Word of the Week

militarygirlsExcerpts of a sermon preached at Springfield Christian Church from Malachi 3:1-14 and Luke 3:1-6

I can imagine that many of us know a teenager (if not two or three) that has gone through a period in their life of rebellion. Slammed doors, snarky looks and secret keeping become the norm of existence with such teens who have declared their parents and all things  “uncool.”

Several years ago when one of our closest friend’s daughter turned 13, she really turned toward rebellion big time.

Lying, sneaking out of the house at all hours of the night, failing classes (though she was a smart kid) were just a few highlights of her rebellion story. It was bad, really bad and our friend, the mom was really at her wit's end, fearing her daughter not make it out of her teen years without being on drugs or pregnant.

So Kevin and I wanted to do anything we could to help encourage positive living. So one weekend when we all went away to West Virginia.  Kevin and I gave our mother friend the afternoon off to relax and we took the 14-year old girl and 12-year -old boy out to hike and for ice cream. As we finished our walk and sat around picnic tables licking our ice cream cones, Kevin surprised me with how directly he started talking to the kids.

He told stories of what he’d seen with other teens friends of ours who made poor choices for their lives.

And the first word out of his mouth was “military school.”

Kevin went on “Be prepared: your mom might send you there. Lots of parents do it!"

Then, Kevin proceeded to talk about how structured each day was, how little sleep you got and of particular interest to the girl—how you had no control over what you wore (and that the clothes in military school did nothing for your figure). And you could see the FEAR come over her eyes. Though she didn’t admit it aloud, you could tell what she was thinking: “Oh I could never go there.”

We later learned from her mom that on the way home from the trip the two kids were talking about Kevin’s speech in the backseat of the van. And the teen girl said, “Oh I’ve got to reconsider my choices.” We were so glad to hear. 

There’s a reason, you see that the “military” or “military school” is often used as the last resort for troubled kids needed a boast to see life for what it’s really like. For in such an institution a rookie is forced to realize life is not about one person but rather about being on a larger team and giving back to a cause greater than themselves.

And, in a similar way, the prophetic message we just read from Malachi chapter 3 was a wake up call.

For the community gathered to hear this text was in need a re-boot, a re-orientation, a re-positioning in their approach to life, as was the case with my friend’s daughter. The community needed to hear a message of instruction about how their choices weren’t living up to God’s best for them. They needed to lay down their posture of rebellion and move toward the better life that God offered.

It wasn’t an easy word to hear but it was a necessary piece of instruction for a verse 1 points to: the “Lord of Hosts” was 4446359_f496coming.

Depending on what translation of the Bible you use, the number of times the Hebrew word tsebha'oth gets translated to the English “Lord of Hosts” differs. But here’s what we need to know from the Hebrew: the word “hosts” is a military term. The phrase Lord of Hosts can be translated, YHWH, he creates armies. Interesting, huh?

So for this word of the Lord to draw upon imagery of the heavenly arms coming down is to show the serious nature of this message.

Spiritual military school 101.

But how?

The first phrase of verse 1 gives us a clue. “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way.” Or in other words, making this much-needed change is not something I’m going to ask you to do alone.

I am going to send you a helper.

I am going to send you a voice.

I am going to send you a person who will speak directly to your hearts so that you can hear. And this messenger will prepare the way for me to come.

Or in simpler terms—I’m sending you an opening act, a warm-up show that is going to help you get ready for the main event.

This my friends, is God's grace!

I have a friend who is epitomizes truth-telling in my life.

Several months ago, as my friend and I shared a conversation which I thought just was your average coffee date, catching up, sharing stories, musing together about the future, she stopped and turned directly toward me. “Elizabeth, I have something to tell you” she said. My ears perked up to listen. I knew she didn’t talk this way often.

As she started to recount some particularly painful details of an experience in my life she knew a lot about, she then looked me directly in the eyes and said:

“You’re angry, and it’s hurting your soul.”

Whoa! Was my first reaction. But before I could go into all of thoughts in my mind of “I can’t believe she just said that” my friend went on.

“Elizabeth, hear me say, you’ve got so much love to give. Now let the anger go and start loving as God made you to love.”

Now I would be lying if I told you that I liked what she said in that very moment. Or that it set well in my gut in the hours that followed. No, I didn’t sleep for a couple of nights trying to process what I heard.

But as the days passed, Holy Spirit would not let me move on. My friend's words laid the ground work for my ability to welcome more of God into my life. She was right and I needed to change.

In our New Testament reading for today, we read of another messenger. It’s the story we 1280x720always hear read at Advent, the tale of John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin.

One word I’ve heard used to describe presence of John the Baptist on the religious scene is “an interruption.” And that he was!

John fulfills his calling by being “a voice crying out in the wilderness” offering a baptism for the repentance and the forgiveness of sins to those gathered in Galilee. John offers the people a new way to both live with God and one another.

John comes on the scene not as the main event, but as the opening act—the one preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry to begin. They too haven't been living right. And now is the time to prepare!

Good things, you know are only birthed out of times of preparation.

But appearance of messengers, as was the case with John the Baptist is that messengers do not always come in a package we might naturally gravitate towards (remember John was a burly character who ate bugs and honey) AND they might not say what we want to hear (no high points on the warm and fuzzy encouragement scale for prophets like this) but regardless they speak God’s words.

And we truly want more of God in our lives, we must listen.

God's messengers are gifts that keep on giving to us.

And this week, this month, this year a messenger might just find you across a meal table.

A messenger might just find in the break room at work.

Or a messenger might emerge in the face of one of your children. Hear me say truth-telling messengers can appear to us in thousands of ways, and usually not when we expect.

And our only responsibility is welcome the word and listen.

Of course this doesn’t mean that every person claiming to have a word of the Lord for us is actually of the Lord. A spiritual practice is always discernment! But that when we do discern that the word is for us, we listen and ask God to help us change.

For only when you and I face the truth of our circumstances, our emotions, our relationships and all the other parts of our lives can we welcome more of God in our world.

And isn't that what Advent is all about anyway?

Thank God for messengers. Oh, how we need each other!

A sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK . . .  Mark 1:1-8

Our lives get really busy this time of year, don’t they?

Parties to attend. Presents to buy. Family celebrations to prepare for . . .

Even look at the back of the bulletin this morning and you’ll see a list long of upcoming activities, more than usual around here.

But over the next couple of Sundays in Advent that you’ll hear my voice from the pulpit, we’re going to be talking about what it means to find space in our lives We’re going to talk about what it means to spend our time in ways that bring us closer to that One we are waiting for. And we’re going to practice making room for more of the Christ child to be born in us.

I hope that worship can SLOW us all down a little.

Not just in clique ways that could be summed up by the popular statements like: “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Don’t take Christ out of Christmas” but truly opening our lives for more of the Son of God, God with Us to come in.

As we look at our lections for today, Mark’s gospel opens by declaring the fulfillment of a prophecy text from Isaiah 40:

“It is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, a voice calling out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.”

And this messenger’s name is John. Or more properly known as John the Baptist.

John was the messenger of preparation—the greatest opening act that there ever was, telling the people who gathered around him in the desert that something really good was coming and they needed to make room in their lives to receive it.

John was an unlikely opening act. We learn a few things about him in Mark 1, verse 6. He lived in the desert. He wore clothing made out of camel’s hair. He wore a leather belt around this waist. His diet consisted of wild locust and honey. What a description!

John the Baptist was man who was of the land, who lived off the land, and who had a simple message: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And though we hear a version of John’s story read every Advent, it’s one, I think, that all of us have a hard time relating too, given our place in history and geography. For we don’t live in remote desert and John simply sounds like a deranged character we’re not sure that we’d ever want to meet.

But might there be something the setting of this one preparing the way, that might tell us something about what making room for Jesus is all about?

I think it is no coincidence that John asks the people to repent and be baptized in the desert.

The desert is a lonely place.

The desert is a quiet place.

The desert is a place with few distractions.

The desert gives our hearts space that they don't otherwise have . . .

And throughout the centuries, it has been the place where spiritual seekers have gone to find God.

And it just so happened that this week I spent time in the desert of Northern Kenya, in the county of Turkana that isn’t too far from Sudan. I wasn’t on a spiritual pilgrimage but Kevin and I along with several members of our staff in Kenya traveled to visit programs through Feed the Children.

It began like this: we took a small charter plane to an airstrip in the middle of the true definition of “no where” to then take a van on an hour drive to the 2014-12-03 14.37.09community of the Turkana people.

As we traveled the dusty roads with barren trees and goats and wild camels roaming around, the feeling of starkness was overwhelming. Wide-open spaces with few people and homes made out of tree limbs and covered with animal skins filled our vision.

There were no stores. There were no street signs. There were few cars, if only just ours for miles and miles.

The thick heat of the desert warmed our van, even with the air conditioning blasting. I told Kevin we’d better put thick layers of sunscreen on if we didn’t want to be complete toast by the end of the day.

It was like being in the pages of National Geographic as our van pulled up to the school where Feed the Children donors recently built a multifaceted water aquifer powered by solar panels (so that the Turkana people didn’t have to walk over 10 miles one way to the nearest water source).

Women dressed in brightly colored wraps with multicolored necklaces around their elongated necks greeted us with dancing and song. The male elders of the community soon took Kevin by the hand and made him an honorary chief completely with a staff, stool to sit on and a hat made of ostrich feathers. Children followed us around in torn clothing and flip-flops made of old tires on their feet.

And though we could have easily judged this way of life as backward or disorganized or even said to ourselves, “How could these parents allow their children to grow up like this?” upon deeper observation we saw there was a bigger picture of what life is like in the desert.

Life, you see, in the desert looks clear in ways that it doesn’t in the hustle and bustle of city and town life. We can’t hide behind gadgets. We can’t pretend that we can go it alone. We can’t waste anything that could be used for the common good.

In the case of Turkana, we learned that the desert gave those we met rhythms that governed their life together including respect for the land and thanksgiving for life’s most important blessings: food, water and education for their children. And most of all, in the remote location, they knew they needed each other. They belonged together and organized themselves accordingly. There was great clarity in who they were and what they were about.

And, being in the actual desert this week convicted me of many things—

  1. how much I waste water
  2. how much I take for granted water
  3. how much I forget to be thankful for indoor pluming

And for all of us, we have a lot to learn from the desert and those who dwell there.

But what if you never live or visit a place like this? It doesn't matter. Deserts can be anywhere. We can all slip away from time to time into spaces—even if they are just mental places where our phones are turned off and our minds are at rest.

This is what I know: you and I are never going to be ready to meet the Christ child this Christmas if we aren’t willing to alter the practices of our lives, to go to places of solitude where we can hear the God, where we can remember what really matters in life and can turn away from what keeps us from having room for Jesus.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a Christian teacher and activist wrote while serving amongst the poor in Canada in the 1960s this about making room for God saying that solitude is not about the fantasy of a cute little cabin in the woods or spending a week chanting with monks.

No, I think Catherine would propose that we could find “deserts” right here in Weatherford, OK (or wherever we live).

Catherine writes: “One of the first steps toward solitude is a departure. Were you to depart to a real desert, you might take a plane a train or car to get there. But we’re blind to the “little departures that fill our days. These “little solitudes” are often right behind a door which we can open, or in a little corner where we can stop."

Catherine goes on say what these desert moments can be saying: “Consider the solitude that greets you when you enter your room to change your working clothes to more comfortable ones . . . Consider the solitude of housewife, alone in her kitchen, sitting down for a cup of coffee before beginning the work of the day.”

I would add the solitude of the moment you first open your eyes in the morning.

Or the solitude of brushing your teeth after showering.

Or the solitude of driving to work in the morning, without the radio on.

These are all places where we don’t have to do anything different from we otherwise would, but moments when we can be aware then, stop and know who is God.

Because I believe, just as John the Baptist taught us that real life re-alignment does not take place in the fast paced, over crowd space that you and I live in. Especially in a season like Christmas where everybody wants us to be somewhere doing something that seems really important at the time.

No, God leads us to spiritual deserts.

So, I want to tell you this, if we want to make room for Jesus this Christmas, you and I are going to have to stop, we’re going to not let the moments of “desert” that find us pass us by.

And if you’ve been trying to live the Christian life for any time, I bet you know what I mean when I say pay attention to the still small voice that speaks to us saying, “This is my path walk in it” or “Come away with me, my Beloved."

2014-12-03 13.29.59For this is what making room for Jesus is all about. For when we make room in our days to be present—I believe, and then the Holy One also becomes present to us. Not because the Holy has ever gone anywhere or left us, but these are the times we have the capacity to listen!

And let me say this--- we live in a culture where practices of mediation, yoga and silent retreats are all the rage. And they are great practices with great health and mental benefits. But we can’t stop here.

Going to the desert, finding solitude means nothing unless we aren’t led as John the Baptist was--- to the One whose sandals he was unworthy to untie.

For it’s the ultimate calling of Advent—to make room for Christ.

He's the light that can make the most unhappy of us this Advent open our heart to believe again.

He's the light that can break through the coldest of hearts, the most horrid of circumstances to hope again.

He's the light that can touch our souls in expressions beyond words to know that peace that passes all understanding.

So this morning, Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wanderers . . . calling all grieving friends who think you can't possibly live through another Christmas . . . calling all those who want a life different from you see right in front of you right now. The good news has come. And it is in the desert.

Come, and receive what you are most longing for this Advent: a deep abiding peace. Darkness will be over soon. And, peace will reign in our hearts.