Friday, December 12, 2014

Things Treasured

And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51)

Every heart treasures something.

What we treasure may truly be good and valuable and worthy of being treasured. Just as often we treasure things in our heart that we would do well to get rid of.

Closets and Wallets 
About a month ago my wife decided it was time to go through our closet and see what we needed to unload. We both knew that we had things hanging up in the closet that we hadn’t touched in years. Embarrassing, but true. I was stunned at what we gathered to be given away. How and why had we managed to hold on to these things for so long? Nothing about that chore was fun, but once we were finished it was very freeing.

But there other things we treasure that have real value, even if only to us. A certain credit card company ran an ad campaign not long ago with the tag-line “What’s in your wallet?” That’s a good question. What I treasure in my wallet may say something about my heart.

Of course, most wallets hold monetary treasures, but there are other more meaningful treasures too. In my wallet I have pictures of my family, my health insurance card, my driver’s license that serves as my official picture ID, a library card, a card from the Presbyterian Church that says I am a minister of word and sacrament in good standing (not useful in airports), my Skymiles # (which is useful in airports but which I’ve never memorized). I guess there are things that I keep or ‘treasure’ in my wallet go beyond purchasing power and say something about who I am.

Three Words 
In the opening chapters of his gospel account, Luke uses three different words to tell us how Mary gradually made her way to an understanding of who her son was. As we noted earlier this week, even after Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, she didn’t have Jesus all figured out. At his birth and as he grew, Mary would see things and hear things with which she had to grapple.

When the shepherds arrived just after Jesus’s birth they told what the Angels had said to them about the infant Jesus. Mary ‘treasured’ and ‘pondered’ these things in her heart. When the boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem, found three days later by his parents, Mary treasured in her heart her son’s words about being in his Father’s house.

In these stories Luke uses three Greek words: Pondered, treasured, kept. The three words are very close in meaning, sharing a similar sense. Mary grappled with words and events by thinking, holding close, remembering and cherishing them.

Our Treasure
We do this too. We treasure things in our heart, pondering with the mind, remembering and cherishing and holding close. What we treasure in the heart may reveal who we are, or they may shape us into who we become. What we ponder and treasure may draw us closer to Jesus. What we ponder and treasure may be an obstacle to knowing who Jesus is and why he came.

A heart can treasure things that are not good and worthy. We can keep resentments and bitterness. We can hold on to painful memories and mistakes we’ve made. We can dwell on our regrets and hurts. None of these do us a bit of good, but we keep them nevertheless.

We can keep a different kind of treasure. Pondering and treasuring the gift of God’s grace to us has a way of shaping who we are, making us merciful and gracious. As we dwell on the words Jesus spoke and the life he lived, we begin to become like him. As we cherish and treasure his blessings to us, we become grateful people.

At Christmas we will sing “Let every heart prepare him room.” Maybe you can start preparing him room today.

What’s in your heart? What are you treasuring?

We ask, O God, that our hearts would treasure and dwell on those things that draw us closer to you. Where we have held on to things that are not worthy, cleanse our hearts by your Spirit. Make us ready for you and cause us to treasure who you are, we ask in the name of your Son. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 'BLT'

And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them (Luke 2:50)

When you order a ‘BLT’ sandwich you shouldn’t have to think too hard or work too hard to explain what goes on it.

That was my assumption a couple of months ago when I took a lunch-break and went up the road to a favorite and often frequented sandwich place. I stood in line and scanned the menu up on the wall. The drill is familiar. You order your sandwich and get the basic stuff on it – and then someone else takes that basic sandwich and dresses it up for you with whatever heathy veggie-type items you choose.

On this day I ordered a BLT. Bacon. Lettuce. Tomato. That’s pretty simple.

But as my sandwich progressed to the next stage of the assembly line, the person serving me stood there looking at me, waiting. I stood there awkwardly looking back at her, silently wondering “What’s the problem?” After a moment it dawned on me that she was waiting for me to ask for lettuce and tomato on my BLT. I finally caught on and explained that, yes, I did indeed want lettuce and tomato on my BLT.

I guess what happened there was a good ole’-fashioned failure to communicate. I’ll take my share of the blame for that. But the whole transaction baffled me. I assumed that when you order a BLT, the L and the T come de facto with the B. That’s obvious. No explanations or clarifications required. No need to ask, “Sir, what would you like on your BLT?”

But between the two of us there was a lack of understanding. What seemed so obvious to me was not so obvious to her.

Did You Not Know? 
After three days, Mary and Joseph found their twelve year old son in the Temple. He was sitting among the teachers talking theology and offering commentary on scriptural texts. Mary was clearly perturbed. “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you” (Luke 2:48 The Message).

Jesus’s answer to his mother is the climactic moment of the story, confronting us with who this boy is. “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” This the first time Jesus speaks in the gospel of Luke, and he calls God his ‘Father.’

At this point Luke adds this very significant statement: “And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.” Eugene Peterson renders the verse, “They had no idea what he was talking about.”

Every Christmas the story is told of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. We hear how she was told that she was ‘with child’ by the Holy Spirit, that she would bear a son who would be called holy – the Son of God. The Angel’s message to Mary could not have been clearer.

And yet, twelve years later, Mary does not seem to grasp who this boy is. Twenty years later, as Jesus began his earthly ministry, the gospel writers make it plan that his family still did not understand what he had come to do (See Mark 3:21).

Not So Obvious 
During Advent and Christmas we tend to speak of the infant Jesus as if it is obvious to everyone who he is. We use phrases like ‘God incarnate’ and ‘Emmanuel, God with us.’ But these things, while very familiar, are not obvious as to their meaning. They are not simple ideas that are easily grasped and casually accepted.

There are plenty of people who celebrate Christmas but still do not understand who Jesus is.

To say so is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that many people come to Jesus gradually, step by step, slowly coming to terms with what his birth means. You may be one of those people. If so you’re in good company. Mary, the mother of Jesus, did not fully understand her son – even after a message from an angel. Your slow journey to Jesus is hardly exceptional.

But don’t avoid the journey. Yes, Christmas celebrates an event in history – but the event has meaning, and the meaning is tied up with the identity of the child who is born.

It may take you a while to get there. Advent is the perfect time for getting started.

Grant, O God, that during this Advent season we would make a journey to your Son, moving beyond the fact of his birth, to what it meant, and who he truly was. We ask this in his name, Amen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Search

Behold, your Father and I have been searching for you in great distress (Luke 2:48).

Years ago I lost my son in East Cobb Park.

Who knows how these thing happen? But happen they do – and they seem to happen so quickly. I guess I could have been paying closer attention at the moment. My kids knew this park well, so it never occurred to me that finding an uninhabited park bench and reading a book was a bad idea.

Until I looked up from the book and couldn’t see my son.

Panic in the Park
Closing the book I started walking the play area where he had been. Seconds passed. No John. I moved a bit quicker, investigating play structures where he might be hidden from my sight. Still no luck and more seconds are passing. And with every passing second my anxiety is rising. My thoughts are racing to very dark places, imagining an abduction, news reporters and police reports.

My fruitless search soon had me running about, scanning the wide field adjacent to the play are. A few Mothers who are naturally dialed in to this type of crisis were kind enough to offer their help, asking me questions about what he was wearing and where I had last seen him.

After what seemed like an eternity someone casually mentioned that a couple of kids were down in Sewell Mill Creek. Deep in a ravine, the creek was not visible from the main part of the park. And there, standing in that ditch with mud caked shoes, was my son.

Outwardly I was all rebuke and reprimand. Inwardly I was sobbing with gratitude.

Losing Jesus
There was a time when parents allowed their kids to have free reign of the neighborhood, often not hearing from them for hours at a time. They may not have known precisely where their child was – but they knew the neighborhood and the neighbors. A child’s extended absence was no cause for alarm.

That kind of thing is probably what was happening in Luke 2:41-52. Mary and Joseph had taken their twelve year old son to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When it was all over they set out for the eighty mile trip back to Nazareth, assuming that Jesus was among their friends and relatives, never imagining that he had stayed behind in Jerusalem. They traveled a full day before they discovered that he was nowhere to be seen.

While Luke is telling us about “the boy Jesus,” the story is nevertheless significant for the season of Advent. Far too easily, we too lose Jesus. This is not to say we lose our faith or that we abandon our belief in Jesus. Not at all.

The problem is not renunciation. The problem is alienation.

Retracing our Steps 
The Advent season can be an especially painful time when we sense that Jesus is absent. We sing the joyful songs but we aren’t especially joyful. Somehow, somewhere, we lost Jesus. Maybe we left him behind while working long hours. Maybe we lost him in the dullness of familiar routines. Perhaps Jesus is lost in the midst of financial pressures or a family crisis or in a fight against illness. Very often we can lose Jesus at church, of all places. The Christ child is eclipsed by our busy celebrations of his birth.

Advent is an excellent opportunity to retrace our steps. This season is an invitation to go on a journey to Jesus. To go back and search for him and ponder who he is and what he came to do.

There’s still plenty of time. Maybe the journey can begin for you right now.

Lord Jesus, even those who love you can lose sight of you. In these days of Advent we would seek you in a fresh way. Guide us on this journey that we might discover afresh who you are and the power of your presence among us. Amen.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Praying

“Do not be afraid Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13)

Author and speaker Nancy Ortberg says she experienced a spiritual breakthrough in her life when she came to the realization that Jesus never kept a journal.

She’s exactly right. Jesus never journaled and no one gets to heaven by keeping a journal. But thankfully many followers of Jesus have labored to put their spiritual journey in writing. In doing so they have given us a great gift.

Several years ago I came across The Journals of Jim Elliott. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, was killed with four colleagues by the Auca Indians on January 8, 1956. His story inspired a generation of missionaries, and continues to do so today. The entries I read were written in 1948 when Elliot was a student at Wheaton College. At the time, he was reading through the Old Testament, a chapter a day it seems, and writing a paragraph or so of reflection and prayer on his daily scripture readings.

Praying More Than We Know
I was especially challenged by something Elliot wrote on February 16, 1948, a reflection on the opening chapter of Exodus. Elliot was observing how Israel flourished under persecution. How the people increased in Egypt, even as slaves. Elliot rightly observed that God’s kingdom advances through affliction. God’s people grow in their suffering.

And then Elliot wrote these words: “Send persecution to me, Lord, that my life might bring forth much fruit.”

Elliot prayed more than he knew. He could never have imagined how God would answer that prayer, what God intended to do with and through his life, and how his violent death would bear much fruit. Sometimes we may pray things we don’t mean. But perhaps, just as often, we pray more than we mean.

Our words to God say more than we know, and God hears more than we say. Paul spoke of the Spirit interceding on our behalf, praying from deep places that lie beyond our vocabulary, uttering things before God that we could never speak. There is a mystery to prayer, far more happening than we know or speak.

Answers Unseen
Prayer provides the context for the story of Zechariah and his encounter with the angel Gabriel. As Zechariah is performing his once-in-a-lifetime sacred duty, the people are standing outside praying (1:10). The ritual itself is built around prayer. As Zechariah burns incense at the altar, the prayers of the people are given texture. The sight and smell of incense capture the prayers of a nation.

And of course Zechariah and Elizabeth have prayed. As devout and righteous people they have prayed the Psalms in worship. As husband and wife they have prayed for a child; they prayed about that for many years until it became clear to them that God’s answer was ‘no.’ They struggled to understand that answer, struggled to accept it but accept it they did.

And then Gabriel showed up and greeted Zechariah with “Your prayer has been heard.” Scholars debate exactly which prayer Gabriel is referring to – the prayers for the nation or the prayers for a child. As it turned out, one prayer was integral to the other.

As Zechariah prayed more was happening than he knew. His priestly prayer for the people was being answered in the gift of a child. His prayer for a child would be a part of God’s plan to redeem the nation.

What are you praying about today? Who are you praying for? Whatever it is, whoever it is, don’t stop praying. And don’t worry whether you’re doing it right. Just keep praying.

With every petition, you ask more than your words speak and God is doing more than you know.

Merciful God, hear my prayer. Hear the words I speak and the silent yearnings of my heart. Do more than I can imagine, and in all things – the people I love, the situations that concern me – make me confident that you do indeed hear the prayers of your people. I pray this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Weight of Your Expectations

Both of them were upright in the sight of God . . . but they had no children (Luke 1:6-7).

Christmas Eve just isn’t Christmas Eve without a candlelight service. Or so it seemed to me.

That’s why I was determined to create a new tradition in the church that I served years ago before coming back to Atlanta. They had never done a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Fortunately my congregation was patient with me. They seemed willing to give it a try.

The Icy Rain 
One need not be a genius to plan a candlelight service. The hymns for Christmas Eve are fairly obvious, so crafting the order of service was not hard. Candles were purchased. The bulletin was printed and folded. Everything was ready.

And then around mid-morning on that highly anticipated Christmas Eve an icy rain began to fall in our part of eastern North Carolina. The trees took on a glassy sheen, and that was pretty. But the same thing was happening to our roads, and that was dangerous. All over Raleigh churches were cancelling their Christmas Eve services. The list grew long and ran across the bottom of my TV screen.

I resisted doing the same, holding out for yet another miracle on that most sacred of nights. The miracle I wanted was not to be. That first Christmas Eve candlelight service was cancelled.

We stayed home that night. I sat in my house and stewed. To be perfectly honest, it took some work to get over my anger, my sullen indignation that the creator of the universe had the audacity to ignore my will. My expectations had not been met. And those shattered expectations had me ripped up inside.

Few things are more crushing than the weight of your expectations. The longer you carry them, the heavier they become, and those expectations can be especially burdensome during this season of the year.

Expectatrions v. Expectancy 
Pastor and Author Mark Buchanan has observed a helpful distinction between having expectations and being expectant. Expectations can subtly become demands. We have an idea of how things ought to go, how people ought to be, how plans should unfold. These expectations are expressions of desire, and when our desires are thwarted we feel robbed.

But being expectant is more like a posture toward your life. Expectancy is an eagerness and openness to whatever may be. It is not expressed as a specific desire, but rather as a sense of excitement and anticipation.

Advent is a season that thrives on expectancy. And it as just as easily ruined by the weight of our expectations.

The pain of disappointment is what we feel in the gap between life as we’d like it to be and life as we actually have it. And when that disappointment follows repeated prayers and pleading with God, God becomes the focus of our disappointment. We cease to be expectant. To quote the late theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier, “we still believe in God, we just don’t think God actually does anything.”

"Your Prayer Has Been Heard" 
We might wonder if that’s what had happened to Zechariah. He’s a faithful priest, obedient to God’s law. He carries out his religious duties. He is devout, but disappointed. And maybe in his disappointment he had stopped being expectant.

But God has a way of showing up in our disappointments. This is the good news of Advent.

Perhaps today your crisis of faith isn’t about disbelief in God, but disappointment with God. You have some expectations that have not been met – and possibly may never be. In this you’ve slowly lost any sense of expectancy. The angel’s word to Zechariah is our hope in this season. Our prayers are heard. God sees and knows. In fact the name Zechariah means “Yahweh remembers.”

What expectations might be sitting heavy on your soul today? What disappointments have dulled your sense of expectancy? Keep praying. And stay alert. God may be at work in those hard places, doing far more than you know.

By your grace, O God, grant that we would bring our desires honestly and boldly to you while holding our expectations loosely. And make us an expectant people, eager for what you are doing in us and around in these days of Advent, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.