From the Well - 12/13/2018

 The Annunciation: When Angels Held their Breath Federico Barocci (1535-1612)

The Annunciation: When Angels Held their Breath
Federico Barocci (1535-1612)

Luke 1:26-33 (NRSV) 
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

A 2016 survey of 3,000 people by one of the UK’s largest on-line gift giving companies suggests that “Christmas is the sixth most stressful life event.” Yes, Christmas ranks right up there with divorce, moving, and changing jobs. Most of us don’t need a survey to tell us how stressful the holidays are. There are so many unknowns when you think about it:

  • Do I have enough money to cover gifts and food?

  • How much will I owe on my credit cards when it is all over?

  • How will I manage to see all of my family members?

  • How will I cope during this holiday season without my loved one who recently died?

  • What am I going to do with the children for the two weeks while they are out of school?

You can add your own stress maker to the list. Maybe this is a terrible confession for a pastor to make but 1 or 2 times during the holidays I relish the thought of calling off Christmas. Like so many I find Christmas stressful for all the reasons listed above and more. Sometimes I think that if the Grinch himself came knocking at my door we would somehow be best friends.

My stress comes from other places too. Yes, I think Christmas has become too commercialized. We’ve secularized a very important God moment in history. The lights, the buying, the selling, and the partying overshadow the birth of God’s Son. I find that stressful, disappointing, and sad.

Yes, sometimes I would just as soon call the whole thing off. Unbelievably, over 2,000 years ago, God gave a young girl that option. The girl knew nothing of Santa Claus or the gift-giving frenzy of our modern, commercialized Christmas. Hers was a simple life of trying to survive from one day to the next. Suddenly, this 13-15 year old was confronted by God’s angel and told that she would bear God’s Son. She would have to decide, “Yes” or “No.”

“How can this be? Mary asked. There were certainly other questions on her mind:

  • Will Joseph stick around when he discovers that I’ve become pregnant out of wedlock?

  • More importantly, what will Joseph say when he discovers it is not his child?

  • What will my parents think?

  • Will I be abandoned?

  • Will they drag me into town and stone me to death for sleeping around?

  • Will there be someone there to help when my time comes?

  • The child is supposed to be King of Israel. What will happen to me?

  • Will I survive the birth?

When you think about it, there are a lot of unknowns for Mary. She could easily say “No.” But she says, “Yes!” She says yes in spite of the mystery of it all. Mary believes in the promise of God even though the promise will, “Pierce her heart,” as foretold by the old priest Simeon. Like Mary, we have to believe that in spite of the unknown, the fear, our pain, and our hurt that God is there. We have to believe God is there in the unknown places of our lives. Think about it.

Matthew

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John 1:14-18 (NRSV) 
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

In the 70's (the decade of my generation), Kris Kristofferson was the toast of Nashville. The success of compositions like, For the Good TimesMe and Bobby McGee, and Help me Make it Through the Night, launched Kristofferson into stardom. In 1973, he had his biggest hit with Why Me. With a title like that, there is a tendency to think the lyrics went like this:

Why me Lord?

What did I ever do to deserve this misfortune?

This tragedy, this pain? Why me?

Interestingly, Kristofferson went in a totally different direction. Here are some of the Lyrics he wrote:

Why me Lord?

What have I have done to deserve

Even one of the treasures I own?

Tell me, Lord.

What did I ever do that was worth love from you

Or the kindness you've shown?

Christians call it grace. Grace is something we don't deserve but we get it anyway. God's Son, Jesus, is the human expression of God's perfect grace available for all. Read again John's version of the Christmas story:

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father's only Son, full of grace and truth . . . from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

"Grace upon grace." The Gospel writer is trying to tell us that our God is an awesome God. The God that John gives us is not the angry or vengeful God that gets promoted by some. He is not the God who accepts some and rejects others. God is the God of infinite Grace. Grace that goes on forever and is greater than anything we can imagine. Think about it.

Matthew


From the Well - 11/29/2018

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Luke 21:25-36 (NRSV) 
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." 29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

Have you ever experienced an earthquake? I have on several occasions. It's not a pleasant experience. When an earthquake begins, it's hard to understand what's happening. Once you realize it's an earthquake, fear quickly sets in. Your future seems uncertain. Will the building you are in fall down? Will you survive?

I experienced my first earthquake as a young child during worship at the Quechan Indian Reservation in Yuma, California. My dad was standing with the rest of the congregation singing a hymn. My mother was at the piano. Suddenly the building begin to shake. There were audible gasps as people tried to fathom what was happening. My mother continued to play the hymn but struggled as the piano begin to move away from her because of the vibrations and rolling effect of the earthquake. Suddenly everything stopped shaking and things returned to normal. 

Sometimes there are things that happen in our lives that are hard to understand. Why am I suddenly having heart trouble or why cancer? Why did this accident happen to me? Why did my friend have to die? Why did I lose my job? Why now? These events feel like personal earthquakes and sometimes we wonder if we will make it through. We begin to question the future. What is God up to?

It's like the grasshopper sitting on a milkweed plant near a railroad track in rural Montana. Suddenly a train comes zooming by. It creates a huge ruckus and the milkweed starts to bounce, bob, and weave. Does the grasshopper understand what is going on? Probably not.

Sometimes we feel like a grasshopper on a milkweed plant. Things are happening all around us and we are not sure what it is all about. It's beyond our understanding. And, yes, sometimes it is more than our faith can handle.

The future can change in a blink of an eye. When it does, it throws us off balance. It altars everything. The future was getting ready to change for the disciples and Jesus wanted them to be ready. He wanted them to open their eyes and see all the things that were happening around them. The old world was being dismantled and a new one was taking its place. Jesus disciples lived in a momentous time and so do we.

Uncertainty is a scary thing. We are challenged in this season of Advent to watch and wait. Jesus wants us to know that even though we do not know what the future holds we must learn that God holds the future. We have a future that belongs to God. May our journey into the future always be with God at our side. May our sometimes wavering faith hold us and carry us. Think about it.

Matthew

From the Well - 11/15/2018

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Mark 13:1-8 (NRSV) 
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

In Anne Tyler's novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, there is a scene where a young boy named Luke is hitchhiking. He's on his way to visit relatives in a distant city but he's also running away from a troubled family. Three motorists give him a ride. All of them have troubled lives, their lives destroyed by some tragedy. Each of them is trying to put their lives back together.

First, there is the mother whose teen daughter is rebellious and hateful. Things are so bad that the mother uses her car as an escape. She drives around the city trying to remember her daughter as a young child. She tells Luke, "In those days she liked me a lot. I was a really good mother, and she liked me."

The second ride is from a middle-aged man whose wife is divorcing him. He is on a desperate journey into his past to visit all his old high school girl friends because, "They like me; they thought I was fine, or at least they seemed to."

Finally, there is the truck driver who gives Luke a ride. They pass a highway sign pointing to a hospital. The driver tells Luke that in 1956, he and his pregnant wife were traveling down the very same highway when his wife went into premature labor. He raced to the hospital and his wife gave birth to a five-pound baby girl named Lisa. The baby did not live. "I never bounced back so good. I pass that hospital road and you know . . . I halfway believe that if I made the turnoff, things would be just like before. Dotty'd be holding my hand, and Lisa Michelle would be waiting to be born."[1]

All of these people are trying to reclaim a world lost and gone. They've lost hope. Jesus tells us that worldly things always stand the possibility of being destroyed or coming apart but He will never abandon us. The Temple was the disciple's world. It was the frame for their faith. If the Temple was on the verge of being destroyed, that meant history was finished. There would be nothing left from them to do but sing Psalms and wait for the end.

Someone once asked the great church reformer, Martin Luther, "If you knew the world would come to an end tomorrow, what would you do?" Luther replied that he ". . . would plant a tree." In other words, he would continue to do the hopeful and steady work of being a disciple. Temples and things of this earth will rise and fall but the love of God never ends. God's work will always be done, maybe not in ways that are familiar to us, but in God's way. May our faith and discipleship remain steady, faithful and enduring to the end. Think about it.

Matthew

            [1]Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (New York, NY: Random House, 1982)

From the Well - 11/8/2018

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Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV) 
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

So, how do you measure a life? Is life measured by power, wealth, and position like the scribes measured it or is it measured by the scales of love, service, friendship, and sacrifice? Jesus suggests that the better examples are often found among the little people like the widow, people who go about life doing the best they can.

The motivational speaker and writer John Maxwell tells a story about the making of parachutes during the Second World War These parachutes were packed by hand in a tedious, painstaking, repetitive, boring process. The workers crouched over sewing machines and stitched for eight hours every day. The endless line of fabric was the same color. Then they folded, packed and stacked the parachutes. All that was left was for someone to pull the rip cord.

How did they stand it? They stood it because every morning before they began their work, they gathered as a group. One of the managers reminded them that each parachute would save someone's life. They were then asked to think, as they sewed and packed, how they would feel if the parachute was strapped to the back of their son, their father, their brother.[1]

The laborers worked sacrificially, unerringly, uncomplainingly, because someone connected what they were doing to a larger picture, to a larger mission that involved saving lives. Jesus mission was to connect us to one another, to help us understand that discipleship and ministry is about a larger picture. It's about saving lives. Think about it.

Matthew

[1]John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 28.