Thank You For A Magnificent Year

Today is the last weekday of the church calendar.  On Sunday we begin the season of Advent and return our eyes to Bethlehem as we remember the human condition before Jesus’ arrival.  I know of no greater expression of this than the lyrics of “O Holy Night”; one of the most theologically profound songs ever.  It says, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining; till He appeared and and the soul felt its worth.  A THRILL OF HOPE a weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Although it is perhaps a few days premature, I would like to finish with a word of hope for the church.  As we have walked through the year together, reading the scriptures, reflecting on the Psalms and sharing a few jokes, I hope we have noticed the variety of seasons life provides us.  Some days (or weeks) are so full of joy we can hardly stand still.  Other days (or months) are so filled with sadness that we can hardly get up.  Some Psalms are so exuberant and happy we wonder if the writer ever lived in this world at all.  Some Psalms are so dark and angry we wonder if they belong anywhere near the Church.  Some stories in the Bible are so dark and violent we wonder how Jesus ever read them without cringing.  Other stories are filled with blessings which leave us jealous.

In short, our own lives are in constant flux, and the Bible meets us in that bi-polar place.   It tells us that, while our experiences are unique, we are certainly not alone because Jesus himself came to our world and lived with us. He didn’t arrive in a palace, or even a well equipped birthing ward.  He arrived in a stable, surrounded by political instability and human insensitivity.  Why?  1 Timothy 1:15 says, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” – a small statement that bears much reflection.  He came with a mission and he has invited us to join him.

Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, Paul was able to instruct the church with a few final exhortations.  He said, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In the midst of our crazy lives we can rejoice because we have a bomb-proof hope.  We can pray passionately and constantly because God is listening.  We can live in gratitude because all things are working to the good.  In short, we are the most blessed people, because Christ has loved us!

So, with our crazy lives in mind, I leave you to enter the new year with the simple, timeless command of God:

Hope!

Verses:

Psalm 25:1-10

Nehemiah 9:16-25

1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

That Thing In Turkey Which Puts You To Sleep: Istanbul

Today is “Thanksgiving” in the United States, a day when families across the nation gather together to take naps.  We get together to supplement the joy of each others company with pecan pie, and lubricate difficult relationships with gravy.  Later in the evening everyone will file into the living room and pretend to watch football while silently cursing ourselves for wearing such tight pants.  It’s a magnificent day.

Of course, all kidding aside, it actually is a fantastic tradition which I fear we don’t take seriously enough.  As humans, we are designed to mark our life and the year with such celebrations so that we don’t fall into the trap of simply “getting by” in life.  God knows that people need seasons of fasting and feasting to repeatedly draw our attention back to the important parts of life.  These are too often drowned out by the urgent – to the point that people spiritually and emotionally languish.

The passage in 1 Thessalonians seems like it does not belong on a feast day.  It talks about living in sober moderation, a characteristic not usually associated with Thanksgiving.  But it importantly  concludes with “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  When we look at how the ancient Israelites accomplished this encouraging and building, one of the most important methods was to combine food with stories.  Their lives were often quite hard, but they deliberately took time to look back how God had pulled them through even tougher times.  They then purposefully celebrated the fact that God’s love was eternal.

For example, their most important celebration was the passover which featured huge amounts of lamb, bread and wine.  It was a feast!  Moreover, today’s passage from Nehemiah describes the Feast of Booths, (which seemed to incorporate both feast and fast).  Almost always they recited their rescue from Egypt by God’s sovereign hand.

Sometimes I must admit, in the busyness of Thanksgiving I also forget to be thankful.  So this year, instead of just casually going around the table, quickly asking for three words to describe what we are thankful for, I’m going to try to take a clue from the Israelites.  Instead of naming our gratitude, let’s tell whole stories of when God pulled us from trouble and demonstrated His “steadfast love” to us.  Stories and pie are bound to be a great spiritual combination.

Verses:

Psalm 25:1-10

Nehemiah 9:6-15

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

But I Only Have Friends In Tashi Station!

There’s an old adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.  It basically means that we can gain all kinds of knowledge, and still not find the solutions we need.  For example, someone could spend lots of time at school studying and getting good grades, but never get a good job.  Meanwhile, someone with moderate grades, who befriends everyone, would have a larger set of contacts to draw upon as references and sniff out the good job opportunities.

Some more Machiavellian people might assert, “Its not who you know, but what you know about who you know”.  This means, understanding someone’s life and temperament, can be used that information to get people to do what you want.

Of course, these are very manipulative examples, but they still might be familiar to us in our modern world of corporate climbers and click-bate mongers.  But in John 16, Jesus takes these principles and gives them a healthy and joyous twist.  At that time, if someone wanted to interact with the God of the universe, they would go to the temple and offer some kind of sacrifice.  The animal (or whatever) would be given to the priest who would say prayers on the person’s behalf. The priest would maybe go into the temple and do special things for especially large gifts.  The point is, the vast majority of people were separated from God by sin, ignorance, and religious bureaucracy.

But Jesus makes a powerful promise.  He says that the day is soon coming when he would no longer ask things of the Father on people’s behalf.  Rather, people would talk to the Father themselves directly.  The reason for this is as striking as it is simple; because the Father loves us.  In a world where knowing people is more important than knowing things, we have been given the greatest contact possible!  Moreover, this contact already loves us and longs for our best interest.

Jesus adds something to this.  He says that he will continue to tell us about the Father.  In short, as we listen to the Holy Spirit and the Word, we grow to understand our Father better.  This isn’t so that we can manipulate Him in a machiavellian way.  Instead, we can learn to submit to Him and ask for the things that really gives life.  We will learn not to say the equivalent of “give us this day our daily arsenic”.  Instead we will learn to receive fresh bread with gratitude and expectation.

Then again, it might be about who knows you.

Verses:

Psalm 76

Ezekiel 30:20-26

 John 16:25-33

Hail To The Chief Bah Nuh Nuh Muh Nuh Muh

Running an election campaign is a lot of work and requires a lot of volunteers.  They arrange calls, dinners, press conferences, speeches, etc.  So, on the night of the election, they all stand around nervously as the numbers roll in.  The losing side has a sad kind of consolation party, saying things like, “Oh well, better luck next time”.  The winning side throws a huge party and everyone cheers and dances.  There are probably three reasons they get excited.  The first is because it always feels good to be on the winning side.  The second is they probably believed their candidate was the best person for the job.  They were convinced that they would be able to make the changes that were desperately needed for the community.  Or maybe they knew that the elected candidate now owed them a favour which they would be able to cash it in later.  (I’m pretty jaded aren’t I?)

In Revelation we see a powerful scene.  The seventh trumpet is blown and victory is declared in heaven.  Loud voices declare, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”  This is a statement of victory and it makes everyone happy for pretty much the same reasons why people cheer at elections; but the stakes were much, much higher.

The kingdom of earth was, and still is, quite badly messed up.  The people in power sometimes don’t use their positions for everyone’s good.  History tells us that even the best intended human structures eventually go bad.  The problem is that people are corrupted by sin, which twists every government, community and cause to one degree or another.  But with the victory of God, the side of twisting and corrupting has lost; and it feels good to be on the winning side.  Moreover, the kingdom of God is defined by its justice, goodness and love.  God is, and always has been the right One for the job.  No one else could do it.  So we cheer.  🙂

Finally, the Day of the Lord will involve rewarding those who have served His cause.  Jesus promised, over and over, that what we do for his Kingdom will be generously rewarded.  If earthly politicians repay favors, how much more will the lover and rescuer of our souls generously bless us?

Verses:

     Psalm 76

     Ezekiel 29:1-12

     Revelation 11:15-19

Your Health Is Low, Watch That

A few weeks ago a video game called “Fallout 4” was released.  It instantly became a sensation among all its devoted fans who had been awaiting its release for years.  I didn’t allow myself to play this game because of the simple reason that I had played the previous game… a LOT.  In those days I was single and I could spend time exploring the game’s post-apocalyptic world and having lots of fun.  An average session would lasted four hours.  A longer one could easily go ten. My gamer friends could easily go fourteen hours straight, only taking breaks for the bathroom.

So why do people play these games for so long?  People rarely spend so long on any other activity.  We don’t usually work for that long, nor do we like to exercise or even talk for such lengths (at least for most guys).  Why do we do it?

My guess is that these kinds of games, especially the role-playing types, offer people something that they are struggling to find in the real world.  This is basically “a meaningful quest, which is both challenging and achievable”.

Most people nowadays, especially Gen Xers and younger, have given up on the idea of simply making lots of money and finding happiness.  The world seems to be spinning out of any kind of meaningful control, to the point that people no longer believe in meaningful quests.  Moreover, any quest we might find is unlikely to succeed as more of the world’s forces stand against us.

The visions of Daniel and Revelation were given to people whose worlds were pretty much out of control.  Daniel was a captive in Persia and John was a captive on an abandoned island.  The world’s forces were aligned to destroy most of what they believed in.  It was at these times that God sent them visions to encourage the remaining believers.  Daniel was told that the world would indeed go through a massive power struggle, but God would prevail and His plans would progress.

John was told how Satan would struggle with individual people, but those people, armed with the power of God would stand firm at critical junctions of history.  Essentially God was reaffirming that every believer was, in fact, on a heroic and meaningful quest which was challenging and achievable.  I miss playing video games, but I also find myself in a much greater quest every day of my life!

Verses:

Psalm 76

Daniel 7:19-27

Revelation 11:1-14