When Deserts Bloom

Read Isaiah 35.1-10

The people of Israel are returning from exile. They are traveling through the trackless Syrian Deserta long, dry stretch between where they had been, in exile – Babylon, to where they are going, their home land Palestine.

They travel through burning sand, long stretches of barren wasteland with few signs of life beyond their own weakened, but determined bodies. Men and women, young and old, their hands weakening, their knees growing feeble, their eyes squinting from the blinding sun, their lips dry and chapped, no words will form on their mouths. Still, they press on with the dim vision in the back of their minds of a place their ancestors have told them about. A land flowing with milk and honey, where bushes bear fruit, the grass is green and the trees provide shade. Glorious shade. They travel on through the desert with only the image of a better place planted in their minds like a reflection on the water they hope to find.

Suddenly, a voice is heard. It awakens them from their half-conscious, dazed state. It’s the prophet Isaiah. “Look, this wilderness and dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom. It will rejoice with joy and signing.” Things aren’t as bad as they seem, says Isaiah. God is still in control. God still has the power even to turn this barren wasteland into a plush garden paradise. You shall see the glory of our LORD, the majesty of our God. Our God is with us, strengthening our weak hands, making firm our feeble knees. 

How important it is for the people Israel to have a prophet like Isaiah, speaking this encouraging word of the Lord. God is still in control. He will restore those He loves. God is able to do a “new thing” to restore the people, to create a turning point in history, to redeem the land, to rule over the land in peace, with justice. Our faith is in a God powerful enough to turn burning sand into a pool, provide water for the thirsty ground. Our faith is in a God caring enough to provide a highway through the desert, God’s holy way, where we will find safety, joy and gladness.

For Isaiah, this hope is grounded in God’s covenant with Isaiah. For us, we enter this covenant through God’s gracious act sending Jesus Christ into the world. Through Christ, God entered fully into human experience, even suffering pain, loneliness, betrayal, death so that we might be saved. Christ is our hope as we travel through the barren deserts of life.

In Christ, we are redeemed to enjoy life to its fullest and look forward to a life that knows no end. The benefits of redemption are clear – healing for our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. A healed earth where barren and arid land is bright with the sheen of many waters, and loud with the singing of the stream. As God’s redeemed people, we can appreciate the beauty of nature like never before, embracing it not as a thing to be used, but as a living creation, reflecting the beauty and glory of God.

We are redeemed and yet we are still on a journey through this life, a journey that often passes through barren deserts. Like the exiles traveling through the desert, we can look ahead to better days, keep pressing on in faith that God will not abandon us; God will not leave us under the burning sun, or out in the cold. God provides a highway, a path for us to follow, that leads us home, to a place of safety, of joy and gladness.

Jesus Christ is the Way through the barren wasteland into the Promised Land.

When All Heaven Broke Loose

Read Psalm 149

This Psalm paints a picture for us…a beautiful portrait of God’s people praising God and having a delightful time. Singing and dancing. Playing stringed instruments and shaking the tambourine. A marching band for God. It is a hopeful image, a victorious image where the joy of heaven has come to earth, where people who have remained faithful in hard times are now able to exult in glory, singing for joy on their couches, singing a new song to the LORD.

This hopeful image is shared with people who, you would think, had little reason to celebrate. Israel has seen hard times. They had labored under the rule of foreign kings, struggling to make ends meet and fighting for the privilege to worship their God. Some people hearing this Psalm may have looked around and found ample reason not to join in the celebration. What’s to celebrate? Times are tough. We lack freedom. Our children are leaving behind tradition in this strange and foreign land. People don’t care about our values, our faith. What is there to celebrate?

To these people, God says, “Celebrate.” Praise the LORD! What’s going on here?

At times our worship of God can become routine, just one more thing we do in a week filled with activity. This Psalm reminds us that true worship contains an element of joy, of praise. It’s like heaven breaking loose in the lives of believers who see in ordinary events the hand of God. 

Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song. Young and old alike – let the joy of God erupt within you, for the LORD takes pleasure in people. Think of it, God enjoys being with Us. What a wonderful thing! God shares our joy. God gets a kick out of just being our God.

As Christians, we carry with us the hope of heaven. This hope can carry us through desperate times, just as the Psalm offered hope to the people Israel. In Christ, this hope has become a reality. In Christ, all heaven broke loose and now we are called on to share the joy of this good news with the world.

We carry our image of heaven into our world and this impacts how we relate to others. I like the story one writer tells of his mother-in-law, who he describes as a bright-eyed, comical little woman who enjoyed a joke until the day she died. During her last years she was a diabetic, and the doctors restricted her from adding sugar to her coffee and salt to her food. She managed well without the sugar, but never got used to doing without salt. Often at breakfast, as she stared at the unsalted eggs on her plate, she would say, “If heaven is the way it is supposed to be, I am going to spend my first thousand years licking on a great salt block!”

As we look at world events, happenings in our community, and even experiences within our families, it may seem to us that we are going through hell. As we face economic collapse. Racial hatred. Broken relationships. It can be nearly impossible to hold onto the hope that Christ has come to restore our fortunes, to bring us peace, to knit us together in love.

In Christ, all heaven has broken loose. We may be passing through hell now, but in faith, we can celebrate the present and future reality that God is constructing a new heaven and a new earth. For now, and forever.

Christ in All

Read Colossians 1.15-23

A woman with three children depends on the support of her husband. She is left to fend for herself and her family when he dies unexpectedly. She feels weak, unable to make it on her own. Who does she turn to?

A man feels stuck in his low-wage job. He enrolls in a community college and becomes weary, exhausted by the demands of both work and school. In the frustration of waiting for things to change, he wants to quit. Who does he turn to?

A college student becomes caught up in the futility of life. She lacks direction. Friends come and go. Her parents pressure her to perform. She tries her best, but she has lost all pleasure, the delight she used to feel over life. Who does she turn to?

When we feel weak, when we become impatient, when we lack joy, it’s easy to struggle alone. It’s easy to give up. It’s easy to give in to despair. What is much more difficult is to have hope.

Christ alone is our hope. Often, we can become burdened by the thought that through our efforts, we are holding things together -at home, at work, at school. We expend a lot of energy trying to hold things together and become exhausted or burned out when things fall apart. Suddenly our children act out, our co-workers disappoint us, our friend lets us down. Who do we turn to? Where is our help? Our hope? Christ and Christ alone holds all things together.

This is where we start in our faith. Christ is the foundation on which anything we do as a community of faith, or as individual believers, must be built if it is to stand and take root. If we build on any other foundation, we are like the house that is built on shifting sand. Though it may stand for a short while, it will in time slide and fall to the ground. Christ is the one from whom all creation comes into being. Christ alone is our sure foundation

What does this have to do with somebody who is desperate to provide for her children? Someone struggling to balance a present job and a future career? Someone unable to find her way through life?

What it says is not that we are helpless to impact on our world. We are involved with Christ, Christ is in us, working through us, providing us what is necessary to share in the inheritance of God’s love. In Christ, heaven and earth meet, so that we can do more than we could possibly do on our own. The strength of the Holy Spirit, transforms our lives, and gives them meaning and purpose.

In Christ, a bridge is built between heaven and earth. Through Christ, we are able to taste a little bit of heaven. God meets humanity in Christ. Through Christ – God’s power gives us strength. God’s patience provides us endurance.  The joy of God moves us to delight in Him and His works in the world.

Christ holds us together. Christ is the head of the body. The Spirit of Christ builds us up  sustains us and gives us direction. This Spirit lives in all who have received Christ. The Spirit of Christ is in all. The power of Christ is able to conquer even death.

The challenge for all believers is to not become discouraged by the ways in which it seems things aren’t what they used to be. Instead, we are encouraged to look around and become aware of the ways in which Christ is still alive and working through us today. Not to become overwhelmed when we wonder how we can provide for our family. Not to give up when we struggle with life’s demands. Not to lose hope when we are unable to find purpose and meaning.

We may feel weak. We may be impatient. We may lack joy. But God, through Christ,supplies us the power, the patience and the peace to continue to witness to God’s amazing love.

Healing Wings

Read Malachi 4.1-3

 The promise of healing wings is real and yet it is contained within the context of a word about the coming day of the Lord, which is described as both great and terrible. The day is coming, says Malachi. The day of the Lord is coming and this means good news and bad news.

First, the bad news…for those who are arrogant, for evil doers who have taken root, who have become smug and unconcerned about the faith and the faithful. To these, says Malachi, the day of the Lord will come burning like an oven, leaving neither root nor branch, leaving only stubble-ashes. This frightening image is intended to shake up those who take for granted, who lose sight of God’s demands for justice and peace.

Malachi provides a word of warning, not to frighten us to believe, but to clearly present the dangers of taking faith for granted, of not loving and serving God. Some people respond better to the fear of punishment. If you know that if you show up late for work, your pay is docked and your supervisor lays into you, you are motivated to be at work on time. If you know that when you don’t show up for church, a member will visit or call and ask where you’ve been, you’re more likely to be in church on Sunday. Likewise, if you know the day of the Lord will come burning like an oven for those who are arrogant and do evil, you’re more likely to humbly serve God in your daily lives.

But if it is only fear that motivates us, we are not likely to serve willingly, much less joyfully. Thank God Malachi provides a hopeful image to move towards. The sun of righteousness shall rise, writes Malachi, and for those who revere the name of the Lord, it will come bringing healing in its wing. The joy that believers will experience will be like the joy of a calf leaping from its stall. We will burst from the confining walls of this world, and leap into the joy of God’s kingdom, everlasting wings.

This is the good news. Those who have revered God’s name, those who have served faithfully, who have taken the faith seriously and have lived the faith in the daily lives will burst out on the day of the Lord like a calf leaping from its stall. The sun of God’s righteousness will come with healing in its wings and restore the weak, the strength, the relationships, the power of those who have believed and trusted in the promises of God. This is the good news.

So, there is good news and bad news. The good news can give us hope; the bad news can motivate us to change. 

The book of Malachi ends with two practical suggestions for persons who face desperate situations, whether that be impending surgery, the loss of a job or economic security, or just trying to make sense of an ever-changing world. The advice is both very simple and often overlooked.

First, remember the teachings of Moses-the sacred Scriptures. We would expand this to say-read the Bible, study it daily and look for ways that God is speaking to your situation. As we regularly study the bible, it becomes a part of our lives, guides our decision making, shapes our lives in faith even when we’re not aware of it. Regular, long-term Bible study allows God’s word and our lives to meet in ways that bring hope out of desperate situations.

The second word of advice is to listen for the prophetic voice among you. Malachi writes that before the day of the Lord comes. God will send the prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.  God will restore the people and build up the land.

It is sad, but true, that often when we are faced with desperate situations or decisions we can become isolated, closed off from family and friends who could help us the most. You may know people who have suffered from the loss of a job, their health, well being, their energy or hope, and instead of drawing on the love and support of others, they become bitter and closed off. Perhaps the most tragic thing is when people of faith, who once found church to be so life-giving, when faced with desperate times, can choose to stay away and remain off to themselves, fearing judgment from others, embarrassed about their situations, not wanting to ask for help.

What we know from God’s word and from the example of Jesus Christ is that all of us have wounds, all of us face desperate times, all of us need God’s healing touch. As we come together in faith, listen to each other and search God’s word, we can discover the hope-the sun of righteousness rising with healing in its wing – and the joy, leaping out like calves from the stall. This is the good news that far outweighs any bad news the world can bring us.

From Rituals to Relationships

In our Bible readings, there are two “Why?” questions that relate to the practice of our faith and the content of what we believe. First, in Zechariah, the people ask the prophet “Why do we continue to fast to remember the destruction of the temple when the temple has been rebuilt?” For years, the people continued to mourn and fast from mid-November to mid-December as a way of grieving the loss of the temple that was destroyed by Babylon. This had gone on for 70 years and in the meantime, the situation had improved and the temple had been rebuilt. Now the people were wondering, “Should we continue fasting?” And they sent a delegation to the prophet Zechariah to see what God’s will was on the matter.

To understand this question and the prophet’s response, it is helpful to know something the practice of fasting and its role in the spiritual life on the people. Fasting was a common spiritual discipline throughout the days of the Bible and even continues to be commonly preached into the modern age.

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth says that Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes. This fasting, which involves abstaining from all food and drinking only water, could last a few days, weeks, even up to a month. The purpose was to set aside something very common that often controls us, namely our appetite, for the purpose of focusing on God within us and among us. It was not a way to lose weight or even to lodge a political protest, but a way to focus on God and God’s wills.

In the days of Zechariah, a public fast would have been as common a spiritual tradition as gathering together for a Thanksgiving service and meal. This fast, connected with the destruction of the temple would have survived an entire generation, it was not only a way to remember a difficult time, but share a common experience that would bind the community together.

Now it is 70 years later and the people are wondering should we continue this? This temple had been rebuilt, things had gotten back to normal. Why fast? They go to the prophet and pose the question: “Should we continue this: as we have for so many years?”

The prophet Zechariah doesn’t answer their questions, at least not directly. Instead, he reframes the question and puts it right back to them. When you fast who were you fasting for? When you feast, who are you feasting for? Whether you fast or feast, the important thing is that your focus be on God. The ritual of fasting is meant not as an end in itself, but a means to a deeper relationship with God and with each other. The ritual is intended to move you into deeper relationship.

Zechariah makes this point clear as he conveys the word of the Lord about what’s most important:. Render true judgments. Show kindness and mercy to one another. Be fair and good to others. Look after those in need… the widow, the orphan, the alien, the poor. Work for good-do not desire evil, against one another.

The people must have wondered…where did this come from?  The asked Zechariah a simple question about a fast and he gave them the third degree, along with a sermon on ethics. The people had lost sight of the purpose of fasting, the focus on God and the drawing together those with common needs. The people had become self-satisfied and were only looking to do away with a ritual key thought had become worthless instead of recapturing the spirit behind the ritual, along the ritual to move them into relationships with God.

This text reminds me of a couple who had been married 60 years. When asked what kept them together, they said good communication, we listen to one another and each night after supper. They said they “took the dog for a long walk.” Even though their marriage outlived the dog for over forty years, they continued each night to go for long walks, enjoying the company of one another, allowing this ritual to strengthen their relationship.

Rituals, traditions are important. They can strengthen the relationships we have with each other and with God. They are not, however, ends in themselves. If we do them only for the sake of doing them, they can lose their meaning and significance. We can get to the point where it seems like we’re just going through the motions. If our focus, however, is on God and what God can do through our rituals to build relationships, we will find, like the couple married 60 years, that they draw us together and give meaning to our lives.

In our Gospel story this morning, there is another question Sadducees approach Jesus with a question about the afterlife. It is a complicated question, about an absurd situation where a woman is windowed seven times and they ask, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” This absurd question is made even more ridiculous when we realize that the Sadducces did not themselves believe in the resurrection. They are trying to trick Jesus, to get him to show that belief in life beyond death is ridiculous. But Jesus stands firm and challenges them with a statement, “God is the God of the living, not the dead. Death is not the final reality for those who believe. God has throughout history proven that new life is possible-that in life and death we belong to God. God is the God of the living.

Just as Zechariah challenged the people by moving them from ritual to relationship, Jesus challenges us by moving us from thoughts of death to new life. He shifts our focus, just as he shifted the focus of the Sadducees. The resurrection is not a crazy notion. It is a living truth made possible in Jesus Christ. Our lives are given new meaning because in Christ we are not just inching closer toward death with each tick of the clock, in Christ; we are constantly moving in the presence of the living God builds relationships out of rituals, builds confidence out of doubt, brings new life out of death.

Consumed by Fear, Surrounded by Grace

Read Psalm 3

Who are our enemies?

Contrary to what we might think of ourselves, the Bible assumes we have enemies. Not just in the Psalms, either, but in the Gospel stories as well. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, “Be nice so people will like you,” but, “Love your enemies.” The Bible assumes that if you walk by faith in Jesus Christ you will make enemies.

This is a difficult truth to swallow. Imagine how difficult it must have been for King David. His enemies were not a faceless crowd of strangers, not people or forces far away. It wasd someone very close to home. His own son, Absalom, was his greatest enemy. It was Absalom who drew up an army attempting to dethrone his father David. Absalom, his own son, who sought to destroy him, to strip away his power. 

It is in this context that we hear the words of Psalm 3. Absalom has David surrounded with a host of soldiers. David is running for his life, hiding out where he can find shelter, calling out to God for protection. Imagine his agony. Not only the fear of losing his life, but the awful pain of betrayal. His own son, Absalom, has turned against him. He wants to destroy his father David.

Even in this desperate situation, David trusts that God provides protection. He calls out to God for deliverance. Even as David is consumed by fear, he knows that he is surrounded by grace.

You, O Lord, are a shield around me.

Knowing that God protects us, we can enter into the rest we so desperately need. Look at verses 5 and 6:

I lie down and sleep;
    I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
    assail me on every side.

On our own, we would never have peace in the midst of battle. It is impossible to fully rest while fighting in the trenches. But, because God is our shield and defender, we can lie down and sleep, confident that God protects us.

God is not only our shield, our defender. He is also our deliverer, rescuing us from enemy attack. God gives us courage to overcome our fear and strength to do battle with him by our side.

Look at verse 7 in Psalm 3 which reads:

Rise up, O LORD!

Deliver me, O my God!

For you strike all enemies on the cheek;

You break the teeth of the wicked.

We may cringe at this image of God’s wrath. Those of us who are relatively shielded from violent attacks in our personal lives, we can find it difficult to imagine that God would be such so vengeful.

But for early believers and many others who are persecuted today, this image is one of  hope. Many contend with such wickedness they daily look to God for deliverance against their oppressors. Christians thrown in jail for practicing their faith. Women subjected to random rape. Children forced to take arms and fight for military juntas.

God has a plan to rescue us.  God takes the bite out of wickedness.  It is not that God removes us from enemy territory. Instead, God strips the power from all that would hurt or divide us. The deliverance that God blesses us with is the deliverance from those enemies that could eat us up, that could devour our relationships.

God, our protector, has sent us a shield in Jesus Christ, a shield of armor, of protection that doesn’t take our enemies away, but equips us for battle. Jesus Christ is the shield of protection we can turn to when our enemies are closing in, when we feel the gnawing sense that something is trying to eat away at us, to consume us.

God is our shield and our defender. We can rest with confidence in His protection. He will rescue us from attack, shatter the strength of our enemies. Praise be to God.

The Compassion of God

Read Hosea 11.1-11

We can only begin to understand the compassion of God by looking at the ways we experience compassion in human relationships. The prophet Hosea recognizes this and attempts to provide us a glimpse of God in very human terms. God is like the parent who lifts their infant to their cheeks, who bends down to them, who feeds them.

Whether you are a parent or not, I hope you can appreciate how special this relationship is. God is moved by our stirrings. When we hurt, God hurts with us. When we turn away from God, God longs to call us home. When we do damage to ourselves and others, God’s anger is not the anger of one who seeks to do more harm, but the anger of a loving parent who wants to protect us and teach us to care for ourselves.

The compassion of God is even deeper than this. God’s compassion endures even when we continually turn away from God. God endures the pain of watching the children of Israel make bad choices in their lives, fail to seek God’s guidance, search for other gods for direction, and still, writes the prophet Hosea, God longs to call them home. There never comes a time where God’s compassion does not reach through their disobedience and unfaithfulness.

God’s compassion is alive and well today. In Christ Jesus, God calls everyone to accept the truth that forgiveness is available, that new life is possible. No matter who you are. God desires that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Just as the image of God as the loving and nurturing parent is strong in Hosea, so is the image of Israel as the rebellious child who causes God great frustration. “The more I called them,” says God through the prophet, “the more they went from me.” No matter how much God provided, the people seemed bent on going their own way, chasing after other gods, looking for answers beyond themselves and their special relationship with God.

It would be nice to distance ourselves from this image, but if we look closely, we can see our reflection. We discover times we have failed to look to God for guidance and direction. Times we have gone our own way rather than listen to the voice of God through God’s people telling us to turn around. Times we have ignored the inner voice of God’s Spirit within us teaching us to do the right thing.

The amazing thing is no matter how often we’ve done this, no matter how far we’ve taken our rebellion, God is always ready to welcome us home, to turn us around.

Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe is the story of a young man who experiences the tragedy of losing his brother in a car accident. He begins to regret how he had treated his brother and even blame himself for what happened. Over time, he finds it difficult to function, trapped in the guilt that is in part his own making.

Over the course of the novel, however, this young man discovers people and events along the way to provide opportunities for a second chance. Nothing will bring his brother back, but he discovers ways to break out of the trap of guilt that keeps him from living. He finds within himself and among others the will to live, to start over, to turn away from choices that lead him to death and destruction, to choices that bring light and life.

I would say that what he discovers is the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus. This Spirit moves freely among us, it is not the sole possession of any one person or group of persons. God’s Spirit moves freely to bring new life, new hope.

My prayer today is that everyone discover this hope. God’s desire is that everyone be saved from the consequences of their rebellion and disobedience. God is like a loving parent who never leaves us and wants to welcome us home.