Sunday, December 18, 2011

Waiting in Hope - Luke 2:25-38 - December18, 2011

This is a gift from beneath my Christmas tree at home. (hold up for people to see.)  It is one Beth is giving me.  Thank you, Beth!  But I have a problem.  It is not Christmas yet.  I have never been very good at this waiting game.  Even as a kid I would look for presents beneath the tree with my name on it and when I thought no one else was looking, I would pick it up to see how heavy it was.  I would rattle it to see it if made any noise.  I would feel around it to see if get some sense of its shape or size.  (Act out each of the actions mentioned with package in hand.) I would try my best to try to figure out what was on the other side of the wrapping paper.  Don’t laugh; I know a lot of you out there did exactly the same thing.  I have decided that there is a balance out there somewhere between the frustration of the unknown in my hand and the anticipation of the joy that is to come when I finally get to see the gift.  I know that I will love it because the person who bought it and wrapped it as a gift for me loves me and wishes me joy.  So, for now, I wait, and I hope, and I wait, and I hope, and I wait, and I hope……

The story of Jesus has two stories sitting side by side that are about people waiting and hoping.  They are stories that carry into the temple courts as Mary and Joseph come to dedicate Jesus.  The first story is the one William Dooley shared with us earlier in the service. It is Simeon’s story. We hear that   there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout.  He has been waiting for something almost his whole life.  He dreamed of seeing the one that would be the face of salvation for his people and the world. He knew that there was a purpose in his waiting.26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Then the day he had been waiting for arrives.  Luke tells us that Simeon,27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required. It appears that as soon as he saw the face of Jesus he knew.  28 Simeon took (Jesus) in his arms and praised God, saying:  29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”  33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.

But the moment was not through. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simply said, Simeon told them that Jesus would turn everything upside down and impact the heart of many.  But in this great blessing there is a foreboding word, something would happen to Jesus that would break their hearts.

It fascinates me that God chose Simeon be a part of early moments of the gospel story.  There would have been many others in the temple compound that Mary and Joseph could have gone to circumcise their eight day old infant. In fact, for the couple, it was much less important who did the ritual than that it was done on the day and in the fashion their faith demanded.  This was no ordinary day.  It was the day Jesus would claim the symbol of God’s original covenant with His people. But the one God chose to use for this sacred moment was one who had waited with hope. Simeon did not need to see Jesus perform miracles or hear him teach.  Simeon led a life of spiritual expectation.  This spirit gave Simeon the heart feel and the eyes to see the face of God in the infant’s face.

Lying beside Simeon’s story is another. It introduces us to a woman of great faith named Anna. Elizabeth Ogburn shared her story. She wears the face of one who has seen many, many years pass by.  God rewarded her faithfulness and gives her a gift worth waiting for.  She had lived the life of a wife, and then endured a long season as a widow.  In our context we hear that simply as a woman whose husband has died.  In that time it was more.  Not only had she lost her husband, she had lost her identity and her means for survival.  A widow was completely dependent on her male children, and if she did not have any, she had to rely on the pity and generosity of others. Luke tells us that Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Anna spent her days and nights worshipping and waiting, ready for God to speak.  In response God gave Anna a special gift. She was so focused on God’s voice that she was seen as a prophet, one speaking to others on behalf of God.  As Simeon’s words still hung in the air Anna came up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child, Jesus, to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna is equally an incredibly unlikely participant.  As an 84 year old widow Anna would have had no standing to step into this moment.  She was neither a friend of the family nor an invited guest.  The fact is that she chose to intrude. She did not intrude because she was rude, but rather because she felt God’s compelling. God summoned one who had dedicated herself to worship, prayer, and fasting. Anna had waited with hope. When the moment came she did not need to see Jesus perform miracles or hear him teach.  Anna led a life of spiritual expectation.  This spirit gave Anna the heart feel and the eyes to see the face of God in the infant’s face. 

Simeon and Anna are powerful, but uncomfortable, models of faith for us.  The power of their witness is that they show us what it looks like to wait with anticipation and absolute trust.  Their witness is uncomfortable because waiting is hard and in our case, counter-cultural. We want what we want when we want it. Our culture is an on-demand culture. We are the creators of fast-food, the ATM, drive through car washes, and a countless list of other devises designed to meet our desires instantaneously. We have come to view waiting as a violation of one of our basic human rights.  We expect the cashier at McDonald's to apologize if it takes longer than 30 for our food to arrive at the counter.  We listen as the man at the table next to us strum his fingers on the table top if he thinks the waitress has taken a bit too long bringing the check.  We listen as people blow their horn a microsecond after the light has changed, demand the car in front to move on.

Waiting is frustrating. Too many of us live lives of frustration, waiting impatiently for something we want or believe we deserve. We dream of a new job, and our frustrated waiting cheats us from fully investing ourselves in the task that God has put before us.  We dream of living in a different place, and spend countless wasted hours spinning plans on how to get there, rather than pouring ourselves into the place where God has planted us and the people that God has put in our lives.  We find ourselves living between where we once were and where we hope to be with our emotional and spiritual bags packed and ready to go.  We are seized by our frustrated plans rather than being defined by hope and expectation.

Waiting is spiritually challenging. When things do not happen on the time we believe is right or fair we begin to wonder why God has not responded. It can make us doubt God’s love for us or God’s willingness to do good and right things for us.  But, hear me clearly, this doubt is not of God. While it is hard for us to conceive that waiting could be a good thing. It is even a harder thing to conceive that waiting can be a tool of God. Instead of being spiritually challenging, it is entirely possible that waiting in hope can become a tool God uses to shape us and change us. 

But when we look again Simeon and Anna’s witness we discover that it resonates across the breadth of Scripture.  We are taught to wait with hope and expectation for God to act - and having the faith to know God will act in a way that is best for us as His children. The Psalms presumes a stance of faithful expectant waiting as act of worship.  Listen to what some of them have to say.
  • Psalm 27:14 Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD!
  • Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
  • Psalm 33:20 We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. 21 In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.
  • Psalm 38:15 LORD, I wait for you; you will answer, Lord my God.
  • Psalm 130 5 I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6 I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

 In the waiting we find ourselves dependent on God.  In the waiting we find ourselves forced to learn to truly trust God with our future. It pushes us to learn to live in today with God and to entrust God with our tomorrows. In our waiting God has the opportunity shape us and draw us close. In our waiting God will strengthen our hearts.  In our waiting we learn to face our future with a sense of divine expectation, knowing that God is loving and faithful. Simeon spent his life waiting with a certain hope in God and God responded beyond his wildest dreams.  Anna lived a life of devotion and expectation and God spoke to her and through her.  While waiting on God will stretch us, it can also help us discover a new depth of trust in God. Where is God calling you to wait with hope, trusting Him to do what is right and best for you? Where God shaping you, strengthening you, and calling you close?  Will you respond in frustration or respond in faith? Wait, with hope and expectation. Wait, trusting that at the right time – God’s perfect time, God will move in a way that redeems and renews us. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Setting the Stage - Matthew 3:1-12 - December 4, 2011

Our traditional worship platform has been transformed into the heart of Bedford Falls.  The stage has been set for this week’s four performances of It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical. If you had been in this room any time over the past two weeks you would have seen a steady stream of people armed with hammers and nails, power saws and measuring tape, each working feverishly to put every board in place. At the same time people have been putting countless hours of rehearsal time working on their lines, musical numbers, and dance moves; while still others were setting lights and still others gathering props and finalizing plans to make sure everything is in place so that show can go on. In a matter of days hundreds will find their way into the pews, the house lights will go down, the stage lights will come up and the grand story of grace and hope will be played out right where I stand. 

The time had come for the people of God to return from exile in Babylon back to the Promised Land.  You would think that people would be lining up to go, but many had settled down and settled in.  Others knew that the reality was that their former capital was in shambles; that there was not much to return to; and that those who did return had much work in front of them.  The words from Isaiah or those that followed in his footsteps brought a prophetic promise that would have spoken to the heart of the people.  God was going to do something that would change history forever.  One was coming who would help them set the stage for God and God’s dramatic act. In the first few verses of Isaiah 40 we hear; 3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

The people returned and built again. Time passed and one generation gave way to another and another, and one generation gave way to another, and another, and another, and another – the people waited with anticipation.  God had been faithful to His promises before. God would be faithful in fulfilling this one as well.  This morning we find the pages of the Bible turned from the Old Testament to the New, and the gospel story begins to be played out on history’s stage.  Isaiah’s prophetic promise is realized.  As Chapter 3 in the Gospel of Matthew begins we read; 1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” When the first people heard this promise I imagine that they envisioned a major road project to make the way for a grand military ruler and king. This is even probably what Isaiah would have dreamed When we learn that John is that voice crying from the wilderness we begin to understand that God has something very different in mind.  The cry to prepare the way for the Lord, to make the straight the paths for him, we be begin to see that the promise of finding our way home again with God was not a physical journey but a spiritual one.

John is an unlikely voice for God to use. He did not come from among the priest or the royal court.  He was the consummate outsider. The culture would not have known what to do with him.  While times had changed, John dressed, acted, and spoke like one of the prophets of old.  4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

People were responding to John’s call to confession and preparation.  They could look around and see that they were not where God wanted them to be.  Their leaders were corrupt, the Romans disregarded their faith and faith tradition, and the religious leaders seemed to be more focused being self-righteous than relevant, and even the Temple seemed to be more focused on income than it was on directing people to the feet of God. Jesus would later describe them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36) The people came because they knew they needed to do something to prepare themselves for God great act.  The people came because they knew there were mountains and valleys, crevasses and potholes in their lives that need to be addressed.  The people came because they knew that they needed to make the paths straight in their lives that they might find the way back home to God.

The religious leaders of the era saw something going on and wanted to see if they could get in on it.  John has a hard word for them.  He wanted it clear that their self-righteous attitudes were not going to get them anywhere.  Verse 7 through 12 hears him proclaim; 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John wanted the Pharisees and the Sadducees and all those gathered for baptism that God’s grand act was about to be unveiled. He had a very specific role. He was setting the stage for God’s great gift to them and for all of humanity. His father sung his story before his birth. We heard David Cochran read it before; 76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

What an incredible job description. Can you imagine being given the responsibility – the privilege – of being the one who is called to help prepare the way for Jesus?  Can you imagine the joy you could find if your primary job was to give people the knowledge of salvation, the promise of forgiveness, and to guide people’s feet into the path of peace found only in Christ?  While John embraced this role in advance of the public ministry of Jesus, we inherit this role from him as the people who have come to faith through Christ. As assuredly as those that helped set this stage with hammer and nail for the story to be on display, we are called to set the stage for the story of Jesus to be on display in our lives.

This is not a new message.  It is the common theme of the Advent season.  But, while we hear this message reoccuringly, we find it much harder to live out in real life. It is hard to lead people to the promise of peace when for many of us it seems so elusive in our own lives.  The problem is that sometimes we find the spiritual mountains in our life so high, that they look insurmountable. We know our foibles and our failures. In our eyes they are Rocky Mountain in scale and we have a hard time imagining that God can truly forgive us. For others the mountains are personal, financial, emotional, or relational in nature. The sheer face of the rock is so high and imposing we find ourselves paralyzed with fear and apprehension.  For others among us the spiritual valleys so deep we do not think we can crawl our way out. We think that if people really knew what we had done or what had been done to us that they would not be able to look us in the face.  The valley seems so deep we cannot conceive that God can reach in and pull us out.  For others of us, the spiritual potholes so distracting that we find ourselves again and again on the wrong path.  We want to find our way back to that road that leads us toward being at home with God.  We just do not know how.  It is hard to make the path straight to Christ for others when we still finding ourselves on wandering roads. 

We need to hear John’s call and confess our sins and prepare our own lives for the God’s great gift in Christ.  The mountains will be made low, the valleys will be filled in and we can find ourselves at God’s feet when we embrace the forgiveness and grace of God through faith in Jesus. Just like the stage has been prepared for this week’s musical presentation, we must not let anything stand in our way for setting the stage for Christ to be on display in our lives.  Over and over again you hear me say that the coming Jesus is the act of God on which the history of humanity hinges. But hear with equal passion that the coming of Jesus is the act of God on which your life hinges.  Through Christ we find the forgiveness, the salvation, and the peace of God. With Christ no spiritual mountain is too tall and no spiritual valley is too deep.  Apart from Christ we are defined by the mountains and the valleys.  We need to hear John’s call and claim our part in setting the stage that others might find that same forgiveness, salvation and peace.  Make the path straight – straight to the feet of God. Set the stage – so the story of Jesus is on display. 

Big News For FBCOKC

Over the past 60 days FBCOKC has received a litany of big news. 
  • The Church received a Lilly Renewal Grant for over $49,000 to fund a sabbatical experience for the pastor.
  • Dr. Bobby Kelly and Dr. Mack Roark will serve as the preachers and teachers for Sunday morning worship services and SALT Bible studies on Thursdays during the pastor’s sabbatical.
  • FBCOKC will work with the Baylor School of Social Work to do a “Church Census” during the sabbatical period. This survey process will help define the spiritual heart cry of the church family that will define congregational ministries during the second half of 2012 and in to 2013.
  • The Good Shepherd Ministries Medical Clinic was only one of three of the 22 Christian clinics serving the OKC metro to receive a grade “A.” The grade was given as part of a review by the Butterfield Foundation.
  • The fact that the Good Shepherd Medical Clinic received a grade “A” qualifies it to submit a multimillion grant request to the Butterfield Foundation.  The likelihood of received a large scale grant looks very good. 2012 should witness a dramatic increase in the scale and impact of the Good Shepherd’s Medical and Dental Clinic ministries.
  • Round Up Cleaners and its six stores across the metro has joined FBC and Good Shepherd Ministries in an initiative to raise 1000 coats to distribute to children and adults this winter. The Hobby Lobby Chaplain Department has already given 25 coats as a part of this effort.
  • The Oklahoman did a feature article on the FBC Can Sculpture Competition in both print and web editions.
  • KLOVE Radio picked up the story on the can sculpture competition and broadcasted it nationwide. Word Magazine heard the radio story and is preparing to do a feature article on their website as an effort to inspire other congregations to stage similar events to raise food that can be shared in their communities.
  • The Oklahoman did a feature article on the FBC/Good Shepherd Furniture Bank in both print and web editions. It focused on the partnership with Catholic Charities and Skyline Urban Ministries (United Methodist) and how the result of the partnership is a great new ministry resource for our city.  Response to the article has been strong.
  • The Hobby Lobby Chaplains Department featured the Furniture Bank in its latest newsletter.  The Office of Faith Based Initiative featured the Furniture Bank on its website and its latest newsletter.
  • A new leader The ESL Language Lab emerged; the Language Lab has reopened and is experiencing steady growth in students.
  • The City Sentinel did a nice feature article on the upcoming production of It’s a Wonderful Life in its print and web editions.
  • FBCOKC did a full page full color newspaper wrap for 55,000 homes on Black Friday promoting church Advent programs. 
More announcements of this caliber are coming soon. God is at work in and through FBCOKC related ministries.  Thanks be to God.