services. He was assigned one part of the field and as he went amongst this high grass, searching for sheep he said dryly, “I was unlucky, I found one!” He struggled to extricate it from the barbed wire as the terrified animal wrestled with him. Eventually, he finished up with the sheep in his arms, although he confessed that he was not sure whether he was carrying the sheep or the sheep was carrying him. Just then, the farmer arrived on the scene. “Here, let me have that sheep Mr. Rogers,” he said. Rogers then told us how the farmer, a big, strong man, his sleeves rolled up, arms lacerated and bleeding from encounters with barbed wire, took hold of the front paws of the sheep in one big fist and the rear paws in the other. He then slung the sheep on his back like a sack of coal and carried it to safety. The preacher concluded, “Now when I think about the good shepherd, I see that strong man, his arms torn and bleeding, carrying that stupid, struggling, frightened creature from danger to safety.

Something about that story communicated to me the significance of the promise of a coming ruler who would reign more like a humble shepherd who was willing to put his life at risk to save and take to safety an entangled sheep than a domineering sovereign who would overpower his unruly subjects.

Advent is for the tangled and torn sheep like you and me, unable to break free from the barbed wire that holds us in bondage. And we’re promised here by Micah that our promised rescuer will administer peace, that is, bring reconciliation and wholeness, not from political power, economic coercion, nor military might, but from a small village that is home to the likes of disreputable shepherds…one who would make and give peace, “not as the world gives” but “through the blood of his cross, reconciling all things to himself.”

Tangled and torn? The shepherd who is the prince of peace is on the way!

I’m now a few weeks removed from having preached the series at Liberty’s revival on the Prodigals & Prophets. One of the details of the parable continues to stick out in my mind and blow me away. With all the love and forgiveness that the father lavishes on his lost son who has returned, the one that stands out to me as the most puzzling, at least at such an early stage is the command given by the father to the servants that they put “sandals on his feet.” I find myself asking, “Really, Jesus? A father who puts sandals back on the son’s feet? Don’t you realize that opens up the door for being hurt again, perhaps even worse than the first time? After all, he’s been in a few rough parts of the world that we wouldn’t dare dream of here in the safety of this farm. Sure, let’s put a robe on him, give him a ring, and have a nice barbecue, but you really want to trust him enough to give him a way back out again?”

In preparation for the sermon on the centrality of the father in the parable, my mind raced back to the class I took in college on the 8th century prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, & Micah were the prophets whose ministries were during the 8th century BC). With all the things that I forgot from that 8:00 am class, two things I remember: 1. the time the professor started to ramble in his prayer one day and began praying for aliens; and 2. the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking analysis of Hosea 11. Now, Hosea’s story certainly has some interesting twists and turns, many of which are not analogous to a parent-child relationship but to a spousal relationship. Nonetheless, chapter 11 portrays the compassion of a heartbroken parent whose children have lost their way, were “bent on turning away from” God, and yet though showing tremendous disappointment, admits an unwillingness to give up on these children. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” What moves a parent to have such compassion?

Hosea 11 showcases the “covenant faithfulness” of God: that God remembers his faithfulness. This isn’t meant to imply that God had “forgotten” it, but that the ultimate character of God is remaining true in faithful love to God’s people. God remembers, among other things that, “Yet it was I who taught them to walk.” Examine what happens in the message of Hosea, the parable of the returning son, and a modern rendition…

God’s children had used their pedagogy to walk away. The younger son received the inheritance and walked away with it. A rebellious teenage daughter is taught how to drive and is given the keys to her parents’ car and decides to leave town with it.

God’s children had lost their way and were scattered without a home and without hope. The younger son wasted half the family fortune and found himself desiring to eat pig slop. The daughter runs out of gas, finds some ways to remedy that and get by for a while,  but eventually runs out of options and gives up the car to keep the collateral from being herself.

God doesn’t give up…

They return. He comes home. She hitches a ride back.

View of the feet from Rembrandt’s painting of ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. (Photo credit: snailskin.blogspot.com)

“They will walk after the LORD…” (Hosea 11:10); “put sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22); “Here’s a key to our new car”

Really, God? You’re willing to trust them? him? her?

“We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love…I imagined God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune.” – Philip Yancey

“Behold with wonder and pleasure the gracious reception they find from Divine, injured goodness!” – John Wesley

“Yep. Sandals. They’re my children. My children, like me, are free.”

One of the facts I found out soon after beginning at Post Oak & Liberty UMCs is that there is a tradition at both churches that if they have a new pastor, then the new pastor typically preaches at the revival services at each church in his or her first year. Well, I suppose it’s best not to duplicate the sermons for the revival messages, so I have been spending a lot of time in prayer on what theme or sets of messages to prepare for Liberty after sharing at Post Oak’s revival in August. The messages I preached at Post Oak were centered on the last statements Jesus uttered from the cross, which you can read a little bit about here.

As I’ve been praying with God and conversing with others on what sorts of things ought to be brought to those who will gather at Liberty during the week of revival, I’ve been continually brought back to the parable of the father with his two prodigal sons, found in Luke 15:11-32, as well as some passages from the prophets. Without revealing too much of what is in store, I did want to share with you a resource in which one man describes his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son.

Rembrandt’s rendition of the return of the younger prodigal son, which is on the cover of Henri Nouwen’s book on the parable & painting. (Photo credit: wikipedia)

A Catholic priest by the name of Henri Nouwen used personal anecdotes in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, to tell of how in his life he has found resonance with the various characters found in the story and painting. In particular he told of his progression from playing the part of the bystander(s) to the younger son to that of the elder, but it took the wisdom and input of someone else to point out that his identity was to be found in playing the role and fulfilling the mission of the loving father who pursues both sons in hopes of making the family whole once again. The main character, as it were, is neither the younger nor the older brother, but the compassionate father.

Why am I including “prophets” in the theme? I believe the various characters and elements of this most wonderful parable are demonstrated beautifully in a few passages from the Old Testament prophets: from Micah 6, Ezekiel 36, Jonah 4, and Hosea 11.

>>So if you’re anywhere near Camden, Tennessee during the week of October 7-10, come join us at Liberty UMC at 7pm.<<

May God prepare our hearts in opening wide our hearts for repentance, renewal, restoration, and reconciliation.