Prepare the way!

The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2)

As we heard on Sunday, God’s coming into the world is not always a happy and fun occasion. Indeed, for a world convinced it’s got everything under control, being flipped upside down will definitely throw you for a loop.

In this case, the prophet Malachi is speaking not of the arrival of the Christ-child, but of his messenger. The one who will prepare the way in the wilderness.

This year we get the nice gentle version of Luke. Remember that Luke actually gives an account of the birth narrative of John, as Jesus’ own cousin, who recognizes the Christ even in-utero. And the lectionary chooses to leave out that lovely little section just after the Baptizer appears – the one where we get to hear what he has to say. I suggest reading it at some point (Luke 3) because then we can understand the prophet Malachi’s warnings.

On this, the second Sunday in Advent, we have the opportunity to consider how God prepares the way in the wilderness. Like the reality of this season where we often project perfection, the truth of how God gets our attention and does the road work is quite messy. So we have the chance to sit in the rubble and ponder what we will do next.

Our second Advent candle is named “peace.” Seemingly odd given the sermon passages. And yet, like God’s grace pulling us into thoughtful steps towards the kingdom last weekend, the peace we will celebrate this weekend is the hard-won, true peace that can only come with the presence of justice. It is the peace that will last. It is a peace only God can bring. And it is that peace which we seek.

So prepare the way of the Lord! Make the valleys high and the mountains low. Shift the ground around you until you find God in the midst of the mess – that is usually where God is leading us. And then remember: God loves to come into our well-ordered season and stir things up.

Blessings,     Janie

And so it begins…

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 33:15)

The time has come, once again, to prepare for the arrival of the Christ-child. While the world around us goes mad with holiday frenzy, the church enters into a time of something a little bit different.

We celebrate Advent – and no, it was not created by religious zealots some years ago who don’t want you to sing Christmas carols for an extra four weeks. Advent literally means “coming.” It is the season of the church calendar when we wait and we watch with expectation for all that God will do in the world, in our midst.

As we learned this past weekend, the Christ child is the long anticipated heir to David. He is the true King of kings. The true Son of God, in a way that David could only dream about. While the ancient son of Jesse did many great things, his rule was fraught with problems, most of which were self-created. This new child coming to Bethlehem (David’s own birthplace) will come with an ability to execute justice and dispense mercy as God’s own presence in the world.

So what do we do with the season of Advent? Yes, we will light candles. Yes, we will hear the plaintive echoes of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Yes, the star will rise in our window. And yes, we will deck the church with symbols of the season of light to come. However, as we intentionally look toward Christmastide with excited anticipation, let us take the extra time to ponder.

Like a mother uses her pregnancy as a time to consider all that will be coming, so the church is invited to take these coming days to prayerfully think about important questions for our time: Who are we? What will our future hold? Where do we see God springing up in our midst?

The answers to these questions will guide us in the new year to come.

My prayer for all of us is that we will see the light of the Christ child’s presence in this season’s beginning, as much as in its end. Keep awake and watch, for the time is surely coming when God’s presence will come into our midst once again.

Blessings,     Janie

Give Thanks

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:14-15)

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in our country. Though the tradition of giving thanks for the harvest pre-dates the Revolution, it was not until the Civil War that President Lincoln made it a national stalwart. As the nation tore itself apart, he called for a day to give thanks and remember that though the world may spin madly on, God is still present and working among us.

Tomorrow the holiday season in our country begins in earnest with families gathering around tables, eating turkey, watching football, and sharing time with one another. Some may remember to take a moment to bless the food or to go around and say what we are thankful for. However, much of the time we forget what it means to truly live into Thanksgiving.

There is a quote on a board in my house this season that reads: “If you are really thankful, what do you do? You share” (W. Clement Stone). Ultimately, in order to truly give thanks, we must do more than speak words in prayer or gratitude. We must develop into people who share their blessings, their love, their lives with others.

At the end of the day, that is what it really means to give thanks. It is something we should do more than one day a year. It is a practice that should be part of every single day of our lives.

Between Thanksgiving and Epiphany on January 6, there are over twenty different holidays – at least fifteen of which come from the Christian tradition. Each is an opportunity to share something with another person. So as we enter into this “Holiday Season,” let us do so as those who will make thanksgiving an essential part of each day ahead. Let us find ways – small and large – to share, to give, to love.

Blessings,    Janie

Thanks & Giving

“The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford – she gave her all.” (Mark 12:43-44, MSG)

Let’s begin with a great big thank you to everyone who participated in this weekend’s Stewardship Dedication Sunday! It was extraordinary to see your dedication to Highland made tangible by the stack of blue pledge cards in our tree offering plate. These pledges assist your leaders in making important decisions on how to proceed with our budget for 2019 and we are most grateful for your help.

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, we know that Highland’s future is uncertain. And yet we also know who we are and from where we have come.

The legacy we have inherited from our Highland family is twofold: to be the body of Christ for one another and to be the body of Christ for the world. We are quite excellent at surrounding one another with support, through thick and thin, and walking with one another through life’s many joys and challenges. We are also quite excellent in using the gifts that we do have to serve others. This includes everything from our beautiful orchard to books for school children to opening our extensive campus to community groups every week – and so much more.

What will be essential as we find our path forward is that we not lose sight of either part of our calling. It is easy to circle the wagons and turn our focus inward, thinking only of our immediate family of faith. But to do so is to forget our calling.

As his followers, if we give up on our mission work – those things that serve our community – we give up our status as a living church.

This is something we must never do.

Whatever the path ahead may hold, my prayer for Highland is that we will seek to remain faithful to our full calling as long as we draw breath. And this is a prayer filled with hope – for you have and continue to display your dedication and love for Christ and for God’s church at Highland.

My friends, always remember that God goes with us and nothing that God does will ever return empty.

Blessings,     Janie

 

Together

“Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Among the passages in the lectionary as this liturgical year draws to a close is the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. It is a classic backstory about David’s family, for Ruth gives birth to Obed, who then has Jesse, David’s father. It is a story about family – but family that does not fit the traditional mold.

At the beginning of the story, Naomi is a widow who has two sons and two daughters-in-law. When her sons die suddenly, she and the young women are left with nothing. Wanting to protect them, she attempts to send the girls home to their families so that they might find new husbands. One daughter-in-law goes, but the other one, Ruth, who is a different religion and of a different people than Naomi refuses and speaks this famous line: where you go, I will go… your people shall be my people, and your God my God. By staying with one another, these two women find a path forward – together – one that will bring wholeness and great flourishing to their lives.

If you think about it, the church is just such a family. It is a hot mess made up of a wondrous variety of people from every background – it does not fit any traditional family mold. And yet, God has brought us together to find a way forward that will bring wholeness and great flourishing for all involved.

As we look towards our Stewardship Dedication Service this Sunday, let us remember that whatever joys and whatever changes we may face, God will provide the wisdom and strength we need when we walk the path together. At this time and place, God has called us to be the body of Christ at Highland Presbyterian. Though we do not know precisely where the path will lead, and though the makeup of the body may change, God still has a road for us to walk and a future for us to seek as a family.

Let us come with our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to rededicate our lives to God’s ministry and to seek God’s path for Highland together.

Blessings,     Janie

Communion of Saints

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)

Tomorrow, November 1, is the commemoration of All Saints – when we remember the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who are bound up together in Christ. Though for our Catholic brethren this includes only those who have been canonized, for us, it includes every other person who ever has been, is, or will be in Christ.

We will be celebrating and remembering this important day in worship this coming Sunday. Why? Because we believe in the “communion of saints” – as it says in the Apostles’ Creed. It is an essential understanding of our faith, one we should not take for granted. On All Saints, these words from our baptismal creed take on a tangible quality – in light, in memory, in life.

We must remember that we are called into one body. Though we are all indispensable pieces in the greater puzzle, we nevertheless do not have personal claim upon the promises of Christ. They are not a prize to hold over others’ heads.

Instead, we know that the new life promised to us comes to all of us – together. We claim the gifts of God side by side, as we were meant to. This means that we cannot discount another person simply because they look or sound or think differently than we do. They are still our brothers and sisters – and we are all woven together into a single garment of destiny.

As we approach this holy remembrance with reverence, we must remember that we are joining with a great host of people – living and dead – who are all around us, bound to us, in every single moment. This includes not only our individual families of faith, but the family of humanity as well.

There is much turmoil in the world and in our country at this moment. It is more important than ever to remember our common calling of love that we have received from God. My prayer for all of us is that we will truly feel the presence of the great cloud in our midst and reach out our hands to care for one another – for we are all ONE body.

Blessings,     Janie

Always Reforming

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda

This phrase, handed down from our protestant ancestors, can be translated as “the church reformed and always reforming.” It is a motto of who we are and who we are becoming. It is at the heart of who we are as Reformed Christians.

Contrary to comfortable belief, the church is never meant to be stagnant. It is always meant to be moving, shaping, forming and reforming. Thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, we are consistently and constantly pushed out of our comfort zones and into God’s holy work in the world.

As Presbyterians, we finish our motto with the phrase “according to the Word of God.” Why? Because we believe that the scriptures, the written word of God, are the penultimate revelation of who God is on earth and that Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is the ultimate expression of who God is. It is against these high markers that we consider, judge, and enact everything else.

Something we learn from nature (and scripture) is that if you are not evolving, you are dying. If we do not change, then we come to a standstill and refuse to interact with God’s ever-breathing presence. The reformers never intended their changes to be the permanent new “norm” that we should follow, giving us a new excuse to sit still – but that we should follow in their footsteps and continue the transformation they began.

As we enter into the celebration of Reformation Sunday this weekend, we will be asked to remember not only those great names of the distant past, but also those wonderful people who have been a part of our more recent history here at Highland. We have been handed an important legacy from them as well: being a center for our community and a home for a loving family of faith. Those are certainly things to celebrate as we remember those who have gone before us by continuing their work.

May the Holy Spirit breathe new life into us even as the mottos and battle cries of the reformation ring through our ears – as we remember, may we be evolve ever more into who God wants us to become.

Blessings,     Janie

Baptism

Jesus said to them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able…” (Mark 10:38-39)

In our gospel lesson for this coming weekend, Jesus will be confronted by the sons of Zebedee who demand that he give them whatever they want. Rather than outrightly shutting them down, Jesus responds with a reality check: are you sure you can really take that for which you ask?

He speaks in code to them about drinking a cup and being baptized. As they are the disciples in the midst of his ministry, it is somewhat up in the air if they truly understand what he is saying. They often do not.

Here’s the rub: do we understand what he is saying?

Jesus is referring to baptism in a way that we are not used to and one with which we are not comfortable in any way. He is referring to a different type of baptism than the pleasant dunking or sprinkling of babies and grown-ups who want to join the family of faith. He does this because there are three types of baptism in the Christian tradition.

The first is by water. It is a sacrament to us because Jesus enacted it and because we believe that God is truly present through the Holy Spirit, sealing us as God’s own beloved. It is an outward sign of an inward change – one that comes when God’s timing is right.

The second type of baptism is baptism by fire. This is the Spirit’s baptism which is the true seal offered by God in God’s own time. This is the baptism that occurs with confession of Christ as Lord and with God’s desire to seek after us. It is the baptism of the Spirit, the holy Fire, that causes the true change within us that baptism by water is meant to represent.

Then there is the third form: baptism by blood. This is a type of baptism reserved for the martyrs of the faith. It is the ultimate form of baptism because it seals our faith not only with water or the Spirit, but with our own life force.

This is the type of baptism to which Jesus refers in this passage. The cup is the cup of blood shed for you and for me – poured out in his martyrdom to come. What James and John do not realize is that they are agreeing to their own sacrifice when they assent to Jesus’ question. They will pay the ultimate price for their faith.

Among the questions that this passage raises is this: are we so ready to pay the ultimate price for our faith? Jesus has told us that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Could we give ourselves so willingly?

Ultimately, we signify the baptism by blood and fire by the baptism by water. We are baptized into Christ’s death so that we may rise with him into new life. The new life requires that every day we find more and more ways to give of ourselves as Christ has given himself for us. And to be willing to one day pay that ultimate price if necessary – though most of us never will.

My friends, we love because God first loved us. Loved us so much that Christ died and rose for us. Now, let us go and live out that love so that the whole world will know and may one day see the Holy Spirit descend upon them in a blaze of fire as well.

Blessings,    Janie

 

Word of God

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

We have spoken before about proof-texting and taking a verse out of context. Well, Hebrews 4:12 is just such a verse that is often used incorrectly. When people read it, they assume that word is an inanimate object, or more specifically the holy scriptures. That is how it appears upon first reading.

Until, that is, one continues to the next verse. The pronoun changes from “it” to “he” and we must ask ourselves why.

The reason is that this passage speaks about the Word of God who was with God and was God from the very beginning – that Word made flesh that we know as Jesus the Christ. It is Christ who is living and active, who lives in such a way that renders joint from marrow – showing who is true and who is only giving lip service.

Karl Barth, beloved twentieth-century theologian, described the word of God this way: there are three.

The ultimate and true Word of God is Jesus Christ – the Word that was from the beginning who became flesh, who lived and died and rose again. Any time we refer to a capital “W” Word of God, it should always be in reference to Christ. For that Word of God is the only inerrant and perfect expression of who God is.

The second word of God, which is penultimate, is the holy scriptures. These are essential to our faith as they are the best accounts we have on earth of God’s work through Jesus and beyond. Though inspired by the Spirit, they are still the penultimate and little “w” word because they were written down by men, conditioned by specific times and specific contexts. We nevertheless trust that, through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, God will continue to speak to us through the written word.

The third word of God is much lesser than the other two: preaching. Barth believed that due to the inspired nature of the word proclaimed and its relation to the written word of God, preaching is a much, much, much lower form of God’s word to us on earth. Important, but far below the other two.

Now, bearing all that theology in mind, here is the point: we must not confuse the living Word of God with the written word of God. One is God’s own self and the other is humanity’s best recollections of God interaction with us throughout history.

We are a people of the living Word, Jesus Christ. Though our book is of essential importance to us, ultimately it and everything else in our lives is viewed through the lens of what Christ did, who Christ was and is, and all that Christ taught. That means that if something in the scriptures does not reflect God’s glory in Christ, we must take Jesus as the higher authority. This is a key facet of Reformed faith that is often misunderstood or misconstrued in order that we humans might force our own rendering of a specific text, or even the whole of scripture.

It is not ours to have all the answers. It is ours to seek after them, by studying God’s word written, listening to God’s word proclaimed, and living in God’s Word made flesh. That is how we honor the true and perfect Word of God.

I hope you will join me as we continue to plumb the depths of God’s glorious words together that the Spirit may guide us to even greater understanding and more profound love of one another and the world.

Blessings,     Janie

Who am I?

Christ is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being… (Hebrews 1:3)

“Who do you say that I am?”

This is a question often asked by Jesus during his earthly life and work. It is an essential question of faith – one with which we continue to grapple today.

A key part of our Reformed heritage is the belief that Christ is the lens through which we view everything else. We say that, but often forget to reflect directly upon who Christ is. That is, in reality, the crux of the argument (if you’ll forgive the pun).

This verse comes from a passage of Hebrews that gives a direct description of who Christ in relationship to God. He is the begotten One: light from light, true God from true God. Through Christ God has spoken God’s purposes into the world.

When we say that Jesus was the imprint of God’s own being, it is less about the human dichotomy of male versus female, and entirely about God’s own heart. To be the imprint, the exact copy of God is no more or less than to share in God’s own love, as a part of God’s self.

This is why Saint Augustine called the Trinity – the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that unites them. God’s heart, who God is, is entirely about perfect relationship and communion. And if Christ is an imprint of God’s own self, then that is who Christ is, too.

Jesus asks us this question repeatedly because who we say he is directly impacts how we envision God and our relationship to God. How we relate to God then impacts how we relate to one another.

In his humanness, Jesus reflects the glory of God – for we are beloved creations of the Lover, too. In Christ’s divinity, Jesus is the very imprint of who God is and how God is in this world: for a world where communion is the reality and not just a distant dream.

So who do you say Jesus is? Now, how are you going to reflect that Beloved One to the world?

Blessings,     Janie