Funeral Homily: Our Advent Hope

Delivered at Ephesus Baptist Church, Monday, December 14, 2009

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:2-7; John 11:21-27.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good afternoon! I am Kevin Maney, a minister at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, part of the Anglican Church in North America. St. Augustine’s is located near Columbus, OH where my wife, Dondra, and I live. I would like to thank Pastor Greg for graciously allowing me to be part of the service this afternoon and to all of you who have made us feel welcomed here.

I am Donald’s favorite Yankee son-in-law and the reason I am preaching this afternoon is because he asked me to do so before he died. It is a request that makes me very sad that I have to keep, but I am honored and humbled to do so. You know, dad always told me that my sermons reminded him of the peace and mercy of God. I asked him about that and he told me that my sermons reminded him of God’s peace because they pass all understanding, and God’s mercy because they seem to extend forever. Hopefully you will not agree with dad after you hear me today!

I want to speak a word of hope to you this afternoon, a hope that is uniquely ours as Christians. Life can beat us down at times, can’t it? For those of us who knew and loved dad, these last several months have been grueling to say the least, and we, like Martha in today’s Gospel lesson are tempted to cry out in anguish, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Illness, infirmity, suffering, and death can make us fall into despair to the point where we are tempted to give up all hope and wonder where God is in all of this.

But just when we are tempted to fall into despair the way Martha did, we remember that dad died in the season of Advent. It is important for us to remember that it is Advent in the midst of our sorrow and loss because Advent reminds us that sickness, suffering, infirmity, and death do not have the final say. Instead, Advent reminds us in powerful ways what our hope is as Christians. For you see, during Advent we remember that the promises of God to his broken and hurting world are true.

During this season of anticipation and hope, we remember what God has already done for us in the Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We remember that God loves his fallen creatures so much that he took on our flesh and lived among us, fully human and fully God. On the cross, God bore the punishment for our sins. He took care of the intractable problem of human sin that causes alienation between God and humans, and gave us our one and only hope and chance to live with him forever. In taking on our flesh, God reminds us that we humans have worth and that he loves us, despite the fact that we are sinful and fallen creatures. The cross is God’s eternal invitation to us to come and live with him, now and for all eternity.

In his mighty Resurrection, our Lord reminds us that the tyranny of death is ultimately destroyed. The Resurrection reminds us that life is more than biological existence. It reminds us that life, real life, is enjoying a relationship with the Source and Author of all life, and that God has acted decisively in human history to break the bonds of death so we can enjoy that life with him, not for a span of years, but forever.

This is what Jesus was trying to get Martha to see in today’s Gospel lesson. Did you notice he did not answer her implied question about why awful things can sometimes afflict us, the way they did dad? Instead, he gave her a much more satisfactory answer. He reminded her about what constitutes living and real life. Jesus reminded Martha (and us) that in him, God was doing the impossible for us. This wondrous gift of life is ours if we will accept his gracious invitation to enter a relationship with him by faith, to trust God to be true to his word, and to invite him to live in us to transform us into his very likeness so that we can enjoy real life with him.

Why is this important for us to remember today as we come to celebrate dad’s life? Because dad believed the Promise. He had a real relationship with the Living Lord who loves him and claimed him, and as Paul reminds us in his great tract from Romans 8, not even dad’s physical death can separate him from God’s love in Jesus Christ. That is why we know that even now dad is alive and enjoying life as God intended it to be lived.

But the Good News of Advent doesn’t stop there, does it? While we Christians believe that God has decisively defeated evil and death in the death and resurrection of Christ, the final victory is not yet fully consummated. We wouldn’t be here right now if that were the case, would we? But during Advent, not only do we remember what God has done for us in the Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, we also anticipate eagerly the day our Lord returns to finish the work he started. When Christ returns, heaven and earth will be fused into a New Creation. The dead will be raised, and we will get new resurrection bodies, the kind our Lord has, bodies that will never again be subject to the awful kinds of things that afflicted dad in his final years, and I am sure dad is thrilled by this promise. I know I am thrilled for him.

And as our OT and NT lessons remind us, when Christ returns to finish his mighty work, God will wipe away all of our tears forever. There will be no more hurting, suffering, sickness, sorrow, infirmity, or death. We will be reunited with our loved ones, never again to be separated from them, and best of all, we will get to live directly in God’s Presence forever with our new resurrection bodies in his New Creation. What a magnificent vision and glorious hope! For those of us who know and love dad, I cannot think of anything more comforting than contemplating the hope and glory of God’s promised New Creation.

Certainly, this is not to deny our sorrow, nor will it take away the pain we feel from our loss, and from being separated from dad. After all, God created us for relationships, both with him and others, and you cannot love a person for over 60 years and not feel the pain of separation. But Advent reminds us that our hurt is only for a season, it will not last forever. God has in mind for us things that we can only begin to imagine, things that only a loving Father can provide his hurting children. Therefore, let our Advent hope sustain us in the midst of our grief, and let us embrace God’s gracious promise to us with joy and thanksgiving as we remember what he has already done for us and what he has promised to complete. And if we begin to falter in our hope, let us remember that he is always with us in the Presence of the Holy Spirit to help sustain us in the living of our days. For you see, God has taken care of our past, present, and future. Thanks be to God!

We have talked about what our Advent hope means to dad’s family and his loved ones. But what lessons does it hold for the broader community of faith here at Ephesus Baptist Church? Just this. Dad died in the community of believers. When he drew his last breath on Friday, Pastor Greg and Deacon Cecil were with him, along with his beloved bride of 59 years. His daughters, Dondra and Diane, came to him shortly thereafter. As I observed the folks in dad’s hospice room, I was struck by the fact that God had blessed him by allowing him to die within the loving embrace of the community of believers. It reminded me that there is great power, grace, and blessing in being a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. Consequently, I would encourage you as the broader community of faith to lovingly embrace mama Madalyn in the coming weeks and months ahead the way you did for dad at the moment of his death. Doing so will help ensure that Christ’s Body remains strong. You can also do so with the knowledge and joy that it is pleasing to the Lord who loves you, and that he will bless your efforts to care for mom with great power and grace.

We live in a broken and fallen world, and it is often painful. But take heart and hope. God has overcome the world and its brokenness. By taking on our flesh, God reminds us that he loves us, and that he values his created order and creatures. He has obliterated the power of death forever and he invites us to join him in a living relationship that nothing in all creation can ever break—not infirmity, not dementia, not sickness, not suffering or death. He has promised to return in power and glory to finish his great redemptive work and destroy all evil and hurtful things forever. And best of all, we will all get to live directly in his Presence forever. That’s good news for Donald Estes Traylor and for all the rest of us, now and for all eternity. Will you embrace your Advent hope in the midst of your grief and sorrow, and let it sustain you in the living of your days? I pray you will.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Advent Reflections: Joy 1

Daily Office texts: Zechariah 1:7-17; Revelation 3:7-13; Matthew 24:15-31.

I am preparing to preach at my father-in-law’s funeral today and so this will perforce be a short reflection. Yesterday we lighted the third candle on the Advent wreath, the candle of joy. Our joy as Christians is based on our hope, the hope that stems from the love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. The cross of Christ is God’s eternal invitation to us to join him in a living relationship that lasts forever. During this season of Advent, a season of anticipation and hope, we Christians have joy because God loves us and has done the impossible for us so that we have a chance to live with him forever. Practically, for Christians, this means that all the brokenness in our world will not have the last say, nor will it last forever; it is only for a season. If that cannot produce joy in you, I doubt anything really can.

I see this joy poignantly manifested in my family as they grieve dad’s death. It is remarkable the joy they express in their behavior, even as they grieve their loss and the pain of separation death has inflicted on them. But they are joyous because they know this loss and separation is only for a season. Death, infirmity, and sickness do not have the last say. I watch my family and I am awestruck by their joy. It is a remarkable testimony in itself and I wish everyone could see their joy, the kind of joy that nothing in this world is able to take from them. If you saw it, you would want to have this kind of joy too.

May you too experience the joy that is yours through the grace and wondrous love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow: The future basis of our joy.

Advent Reflections: Peace 4

Daily Office readings: Amos 9:1-10, Revelation 2:8-17, Matthew 23:13-26.

This week we have examined the biblical notion of peace. We have also been talking about how to have peace with God and with others. Today I want to give you an example of how peace is lived; it is quite personal. I am sitting in a hospice room watching my father-in-law die. It is not a pretty sight. I am watching my beloved wife, her sister, and their mom grieve as they contemplate living life without their dad and husband of almost 59 years. I am struggling with my own emotions because this is playing out much like it did with my own mother a little over a year ago. Emotional wounds that were healing are being ripped back open.

But here is the strange thing. In the midst of all this, I have peace.

I am not a lunatic nor am I some sort of emotional masochist. I hate watching someone I love die slowly. I hate the grief that my loved ones and I feel. There is nothing good about the scene of which I am a part. No, I have God’s peace because I trust God’s promises and know that God delivers. I know that dad is not out of Jesus’ care, even as he is dying. I am thankful for a faith lived by my family, a faith that allowed my mother-in-law to discontinue treatment because her beloved husband has suffered enough and he is not going to get better. Consequently, she is willing to suffer the pain of separation that death produces to allow him to go and enjoy life in the direct Presence of the Source and Author of all life. That is faith lived to the max. All this has helped produce a peace that passes all understanding. I cannot explain it, but I claim it, I know it is real, and I am thankful for it.

If I can find peace in the midst of this extraordinarily stressful circumstance in my life (death is one of the highest stressors with which humans must deal), so can you as you prepare for Christmas during this Advent season. Take a minute and appreciate being in the company of your loved ones. Be thankful for their love, health, and presence. Revel in the good memories you have, Christmas and otherwise. Play some Christmas carols that you love and which remind you of God’s great gift to you in the Incarnation. Make some Christmas cookies with family or friends and revel in each other’s company. Consider helping a needy family this Christmas or do something else that will allow the peace of God to descend on you. Whatever you do, give thanks for the hope and promise that is ours as Christians, a hope and promise based on the unbelievable love of God for his broken and fallen creatures, a love that played out on the Cross. Reflect on the hope of the New Creation. Give thanks that God loves us so much he took on our flesh and entered human history to redeem us. As you do, you will likely start to claim God’s peace because you too will have made yourself ready to receive it. It is a wondrous gift, one of many our Lord is pleased to give us.

What about you? How have you experienced God’s peace in your life? What do you do to cultivate that peace so that it is an integral part of you?

This concludes my series of reflections on peace. There will be no reflection for Friday as I likely will have family commitments to which I must attend. Next week, starting on Monday, hopefully I will be able to resume this series, focusing on the Christian virtue of joy.

Advent Reflections: Peace 3

Daily Office readings: Amos 8:1-14, Revelation 1:17-2:7, Matthew 23:1-12.

I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

—Revelation 2:2b-3

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

—Matthew 23:1-12

The past two days we have looked at what the biblical notion of peace, what God has done for us to make it possible for us to have peace with him, and what must be our response to God’s initiative. Today I want to look at what we must do to have peace with each other. Let’s start by acknowledging a difficult fact. Enjoying a peaceful relationship with everybody is just not going to happen as today’s lesson from Revelation points out. Given the human condition, there will always be those who seek to exploit others, or who are liars, or who will reject God’s word and authority. It is a grievous thing and none of us should take any satisfaction in this sad fact.

So what does it take to have peace amongst humans? Jesus provides us with the answer in today’s Gospel lesson. As we saw yesterday, if we are to have peace with God we must respond to his initiative with humility and obedience. Likewise, if we are to enjoy peace with others, we are to have a servant’s heart, which of course requires a humility and obedience on our part. In a classic case study, our Lord warns us about what will cause conflict among us, most notably pride and exploitation. A proud heart will lead us to believe we are better than others and often cause us to exploit others because we think that. Think of the conflict you have experienced in your life. I am willing to bet that pride has been one of the root causes of that conflict, either pride in you or in those with whom you have had conflict.

Does having a servant’s heart mean we become a doormat to others? Certainly not! Jesus was no doormat to others as this story from Matthew (and countless other Gospel stories) well illustrate. Having a servant’s heart means that we do not have some sense of baseless pride that gives us a false sense of entitlement and privilege. Having a servant’s heart means that we desire the best for others and work toward that end. Having a servant’s heart means we treat others with honesty, respect, and dignity because we know that like them, we owe our very lives to the Lord who has claimed us and given himself for us. Having a servant’s heart means we want to obey him because this is the way he told us to behave toward others. Having a servant’s heart means that in all likelihood you have peace with God, the essential condition for having peace with others.

This week, stop and reflect on the state of your relationship with others. Is there conflict that has been unresolved? First, ask yourself if you have done all in your power to resolve the conflict. Is your relationship salvageable? What is your role in the conflict? How have you worked to reestablish peace? Ask the Lord to give you insight and wisdom as well as power to do all you can do to reestablish peace.

Tomorrow: Peace lived, a personal experience.

Advent Reflections: Peace 2

Daily Office readings: Amos 7:10-17, Revelation 1:9-16, Matthew 22:34-46.

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying: ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.'” Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

—Amos 7:10-13 (TNIV)

Yesterday I talked about the biblical concept of peace and what God did to reestablish peace with us. We saw that through the Cross, God established the necessary conditions by which we can have real peace with him again, the kind of peace humans enjoyed before the Fall. Today I want to talk about what we need to do in response. What is the appropriate response to God’s gracious peace initiative? In two words: humility and obedience.

In today’s reading from Amos, we have a classic study in how not to respond to God’s peace initiatives. Amos has been prophesying against the social injustice and corrupt religious practices in Israel. It is a fearsome thing to read some of Amos’ prophesies and if we do not understand the historical background and context of the prophets, we can be tempted to see God as some cosmic ogre, waiting to catch us doing something wrong so that he can smack us down. But that was not the purpose of the prophets’ messages. God had chosen Abraham and his descendants to be his called-out (holy) people. He had blessed them so that they could be a blessing to his broken and fallen world (Genesis 12:1-3). Through Israel, God was going to redeem his fallen creation. The problem was that Israel had turned out to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Israel’s problem was the problem of fallen humanity and God spoke to his rebellious people through his prophets. Through them, he warned Israel of the dire consequences of choosing death over life. Who among us would not do likewise for our children or those whom we love if we saw them choosing courses of action that would ultimately lead to death? You see, Israel’s rebellion was not producing God’s peace or helping him accomplish his redemptive work. They were choosing death over life and that grieved God’s heart, so he tried to warn them to turn away from their destructive behavior because he wanted them to live and to be his blessing to others. Have you read the prophets through this lens? If not, give it a try. It will help you see God in a whole new light.

In response to Amos’ prophecies, which must have been a shock to hear, we get Israel’s response in today’s lesson. Instead of repenting, the Lord’s warnings through Amos were met with derision and scorn. You don’t like the message? Simply tell the messenger to go away and stop bothering you so that all will be well! There was no humility here, no obedience on the part of Israel’s religious and political leaders. Consequently, there was no chance for peace between God and his called-out people. Now we should never read this story, and others like it in the Old Testament, with the intention of fueling antisemitism. The ancient Israelites were prone to sin and rebellion just like the rest of us and consequently do not deserve special condemnation. Their story of rebellion is our story of rebellion, and if we think otherwise, we are seriously deluding ourselves.

No, the lesson we should read in today’s lesson is this. If we ever hope to have peace with God, we must accept his conditions for peace. We must acknowledge that he is God and we are his creatures (this is where the humility factors in). God has the overall and eternal view of his creation and creatures. We do not. If we do not believe he knows best or has our best interests at heart, then it is quite likely that we have not taken the time or made the effort to get to know him. Once we do, and once we get to know him, we will want to obey him because we realize how good and gracious and loving our God is. When we respond in humility and obedience to God’s gracious and costly peace initiative to us through his Cross, then we really can have the kind of peace I talked about in yesterday’s reflection.

What is in you or your life that is preventing you from accepting God’s peace initiative in Christ? Ask God to give you wisdom and keen insight so that you can be truthful with yourself and with him. Begin to work on it this week. Confess whatever needs to be confessed and then ask God to give you power to help you respond to his passionate and wondrous love for you with a humble and obedient heart so that you can enjoy the peace that passes all understanding. Make this part of your Advent discipline and give thanks to God for blessing you with his Spirit to help you in your weakness.

Tomorrow: Peace between humans.

Advent Reflections: Peace 1

Daily Office readings: Amos 7:1-9, Revelation 1:1-8, Matthew 22:23-33.

John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

—Revelation 1:4-8

Yesterday we lighted the second candle on the Advent wreath. The candle represents peace and this week I want to focus on that attribute. The biblical notion of peace means much more than just the absence of war or conflict. The Old Testament word for peace, shalom, and the New Testament word for peace, eirene (pronounced “i-RAY-nay”), signify a state of total well-being, prosperity, and security associated with God’s presence among his people, and it held a wide range of connotations, such as wholeness, health, security, well-being, and salvation. Paul reminds us that God is a God of peace, not disorder (1 Corinthians 14:33) and so it follows that he desires humans, whom he created in his Image and with whom he desires to have a relationship, to be creatures of peace as well.

So why don’t we have peace with God? Because of sin. Sin creates alienation and alienation produces disorder. One doesn’t have to look very far to see children throwing temper tantrums to get their way (and also unfortunately not a few adults; adult tantrums are doubtless more sophisticated, but they are tantrums nevertheless). Or think of rebellious teenagers disobeying parents over issues of their safety or well being. The parents usually know best (funny how that perspective has changed in me over the years since I was a teenager) and when their kids rebel, it produces ill-will and alienation between them. Likewise with God and us. When we act as if we were equal with God instead of his creatures, then there is usually trouble afoot and discord inevitably follows. The difference, of course, is that God does not get mad the way we humans do. Instead, God is implacably opposed to any kind of evil and always resists it. This is as it should be because there is no evil in God and he created his creation and creatures to be good. After all, when we come to live in God’s presence directly, who among us wants to have evil in our midst?

So what is the solution? Since God is the Author of all real peace, it is natural that he had to take the initiative to reestablish it once our sin destroyed it. The writer of Revelation points to God’s initiative in today’s Scripture lesson. Left to our own devices, we cannot possibly have peace with God because sin has so thoroughly infected us, even the most saintly of us, that we cannot cure ourselves. That is why the Cross of Christ is so important for us to have peace because on the Cross, God took care of the problem of sin and the alienation it causes once and for all. Without the Cross, we cannot possibly attain peace with God.

This week, stop and reflect on what is in you that is causing you to be alienated from God and then ask him to help you remove that which is standing in your way so that you may fully enjoy his peace, a peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:4-7). Give thanks that he has made this possible through his Cross, and embrace his gracious mercy and forgiveness offered you through it. As you do, monitor your well-being and sense of wholeness and expect to see and experience an improvement. Take note of how your own peace affects your relationship with other people.

Tomorrow: Peace with God continued. What humans must do.

Notable and Quotable: Scripture

Prologue: A reading from the Breviloquium of St Bonaventure

From the knowledge of Jesus Christ flows the understanding of the whole of holy scripture

The source of scripture is not attributable to human investigation, but to divine revelation which flows ‘from the Father of lights’. From him all paternity in heaven and earth is named, and from him through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit flows, into us, and through the Holy Spirit, dividing and distributing his gifts to individuals as he pleases, faith is given to us, and through faith Christ dwells in our hearts. This is the knowledge of Jesus Christ from whom the strength and understanding of the whole of holy scripture flows as from its source. Hence it is impossible that anyone should enter into that knowledge unless he first have infused into himself faith in Christ, the light, the door, and the very foundation of all scripture. This is the faith of all supernatural illuminations as long as we are absent from the Lord and the foundation that stabilizes us, the light that directs us, and the door that lets us in. Further, the wisdom given us by God must be determined according to the measure of faith lest anyone ‘think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned to him’.

The result or fruit of holy scripture is not simply any kind, but rather a fullness of eternal happiness. In scripture are the words of eternal life. It is written not only that we may believe, but also that we may possess eternal life, in which we shall see and love, and our desires will be completely satisfied. When these desires are satisfied, we shall know the overwhelming love of knowledge and thus we shall abound unto all the fullness of God. Divine scripture tries to lead us on to this plenitude in accord with the truth of the sentence of the Apostle quoted above. This, then, is the end and this the intention with which holy scripture should be studied, taught, and even heard.

In order to arrive at that fruit, by progress along the true path of the scriptures, we must begin at the beginning. We must come with true faith to the Father of lights, prostrating our heart before him, so that he may grant us the true knowledge of Jesus Christ through his Son in the Holy Spirit. With this knowledge we must ask for a love of him, so that finally achieving a solid faith and a deep-rooted love, we may be able to know the length and breadth, height and depth, of holy scripture. Through this knowledge we have to arrive at the fullness of knowledge and plenitude of love for the Most Blessed Trinity. All the desires of holy men tend there; the end and complement of all truth and goodness is to be found there.

This week, I have been working on a series of Advent reflections focused on hope. There is great hope embedded in this piece from St. Bonaventure. May God open your heart and mind to be receptive to it. Advent blessings.

Advent Reflections: Hope 5

Daily Office readings: Amos 5:1-17, Jude 1:1-16, Matthew 22:1-14.

You will find the living God in the pages of the Bible. You will find him also just exactly where you are. When Jesus knew that he would not have much longer with his disciples he knew that they were sad at heart and he said to them: “It is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you…I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the  complete truth.” (John 16:7,12,13) Jesus does not break his promise. God has sent the Spirit of truth, he dwells in your heart. You have only to listen, to follow, and he will lead you to the complete truth. He leads through all the events, all the circumstances of your life. Nothing in your life is so insignificant, so small, that God cannot be found at its centre. We think of God in the dramatic things, the glorious sunsets, the majestic mountains, the tempestuous seas; but he is the little things too, in the smile of a passerby or the gnarled hands of an old man, in a daisy, a tiny insect, falling leaves. God is in the music, in laughter and in sorrow too. And the grey times, when monotony stretches out ahead, these can be the times of steady, solid growth into God.

God may make himself known to you through the life of someone who, for you, is an ambassador for God, in whom you can see the beauty and truth and the love of God; anyone from St. Paul and the apostles through all the centuries to the present day, the great assembly of the saints and lovers of God. It may be that there is someone who loves you so deeply that you dare to believe that you are worth loving and so you can believe that God’s love for you could be possible after all. Sometimes it is through tragedy or serious illness that God speaks to our hearts and we know him for the first time. There is no limit to the ways in which God may make himself known. At every turn in our lives there can be a meeting place with God. How our hearts should sing with joy and thanksgiving! We have only to want him now at this moment and at any moment in our lives and he is there, wanting us, longing to welcome us, to forgive us all that has gone before that has separated us from him. “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23) God makes his home in you. They are not empty words. It is true. “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” This is prayer. Isn’t this the answer to all our yearning, our searching, our anguish, to all the longing, the incompleteness of our lives and of our loving? Until we dwell in him and allow him to dwell in us we shall be strangers to peace.

—From Prayer by Mother Frances Dominica

This past week I have reflected on the nature of our Christian hope as it is related to the Incarnation and the promised Second Coming of Christ to finish the work he started with his First Coming. We have seen that the love and grace of God for us in Jesus Christ has taken the monkey off our backs and relieved us of trying to accomplish the impossible when it comes to being able to live directly in God’s eternal presence. We have also seen how the promise of the New Creation tells us to get busy here and now to help God in his redemptive work, even as we have a future-oriented hope. Today I want to finish this series of reflections on hope by talking about the promise of God’s Presence living in us right now.

As Mother Dominica states so beautifully in her reflection on prayer above, God has promised to give us his Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness, especially during those times when life smacks us right in the mouth. The Spirit is a gentle Person and does not violate our personalities. He works quietly within us, reminding us of our hope and promise, and pointing us to all that is good, and lovely, and beautiful, and true. As Dominica reminds us, we can see God all around us if we will just open our eyes of faith. The Holy Spirit helps us do just that. What this means is that we are never alone, we are not abandoned. We do not have to slug our way through life by ourselves. God is with us, but it requires the grace of faith to see him. This does not mean we are free of hurt or heartache or anything like that. Instead, it means we have power to overcome all that tries to destroy us (and there are plenty of things working very hard in and outside of us to do just that). We have God’s power living in us in the Presence of the Holy Spirit.

What does this look like in the lives of the ordinary Christian saints? When life is threatening to overwhelm us, God manifests himself by pointing us to the blessings we do have in this life. Or he gently but insistently nudges us to pick up his Word and read it. He speaks to us through the Bible and through the conversation of trusted Christian friends. For example, there are lots of lousy things going on in my life right now. My father-in-law is sick and infirm and the prognosis does not look good. I have a grieving wife and in-laws. Several people at St. Andrew’s are struggling with various issues and I am feeling the loss of my parents keenly again during this holiday season. But God does not let me stay there or dwell on the awful things in my life. He reminds me through Scripture and other sacred writings that despite all that can go wrong in his broken and fallen world, he is in the process of finishing his redemptive work. He blesses me with a wife whom I love and adore, and whose presence is balm for my soul. I have dear friends who are always there for me and I take joy in my work as a priest. I have a lovely home to live in and my health. There is much more but you get the idea. When life smacks me in the face, the Holy Spirit reminds me that I am not in it by myself. He reminds me of the hope that is mine as well as his many blessings in my life, and this helps me persevere and even to find joy.

I need to say one final thing about hope. When we use the word hope, we tend to mean wishful thinking, such as, “Gee, I hope I get an iPhone for Christmas” or “Gee, I hope the Cincinnati Reds won’t be such a lousy team next year.” That is not how hope is used in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. The Greek word for hope, elpis, found in the NT means to anticipate something, usually with pleasure, or to have a confident expectation that something is going to happen, like the Risen and Ascended Lord returning again in power to finish what his death and resurrection had started. It does not mean wishful thinking at all; rather, it connotes a confident expectation. So when we talk about Christian hope, we are not talking about whistling through the graveyard. We are staking our very lives on it. Of course, to have this kind of hope means that we also have to have faith that the biblical story of God’s salvation is true, that it is God’s very word to us. If it isn’t, we will all have a lot more to worry about than whistling through the graveyard.

What about you? How does the Holy Spirit manifest himself in your life? How is he helping you to live out your days in hope?

Today concludes this series of reflections on hope. On Sunday we will light the second candle on the Advent wreath. This candle signifies peace and next week we will begin a series of reflections on God’s peace.

Advent Reflections: Hope 4

Lectionary readings: Amos 4:6-13, 2 Peter 3:11-18, Matthew 21:33-46.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

—2 Peter 3:11-18 (TNIV)

Yesterday, I began to address the “so-what” question of Christ’s First and Second Comings. Why do these two things matter to us as we live our days? I suggested that the hope and promises contained in the First and Second Comings should elicit a response of profound gratitude and thanksgiving in us that produces joyful obedience to God. Today I want to focus on the hope contained in the New Creation.

The promise of the New Creation about which I wrote two days ago tells us that God’s creation is good and that he cares about it. You cannot read the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2 and miss this. At the end of each day, God looks at what he created and declares it good. But then we read about the Fall in Genesis 3 and the terrible consequences for both humans and creation that ensued. It is a heartbreaking story for both humans and God. The point, however, is that God created this world as good, but our sin has corrupted God’s good creation. The promise of the New Heavens and New Earth means that God intends to redeem not only his people but also his fallen world. Consequently the promise of the New Creation means that even though we Christians have a forward-looking, and other-worldly hope, we are not to check out of our present world and engage in withdrawn, navel-gazing behavior. No, we are called to roll up our sleeves and get busy as God’s faithful stewards to help him bring about his New Creation. Let me be clear about this. It is God alone who will ultimately redeem his fallen people and creation, but we are called to do our part here and now. This means that we are to take seriously Jesus’ command to love and serve others, especially the least, the lost, and the most helpless. We are to strive for justice and to care for those who are the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. I cannot tell you specifically what God is calling you to do in your life, but I can tell you that he is calling you to do something. Perhaps it is in the area of politics or education or charitable work. Perhaps it is in the context of your daily work. Perhaps it is helping to build up Christ’s Body, the Church. Perhaps it is within your own family. Whatever it is, God is calling you to use the gifts he has given you to love and serve others, and in doing so we can be confident that we are helping God in some small way to accomplish his work of redemption started on the Cross.

You see, we show our love for God in a significant way by how we love others.

What a magnificent incentive to live holy lives! This is what Peter is pointing to in the last two Epistle lessons. He warns us that we are going to have to give an accounting of our lives, but he also reminds us—sometimes using vivid apocalyptic language that should not be read literally—that there is a better day than we can ever imagine coming, all because of what God did for us the first time he visited us in human weakness and humility.

Again, let me give you a couple of examples from my own life that I trust will help illustrate what I am talking about. What the promise of the New Creation has done for me is to allow me to roll up my sleeves and use the gifts God has given me for his service. Currently, I am called to help spread the Gospel in a day and age when it is under a significant and sustained attack by its enemies, both from without and within. I can do that best in the area of teaching and education because that is where my gifts are. My future hope and orientation have always allowed me to work in a field where immediate gratification is not usually forthcoming (although I have been blessed beyond measure to have had my fair share of that too). I have always seen teaching as planting seeds, whether it was in the high school or college classrooms or now at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. I am a seed planter and that takes the monkey off my back in terms of needing to produce results. In the context of a classroom, sure, I wanted my learners to succeed and I measured some forms of their progress. But ultimately, I commend those whom I teach to God and trust he will use my efforts—sometimes good, sometimes not so good—to help him accomplish his good will and purposes for us. In the context of my work as a priest at St. Andrew’s, when I preach what I am supposed to preach on any given Sunday (another form of teaching), I am content to let God use my efforts to work on his people, myself included. I cannot adequately tell you how remarkably freeing this is because I know I don’t have to save the world; I only have to use God’s gifts to serve his people. This same perspective is also what drives the development of this series of Advent reflections. I am not kidding myself. Very few people drop by and soak up all my wonderful musings (perhaps proving there is  yet a semblance of sanity to this world?). Yet I felt God prompting me to write this series during prayer on Monday. And so I write. I am writing as a form of discipline because I have become quite undisciplined of late. I am writing because I think God has prompted me to do so. Regardless whether 1 person reads this series or 1 million people read it, it is here for God to use should he choose to do so. The scale in which he uses (or doesn’t use) this blog, is not that important to me. That I am using his gifts in obedience to his will is. This is a wonderful antidote to runaway ego as well.

My future orientation also gives me great comfort in the midst of living in God’s good albeit broken and fallen world. Last night I was looking at a picture of my parents from the late 1960s-early 1970s. It is Christmastime at our old house, and there they are, a reminder of some of the happiest days of my life. As I looked poignantly at that old picture, I was also reminded just how dearly I miss my folks. If I had no Christian hope, I cannot imagine how desperately sad I would feel because I would have no hope of ever seeing them again. How remarkably cruel would a god be who created us to have a relationship with him and each other, and then set up the conditions to permanently yank the rug from out under our feet sooner or later. But that is not a god I worship, nor would I ever want to do so. The God I worship is the God of life. And because I have the hope and promise of his First and Second Comings, I know I will be reunited with those whom I have loved but lost for a little while. And best of all, we will get to live directly in God’s Presence forever, not for the span of a human lifetime, but forever. Does this mean I don’t miss my parents or never grieve, or that I am immune from hurt or sorrow that inevitably comes with life? Of course not. Who isn’t sad when they are separated from those they love? Or who isn’t sad when they see their loved ones struggling or suffering? But I have this Christian hope and it helps sustain me during life’s darkest times because I know there is a better day coming, and that is not to be sneezed at. Dealing with life’s dark valleys also helps me to develop my trust in this crucified God of ours. I don’t understand all that is involved in the mystery of suffering or living in a fallen world, nor would this be my first choice in how to develop trust in God. But I do understand enough to believe the Promises and the Story, and the strength I gain from my hope is sufficient for me to generally live my days with joy, confidence, and hope. I know that without my Christian hope, I could not endure this life for very long.

What about you? How does your Christian hope help you walk through life’s dark valleys?

Tomorrow: Hope lived.

Advent Reflections: Hope 3

Lectionary readings for today: Amos 3:12-4:5, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 21: 23-32.

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

—2 Peter 3:1-10 (TNIV)

We have now looked at the two-dimensional basis for our Christian hope: past and future. Today I want to begin to address the “so what?” question. Why should the Incarnation and Second Coming matter to us in the living of our days? Just this. Christ’s death has done the impossible for us. It has broken down the wall between God and humans. It has ended the permanent alienation our sin has caused and given us a chance to live forever with the Source and Author of all life. We are free to live our lives in joyful obedience to this God who loves us passionately, and who has claimed us forever. The monkey is off our backs. We no longer have to try to earn our way into God’s direct Presence, what the Bible calls “heaven.” He has done that for us already on the Cross. Now we are free to love and serve him, to follow his desire for us to live holy and righteous lives, and seek to be like him in response to his great gift to us. It means we are free of fear that we may end up eternally separated from God (because each of us, if we our honest with ourselves, know deep down that we cannot live in the Presence of absolute perfection and holiness by our own merits) precisely because we believe God himself has taken care of the problem of alienation that our sin has caused. Christian living should manifest itself in doing good works and humble service, not because we are trying to get our ticket punched into heaven but because our ticket has already been punched for us, unworthy as we are. Christian living is living life in a joyful and obedient response to what God has done for us. This should make perfect sense. Think of a time when someone did you a great favor. What was your response? I doubt if it went something like this: “Gee, so-and-so did this awesome thing for me. In response, I think I will do things (or continue doing things) that I know will make him sad or mad or be disappointed in me.” Instead, when someone does something wonderful for us, our response is usually one of gratitude and thanksgiving. We work hard to try to please the gift giver, rather than behave in ways that will alienate us from that person.

Let me give you an example from my own life that I hope will illustrate what I am been talking about here. When I was a young man, I used to live my life in fear, fear that I never would quite measure up in God’s eyes (well, duh, ya think???). This produced not a small amount of anxiety in me. You see, I failed to understand that on my own, I never can or will measure up in God’s eyes. That is the whole point of the Cross; God loves me enough that he has given himself for me. Today I no longer live with that kind of unhealthy fear because I am learning to trust in Christ completely. I am not there yet and anyone who knows me at all will tell you I am no saint in the sense of being some kind of super-holy guy (I invite those of you reading this who know me to refrain from citing a litany of my, um, less than saintly “virtues”). This has been remarkably freeing in trying to live a Christian life. I try to please God, and when I fail to do so, I ask God to forgive me and help me to do better. But I also ask God to help me remember his Cross. In today’s Epistle lesson, Peter joins a host of other biblical voices that urge us to remember. Remember. Remember the Cross and how terribly costly to God it is, and be thankful. Without the Cross, we have no hope at all.

What about you? How does your Christian hope help you live your life? Share your stories and help to build each other up.

Tomorrow: Living our hope continued.

Advent Reflections: Hope 2

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

—2 Peter 2:16-18 (TNIV)

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.

—Matthew 21:12-14 (TNIV)

Yesterday I began a series of Advent reflections, and this week we are focusing on Christian hope. I spoke of the hope that is ours in the Cross of Jesus Christ, the very symbol of God’s justice in which he suffered and died for us so that we would have a chance to live with him forever.

Today I want to address the future dimension of our Christian hope: Christ’s Second Coming. We Christians believe that on the Cross, God has dealt decisively with the problem of sin and evil, but that his work has not yet been consummated. Advent is therefore a season of anticipation in which we await with hope the return of our Lord to finish the work he started in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. While his return will be a fearful time for the world because it will involve God’s final judgment on sinful humanity, Christians can look forward with hope to the end time inaugurated by Christ’s Second Coming because we believe in the saving power of the Cross. This is not because we think we are special or more deserving or “holier than thou.” To the contrary, we Christians are quite aware of our sinfulness. We understand that we do not deserve to live forever with the Source and Author of all life. Instead, we believe that we have a merciful God who entered history and acted decisively on our behalf to make the impossible possible.

Yet there is even more to hope for because the NT writers, especially Paul and John of Patmos, offer us a wonderful and compelling picture of God’s finished work. When Christ returns again in power and glory, the dead will be raised and those still living will have their mortal bodies transformed instantaneously. Heaven and earth will be fused into a New Creation and we will get to live directly in God’s Presence forever. Our new resurrection bodies will be immortal and not subject to any of the awful things that can happen to our mortal bodies. God promises to wipe away all of our tears and sorrows, and we will not have to live in a broken and fallen world any longer. It is a wondrous vision of hope. Who could ask for more? If you cannot find hope in this vision, then either I have done a lousy job in depicting it or there probably isn’t anything that can provide you with hope.

We believe this promise to be true, in part, because of the Apostolic testimony. In today’s Epistle lesson, Peter testifies to this truth. He reminds us that the Gospel is historical fact, and not some made-up fantasy, because he himself witnessed Christ’s Transfiguration (see, e.g., Mark 9:2-8). And we have hope in God’s mercy, in part, by reading remarkable stories like the one from today’s Gospel lesson. Notice that even as he was cleansing the temple in his righteous anger, hurting and broken people came to Jesus and he healed them. He healed them! He did not stop and castigate them or forbid them from coming to him. He healed them because they had faith in his power to heal and because he loved them. Likewise, we can expect Jesus to have mercy on us if we turn to him in faith and ask him to heal us.

This is the basis of our Christian hope. It is not about us. It is not about how good (or bad) we are. It is about a God who loves his creatures and wants us to become like him so that we can have the kind of relationship with him that he created us to have. Our bodies will die someday and this world will eventually end. But we have something to look forward to, an eternity with God where there is no more suffering, sickness, sorrow, fear, alienation, infirmity, deformity, or death.

If life is beating you down (or you are beating yourself up, or both), then stop and reflect on this two-dimensional basis of the Christian hope and ask God to help you develop and embrace it. Read Paul’s great exposition on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 and John’s vision of the New Creation in Revelation 21-22. Do not take the apocalyptic language in Revelation literally. Read it with the idea that it is getting you to imagine the unimaginable: a time when we will get to live directly in God’s Presence in a New Creation. Remember God’s promises to you each day and give thanks that they are true, that his great love and mercy for you are great, and then resolve to live your life in hope, even in the midst of your dark valleys. Make this your Advent discipline. You will not be disappointed.

Are these reflections helpful? Feel free to add your own thoughts and comments. I would appreciate your feedback.

Tomorrow: Living in the hope of the New Creation.