March 2017 Streams of Thought
March 1 is Ash Wednesday, when millions of Christians will receive ashes on the forehead, often in the form of a cross. As the pastor
or priest applies the ashes, the following words are intoned: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." Sometimes the phrase "Repent and believe the Gospel" is often used too.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of worship and reflection that ends with Easter. Ash Wednesday grew out of Early Church practices dating to the 2nd Century A.D. that were inspired by Old Testament references where ashes symbolized repentance and/or mourning.
The Church, growing out of 1st Century Judaism, adopted this and other practices (including baptism) to symbolize and profess faith in Christ. The two phrases mentioned earlier remind us of our mortality and that while we live we can repent of sin and live by God's grace in Christ. Each one of us will one day, as Shakespeare famously said, "shuffle off this mortal coil."
Ash Wednesday reminds us life comes from our Creator and we have limited time on earth to serve God. The Apostle Paul wrote we should "make the most of every opportunity" to live the Gospel
(Ephesians 5:15-16). We all eventually return to the dust from which
we were created (Genesis 2:7, 3:19). I admit this is something I think about from time to time as I have adult children and am on the near side of 50.
It's vital to remember how God's grace sustains us through life's twists and turns. Mortality also compels us to realize our lives count; we matter to God who created us. While some argue for immortality through genetic engineering (the transhumanist movement) the Biblical view is that mortality makes us conscious and aware of the great gift of life that comes from God.
As the Westminster Catechism says, "Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." That is what it means to be mortal. Have a blessed Lent as we prepare for a glorious Easter.
Grace and Peace, Pastor Brian
February 2017 Streams of Thought
In his provocative and insightful book The Ragamuffin Gospel, the late Brennan Manning's main thesis is that we are, regardless of status or achievement, ragamuffins in desperate need of God's grace.
Consider the Apostle Paul's observation that our personal successes are little more than "garbage" (Philippians 3:8). This seems a bit harsh as does Manning's contention. But Manning does not leave us there (nor does Paul)--in relation to God's grace we are more like ragamuffins than Park Avenue tycoons.
But when we embrace God's grace and come to the Father through His Son we become "joint-heirs with Christ" and we draw upon the "riches of His glory in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:17; Philippians
4:19). We will always retain the deep need, spiritually-speaking, of the ragamuffin but we have access to infinite spiritual riches in Christ which bring strength, courage, healing, redemption,
forgiveness, mercy, and abundant eternal life
Grace does not approve of or gloss over sin; it forgives and assures us that we are loved by God even when we fail Him. But it also
pushes us toward being controlled by Christ (Romans 6). The Ragamuffin Gospel is one of the best books I've read on the
messy, holy reality of God's grace; it's messy in the sense God is not
afraid to take on all the effects of sin in our lives. It's holy in the sense it transforms us and helps us live in the power of Christ.
We will always need God's grace, coming to Him as ragamuffins with furtive glances and excuses for why we are the way we are or do what we sometimes do. But God, as Manning reminds us (and Paul does in different language) receives ragamuffins in all their messiness. He cleans them up in the grace and blood of Christ and sends them back into the world to serve and love others in His name.
Grace and peace,
January 2017 Streams of Thought
We return to Matthew 2 for this month's article. Last month we reflected/speculated on the use of the gifts Jesus received from the Wise Men/Magi. There is the possibility they funded the family's flight to Egypt in light of King Herod's murderous rage.
God told the Magi to go home another way without informing Herod where the child was (they had called Jesus "King of the Jews" and this apparently triggered Herod's paranoia). One Roman emperor supposedly said it was better to be Herod's pig than his son (there's a play on the words "pig" and "son" in the language of the time).
But the story of Herod's homicidal rampage against the little boys in Bethlehem is only in Matthew's Gospel and no records outside the Gospel confirm it; the possible explanation is an event like that in a tiny town like Bethlehem wouldn't have gained attention unless it touched off a revolt.
But two big questions loom: Why did God send the Magi another way if He knew what would happen? Why is this story in the Bible?
The short answer to the first one is "I don't know;" on the other hand God allows us to choose good or evil. And this story, like some other disturbing ones (a bunch in the Old Testament; a few in the New Testament) reminds us God is sovereign but He does not to micromanage every aspect of life; this goes back to the first question and the issue of free will.
It's much like us as parents; we set boundaries and encourage our kids to stay within them. Sometimes they choose not to honor or respect those boundaries. We can debate and argue what free will
is, how far it goes, or how much God influences it. And we can argue whether people have a basic sense of right and wrong and
to what extent it is present in any given person.
But back to our text/story; these are the events that kindle doubt over God's goodness, power, or even existence. We scream, among other things, "Why doesn't God do something?" We
think in terms of God's power, of a God, we could rightly argue, who has the kind of power to stop evil dead in its tracks.
But God doesn't usually work that way. And God has done something. He sent His own Son, whose birth we just celebrated, to die for the sin of the world, even for people like Herod. God suffered in Jesus Christ to bring salvation to a world drowning in violence, blood, and conflict. In the cross was judgment and grace, justice and forgiveness.
Those who embrace the cross find God has gone to extreme measures to change human lives and destinies. The cross says no one is beyond the hope of redemption; the cross is the focal point of mercy and grace and the empty tomb of Christ says the power of the cross is ours to receive.
Let us walk in the power of the crucified and risen Christ as we begin a new year of ministry at LWUMC.
Grace and Peace,
December 2016 Streams of Thought
Matthew 2 records the visit of the Wise Men or Magi. Contrary to
tradition, the Wise Men were not at the manger. Luke recorded
Jesus' birth; Matthew recorded an event 18-24 months later. Luke
uses the Greek word for infant; Matthew uses the word for small
child (toddler in our terms). It's very likely this was in Bethlehem
given the terrible atrocity of King Herod trying to kill Jesus by ordering the killing of the boys in Bethlehem 2 years of age or younger (more on that in the January newsletter).
One question Matthew's text raises is "What happened to the gifts?" Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were expensive gifts; it would be like shopping at Neiman-Marcus for a 2-year-old. Jesus was a poor kid from an obscure village in Palestine under Roman occupation. The Magi were drawn by a star (which could have been seen by anyone looking at the night sky). In the ancient world heavenly signs meant a person or event was coming which would affect the lives of countless people; they were right on both counts.
But back to the gifts; do we chalk this up to embellishment by the writer or did God in His wisdom use the Magi to financially take care of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus during their exile in Egypt to
escape Herod's murderous wrath? Considering their social status they might not have had the money to flee that distance to get as far away as possible from Herod. They would need money to travel and
then buy, build, or rent shelter in Egypt. By selling the fragrances they could have gained enough to travel and settle down. The gold might have been hidden away for emergencies
or for the return trip. If this was the case it's likely Joseph worked his trade in Egypt to obscure the fact his family had items of great value.
Or maybe they anonymously gifted everything to the poor and fled to Egypt on faith. Scripture doesn't tell us; all we can do is speculate. But as great and costly as those gifts were they were nothing compared to the gift God gave the world in His Son.
And the best gift we can give Him is our hearts and lives.
Have a blessed and holy Christmas.
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