Sunday, November 13, 2016

God's Future--Malachi 4:1-6

So much has happened this week. Only seven days ago, we were looking ahead with certain expectations. Now, we look back, and the news and social media highlight the divisiveness still pervading our country. Today, we look ahead to the future. Malachi is about the future; Malachi also is about the present. Malachi is an indictment of people who hold back from God; it addresses people who lose sight of the divine in the present. It says, “those who revere God’s name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” A promise of healing and comfort is always welcome.
This morning, we will look at Malachi, continue processing the election, and explore C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. If you want to remember these three parts, use the mnemonic MEG: Malachi, election, and grief.
In many ways, the world is a different place today than it was seven days ago. One era is ending, and another one is starting. Some people celebrate a new era, and others are fearful. On Wednesday, after the election, I spent a fair amount of time counseling people who were upset by Tuesday’s results. When I told someone about how upset people were, he said, “Really?” Yes, really. The truth is, people would have sought counseling and comfort regardless of Tuesday’s outcome. If the results were different, there would have been different people who wanted comfort.
To those who feel pain or a sense of loss after the election, C. S. Lewis writes a helpful word in A Grief Observed,
We were promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it… Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.[1]
Pain is real when it is your pain. Whether an election, a doctor calling with a positive test result, fractured relationships with friends or family, loneliness, isolation, boredom, job insecurity, food insecurity, no money for rent—when it is yours, it is real.
Malachi is the final book of the Hebrew Bible. It is the last of the Book of Twelve, the minor prophets. The minor prophets are not minor because we flat the third; they are minor because, unlike the major prophets, the minor prophets are short. Malachi was probably not the chronologically last among the prophets, and it might have been part of another writing, although that assertion is speculative. The details of when, where, and who in Malachi are sketchy. It fits as the last of the twelve minor prophets.
Malachi is about the relationship between God and humanity. For us, we tarnish and profane that relationship when we put things ahead of God. At this point, I have been planning to preach today from Malachi for about a year. The Holy Spirit moves and, I believe, is active in our worship planning. Malachi’s message of putting God first is appropriate for us today. On all sides of the political spectrum, during this past year, many people put many things ahead of God. Doing so stains our relationship with God.
Sometimes we get good news, like in the game Monopoly when you draw a card from the stack labelled “Community Chest” and the card says, “The bank made an error. Collect $50.” Other times, we get bad news. In the same game, we can find ourselves with the card, “Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.” On Wednesday morning, some people awoke to good news. Others did not. In either case, our calling is to put God first, build relationships with one another, and reach out, sharing the good news of God’s grace, love, and mercy.
In Malachi, we find a strange word for today, “Surely the day is coming…” The prophet looks ahead to God’s judgment. Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, “Behold! the Day comes! And whether it brings the fire of destruction or the sweet balm of healing depends on the character of those upon whom the light falls.”[2] Character matters. Actions account. We know from James that faith and actions are inextricably connected.
C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after his wife’s tragic death. He wrote it as a way of surviving the loss. The book is an honest reflection of fundamental issues surrounding life and death, and keeping faith in the middle of loss. Each one of us makes decisions. Sometimes, those decisions lead to pain, like making irresponsible personal choices. Other times, we experience pain through no fault of our own, like when a loved one gets sick and no one can explain why. For the prophet, the judgment day is not here yet. The story is not finished.
God holds the past. God holds the present. And, God holds the future. We do not need to worry about the past because it is gone. If we have fallen short of God’s perfection, we can ask for forgiveness and be certain of its arrival. If we have sinned and wronged another person, we can seek that person’s forgiveness, in addition to God’s forgiveness.
In the epilogue, (verses 4-6), the prophet reminds people to follow the teachings of Moses. For us, we can see a reminder to follow biblical ethics, realize God’s love of each person, share this love with one another. Malachi is a message of hope, because just after the reminder to follow, there is a promise for the future. “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah.” When we hear Elijah’s name, we know God is in control. Malachi presents a “rich and creative reworking and integration of the major covenant themes that inspired the earlier prophets.”[3]
For this moment, the present, we do not need to worry because God is in control. Trusting God with the future is where C. S. Lewis ends his journey in A Grief Observed. He writes, “I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.”[4] Worry does nothing to solve our problems or make the world a better place.

[1] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed  (New York: HarperCollins, 1961), 36.
[2] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, and Paul J. Actemeier, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), 196.
[3] Eileen Schuller, "Malachi," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 846.
[4] Lewis, A Grief Observed, 65.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What Next?

After a long, divisive election season, the results surprised many pundits. The polls predicted a different outcome. Yet, the 45th President will be someone who has never held political office before. He has never served in the military before. Regardless of one’s political leanings, this is a new era. 
Now, we can stop comparing candidates. Instead, we can look ahead. 
First, uncertainty seems to be the theme of news stories. The winner of the presidency has made many contradictory statements. He has no track record to show what kind of policy decisions he will make. Many of his campaign promises are racist (e.g. deportation squads, building a wall, banning Muslims, etc.). Will he follow through with those promises? No one knows. 
Second, we can wait and see. With one candidate, there was a general expectation of status quo. With the winner, expectations roam all over. Speculation about the future gains nothing. Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God. God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Thus, let your words be few.” Let us be patient. Let us wait and see what happens next. This might be the most fruitful action today.
Third, let us treat one another with kindness and respect. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” Tillich says, “True love listens.” As we move beyond a hate-filled election year, Christians can model reconciliation. Instead of clinging to division, we can seek to build bridges. 
When people come together, they are stronger. Multiculturalism is not the enemy. Diversity is nothing to fear. People with different approaches and lifestyles can enrich one another’s life experience. 
History holds many lessons. These lessons hold true for both political winners and losers. Winners can learn contrition, humility, and openness. Without it, they are unlikely to remain victorious for long. Losers can learn from Richard Nixon. He proclaimed, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” He said this in 1962, six years before becoming president. 
The future is always uncertain. Part of the adventure of living is getting up each day and not knowing what will happen. 
What will a President Trump be like? We do not know. Let us pray for him. Let us mend fences and celebrate diversity. And, let us be good neighbors at home and around the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Despite the Election, All Is Well

This election year is full of vitriol and divisiveness. People might conclude that the apocalypse is upon us. Yet, the sun keeps rising each morning. People still work together. Families and friends find ways to communicate, despite opposing political views. Our Canadian neighbors even made a video to remind us that everything will be okay. The title is “Tell America It’s Great” (with the hashtag #tellamericaitsgreat).
The three presidential debates are over. Most people know how they feel about Clinton and Trump. And, after November 8th, the election will be over. Two people no longer dominate the news cycle. Other stories, important stories, can return to the headlines. Will life return to normal?
In many ways, life is already normal, even if it does not seem like it. People struggle with everyday questions and concerns. People celebrate joys and share struggles. They go to work, attend church, raise children, and support their favorite sports teams. They relax and recreate. They argue and make-up. And, when they argue, they argue about normal things, not policies or politics.
By focusing on political divisions, reporters generate more interest in their stories. Their business is, in fact, based on subscriptions and clicks. Violence at rallies, hatred between candidates, or shocking revelations might be good for business. But, it is bad for life.
The truth is, the average person is not violent at rallies. Usually violence is the work of a few disruptive people. The police arrest them. And, they enter the due process of the criminal justice system. Outlandish behavior and sexism aside, most people work together and behave in a civil manner. This is the point.
We do not need to look to our leaders to show us how to behave. They will always fail. They are human. Throughout history, leaders have failed. They can be immoral, unethical, unintellectual, and nonstrategic—they all fail. If you find one who has not, chances are almost certain that no one has discovered their failures yet. Though, the failures do exist. Recognizing leaders' failures does not excuse it. This is especially true when the failure is particularly egregious.
The Garden Collective started the social media movement “Tell America It’s Great.” The campaign harkens to the idea of paying it forward. In other words, when someone does something nice for you, do something nice for someone else. There are stories of people paying for the next person at a toll booth or fast food drive through. The kindness can go on for hours in an unbroken string. This kindness equates to the kind of love God has for all creation.
Christians who seek to reclaim civility in a such a partisan year can act where they are. In this election, we have learned about each other. We have learned that we are complex individuals. Many people find it shocking to discover a family member or friend supporting Trump or Clinton. Yet, the person has not changed. They are still our family members and friends. They have just decided that one candidate meets their hopes for the future.
The beauty of the American experiment is this: they can make that decision. The system allows it. Each person can make up his or her mind about who they support in an election. When the votes are cast and counted, we the people find out who won. We must continue being friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family.
Working together has to start with us.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Pharisee? Tax Collector? Don't Pick Your Poison.

We might not utter the pride-filled prayers of the Pharisee, but we think them. Or, if we are honest with ourselves, we do. How many of us have looked around in smug satisfaction at a nearby empty pew and thought, I’m in church, but so-in-so isn’t.  Karl Barth describes this parable, labeling pride as the biggest sin for the Pharisee. Pride is basically idolatrous. When we are prideful, we confuse the Creator and creation; we confuse the Giver and gift.
Jesus addressed people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Most of the parables in Luke serve a moral purpose. They frequently end with the command: Go and do likewise. This parable is no exception. It says something significant about God. It says God wants honesty.
My parents used to say, “Pride cometh before a fall.” I remember once when they said it after a baseball game. I had been up to bat four times and had two base hits, a walk, and a double. I had an RBI and two stolen bases. At second base, no one had hit anything past me. It was a great game! First, they celebrated with me. We went out for ice cream. They were incredibly supportive parents! Then, as I started talking about how all of the other players should be more like me, and if everyone had is much game as I had, we would be an unstoppable team! They said, “Pride cometh before a fall.”
Sure enough, the next game my glove inexplicably felt like it had a hole in it when I missed a routine grounder. I struck out and the walk back to the dugout took forever. A dose of humble pie helps bring one’s head back into the game.
For our spiritual lives, we must constantly remember our need for God’s forgiveness. One of the wonderful volunteers at the CBF 25-for-25 mission day yesterday said, “Tomorrow, I will be the Pharisee.” And, I see her point. After working hard for Jesus, it is easy to feel like we are on top of our spiritual game. It is easy to feel so close to God that we could not possibly fall. Then, pride cometh before the fall.
Genuine faith means coming to God as we are, recognizing that each one of us need God’s forgiveness every single day. Karl Barth is right: pride stands between us and God. It becomes an idol. Our pride is equivalent to self-reliance, and our pride keeps us from truly saying, in humility, I am a fallen, sinful person; I need God’s grace every, single day. Why can’t we say that? Why can’t we be honest? Instead, we show up to worship with our game faces on.
When someone says, “How are you?”, we smile, and say, “Fine,” not because we are fine, but because that’s what one says. Instead of honesty, we want stability, normalcy, and reassurance. We cannot even be honest with each other, so how can we expect to be honest with God? Our pride forms a barrier between us and God.
Jesus calls people to genuine interaction with one another. The Pharisee makes us feel guilty over the idea that we act like him, and the tax collector inspires us to be more open and honest. The call from God does not go out to those who are good. Those who are good have no need of forgiveness. Those who are already whole have no need for God. The Pharisee has everything he needs. Now, he simply has to show up at church and make sure that everyone else knows how good is and how good he has it.
Pharisees were religious people. They wanted everyone to know how religious they were. They want people to recognize them for how religious they are. They don’t spend time with non-religious people; they don’t hang out in secular places. We would not find them where the people who really need God’s grace congregate. They keep up the religious rules, and they want to make sure everyone sees them doing it. When they fast, they make sure to look glum, so someone will ask, “How’s it going?” “Oh, I’m so tired. I’ve been fasting all day.”
To put it in modern terms, they reply, “Oh, I’m so tired; I’ve been volunteering at the church all day.” Do you see how convicting Luke is?
Pharisees are suspicious of things they do not understand, and they do not understand how the rest of the world lives because they separate themselves from it. When they meet someone who is different or spends their time in different activities than they, they assume the worst. And, you know what happens when you assume? You are wrong. Pharisees usually do not have any good reason to assume the worst or mistrust people. Pharisees are easily offended, spiritually blind, hypocritical, hard hearted, miss out on true worship, say things but do not do them, and seek honor for themselves. Thank goodness we are not like them!
Maybe that is the point. Instead of worrying about who we are not like, we should focus on God.
What about the tax collector? Tax collectors were not nice accountants or IRS employees. They were Jewish, but worked for Rome. Rome was a foreign occupier so to work for Rome meant being complicit with the enemy. In addition, tax collectors were allowed to collect more taxes than they sent to Rome, and they could keep the extra. This made them despised people. When Jesus mentions ‘tax collector’, his listeners would know that he is talking about a bad guy.
Today, instead of a tax collector, Jesus might have mentioned a drug addict, homeless person, prostitute, motorcycle gang member--someone who is despised by society--someone who, when God is doling out forgiveness, would really need it.
What about us? We can be ourselves. We can seek to reflect Christ and his love for all people, whether they are Pharisees, tax collectors, you, or me. This means being comfortable in our own skin. When we call out to God, we must call out in our own voice, with our own prayers, with the concerns we have, and the honest thoughts we need to share with God.
We must set aside our prideful-ness and practice an open, honest, genuine faith—the kind that transforms us and the world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jeremiah’s Response to a Troubled People During a Troubled Time

We sang, as children, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” And, just a few verses after where I stopped reading, we have Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you.” Again and again, throughout scripture, we find the assurance that God is God and is fully capable of handling the world. Yet, we are uncomfortable with trust, with giving over control.
We are not alone. Throughout time, people have always wrestled with God and resisted surrendering control of their lives. Although we do it, God loves us (and everyone else), wants us (and everyone else) to experience the richness of life, and God desires a relationship with us (and everyone else). The old verse says, “For God so love the world,” not just us, not just Christians. Everyone wrestles with this question of meaning.
Sometimes prophetic books like Jeremiah can seem distant, but they deal with the human condition. Spinoza, the great rationalist philosopher, he was neither Christian nor Jew and associated God with nature as a pantheist, wrote in a letter to Hugo Boxel, “God's will is eternal, and has never been indifferent; hence... the world is a necessary effect of the divine nature.”[1] We have flooding because of rain. If we accept that the world is God’s plan, then we can trust God, even in the floods and storms of life. Yet, when we experience the storms of life, we can ask: Where is God? Why would God allow this?

In Jeremiah, the people wrestle with God in chapters 27-29. In 597 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Israelite King Jehoiachin and took Jerusalem, he deported the king and the best and brightest citizens. In doing so, Nebuchadnezzar ushered in the era of Babylonian captivity. Those who were left in Jerusalem did not have their leaders or the people who were experienced at governing them. Those who were in captivity were dislocated, in a foreign land.
Captivity provides the backdrop for Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, remembering Zion. On the willows there, we hung our harps.” The captors made fun of the captives and said, “Sing us one of those songs of Zion!” Jeremiah speaks the truth. In chapter 27, he puts on a yoke and says: This is not temporary. Have faith in God! When Jeremiah shared God’s truth, the people did not want to hear it.
We are not unlike Jeremiah’s audience. We do not like the truth. I should exercise more, but I would resent it if you suggested it to me. Maybe I should eat healthier food, but I would not like to hear it from you. Those are simple innocuous truths, and they are far more palatable when discovered, not directed, or when inspired, not instructed. When it comes to hearing truth in life, things are no different. We resist it. However, Jeremiah spells it out for his audience: The truth is the truth, and sometimes the truth is difficult.
God is still God, and we can trust God. We do not need to be totally self-reliant. Our American “rugged individualism” might yield a productive economy and a leading world super power, but Herbert Hoover was not promoting a biblical truth when he repeated this idea in 1928.[2] He sought a productive economy, racing toward twentieth-century progress. We have the benefit of hindsight. Individualism yields consumerism, materialism, and a me-first world in which relationships become disposable, divorce rates are at an all-time high, friendships devolved into networking opportunities for professional gain, and we throw so much away that the Earth can barely contain it. Need I mention that political discourse is gone, and all that is left is mudslinging politicians. When we depend on ourselves and not God, we see what we get. We can trust God, grow where we are planted, and work together.
One of Jeremiah’s problems was opposing prophets. Hananiah shows up in chapter 28 and breaks Jeremiah’s yoke. He delivers the good news: Captivity is temporary; everything’s gonna be okay! God will break the Babylonians and we will return to Jerusalem. People liked Hananiah’s message. The problem was, his message was not from God; it was what the people wanted to hear.
Chapter 29 is Jeremiah’s response. Settle down, Jeremiah says, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Do not listen to the false prophets. Listen to God, and this is where we are. Grow where you are planted. If we were there, and if we were listening, our challenge would be to distinguish between the false prophet and the true prophet.
Do we have false prophets today? Absolutely. Sighting them is fairly easy, false prophets don’t reference the Bible, don’t mention God, and what they do say does not sound like the God of the Bible. False prophets have a lifestyle that does not match the message they share. Anyone who claims to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, but fails to mention Jesus, might be a false prophet. The problem today is competing with the clutter of voices in popular culture. They want to show us how to live, how to be beautiful, successful, and forever young. Jeremiah says, “No!” God’s got the whole world in his hands! Patrick Miller writes,
The peace and well-being the Lord promises to the exiles through Jeremiah are radically different from that promised by Hananiah and the prophets like him. Such peace is not to be found in resistance and rebellion…but in submission.[3]
We want acceptance. Instead, we have a calling to obedience. We want to follow Hananiah. Instead, we are to follow God. Life continuously changes. Heraclitus: “The river where you set your foot just now is gone.”[4] With each change in life, God remains consistent, ever-loving, and ever-present.

[1] Benedictus de Spinoza, Complete works, trans. Samuel Shirley and Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2002), 901.
[2] Herbert Hoover, The philosophy of rugged individualism, (Documentary Enrichment Records, 1962).
[3] Patrick D. Miller, "Jeremiah," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 792.
[4] Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (London: Penguin, 2001), 27.