Return to the Lord… God will come to you

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing…Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; (Joel 2:12, 28)

Following Jesus is an odd thing. On the one hand, God calls us to be “all in.” The text above calls for the deep work of inner transformation and God wants us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” In other words, no mere show for the sake of looking good. Surface transformation is almost no transformation at all. In fact, the thought of putting on such a show is so contrary to real transformation that it may even result in a step backward!

So God want us to devote 110% to the real work of becoming who we have been created and called to be. “Leave nothing on the field,” my coach used to say.

But the irony of such a calling is that just as God asks us to devote everything we have to this work, God already knows that we can’t actually accomplish this ourselves. We will never, left to our own devices, become all that God desires and intends us to be.

That’s why Joel 2 having verses 28 and following is so amazing. After God calls the people to be different and devote themselves fully to the work of becoming new and “returning to God,” God then says, “I know you can’t actually do this – that’s why I include this promise: My Spirit will come to you. Even though I want you to be all in, I want you to know that I am committed to being “all in” and more. I call you to come to me but in your weakness I promise, “I will come to you.”

And the promise is wider than we could ever imagine. While God calls you and I to dig deep inside out hearts to our very core, God promises that the work God will do is far greater and will include not only you and I, but “all flesh.”

Advent is about being all in – so we are as ready as we can be for God to act. So, be sure you are all in – leave nothing on the field. But be sure that when you rend your heart, the tear you make opens your heart to be receptive. Because what you can never do for yourself, God has promised, in Christ it is already yours.

Give thanks IN all things

It is a difficult concept to grasp – the idea of being thankful in all things.

Ask any group of people what they are thankful FOR and the lists are even predictable. There isn’t a lot of variance. People tend to be thankful for family, friends, good health, food and shelter. There may be a few other items listed but they are all positive. It is why I am no longer in favor of the unmitigated exercise of people listing what they are thankful for. It continues to imply thank being thankful and the good things in life are linked. That is a half-truth and the easiest and most misleading half of the truth at that.

When scripture tells us to rejoice in all things and be thankful in all things, all means all (no footnotes). Being thankful for good things is easy. Once you get out an entitlement mode that you are certainly good enough to deserve them and move into a gift mode where these come from God, gratitude is a lot easier – almost naturally linked. But if all means all, then we are to be just as thankful in the rough spots as the smooth.

Gratitude in the Christian tradition is deeper than the moment – deeper than the current state of our lives. Gratitude is grounded in Jesus – the Jesus who went to the cross to show us the depth and commitment of God’s love. In Luther’s theology of the cross, the irony of God’s work and love is that God is most revealed beneath the very place where it appears God is least involved. Christian gratitude isn’t just in the good things (although it is there), it is also (especially) in the bad.

For this to work, a sacramental view of life lies at the core of who we are and what we teach. Are you celebrating something wonderful and rejoicing? Give thanks for the God we encounter in Jesus is there with you. Are you grieving a deep loss or struggling with an immense problem? Give thanks, for you are not alone. The God who went to the cross is there with you offering love and support as you journey through this season.

Christian gratitude is not limited to things we are thankful FOR. It is grounded at a way of life that sees God with us IN everything – always working toward life, love and the kingdom of God. Whether in good times or bad, God is still working. It is that which we can be thankful for, no matter what is going on at the moment.

Hope in a Crisis

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

It is easy in a judgmental society in the midst of a divisive period in our history to lose track of the bigger picture. God is working to save and bring life to everyone. It is an ever-widening vision of a God who reaches deep from within eternity to encounter us deep in the heart of history and life. In fact, the context of the verse above says that God will reach deep into our hearts – to the very center of who we are.

In Jeremiah’s time, God’s people were a total mess. Leaders were irresponsible and had no interest in doing what is right. In fact, King Jehoiakim who is mentioned in the text we have for this week literally takes the words that God has given the people on a scroll and tosses them in a fire to be burned. He not only has no interest in God – he seems to have a disdain for God.

But even in that moment God is not thwarted – God tells Jeremiah to write the words on a scroll again and persists in moving ahead, even without the cooperation of the leaders of the day.

So two things to remember as you reflect this week:

  • In the times in which we find ourselves, the world is in crisis and there is no shortage of cynicism from both liberals and conservatives about the state of leadership dealing with it. Some think the current administration are irresponsible idiots. Others think the incoming administration are dangerous radicals. While we all have to hope and pray for leaders to be effective (and short-term our lives may depend on it) God is not stopped by bad leadership, even rebellious leadership like King Jehoiakim in the time of Jeremiah (this is not God’s first rodeo).
  • God persists through these rough patches throughout history to keep doing what God does – bring life to the world. In Jeremiah’s prophetic words we hear God’s vision for this and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see God’s commitment to this. God will do what needs to be done to bring redemption to the world.

So, while there is much to bemoan about the state of the world and all of us may have doubts about whether we have the leadership in place to navigate the crises we are in, the scriptures remind us that in Christ, hope is still very much here – and it always will be.

God is Calling You!

Isaiah said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  (Isaiah 6:5)

The terror in Isaiah’s voice comes from finding himself in the very center of the Temple – a place known as the Holy of Holies. It was the place of the most intense encounter with the presence of God. And God’s holiness was so different than mortal’s sinfulness, that to be there without deep and intense preparation was literally viewed as life threatening. No one went into the Holy of Holies by accident!

Of course, Isaiah survived and even discovered his role in God’s work – his life calling. And the story reminds all of us that no matter how unprepared we feel we are, if God wants to use us we are capable of being useful.

In the coming of Jesus something interesting happens. While prior to Jesus it was rare and risky to go into the Holy of Holies, in Christ, the Holy of Holies has come into you. Paul refers to the body of the baptized and the “Temple of the Holy Spirit.” In Christ, holiness is not just something outside of us that we encounter. It is even more so something that dwells within us as we live our lives as the body of Christ with the incarnation and faith resulting in the mystery that God dwells in us!

All of this means that the special encounter that Isaiah had with God in his vision – a sort of one and done event – is a daily reality for us as followers of Jesus. We live in the presence of God. Christ dwells in the hearts of the baptized. Each day God’s grace forgives and cleanses us, calls to us to do Christ’s bidding, and sends us forth as willing workers in all that God is up to.

Just as Isaiah was called in the Temple that day, you are being called by Christ each day. God’s commitment to make our lives meaningful and useful is ever present and ongoing. All that is left is for Isaiah’s words in response to also be ours: “Here I am Lord. Send me.”

A NImble God

Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders[a] of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:7)

We are in a time when many congregations are not able to gather and worship in their sanctuaries – not only across the country but around the world. As a consultant and teacher, I hear stories of places where congregational councils and boards are pounding pastoral leadership to “not be afraid,” and “get us back in church.” While we are fortunate in our congregation to have wiser and more long-term leaders on our council, not every congregation is so blessed. Many people are almost desperate to get back in their buildings and have not been able to adapt and keep ministry going. Stresses are high and the virus is on the rise – this isn’t ending soon and for many it may not end well.

So it is an interesting lesson that we have appear in our lectionary this week. For Protestants it is Reformation Sunday – a day that is especially dear to many Lutherans. The text tells of God and David’s encounter and the tension over the building. David wants a Temple – something to show the worthiness of God. God has been more than happy with a tent – hasn’t complained once. People seem to need these things. God seems quite disinterested.

To reassure David, God promises a kingdom to him that will not end. Of course, we believe that covenant is fulfilled in Jesus whose life, death and resurrection are the source of never ending hope and life for us. Like God, Jesus seems less committed to buildings. When the Samaritan woman starts asking about the Temple in Jerusalem and the mountain where Samaritans worship, Jesus tells her that it isn’t about place. Real worship is in “Spirit and truth…” God will be God with and without these things. While we are often preoccupied with them, God will commit to no one place in particular it is all God’s anyway.

That’s why the tent was God’s preferred “place.” The tent as Tabernacle had started in the wilderness. As the people moved, they packed up the tent and went to the next place where they set it up again. Rather than representing a God who was in one place, the Tabernacle represented a God who was nimble and always on the move.

In a time when we are less able to commit to the comforts of using our sanctuaries the way we prefer, and in a time of great change, this is a message for Reformation Day that resonates with our times. God doesn’t need our spaces as much as we do. And when we internalize that, we will better remember that we don’t need them as much either. God is a nimble God. Where we are God is. Wherever we go – there God will be. Sounds more like a tent than a building, doesn’t it?

When our lives align with God’s dream

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory”. (1 Samuel 2:1)

Hannah had longed for a son for a long time before she gave birth to Samuel, who would become a great prophet. It had been a long wait and she dedicated his life and work to serving the God who had answered her prayers.

But Hannah’s prayer is not just about Hannah. While the source of her joy can be found in the fulfillment of something about which she had dreamed, her song recognizes that what has made that happen and brought her real joy is that the child that she will bear is one who will not just bring her fulfillment but also further God’s work in the world. So her prayer also celebrates the lifting up the poor, the feeding of the hungry and signs of the care that God offers of the oppressed.

This is a key to deep meaning and joy and one key way that joy is something deeper than just being “happy.” When our deepest longings also serve God’s greatest purposes, our sense that our lives matter and the joy that wells up within us can be amazing. One key to this is aligning your deepest desires with what you know that God is working for. Hunger and long for the reign of God. The other is being open to being used by God to advance these things. When we see that the fruit of our life’s work is also contributing to God’s reign breaking into our world, like Hannah, our hearts will sing with joy.

God won’t give up

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:14)

It must be frustrating being God sometimes. Human beings have been created in God’s image and charged and entrusted with the work of caring for the world God made and loves. But we go off the rails all too often. And the Bible shares more than a few stories of how people have made God furious more than once.

In the verse above, we are at the end of the story about Moses being up on the mountain with God and not coming back down by the time he was expected. People thought something had happened to him. There was no point in waiting for him to come down – he was probably not going to survive up there anyway. Moses’ brother Aaron then led them in melting down their gold and using it to make a golden calf for them to worship. As you would expect, God is not happy!

But Moses does survive the time on the mountain and comes down to see what has happened. Seeing how angry God is, Moses intervenes to try to prevent God from acting on the anger. Moses reminds God of all the people have been through and all that God has done and promised. It would make all of that for naught to lash out now. So God rethinks the actions and decides not to destroy the people. God will show some restraint and not act on the anger.

The text reminds us that we routinely make God disappointed and even angry. But God’s commitment to us is immense and when God steps back and reflects, often God chooses not to act on the anger but to exercise patience instead. Ultimately, the patience and persistence of God finds its way to the cross, where the death and eventual resurrection once again show us how God simply refuses to give up on us.

When you catch yourself feeling like you have let God down, perhaps even angered God, hear the words of grace in this text. Even when humanity has chosen to intentionally disrespect God, God has chosen to stick it out with us anyway. That means, you can be confident that, even in your lowest moments, God will not give up in you either.

God’s Reminder to Trust

Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 13:7-8)

We live in a time of trauma. As I write this, the first of three presidential debates has just ended. No matter which candidate you favor, watching was an experience in trauma – I won’t say more. But in a time of COVID shutdown, economic recession, racial tension and the rise of militant groups – I am now 60 years old, and at no time in my lifetime has our country been a bigger mess or in more trouble. It is easy to be discouraged. In fact, it is hard not to be discouraged.

This is not the first time God’s people have been discouraged and in struggle. After years of toil in slavery in Egypt and plague after plague sent by God to convince the pharaoh to release them, they were worn thin. Hope seemed distant. Would anything ever end this?

Then God acted in a mighty way. Each family was to mark their home with the blood of a lamb as a sign that they were in on God’s plan. Everyone else in Egypt would be at risk. The night when the call to action was given, death poured over Egypt while the Israelites fled to freedom. God had acted in the midst of struggle and they were given a new lease on life.

The verses from above are after the time in Egypt was over. God instituted the Passover, a celebration in which God would act to encourage God’s people year after year. No matter what was happening, they would pause and celebrate that God always acts to bring life and salvation – not always on our timeline, but always. This gathering over a meal would mark the Jewish people as people of hope – hope that sustains them no matter what else may be happening at the moment.

For followers of Jesus, God’s ultimate saving acts are embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In the trauma of the cross, God in Christ was subjected to the pain of the world and Jesus’ own blood would be the blood that would mark God’s people for life and salvation. In the eating of bread and drinking from a cup together, God comes among us in communion, not just encouraging us to remember what God has done, but also to hear from God who is truly present in the midst of the meal, “I’m here for you. I know life is hard right now. But we’ve been through struggle before. Resurrection always wins.”

Forgiveness – the road to a new future

But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (Genesis 50:19-20)

This week we explore the story of Joseph. It is a long narrative filled with a cocky younger brother, angry older brothers, betrayal, famine, political intrigue, and danger. In the process, relationships are severed and a family is nearly torn apart. It is a story of intrigue and struggle.

But the end of the story is instructive in the verses above. In the end, Joseph and his alienated brothers are able to forgive and reconcile. What was torn apart by jealousy and anger was repaired by forgiveness. While nothing could change what had happened, the ability to forgive was able to change the outcomes. In other words, forgiveness cannot change the past – but it can change the future.

We live in a world where divisiveness is almost always either in our face or just around the corner. Facebook posts and family discussions can turn ugly with just one bad sentence. And so many things happening to us at once – elections, political rancor, the pandemic, the recession – are pounding at all of us. Add to it our own personal problems and relationships and it can be a lot to bear. Is it any wonder that all too often we find ourselves at odds with people we work with, live near and even the ones we love?

That’s why forgiveness is such an important thing. We can’t change the past. But with forgiveness, we begin a journey to change the future. It is the first step in freeing ourselves from bearing the pain inflicted by someone else. It is the first step in restoring some chance of renewed relationships, perhaps not exactly like the previous ones, but maybe a bit deeper as a result.

God in Christ offers forgiveness in Jesus’ name. In other words, forgiving the people you are mad at is already done by God. You and I just need to get with the program. God, who looks over and loves all of us, is saddened by each of our failures. But the death and resurrection of Jesus tell us that God will do anything to love us – even die. And God will do anything to renew life with us – even come back from the dead.

So forgiveness will not change your past – you have to make peace with your own journey. But forgiveness can change your future – the way ahead can be quite different if you let grace lead you down the road.

Believing God makes all the difference

Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord[ reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Christians generally teach that we are saved, not by works, but by faith. We believe God when God says to us, “I love you,” and knowing that makes it true for us. Not believing it won’t change the fact that God loves us. But not believing it will mean we live in a state of not knowing and wondering what God thinks of us. So faith does not make it happen – faith makes it real.

The Bible shows us pretty early that it has always been that way. Abram (later named Abraham), the Father of the Jewish nation, has all sorts of roadblocks to accomplishing what God says he will accomplish. After all, he and his wife are too old to have kids of their own and God’s promise that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars seems like a bit of a stretch. But God tells Abram that is exactly what will happen, and Abram believed God. The trust that Abram places in God’s promise is reckoned to him as righteousness. Righteousness is not primarily about what we do to be right – it is what God does within our relationship with God to make things right.

This story is set nearly 4000 years ago. Abram/Abraham lived roughly as long before Jesus as we do after. Abraham and Sarah are the first figures in the Bible to have any direct connections to the history of the Jewish people and their defining moments come, not from what they do, but from the times when they trust what God will do.

A covenant is designed to frame out a trusting relationship. It is less about a list of things being kept like a legal contract. It is more like a series of commitments that two parties make in order to keep themselves connected and able to love one another. In our baptism, God has entered into just such a covenant with us too. Our lives are joined to the promises of God and our values and actions are to be shaped by those promises out of the love that God has for us and that we have for God.

So, when God tells you, “I love you,” believe it. Like Abraham and Sarah, God will reckon it to you as righteousness as well.