Messiah: And He Shall Purify

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Malachi 3:1-3.

It is said that Martin Luther would offer a doctoral robe from the University of Wittenberg to anyone who could successfully reconcile the Apostle Paul’s salvation by faith alone with faith without works is dead from the Apostle James. From my studies of John Wesley I believe he deserves this robe! While he constantly preached salvation by faith alone, Wesley equally advised the need for works that signify an individual pursuing and maturing in the Christian lifestyle.

Wesley learned from a young age that works were needed alongside faith. His mother, Susanna, wrote about the faith development of John and his siblings in a letter she sent to her son:

The children of this family were taught, as soon as they could speak, the Lord’s Prayer…as they grew bigger, were added a short prayer for their parents, and some Collects; a short Catechism, and some portion of Scripture, as their memories could bear.*

Wesley continued his practice of Scripture study, prayer, and faithful conversation in small group and the assembly throughout his adult life. His devotive work – personal and communal – led him to regularly visiting prisons and hospitals and establishing literacy programs. Later Wesley impressed this lifestyle of faith – the combination of private devotion and active participation – upon the Early Methodists involved in classes and bands. Wesley defines these groups as communities “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”** We receive salvation from God and we work out our salvation with God. Wesley understood this to be the nature of salvation and how the people called Methodists mature in our faith.

The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of our Lord and one way to prepare for Christ’s coming is to consider our place at the intersection of faith and works. How are you engaging in private devotion? How are you engaging in active participation? What do you receive from these works? How have these works matured your faith? Recalculating to the course of this intersection and/or continuing through this intersection leads us in the ways of holy living – in the ways of holiness. In working out the salvation we have received, we are made well; we are forgiven of our sins and purified in this life.

How will you prepare for Christ’s coming through your faith and works this week? How will you meet, love, and grow with your Savior at your intersection of faith and works?

Prayer: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand. Rank on rank the host of heaven spread its vanguard on the way, as the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day, that the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.”*** Amen.

*Letter from Susanna Wesley to John Wesley, July 24, 1732.

**Albert Outler, John Wesley 178.

***”Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” The United Methodist Church 626.

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Messiah: Comfort Ye My People

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 40:1-5.

I cannot sleep in hospitals. I had 27 opportunities to sleep in a hospital during my Clinical Pastoral Education unit, but I was never successful. So rather than restlessly turn over in a broken recliner in the chaplain’s office wishing for sleep that would not come, I walked the halls.

One night as I walked I heard soft sobs coming from a room. I gently knocked on the door, said who I was, and asked if I could enter. The sobs stifled and a weak “yes” answered from the far bed. I walked in and found a woman, not much older than me, curled in the fetal position on her bed. She apologized if her sobs had disturbed me from my work, to which I assured her they had not. She went onto explain that she has Addison’s disease and was in the hospital due to her present disease crisis. Her whole body ached in unrelenting pain. She was greatly fatigued, but could not sleep. She was hungry, but could not keep food in her stomach. And so she wept.

I remember looking at her…wanting to fix the situation…wanting to fix her…and then realizing that I could do neither. I was not a medical professional. And I was not (am not) God. There was nothing about her or her condition that I could fix.

What then could I do? And God answered me – “Be Sarah. Be.”

So I be’d with her.

She cried and I held her hand. She spoke and I answered. She was silent and I chose to listen to her evening breath rather than fill the room with my words.

My shift ended just before breakfast. I thanked her for the invitation to be in her room. She thanked me for comforting her. Our mutual gratitude was the benediction we shared.

As I reflect on God’s command to “Comfort my people,” I am again reminded that to comfort is first to be and not to fix. Some things cannot be fixed – in the present moment or at all. Other things can be fixed – but it is not always me (you/us) that can (or should) fix them.

Be-ing is a gift and ability that God gives each of us. We are created for relationship – with God and with one another. We are created for community and care. We are created to give and receive comfort.

We can do/fix for others without truly knowing them or taking time to know them. Comfort, however, cannot be done at a distance. We have to get close to people; we have to invite people to be close to us. And in getting close to people, we may have to step into a place of powerlessness, realizing there are things we cannot do and receive God’s invitation to beautifully be.

Prayer: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appears. O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thy justice here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.”*

*”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal 211.

Prepare For Salve

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 40:1-11

I’m coming home, I’m coming home.

Tell the world I’m coming home.

Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday.  

I know my kingdom awaits and they’ve forgiving my mistakes.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home.  Tell the world I’m coming.  

Hauntingly, but persistently, Skylar Grey sings these words.  In this video as one chorus ends another begins, almost as if Grey is marching as she sings.

Our Scripture for this week is famously captured in these recitatives of Handel’s Messiah: Comfort Ye, Every Valley Shall Be Extended, And the Glory of the Lord, And Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion, and He Shall Feed His Flock.  This Scripture tells the story of a people estranged from their homes, estranged from their true selves, estranged from their God that is coming home.  They do not have to find their way through the wilderness unaccompanied.  No, the Lord is coming to pave a way through the desert.  All the people have to do is walk.

Making our way through the wilderness is a faithful pilgrimage and legacy of God’s people.  After their liberation from Egypt God’s people made their way through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.  After the conclusion of the exile God’s people made their way through the wilderness back towards Jerusalem, the seat of the Lord, the home of the temple, the place where the Lord would be revealed and revealed in glory.

This passage calls us to prepare the way so that our Lord will make the way so that we will follow the way.  Who, other than our God, can lift valleys and make mountains low?  Who, other than our God, can level uneven ground and make smooth rough places?  God alone does these things, but God in us and through us prepares the way.

Andrew loves woodworking. When he moves into the finishing process he sands and stains, sands and stains, sands and stains.  The sanding opens up the pores of the wood to receive the stain…but why then would you sand the stain off!?  To open up the stain to receive more of the stain.  Together the layers of stain enhance and increase the vibrant color of the wood.  Together the layers of stain help any completed project stand the test of time.

We cannot lift a valley, but we can lift a stone.  We cannot make a mountain low, but we can clear away gravel.  We can plumb what is catawampus and perhaps even use sandpaper with a discerning mind.  Engaging in these acts opens us up to release those things that hold us back and receive our Lord who will move us forward.  Engaging in these acts will strengthen us as we stand the test of time, secure in the knowledge that our Lord is coming and we are coming home.

As we serve perhaps we will sing along with Grey.  Persistently yes – with each chorus representing another step forward along the way.  But not hauntingly.  Assuredly.  Yes, assuredly.  We are coming home.  And our Lord, like a shepherd, will lead us.

Prayer: “Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain; open new highways, new highways for the Lord.  He is now coming closer, so come all and see, and open the doorways as wide as can be.”* Amen.

*”All Earth Is Waiting,” The United Methodist Hymnal 210.

Atonement: Offering For Sin

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 52:13-53:12

My fabulous Hebrew Bible professor in seminary, Dr. David Petersen, taught me great love for a great many things.  Among them are mutton-chop sideburns, fly fishing, liver divination, and last but certainly not least, reception history.

(He also taught me a great love for Hebrew Bible…don’t worry!)

Reception history is evidence of how a biblical text has been received over time and how it has been recreated or remembered throughout history.  Reception history spans the world of the arts – literature, music, sculpture, theatre, poetry, painting, film, and more.

I believe a biblical text can be helped as well as harmed by reception history.  Helped because it draws people back towards the biblical narrative and engenders feelings of curiosity and exploration.  Harmed because sometimes folks do not make it back to the biblical text and take what they read or view at face value as what the biblical text says…which is why I stay away from most of what debuts on a certain television station that thinks it explores “history” but there is a whole lot more of “opinion” and “creative storytelling” than actual “fact.”  But I digress…

In 1741 George Frideric Handel composed his masterwork oratorio,  Messiah.  The oratorio is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah – and an excellent example of a text’s reception history – singing through birth prophecies, his nativity, his passion, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his exaltation.  I had the privilege to sing selections from this masterwork while in concert chorale during undergraduate.  The enormity of the piece – both its length and its meaning – remain on my heart to this day.

Four musical reflections in Messiah come from our Scripture passage for this week, which through the lens of the prophet Isaiah, gazes upon the humble yet extremely powerful offering of the suffering servant.  I have included the links to watch and listen to this scripture sung by mass choir.  May it be for all of us a meditative practice as we draw near to our study of Scripture this week.

Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs – Isaiah 53:4-5

And With His Stripes We Are Healed – Isaiah 53:5

All We Like Sheep – Isaiah 53:6

He Was Cut Off Out Of The Land Of The Living – Isaiah 53:8

Prayer: “Man of Sorrows! what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Guilty, vile, and helpless we; spotless Lamb of God was he; full atonement can it be?  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Lifted up was he to die; “It is finished” was his cry; now in heaven exalted high.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  When he comes, our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring, then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah!  What a Savior!”* Amen.

*”Hallelujah!  What a Savior,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 165.

Advent Prophet Parade: Micah

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Micah 5:2-5a

Here we are.  We have arrived.  We are almost to Christmas.

This Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Advent.  At Reeves, we will round out our Advent wreath by lighting the candle of love.

(Love is particularly special between Andrew and me this Sunday as we will celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary and 11 1/2 years of togetherness.)

In reading this week’s Scripture passage I am reminded of the Christmas seasons during my college years where I added my voice to a chorus singing Handel’s Messiah.  The selection “He Shall Feed His Flock” rings in imagery full of the Micah text as well as Matthew 11:28-30.  It reads:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

One word stands out to me as I read these pair of passages.

The word is rest.

Upon reading the Micah text I initially interpreted the phrase “then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel” to mean that the remainder of those in exile will return to the King.  (Micah was a prophet contemporary to the Babylonian exile.)  However, once I reread the Matthew text, I was struck that rest could mean peace, quiet, release.

When Micah spoke to God’s people they were in turmoil.  When Jesus spoke to God’s people they were in turmoil.  I am confident that God continues to speak to us today…and that sadly…we are still in turmoil.

At times we become numb to the turmoil.  I am guilty of not watching the nightly news or reading the newspaper with much frequency because I know what I will find there: more stories of violence, greater instances of need, resounding aches of the world.  Mass tragedies occur and in the moment we are attuned to the circumstances…but we seem to move on all to quickly though our neighbors persist in their sorrow and loss.

Turning a blind eye is not the solution.  Ignorance is not the solution.

Perhaps rest is the solution.

Not rest as in laziness or dereliction to our responsibilities to our families, our vocations, or our God.  But rest as in seeking that divine peace, quiet, and release.  Rest as in the salvation that comes from coming under the Lordship of the true King, being first a sheep in the Messiah’s flock that we will be equipped as sheepdogs for other sheep.  Then – and only then – do I think we will be able to respond faithfully to the turmoil that persists and respond to it through God’s salvation.

Reflection and Challenge: In a society where it is truly difficult to find time to slow down, be at peace, release, and rest, make time.  Much like they tell passengers on airline flights – turn off your electronic devices.  (Once a flight attendant told people to turn off their EasyBake ovens…I laughed so hard.)  But the spirit is true!  Get away from technology and get with God.  Not sure of what to do?  Read Scripture; sing favorite hymns or songs; draw, paint, or sculpt; go for a run, jog, or walk; meditate; pray; do almost anything as long as your focus is on God.  That is key.  If your mind wanders, then you are not truly resting in God.  Seek clarity in what God may be revealing to you during that time – and it could be as simple as God saying, “Hey Sarah!  You need more time like this!!”  (I know!)  But, it could be something more…you won’t know until take time and make time to rest.

Prayer: A poem for “Generous Quietude” by Safiyah Fosua

Carry a little quiet inside you while the world continues in rush and rage fighting and frenzy.  Carry a little quiet inside you so that the worry and war trouble and tumult do not capture you in their grip.

Tarry in the Son-filled meadow of the heart beside the still waters where God’s Spirit refreshes and renews.

Carry so much quiet inside you that you have some extra calm to share with me.