Sunday, December 30, 2007

Learning to Tremble: Something for the New Year from Isaiah 66

I was supposed to read Isaiah 66 this morning, or at some point during the day. The Bible reading plan I use stopped assigning readings on December 28th. But the last OT reading of the month was Isaiah 66, so that’s what I started to do – until I was needed elsewhere in the house. Hiding out in the study when the kids are out of school will only work for so long.

However, I did make it to verse 2: “But this is the one to whom I will look; he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” The NIV renders the first part of the verse as “this is the one I esteem.” What is it that God regards or values? Humility of spirit and trembling at God’s word.

I wonder about that word “tremble.” It’s late right now, late for me at least, and I haven’t bothered to do a word study. But the sense of “tremble” seems fairly obvious. It suggests being overcome with awe or fear; deeply moved, disturbed, shaken. It says that God has spoken and the message we hear from God has somehow gotten beyond the brain and into our gut. Tremble doesn’t necessarily sound like a negative word. In fact, it may be delightful – the delight itself may be experienced as trembling.

The word gets my attention because I’m not sure it’s something I do. I can study what it means and offer a fairly cogent explanation of the meaning without in-depth study. But I don’t know if I actually tremble at God’s word. Maybe this is why James warned that not many should be teachers. After a few hundred lessons and sermons, the trembling stops. We may become more effective communicators, but we speak with steady hands and firm knees. Not much trembling.

I can’t resolve this tonight – but maybe this is something for the New Year, something to be intentional about. I want to learn to tremble at God’s word. I want to hear it in such a way that the power of the word penetrates my life, cuts like the sword God intended it to be. And then I want to handle it in such a way that the same power is somehow evident in the teaching moment.

Can this kind of thing be learned or learned again?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bethlehem Brawl: We really do need a Savior

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11 ESV)

The task of cleaning up after Christmas is enough to put anyone in a foul mood. We do our best around our house to maintain order as we go, promptly placing tattered wrapping paper in a trash bags as we open gifts, running the dishwasher in a timely way and thus keeping the sink empty. We’ve done a fairly respectable job so far – but keep in mind the kids are home all day every day for two weeks. Our place doesn’t just look lived in, it truly is lived in. Someone has to take on the job of tidying up, and that job isn’t easy. It elicits snippity remarks and barked-out orders and resentments about help not given and being taken for granted.

If that’s true around here, imagine trying to restore order to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after hordes of tourists have traipsed through the place. Maybe we can understand the frustration that erupted on Thursday when priests who were cleaning and scrubbing came to blows with each other. The Christmas contingent had probably left the place in bad shape, and the Orthodox crowds have yet to come since they celebrate the birth of Jesus in early January. So maybe we can understand why these followers of Jesus who tend the supposed site of his birth reached the point of striking each other with their fists and with brooms and whatever they could find. But then again . . .

There's something appalling about what we’ve done to that place, carving it up along the lines of our differences, becoming possessive and defensive, like kid brothers who have to share a room and draw a line down the middle to mark their territory. And of all places . . . the site of the birth of Jesus, Prince of Peace. The image of priests fighting each other at the birth place of the one who sharply rebuked sword wielding ways in those who would follow him is pathetic. It’s laughable and embarrassing.

And at the same time, the fighting among the priests in Bethlehem speaks to the whole point of the Christmas story; it exposes what is at the core of the incarnation. Defensive priests and all broken families the world over are uncomfortable reminders of our need for a savior. The mending we need is beyond us. We don’t need religious observances or pilgrimages to holy sites or noble principles and ideas. We need a savior. At Bethlehem, that’s exactly what God gave us.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Light: A Reflection on Isaiah 9:2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . . The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:5, 9 NRSV).

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Light and lights are at the heart of our Christmas celebrations: lights on the tree, lights in windows, lights in our yard, wrapped around porch railing and strung from the edge of the roof. Some enthusiasts excel at finding ways to place lights in every available square foot of acreage they own. Some insist that lights be all white, others prefer multi colored arrangements and still others like the pulsating in-and-out glow that makes you dizzy after watching it a while. And of course, let’s not forget the candle-lighting at church.

We love lights – but the beauty of light is never fully seen apart from darkness. Few of us burn our Christmas lights during the day. We wait for night time. This simple fact helps us make sense of the prophet’s words. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light is the child that is born to usher in a new era of peace and righteousness. But that light cannot be fully appreciated until we truly grasp what it means to walk in darkness.

There is a darkness that comes about uninvited, seemingly out of nowhere. It steals sleep and appetite, it saps energy and laughter, it breeds a hundred little anxieties. It refuses to be shaken. Many among us today walk in that darkness. This is especially painful at Christmas time. The sights and sounds and activities of the season assume that we’re all walking and basking in the light of life’s blessings. This isn’t always true.

And then there are those among us who walk in darkness because they’ve made choices that placed them there. There was a moment when the dark seemed to be light; there was good faith decision that triggered unintended and uninvited consequences. In some instances, the choice was nothing more than stubborn willfulness. No matter – sometimes the darkness we walk in is the darkness we chose.

The words of the prophet are good news for all who walk in darkness, regardless of how they got there. There is light; the light dawns as a gift of God’s grace. This light is Jesus . . . Jesus the light of the world.

We started a series of reflections several weeks ago that address our yearnings at Christmas. Maybe what we yearn for most is that the light spoken of by the prophet and embodied in Jesus would penetrate our world. Perhaps this is a season in your life when you are thoroughly drenched in the light of God’s good gifts to you. Maybe the faintest glimmer of that light is beginning to rise in the distance. Whatever the light looks like today, you can know with confidence that it is not God’s plan to leave you staggering around in darkness. That’s why Jesus came.

Light of the world, penetrate the darkness that seems so prevalent around us today: The darkness of warring nations, estranged families, broken dreams, and expectations. On this Christmas Eve we yearn for the light that only you can give. We yearn for the light that you gave to us in your son Jesus. Thank you for entering our dark world and transforming it with the light of your presence. Empower us by that same presence to be salt and light in the world, changing darkness to light wherever you call us to be. Amen.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

By Name

Our yearning: to be cherished as God’s child (Read Isaiah 43:1-7)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine (Isaiah 43:1).

As seen in Jesus . . .
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48)

Now given to you . . .
It had been a while since she worked on our church staff, but that’s not much of an excuse. I called her by the wrong name. Not just once; not just an innocent slip. Repeatedly. Over and over again. She was kind enough to correct me with gentleness and tact. I tried to recover, but the damage was done. I’m not so good with names. Maybe I’ll run into her again in a few months, a totally random meeting in Publix or at the gas pumps somewhere, and I’ll get the name right and redeem myself. Maybe.

God is very good with names, yours included. To be God’s child is to be known personally, by name, in detail. The implications of this are significant. We all know how to sing “Jesus loves me,” but Jesus and Isaiah show us something more than that. We have been summoned by name. We are not simply loved, we are known. Better said, to be loved is to be known.

Many, like Nathanael, are genuinely surprised to discover that Jesus knows them; saw them long before they took note of Jesus; knew them by name long before they called upon his. Our soul yearns for something more than generic religious affirmations about God’s love for humankind. We yearn to be known.

Everything about this day that seems important to you is important to God who has redeemed you and called you by name: the plans you’ve made for next week, the work you’re trying to finish before Friday, the errands yet to be completed. God knows your life as well as your name.

As you pray, allow yourself to be Nathanael in the story from John 1. Imagine Jesus speaking to you and saying “I saw you . . .” Jesus is present with you and sees you in the most ordinary places. And he knows you by name.

In these moments of prayer, Lord Jesus, grant a stillness that allows me to hear you speak my name. And having heard, send me into the world and help me to do all things to the glory of your name. Amen.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Presence

Our yearning: to be cherished as God’s children (Read Isaiah 43:1-7)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you . . . when you pass through the waters I will be with you . . . when you walk through the fire you will not be burned (Isaiah 43:1-2).

As seen in Jesus . . .
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20)

Now given to you . . .
The route I drive every morning on my way to work takes me by some of the most beautiful homes in Atlanta. Last week, one of them went up in flames. There isn’t much left of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the utterly destructive power of fire. And the violence of burning lingers long after the fire itself. Almost 48 hours after the night of the fire, the site was still smoldering as I drove home.

That image stays with me as I read the words of the prophet. “When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” What I wish the prophet had said was that we would not have to deal with the fire – not get anywhere near it. God’s promise to us provides no such assurance. What we are told is that the intensity of the flames can never consume the reality of God’s presence. The prophet’s words assume that we will walk through fire, pass through threatening waters that could sweep us away. This is a given – but so is the presence. The presence of God trumps the flood, douses the flames.

But here’s our struggle: the interpretive skills by which we make sense of life are not what they should be. We read the fire and raging waters as indicators of God’s absence. The flames burn and the rivers rise and sweep away, and we take this to mean that God never really claimed us as his children. If he had, he’d have done a better job of keeping us clear of those threats. We get it wrong.

If we want to know with certainty that we are God’s children we need to pass through the flames and the waters that threaten us. The trouble we live through is an occasion for God’s presence to become more than theory, more than a comforting thought or nice idea.

Maybe today you’re feeling the heat of a threat, choking on the smoke of something that’s gone wrong, barely keeping your head above circumstances that are nearly smothering you. Typically we look for a way out. God invites us to make our way through. God is present with us. In prayerful stillness we become present to God.

We give you thanks, O God, for your faithful presence in all things. May we know ourselves as your children in both trouble and in blessing. Use whatever this day may bring to confirm who we are in you. In all things help us to be present to you and your steadfast love. Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

With Certainty

Our yearning: to be cherished as God’s child (Read Isaiah 43:1-7)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
Fear not for I have redeemed you . . . you are mine (Isaiah 43:1)

As seen in Jesus . . .
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. (John 15:9)

Now given to you . . .
Perhaps what we yearn for more than anything is not simply to be cherished as a child of God, but to know this with absolute certainty. There’s plenty of scriptural evidence that God loves us. In fact, the entire Bible is one long narrative of God’s repeated attempts to help us understand his love. God has claimed us as his children. God loves us. The question is . . . do we know that?

I’m writing this on a day when my drive time to school with my children didn’t go so well. The details involve garden variety sibling annoyances that somehow got out of hand. I came unglued. Thank God for that upholstered buffer that kept me from reaching them and the light that turned green just as I hit my boiling point. After a couple of miles things settled down. The car was very quiet. By the time I let them out at school we had recovered, but those tense moments always leave me with regret. I found myself alone in the quiet car hoping that my kids knew that I loved them. My suspicion is that they were more aware of my contorted demeanor reflected in the rear view mirror.

My less than perfect parenting doesn’t always come across as loving to my children. Not so with God. God has shown his love to us in the giving of his Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And yet, far too many of us live with a nagging doubt. We’re not sure. We know what the Bible says – but there’s a gap between what we read and what we live, between the truth we hear proclaimed and the truth we feel deep within us. What we yearn for is more than being cherished. We want the kind of confident unshakable life that comes with knowing that God loves us.

Knowing that God loves us changes everything. So how can we come to know what God has long shown us to be true?

We begin our reflections this week with a statement of fact and with a question. The fact: God is a perfect parent and cherishes you as his child. The question: what does the truth change for you today? What circumstance might potentially be transformed when held up to the light of God’s relentless love for you. Begin this day by thanking God for the gift of his love.

Loving God, in this season of Christmas we celebrate the gift of your son – that amazing expression of your great love for the world. We give you thanks for that incredible gift. We praise you for your perfect love. Help us to truly receive the gift, that your love might change us and in turn change the world in which we live. Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1)

As seen in Jesus . . .
On the eighth day when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived . . . Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:21-24)

Now given to you . . .
How easily they could have been missed. The temple that day probably looked like Disney in June – masses of people, bumping shoulders every few steps, animal sounds, prayer sounds.

The young couple was there to do what the Law required. Their plan was to present their son Jesus and to make the sacrifice commanded in the Torah. Far more at ease in the setting of a small town, they would not likely linger in Jerusalem or in the temple precincts. The fact that they would present a dove or two pigeons as their sacrifice spoke to their status; lambs were offered by the more well to do.

Somewhere among the masses a man called Simeon was also being obedient. A righteous and devout man, he was there again to worship – but he was also watching. A promise had been made to him. The Lord had told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. And on that day, somehow, Simeon noticed this couple; he approached with firm but careful steps. He knew this child, the knowing coming from somewhere deep within – the same place where the Spirit had made that promise. He reaches out his arms and the young parents allow him to hold their boy.

How many people in the temple that day missed this drama entirely? How many busy, religious, habitual temple-goers walked by it? How many priests failed to detect the presence of the Holy because the holy wasn’t where they thought it would be?

Everyone at the center of this moment lacked notable status in that setting. They didn’t stand out: elderly Simeon, Anna the 84 year old prophetess – neither of them is mentioned again in the Bible. Joseph and Mary, young and poor.

The underdogs are not simply the ones that God notices; they seem most likely to notice God. What kind of holy drama might be unfolding around you today, and what would it mean for you to notice it?

Your works are great, O Lord, and yet so easily missed. Teach me to notice the ones you notice. Above all, teach me to notice your presence in the unlikely places and people that will surround me this day. Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Trading Up

Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
. . . the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair (Isaiah 61:3b)

As seen in Jesus . . .
He has filled the hungry with good things, but he has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53)

Now given to you . . .
The world is full of underdogs, the kind Isaiah speaks of: the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive, the grieving. These are not too hard to recognize. They populate our city streets, they sit alone in nursing homes, they don’t say much at work and their eyes appear red and tired. If we pay attention we can spot the underdogs.

But the world is also filled with the underdogged. The underdogged lug around a heaviness that we cannot see. They are typically well dressed, surrounded by friends, socially busy, seemingly successful; they are the ones we call “beautiful people.” But in the silent places they feel a metallic cold, an anchor that they alone carry. They may not feel beautiful or successful or even loved. The busy calendar is exhausting and the constant interaction with people has the warmth and depth of a shingle.

The quiet heaviness may be variously named: a deep regret, a nagging shame, a dashed hope, a stabbing memory, bewilderment at having it all but having so little. They are lowly, but you’d never know it. While the underdogs are surprised by God’s favor because they seem the least likely to receive it, the underdogged feel disqualified.

There is good news for the underdogged: the secret failures do not disqualify. According to Isaiah and Mary, the one thing that truly distances us from the Lord’s favor is our pride. God lifts the lowly and brings down the proud – but God never seems to take those who are weighed down and throw more on them. Jesus invited all who were heavy laden to come to him to find rest for their souls (Matthew 11:28).

Mary’s song describes a great reversal: the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. Isaiah describes a great exchange: beauty for ashes, gladness instead of mourning, praise instead of despair.

Christmas is a time for celebrating the fact that Jesus came to us. This same Jesus invites us to come to him . . . and make a trade. What silent weight might you trade in today?

Merciful God, you have invited us to cast our care upon you because of your great love for us. We walk through too many of our days beset with a weight that you have offered to carry. Show us what we need to lay aside today, and as we do so lift us up that we might taste and see your good favor. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Why We Love Underdogs

Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the lord for the display of his splendor (Isaiah 61:3b).

As seen in Jesus . . .
. . . He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts (Luke 1:51b).

Now given to you . . .
Everyone loves a good underdog story. Strangely, however, our affinity for underdog stories doesn’t say much about our affinity for underdogs themselves. The stories we love usually end up with the underdog becoming the top dog. In other words, what we love about underdog stories is the way they fuel our ambition. We don’t care for underdogs . . . unless they get the upper hand and shove it back in the face of their oppressor.

There is a shadowy possibility that we love underdog stories because we are proud – and this misses the point of the Biblical examples entirely.

The peasant girl chosen to be the mother of Jesus is noted for her humility. The truly amazing feature of Mary’s story is that after the angel’s announcement she remains humble; she doesn’t change and suddenly boast in her new role. She never becomes a top-dog at all. The birth announced by the angel eventually happened in a way that was fittingly obscure, relegated to the stable, announced to blue-collar shepherds and revealed to foreign astrologers.

Isaiah said that God’s Spirit was at work bringing good news to the poor, the brokenhearted, the prisoners, the grieving. But the work of the Spirit doesn’t elevate these to super-star status. What happens is that these underdogs become “a planting of the Lord” for the display of God’s splendor. God is made great through the humble. Mary said it simply and best in her song: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46-47 KJV). Our souls are to do the same.

Yesterday you were urged to look for the hidden glory people around you. Today, you are being asked to search out the pride that hides in your own heart. This is what keeps us from knowing the blessing that God pours out on the underdogs; we don’t miss this blessing because of the money we earn and the clothes we wear and the homes we live in. We miss the blessing because we use these things as an indicator of our own greatness; we give more attention to what magnifies us rather than what magnifies the Lord. We are proud in our inmost thoughts. Blessing missed.

O God, you give grace to the humble and set yourself against the proud. I confess that I am too often proud, sometimes in ways that escape my awareness. I don’t want to miss the grace you have for those who live for your glory. Do your work in me today and teach me humility. Make me a “planting of the Lord.” Let my life today be a display of your goodness. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

God and Paul Potts

Our yearning: Good news for “underdogs” (Read Isaiah 61:1-6)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted . . . to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:1-3).

As seen in Jesus . . .
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant (Luke 1:46-48).

Now given to you . . .
The stone-faced, sharp-tongued, typically disgruntled judge of “American Idol” was clearly taken aback. “I wasn’t expecting that Paul,” said Simon Cowell after the portly car phone salesman had sung a piece from the operatic work “Nessun Dorma.”

Paul Potts seemingly came out of nowhere. The 37 year old employee of Carphone Warehouse had done some amateur opera singing in the late 90s but made little progress as a singer, derailed by illness and a biking accident. His shocker performance on the televised “Britain’s Got Talent” gripped the attention of the UK and the world. The fact that the You-Tube video clip of Paul’s performance has been viewed tens of millions of times reflects our affinity for the underdog. It thrills us when no-names hit the big-time. And it seems to thrill God as well, because he does that kind of thing over and over again in the pages of the Bible.

Jesus took the words of Isaiah as the text for the sermon that launched his ministry. Good news would be proclaimed to the poor; the brokenhearted would be gently tended and cared for; they would be crowned with beauty, not the ashes of grief and dishonor. Jesus lived these words as he took notice of people like Zacchaeus and blind Bartimaeus and the woman who touched the hem of his robe and common fishermen like Peter and shady tax collectors like Levi.

This was the story of Jesus’ own birth. His mother was a peasant . . . and favored by the Lord. Mary marveled at this – that God had even noticed her in her humble no-name state. But this is God’s way.

Maybe today it can become your way as well. There’s a chance that many of you feel like the underdog – but it is certain that you will cross paths with someone today who is like Paul Potts. Their glory is hidden behind ordinariness; they are the people you’ll easily rush past and ignore. Let God’s way be yours as you live this day. Search out the hidden glory of each person who comes your way.

In your mercy, O Lord, you take notice of what we ignore. You treasure what we despise. You use the foolish things and the weak things of this world to shame those of us who live with a glutted sense of our own power and smarts. Transform us today by your Spirit that we might be as you are and love what you love, seeing the glory you’ve placed in the most humble among us. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jesus in the 'Hood: Advent Reflections on "Death by Suburb"

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message)

Like many, I have books stacked all over my house. I’m reading several of them – some with intent, and others in bits and pieces. The unfinished reading occasionally shames me. I started George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards years ago. I’m close to the end, but not there yet. I got interested in Jan Karon’s “At Home in Mitford” after reading Lauren Winner’s memoir, so I started that. Luci Shaw’s “The Crime of Living Cautiously” caught my attention while browsing around in our church library so I checked that out (they’re probably wondering where it is). This past summer I purchased Michael Card’s “Scribbling in the Sand” after someone had given me a gift certificate to our church bookstore. I have yet to complete Adam Nicholson’s “God’s Secretaries.” And then there’s the massive “Team of Rivals” that I had heard was good . . . got through chapter one or two, and then laid it aside. Honestly, I have no idea when I’ll get back to that one.

But from time to time I do finish a book – and the last one I closed having made it to the endnotes is a fine volume by David Goetz, “Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul.”

The premise is simple enough and clear from the title. Life in the suburbs is spiritually hazardous. There’s something about the way we live out here that shrivels the soul, the way we shop and drive and shuttle kids about and choose schools and eat out and TIVO programs we couldn’t sit and watch. Goetz takes what looks comfortable and enviable and names it a whitewashed tomb; pretty outside and rotting inside.

This gets my attention because I live in the suburbs. The life he’s talking about is my life. I did carpool this morning and then delivered my daughter’s overnight bag to the mother who’s hosting a spend-the-night birthday party tonight. Tomorrow I’ll go to my son’s basketball game.

As for the content of Goetz’s book, what I love are the eight spiritual disciplines for suburban life. This appeals to me because it is fundamentally positive and redemptive. It says that life in the suburbs does not have to be spiritually deadening, “toxic” to use Goetz’s adjective of choice. That’s good news, especially if you’re a suburbanite.

It seems to me that the danger of living in the suburbs can be summed up this way: the suburbs quietly cultivate an expectation of ease and attractiveness that shapes how we look at the world and live our days. Without knowing it we begin to expect that our lives should be comfortable; comfortable homes and well kept yards and easy to access stores that have anything and everything we might need at any hour of the day. My son recently needed a prescription filled. I had forgotten to do it and this oversight hit my awareness at about 10:00 p.m. The next day was scheduled in a way that made it difficult for Marnie and me to run this errand – so I went to the 24 hr CVS. No problem.

Suburban life produces people that don’t know how to suffer, that can’t grasp phrases like “cost of discipleship.” Luci Shaw (in her book mentioned above) maintains that the point of life is not my security. But security is exactly what lures many to the suburbs. There is a hint of escapism out here. Out here we’ll not have to deal wit all the crap that happens in the city and all the crappy people who make that stuff happen. Out here we’ll put our kids in large SUVs and they’ll be safe on the roads. Or so we think. The escapism is mingled with a fair amount of illusion.

The aim of life in the suburbs is the same as life anywhere: to follow Jesus and live the Jesus life. That can be done in the suburbs. What Goetz is warning us against is the very subtle tendency to use the suburbs as a way of buffering ourselves against the Jesus way.

In his oft quoted translation of John 1:14, Eugene Peterson says that “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” That includes the neighborhood you live in, regardless of where it’s located. This is a season for declaring the presence of God among us. Our task is to search him out, to seek him with all our hearts. Some places make that particularly hard to do. Thanks to Goetz and the disciplines explored in “Death by Suburb,” I’ve got a better sense of how to do it in my place.

Not a Possession - but Power

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse . . . the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him (Isaiah 11:1-2)

As seen in Jesus . . .
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 21:21-22)

Now given to you . . . .
When we think of “peace on earth” we too often think of something that is over-idealized and thus unattainable. When we think of “peace of mind” we too often think of something that over-psychologized and thus individualistic; something we possess within ourselves.

The words of Isaiah and Jesus help us walk a path between those two errors. To follow this path is to learn daily what it means to be both “at peace” within while “making peace” without.

There is a flow or direction in the words of the prophet and the words of our savior. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon the shoot from Jesse, the one God is raising up to establish peace. This Spirit manifests itself in things like wisdom and power – but it also creates a different kind of world. The Spirit isn’t a possession; it is power to change things. The Spirit moves outward and creates a world where the wolf and the lamb dwell together and nations rally to God’s chosen peacemaker.

This is the Spirit that Jesus gave to his disciples. He finds them in their fear and doubt and “breathes” the Spirit upon them. This isn’t simply something to help them feel better. The spirit is God’s gift of power for changing the world.

As you go through this day, the peace you have within you will impact the peace that exists around you. Peace isn’t a cozy possession. It is power to change things, and it comes from the indwelling life of God in you.

Lord Jesus, the peace I try to make in my own power is short-lived. I ask you to breathe on me again this day; fill me with your very life and empower me as you send me into the world. Grant me your gift of peace, and then do your work of changing the world in ways that I cannot imagine. Amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

He Strikes and Slays?

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:4b)

As seen in Jesus . . .
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many is Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35).

Now given to you . . . .
This is the kind of thing we choke on when we read the Bible. In public settings where scripture is read, these are verses we’re tempted to skip. We worry what marginally religious people will think when they hear us mention a God who slays the wicked. They might be uneasy or offended. They might decide that we’re raving fundamentalists and seek a more sophisticated place of worship. Can’t we just delete these lines, do a little editing for the Almighty?

Short answer: No.

We may not like the fact that a passage from the Bible that envisions a world at harmony somehow manages to mention a God who strikes the earth and slays the wicked, but that’s because we don’t fully grasp the kind of harmony God intends to establish. We think that peace is the absence of conflict, that being at harmony means making nice. But the harmony Isaiah speaks of comes about because the earth is filled with the knowledge of God (Isaiah 11:9). That’s a different kind of peace. It’s a peace that requires more than being nice; it requires proclaiming truth to the world – a truth that will not always be embraced.

When the infant Jesus was dedicated at the temple, an elderly man by the name of Simeon uttered his own word of prophecy to Mary. This child will cause some to rise and some to fall; some will love him, others will despise him; some will follow him, others will insist on going a different way. With Jesus, God has drawn a dividing line
in history.

That’s not a mandate for believers to accost or attack anyone who disagrees with us. It is however a mandate for mission, for the proclamation of who Jesus is. Peace isn’t what happens as we all learn to be nice to each other. Peace is what happens as the earth is covered with the knowledge of God. And this is a peace that only God can establish.

It is beyond me, O God, to understand how this world will ever be at peace. I just want everyone to get along. You want everyone to know you. Guard me from the sin of hatred that creeps up when others don’t agree with me. Grant me a sense of being on mission in this world, sharing the love of Jesus, living a life that points to you. In some small way use me to bring peace to the earth. Amen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Delight and Fear

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him . . . and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11: 3a)

As seen in Jesus . . .
He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:40-41)

Now given to you . . . .
Peace is not the absence of fear; it is fear rightly formed.

The one whom God raises up to establish peace and justice is one whose delight is in the fear of the Lord. That’s evidence of the life of God’s Spirit. This is what happens as God’s Spirit lives in us. The Spirit of the Lord produces a deep reverence for God, a sobering sense of God’s presence that is at the same time a great delight. This sounds peculiar to us – but the words of Jesus help clarify he connection between delight and fear.

Caught in the bluster and spray of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, the companions of Jesus were gripped with fear – the anxious kind of fear that says, “We’re about to die.” Jesus speaks peace to the elements, and then he turns and speaks peace to his friends. He does so with a question: “Why are you so afraid?” The implication is clear. Jesus is present; no need to live anxious fretful lives.

Great! No need to fear. But the friends of Jesus respond to this assurance with . . . well, more fear. “They were filled with great fear.” Only this is fear of a different kind. It’s the kind of fear that knows that God is present, firmly in control of all things, commanding the elements and guiding the most ordinary events of each and every day. This is the fear of the Lord. And it is our delight. Those at peace delight in the fear of the Lord.

Our fears are many, some of them common and obvious, some of them deeply personal and unnamed. What are yours? Both Jesus and Isaiah invite us to transform fear into delight. That is to say, take what you fear and place in the setting of God’s inescapable and powerful presence. Fear the Lord: be stunned at God’s detailed knowledge of every thought and emotion that fills your soul, every circumstance that shapes your life today. And then, by the work of the Spirit, be at peace.

Almighty God, I bring my fears before you now. I ask you to teach me what it means to fear you – and then help me to delight in what you teach me. Grant peace by the presence of your Spirit, both in my own life and in this troubled world. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As Spoken by the Prophet . . .
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears . . . (Isaiah 11:3b).

As seen in Jesus . . .
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34).

Now given to you . . .
Our peace – peace within and peace with others – is closely connected to our thinking, the judgments we make about what we see and hear. We can believe the rumor and regard another person differently, with suspicion, keeping our distance. We can see someone wearing expensive clothes and driving the high-dollar vehicle and conclude that they merit a certain awe and respect because of that. Far too often, we judge by what we see and what we hear.

The one God raises up from Jesse’s root, the one who establishes peace, is distinguished by a fine tuned capacity for discernment. God’s anointed ruler will not judge by sight and sound, by impressions and the latest buzz on the streets. No, this one will see things differently; he will see deep into the reality of things and reach conclusions that are just and right.

Jesus and the twelve were seeking rest and solitude, time to reflect and debrief what God the Father was doing through them and around them. They needed a staff retreat, but the crowds kept tracking them down. Wherever Jesus tried to go, the crowds would get their first. Such crowds appear to be an annoyance; they are too demanding, too needy. But Jesus sees them differently. He isn’t annoyed. He is moved with compassion.

Living at peace means we develop the capacity to make careful discernment about what we see and hear. Discernment shapes thinking, and thoughts can help secure our peace or disturb it. What kinds of judgments are you making about the people you interact with every day? What do you truly know about their lives? How easily do you accept what you hear about someone or some situation? When the Spirit of Jesus takes up residence in your heart, you’ll begin too see deeper into things. Where do you need discernment today?

Lord Jesus, I make plenty of judgments based on what I see and what I hear. Failing to wait and watch prayerfully, I sacrifice peace and accept superficial conclusions. Grant me a discerning mind today – a mind that sees and thinks as you yourself see and think. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Stump

Our yearning: Peace on Earth (Read Isaiah 11:1-9)

As Spoken by the Prophet . . .
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1).

As seen in Jesus . . .
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David (Luke 2:4).

Now given to you . . .
As we begin our reflections on “peace on earth” this week, we need to get honest about our hopes for peace – or, better said perhaps, our lack of hope. When it comes to our desires, peace is easily at the top of our wish list. When it comes to our expectations, peace barely makes the list at all.

We are not the first to have felt this way, yearning for peace and despairing of its reality. The words of the prophet were spoken into an ominous setting; the landscape would eventually be charred by violence and warfare. Judah would become a forest that had been plowed down, “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be a stump in the land” (Isaiah 6:13). But among the stumps one would put forth life; a tiny sprig of green, bearing hope. A shoot would come from the stump of Jesse. This frail beginning is the source of all hopes for peace.

The tender shoot seen so long ago by Isaiah finally emerged when a man named Joseph took his pregnant wife to the town of Bethlehem. The sovereign work of God and the decree of the government mingled in a single moment that confirmed the prophet’s words: the line of Jesse, father of David; Bethlehem, the town of David; Joseph, of the line and house of David. And then Jesus – the source of life and hope and peace.

The peace we yearn for is often found in the wastelands of our lives where it seems that nothing of worth is happening. There may be such a place in your life today. Ponder it for a moment; peace isn’t very compelling unless we see with clarity those places where we need it most. The yearning for peace isn’t generic, it’s specific. Specific relationships need mending, specific resentments need to be let go of, specific nations with people who have names and families need security in their borders. The wastelands are vast. Can you identify such a place in your life? And can you see the promise of life and peace restored?

God of peace, you take what seems lifeless and hopeless and you bring forth more than we dreamed could ever be. We don’t see much peace in our world and we don’t experience it in our lives nearly as much as we’d like. We yearn for peace, and we look to you as the only one who can make it real, even from the stumps of our broken world. Hear us in these moments as we lift the barren places of our lives and our world to you. Amen.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Holy Wild

Our yearning: A sense of wonder (Read Isaiah 6:1-8).

As spoken by the prophet . . .
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:1-2).

As seen in Jesus . . .
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
(Mark 1:23-24)

Now given to you . . .
Holiness is recognized by both demons and angels. In heaven, holiness calls forth songs and shouts of celebration. In hell, holiness calls forth derision and curses. And here, in the place and time in which we live, the same is true. We are drawn in or distanced by what is holy.

The one reaction which seems absent from the biblical stories, and far too common in our day, is casual disregard. Holiness isn’t boring in the scriptures; it is either embraced with adoration or rejected with disdain. No one gets around the Holy and yawns. Isaiah’s temple vision and Jesus’ confrontation with the demon possessed man both reflect the power of holiness. It’s a power to either attract or repel – but it is power any way you look at it.

Our capacity to recognize holiness will determine, to some degree, whether we live with a sense of wonder. Sadly, holiness is a shriveled word in our time. It suggests prudery, a life defined by avoidance strategies: avoiding the wrong movies, avoiding the wrong people, avoiding the wrong neckline on the blouse and the wrong word when you hit your finger with a hammer. The avoidance strategies bear little resemblance to biblical holiness. Holiness – the kind that evokes wonder – is the presence of God laid bare, seen in all things; a world inundated with God. You inhabit a Holy world, and by faith a Holy God (Spirit) inhabits you

Gracious God, we ask you for many things. On our list of needs and wants, holiness shows up near the bottom if it shows up at all. But today we ask you to make us holy – not by what we avoid, but by what we behold. Help us to see that the whole earth is full of your glory. Help us then to reflect to others what we have seen. Amen.

("The Holy Wild" is a phrase borrowed fom the Mark Buchanan's book by the same title)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Partial Eclipse

Our Yearning: A sense of wonder (Read Isaiah 6:1-8)

As spoken by the prophet . . .
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

As seen in Jesus . . .
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15)

Now given to you . . .
God’s revelation comes to us in the middle of life’s mundane and even unsightly realities. This is never truer than during the Advent and Christmas season. These are days filled with glorious language about God: “God with us” and “glory to God in the highest,” on and on. And these same days are also filled with relentless demands on your time, the reality of a drought, jobs that don’t stop and bills that keep coming. The most ordinary aspects of your life will continue unabated over the next month, and that fact alone easily eclipses our sense of wonder.

But God was revealed to Isaiah in the midst of a political crisis, the death of King Uzziah. Jesus appeared in a setting of civil unrest, Herod having thrown John in prison. Glorious things were happening; God was on the move, history was being shaped, not by Kings and governors, but by the words of a prophet and the presence of the Messiah. Uzziah and Herod probably got the headlines. Isaiah and Jesus did not.

We will not live with wonder by trying to escape the ordinary. We don’t get a clearer look at God by rising above the life we’ve been given. Wonder and Awe do not demand that we rinse away the grime of the daily. Rather we find God deep in the heart of the life we’re living this very moment. Political events, major news stories, dental appointments and dance recitals – there’s wonder to be found in all of it.

Lord Jesus, aside from the glittering decorations, our world barely takes notice of your coming to us. History keeps unfolding and the redundant details of life don’t take a vacation. How easily these things eclipse our vision of your presence among us; how easily we lose our sense of wonder. We yearn to see your glory in the things we see every day. Help us to see afresh in this wonder-filled season of the year. Amen.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Yearnings: A Series of Advent Reflections from Isaiah

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2)

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” (From “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks, 1867)

Everywhere you look the trappings of the season are on full display. Retailers know we’re shopping for Christmas and they won’t lose a day in helping us complete the task. The Starbucks cups have been seasonal red for weeks already. It’s here, ready or not.

At our house it’s more “not” than “ready.” I’m sure it’ll be a few days yet before I venture into the attic and pull down the tired boxes marked “Christmas.” The boxes will be emptied and we’ll soon give our home the look of being ready for Christmas; our own inner readiness will catch up eventually.

Of all the things we set out around our home to get ready for Christmas, the most treasured for me is a set of pictures. Starting with my son’s first Christmas, when he was our only child, we have a picture of the kids and Santa from every Christmas. I can look at that set of pictures and see their growth, the way they slightly morphed over a twelve month period; I see my babies becoming “kids.” I’m not sure how long we’ll keep doing this, but I don’t plan on stopping this year.

That image – children on Santa’s knees – captures in 5x7 color how this season of the year stirs up desire. Something about the days leading to Christmas nudges yearnings deep within us. In fact, as those pictures of my children remind me, from our earliest years we have been asked over and over again, “What do you want for Christmas?” Christmas invites us to desire, to want, to wish and dream.

Some of our desires are trivial and change every year, from action figures and dolls to iPods and gift cards. But some of our wants, our truest desires, are far more enduring. Those deep yearnings will provide the focus of Dr. Vic Pentz’s sermon series during the weeks of Advent. Each week the message will complete this sentence: “All I Want for Christmas is . . .”

Once again, these daily reflections will follow the sermon series. They will assume a very simple and straightforward format. Each week will focus on a deep yearning of soul. Each day will provide you with a scripture text from the prophet Isaiah, as well as a scripture from the gospels that shows how Jesus answers and meets our deepest longings. The reflection will conclude with a brief application of the scripture and a prayer.

With each day of the coming Advent season you will be reminded of this simple truth: Every yearning of the heart is answered in Jesus Christ. Those yearnings of soul are not there to drive us in a frenetic search for something to buy or accumulate that will make us “happy.” Our yearnings are there to tell us that we were made for God. In his book, Yearning: Living Between How it Is and How It Ought to Be, Craig Barnes states that

"Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation." (Yearning, p. 21)

“The great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.” That is the story of the incarnation. That is the story of Christmas. Our culture speaks to our yearnings by telling us to chase happiness. Our faith speaks to our yearnings by inviting us to follow the Savior, to live the Jesus life and walk the Jesus way. Listening to Isaiah and Jesus, that’s what we’ll do in the weeks ahead.

So . . . what is the deepest yearning of your heart right now? What do you really want for Christmas?

Walk with us, O Christ, into this wonderful season of the year. Help our bleary and dulled eyes to see true wonder; help our heavy hearts to find comfort. Above all, help us to find you – the answer to our deepest yearnings. Amen.