In the Office: What Did We Expect?

In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 11:1-6), John the Baptist — who had preached a fiery message of judgment and repentance and who had announced that God would begin to set the world right through Jesus the Messiah — finds himself in prison. But as he monitors all the latest news about Jesus’ activities, he discovers that the actual shape of this Messiah’s ministry isn’t what he expected. Israel’s enemies aren’t being destroyed. Sinners aren’t being condemned. This isn’t the kind of liberation that he had in mind. And so, he sends his disciples to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (verse 3)

In the OfficeOf course, if we genuinely pay attention to the words and actions of Jesus as they’re recorded for us in scripture, I can’t help but wonder how many of us might feel a need to ask the same question. Because there, instead of a Messiah who wants to lead us in vanquishing our enemies, we find a Reconciler who wants to make us the kind of people who can turn enemies into friends. Instead of a Messiah who condemns all those sinners that we’ve excluded from the circle of God’s care, we find a Savior who reminds us that we’re sinners, too, and then offers to remake all of us through the transformative power of grace. Instead of a Messiah who protects our interests, we find a Liberator who brings hope to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And instead of a Messiah who promises to make us great, we find a God who demonstrates that true greatness is found in humble service and sacrificial love.

When I look at my own heart, I realize that I — like John the Baptist — find it awfully easy to “yearn” for a Messiah. But it’s another thing entirely to follow in the way that God’s Messiah both taught and modeled. Perhaps that’s why Jesus ends his response with his: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (verse 6)

May we not stumble in our following today. And may our expectation (and our hope) be that the Messiah will do surprising things — “kingdom things” — both in and through us as we yield ourselves to Him.

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In the Office: A Song to Remember

For better or worse, I came of age in an era where simple praise choruses were all the rage. Of course, as many of their detractors were quick to point out, both the musical complexity and the theological depth of these choruses often left much to be desired, which is an accurate reflection as far as it goes. And yet, I often couldn’t help but feel that these offerings of song were being judged by the wrong criteria. They weren’t intended to give doctrinal instruction or to challenge the church choir. They were written to express the “heart cries” of those who live in relationship with the Lord Almighty.

Take, for example, this little number, which I remember singing over and over again with the college Christian fellowship that played such a big role in my faith journey:

I will call upon the Lord
Who is worthy to be praised
So shall I be saved from my enemies
The Lord liveth and blessed be the Rock
And let the God of my salvation be exalted

Written by Michael O’shields • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that these words come more-or-less straight from the Bible and are, in fact, an adaptation of today’s reading from the Psalms (Psalm 18:1-19). So at the very least, they serve the purpose of planting God’s Word deep in one’s heart. And for those who are willing to read these lyrics in their original setting, there’s the added benefit of learning some meaningful theology — the truth about a God who hears our cries for help and acts in power to save. But perhaps as much as anything, it’s the experience of singing this song that I remember. Sitting out on the front lawn of the Baptist Student Union at the College of William and Mary — surrounded by friends and singing of God’s power and salvation — I wasn’t just mindlessly repeating some all-too-simple words. I was planting and nurturing and expressing a faith that sustains me still. And many are the days when I wish I could be back in that same place — with those same friends — singing those same songs again.

Of course, my faith has been enriched by more than praise choruses. I’m grateful for the oratorios of J. S. Bach, the hymns of Charles Wesley, the gospel songs of Kirk Franklin, the Christian rock of Stryper, and almost everything in between. But in the end, ours is a faith that sings; and we tend to be at our best, I believe, when we’re carrying a song in our heart.

What are the songs (and the experiences of songs) that you remember? What words and tunes give expression to the twists and turns of your faith journey?

May the Lord bring a song to your heart today; and may we look forward to that day when we’ll sing those songs together – to One who about whom and for whom they were written.

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In the Office: Of Grass and Thrones

For better or worse, I’m a bit of a “news addict.” I watch the news as I sip my morning coffee. I check the latest headlines at least a couple times during the day, and I’m like to take one last look at developing stories before I go to bed. And naturally, following the news can give one a sense that everything is urgent — and what’s more — that it’s urgently falling apart.

But today’s psalm (Psalm 103) invites me to put all this “breaking doom and gloom” in perspective. The psalmist remind me:

The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more. (verses 15-16)

grassAll the things that seem so important — the latest political squabbles and the movements of Wall Street, the salacious Hollywood gossip and the conflicts in distant lands — all of these are part of a mortal life; which, like grass, is here today and gone tomorrow.

That’s not to say that God doesn’t care about all these events. The Lord wills wholeness and healing for His creation and His people; and so, the psalm also takes the time to remind me:

The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed. (verse 6)

throneBut amid all the chaos and upheaval that surround us, there are two truths that provide both stability and hope. First, God’s love for us is unfailing: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (v. 8). “He does not treat us as our sins deserve…For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (vs. 10-11). “As a father his compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him” (v. 13). And second, God’s kingdom endures: “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (v. 19).

No wonder the psalm both begins and ends with a call to worship: “Praise the LORD, my soul” (vs. 1 and 22). May God’s kingdom be your enduring hope today — even amid the fleeting rush of events, both painful and joyful. And may there be a song of praise in your soul, as the unfailing love of the LORD allows you to be a source of hope for others.

In the Office: The (Not So) Surprising Path to Growth

Do you ever wonder what will enhance your spiritual growth and discipleship? (And if you’d bother reading a blog like this, then I suspect the answer is, “Yes.”) When I think about my own questions in this area, I realize that a lot of my attention ends up being focused on myself: What do I need to understand better? What do I need to practice more diligently? What do I need to change in order to walk more faithfully with Christ? And while I’m these types of questions do have their place, today’s New Testament lesson invites me to consider the notion that they might be misdirected.

The Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Corinth — a congregation that apparently included many people who cared deeply about spiritual growth. But in their eagerness to advance in the Christian life, they bypassed the reality that the ultimate goal of such growth was not to enrich themselves but to bless others. And so, Paul said to them:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy…Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:1-5; 12)

rise by liftingNow, I don’t quote those words in order to make any of us think, “Gee, maybe I ought to learn how to be more prophetic.” After all, we’re talking “gifts” of the Spirit here, and the Bible makes it clear that God gives those as He sees fit. But I do think these words reveal a principle that rests at the heart of all truly Christian growth: The point is others. If we learn more about the Bible, it’s not so that we can feel confident about our wisdom and understanding, but so that we can offer God’s counsel and encouragement to others. If we deepen our prayer life, it’s not so that we can experience “spiritual thrills and chills,” but so that we can lift others into God’s presence. If we develop our faith, or generosity, or patience, it’s not ultimately so that we can be “better people,” but so that we can become the kind of people through whom others are made better.

And none of that should surprise us, of course. Earlier in this letter Paul said: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). And in the gospels, Jesus said: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

As a pastor, one of my deep desires is that every member of my church family will grow spiritually. But even as I pray and labor toward that end, I hope we never forget that the true goal of such growth is sharing God’s kingdom embrace: with each other — and with so many others around us who need to know and experience the truth of God’s love.

May we walk that path today — and be continually open to the ways that God wants to use us to be a blessing.

In the Office: Spurning Truth

Today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 36:11-26) offers a story that might seem somewhat irrelevant to our day and age, but which, I fear, is all too contemporary. The Lord speaks a word of warning to the prophet Jeremiah — a word that declares judgment against the people and their leaders if they refuse to turn from wickedness. Jeremiah dictates this prophecy to his secretary Baruch and tells him to read the Lord’s message in the temple; and as Baruch follows these instructions, God’s truth is heard by several of the king’s advisors, who are cut to the heart by its message. They inform the king, who commands that the scroll be brought and read in his presence. But as the prophetic warning is read, the king cuts off pieces of the scroll and throws them into the fire.

It seems like a tale from long ago and far away, doesn’t it? And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we, too, are sometimes guilty of spurning truth rather than allowing it to change our hearts. Social commentators far more perceptive than I have noted our tendency to create “echo chambers” that feed us only the “news” and perspectives that reinforce our existing biases. And especially when it comes to heeding the messages of scripture, I can’t escape the feeling that — even among those of us who claim submission to God’s Word — some on the “left” have “cut up and burned” the pieces that have to do with personal holiness…and some on the “right” have “cut up and burned” the pieces that have to do with corporate justice…and many of us all over the spectrum have managed to spurn God’s warnings about a “comfortable idolatry,” which maintains a veneer of religiosity but lacks wholehearted devotion.

Is there a solution for this conundrum? I wish I knew. But at the very least, we can pray that we will be open to hearing and responding to the full counsel of God. Rather than “spurning and burning” the difficult truths that challenge our biases and vested interests, let’s humble ourselves and ask the Lord to use His Word to remake us in his image. As Paul puts it in one of his letters:

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, The Message)

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In the Office: The Beautiful Body of Christ

There’s almost no way to express adequately the gratitude that I feel to God for making me a part of the Body of Christ, both in its universal and local expressions. And when it comes to the “local Body” of which I’m a part, I’m reminded daily of the generosity, commitment, and mutual concern that’s shared among the Body’s members and that allows us to play a meaningful part in God’s kingdom work in this place. Having said that, my work as a pastor also makes me aware of the challenges that confront local “Christ-bodies” these days, and our New Testament lesson (1 Corinthians 12:12-16) brings some of those challenges into sharp relief.

On the one side, there are those who apparently fail to recognize just how important their contribution to the Body is. They rarely step up to serve; they disappear for weeks at a time, missing out on the worship and fellowship that create meaningful bonds with others. “Because I’m not a hand (a deacon, a Sunday School teacher, a choir member, etc.), I don’t belong to the Body,” they seem to say. And yet, it takes each and every gift for God’s work among us to thrive.

On the other side, there are some who apparently fail to recognize the importance of those whose participation in the Body is different from their own. They’ve got little patience for folks who see things differently, or who want to do things differently. And yet, as Paul cautioned: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.'” When we fail to see the value in our differences — when we devalue those whose worship styles or political outlooks or theological convictions are different from our own — we miss out on the potential richness of our “em-Bodied” experience.

thebodyofChristIn the end, we’re in this thing together. “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it,” Paul says. And thankfully, Christ hasn’t given up on His Body. He continues to fill us with His Spirit and offer us His guidance and heal us with His grace. And His goal — as Paul says elsewhere — is plain: “Until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ” (Ephesians 4:13, The Message).

How could you celebrate and strengthen the Body of Christ today? May the Lord help us to see the beauty of what He’s doing among us, and may He lead us to offer ourselves joyfully to His Body’s work.

In the Office: Idols-B-Us

I’ve been thinking this week about idols — not because this is a topic that typically occupies my mind (although maybe it should) — but because my sermon for this Sunday comes from the book of Hosea (Hosea 1:2-10), which contends that our proclivity to make “things other than God” the objects of our trust and devotion is, in essence, spiritual adultery. Of course, that’s a lesson with which most of us who’ve spent any time in Sunday School are well acquainted. After all, we’re taught from an early age that we don’t have to bow down in front of a statue in order to be guilty of idolatry. And yet, I wonder sometimes if we’re aware of how subtle and pervasive the drift toward idol worship can be.

Therefore, I find it somewhat providential that today’s Old Testament lesson comes from 2 Kings 23:4-25, in which a religious revival takes place under a young king named Josiah. The king’s workers discovered a forgotten “Book of the Covenant” in the Temple, and when it was read to Josiah — and when realized how far his people had drifted from their allegiance to the Lord — he immediately set about restoring the proper worship of Yahweh. At the heart of this restoration was an effort to eliminate all the idols that had cropped up over the years…and what an effort it was! It takes the biblical writer most of a fairly long chapter to describe all the different altars that needed to be torn down and all the different “gods” that needed to be deposed.

It makes me wonder: What idols would God have to tear down in my life (and in your life, and in our lives) in order to make us aware of how things that are “less than God” have come to take the “place of God” in terms of our attention, our effort, and our love? Would God have to burn our cell-phones and destroy our sports leagues? Would He need to throw down our political ideologies and eliminate our retirement accounts? If the Lord sent a new Josiah today — who removed every “object of devotion” that has lured our hearts away from the loyalty and gratitude and worship that belong to God alone — how much of my life (and your life, and our life) would be left?

As my study of Hosea has reminded me this week, we live in hope that not even our failure to love God can ultimately defeat His relentless love for us. As the Apostle Paul puts it: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13). But may His amazing grace inspire us to do a little “idol eliminating” of our own, so that we can turn to the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, just like Josiah did (verse 25).

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