Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Year Resolutions

Have you ever thought about where the concept of New Years resolutions come from? They date back at least as far as the time of the Babylonians, who saw the new year as a time to return things borrowed and to fulfill their debts. In Medieval times, after Christmas, knights were to lay their hands on peacocks and vow to be more chivalrous. Many religious groups, especially Christians, make resolutions at the start of the new year to become more perfect in their faith by becoming more aware of their imperfections and trying to improve upon them. John Wesley, the Father of Methodism, developed a Covenant Renewal Service to be used, at the very least, on January 1. Wesley felt the service should be used regularly, and led congregations in the service whenever he visited them but insisted that all Methodists should participate in the Covenant Renewal service at the first of the year. The purpose of the service was to make a commitment to reaffirm our faith in, and service to Jesus Christ.

While we will not be having a Covenant Renewal service this January 1, I am reprinting part of the service for your consideration. I'd like to suggest that we make a new tradition in our homes by starting each year reading the covenant renewal, and considering how we will respond to it. But I also recommend that we remember this covenant renewal at other times o our lives, as well.  Perhaps we remember as we celebrate birthdays, or as we mourn deaths. Perhaps we remember when we receive an unexpected blessing. May we often reaffirm our covenant with God.

If you are alone on New Year's day, read the service aloud. Hear the words and let them come to life for you. If you are with others, choose one person to lead the service as others respond. Again, read the service aloud and pay attention to the words. Let them come to life within you, challenging you to grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ.


Commit yourselves to Christ as his servants. Give yourselves to him, that you may belong to him. Christ has many services to be done. Some are more easy and honorable, others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests, others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves. But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
It is necessary, therefore, that we consider what it means to be a servant of Christ.
Let us, therefore, go to Christ, and pray:

Let me be your servant, under your command. I will no longer be my own. I will give up myself to your will in all things.

Be satisfied that Christ shall give you your place and work.

Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
     put me to doing, put me to suffering,
     let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
     let me be full, let me be empty,
     let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart
     give it all to your pleasure and disposal.

Christ will be the Savior of none but his servants. He is the source of all salvation to those who obey.
Christ will have no servants except by consent;
Christ will not accept anything except full consent to all that he requires.
Christ will be all in all, or he will be nothing.
Confirm this by a holy covenant.
To make this covenant a reality in your life, listen to these admonitions:

First, set apart some time, more than once, to be spent alone before the Lord; in seeking earnestly God's special assistance, and gracious acceptance of you; in carefully thinking through all the conditions of the covenant; in searching your hearts whether you have already freely given your life to Christ. Consider what your sins are. Consider the laws of Christ, how holy, strict, and spiritual they are, and whether you, after having carefully considered them, are willing to choose them all. Be sure you are clear in these matters, see that you do not lie to God.

Second, be serious and in a spirit of holy awe and reverence.

Third, claim God's covenant, rely upon God's promise of giving grace and strength, so you can keep your promise. Trust not your own strength and power.

Fourth, resolve to be faithful. You have given to the Lord your hearts, you have opened your mouths to the Lord, and you have dedicated yourself to God. With God's power, never go back.

And last, be then prepared to renew your covenant with the Lord. Fall down on your knees, lift your hands toward heaven, open your hearts to the Lord, as we pray:

O righteous God, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, see me as I fall down before you. Forgive my unfaithfulness in not having done your will, for you have promised mercy to me if I turn to you with my whole heart.
God requires that you shall put away all your idols.
I here from the bottom of my heart renounce them all, covenanting with you that no known sin shall be allowed in my life. Against your will, I have turned my love toward the world. In your power I will watch all temptations that will lead me away from you. For my own righteousness is riddled with sin, unable to stand before you.
Through Christ, God has offered to be your God again if you would let him.
Before all heaven and earth, I here acknowledge you as my Lord and God. I take you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for my portion, and vow to give up myself, body and soul, as your servant, to serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of my life.
God has given the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way and means of coming to God.
Jesus, I do here on bended knees accept Christ as the only new and living Way, and sincerely join myself in a covenant with him. O blessed Jesus, I come to you, hungry, sinful, miserable, blind, and naked, unworthy even to wash the feet of your servants. I do here, with all my power, accept you as my Lord and Head. I renounce my own worthiness, and vow that you are the Lord, my righteousness. I renounce my own wisdom, and take you for my only guide. I renounce my own will, and take your will as my law.
Christ has told you that you must suffer with him.
I do here covenant with you, O Christ, to take my lot with you as it may fall. Through your grace I promise that neither life nor death shall part me from you.
God has given holy laws as the rule of your life.
I do here willingly put my neck under your yoke, to carry your burden. All your laws are holy, just, and good. I therefore take them as the rule for my words, thoughts, and actions, promising that I will strive to order my whole life according to your direction, and not allow myself to neglect anything I know to be my duty.
The almighty God searches and knows your heart.
O God, you know that I make this covenant with you today without guile or reservation. If any falsehood should be in it, guide me and help me to set it aright. And now, glory be to you, O God the Father, whom I from this day forward shall look upon as my God and Father. Glory be to you, O God the Son, who have loved me and washed me from my sins in your own blood, and now is my Savior and Redeemer. Glory be to you, O God the Holy Spirit, who by your almighty power have turned my heart from sin to God.
O mighty God, the Lord Omnipotent, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have now become my Covenant Friend. And I, through your infinite grace, have become your covenant servant. So be it.
And let the covenant I have made on earth be ratified in heaven.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Last Sunday marked the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ, and the beginning of the Christian year. According to the United Methodist Book of Worship, “Advent is a season of four weeks including four Sundays. Advent  derives from the Latin adventus,  which means "coming." The season proclaims the comings of the Christ—whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate. Each year Advent calls the community of faith to prepare for these comings; historically, the season was marked by fasts for preparation. Each Sunday of Advent has its distinctive theme: Christ's coming in final victory (First Sunday), John the Baptist (Second and Third Sundays), and the events immediately preceding the birth of Jesus Christ (Fourth Sunday).”[1]

The first “coming” we prepare for is fairly obvious, especially in a commercial world.  Christmas music starts playing as early as Halloween, as retailers entice us to find the perfect gifts for those we love.  This distracts us from recalling the birth narrative, including the angel's visit to Mary, the birth of John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, the birth of the savior of the world in a barn, and the visit of the shepherds. The humbling events that lead up to Jesus' birth show just what kind of a child he was. It is important that we remember the events leading up to Jesus' birth, as well as the birth, itself.

The second “coming” is a remembrance of the presence of the Messiah with us in “Word and Spirit”. This is a reminder that we do not look at Jesus as simply a fact from history, but that we see him present in the world around us.  We see Jesus present in the faces of those around us who are hurting, who need to be ministered to in the name of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus speaks of those who are served or not served as being the least of his brothers and sisters. So Advent is a reminder that we are called to serve those around us.

The third “coming of Jesus” we remember during Advent is the second coming, or the apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it. Throughout Scripture, including sayings of Jesus, we hear of the signs of the end of the world. These signs of the end of the world are not meant to cause us to live in fear! Rather, they are signs for us to live our lives as though every minute might be our last; that when we see wars, famine, and disasters, they should be a reminder for us to be constantly working to bring about the Kingdom of God. Being Christian does not mean being afraid; it means living in a way in which we offer hope and joy in a world that can sometimes be discouraging, fearful, and painful.  We should be a light for those who live in darkness.

This Advent, let us be a people of preparation. Let us open our hearts and minds to the coming of Jesus Christ. Let us offer hope to those who feel life is hopeless.  Let us offer peace to those whose lives are full of conflict. Let us offer love to those who feel they are unlovable. Let us offer Christ, as we prepare to receive him once again.

[1] United Methodist Book of Worship, Nashville; The United Methodist Publishing house, 1992, pg. 238

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Whole Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

I've tended to stay away from preaching the Epistles, as I often feel I am not educated enough to really interpret them as well as I would like. However, at times I challenge myself to grow in my understanding of Scripture by researching, studying, praying over, and preaching on Scriptures I would otherwise avoid. This week is one of those times. My focus is on a fairly familiar passage from Ephesians, where the writer tells us to put on the whole armor of God. While many are familiar with the passage, I am not sure how much thought we give to the power of the passage. The war imagery gives us a stark picture of the dark reality of the times. On first reading the passage, my thought is that the church in Ephesus was preparing itself to wage war with the Romans, who were persecuting Christians at the time. However, the author clearly sates that the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (vs. 12)." How was the church at Ephesus to fight dark spiritual forces? How are we to fight dark spiritual forces today?

We fight the forces by first recognizing how they are manifest, then by suiting up for battle. The manifestation of these forces is known to us in the form of those who act counter to the will of God. It is not the individual that we are fighting, as they are enslaved to the dark forces in the same manner that we are enslaved to God through Jesus Christ. This is very important to recognize. Our battle is not to conquer evil people, but to offer people hope and salvation. This is where the armor imagery comes to light. Consider the armor we wear:
·      The first piece of equipment we are told to put on is the belt, which stands for truth or righteousness. A Roman soldier in good standing was to wear his belt with the sword attached at all times. This was the sign that he was a soldier. The belt was not only meant to carry the sword, but also to show that the wearer was a soldier. If a soldier was insubordinate, he would be stripped of his status. Loss of the belt mean loss of status. For Christians, the belt represents truth. We live in the truth that Jesus is the Christ and we live according to that truth.
·      The next piece of the uniform is the breastplate. This defensive piece of equipment protects the vital organs of the Roman soldier.  For the Christian, the breastplate is righteousness. Being righteous protects us from the temptations of the dark spiritual forces.
·      Next comes the footware. The military sandals gave the warrior protection on the soles of his feet to keep him upright and able to fight. For the Christian, the sandal is the gospel; we stand firm on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and are strengthened through that gospel.
·      The next piece of equipment was the shield, a large, lightweight piece of metal that could easily protect the body during combat. For the Christian, the shield is faith. When we are uncertain and afraid, our faith gives us courage and hope.
·      Next comes the helmet, protecting our brains and our heads. For the Christian, the helmet is salvation. We cannot be killed spiritually; we have new life (salvation) in Jesus Christ.

Finally, the soldier is equipped with a sword, the only offensive weapon in the soldier's uniform. For Christians, the sword represents the Holy Spirit, or the word of God. Think about this--all the defensive pieces of armor God gives to us, and only one weapon for offence. God equips us with armor to identify and protect ourselves from head to toe. Yet, God only gives us one simple weapon for spreading the gospel. There is no mention of a dagger, of bow and arrow, of spears or javelins. We are not divided into infantry or cavalry. We have one simple role in the war on the spiritual forces of darkness--proclaim the gospel through our words and deeds. Live after the example of Christ, and we will overcome the forces of evil. God will take care of the rest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love: Luke 22:14-23:56 14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.  15 He said to them, “I have eagerly d...

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love: Luke 22:14-23:56 14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.  15 He said to them, “I have eagerly d...

No Greater Love

Luke 22:14-23:56
14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
21But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. 22For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” 23Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.

I am concluding a series of series of sermons about God using imperfect people to accomplish God's work.  As I consider all the imperfect people God used, none stands out more than Judas Iscariot.  Judas is a troubling figure in scripture.  He seems to be doomed for doing the will of God, which is quite troubling to me.  As a result, I've been studying the scriptures and legends around his role in Jesus' death and how God used him.

Only Matthew and Acts speak of Judas' death, and they do not agree with each other. Matthew tells that Judas hanged himself, while Acts tells that Judas fell and was disemboweled.  The Gospel of Judas, written in the first century A.D., tells that Judas was actually asked by Jesus to betray him as part of God's plan, while the Gospel of Barnabas, which was written much later, says that Judas was actually the one who was crucified, and Jesus ascended directly to Heaven.  These varying accounts bring to light the fact that people have been troubled from the beginning about God's use of Judas in the crucifixion narrative.

As I read the accounts of the betrayal of Jesus, I believe that Judas was forgiven of his sin. Judas went to the Chief Priests to offer to betray Jesus, and was paid thirty pieces of silver to do so. He then was with Jesus and the twelve at the Last Supper. This is key to my understanding of grace, the sacrament of Holy Communion, and the forgiveness of Judas. Jesus served all twelve disciples, including Judas, the bread of his body, and more significantly, the cup of the new covenant, which is forgiveness of sins not through blood sacrifice, but through belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus had to be betrayed. Jesus had to die at the hands of sinful people in order to offer redemption to sinful people. In fact, I believe that each of us, when we sin, share responsibility in the betrayal and death of Jesus Christ. We must, or we can not share in the gift of redemption through Jesus Christ.

I shared this theology with a colleague, who dismissed it based on the response of Jesus. Jesus said, "...woe to the one that one by whom he is betrayed (Luke 22:22), which my colleague interpreted as Jesus condemning Judas to Hell." I disagree, however. I believe the words of Jesus had more to do with his wrestling with his own humanity. We don't see the human side of Jesus often in Scripture.  Yet on the night of his betrayal and day of his crucifixion it is starkly obvious. Jesus condemns the very man he has just given the cup of salvation to. He asks God in the garden to remove the cup, if it is possible. He tells the disciples they will all fall away and deny them. He collapses under the weight of the cross he carries to Golgotha. He is the first of the three condemned men to die. Jesus' words to Judas were his human words spoken in the grief and despair of a man facing a cruel and torturous death. Yet even in this grief, Jesus offers his betrayer the cup of salvation. And if the sin of betraying Jesus Christ can be forgiven by Jesus Christ, how much more can our sins be forgiven?

So let us take heed of the words of Martin Luther:  "Be a sinner and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death and the world."1 Acknowledge that we are sinful, but through faith in Christ, our sins are forgiven.  Glory to God!

Sin Strong: A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg (Segment) Translated by Erika Bullmann Flores from: Dr. Martin Luther's Saemmtliche Schriften Dr, Johannes Georg Walch, Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15,cols. 2585-2590.   Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg